The Class I’ll Never Forget

 

I always meant to write a post about French class here. I have mentioned it in several posts, even shared my college essay inspired by Van Gogh and French class but I’ve never sat down and really explained what that class meant to me. Watching The Little Prince tonight on Netflix, I started to remember.

It took me a long time to realize that it wasn’t so much the language I adored. Although beautiful, and when I used it right something that made me feel more accomplished than all my other classes combined, I was never good at it. I would get frustrated with it. I wanted to be able to say what I wanted to say and not trip over myself getting there. I lacked the patience of a true linguist. I would write my essays in English and then translate them back into French, utilizing my dictionary, 501 Verb book and a very early version of Babel Fish when the books failed me. But I loved French class. I loved the stories, the culture, the food. The holidays and history were fascinating; the resulting country even more so. Madame understood this; it’s why she taught the language as she did. How could you understand and appreciate a language if you did not understand the people and the countries who speak it?

I had found French rather boring until 11th grade. My teachers, while very good, had been uninspiring. It was a class that also made me anxious. I lived in dread of the moment the teacher would call on me to speak. It was a combination of tripping over my own tongue and not wanting to butcher a language that had done nothing to me. I also hated to not be right in class; the perfectionist in me didn’t like that the words that came out of my mouth didn’t sound like they did in my head.

I was nervous when I started class with Madame. Her reputation proceeded her. It took me only about a period and half before I adored her and that made French both wonderful and stress-inducing. I didn’t want to fail her or have her think I wasn’t smart enough. I always tried hardest in French of all my classes but I never did get it to sound right coming out in the end. Instead, I learned to love what it gave me outside of the sometimes tongue twisting sentences and headache inducing numbers (math was involved just to count…I didn’t stand a chance. I still have the cheatsheet Madame finally gave me). French gave me Le Petit Prince, the Impressionists, and Amélie. It gave me Normandy, Paris, Carcassonne. It gave me an appreciation for the traditions of a storied country, with all its own fairy tales, myths and legends that was so different from my own.

So as I teared up watching The Little Prince tonight, and everyone should go watch it ASAP and cry with me, I also remembered what else comes along side the story of the little prince who left his rose behind to travel the stars: the classes on verbs and speaking exercises, of listening to bad ’80s French pop songs and writing our own adventures for the little prince. We wrote our own fairy tales, learned the words to La Marseillaise and looked forward to La Bûche de Noël in December. The Little Prince reminded me of why I adored French class and everything it continued to give me since leaving school. All these years later, it is a class I think of all the time and use often. I have chased paintings across oceans because of that class, lectured friends through the Louvre, bought board books of The Little Prince for friends’ children and sacrificed DVD settings on laptops to watch Notre Dame de Paris one more time. It is not so much the language perhaps but the tools the class and the study of French gave me through which I can appreciate, understand and revel in the world around me in a way I would not be able to do so otherwise. Merci.

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Starry Night

I am a bit behind because of travel but I promise blog posts are coming. In lieu of a “new” post, I was cleaning out my Google Drive today and found this. This was my college admissions essay from way back in 2002. I always love going back and looking at old writing of mine and this is still one of my favorite pieces. Enjoy!

Starry Night. Vincent Van Gogh.

The Starry Night. Vincent Van Gogh. 1889. Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), New York.

Swirling stars…an eternal battle in the sky. I understood that battle well from the moment I set eyes on ‘Starry Night’, Van Gogh’s masterpiece. In the middle of a battle myself simply called ‘the art project’ by Madame, The chaotic swirls and menacing colors seemed my approaching doom…I might fail.

Failure, you must understand, was something I had dreaded my entire school career and something that had become a very real presence in Madame’s French class of my junior year. I’d fought to find my bearings in the class from day one yet I’d eventually found a comfortable stride and was doing fine with the grammar and verb exercises. Maybe that should have been a clue to me that there was trouble on the horizon.

Then came the Art Unit. Never underestimate the fear and awe I now hold in that one word…art. The Art Unit was the pride and joy of Madame who, using the masterpieces of Manet, Renoir, and Degas, taught her students an appreciation of art as well as the subjunctive tense. Within the unit itself was a mammoth project that took over every one of Madame’s students’ lives once we received our artist and mission. Mine was Vincent Van Gogh, the tortured artist who was doomed to be a failure in his own day. I knew little about Van Gogh when I began, knew more about myself…or so I’d thought. As I began the research for the project, my routine in French was broken, both at home and school. I felt like I was being stretched to my limit. Madame was asking me to interpret, see things that weren’t there, and understand the truths of life that the long dead painters were still saying through their masterpieces.

At first, I failed to understand how the truths of Monet were mine but gradually, I began to understand and see. The French painters were all about light, beauty, color…life. And life was all about falling down before walking for the first time. It was a concept that scared me when I first thought of it. I need to fail in order to succeed? The answer was no, I didn’t need to fail but I needed to understand that I was going to make mistakes along the way. My first mistake had been in thinking a mistake was a failure. Looking at the rough sketches of Van Gogh’s masterpiece, I saw the mistakes that he’d made. Yet, he learned from those mistakes and, in the end, created a piece of artwork that is still held in awe today.

I did not fail on the Art Unit but I made plenty of mistakes along the way, mistakes I now understood I should celebrate instead of mourn. The mistakes were not always trivial such as an etre verb always needs agreement or that beaucoup is always followed by de. Some taught me about my own virtues and vices such as patience and procrastination. From my own mistakes and those I saw in the masters, I ultimately realized that the French painters had their own mistakes to teach me and, if I just looked between the swirls and starbursts, I would see the success within the mistakes. Not only in a Van Gogh, but in my own masterpieces as well.