Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Belgian exchange teacher Jean Nicaise in the used 1955 Plymouth he purchased to get around town during his year in Kingsport. 

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.

Public Relations

          All the dinners, cocktails, and well-lubricated evenings (in this supposedly dry State) I owe to the public relations of my wife. I also owe to her the fact that I was asked to deliver a number of "lectures" accompanied by slides to numerous groups made up mostly of women: Book Club, American Association of University Women, Beta Sigma Phi Sorority, Daughters of the American Revolution, United Daughters of the Confederacy, Business and Professional Women Voters.
          [About the DAR Nicaise says in a footnote: "These "Daughters of the American Revolution" make up a kind of New World nobility since they are descended from the first Europeans to settle on American soil, the chivalry who fought the English and created the United States." Of the UDC he writes: "A more recent 'nobility,' since it brings together descendants of the Southern soldiers of the Civil War. It does nevertheless include members of the previous group."]
          It's possible that I've left out a club or two. One year did not suffice for me to bring to all of them the combined brilliance of my knowledge and my projector: there were more than 50 clubs and associations. Not to mention that I also received requests for lectures from professional groups such as the University in Johnson City, where I received an excellent welcome.
          I always made a very short presentation and then made myself available to answer questions. Before long I was able to anticipate the questions and the responses best suited for them. The most frequently asked question was why, in my opinion, Americans were the least popular people on earth. In fact all over the world popular discontent has sometimes resulted in the burning of an American cultural center, the stupid act of ignorant crowds, or by the looting of the local offices of American Airways. Sent to South America on a mission by President Eisenhower, Vice President Nixon had to put up with the insults of the mob that swarmed his limousine.
          My answer to this question had three parts:
          1. People often sin through ignorance. They have not had the privilege of getting to know, as I have, the real America [in French, literally "deep America"]. Most of the time, not only do they not know this real America, but they judge its inhabitants by the worst representatives taken from its military and its tourists, who, camera on belly, toss around their good health and their dollars, thinking all the while that the whole world speaks English.
          2. The poor envy the rich and wind up detesting them.
          3. Finally, not only is it jarring the way Americans go to such great lengths to maintain their "way of life" in other countries, but there's also the strong feeling that they want to export it and, indeed, impose their lifestyle, like their Coca Cola, on the whole world. Generally I would add that of course it was up to the so-called conquered people to resist and to continue to enjoy their wine, their beer, or their Orangina, their Wolkswagen or their Deux-chevaux [popular Renault automobile].  I couldn't say but that someday Orangina might be the envy of Coca Cola!
          All the same I insisted on the fact that the great majority of Europeans retained their gratitude for their liberators and regarded with emotion the innumerable graves of the GI's who sacrificed their lives to keep liberty safe. It was to a university audience that I described the plot of Labiche's [Eugene Marin Labiche, French playwright, 1815 - 1888] famous comedy Mr. Perrichon's Trip, and the remark made by the devious Daniel to the honest Armand: "A jerk can't tolerate the crushing burden known as gratitude." It is a fact, I added, that the European population is not comprised only of jerks.
          We loved America and the Americans. We made some very dear friends, but none among the teachers. People told us it was because they had some kind of complex about Europeans and their bilingualism, a complex that was not shared by the intellectuals, doctors, and engineers, themselves only monolingual, whose wives Renee got to know and who invited us into their homes for cocktails and dinner.
          Almost the only exception among the teachers was the "Principal," Elery Lay, who had us visit his tobacco field.
          [A photograph shows the Nicaises and the Lays in a row of tall tobacco.]
          He inscribed a dedication to us in a copy of his novel, That Reek of Sin. The accounting teacher, Finley B. Eliott, invited me to go fishing (by some miracle I succeeded in hooking a fish); some of my colleagues asked me to go to a worship service at their church. Only one -- Sarah G. Pauley, an economics teacher with whom I'd made friends and who enjoyed talking slang to me just to get a kick out of my confusion -- invited us, shortly before we left, to a farewell dinner. It was a memorable evening! Along with another colleague and her husband, Mrs. and Mr. Tom Browder, we went to the Country Club. As in all Tennessee restaurants, alcoholic beverages were not served.  But Sarah's husband, an engineer, ordered soda water and then pulled out of a gray paper package a bottle of Kentucky straight Bourbon Whiskey that we emptied in no time at all. I would be hard pressed to describe the food with as much precision as the drink. After the meal we made the rounds of the slot machines where we lost a mountain of "nickels" (five cents), after which we went to the house of our gracious hosts. The men were invited to shed their jackets, and the ladies to kick off their heels. Renee, feeling more comfortable shod than unshod, kept hers on. Made very happy by the bourbon, I asked if they might not have by chance a piano. Yes, there was one stowed away in the … laundry room. No problem! It was to this place every bit as unsuitable for a get-together as for a concert that we went, a glass of encouragement in hand. I played a few jazz chords, accompanied by Tom Browder, and a few tunes that were more European but in no way classical, while the man of the house laid down the rhythm by drumming on the washing machine!
          Sarah Pauley was a cultured lady, but I have to say that, compared to European teachers, the level of knowledge of many of my colleagues bordered on destitution. The state of Tennessee lagged behind others in many ways. There was a joke making the rounds about the count of its residents: did they wear shoes? As for its economy, its agriculture had been ruined by erosion. Numerous Hillbillies secretly made whisky, called Moonshine because it was a good idea to distill it at night, by the light of the moon. Industry in the state where the famous Davy Crockett had lived only began to take off thanks to the huge project of irrigation and dams carried out by the T.V.A., Tennessee Valley Authority, well-known over in Europe. In fact it was particularly because of this enterprise that, in Belgium, I'd already heard of the state and its river. There were three dams on the Holston River in the vicinity of Kingsport that provided electricity to the industries of the city as well as lakes for outings and water sports.

