Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Memories of a Caroloregian: the Kingsport pages
Jean Nicaise

This is the conclusion of Jud Barry's translation from the original French of Belgian exchange teacher Jean Nicaise's memoir about his one year at Dobyns-Bennett, the school year 1958-1959.
A round of applause and a heartfelt thank you to Jud. 

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 Stay in the Hospital

          One Tuesday in March, in this latitude a very mild month that sees the magnolia buds swell and the Judas tree [probably redbud] prepare its floral display and the forsythias already burst with theirs, I come down with a fever. Dr. Cox's diagnosis: pharyngitis and flu … European flu! Indeed that's how the Kingsport News has characterized the little epidemic that has considerably reduced the number of students coming to class. I was hoping that I, as a fellow citizen of the virus, would be immune to it!
          On Thursday, still in bed, a student calls to find out if I'm going to be present the next day! Then on Friday my colleagues deliver to me a vase with a bouquet of irises, the state flower of Tennessee. I remember at the beginning of the year everyone chipping in two dollars "for flowers." On Saturday I still have a fever, but I've left the bed for the rocking chair. On the telephone Jo Royall and Judy Noel insist on coming to see me. They show up right at the appointed time carrying a basket containing a pineapple, two bananas, three oranges, three chocolates, a pack of chewing gum, a can of peanuts, and several get-well cards. It's so nice that I recorded the exact contents in a letter to my grandparents. I still have it today, since they kept my letters like relics.
          I don't return to school until the following Tuesday, still with a persistent sore throat. That evening I still have a little fever and call Dr. Cox, who comes at 10 p.m. to give me a shot of penicillin. Unfortunately this won't be the only attempt to heal me. The next will be more painful and more spectacular.
          One morning, following a night that fever had made very agitated, I can't empty my bladder. Dr. Cox, roused from his bed, doesn't want to catheterize me. He advises very hot baths. These have no effect. With every passing hour the pain becomes unbearable. At about 3 p.m., I am twisting in pain from a bladder that is close to bursting. Renee takes the wheel of the Plymouth to drive me to the hospital. Dr. Jones, the urologist, brings me immediate relief with a catheter. Finally! He also decides to keep me in the hospital for a few days. Fortunately it's a private room, because if there's anywhere that I hate to share my days and nights with someone I don't know, it's the hospital. Here I have a new experience with Anglo-Saxon prudishness and the strict separation of the sexes.
          The doctor unfortunately did not leave the catheter in place. In the middle of the night, with my urethra persisting in its refusal to do the job of draining my bladder, it becomes once more absolutely necessary to be catheterized. Imagine the new difficulties of communication that flare up at such a time! The vocabulary of diseases and their remedies -- in short, of this whole brand-new setting -- was neither part of my English courses nor of all the Anglo-American literature that had taught me the language. Thirty years later I will learn that the hospital jargons of French-speaking Belgium and of France, however close together, will themselves vary greatly: Circumstances having forced me to relieve myself naturally, but stuck in bed, I learned that a request for a "urinal" in France -- at least in the south of France -- to satisfy a legitimate need will provoke a pantomime of total incomprehension. Finally, after various paraphrases and efforts to describe the urgent need, the nurse's face lights up:
          -- Ah, you mean the pistol!
          No, this does not mean a crusty bun, as might think a good Belgian ["pistolet" in French can mean "pistol" as well as a type of breadroll], but it is in fact the desired vessel, which the nurse brings. The same rigmarole, the same pantomimes, and the same efforts at description are also necessary when the sick person badly needs "the pan" and is brought "the basin."
          So, imagine the problem posed by the situation in Kingsport! How do you say "catheterize?" I use strong gestures and approximations to the explain to the night nurse, a woman, who has run to the sound of my call, that I need to pee. This does not provoke a questioning pantomime so much as an expression of horror, a headlong flight, and the arrival of a black male nurse carrying the blessed probe, which shows me that I made myself understood. I will pass on the details and the discomfort of the operation that this good fellow performed for the first time! I will only learn the following day -- at the same time as I myself figure it out -- that a female nurse in Tennessee cannot provide care to male patients below the belt, but must hand over the care to a male nurse, not necessarily black-skinned, although the poorly-paid job seems to repel Whites.
          The same "colored" man has me take hot baths supposedly to unblock the tube and also takes me to radiography where he indicates to the female nurse in attendance that she should leave the room, given that the targeted object is in the vicinity of my thighs.
          With the catheter now left in place for five days, and its recipient left in bed, I have an opportunity once again to experience how nice my students are: after asking Renee if it would be something that I'd like, they make little get-well visits and John Reed even brings me a television to help make my convalescence more tolerable.
          The insurance that I'd had the foresight to get paid all the costs of the hospital and the doctor, but not my sick days from school. Alas, my "European" flu had wiped out my little sick-leave account, and my monthly pay was cut by a quarter. But I had gotten a TV set, since John refused to take it back at the end of my stay. …
          My hospitalization also gave me the opportunity to verify that there are words that are not polite to say in front of women. I had suffered an inflammation of the prostate. I quickly realized that I must avoid all mention of it when women were around. Thus if somebody asked why I'd gone to the hospital -- which was less common then than now -- I answered that it had been kidney problems. The word kidney is considered decent to them and is even used in cuisine -- in the area where French decorum requires a euphemism. [French uses different words for a human kidney and for an animal kidney used as food.]

