Teacher of My Dreams

Teacher of My Dreams


Madame Nettie Kitzes, my high school French teacher, was a force of nature. Terrifying yet improbably kind at times, she haunted my dreams for decades. “Sortez une feuille de papier!” she would announce at random moments, meaning that we needed to take out a piece of paper and prepare for a pop quiz that we might or might not be ready for. My dreams usually revolved around moments when I was decidedly not ready.


One year, she had us perform a play called Topaze, by Marcel Pagnol, which took place at a boarding school. Because I was incredibly shy and quiet, she gave me the role of a student who falls asleep at her desk. No words required, as Madame Kitzes felt no one in the audience would be able to hear me anyway. I also was put in the back row with the boys during the scene where we danced the Charleston. Theater was not my thing.


She prepared us for the AP exam with a ferocity that paid off, and encouraged our creativity with art projects. I still remember making collages depicting poems by Mallarm√©, Baudelaire, and others, with—of course—complete accuracy required in the transcriptions of the poets’ words. One year, when I was removed from Madame Kitzes’s class due to its being overcrowded, and unceremoniously dumped into another French teacher’s room, I cried.


But perhaps the most unforgettable memory was when Madame Kitzes had us memorize a soliloquy from Cyrano de Bergerac, in which Cyrano declaims, at length, upon the hugeness of his nose. Imagine, if you will, a teenage girl with what was euphemistically known as “large features,” a girl who wanted nothing more than to disappear into the walls of the room and not be noticed, having to get up in class and discuss such a topic. “My nose is like a peninsula!” the soliloquy went (in French). “My nose is like an elephant’s trunk!”


So each day, a few students were called up to the front of the room to perform the soliloquy. Then we’d go on to other things. And during this time, as I recall, we had a remarkably large number of fire drills, which delayed the performances further. I’d be standing outside the C Building, staring at the brick walls and thinking, “My nose is like a peninsula!” I’d practice in the shower, on the bus to school, wherever I might be. “My nose is like an elephant’s trunk!” While I remember the buildup very well—I was one of the last students called upon, so this process went on interminably--my actual performance has sunk into the mists of time.


But Madame Kitzes, who passed away in 2017 at the age of 97, will live on in my mind forever.


--Deborah Kalb


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