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.


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.

Thanks to all my Teachers

Recently, an article made me think about the many teachers I’ve had over the years. Now, I mean literal teachers – I’ll return to the metaphorical ones at another time. The article asked writers to talk about an important lesson a teacher had taught them somewhere along the way. As many were science writers, there was a good mix of science and english teachers full of wisdom about revising your work, not being afraid to experiment and to remember to harness what you love to be happy in your life work.

So, me being me, I tried to remember moments like this. I was one of those Students. A person who realized early on that she was good at school and little else. That my natural propensity to read everything I can get my hands on and to be able to remember it made school a walk in the park. Memorize a bunch of facts and spit them back out again? I could do that in my sleep. And did for many years. I had teachers who’d challenge me every once in a while – a hard read in advanced reading group would keep me occupied for a few days, my first research paper would make me nervous and send me into research realms I didn’t really touch again until college but honestly? School was a walk in the park until 9th grade.

A pair of teachers all of the sudden decided myself and fellow honors students had been living the easy life long enough. 9th grade Global History class was unlike anything we’d encountered – our textbook was college level and our teacher treated us like college students. Gone were the nicely organized notes and easy to follow questions where we could cite a sentence from the text and be done with it. Our teacher expected us to know the text enough to fill in the blanks of her haphazard key words scrawled across the overhead – we were there to understand history, not simply repeat a lot of dates. We learned Taoist exercises and wrote essays about surviving stranded in the Amazon rain forest – in short, we learned to apply history, not simply memorize it. It was revolutionary.

Down the hall, we met an English teacher who wasn’t going to give us a bunch of easy-to-answer questions simply proving we’d done the reading. This is when I really fell in love with the study of English literature – the idea that how I responded to a piece of writing was just as important as understanding the symbolism of the same short story. I wrote my first college worthy essay in this class, wrote my first actually decent piece of fiction and also learned that I liked the unconventional for school projects (I picked the one Greek deity who didn’t have a myth for a class project that year and adored her – I still see Hestia as the Archivist of Olympus). These two classes combined taught me a valuable lesson – I hadn’t liked school because I was interested in it, I had liked school because I was good at it, because it was easy. 9th grade taught me I could love school when it challenged me (I’m weird that way).

However, I learned how to play that game pretty quickly too and I also learned that as long as I did well on paper, my teachers seemed pretty happy with me. Being a shy person by nature, I only spoke up in class when I needed to and avoid presentations at all costs (barring French class of course – Madame requires her very own blog post someday). I would write a 10 page paper before I would willing open my mouth in class and most teachers let me get away with it. So, let’s fast forward to second semester of freshman year of college for the next pair of teachers that changed me.

I’d pretty much coasted through first semester without too much worry, had carried a 4.0 average without a single late night. Thankfully, I received another one of those double whammy wake-ups calls to make sure I got the most out of college. My Critical Methods professor was tough and opinionated. I was in the class with a lot of English majors in their sophomore and junior years who’d already used a lot of critical theory in class. Our prof was fine with freshmen taking the class but we had to pull our weight. I tried to impress in my first paper and ended up with my first bad grade of college. I’d understood the theory OK but hadn’t applied it well to my literature choices at all. So for my second paper I used my favorite theory, Readers Response and fell back on The Little Prince, arguably a children’s book. To this day, that remains one of my all time favorite essays of college – I needed to remember that understanding a theory didn’t mean I had to complicate it more.

However, the hardest, and scariest moment was yet to come. I was taking a Survey of Medieval and Renaissance Lit that semester with a bunch of juniors so I was afraid to open my mouth. Not that I would have on my own either but they were kind of intimidating. However, after our first quiz, the professor called me up after class. “You scored one of the highest on the quiz, why don’t you talk in class?” I remember stammering out something lame and shrugging my shoulders. Not good enough my prof said, either start talking or I’ll fail you. Now, failure is a major issue with me; my college admissions essay had been about my fear of failure. So, you can imagine, I was terrified. So, I started talking about anything and everything. Even the silliest observation I’d made about a poem I’d put out there and something amazing happened, others agreed with me or argued with me but no one laughed at me or flat out said I was wrong. That survey class became one of my most rewarding experiences of my undergrad degree and also finally got me over the fear of talking in class. My classroom experiences became so much more relevant, rewarding, and fun after I learned that lesson and its one that serves me well in meetings today.

So thanks to the teachers who challenged me to be more than I was – you taught me to write well, speak up, realize a mistake isn’t the end of the world and defend my opinions.