The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Recollections of a Veteran Teacher.
by one of his Pupils (Frances Arnold-Forster)
The announcement in the Times of the death on July 9th at the age of 86, of M. Antonin Roche, must have awakened in the memories of many of his old pupils grateful recollections of what they owed to his teaching. M. Roche's career as a French teacher in London began, so a notice in the Athenaeum states, soon after the revolution of 1830, and it extended through 45 years, till 1876, or rather later, so that many generations of girl pupils passed through his hands, some few of them beginning in the baby-class, at eight or nine years of age, and continuing with him till they were ready to "come out."
Who, that once knew it, cannot call up a picture of the low straggling house, standing solitary in the very heart of Cadogan Gardens, that went officially by the somewhat magniloquent designation of "The Educational Institute of London"? The quaint little house, then tenanted only by M. Roche and his artist brother-in-law, Felix Moscheles, and now wholly swept away, was in itself as refreshingly unlike the ordinary common-place London house as the teacher who inhabited it was unlike the ordinary run of ordinary common-place teachers.
Before the doors were open, a group of eager girls might be seen waiting outside, impatient to secure their places at the long oval table. The interval of waiting was filled up with a certain amount of chatter, a hasty looking-over of lessons, and general preparations for the coming of "Monsieur." Suddenly a hush fell upon the circle at the table, as there entered a little grey-haired, bright-eyed man, carrying under his arm a big bundle of papers, and wearing at his button-hole the tiny red rosette that proclaimed him a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. He took his seat--though he more commonly stood than sat--in the midst of the girls, and, immediately, the afternoon's work began. At the beginning Monsieur often seemed jaded and spiritless, and who could wonder, for besides these afternoon classes at Cadogan Gardens he had similar work elsewhere in the mornings. But hardly was he fairly launched than all signs of weariness vanished: he would question and expound with as much spirit and freshness as though he were an ardent young teacher, newly entering upon his work, and an apt or original answer was pretty sure to win from him an approving smile, and a crisp "Bien, tres bien."
Each class met weekly, on different days, according to the age and attainments of the different pupils. Little boys were admitted to the younger classes--have we not been told that the Duke of Devonshire was among the number?--but they mostly came in the train of elder sisters, and it was in teaching elder pupils rather than younger, those whose minds were best able to respond to his own, that M. Roche showed himself at his very best.
Yet even with the little children he had a marvellous power of winning and retaining attention--a natural power that was reinforced by his system of counters. Each pupil was provided with a box made like a small money-box, and every correct answer was marked by a counter adroitly thrown across the table, to be dropped into the box. At the end of the lesson the counters were reckoned up, and a card of honour know as a "presidence" bestowed upon the pupil who could show the greatest number, while cards of lesser dignity were bestowed upon the two or three who stood next in order of merit. In the earlier days, prizes were given at the end of each term, but latterly the distinction of being a possible presidente or sous-presidente was found amply sufficient stimulus, and the prizes were dropped.
All the instruction was given in French, and the afternoon's work was divided into two parts; the first devoted to direct teaching of the language--grammar, composition, French literature, and so forth--and the other half being given to geography and history alternately. All the books used in the first part, together with the excellent school histories of France and England, were Monsieur's own composition; they passed through many editions, and several of them--more particularly his admirable French grammar and his most attractive Histoire des principaux ecrivains Francais were recognized as standard school books by high educational authorities in France. He was once entreated to write a companion volume on English authors, but laughingly replied that it was not for a Frenchman to attempt to write on English men of letters. M. Roche's literary knowledge of English was both extensive and discriminating, as many a small sign in the weekly lessons continually proved, but his English was always kept strictly in the background.
