by Mary Owen
The classroom where I taught in Cyfarthfa High School (Castle site) was at the back, looking on to an area, darkly shaded by old trees. They had been planted circa 1824 when the mock-Gothic edifice, Cyfarthfa Castle, was built by William Crawshay, the ironmaster of the Cyfarthfa works. Less than a century later the family and iron-making disappeared from Merthyr Tydfil and their magnificent, unwanted home became a grammar school.
In the 1970s, when I was appointed to teach French at Cyfarthfa, by then a comprehensive school, one of those old trees became a particular favourite of mine and I admired it often as I glanced, or even took some time to gaze, at the shady woodland scene, just outside the window of Room 15: it was a cedar of Lebanon, the tree that indicates that the landowner, who paid for it was seriously wealthy. In quiet moments in that room I would muse on the Mediterranean land, from which the tree had sprung and of the time when the millionaire owner had bought it and many other specimens of exotic trees and plants. These had been transported, at great expense, to Merthyr Tydfil, his ugly, industrial town, for the beautification of his estate. Thanks to those past extravagances we had the most wonderful – looking school, a grey stone turreted castle, with lawns and a lake in front of it and well- established trees and gardens all around.
My north-facing room was dark and the ceiling strip – lights were often switched on to lighten and brighten it. In the well-used fashion of making the classroom a pleasant place in which the pupils can learn and where the teacher can impart knowledge, I made sure that the walls of the dingy room were colourfully decorated with scenes relating to France: pictures of famous buildings and work that the pupils had spent time creating in class or at home. As time passed the walls of the room were pinned with a collage of memorabilia, which gave great delight to me and, I hope, to the children, entrusted to me. Some of my own postcards were there – of the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and the Mona Lisa; a map of France was in the place of honour in the centre of the back wall and it was mounted by two crossed ‘Tricolore’ flags. These had been drawn, painted and cut out by some enthusiastic pupils in break times. They had tried not to forget that Mrs Owen had said “ the colours of the French flag are blue, white and red (bleu, blanc, rouge), in that order from the flagpole, not red, white and blue. You must get it right.” There were wine bottle – labels, cheese – box labels, Orangina advertisements, photographs of the annual 24- hour, autumn trip to Boulogne, with many pupils and several teachers and where, if my allotted group of eight pupils could order their drinks in good French at the first café stop up in the old quarter of the town, I paid the bill; there was Richard Probert’s print of the Sacré-Coeur, bought especially for our classroom, on his and his brother Michael’s family trip to Paris. They would not forget it in a hurry because their Aunty Norma’s handbag, with her money and passport in it, was stolen in that beautiful white basilica, overlooking the city.
Another aunty had been snapped colourfully for posterity by her eager nephew, Owain Rowlands, as she was eating her way through a huge dish of ‘moules’. She was in the restaurant of the Hôtel de la Plage in the harbour town of Dieppe. This town featured in the Longman’s textbook, which was the basis of French language learning in Mid-Glamorgan schools. Aunty Jean was not to know then that she would be up there on the wall in our classroom, eating those mussels for many years to come. She was a French teacher and she had entered into the spirit of the family trip with gusto. The photos were rushed to school at the end of the holiday and there in front of us were the hotel, the town hall, the church, the swimming pool, the harbour in Dieppe and Jean eating those mussels – more visual aids for learning the ten French words of vocabulary that were expected to be known at the end of each chapter. La plage, le port, l’hôtel, l’hôtel de ville, i.e. the town-hall, surmounted with two crossed French flags etc… And so it went on until the end of the book and there were always creative hands, ready to change the scene a bit and to add an item about France and the French language to our décor. There was a notice, written carefully in good, correct French, announcing to all that Mrs Owen’s favourite character in Coronation Street was Mike Baldwin and her favourite television programme was Only Fools and Horses.
One chapter was about clothes. The required new points of grammar were introduced and the ten words for articles of clothing were there, to be learned through looking, listening, saying, repeating, writing, drawing and even singing. And of course there were volunteers for drawings of shirts, trousers, blouses, skirts, dresses, shoes, socks, macs and hats. Teaching French, especially in the first years to children of eleven and twelve, some at the start of even becoming clever linguists is a delight. One amongst several of these, was Sharon Rogers, who found it so easy to master the tricky French ‘r’ sound as soon as she heard it. It usually took a great deal of practice.
To be continued……….