“Look, she gave me four pluses today!” The girl was delighted. A ten followed by four pluses was the highest possible score one could get from Mademoiselle. The girl knew her parents felt proud. What she didn’t know was that they also felt reassured. Paying for Mademoiselle’s lessons wasn’t easy for them. Good to know the money wasn’t going to waste!
It was important that their children learned foreign languages. In their mind, there was no other choice for kids but to work hard and become dependable professionals, who mastered at least one other language besides their mother tongue. Preferably, English. Otherwise, they’d get no chance whatsoever to go abroad, to see other countries, and especially to go outside the Eastern European bloc. In a communist country like theirs, and with the Cold War in full swing, ordinary people weren’t allowed to travel privately, for pleasure. And to be sent abroad on business, many requirements had to be met, one of which was proficiency in Western European languages. No, their children weren’t going to struggle with that, not if the parents could help it! Now in their mid thirties, the parents had never left the country. They’d never even had a passport. And they thought their own chance to travel abroad was slim to none. But could they make it better for their children? They were determined to try.
It was through family connections that they’d found Mademoiselle – a single woman, in her late thirties, who taught foreign languages. Well read and bright, she made a good impression on the parents from the first time they met her. Mademoiselle gave private lessons in four different languages, two of which interested them: English and French. Their daughter was going to join a small group of kids whose families would take turns at hosting the lessons. They’d meet a couple of times a week, preferably in the evening. Each lesson would take about three hours. In the first half they would be learning French. Then they’d take a break, to chat and have snacks. After, the group would switch to English. And Mademoiselle needed her pay, in cash, at the end of each lesson. Agreed?
As a teacher, she sounded like she knew what she was doing, the parents decided. But there was something mysterious – conspiratorial? – about her. It was obvious she didn’t have her own family, or a day job, which was highly unusual for someone her age. Besides, she avoided to go places in the daylight, and she wore sunglasses even after dusk. Mademoiselle’s secrets were most likely of a political nature. She was probably being watched by the secret police. Having relations with “enemies of the communist regime”, buying their service and helping them make a living could have serious repercussions for the family. There were serious risks involved, but the parents said they agreed, yes.
How were the private lessons going? Was their daughter getting better at English and French? Was it all worth it? Relatives and friends were curious to find out. So far, the parents were convinced they had done the right thing. After a couple of years of private lessons with Mademoiselle, their daughter’s progress was undeniable. And this wasn’t based just on Mademoiselle’s observations. When watching movies in English or French, the girl was now able to understand part of the conversation without reading the subtitles. And she excelled in her English and French classes at school. It was clear to them that, while very demanding, Mademoiselle’s teaching suited their daughter. Truth was, the parents considered themselves lucky to have found this teacher. Actually, they’d become her friends. They really cared about her.
The lesson had been held in their living room, and now it was over. The other children had left or had been picked up already. It was getting late and the girl knew she had to go to bed. But she was worried. Why did Mademoiselle stay behind this time? What was she discussing about with her parents? Had the girl misbehaved in some way, were they talking about her? She’d hate it if she would upset Mademoiselle! They were discussing quietly in the kitchen, and they had closed the door. The girl tried to listen, but it was impossible to hear what they were saying. Oh well, if their conversation had to do with her, she was going to find out in the morning. And anyway, the girl couldn’t think how she’d misbehaved. She went to bed.
In the morning, her parents weren’t upset with her at all. It didn’t look as if something bad had happened, they seemed their usual selves. Right away the girl forgot about the previous night. A new day had just started. And she had homework on her mind, lots of it. It was good she had classes only in the afternoon. She was going to spend the morning doing school work. Maybe she managed to do the homework for the next day’s classes, too. That way, next morning she would have enough time to do her homework for Mademoiselle’s lesson, which was scheduled for next evening at another kid’s house. Time seemed so short!
Next evening, while she was getting ready to leave for Mademoiselle’s lesson, her mother brought the girl an envelope. It’s the fee for today’s lesson, the usual, the girl thought, and she took the envelope from her mom and put it in her bag. But the envelope felt thicker than usual. “Why?” the girl asked. “We are paying Mademoiselle several lessons in advance,” her mother answered. “She’s out of money, and we had to borrow some. So, please be extra careful. And don’t wait till the end of the lesson this time. Just give the money to Mademoiselle right away.” Now the girl understood. Her parents’ discussion with Mademoiselle the other night had nothing to do with her.
It wasn’t the first time that she was late for a lesson. They heard it had happened another couple of times during the last few months. In the past year, her fourth of teaching their daughter English and French, Mademoiselle had grown more and more anxious, agitated. It was obvious that she had something on her mind, and the parents were wondering what. Had the secret police threatened her? Had the surveillance been tightened? They were worried about her, and wanted to help. But they were afraid to ask, and Mademoiselle seemed withdrawn, and always in a rush. Waiting for her now, along with the kids, they thought they should get the lesson started. By now, they’d all learned the routine. It’s possible that she won’t show up at all. Maybe she got arrested? Or killed?
An hour later there was a knock on the apartment door. When they first opened the door the hallway was pitch-dark, but soon they saw Mademoiselle’s silhouette by the elevator. Without saying anything, she gestured at the parents to come closer. At this, the mother went back inside to see about the kids, whereas the father approached Mademoiselle and whispered, ” What’s going on?” She whispered back, “Please, leave the lights off.” Then she told him she thought she was being followed. He took her inside the apartment, grabbed the keys, locked the door from the outside, and went down the stairs by himself to check. In the meantime, from a different floor, someone switched on the stairwell lights. When he reached the ground floor, he was greeted by a person he recognized – a neighbour. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary so far. Outside the apartment building he didn’t see anything suspicious either. Was it real, had Mademoiselle been followed? Once back inside the apartment, the father locked the door carefully. Mademoiselle was in the living room, holding her lesson as if nothing had happened. The parents weren’t sure what to believe, but they didn’t let Mademoiselle leave by herself that night. The father took her home.
Over the years they’d known her, it was only on very rare occasions that Mademoiselle held lessons at her own place. And none of those occasions were recent. Why did she want them to come to her apartment today? The parents were nervous. Mademoiselle lived on the first floor of a small apartment building. Her living room windows were right above the main entrance, facing the front. As the father and daughter came around the corner and walked towards Mademoiselle’s building, they noticed that something was hanging atop the front door. Once they were closer they realized it was a banner. It read “Home of The Social Democratic Party”. And it was hanging from one of Mademoiselle’s windows. They stopped and the girl asked, “What does this mean?” “It means there won’t be a lesson today,” the father answered. “We must leave at once,” he added. And they turned around quickly, and went back home.
On that day Mademoiselle disappeared. The private lessons in English and French, which the girl had enjoyed so much, ended abruptly. They didn’t hear of the teacher ever again. All their relatives and friends, who knew her, lost track of her on that day. When, a short while later, the parents went by Mademoiselle’s building, her old apartment looked unoccupied, empty. There was no trace of her. They could only speculate, which they did plenty, but they never learned the truth. And the girl would carry that burden with her forever.