French Class: The Perils of Pierre

I transferred to Wright State University in the winter of 1982 to get a bachelor of arts degree.  My academic advisor told me that I needed a foreign language, and I signed up for French 101 that summer.  The class time was 8 a.m..  I worked third shift on weekends, and transferred to a normal sleep schedule each Monday so that I could stay awake for day classes.  8 in the morning presented a challenge early in the week, but I adjusted by Wednesday.  But if I arrived groggy and slow witted, my professor, Pierre Horne, had a manner of teaching that woke me up immediately.  He often placed his pointer finger on the side of one nostril and intoned the French word “un”.  The  nasal sound of the extended vowel, which reminded me of a garbage disposal whining after it had ground up its last bit of refuse, made the underside of my brain itch with irritation.  I  also stirred to a functional level of alertness when the professor spouted a steady stream of mushy vowels and consonants while pointing to objects in the room.  He paused to ask students questions about what he had just spoken, and chose his victims randomly.  When he called on me he stared with an expectant look that said, “Only a complete moron would fail to understand the beauty and majesty of the French language.”  After my inevitable moment of humiliation, of sputtering the few words I recalled that may or may not have been apropos, he always called on a willowy blonde two seats up the row.  She would answer at length in perfect French, and he would compliment her on her impeccable Parisian accent.  I hated that girl.

Eventually I picked up a understanding of French grammar as the professor began to relent and explain the basics in English.  I passed the first test but was stumped by one question.  Professor Horne spoke a phrase in French, and we were supposed to translate it into English.  He said, “Les voix des anges.”  That sounded like “Lay vwah dez on jzuh.”  I asked him to repeat it, and he obliged with a superior smile.  I understood that “les” was “the”, and “des” was “of the” but had no idea what “voix” and “anges” meant.  We hadn’t used those words in class when we discussed going to the library, our dietary preferences, the names of pieces of furniture, and the color of Gabrielle‘s hair, blouse and skirt.  I asked the professor after the test for the correct translation of the phrase, and he told me it meant “the voices of angels”.  I later paged through the text book several times and finally found “les voix des anges” in a caption beneath a photograph of Notre Dame in Paris.  The choir, apparently, sounded like the voices of angels when they sang in the cathedral’s choir loft.  Why hadn’t Gabrielle, my fictitious amie, stressed the importance of that nugget of information before the test?

One unfortunate lad joined the class late.  He had been in Israel studying Hebrew and found the transition into French difficult.  He annoyed Professor Horne especially when he pronounced “je”, the French word for “I” as “juh” instead of “jzzzuh”.  Pierre got incensed every time the kid butchered the French language and would cry out, “What is this juh-juh?  There is no such thing as juh!”

When the professor was in a happier mood he would muse about the oddities of American culture and the backward nature of life in Ohio.  He related anecdotes about a disastrous wine tasting at a local winery, the foulness of peanut butter,  and the rudeness of a bank clerk who said, “Hello, Pierre,” after she read his name on a form.  He expected her to address him formally as Mr. Horne as she and he were perfect strangers.  In France no one would dare to assume such intimacy (using someone’s first name) until a relationship had evolved much further.  (Perhaps his father had addressed his mother as Madame Horne until after the birth of their third child.)

I had to take two more semesters of French and chose another professor.  This man, whose name escapes me, spoke English with a French accent spiked with New York gutturals.  He had been born in Russia, escaped with his parents to Paris, and eventually settled in Brooklyn.  Having learned to speak three languages by the time he was a teenager he held the French language in lower esteem.  It was one of many.  He was much kinder and patient with us, and made no disparaging remarks about Ohio and the United States.  He did show us the 1950s film noir, “Hiroshima Mon Amour”, in which a French woman tells her Japanese lover that she was horrified when she and her friends listened to a news report about the Hiroshima nuclear bombing.  Her eyes filled with tears as she whispered to her Amour Japonais, “When we spoke of Hiroshima we said, ‘Those American bastards!'”  Two questions occurred to me after I read that subtitle:  Why would a French woman, a survivor of the Nazi Occupation, sympathize with an WWII ally of Germany? And why did the French flaunt a bias against Americans as if they were making a principled stand?

