No European nation could have bested our rural Illinois town. We had a loyal citizenry, our own vernacular, a representative cuisine, remnants of family dynasties and even some unique tourist sites. We were better off than much of the world, and there was rarely outside interference. Our borders were secure.
So when the French invaded, we were naturally alarmed.
Some say that the most tragic year for the English was 1066, when the Normans crossed the channel and completely wrecked the language. We were no philologists, but we too would have fought hard at Hastings.
Freshman year. French I. A small but resilient band. The teacher was an outsider, new to the school, and though we didn't dislike her (quite) it was hard to keep a straight face when she introduced herself as Miss Diggle.
Oh rare Miss Diggle! Orange hair as big as a continent, parchment-pale skin, searing red lipstick, soft, sly voice. Her teaching method was calm, quiet, almost hypnotic, but all the while she was preparing a siege. She would take us captive and immerse us in French.
Day One. Do not open your textbooks. Listen. Listen again.
“Papa, mangeons dans un restaurant ce soir. Oui Papa, dinons en ville. Excellente idee, mais demandez a Maman d'abord.”
Now repeat, line by line.
That was when heads began to roll.
We said,“Papa, mowgee doo resteroo sissy. Wee paba deeno veal. Egg-sale day may day dom dibbo.”
After a few rounds of this, Miss Diggle told us what we were butchering. Apparently, two children in France wanted to go to a restaurant. Their father liked the idea, but they had to ask Mom first.
We howled. Why didn't they just say so? 'Mowgee' and 'deeno' for eat? What kind of family was this? 'Wee' for yes? That kind of thing could get you in trouble. A 'resteroo sissy'? Hardly an excellent idea. They ought to stay home. Let them eat toast.
Miss Diggle was unfazed. She went on to teach us about French culture. Over there, people spoke through their noses. They ate goose livers. They took their dogs to all the restaurants. Women carried loaves of bread under their armpits, which they never shaved. And there was always a revolution going on--probably because the masses couldn't pronounce anything.
We learned that life was very hard in France. They had something called the Imperfect (no surprise there) and a lot of confusion about masculine and feminine. But what did it matter? Le, la, it's still only a table. Cats aren't always male. And just because it's covered in sweat, bread isn't necessarily boy-like. Losing points on quizzes only increased our prejudice against the French.
None of this was really Miss Diggle's fault. She had many strengths. In addition to her bold lipstick and her ability to keep a straight face, she had convinced the upperclassmen that they were now fluent. One day a senior girl stopped me in the hall to express, in raptures, how lucky I was to be starting French. She had loved it; it would forever be her favorite language; it was branded in her soul. As proof, she casually rattled off Lesson One:
“Papa, monjo noon restawraw sisswa...Weeee...Ay-zay-lone eeday....”
Well I say, Berets off to Miss Diggle. We remember her with delight. In fact, I googled her surname just now, and as I suspected, there is great dignity in it. We would have paid more respect, I think, if we had only known that Diggle “derives from a geographical locality, from the village of Diggle, once a farmstead, scarcely a hamlet, on the Yorkshire border.”
I don't know exactly where that small town was, but I bet they, too, fended off the Normans before letting themselves be conquered. History does repeat itself.