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A Dope of French letters

November 13, 2009
By Bob Seidenstein — saranacbo@ hotmail.com

You want to know what tickles my sardonic fancy? It's listening to people screech about all the immigrants in America who can't speak English. Meanwhile, the screechers themselves can't speak anything but English and have no idea how hard it is to learn a foreign language.

When I was in junior high, French was deemed the Universal Language by all the experts on education and world affairs. Of course, if they'd been paying attention to the actual world - instead of the world of 1800 - they would have realized the Universal Language was English.

Then again, since backward-thinking seems to be the hallmark of educators, politicians, military strategists and economists, it's no surprise French was in. And thus at the tender age of 13, I ended up in Madame Godson's beginning French class.

Mrs. Godson was, as she would've said, of a certain age. Ancient to me then, now she'd have been young enough to be my daughter. But ancient or not, even I knew she was very attractive. She was well-dressed, Tres Soigne' and had killer dimples.

But beyond the aesthetics, she was a very nice person and an excellent teacher. I was as lousy a student in her class as I was in all my others, but somehow she managed to penetrate my thick skull and leave me not only a lasting impression of her, but with some facility with French as well.

She had an amazing teaching method. She wasn't an authoritarian, but she still controlled the class. She was very lady-like, but not the least snobbish or distant. And while she seemed quite reserved, she was high-energy all the way. She may have relaxed and given us breaks from time to time, but I can't remember any. Instead, once the bell rang, she was hammering the fine points of Francais home to her charges, every which way.

Like most language teachers back then, including English teachers, she pounded home grammar, which was fine with me. My 7th- and 8th-grade English teacher had been Louise Wilson, who was not only a hardcore grammarian, but a hardcore everything else as well. After two years with Mrs. Wilson, I was diagramming sentences in my troubled sleep, and could've spotted a copulative verb at 1000 yards. So having Mrs. Godson ask me to conjugate the passe-compose' or imparfait du subjonctif form of etre wasn't nothing but a thang.

But beyond the usual stuff of foreign language instruction such as grammar, vocabulary and sentence structure, Mrs. Godson imparted a whole lot of French history and culture to her charges.

We started with that magnificent mouthful, Vercingetorix, Gaul Brother Number One, who led the first Gallic revolt against the Romans (and to no one's surprise, lost). From him it was on to Charlemagne, with a Pippin or two thrown in for good measure. Next we had the "Etat c'est moi" Sun King, Louis XIV hisself, as well as his luckless - and headless - grandson Louis XVI.

Then the merde hit the fan with the French Revolution (with the good Mrs. Godson calling out "Liberte', Egalite' et Fraternite' as if we were on a field trip to storm the Bastille), Robespierre, the Reign of Terror and Madame Dufarge. Napoleon, a couple dozen republics, came next, right up to Charles de Gaulle, who was in power at the time.

Beyond the political and military stuff, we got a good dose of the cultural. She talked about writers from Rabelais to Guy de Maupassant, from Dumas pere et fils to Victor Hugo and so on.

We also had a good dose of painters, a la Degas, Renoir, Millet, Manet, Monet, with a wee bit of the wee bit himself - Toulouse Lautrec.

Rounding out her attempts at civilizing us were mentions of musicians like Bizet, Ravel and of course Debussy. She was also the first person to mention Edith Piaf, for whom I still have an inordinate fondness.

Perhaps because of her drive to expose us to all French things great and beautiful, Mrs. Godson inadvertently left out such dubious Francobilia as Napoleon's win-loss record, Parisian pissoirs or the French extolling Jerry Lewis as a genius. Since I later found out these things, as well as other goodies like Pigalle, Josephine Baker and the Crazy Horse Saloon, I forgave the good madame for her omissions.

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French out of mothballs

But perhaps the best insight into Mrs. Godson's formidable skills was what came to light decades after I'd been in her classroom, when I pursued my master's degree.

Beyond course work and a major paper, there was a foreign language requirement. From what I heard from the other students in the program, it was a joke, if not out-and-out collusion. Essentially, the advisors asked the students to translate a few pages of the equivalent of a Dick and Jane reader, and all was right with the world.

That sounded fine with me, but I had one problem - my advisor. He was a brilliant classical scholar and a great teacher and I grew enormously under his direction. Unfortunately, he was also completely ethical and demanding.

I'd always appreciated this in his courses, in which I learned as I went along. But since I hadn't been exposed to French in at least 20 years, the language test loomed large and lethal. Plus he was a guy who spoke at least five languages fluently and thought all civilization peaked in ancient Greece. Asking him for a break was as ridiculous as expecting him to give me one.

The test was entirely fair. With his approval, I picked a text from which to translate. I can't remember what it was now, but it was a somewhat scholarly history. I then had the summer to work on my translation skills, after which at an appointment in the fall, he'd choose 20 random pages for me to translate. How well I did would determine whether he gave me a thumbs-up or down.

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and put to the test

The classic cliche says, "Life is just one damned thing after another." However, Dorothy Parker, in here inimitable fashion amended it to, "Life is just the same damned thing over and over." And that summer my life was something out of Dorothy Parker.

I remember it perfectly because it was so easy to remember - I only did the same damned thing, over and over. Every morning I'd get up, make a monstrous pot of coffee, drink it, and then sit down with my books and Larousse and study French for three hours.

There was no doubt my study habits had improved immensely since I'd been a Dopey bane of the good Mrs. Godson's existence. The only question was whether they'd improved enough for me to succeed in my translation.

When I first started, even though the going was rough, I was amazed at how many words I knew, how many I figured out from context, and how quickly I learned new words. Then, after three months of study and about 300 gallons of coffee, I took the test.

To say the least, it was a challenge, but I felt I knew what I was doing the whole time. And while it took me about four hours to finish translating, it took my advisor about 15 minutes to correct it and confront me with the results.

"You passed," he said. Then, taskmaster that he was, he went on, "But you had two mistakes, one a subject/verb inversion, the other an idiom you translated literally."

If I'd expected some sort of praise, I would've been sorely disappointed.

"All in all," he added, "you did a pretty good job."

Pretty good job? It wasn't "pretty good" - it was near-perfect.

And beyond that I knew it was a stellar achievement - one that didn't belong to me, but to Mrs. Godson.

 
 

 

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