There is no justification!
If ever a teacher had a catchphrase then this was it. You couldn’t make a mistake – there was no justification! as Mademoiselle Louise Vartoukian had carefully taught you how to avoid it. I have never come across anyone so thorough, before or since. I sometimes feel I could reproduce every minute of one of her lessons, she was so consistent, so precise, so demanding!
A legend for almost 40 years at St Augustine’s, I met her in 1964 when I was 11 and she was 45 . I must admit she seemed absolutely ancient, even then. She was short, with fiercely dark eyes, aquiline nose and enormous bust, Rouge Baiser lipstick (we found that out in one of her very rare moments of chat), and a penchant for volleyball. The biggest surprise of all was her singing voice. One Christmas she taught us to sing a carol in French. Her voice was amazing. Thereafter we fantasized that she used to moonlight as a nightclub singer.
For seven years she taught me French with the help of the Whitmarsh French course. Five years of Marie and Claude doing impossible things and then 2 years of the A level grammar book. We had to learn by heart 75 translations. Sometimes I still dream about “Les Falaises Blancs de Douvres” and other passages which were supposed to give us every French grammatical construction at our fingertips. It was relentless, but effective. I passed my French A level written exams with ease, but there was one big fly in the ointment. I couldn’t speak it (I still can’t) and what is worse, I couldn’t understand anything that anyone said. And this came out for the first time during my oral exam. Ten minutes of sheer torture for everyone present. The examiner, me, and poor Mademoiselle. The look of horror on her face as I struggled to answer the simplest of questions was excruciating. She couldn’t say anything at the time, of course, but immediately we all got out of the room she asked me reproachfully what had gone wrong.
In my simplicity I told her I had never had any practice. She thought about it for a minute and agreed: “Yes, you are right. I thought you didn’t need it as your written work was so good…” I felt awful, she was so upset.
But then about 5 years later I was invited to come back to St Augustine’s to do some teaching for a few weeks. Spanish, this time, RE, and chemistry. I was a bit apprehensive, as I hadn’t got my PGCE yet, and my chemistry was non-existent. But the nuns reassured me – you have an O level dear, and that was that.
With some trepidation I entered the staff room. Always an exciting moment for any ex pupil. Whom would I know? Would anyone recognise me? Would they think I’m a fraud? I was led in by Reverend Mother and the first person who held out her hand to me was Mademoiselle. Of course. She patted the chair next to her and said “Sit down by me. This is your place now. You must call me Louise. You were always my favourite pupil – but of course I could never tell you that – I still have some of your A level essays which I use – welcome.” And that was that. We were friends for life.
Years later I asked her about the nightclub singing which tickled her pink, and she told me with great pride about her volley ball achievements in Cyprus before she came to England. She talked a lot about her Armenian background and her family and over the years I was privileged to meet some of them. Extremely well read, I last saw her about a year ago, in a wonderful care home in Hampton, where she proudly showed us her Kindle so that she could keep up with the world and literature. She never married and I always felt like one of the children she never had. She was 95 when she died recently – an amazing age, and a very fulfilled life, I think, with some justification!