Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Memories of a Caroloregian: the Kingsport pages
Jean Nicaise

Translator's note: Square brackets [ ] enclose clarifications or explanations.  [Sic] means the previous word appears as per the original. Italics show when Nicaise himself uses English.

A New World … of school

          A New World … of school

          The start of my teaching was extremely hard. I lived in agony, slept poorly, and had nightmares. People had told me ahead of time that the European style of teaching was unsuitable for America. To begin with, rather than address students with their last name, you used the first name, and for lots of them their nickname: Joe, Phil, Dottie (for Dorothy), Kate, etc. This should not have been surprising when it was already well-known that Americans called their President Ike and later on he'd be Jimmy (Carter), then Ron (Reagan) or even Bill (Clinton).
          With regard to their teacher, the students lacked the respectful attitude of their European counterparts. Remember, this is 1958. Back then, our [European] students didn't taunt their teachers in the corridors or in the street! They still wore a jacket and tie, and the girls still wore a smock over their dresses. The boys, in Kingsport, were fine with wearing a shirt and khaki trousers, while the girls tried to outdo one another in elegance. The fashion of the time required that they wear flared skirts puffed out by three or four starched petticoats. It was amusing to watch the rhythmic swinging of the skirts when the girls skipped up the front steps to the school! It really was too bad that a later fashion dictated unisex dress that, with jeans torn on purpose, might as well have been borrowed from bums who weren't even waiting for Godot. [A reference to a famous play by Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot, in which the two main characters are often portrayed as tramps.] This elegance in dress, however, was not accompanied by smooth sophistication. Besides the fact that students chewed gum in class, they'd slam the door in your face. At first, as any well-bred person from our country would do, I held the door open for the student following me. Then I just did like everybody else.
          As for chewing gum, I tried to forbid it, because I can't stand this practice, which I find vulgar. In French class I was able to justify this by saying that you couldn't articulate well with a wad of gum in your mouth, and that French courtesy prohibited constant chewing (that has definitely changed!) But my kids argued back that the speech teacher, Miss Nancy Necessary, chewed gum while she taught. At least I succeeded in reducing the amplitude of the jaw movements of those who tried break the rules on the sly.
          In Latin I didn't have such arguments, what with the fact that the study of this dead language doesn't have much of an oral character, not to mention that the invention of chewing gum came after the age of Caesar and even after Augustus! But when "a dime for crippled children" week came along -- during which a collection box was put in every classroom to help handicapped children (a great social endeavor!) -- I made every gum-chewer put ten cents in the box. The rule wasn't badly accepted since it was for a good cause. The cheap ones took out their wads but some of the generous ones came in the room, threw their "dime" in the box, and said to me with a smile:
          - Now it's OK for me to chew …
          What's a disarmed teacher to do? Let him smile!
          [An uncaptioned photo follows showing a smiling NIcaise sitting behind desk.]
          When students met me in the street, they either ignored me or -- especially the girls -- they gave me a great big wave and shouted "Hi Mr. NIcaise," even if they were walking on the sidewalk on the other side of Broad Street. They gave me the same oversized gestures and the joyous "hi"  (pronounced haï) if they noticed me from one of the cars that, every Saturday evening, went up and down the main street in a strange and uninterrupted coming and going: passeggiata, American-style. [The passeggiata is the traditional evening stroll in the piazzas of Italian cities and towns.]
          I mentioned earlier that the teacher who is sure of himself naturally establishes his authority. In Belgium I know exactly how to do this. I know both student and Walloon [Belgian French] jargon. My sharp ear takes in every passing comment my students make in whatever jargon they use to express it. After all, raised in the street, I'm wise to its ways. [Nicaise uses an expression from French classical dramatist Jean Racine--the way an American might quote Shakespeare--that literally translates "raised in the harem."] I know its codes and the boundaries that mustn't be crossed.
          In Kingsport it wasn't at all the same situation. I wasn't even sure of understanding my students well even when they spoke English correctly. What's more, did I even know if it was correct or not? I didn't know any of the student jargon, the language of the younger generation, the regional slang, not to mention those words and syllables better left unsaid because they had a double meaning. You're not taught in language class that cock isn't only a word for rooster but is one of the expressions that designates the phallus, or should I say the "zob," to choose a similar-sounding word from the long list of popular words used in French for the sex organ of which males are often prouder to talk about than they are to use. Even the innocent baby has a double meaning, and no English teacher ever teaches his students that to screw means not only to use a screwdriver but also to copulate! [For "copulate"Nicaise uses two popular French expressions for the sex act, the second of which is considered vulgar.] A wrongly-placed stress accent can change the meaning of a word, the way it can (though less so) in Italian. More than once I didn't understand the cause of an abrupt outburst of laughter that I had unknowingly provoked. I must say that it was especially during this kind of painful experience that I figured out why some of my fellow teachers were heckled: they were conscious of a weakness, and, right or wrong, were not sure of themselves.
           An anecdote will show the kind of communication problem that could slow down the teaching process. The subject matter was [Latin] demonstrative and indefinite pronouns. I wrote on the blackboard the three genders of the pronoun "idem, eadem, idem," which means "the same." Then I spoke aloud the English translation, the same (pronounced séme, as I had learned.)
          - What do you say? (What d'ye saï)
          - The same (séme, with emphasis)
          - What d'ye saï?
          I finally decided to write out "the same" on the board.
          - Ah yah, the saïme, I got it, 'sciouse me seuh (sir)!

[Translated from the French by Jud Barry]


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