My new professor was a friend of Professor Horne and knew that many of us had taken his colleague for the introductory course.  He told us that Horne was on sabbatical in Paris where he intended to absorb as much of the latest French slang as possible.  I expected that our snobbish professor would be glorying in a return to the land of his birth where the cuisine enchanted the palate and bank tellers greeted customers with frosty aloofness.  We heard the opposite, however.  Apparently Professor Horne was homesick.  He found the French hostile and rude and missed the open friendliness of folks in the Midwest.  Pierre longed to return to Ohio, Wright State, and his sleepy, dull-witted students who insisted on butchering the most beautiful language ever spoken.

I took perverse pride in the fact that we had somehow managed to pull him down to our level.  Perhaps on his return he would dash out to the local supermarket and buy a loaf of spongy white American bread, a giant tub of sticky peanut butter, and a jug of Ohio wine that “tasted like turpentine”.   He might even beam with pleasure when the cashier called him “hon” and asked him about his weird accent (“Are you from Canada, Pee-air?”).

 

Teachers’ Disease: The Scourge Refusing to Remain Silent

 

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No one warned us about this malady when we were children, but we were exposed to it every day.  I remained largely blind to its insidious effects even when I was an undergrad in college.  I should have realized that an American Art History professor was a sufferer of Teacher’s Blathering Disease (TBD).   She droned on after one of her students fainted in front of her and never bothered to help while another student caught the stricken man and propped him up in his seat.  The professor simply couldn’t stop herself from making one more point, one more appeasement to her anxiety to be heard and understood.  Or perhaps the sound of her voice had become so sweetly intoxicating that she simply could not cut off the flow.

Years later when my children started to attend grade school I noticed another symptom of TBD:  a kindergarten teacher at a school gathering could not distinguish between students and parents.  Her daily communication with five year olds had created habituated neural pathways that rendered her incapable of complex speech.   She talked to us adults slowly…with…simple…words…that she carefully spaced so that we had time to comprehend their meaning.  She used big, enthusiastic gestures and facial expressions even when talking about mundane topics (REMEMBER to bring in BOXES of TISSUES and extra PENCILS!!!).  She repeated herself several times as if concerned that her audience couldn’t remember and follow simple instructions:  “The Thanksgiving Holiday starts on Wednesday, not Thursday, next week.  So don’t bring your kids to school on Wednesday…or Thursday or Friday.  No one will be here on any of those days, you know, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.  Have a happy holiday next week on Wednesday, Thurs–”  (The principal led the poor woman away at that point.  The kiddie chorus jumped in and sang about a Thanksgiving turkey who wanted to live so that he could achieve his dream of learning how to fly.)

And I encountered a variant of TBD mostly found in the retired professor host population:  the need to be the most knowledgeable person in the room.  I attended a church in a university town that was lousy with white bearded coots who suffered from an insatiable desire to impress any victim who came within earshot.  And they didn’t rant just about subjects in which they had been trained.  They could bloviate about sundry topics while basing their arguments on hearsay they had just read in the local paper.  A few catch phrases and some unfiltered facts were all they needed to construct a tower of biased opinions held upright by the will to assert their intellectual dominance.  A correction by an actual expert in the field being discussed did not humble the blowhards into silence.  They would simply bend the discussion away from the damaging point or question the breadth and authenticity of the expert’s knowledge.

The sad thing is that TBD sufferers rarely know that they have a disease.  They remain blissfully  unaware that they have cleared out a room or drained all the joyful energy from a gathering.  They even follow after their victims as they flee out the door.  They want to give the desperate escapees a few thoughts to take with them.

I too suffer from this disease, but have become aware of my condition.  I use simple words, repeat myself, and suck the air out of a room when my need to dominate a social gathering takes over.  I can hear myself rattling on, interrupting others, saying the same damn thing over and over with slight variations in the hope that the latest iteration will capture the fine distinction in meaning that hovers in my mind.  I suffer from the delusion that its elusive elegance must be communicated at all costs.