Perhaps the most valuable part of the lesson was the correction of the compositions and translations set the previous week. Each one had been conscientiously and thoroughly corrected at home, but a certain proportion of the papers were always looked over in class, and the mistakes, as far as possible, set right by the girls themselves: this was a capital exercise and practical application, not readily to be forgotten, of the rules of grammar and style previously studied theoretically. While always on the watch to help us out of a real difficulty, Monsieur was careful never to give his pupils information which a little thought would enable them to supply for themselves, and the result was that the powers both of memory and thought were kept in full play. Our master shewed considerable ingenuity in his choice of subjects for the weekly exercises: translations from good English authors were the staple for the older pupils, while the younger ones were generally set to re-tell in their own words some simple French story previously told by himself, but his methods were always largely varied. Abstract subjects were never in favour, he preferred those on which his young pupils were likely to have something of their own to say. After the holidays, there were descriptive letters to be written, or a "defence" of the dog or cat might be demanded, or we were made to paint our ideal way of life, or our imaginary experiences in gaining a livelihood, or we might be set to describe from our own observation a moonlight scene. A letter supposed to be written on hearing the news of Trafalgar helped to quicken the historic imagination more than any mere reading of the narrative could have done, and though a disquisition on "English heroes" was undoubtedly a large subject, it had the merit of setting the writers to work to discover who were their heroes. In truth, our master was never afraid of setting us to work on subjects that were too high for us, and though the results might be poor, the discipline was wholesome. A prose translation in school-girl French of Gray's "Bard," for example, was not, as may be supposed, a very admirable production, but the mere endeavour to translate it induced a very close knowledge of the poem itself, while an attempt to manufacture a French poem in accordance with the established laws of rhyme and metre threw much light upon our literature lessons, and strikingly increased our appreciation of the beauties of the different French poets whose lives and works furnished the most delightful part of our weekly lessons.
And how anxiously Monsieur sought to do all that in him lay to improve his pupils' style; to import if possible a little grace into the baldness and awkwardness which was too often conspicuous in their attempts at letter writing; to prune redundancies and to train them up to true French clearness of expression! "Lucidity" was always a great virtue in his eyes. During the first hour, all the teaching was conducted by question and answer, and on the whole, Monsieur was strict in keeping to turns, so as to prevent the slow nervous girls being eclipsed by the more quick-witted ones. In a general way, the regular questions were such as to be answered by any girl of average ability who had thoroughly prepared the set lessons, for it was always a matter of surprise how, in hearing these prepared lessons, Monsieur never seemed to expect any knowledge of facts outside the limits of the prescribed text-books. Extra knowledge gained from a wider reading or more cultivated home surroundings, was often called out by extra questions addressed to the class collectively, and a right answer was acknowledged by a counter. These so-called "calling questions" were a delight to the more eager girls, but the distinction between what ought to be known and what might or might not be known, was clearly maintained--to the great advantage of the more backward pupils, who could always aim at not missing their appointed turn, even though they were rarely able to reply to the unexpected questions. On the whole, Monsieur was wonderfully patient with the duller girls, though it must be confessed, there were occasions when his naturally sarcastic temper flashed out--when a foolish answer was held up to the ridicule of the class, and thereby much needless misery inflicted. But such occasions were happily rare; he more often laughed with his class than at it, and the gift of ridicule which was so painful as a weapon, was far oftener displayed in the shape of a pleasant humour which enlivened the work of the long hot afternoons in most refreshing fashion. Long indeed these afternoons were; each half of the lesson was supposed to occupy an hour, but time-tables were not, and clocks were not, and if Monsieur were interested in his subject, he would go on unthinkingly far beyond the prescribed time.
