The Chalkboard Walk and Parisian Geography

EiffelTowerby Deana Chadwell4/28/15
My brain stores strange things.  I know that the Beauvais Cathedral in France was never finished because, at 158 feet tall, its architecture extended beyond the strengthening physics of the flying buttress.  It collapsed three times.  I know that in the 60’s Jim Hall built a racecar, the Chaparral, which used suction to give it a winning edge.  I know that no high school in the country has a tardy policy that works.

Not only do I pack away useless facts, I suspect that my brain even sports a special lobe for the memory of the many odd people who would otherwise rattle around loose in my head.  Why these people would occupy real estate in such an over-populated and dilapidated neighborhood, is unclear, yet, there they are: my aunt and uncle who, in one year, spent $5000 staying in a motel in Omaha; a student who had a cat named Laundry; my mother-in-law who “ironed” her eggplant before she cooked it.  My head is as full of eccentric people as a Dickens novel, and perhaps the strangest of them all is Miss Dunlap.

I seldom watch a Rosetta Stone ad without the specter of Miss Dunlap stalking across the screen.  The folks at Rosetta Stone claim the ability to teach me a foreign language without memorization, which flips my cynic switch — I remember Miss Dunlap’s French class and those horrid little verb quizzes, the impossible conjugations, and the nonsense of gendered nouns.  What, pray tell, is essentially feminine about a window?  I spent quite a bit of time in her class staring through the second-story nine-paned windows (les fenêtres) of Dunlap’s classroom – out across the ten-foot lilac hedges to the American elms that, in the earl 60’s, lined 64th Street in Lincoln, Nebraska. Perhaps that’s why I recall that French noun;  boredom was a factor in that class, maybe that’s why I memorized her.

I remember Miss Dunlap as mostly blue and white. She never wore any other colors.  Each year she’d go to Miller & Paine and buy three new Arnel jersey shirtwaist dresses, each in a slightly different blue and white floral print.  The dresses all sported matching belts and buttons and she wore them with a string of pearls at her wrinkled neck and a huge diamond ring on her left hand. (Rumor had it that her fiancé had been killed in WWII, which gave her an aura of mystery and drama, a certain fierceness.) Her skin was pale and crinkled, her hair pinched into merciless finger-waves, and as silver-white as heirloom sterling.

Dunlap not only wore blue and white, but she drove it.  I’d often see her around town in her ’57 blue and white Buick.  That car was as big as a yacht and catching a glimpse of her at the wheel — her knuckles firmly placed at one and eleven, her head, coiffed in that helmety hair, stretching forward so she could peer over the giant dash — always made me chuckle.

Somehow I knew where she lived — in a brick ranch house on an upper middle class street that I swear came right off the Monopoly board – Atlanta? Pacific?  That neighborhood.  I knew from her unusual curriculum that during the summers she lived in Paris, in an apartment she owned, on the Champs de Mars – just down from the Eiffel Tower.  That’s Boardwalk.  We all wondered how an unmarried French teacher from Lincoln, Nebraska, made enough money to live like she did, and what puzzled us even more, was her intense frugality in the midst of what looked like luxury — limiting oneself to three dresses a year isn’t going to net enough to summer in Paris. Oh, the mystery.

No, Dunlap never let anything go to waste.  When she gave verb quizzes – every Friday – she’d pass out quarter-sheets of blank newsprint; she’d fold, score, and tear those sheets, flashing that huge diamond, as she stood in front of each row of desks, making sure she only passed out the requisite number.  One day she’d gone through this ritual and then changed her mind – quite possibly the only time in her life she re-thought things – then strode around the room, gathering the unused squares of paper and tucking them into her desk drawer.

Her desk.  It was, with the exception of two items, always empty.  I’ve spent most of my life in classrooms, at one end or the other, and hers is the only empty desk I ever saw.  When I was teaching I counted myself lucky a few times a year to even find my desk; the mess would get so thick it appeared to levitate – I was always relieved to locate wood.  But Dunlap’s old oak desk was bare and polished.  Always.  The only desk-worthy items in that room were a 4-inch tall brass Eiffel Tower and a tiny French flag that sat in lonely splendor on the upper right-hand corner, and even they were banished to the locked bottom drawer at the end of each day — for their own protection, I’m sure; you never know when a kleptomaniac Francophilic janitor might come along.

Perhaps I remember Miss Dunlap because of her rituals.  Her first move each class was to unlock her bottom desk drawer and take out a blue and white Miller & Paine paper bag (a new one each year, which made me think it was the sack in which she’d carried home her new dresses); it held her class notebooks – a different colored spiral for each section she taught.  She’d select the correct notebook, then slip the remaining ones sideways into the bag. (It was the same bag all year and by spring it would be soft and fuzzy around the edges.) Then she’d lock the bag back in the drawer. Each lesson contained a token mention of French verbs (French was obviously the superior language because it provided 17 verb tenses to the English language’s mere 6.), a yank-down of an aerial photograph map of Paris, an opening of the cupboard.  The cupboard – the size of a TV armoire – was filled with her collection of 3-D color slides of Paris.  She’d choose a boxful, show us on the map where she was standing when she took the pictures, and demonstrate the direction we should turn as we viewed them.  Then we’d all sit and wait until the viewer arrived at our desk, we’d swivel about until we faced the proper direction, and then we’d drink in the front of Notre Dame, or the Bastille, or the Louvre.  Barring the Friday verb quiz, this was class.

