Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Belgian exchange teacher Jean Nicaise was fascinated by D-B football practices during his year in Kingsport, 1958-1959.

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.

Extracurricular activities

          I have already said that very few of my students worked on their lessons at home. I asked one of the top students of the senior class, Dale Volberg, about this. She admitted that she never opened a school book at home and that the best students among her friends did the same.
          - I have my music, she said, and my brother has his basketball.
          A Gallup poll will later show that a majority of parents would like to see more home work.
Even the young people realize this. But that would require a huge change in attitude. Extracurricular activities take up a lot of the time, evenings, and attention of these teenagers: student council elections with campaign meetings and signs ("Vote for Barbara"); writing, selling ads, editing, and printing the monthly Indian Tribune or the annual (Year Book) with individual and group photos of all teachers and students; organization of dances, of which the most picturesque was the Barn Dance, where everyone dressed up like a Hillbilly peasant; the participation of the "band" in opening of the new post office; the election of miss Kee [sic] Club; and that's not all. Of course these activities had an educational goal. In particular they encouraged teamwork and the very strong civic sense that Americans have, got the kids involved in social life, and gave the best of them the opportunity to bear some responsibilities. The games brought together in the bleachers the whole school and the whole city and contributed to the formation of a group spirit [in French: esprit de corps] that is unknown in Belgium.
          Pascal [Blalse Pascal, French philosopher and mathematician, 1623 -1662] remarked that "men are not taught to be honest, but are taught everything else." American teaching does the opposite. You find the proof of this in the curriculum vitae of a student, which is given over in large part to all of the social activities. In the Year-Book, Maroon and Gray, there is no mention of scholastic achievement alongside the individual photos of the seniors, but all of the extracurricular activities are detailed, even the ones from the previous years. Anyone who contented himself with getting good grades in math, languages, or science without participating in any clubs would not have been admitted to any top university because it would have reproached him for egocentrism and a lack of initiative
          The most important occupation was obviously sports, especially team sports: football (meaning American football) in the autumn, basketball in the winter, track and baseball in the spring. Let's hear it for mens sana in corpora sano! [Latin for "a sound mind in a sound body."] Unfortunately, sports weren't a requirement. In Belgian schools sports have a much-too-small place, but there is physical education for all. For everything else, well, the Pascalian belief remains true.
          The coaches were former professional athletes better paid than the teachers. There were four of them. The head coach, Mr. Brixey, big and tall, with a walk like a dockhand, was the respected individual who watched over study hall, where he meted out the same discipline as to the "boys" of his football team. From September to December there was practice almost every day after school. How could anyone have asked the exhausted kids to re-open their notebooks once they got home? Dale Volberg described to me her brother when he got home at six o'clock from daily basketball practice: he ate between yawns and went to bed!
          I filmed quite a few practices of the football team of the Indians that participated in an East Tennessee championship.
          [A photo follows of a football scrimmage in helmets and pads.]
          It was incredible: violent collisions between these cuirassiers [French heavy cavalry that wore metal helmets and breastplates] of the twentieth century, along with blows, bruises, bloody noses, yelling, countless torn jerseys. If, on a Friday evening, any survivor of a training session thought about going out on the town, he would be sent to bed by the head coach who scoured the dance halls, the driving cinemas [drive-in cinemas], etc., on the lookout for reprobates. At least that's what I learned much later in the best seller written by Lisa Alther, a woman who came from Kingsport's high society. Her novel Kinflicks, translated into French under the title Ginny, caused quite a scandal in the little city for reasons that will soon be clear. On the other hand, critics greeted the remarkable talent of the young writer with enthusiasm, and the general public shared this feeling. Indeed, after the original publication in 1976, the famous paperback publisher Pinguin [sic] Books grabbed hold of the book and from 1977 until 1986 -- the date of my own copy -- issued twelve editions, and it would surprise me if that was the last of them. (I never found the French edition published by Gallimard; it's out of print.) The novel recounts the trials and tribulations of its heroine, Ginny, fifteen years old at the beginning of the story, during the sixties and seventies. Coincidentally, the author herself was exactly that age when I was in Kingsport! Her brother, one of my best students and also the most boisterous, later became the director of the Institute for Research in Social Science at the University of North Carolina. Her mother, a remarkably cultured and highly distinguished woman, was part of the faithful little French conversation group and remained the steadiest of Renee's correspondents.
