High school lessons in perspective.

“I remember ‘Fermez la bouche,’ not, I think, ever directed at me …”

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Don’t Know Much About the French I Took

a letter of apology to Miss Buckshaw & Mrs. Dunham

I silently disapproved when they said, “Let’s go French

Miss Buckshaw,” though I do know that I love you

for trying, even with your embarrassing Deep

South pronunciation, to get me to parle français.

I apologize now for my inability to talk turkey here,

for being so in the dark in the City of Light

and for imagining your sour breath and slipping

dentures, your ancient, phlegmy spit. I remember

“Fermez la bouche,” not, I think, ever directed

at mute me. And “Ouvrez vos livres ” comes back

in a Georgia accent, we all said so, even

the tongue-tied. Danny and Becky and Marsha,

the popular kids, made A’s, I think now, and were

merciless in the halls before and after your class

where I sat in a fog of daydreams and discomfort.

I wonder how many times they’ve been to Paris,

if they were ever able to talk Sartre on the rue

du Whatever, if they are, still, high-school cool.

Miss Rickshaw, Miss Buckshot, you never

showed me even a small kindness, but

I suspect you’ll forgive me now for a mouth

full of English and the occasional, inappropriate burst

of desperate Italian. So: Merci, Madame, Merci.

And forgive me, Mrs. Dunham, for saying in class

that my little sister could write this Hemingway crap,

for thinking that “Big Two-Hearted River” was about

camping and could use some Byronic boffing

and Faulknerian flair.

    –               0                          Of course,

I didn’t really say those things out loud,

but I did imply them, preferring showmen

to shell-shocked fishermen. Shelley’s “The Cloud”

and Byron’s “Prisoner of Chillon” were my touchstones

in those days. Forgive me for raining on

your professional parade. You were kind to me,

a chronically late, horrifically self-conscious

teenager, said I might be a writer one day. Grazie mille,

and ti prego, perdonami, Mrs. Dunham, Miss Buckshaw.

Rest in peace, wherever you are. I turned out all right,

I guess, in the end—if this is the end.


Ron Smith is a former Poet Laureate of Virginia. Currently Writer-in-Residence at Saint Christopher’s School in Richmond, he is the author of the books Running Again in Hollywood Cemetery (to be issued this year in a second edition from MadHat Press) and three books from LSU Press: Moon Road, Its Ghostly Workshop, and The Humility of the Brutes. In 2018 he was a Featured Poet at the American Library in Paris, where he also read new poems in the Salon Eiffel on the Eiffel Tower. He contributed to Broad Street’s “Rivals & Players” issue.

Featured image: Paris le soir, by Michel Osmenda..