I learned that Camembert is the best cheese (The French are superior because they make hundreds of kinds of cheese and we make Velveeta.) I learned not to get drunk on red wine (not even French red wine).  I learned where to pick up the ferry ride through the sewers of Paris (just off Pont Neuf, not far from Notre Dame).  I know that in Montmartre, at the foot of the stairs coming down from Sacre Coeur is a little bar called La Lapine Agile.  I know where the flea markets are, how to get from the Champs de Mars and the Eiffel Tower to the Champs Elysee and its Arc du Triumph. I know where to find Chanel, and what the display windows at Balanchiaga looked like.  Still, when watching movies set in Paris, I recognize streets and parks and landmarks; I can picture them on Dunlap’s map.  I’m sure I could find my way around Paris – but I can’t speak French.  Imagine my dismay when my French professor my freshman year in college assigned us to read Le Crime de Sylvester Bonard  — by Friday, in French! My “masters” degree in Parisian geography didn’t help much.

One year my schedule put me in Miss Dunlap’s class the last period, so I learned her end-of-the-day rituals as well.  Each day, five minutes before the last bell, she would return the class notebook to its worn blue and white bag and tuck it into the bottom drawer – she didn’t appear to take work home with her. She’d gather her desk ornaments and tuck them also into that bottom drawer, which she carefully locked.  Then, she’d march to the black board (They were actually black back then.), grab an eraser, jam it into the upper right corner of the board, which required a straight arm, raised to about two o’clock. Then she’d stomp to the opposite end, holding the eraser to a perfectly horizontal trajectory.  This accomplished, her arm would drop and she’d return to begin again, each pass exactly one eraser-width lower than the one before.   That year she had a student teacher – a puzzled and frustrated young man whom she only allowed to sit at the back of the room and try to make sense of what he was witnessing.  One day Miss Dunlap left class early and he got to take over.  Without a word he marched to the front of the class, grabbed the eraser, swaggered to the end of the board and completed the sacred process in perfect Dunlapian style.  We applauded. He bowed. We left.

I last sat in Miss Dunlap’s class overlooking the lilacs in the spring of 1963; she was then about the age I am now.  I have no idea what happened to her.  I hope she lived out her days in that elegant old apartment by the Eiffel Tower – she’d spent her whole life loving it; she belonged there. I can’t say that I was ever fond of Miss Dunlap – she didn’t make friends of her students.  I was fond of George Rush, my art teacher.; he did.  I can’t say I admired her – I admired John McCormick, my world lit teacher — so much that I spent my whole life trying to do for my students what he did for me.  But Dunlap, whose first name I’ve never known, Dunlap who taught me very little French, is still alive and well in depths my brain, and I don’t think she’s leaving anytime soon.  Now she’s in your head, too.

Deana Chadwell blogs at
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Deana Chadwell

About Deana Chadwell

I have spent my life teaching young people how to read and write and appreciate the wonder of words. I have worked with high school students and currently teach writing at Pacific Bible College in southern Oregon. I have spent more than forty years studying the Bible, theology, and apologetics and that finds its way into my writing whether I'm blogging about my experiences or my opinions. I have two and a half moldering novels, stacks of essays, hundreds of poems, some which have won state and national prizes. All that writing -- and more keeps popping up -- needs a home with a big plate glass window; it needs air; it needs a conversation. I am also an artist who works with cloth, yarn, beads, gourds, polymer clay, paint, and photography. And I make soap.
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7 Responses to The Chalkboard Walk and Parisian Geography

  1. Jerry Richardson says:


    Cute article!

    Her desk. It was, with the exception of two items, always empty. I’ve spent most of my life in classrooms, at one end or the other, and hers is the only empty desk I ever saw.
    But Dunlap, whose first name I’ve never known, Dunlap who taught me very little French, is still alive and well in depths my brain, and I don’t think she’s leaving anytime soon. Now she’s in your head, too.
    —Deana Chadwell

    I have know several people who believed in the proverb that “an uncluttered desk indicated a cluttered mind”; do you think there was any connection between Miss Dunlap’s desk habits and environment and the fact that she “taught me very little French” ? Anyway, it’s just an old, silly proverb, and probably not true.

    But you are wrong about one thing Deana, Miss Dunlap will not be “in my head”; but what will be in my head is the memory of the entertaining way you described a former French teacher. Thanks and a double he-haw. 🙂 🙂

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    We all have all sorts of trivial (to most people) knowledge, including the various people we’ve met in our lives. Nothing unusual there. Of course, going through so many different schools, I had a large number of French teachers, none for more than 2 years. Eventually I learned the language fairly well to read or write (in my high school French classes, we had to write papers in French on books we had read in French), though I could never speak it (or understand it spoken) fluently.

