In high school, when it was time to pick a language to study, I chose French. I suspect this was out of some misguided notion of French making me more … polished? sophisticated? Something. As a kid, I’d always imagined studying Latin. Who knows where that idea came from, but there was no Latin on offer in my high school. Only French and Spanish. Why didn’t I choose Spanish? It would certainly have served me better in my eventual career. But alas, I chose French.
French class was mostly comical. Talk to my brother about it. French was the only class we were ever in together, and I think it might be one of the things that helped us start being friends after an unfortunate period of sibling disaffection. Tony can still recite the ridiculous dialogue we had to learn in our ridiculous textbook. (Poor little Philippe LeDoux. I wonder if his problems were ever resolved.) French class was also one of the places my school’s single non-English-speaking student was warehoused. That kid needed ESOL instruction … and instead, he was put in French class!**
But I learned a little bit. And I made a yule log one year. And I got a good recipe for beef burgundy that my family enjoyed the hell out of. I got to go to Montreal, which was a great trip. I had fun in French class. I didn’t finish my four years of study with anything even vaguely resembling command of the language, however.
Then I was off to college. No French for me freshman year, but in sophomore year I had a sudden interest in maybe actually learning another language. I was cocky enough to think a strictly-beginners class would be too easy for me … but not cocky enough to think I could find my way through an intermediate class. As luck would have it, there was middle ground available: an advanced beginner class!
Course enrollment at my college included a step that I now find fascinating but which at the time I mostly found intimidating. Students have to interview instructors before they can sign up for a class. This went pretty badly for me every time. I had no idea what I was doing. I remember some of those awful interviews. Ugh. My interview for French class must have included me speaking some French, me forming some opinion of the woman who would be my instructor – other than that she was beautiful and much more stylishly pulled together than any other instructor I’d met. Somehow, we both saw and heard the right things in that initial conversation, and I signed up for the class.
My instructor was Gisele Barrau-Freeman. She was French, and I was surprised to realize that it had never occurred to me how much sense it made to have a native speaker teaching me the language. In high school, my teacher certainly knew more French than we did, but that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement.
Gisele was a great teacher, and I discovered that I liked learning languages. I even got to practice creative writing, working over several weeks on an invented memoir about my childhood (about a childhood, not in any way mine): “Quand J’etais Jeune.”
In the spring semester, two things happened. First, Gisele encouraged me to participate in a theatrical showcase the French club was putting together. This seemed like a crazy idea – act? In French? – but also seemed like it could be a lot of fun. I wound up taking on two parts: a scene from Ionesco’s Rhinoceros (Socrate est un chat.), and a monologue from our textbook, a grande dame talking and talking and talking and revealing herself to be quite ridiculous. Both scenes were funny, so I was taking on comedy in a language I barely understood. Right. Sure. No sweat.
Gisele worked with me to help me prepare. I remember her giving me hilarious tips on how to play the grande dame. She did a fabulous impersonation of one of her older relatives to give me the idea of what to aim for. She didn’t have any doubt that I could pull off both performances. She took my success as a given. Remembering that, I realized all of the teachers I’ve written about this week – and the ones I’ll write about for the rest of the week – have this in common. They all believed in me without question. They all took my intelligence/talent/skill/whatever as a given. And that is simple, but it’s also magical, right? I’m sure there are plenty of people who grew up hearing consistently about how skilled and fabulous they are. And then there are the rest of us. Some of us have had some positive reinforcement from time to time. Some have had none. For us, the gift of having someone take your ability as a baseline, the starting fact of who you are, is just about earth shaking.
The performance went off pretty close to perfectly. All the things I’d worried about came to nothing. I remembered my lines, I remembered Gisele’s tips on playing the grande dame. I can’t swear that fun times were had by all, but they were definitely had by me.
The second thing that happened spring semester was that Gisele pushed me to apply for the junior year abroad program in Paris. She’d overheard me talking about wanting to take my junior year off campus. I’d been thinking small and shallow – my college had very few men, and even fewer heterosexual ones, and I wanted a break from all that manlessness, so I’d been looking at colleges that had lots of men, more men than women. Gisele pointed out that there were, in fact, men in Paris.
Applying to a study abroad program would never have entered my mind. Leaving the country? Leaving the country for a year? And, while I was learning French and I wasn’t the worst I could be, I certainly didn’t speak well. How was I supposed to navigate France in French? And how would I ever afford such a thing? My family, by just about every measure, was poor. Unquestionably-poor. Ultra-poor.
Gisele listened to my concerns, but she asked me to set them aside. She assured me that my French was better than I thought. She pointed out that, whatever my French proficiency, there was no better way to improve it than living in France. Money was an issue, yes, but I would still have my scholarships. I wouldn’t have to pay for a year’s worth of expensive room and board at our expensive college, and that would make room and board in Paris affordable. And she reminded me that an application wasn’t a commitment. If I was accepted and couldn’t manage the costs, I wouldn’t go. If I didn’t apply, there were no options at all. She kept encouraging me to apply until I finally did.
For people who’ve read this blog for more than a minute, all my crazy travel stories? They only exist because Gisele talked me into applying for the Paris program. I had never traveled alone, had never thought seriously about going to Europe or anywhere else. My year in France opened something in me, showed me another way of imagining myself, gave me permission to see more possibilities for myself.
In the spring of junior year, Gisele came to Paris and we spent an afternoon together. We had lunch, then poked around the stalls at the Clignancourt flea market. She bought me a pretty scarf and a pair of small chandelier earrings. She called me out a little for hiding behind my baggy, non-descript clothes, wanted to show me I could have another look, could have other looks. It felt too difficult, too scary, to take that on in that moment, but I held onto it – and the scarf and earrings — and when I finally decided to stop trying to erase myself, her voice was in my ear, encouraging me to see who she saw, encouraging me to step into the light.
Gisele taught me French, yes. But that was the lesser of the things I learned. She told me what she saw in me: I could be funny, I could take center stage, I could take chances, I could do things no one expected me to do, I could embrace myself. And then she held up a mirror and encouraged me to see myself, too.
As with Mr. DeBlois, I have no idea how she saw what she saw or why she chose to push me. She must have done this for plenty of other students, but I definitely felt she was making a special effort to lift me. And I am grateful for it. Thank you, Gisele. You encouraged me to see a broader world, a broader range of possibilities for myself, a broader version of myself. I was slow to some of those lessons, but I learned them. Thank you.
* Feeling good about myself
** The insanity of this, boggles my mind to this day. I’m pretty sure my school had no services for non-English speakers. It wouldn’t have occurred to the administration to create such programming. But once they were faced with a student who needed to learn English, how could they ignore that need and schedule him into classes in not one, but two languages he didn’t understand?! Seriously, WTF?
In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.
It’s Teacher Appreciation Week 2019! I’m going to post each day about teachers who have been influential in my life.