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George the Goldfish. Lone Morton

George the Goldfish. Lone Morton - Lone Morton George the Fish has the Worst Day Ever

(A True Tale of Terror)

Although I was still learning the language myself, I was the closest thing to a French speaker our local homeschooling group had. It fell to me, therefore, to teach a little French class to my young son and some of his friends.

Fortunately for me, our library carried some children's books put out by Barron's Educational Series called "I can read French." The simple, picture-book style stories are written in French with English translations on the same page. The writers assume that the reader has a smidgen of knowledge of how French should sound – there's a pronunciation guide in the back, but you can only do so much in trying to describe how a language sounds. But I got by, and when all of us were tired of lesson lessons, a story was a nice break.

"Good news, guys," I said one morning after we'd drilled some vocabulary. "I found a new story."

I held it up: George the Goldfish, or, in French, Georges le Poisson Rouge.

"Does the goldfish die?" my son and his friend Olivia asked more or less simultaneously.

It was lucky for me that they were my only two students that day, because it was right then that I made an absolutely inexcusable mistake.

I've made it a point of pride that you don't assert something as a fact unless you're jolly well sure it's true. It infuriates me when I hear adults blithely pronouncing unfacts to their kids because those adults either don't know the truth themselves or are too lazy to check. If you don't know something, say you don't know. If you aren't 100% positive, say you think this is so, or don't think it is – whichever is appropriate.

I have gone on about this ad infinitum. Ad nauseam, even. I've written whole articles on the subject. And yet when the children asked their anxious question that day, I didn't even think about the fact that, frankly, what else does a goldfish do when you have one around for longer than five minutes? I also didn't do a quick flip through a book that was twenty pages long at most, with no more than two or three sentences on each page.

Instead, I thought, "Good grief, kids can be so morbid!" And aloud, in a tone to match that thought, I said, "Of course the fish doesn't die!"

In my defense, they named the whole book after him, for heaven's sake. You can't have the title character dying on you. Unless you're Shakespeare, and no offense to the good people at Barron's but I wasn't quite prepared to put George the goldfish up there with King Lear.

"Now, settle down and quit worrying," I added, pulling my chair up to where they sat expectantly. "Isn't it interesting that in English, we call it a gold fish, but in French, it's red?"

We all agreed that this was very interesting, and I started in on the story, covering up the English translation on each page as I read aloud. "Harry a un poisson rouge," I read. Harry has a goldfish. "Il s'appelle Georges."

"His name is George!" my son shrieked triumphantly.

On the next page, we read about how George(s) liked to swim around in his bowl while Harry watched adoringly.

Then we got to page three.

"Mais un jour," I read aloud. (But one day.) As always when I'm reading to children, my eyes slipped ahead of the text I was pronouncing. I caught the word "meurt" and, appalled, checked the translation.

"Oh, my God!" I said.

"What?" the children asked eagerly.

"The fish dies!"

The children looked at one another, and then at me. Oh, this was great. Humiliation galore, plus I'd probably traumatized them for life.

Salvage time.

"Can you believe this?" I demanded indignantly, as if the only issues at stake here were literary standards. "They killed the main character on page three!"

"Rude," my son said, evenly enough, and I took heart.

"Kids," I said, "I am so sorry. I am so dumb. It just never even occurred to me that they could do that. I should have checked when you asked. I should have read the book before I brought it in for you guys."

My son seemed calm, if a little startled. Olivia looked rather taken aback by the whole thing, but she's a fairly sturdy sort. Still...

"Let's read something else," I said, starting to shut the book.

"NO!" they exclaimed in stereo.

"Read it!" my son said.

"We want to know what happens!" Olivia said.

"But guys, the fish died," I said. Not much room for character development there.

"There has to be more than that," my son pointed out reasonably. "There's the whole rest of the book left."

"Maybe they have a funeral," Olivia said.

"Maybe the funeral's in the toilet," my son suggested.

Olivia gave him the cat-like stare that's a specialty of hers. She comes from a long line of warm-hearted, cool-eyed women.

"They do flush fish," my son protested. "I've read about it."

"I'm pretty sure they don't do that in this book," I said, having learned my lesson about making sweeping pronouncements.

"Read it!"

I gave in, conditionally. "Okay, but if it freaks you guys out, I'm getting something else."

"We're fine!" my son said.

"We like it!" Olivia said.

