Children were punished at school for using any language except English. For many students, the experience was confusing and terrifying.
Most rural Cajun students were not familiar with the new language, but the government had mandated that the French language be eliminated in all public schools.
I remember how difficult it was when the teacher started teaching the basics such as the A, B, C’s. She would give us examples with illustrations such as apple, banana and cat.
Kids would try to associate the letters with some French words they heard at home. The letter A was difficult at first. When the teacher flashed a picture of an apple some of the students would say pomme.
Fortunately, I was familiar with some English words since both of my parents had gone to school and had taught us a few words.
The letter B was fairly easy because banana was similar to the French banane.
The letter C, shown with the picture of a cat, was confusing because it reminded us of a chat (silent t and an s sound for the letter c).
The first and middle letters of the alphabet were finally learned but the teacher would warn us, “The difficult part of the alphabet was the last three letters X, Y, and Z.”
Children could not easily visualize x-ray, yellow, or zebra.
Country kids had never heard of x–ray, or visited a zoo, and they had no concept of a zebra.
The letter X was a little easier since many of the grandparents signed their names with an X.
I remember not being too confused with that last letter Z. It was used so many times by family members.
Z’yeau, for eyes, was a word familiar to Cajun children. Many had picked snap beans in the garden so they were familiar with the last word in the dictionary – zydeco, a word which has a different meaning for the younger generations. And one of grandma’s favorite words started with z – zirable, pronounced z-rob.
She used the word in so many different ways. I remember her getting on her knees and scrubbing the front porch with lye soap and water because it was zirable meaning it was very dirty. Anything that was filthy was zirable. Even when a person came in her house with a little dirt on their face or clothes, the person was zirable. A person with a filthy mouth was zirable.
But soon progress was made and the students advanced to the first textbook, “Dick and Jane” by William S. Gray and Zerna Sharp. The story about seeing Dick run was fairly enjoyable for first graders.
As difficult as learning the new language was, the punishment that one got if they didn’t learn was much worse. I remember teachers having us roll up our fingers and using the tip ends for slamming them with a wooden ruler. That was not really painful because the hurt would not last long. The worst punishment for most kids was writing lines at home. There the punishment was worse – lines and a scolding from parents.
The teacher was very smart. She suspected that we cheated on the lines we turned in.
“Why is there different handwriting on the pages?” she would comment.
She knew that help was given by family and friends, so the number of lines was doubled.
And at other times she would comment, “Why is the handwriting the exact same on several consecutive lines?”
How did she know that we would stack three or four pencils between our fingers as we wrote those lines?” we wondered.
(Comments and suggestions about Les Vieux Temps articles are always appreciated. Please call 337-754-9980 or e-mail email@example.com.)