But I am in recovery.  I will never truly kick my teachers’ disease habit, but hope to learn how to live a productive life that will do less harm to myself and others.  Teacher’s Blathering Anonymous tells us that we are powerless over our addiction and must surrender our thoughts and speech to a higher power.  Now, with God’s help, I am able to fight the urge to babble and can wait patiently while someone else speaks.  Now I can use three syllable words and give my audience time to figure out their significance for themselves.  Now I can go days at a time without hunting down victims and forcing them to listen to me rave on about how I would solve the crisis in Syria or broaden the economic base of Central Florida.  And I can spend time alone and simply keep my mouth shut.

The temptations are still there, of course, and I still suffer occasional relapses.  But the improvement has been real and the rewards great.  My children visit me again.  My wife no longer talks about taking separate vacations.  The neighbors no longer cringe and flee when I happen to meet them at the mailbox.

And I am able to finish an essay without summing up and restating points I have already adequately explained.

You’re welcome.

The Nicest Guy?

 

Trust him.  He means no harm.

I told a drawing class this morning that my goals as a professor are to teach as many concepts and techniques as possible, and to deliver the material in the most direct and easily digestible form available.  I want them to succeed.  I said that some students inexplicably believe that I’m trying to block their paths to success by making things difficult, by arbitrarily throwing up road blocks.  I countered that by saying that my life is much too complicated at the moment to take the time and energy to come up with diabolical schemes.  I’m 100 percent on their side.  Really.  I am.

But I’ve been told on a number of occasions that I’m considered to be a tough teacher who is very blunt.  I think that I’m just the nicest guy around, very kind and diplomatic, but when I say that to my adult children they snort and roll their eyes.  Their opinion is probably prejudiced by memories of a few times when I laid down the law when they were little.  At odd moments I channeled my father’s parenting techniques and gave them high decibel orders while staring down at them with a Wrath-of-Godlike glare.  They fail to recognize that I disciplined them purely out of loving concern, and never out of annoyance and impatience.  My brother has reported that one of my “special looks” is like a slap in the face, but he must be mistaken.  Sometimes folks confuse an expression of nearly violent concern as one of angry contempt.  Go figure.

When I went to Quaker Meeting several years ago I noticed that some of my more vivid stories and colorful language made my listeners cringe and withdraw.  I learned eventually through trial and error to avoid talking about traumatic childhood experiences, painful operations and current symptoms of undiagnosed diseases during coffee hour.  It’s uncouth and jarring, apparently, to introduce such topics immediately after congregants have left behind the ineffable peace of meditative worship.  Live and learn.

When I was a child my family sat around the dinner table and discussed Uncle Ralph’s bouts of alcoholism, Aunt Betty’s shotgun marriage as well as Grandpa Bob’s body odor and psoriasis.  Tales of death, misery, misdeeds and moments of tragic miscalculation accompanied dessert and coffee.  I grew up believing that folks discussed these matters frankly while in company, and that adding a few snide remarks as editorial commentary was also in good form.  Who knew that other people avoided such topics and hid awkward moments in family history in repression closets filled to overflowing?  I discovered these tactful people when I left home and Ohio, and it was as if I had crossed over into another dimension.

Now that I’ve seen the error of my ways I strive toward gentility, to an aristocratic sense of restraint and dignity.  Lord Grantham in Downtown Abbey is my role model.  Not his blood vomiting ruptured ulcer scene, of course, but the moments where he absorbs yet another blow to his standing and reputation with barely a murmur of protest.

I tell my painting students that painting is a process of making mistakes and learning how to fix them.  My life has been a lot like that, but I live in hope that one day my nature will become less erratic and explosive and more docile and tranquil.  I want to guide my ship through rough waters into a safe port.

But if that finally happens I may have to deal with one more problem:  my wife’s expectations.  She has become accustomed after 32 years of marriage to the vagaries in my mood and character, and any true sea change in my personality may cause her undue distress.  She may have to go through a period of withdrawal not unlike an addict kicking meth.

I remember one morning several years ago when we sat down together at breakfast and I took pains to conceal my residual anger from an argument we had the night before.  After ten minutes of polite conversation she put down her spoon and demanded, “What’s wrong?”

I said evenly, “I’m being a perfect gentleman.”

She answered, “I know you are.  That’s how I can tell that something’s wrong!”