Teacher education

          Speaking of education, they said at the school, "Thanks to Mississippi, we are not the last." I looked into the program of study that led to teaching. Teachers, at least the white ones, were either a "bachelor" or a "master." The former had four years of university ("college"), the latter, five. To get a degree, one had to accumulate a certain number of "credits" in almost no-matter-what subject. Any course finished successfully contributed a certain number of credits. I had a Spanish and English teacher, Miss Campbell, make me a list of the subjects studied during her four years of college. Of course she had to "major" in Spanish, meaning most of her subjects had to relate to this language and a "minor" in English. But I found among the relatively few areas related to these languages were, of course, a class in pedagogy but also: typing, elementary German (not followed by any higher-level German courses!), elementary basketball! When you know how poor the level of learning is going into college, it's staggering.
          We've already seen how Mary could only carry on a conversation in very hesitant French made almost incomprehensible by a bizarre accent. One day a young Bolivian entered school whose father was working for Eastman Kodak. He didn't speak a word of English. He was taken to Miss Campbell and another Spanish teacher. They failed to communicate. Finally the Principal sent the boy to me, and I had to serve as the Spanish-English interpreter even though I hadn't used the language of Cervantes in eight years! Moreover, they'd already trusted me with Latin despite any depth of knowledge of English. …
          When I learned that my position was classified as "bachelor" and my salary calculated accordingly, I protested loudly. The reply was that I had four years of college. I figured that by rights I should have the same reward as a "master." I had my academic transcript sent from Belgium, and I wrote Mme. Moor-Deflandre, to no avail. Fortunately, in November, I received some very good news: the Belgian Department of Education had decided to provide the salary of exchange teachers. This was a welcome gift that compensated for the fact that Renee didn't earn a penny. We were able to anticipate traveling without having to live cheaply all year long. …
          The mediocre level of studies in the United States is especially surprising given the quality of American science. If you look a little closer you can see that several of the top ones, particularly Nobel prize-winners, were recently-naturalized Europeans. Furthermore the prestigious universities like Princeton, Harvard, etc., and some private secondary schools are rigorously selective in their enrollment. There were also programs for gifted students in some of the big cities.
          A particularly qualified observer, the Belgian Director of Secondary Instruction, has said that American schools are very inferior to Belgian ones.
          One fine day (why do we say that such days are always fine?), a day neither prettier nor more ugly than any other, I was urgently called to the office by the secretary: a phone call from Washington! What in the world could have happened?
          - Hello, Levarlet speaking!
          - Hello, Mr. Lev … uh, Director.
          In a second I had recovered my Belgian reflexes of hierarchical etiquette. In America nobody uses the administrative titles for department heads or lower-level supervisors. At Dobyns-Bennett, the Principal was simply Mr. Lay. The "supervisor," himself a former teacher at the school, was "Jack." He had come to a couple of my classes and declared himself satisfied, no doubt due to my healthy glow, since he knew neither French nor Latin.
          - Hello, Nicaise. I'm doing a study trip in the US. How are you? I'm going to spend a few days in Tennessee …
          - Will I have the pleasure of seeing you?
          - I'd like to visit you, but you will have to come get me.
          - Where in Tennessee will you be?
          - In Knoxville. Do you have a car? I have the weekend open.
          - I will come get you, Director.
          With a doctorate in mathematics, Henri Levarlet was, at the beginning of his teaching career, a young colleague of Charles Nicaise at the Atheneum of Ixelles. My uncle had rendered some services to him, and he was grateful for them. … My uncle had introduced me to him, saying:
          - He has a worse temper than I do.
          He was exaggerating, as we will see.
          Knoxville is 150 km. away. In reality, I wasn't sure that my car would be available, since it was in the garage for a problem in the cooling system. But a bunch of friends offered to lend me a vehicle: over here they're not attached to their cars, as they are in Europe, with the jealousy of Othello for Desdemona. So M. Levarlet would be able to spend the weekend among Belgians. I know how isolated a European can feel at the end of the week. Since Mary's house had only the bare necessities, and given the quality of our guest, Rita Shobe, the most devoted of our friends, hastily lent us some money and a lace tablecloth. Obviously it was Renee who remembered to take care of these domestic details.