Leisure time

          Second semester goes by too fast. In general we put our weekends to good use by exploring places we want to be able to remember. During the week, free time left over from numerous French lessons and taking care of her teacher husband allows Renee to go to even more "parties," exclusively female, with coffee or tea, cookies, and rounds of bridge or canasta. …
          Along with spring came a train of celebrations at the school. The most anticipated was the Prom, a dinner followed by a dance that the Juniors traditionally put on for the Seniors.
          [An uncaptioned photo shows students in white formal wear receiving cups of punch from adult servers.]
          in reality it was the teachers who were the class sponsors who did all the work and who, as the picture shows, in particular served the diverse offering of lemonade, coca-cola, or iced tea (euphoric drinks being excluded). Fortunately, I was a sponsor of the sophomores and, since I was leaving, was invited to the party. You had to wear a tux [in French, "le smoking"], which they call an evening suit or dinner suit across the Channel and a tuxedo across the Atlantic. If you're ever invited to an evening party, don't bother asking if you have to wear a "smoking!" It's just another example of French borrowing something from English that English-speakers don't use!
          My colleague Sarah Pauley lent me her husband's white tuxedo, which went on with difficulty thanks to the pounds added from abusing Howard Johnson's delicious ice cream.
          At the door of the country club, guests are greeted by two students dressed up as black servants -- their white faces daubed with blackface -- and costumed very much in English colonial style from the last century. All the girls wear gauzy dresses with yards of tulle and dozens of petticoats. L'ambiance est très chic [This sentence needs no translation :-) ]. Most of the tuxes are white. I didn't ask if the students from all levels of society can afford such a luxury. … The head tables welcoming the 280 attendees are covered with flowers. After a minister says the traditional blessing, there is a simple but good dinner -- without alcoholic beverage, it goes without saying. Then there is a cultural program with monologues and a choir under the direction of Miss Hutchinson, who is so thin and straight as to cause fear that at any moment she's going to break.
          [A photo follows showing a choir of six girls and four boys standing behind a piano at which is seated Miss Hutchinson, who is directing.]
          At 9:00 the band begins playing some civilized dance music and some rock an' roll [sic] that I personally like better but which my status prohibits me from really getting into. For this latter exercise the girls almost all abandoned their high heels, which were carefully placed under their seats. They dance either barefoot or with ballerina socks that they've had the foresight to bring. While their students have fun, the teachers, the principal, and the supervisor, with the help of one student, wait tables, work the coatroom, and serve up refreshments. The evening is very smooth and properly bourgeois, if you make exception for some of the cheek-to-cheek slow dancing.
          To get to the bathroom, you have to go past another room of the country club. Dutch, the school cob [sic; "cop" is intended], stands guard at the door to turn away students. When it opens, it releases clouds of alcohol that are hardly in keeping with the supposed ways of a "dry" city. I indicate my surprise to the representative of the law:
          -- Don't you smell anything? It stinks of whisky!
          -- Yeah, I know, but these are good guys and big shots. [Nicaise himself translates the French equivalent, literally "the oils," i.e. the ones that float on top.]]