The brief interval between the two parts, while the counters were being reckoned, and the presidence cards inscribed each with the name of the winner, was a welcome rest, for the tension had been not inconsiderable. Then we collected our energies once more; the required wall-map was displayed, the white-board--so useful an adjunct to all Monsieur's teaching, whether to illustrate a grammatical law, or the course of a river, or a complicated historical succession--was made ready, and we set to work anew. The teaching was now somewhat changed in character: it was more of a lecture than before: there were sufficient questions asked to keep the attention riveted and to test the thoroughness of the preparation, but Monsieur's method now was to take as a frame-work the bare facts as we had learned them in our history books, and then to clothe them with details and explanations out of the rich stores of his ample knowledge, so giving life and colour and coherence to our string of separate facts. Something, too, he tried to teach us of the great principles and laws of history, and if often he rose far above our understandings, at least he succeeded in impressing upon us the conviction that history was interesting. History--modern history in particular--was one of his strongest points. "Roche," as his brother-in-law Moscheles has said of him, was "quite a living encyclopaedia of knowledge," and perhaps one of the chief defects of his teaching came from his own mastery of the subject, which often led him, all unconsciously, into a swiftness of both thought and speech that left the duller pupils hopelessly behind. In the French lessons proper, he never forgot the limitations of his hearers, but in the history lessons it was otherwise, and he wandered far afield, in a manner delightful to the class as a whole, but agitating in the extreme to the unlucky girl whose turn it was to answer the next question, and who sat nervously forecasting the form that it was likely to take when the digression should be ended, and Monsieur's baton enquiringly pointed in her direction. Ah! that baton! to us it looked almost like a point of interrogation in itself as it ran nimbly round the table, passing over some dozen or score of mute girls till it was arrested by meeting with the right answer. A dismayed glance at his watch was usually the signal for Monsieur's abrupt winding up of the class, and we were dismissed with an amount of preparation more than sufficient to occupy us during the intervening six days.
We have been told, quite recently, that our old master was an ardent Legitimist, "warmly attached to the direct line of the Bourbons and true to their white flag," but, in looking back, it is curious to reflect how little of his own views, either religious or political, M. Roche revealed in his teaching or in his books. This was markedly the case, even in dealing with the most burning questions in history or theology; but his silence was certainly not accidental. He never forgot that he was a Frenchman entrusted with the teaching of English girls, and his delicate sense of honour led him to avoid the faintest risk of wounding either their religious or patriotic susceptibilities, or of biassing them in a direction contrary to their parents' opinions. The result of this was that his historical narratives, though remarkably fair and clear, were somewhat colourless, but nevertheless, the saving salt of enthusiasm was not wanting. Heroism, true greatness in whatever guise, called forth his unstinted admiration, and he was quick to appreciate the beauty of moral worth, but the combination of moral beauty with the keenest intellectual powers--as in Pascal, for example--appealed to him with a special strength. It must surely be a reflection of M. Roche's own ardent feelings for the Port Royalists and for the Arnauld family, that to this day causes some of his pupils to feel a peculiar thrill at the very name of Port Royal!
With all his love for art and poetry, Monsieur professed himself where music was concerned, but a pretty story is told of his conquest by Chopin, when once he accidentally heard the Master play, and how on being rallied afterwards with his supposed indifference to music he made answer, "Ce n'est point musicien--c'est poete." The story is characteristic--our old teacher recongized poetry wherever it might be found; he had an instinct for the best of its kind everywhere, and thus it was that in all the selections he gave us to learn by heart, whether prose or poetry, he never made choice of anything that was not in itself worth the learning.
In the brief time at his command it was clearly impossible for M. Roche to carry his pupils very far in one direction, except indeed in the matter of a ready familiarity with the French language. His teaching could at best be only more or less elementary, and he himself fully recognized this limitation. "Do not be content with those books of mine, "was his advice to an ex-pupil who spoke of the pleasure and profit that she still derived from those old favourites--"Go on beyond, to something better." But M. Roche, like every good teacher, suggested far more than he ever imparted. He started his pupils on roads, which it rested with themselves to pursue further, and in after years many a subject has been greeted by them with a pleasant sense of recognition as one first made familiar by Monsieur. Dear old master! assuredly your pupils owe you much, for if you taught them nothing more, you taught them how to learn--you taught them also to love learning.
Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, 2011-2015
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