          She cooked a veal ragout for the occasion. I managed to scrounge up, probably in Virginia, a bottle of Bordeaux. At least it wasn't chianti. French or Italian, the wine was a nice change for the traveler condemned to the iced tea, milk, or Coca Cola that was invariably served in the restaurants of the innumerable travel stops in the state.
          The car was repaired, and on Friday after school was out we went to pick up our guest at his hotel in Knoxville.
          Saturday morning, he met with the Kingsport Superintendent of schools and some of my students, who made the effort to come and to speak spontaneously a few words in French, better than I had ever heard them do in class. The importance of motivation!
          That afternoon, the Kingsport News came to Wanola Street to take our picture and interview Dr. Levarlet.
          [A photo shows a pipe-smoking Belgian Director of Secondary Instruction on a couch together with Nicaise, both holding saucers with cups.]
          On Sunday, he explored with us the area around Kingsport, all the way to the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, gloriously revived with the tender green of spring. He spoke with simplicity and warmth about his family and with special emotion about his younger daughter, who was going on ten years old. He also gave us humorous portrayals of some of the picturesque characters from the world of the national Department of Education. He revealed that it was he who had convinced the Secretary of Eductation not to end the Belgian salary for the exchange teachers.
          Privately he didn't hesitate to compare the Bachelor's Degree to that of our "candidacy," which is awarded after only two years of college. He underestimated the reality. He also moderated his views for the press. The newspaper headline was "Belgian Official Says American Schools Aren't So Bad After All." Which goes to show that the Americans were perfectly well aware of their failings when the Russians "queened their pawn" by becoming the first to send a 58-centimeter-in-diameter satellite into orbit around the earth, the famous Sputnik. That was only one year before my arrival on the other side of the Atlantic.
          Who was it who had enabled the US to catch up to the Soviets with the Jupiter C rocket? The naturalized German Werner von Braun, who had developed in 1944 Hitler's last missiles, the V2. Emphatically, of course, the Americans quickly caught up to the Soviets, so that even though the first man in orbit was the Russian Gagarin, the first to set foot on the moon, on July 21, 1969, was the American Neil Armstrong, and the surface of Mars was explored in 1997 by the amazing robot Sojourner, thanks to the genius of the men of NASA.
          In the meantime, conscious of the poor quality of their education, particularly of the derisory place given to learning science and foreign languages. the Americans, still in shock from Sputnik, encouraged their youth to get on with it. In Kingsport, going from one mistake to another with touching naivety, the School Board decided to start the study of French in the third grade. We have no reason to boast. Belgium tried an even stupider thing: start the study of a second language in nursery school! When little kids can't even use their first language all that easily! The myth of national bilingualism reared its head. But even if Walloons [French-speaking Belgians] came to be able, by some miracle, to speak Flemish fluently, a unified Belgium still could not be raised from the ashes.
          The supervisor of elementary schools, Mr. Gardner, was himself made the teacher [of third grade French]. At the end of two and a half months of three classes of 30 minutes each per week, the students put on some skits for the members of the Parent Teacher Association. The planner of this "theatrical" evening so typical of the scholastic culture not just of Kingsport but of America, brought the two-page mimeographed text to Renee for proofreading. What a disaster! We found exactly 22 errors, mistranslations, grammar mistakes, and howlers in a dialogue that was not only necessarily elementary but feeble as well. We discussed what we should do for a long time. Should we take the risk of offending this person who was so sure of himself? Should we on the other hand just let all those mistakes go? Finally, Renee returned the pages with the most egregious errors corrected. A few days later, the muddling-through teacher sent her a thank-you note along with a bouquet of flowers! An perfect example of American manners! The following year, some society ladies with no language training at all came in to help the staff of incompetent teachers. Would we find things any better in Belgium? If you want five-year-old kids, or even three-year-olds, to learn Flemish, don't bother having a teacher give them three half-hour classes a week. Send them to nurse in Flanders for six months!


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