Tuesday, July 17, 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.

Questions and answers

          From the very first lesson I always wanted to know what motivated my students to choose my language over Spanish, for example. Thus I added to the little file that I'd begun to use in Belgium I added "Why did you chose [sic] French?" Among the responses were "Because I want to take the opportunity to learn from the mouth of a French person," since I was to everybody the "French teacher," meaning I was a French French teacher. I didn't tease anyone about this. It was only in Latin that I specified my nationality when we translated Caesar's famous remark: "Of all the people of Gaul, the Belgians are the bravest." Strangely, their textbook used a picture of the citadel of Namur for the oppidum [town] of the Aduatiques [near Thuin, 62 km. from Namur].
          The most frequent response to my question was, "Because I would like to visit France." The most interesting one came from a cute 17-year-old girl, Carol, with red lipstick, fingernail polish, and mascara, like most of her contemporaries:
          - Because French is the language of love, and I am very romantic.
          Up to this point I thought that Italian was the language of love. At least that was Voltaire's [18th c. French philosopher] opinion. In a letter he wrote to Marie-Louise Denis, we read: "I am not surprised that you write so well in Italian. How fitting and appropriate, even sexy, that you are fluent in the language of love."
          Some time afterwards, I was reminding the class for the tenth time the important difference, for correct reading, between the acute accent [é] and the grave accent [è]. Carol, who I could tell was pensive for a few moments, raised her hand. I've always been told that one should always answer students' questions, whatever they might be.
          - Yes, Carol?
          - Is't true
          - In French, Carol!
          - Is it … uh … true that the French are the most good … uh … lovers in the world?
          - You say "best," not "most good," Carol.
          In Belgium the class would've burst out laughing and the interrupter reprimanded. Here, everybody waited patiently for my reply, caring no more about the sex of accent marks. Insofar as I was supposed to be French, I said proudly:
          - It's the general opinion, Carol, but I'm not qualified to confirm it.
          - And why are they the most … uh … the best?
          I thought immediately of the Kamasutra. The French didn't write it. I had to figure out a satisfactory explanation for libidinal French virility that would be appropriate for the students and for pedagogical decency.
          - Carol, it's simple: it's because they speak quite naturally the language of love!
          That pretty girl Carol got married before the end of the school year even though she didn't have the time to learn such a marvelous language all that well. She had to quit school because in Kingsport that was the rule for everyone. A controversial rule, it was the subject of several articles in the Kingsport News. The newspaper reported the opinions both of opponents and supporters of this iniquitous policy. A California daily told the story, at the end of the school year, of the tolerant spirit of a school in that state under the headline: Mother of Triplets is High School Grad. Indeed, this young and prolific mother, Linda Sue Voss, appeared proudly among 469 graduates of a school in Redlands. She told the reporter who interviewed her that she and her 19-year-old husband -- absent that day because he was baby-sitting -- would be continuing their studies at the university. They didn't say if the happy parents would be taking the triplets to campus!
          I hope that for our Carol, excluded from school without even having had a baby (although maybe  she had a puppet in the drawer … "a bun in the oven"!) found perfect love despite the gaps in her knowledge of its language!
          Fortunately the questions asked by most of the students weren't as off-base as Carol's. A lot of them were interested in France and its people. From the very first lesson I clarified that the beret was a cap worn by only a few, and mostly out in the country, that is to say by our hillbillies, that the French don't eat snails every day and don't feed their babies bread dipped in wine.
          There was one evening when it was customary to give parents a shortened school day. My five course were shortened to fifteen minutes and given in the presence of a small group of attentive parents seated attentively at the back of the classroom. My lessons were something of a hit because of curiosity: people wanted to see and hear the exchange teacher. In the first French class I noticed a mother who repeated phrases in an undertone with a seriousness that her son lacked. Then I saw her sing along with unconcealed pleasure to the inspired bit of the mini-lesson, the song Au Clair de la Lune. Her son, who wanted to be called Chip although his name was Albert, was the class dunce, and instead of going with him from class to class, she stayed for my other lessons. At the end of the evening she came to find me and without fear of exaggeration told me that I was a "wonderful" teacher.
          - I would like to take private lessons.
          I was flattered not only by the recognition of my pedagogical talents but also maybe by the idea that my supposed capacities as a French lover had seduced a young and pretty American woman. Learning French might be just an excuse. I answered that I didn't give private lessons but that my wife would be delighted to, and I gave her my telephone number. l was persuaded that Judy, as she had introduced herself, wouldn't follow up on her project of learning French as soon as the lessons were limited to austere linguistic exercises. Renee also thought so, to the point of feeling a twinge of jealousy when I told her about my success.
          Well! Judy called my wife a couple of days later and became the first of a handful of students -- children, teenagers, and Kingsport society ladies. As a result Renee was invited out a little bit everywhere and formed a network of close relationships. My colleagues, in contrast, had no idea how to extend beyond school hours the purely professional relationships that connected us in the teachers' lounge -- men only. Because there was a male teachers room and a female teachers room!    I must say that my foreign status -- "French"? -- gave me the equal privilege of being invited into the ladies' lounge. But I was always the only male in the room.


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