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Parlez-vous français?

January 31, 2014 — 2 Comments

francais2I mentioned last time that I was disappointed to arrive as a new student at a school with grades K-8 and miss out on junior high. I didn’t mention that there were redeeming aspects to this new school, one being that I would be able to study French.

Foreign language instruction typically begins in high school, but this school was piloting an enrichment program, and I slid right in on the deal. They enlisted a native speaker to teach the language au naturel: no textbooks or written materials of any kind for the first two years. This would theoretically result in a good ear for the way French should be pronounced. And that is how I ended up in Madame Medley’s classroom.

She was originally from Marseilles and was what many would consider the classic French woman: stylish, attractive, sophisticated, enigmatic, cool, and polite — but frank. Her silk stockings may have rustled softly as she strode past one’s desk, but make no mistake: Mme. Medley was definitely in control of the class.

She made use of cartoon characters on film strips projected onto a screen and reel to reel audio tapes to teach us. Week by week and month by month, we’d progress from one film strip to the next as we mastered the vocabulary introduced on each one. The main character, “Lynne”, and an adult with whom she interacted became familiar friends.

“Bonjour, Lynne.”

“Bonjour, Monsieur.”

“Comment ça va?”

“Très bien, Monsieur.”

Lynne and Monsieur walked us through numbers, colors, foods, articles of clothing, furnishings of a home, and myriad other categories, gradually incorporating verb tenses, articles, conjunctions, syntax and other components of the language into the lessons. On occasion, Mme. Medley would show us a film about France to educate us about the culture. And we were in hog heaven the day she played a 45 of the Beatles’ new release “Michelle”, with Paul McCartney singing en français!

At this point I should mention that in order to get to the French classroom, we would exit our homeroom on the second floor, march down two flights of stairs, pass the lunchroom, the gym, and the boiler room to arrive at a very long, narrow room that could in no way have ever been intended to function as a classroom, with its small windows near the ceiling and scant natural light. But this very feature made it easily darkened and ideal for viewing film strips and movies.

Then one morning, the exceptionally dark classroom played a key role in an awkward development.

We had been doing the standard drill for much of the class period: repetition of new phrases aloud as Mme. Medley advanced the film strip in step with the tape recording. As the hour came to a close and the lights came back on, giggles erupted in her otherwise very contained classroom. In moments, all eyes were on one of my classmates.

Throughout much of the lesson this student had been mindlessly fiddling with her ball point pen, in the same way that a girl might twirl a lock of her hair while reading a book or watching TV. So what’s the problem, you ask? She had inadvertently clicked the ball point pen open, and the dozens and dozens of lazy circles she traced around her mouth left a thick dark blue ring — an inky mustache and beard. No one had noticed before it was too late because we’d been… sitting in the dark.

Mon Dieu, c’est très drôle.

Instant in her intervention on behalf of the mortified lass, Mme. Medley, with a mere facial expression, a few gestures, and only a sentence or two, made it known to all that expressions of amusement at this girl’s expense were to cease immediately. The student was excused ahead of the class to scrub off the unwanted doodle in the Girls’ Room. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t come completely off right then — and nobody expected that it would — but, being a generally good-natured person, she took things in stride and chose not to let the gaffe spoil her day.

Sometimes I wonder whether there are grandchildren who surround her dining table nowadays who have heard tell of the day the lights went out in French class and Grandma debuted as the star of the…

“Bic Van Dyke Show.”

beards

 (Heh heh.)

As a little kid, I never liked history very much. Too many random facts that eluded any kind of systematic ordering in my brain. Besides, what did the Spanish Armada have to do with life in the 50’s, anyway? Not a whole lot, as far as I could tell. But study history we did, year after year. And guess what: some of it actually started to stick and eventually it dawned on me why some of what was taught, actually mattered. I no longer disliked history; but I still didn’t love it.

Then I encountered Wella Wecka.

Mrs. Wecka was a middle-aged tenth grade world history teacher at Southwest High School in St. Louis. She was all of 4′ 10″ or 11″. On a good day. Wearing heels. She was also fairly plump and wore short curls that covered her head, so she cut a roundish profile. From time to time I would catch glimpses of her ambling through the hallways, satchel in hand, seemingly oblivious to the crush of students rushing to get to class by the bell. Most of us arrived at the classroom and took our seats before she got there. She would enter, place the satchel deliberately on the desk, pull out graded homework papers and the textbook (which she would never refer to until assigning the next homework), and then look up to see the state of her classroom.

At that point there were usually a couple of boys in the back of the room sailing paper airplanes out the open windows, competitively, and others mingling and socializing. After the bell, she would meekly instruct everyone be quiet, take their seats, and open their texts, but not everyone did. It’s generally not a good thing for tenth graders to be in control of a classroom. I remember wishing she had learned how to do that effectively when she was in college. The background noise and commotion that persisted as she addressed the class wasn’t just annoying to her, but she seemed utterly incapable of putting an end to it.

Undeterred, the woman would begin to lecture. That’s when the dynamic shifted. The woman knew world history. In fact, she didn’t just know it, she was able relate it in a way that transformed all the random facts into an epic novel. I was in awe of her command of the subject. She could be expounding on the French Revolution, the storming of the Bastille, Mary Antoinette losing her head (“Let them eat cake,” — I loved this quote!), the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, et cetera, and then she would perform this magical feat whereby she would transport us to another part of the globe — China, perhaps — and break down for us what was going on at the very same time in the Orient and how it related to France. She would recite extensive passages of Beowulf and Chaucer (“Wan that Aprille with his shoures soote…”) with such ardor that even the rowdy contingent would listen up. It was equivalent to a scholastic breakdance; I was transfixed.

Now, you’d think that my history grades would have improved that year, given that I was soaking in this fine marinade, but such was not the case. Our exams still relied heavily on the memorization of random facts contained in the textbook, which just wasn’t my thing, but at least I had one valuable take-away from the course: I finally “got” that history was the grand story of human civilization.

I moved on to eleventh grade, during which we studied U.S. Political and Economic History. Honestly, I can’t tell you much of what I learned that year except for the fact that the Civil War left the South in economic shambles and that Ulysses S. Grant made a better general than chief executive. (Recently I read a book review stating that the passing of years has been favorable to the eighteenth president and some historians are ranking him higher than he had been previously. Which means that the little bit that I do remember from that class is no longer accurate. Shucks.)

Oh, how I missed Mrs. Wecka.

Despite her unconventional appearance, peculiar deportment, and poor command of a classroom full of adolescents, this little woman managed to embody the ideal that education is much more than warehousing random facts for the purpose of spitting them back out, and in the process, acquiring a strong GPA. She showed us possibility: we could actually exercise our minds and reach for understanding, not just rote memorization. Because of her influence I walked away from tenth grade world history with a desire to learn more, and that would fuel a life-long interest in people and things and the events that impacted their development.

I never took the opportunity to let Mrs. Wecka know how much I admired her, and what a fine role model she was for me. I really wish I had.

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