          Slightly changing the name to Hullsport, LIsa exactly describes the city that I knew -- Church Circle with its "five large red brick churches all various shades of Protestantism" and Broad Street, become Hullstreet, leading to the train station by the river. She also notes the pervasive stale air: "the vilest air for human lungs of any town its size in a nation of notoriously vile air." I must say that I have not reported that an odor given off on some evenings in our neighborhood that was far more frightful than Eastman Kodak's:  that of rotting flesh from the cast-off waste of a pork processing plant. It refluxed by way of the sewers when the pipe was dry and forced us to live with all the windows closed in good weather.
          In Kinflick[s] the coach's name is Bicknell, and he is the exact portrait (and the name a close resemblance) of Brixey, "a huge muscle man in his forties with a gunboat grey [crew] cut and squinty eyes and inevitable non neck." [In a footnote Nicaise translates this sentence into French and then says, "As often happens, the translation is untrue to the original. My description of the person was neither as cruel, as talented, nor as accurate!"] I was flabbergasted by the young peoples' adventures described by the author, which are certainly derived from her own memories. Ten years before the sexual liberation year of 1968, the couples going in their car to the Driving Cinema would have had a hard time summarizing the plot of the movie. That's where Ginny, at the age of fifteen and without any pleasure, loses her virginity. Apparently my lovely students gave themselves over to many other excesses that I would never have dared imagine, even in the room in the school from which was broadcast school-wide messages. This public address system even gave cover to the love-making of representatives of Teen team for Jesus who'd been given the job of spreading the good news. To avoid any intrusion into this little sound-proof room during the broadcast of the religious message, they thought to double-lock the door, which allowed the couple to violate the sixth commandment without fear of being surprised by the Principal who sat not far from there, his bad back supported by a mountain of cushions. Se non è vero, è ben contato [Italian saying meaning, "If it's not true, it's a good story"] by Lisa Alther.
          Now let us leave the novel and return to the reality that inspired it.
          Renee and I very much enjoyed going to the Indians' night-time events that everyone in town hurried to attend. We never understood anything about the game, which, whatever one might think, is very different from European rugby. But it was an utter spectacle both on the field and in the stands. At halftime the "band" marched, except for the one time it was replaced by the procession of a white convertible Cadillac, on board which were Miss Kee Club and her maids of honor in dazzling evening gowns, shot by the flashes of the Camera Club. During the game, in the stands, everybody followed the example of the cheer leaders dressed in school colors: a maroon skirt and gray blouse adorned with an enormous K.
          There were students who, as members of the Kee Club, ran the non-alcoholic drink concession, rented cushions, and sold pop-corn. This club performed charitable work on behalf of handicapped children, etc. Another one collected money to buy football equipment for the less fortunate students, because it was normally the families that had to pay for the jerseys, cleats, helmets, pants, knee-pads, elbow-pads, shoulder-pads, etc. -- the armor of the knights of the oval ball.
          I regret not ever accompanying the team to an away game. That would've been fun! I had to content myself with attending the departure of three buses full of supporters. They were festooned with banners that bragged on the Maroon and Gray team and announced the certain defeat of the adversaries from Chattanooga or Johnson City. Sixty-six musicians in gleaming uniforms fanfared the departure with the school song before taking their place in the caravan of buses along with the majorettes and the flag team.
          The clubs all continued to meet even during exams, which took place morning and afternoon without interruption and without any break to prepare. The tests were all multiple-choice. All anyone had to do was put a check next to the number of the answer thought to be the correct one. Thus, in an English test, no one wrote a single word of English. Thus the unsurprising, terrible style of the numerous, voluminous, well-printed newspapers thrown onto front porches by a 12- or 13-year-old bicyclist, without stopping, or sold to drivers stopped for a red light. I had to conform more or less to this type of test. The only advantage was the ease and rapidity of grading. I've kept the exam questions from the first semester. I find them to be bristling with difficulty. My students must've overcome them, because none of them failed (or flunked, as they would say). Whatever the case, I knew that a bad grade in French wouldn't mean they'd have to re-take the class: a student had to fail three out of five subjects to suffer this consequence, without hope of appeal to a class council [in Belgian schools a meeting of teachers, parents, and class representatives] or the last chance re-taking of the exam.

[Translated by Jud Barry]


Post a Comment

<< Home