I sighed and opened the book again. We read about how Harry was sad and cried, and the kids were delighted because they knew the French words for "sad" and "cries." Then Harry's mother came in and gave Harry a hug. "George made you happy," she said.

"Not for long," my son said sourly.

His mother said they should bury George in the garden – "Aw, man, no toilet," my son said – and he would "make the garden happy."

The children expressed vast skepticism on this point. "Okay, maybe 'happy' is too strong a word," I editorialized. "Seriously, are you guys okay with this?"

"Keep reading!"

"Harry peint une petite boite," I read. They could tell from the picture that Harry was decorating a little makeshift coffin. And then he put George(s) on some leaves in the box.

"George looks like a fish salad now," my vegetarian son said.

"That is disgusting," I said. Then I looked at the picture, and darned if he wasn't right. The leaves didn't look like foliage from a tree; they looked like something Harry might have foraged from the fridge.

"I'm not saying he should be a salad," my son said. "He just looks like one."

Fair enough. I read on.

In an exciting twist, the mother and son bury not only George(s), but also three flower bulbs. Not in the same coffin, but they do share the same plot, as it were. "Now George will help the garden grow," the mother announces cheerily.

"Ew," the children said.

The seasons passed swiftly in the story, leading the children to ask some difficult questions along the lines of just how the heck long does it take for a few flowers to grow, anyway. And then, finally, three beautiful yellow flowers sprouted from George(s)' grave. And Harry smiled.

"Do they at least get a new fish?" Olivia asked.

"Why? It would just die on them," my son answered for me.

The French lesson was pretty much destroyed at this point, much as I'd tried to emphasize the vocabulary words they already knew or could figure out from context. We broke for lunch early, and I confessed my sins to Olivia's mother, who'd spent lesson time making us all a lovely déjeuner. Fortunately, she's very forgiving, and has a great sense of humor. As Olivia didn't seem exactly racked with grief, we agreed to hope that no harm had been done.

Naturally, my son's father had to hear all about this event, especially the part about Mommy being stupid enough not to familiarize herself in advance with a book she was going to read to young, impressionable children.

"Look, none of the other books in the series are like that!" I said in my own defense. "There's one about a giraffe and a hippo, and one about a farm where all the animals get along, and –"

"It's true. Nobody had died up to this point," my son said thoughtfully.

"And I'm sorry, but there is something seriously wrong with killing off the title character on the third page."

"He didn't even get a chance to do anything," my son agreed.

His father was listening intently. "Was this book written by a French person?" he asked. "I mean, dying on page three is pretty dramatic. Maybe it's a French thing."

"It's a kids' book!"

For reasons that made sense at the time, we brought Georges with us a few days later to a doctor's appointment. "Read this," my son said in the waiting room.

"Oh, geez Louise. Aren't you ever going to let me forget this?"

"I like it," my son protested.

"Fine," I said. "But it has to be a French lesson. I'll read it out loud in French, and then you tell me what it says in English."

My son looked less than thrilled, but agreed. The first page was some of the least inspired translating I've ever heard. "Come on, honey," I said. "Work with me, here."

My son sighed.

"Georges fait le tour de son aquarium," I read sternly.

"'Look out – he dies on the next page!'" my son "translated."

My son cracked up, and a mother waiting with her children gave me an "I'm this close to calling the authorities" look. Crimson, I hauled out my son's math workbook and gave it to him, resisting the urge to thwap him on the head with it.

The next week, the kids met for French lesson again. This time Lilli, our third student, was also present.

"Did you bring George?" Olivia asked me the second I stepped inside.

"Um," I said. George is not my son's name. For a second I had no idea who she was talking about.

"Lilli didn't get to see it last time," Olivia explained. "She was sick. But she's here today, so you have to read it again."

I couldn't believe this. I'd been worried sick about emotionally scarring these ten-year-olds, and had instead introduced them to their new favorite story.

Fortunately, all my French books had been tossed into the same bag, so George had indeed come along for the ride that day. Olivia and my son took great delight in embellishing the story for Lilli's benefit. ("Seriously, he dies in like two pages!" "Doesn't he look like a salad in this picture?")

When we got to the end, my son announced, "I'm going to write a sequel to this."

"Harry buys another fish?" Lilli asked.

"George comes back as a zombie?" Olivia suggested.

My son shook his head. "It's going to be called George the Fish Meets Toto the Toilet."