    Let’s see, I come up with 13 French tenses we ever studied (infinitive, imperative, subjunctive present and past, present indicative, simple past, imperfect, future, conditional, and the present, past, future, and conditional perfect). If those are all counted, I suspect I can come up with more than 6 English tenses.

    Probably my most important teacher in terms of influence was Mr. Straley, our geometry teacher, who also introduced us to computer programming. I could also note that my 6th grade teacher awakened my interest in classical Greek culture (especially Greek mythology), but unfortunately I don’t recall her name 50 years later. I also recall that Mr. Straley introduced me to the Army version of “voluntary” (as in “I’m volunteering you”), which I thought of mentioning recently on another line of posting.

  3. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    and the nonsense of gendered nouns

    Is that like “der,” “die,” and “das”? Oh, goodness, what a waste of time and energy learning that. And they say English is difficult. You wonder how that kind of nonsense ever came to be. Indeed, what is feminine about a window? And yet my German teacher swore that you soon get the hang of it. You can supposedly make very good guesses of the gender of nouns you’ve never encountered before.

    Has to be a Leftist plot. They’re always trying to find reasons to insert new genders.

    I recognize streets and parks and landmarks; I can picture them on Dunlap’s map.  I’m sure I could find my way around Paris – but I can’t speak French. 

    That reminds me of how much the novel, Les Miserables, was a guided tour of Paris, although I never really got much of a picture of the city in my head.

    That eraser shtick is hilarious. I had a teacher who had a somewhat severe sense of order in junior high (English). Perhaps that goes with teaching grammar.

    Miss Dunlap sounds like a character right out of a novel, Dickensian or otherwise. It’s funny because now it seems many people do what they can to induce a sense of disorder and disheveledness. We now live in the “let it all hang out” generation. And more than a few people need to tuck it back in.

    Wonderful essay, Deana. Your check is in the mail. Payment will be in Francs.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      German is actually stranger than French regarding gender. French only has masculine or feminine, but German has neuter as well — but gender has nothing to do with sex. So a little girl is neuter, but is made up of a variety of masculine, feminine, and neuter body parts. (Mark Twain gave a hilarious send-up of this at one point in his superb essay “The Awful German Langauge”.)

  4. I teach a unit on the history of English in my advanced college writing course and it is interesting that 1) language always changes and always toward the more simple, 2) any time 2 or more languages try to operate in the same area the niceties of those languages rub off. That’s what happened to verb tenses and gendered nouns and nouns with multiple cases — all those invasions into the British Isles — 5 separate Germanic tribes over a span of several hundred years and finally the Norman Conqest. English is a well-worn language.

    As far as the usefulness of these niceties — they do make misinterpretation less likely. Koine Greek, for instance, has all the bells and whistles and when one applies that info to the understanding of the New Testament, the clarity is very welcome and if people paid attention to the Greek grammar, there would be much less fuss and bother in the church.

    Thanks for reading and enjoying Dunlap — she also taught me tolerance for the odd.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Reading your essay, I now feel more pangs of guilt for not having picked up David Copperfield in a few weeks. (If love of literature isn’t enough, let guilt be a driving force.) Surely Miss Dunlap is a Dickensian character, as you said.

      I think I would have liked her. Look at that lovely sense of order and precision. She’s quirky and eccentric. Clearly mistress of her domaine. This is far from today’s example one so often hears about in which the teacher, parent, guardian, or whomever, tries to be the child’s buddy — and not in a way of nurturance or sympathy (as described so well by Annie in her latest) but in a way where on wants, even demands, the approval of the children for one’s own esteem. We often forget who is the parent and that a particular responsibility goes with that title. (And surely the Pope is acting in child-like ways, pandering to Global Warming nonsense when the best and most moral message he might give at the moment is for Islam to quit killing people and for blacks in Baltimore to stop inventing excuses for being savages.)

      Miss Dunlap certainly didn’t seem to forget that she was charged with certain responsibilities. By your description she may have been a little cold. I would imagine the teaching profession does much to chip aware extroverted, touchy-feely ways. Children are naughty, unruly, and seemingly value little of what they are taught. They are there because they have to be. I can see where one can easily be whittled down to a more business-like approach.

      It also occurs to me that although it may be men who, by and large, are the law-givers and disciplinarians, it is the women who have a fetish for order. I loved that vision of her precise method for cleaning the blackboard. I believe this has stirred up a few memories from a very stringent teacher of the same sort: Mr. Hartley of the third grade. The one and only time I’ve had my knuckles rapped by a wooden ruler in a very Dickensian fashion.

  5. GHG says:

    Deana, I enjoyed your vignette, a respite from the unrelenting turbulent news cycle that steals our attention all too much. When one happens upon an oasis – rest, if only for a few minutes. And I did.

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