The end of the school year

          The school year ends on June 1. The administration asks that teachers not reveal for any reason the results of the final exams until grades are given out.
          -- Look out, says a colleague to me, the kids will do whatever it takes to drag it out of you.
          So, while I'm busy grading papers in the reading room of the library, who should come along but a delegation led by John Reed. By way of greeting I try to wave them away:
          -- No, no, it won't do you any good. I'm not telling any of the results!
          -- But we haven't come for that, sir, but for this.
          They give me a package and recommend that I not open it there. Once back at home, I understand why. It's quite a French gift that they've given to their "French teacher": a bottle of cognac.
          We of course attended the High School graduation ceremony, commencement day when the senior class received their diplomas. There was no distribution of awards in the other classes. Among the seniors, only the three best were distinguished by the three honors: valedictorian, salutatorian, and third high, successively.
          Hollywood has made the ceremony familiar. All the families in their Sunday best, friends, and supporters from different clubs occupy the bleachers in the gym. On a portable podium, the choir in full dress delivers a farewell with perfect discipline, then comes the distribution of diplomas. The recipients are dressed in a gown and wear a curious square cap outfitted with a tassel. A student in an evening gown and recently freed from the beauty salon lightly places her high-heels beside the stool of the organ and pumps out Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance nonstop. The heroes of the day ascend the platform in single file, receive the diploma, and transfer the tassel of their strange cap from left to right, except when it's from right to left. The Superintendent of the City Schools, assisted by the Principal, hands out the diplomas.
          [A photograph shows a student in cap and gown receiving a diploma and reaching for her cap to transfer the tassel.]
          Happy moments in the lives of the families, which shows in the faces of Mom and Dad as much as in those of boy-friends and girl-friends.
          After the ceremony a group brings me the reward for my ten months of effort and anguish trying to adapt to American teaching and to the extravagances of some of my students: the annual, that is, the year book. It contains dedications of 43 boys and girls who express such gratitude and appreciation that I could fool myself into thinking I had left them with the memory of an ideal teacher if I didn't know that this was really just another example of that very American conviviality that I've noted on numerous occasions. Still, several messages have a very personal flavor, and some of them reveal such sincere feelings that I am still touched today when I read them. Dick Lee was the only one to write in French, or rather in a mishmash approximation thereof that hardly made his teacher proud:

          Dear Mr. Nicaise:
          I think that I am learned very much in French with you for my teacher. Unhappily my actions and my exams do not show that, but I am very happy that you was my teacher.

          I can't resist citing the following note, which shows that, in spite of the difficulties of my task, I remained "the smiling teacher." And this in spite of the fact that at the beginning of the year I had used a very European type of severity on one of the Cheer Leaders, pretty Dottie Moran. Seeing that she was writing a personal letter during French class, I approached her, took it from her and -- of course without reading it -- conspicuously tore it to shreds and gave the pieces back to her, to the great astonishment of the entire class. However brutal my behavior, it was a device to assert myself. The guilty party collapsed in tears, but, as can be seen from the following, did not hold anything against me. In fact, quite the contrary.
          She writes remarkably better than most of her fellow students.

          Mr. Nicaise,
          You came to America; you saw how my people are like; you conquered our hearts. I shall never forget your classes in 202. I think that you and your people are more on the road to happiness and peace of mind than any other. You are the first person I have met who could match my imagination and who had my restless spirit and unyielding soul. This must be the French blood coming out in me.
          I hope I did not cause you too much anguish with my tears and glaring temper (remember the day you tore up a letter I was writing?). I love your friendly smile. Stay as happy as you are and never forget me. Lots of love & admiration, Dottie Moran.

          As you see, I did not forget Dottie the cheer leader.
          [A photo shows Dottie Moran in her cheerleading outfit.]
          Her kind note shows that in the end the teacher succeeded in making himself liked in spite of his intransigence. These sympathetic messages are worth more in my eyes than the slide projector that everybody gave me.
          I also received a thank-you note from the superintendent of City schools, Dana F. Swick, who is in the foreground, in front of the principal, in the above photo showing the handing out of the diplomas: "Having you with us during the present year was a privilege and a pleasure. I feel you have made a definite contribution to Dobyns-Bennett and I wish to express my thanks to you." He ended by wishing me success in the coming years and expressing the hope that I would remember my experience with pleasure. The pages of this memoir are in some manner a response …
          If I have believed it necessary to cite this letter, it's because not a single Belgian authority did as much at the end of the 35 years of my career.
[Translated by Jud Barry]