My half-French daughter is finally learning French! Leah has resisted speaking this beautiful language for years, thanks to her traumatic preschool experience at a French school here in L.A. (I won’t name the school for fear of a slander suit, but let’s just say it’s the main French-speaking school in town, I’m sure you can figure it out.) Maybe the approach of this school works for some people (including an Academy Award-winning actress with the initials J.F. who appears incessantly in all of their promotional materials), but the school’s punitive practices seemed more in line with a Hitler Youth training camp than anything Maria Montessori might have advocated. We pulled Leah out after a few months when we got wind of what was going on and after her teachers yelled at Sophie and me all through our parent conference. They also asked us to give them a list of the things Leah loved the most so they could threaten to take them away. Mon dieu! Leah was punished for saying words incorrectly and for doing things the American (which to them was synonymous with “wrong”) way. Ever since then Leah has refused to speak a word of French, despite her frequent trips to France with her mom.
But now, at last, my daughter’s Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome seems to be abating, and Sophie is teaching Leah and a few of her classmates French in fun afterschool sessions. Leah was so excited last night that she was running all over our house pointing to things and asking me to say them in French. It reminded me of the scene in “The Miracle Worker” when Helen Keller finally “gets it” and is so eager to soak up this new knowledge that she flails around hysterically, begging Annie Sullivan to spell everything into her little hand. Have you ever accidentally turned on that film at the very end during the scene at the pump where the light goes on in Patty Duke’s head and she starts her slow “waaaaaaa”? Two seconds of that scene and I am sobbing, even if just before I was watching a Toyota commercial. If my sister happens upon this film, even the last 30 seconds, she usually breaks down to the point where she needs to be hospitalized. As a kid I used to confuse Bancroft's Annie Sullivan with her Mrs. Robinson, so I always had the impression that Helen Keller's teacher was really hot!
Leah learned her first French song and was singing it all night long in the most perfect French accent I’ve ever heard:
Au clair de la lune,
Mon ami Pierrot,
Prête-moi ta plume
Pour écrire un mot.
Ma chandelle est morte,
Je n'ai plus de feu.
Ouvre-moi ta porte
Pour l'amour de Dieu!
Was I wrong to tell her that this was Rhoda Penmark’s theme song, the terrifying little girl in the movie “The Bad Seed?” That film represents every parent’s most primal fear—beautiful, sweet-looking child with pigtails and perfect manners who, unbeknownst to everyone, is a raving sociopathic killer. And every time she murders someone in the film she skips back home and starts pounding “Au Clair de la Lune” on the piano, the notes getting slightly more shrill with each death. What the heck ever happened to Patty McCormack who played Rhoda? And the haunting Nancy Kelly who played Rhoda’s clueless mother Christine? I know that in the original version, Rhoda was supposed to live and her mother die, but the 1956 censors were too nervous so they made them off the little girl by having her get hit by a bolt of lightning in the last scene! If you haven’t seen this film, you should rent it just to see Eileen Heckhart’s brief but superb performance as the boozing grief-stricken mother of one of Rhoda’s first victims (she beat him to death with the heel of her shoe…oy!).
I hope these stream-of-consciousness thoughts don’t lead anyone to think that I’m comparing my own daughter to creepy Rhoda “What would you give me for a basket of kisses” Penmark! Far from it, but of course as Kendall and I contemplate having a child now at my advanced age, I admit that I worry about some elusive “Bad Seed” gene being passed on to my unsuspecting baby. I should check the Internet to make sure that the “science” of the movie has been thoroughly discredited (it turns out that Rhoda’s maternal grandmother was a psychopath so of course she had to become one). Not that there are any murderers in my or Kendall’s family background—just a few people who had to be institutionalized for other reasons…