This profile piece is dedicated to an extraordinary individual,
whom in addition to being a friend, was the greatest teacher I had.
This profile covers an extraordinary teacher from an ordinary school.
Her name was Colette.
There’s an odd moment in your digital life. It’s a simple gesture triggering a simple mechanism: “delete.” Simple. But circumstance forces your finger to hover over the button. You can’t delete, but you have to.
This circumstance I’m referring to is life… Or rather, death. I had just found out that the teacher who taught me the French language—a great inspiration and friend—had passed away.
Erasing Colette from my contact list was a hard thing to do. Of course at that point, you’ve realized you couldn’t phone her for advice, you couldn’t ask her for an obscure French glossary and you couldn’t get her grand-motherly advice. It was over. Real life must, at some point, mirror your digital contact list. How trivial it must sound.
Colette was my greatest teacher. When she was pushing 80, still, she refused to retire. When many teachers of her time were worn out or gardening their summer home, Colette insisted on teaching troubled teenagers French. She did it with a rare understanding of a generation that was brought up in a different time and a different world than hers. Colette denoted respect as soon as she entered the class room. Every pupil listened – even the bratty boys who usually defied authority. They were afraid to defy hers.
Colette grew up in Paris, and experienced World War II close hand. She would tell us about the bombings, when we would read tales of WW2 France. She remembered the persecutions of the French Jews. Later, when she moved to Denmark, she became a ballet dancer. There, she met a renown Danish composer. They fell in love. They would mingle in circles in an age when glamour was glamour. Their friends were, among others, Stan Getz and his Danish girlfriend.
After years of marriage, her husband died. Colette became a widow and kept his name. She then devoted her life to teaching French to underprivileged students.
When she would tutor us in her apartment—a pastime in which she’d devote herself to further engage her pupils—we’d be encapsulated in a different time. The decor was in a chic 60’s style with earth tone paintings and Danish designer seating arrangements.
One day, she would tell me: “It all goes by so fast.” I was 22 at the time. Hearing those words uttered by a woman close to her 80’s, strike you like a fist. Especially, since you feel so foolishly immortal at that young age.
Colette was my first gate to the French world, its language and culture. I couldn’t have found a better mediator. To think a person in such an old age would still keep her tolerance, curiosity, optimism and never stop doing what she was meant to do, should act as a lesson to all of us about what virtue really is.
Chère Colette, merci pour la langue…