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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Influential Books

Not sure how I started thinking about this but I suspect it came from reading Lies My Teachers Told Me. It looks at textbooks used in high school history classes and all the ways they are inadequate to the task of teaching students history in the correct way. It made me reflect on my high school experience (and perhaps the fact this year is my 10 year reunion has me thinking about it too) and that moved me more towards the books I read in English class (overall, I don’t remember my history texts being the end all be all of my history classes). However, I soon realized limiting myself to books I read in class would leave out perhaps some of the most important. Books I stumbled into on library shelves, books given to me by relatives and friends and books that I, truth, can’t remember how I found them anymore. All I know is these books have permanent spots on my bookshelf where real estate is at a premium and I revisit them often. They have influenced me in some fashion – be it they introduced me to a genre of books that greatly influence me or the book itself I met at just the right point in my life. So, here in no particular order:

Anthem, Ayn Rand

Of all my classes over the years, 9th grade English stands on its own. It was a unique group of people with a teacher who pushed us further than anyone had up to that point. He expected more from us and while we moaned and groaned over it, I remember “By The Waters of Babylon” being particularly painful, we enjoyed it. It’s a class we still reference to this day and was the place I was first introduces to Anthem. This was, upon reflection, both a good and bad thing. Good because Anthem was pretty defining at the time. Think about, a bunch of freshman reading a book that is about creating individual identity, forging one’s way outside of the safety of one’s family and community, discovering how you are going to define yourself? It was also good because it introduced me to the dystopian genre, a genre I went on to devour over the following summer. This was before Hunger Games, Matched, Divergent. I had only the classics of the genre: 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World. It’s a genre I still love today and kind of love that it’s mainstream now. Bad? Well, Ayn Rand comes with her own set of problems. Anthem is a novella and about as likable as Rand gets. It’s because of Anthem I worked to read Atlas Shrugged so hard. I succeeded but I definitely did not like Rand as much when I was finished. What had been such a celebration of individuality and exploration in Anthem just became the story of selfish, insufferable, unlikable people in Atlas Shrugged. But, I still take a summer afternoon and read Anthem, if only to remember my 15 year old self.

Anne of Green Gables, L. M. Montgomery

I sadly have no idea how I found Anne. Was it a gift? Did I buy it myself? Did I, horrors!, watch the movie and Road to Avonlea long before I read the first book? Anything is possible. I just remember begging my mother to drive me out to Waldenbooks in 6th grade because I HAD TO HAVE THE NEXT BOOK. I even recall buying the last three books at the same time as I just knew I was going to read them in record time. What would my life had been like if no precocious redhead hadn’t assured me there were no mistakes in tomorrow yet? Anne was the first fictional best friend I wanted, Gilbert definitely my first fictional boyfriend and Marilla the best aunt a girl could ask for. I wanted to live in these books so bad it wasn’t even funny. And hey, they were educational as well. Thank you Walter for where you fought in WWI as I distinctly remember it helping me on a test in school. Anne also introduced me to more of L.M. Montgomery’s books and short stories which I still pull out for comfort reads whenever I have the chance.

The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank

My aunt gave me this book in 4th grade. I have no idea why to be honest. Maybe she’d liked it as a kid and wanted to share it with me, her bookworm niece? For whatever reason, I am forever grateful. I didn’t get this book at first. WWII was just a vague concept in my head, the Holocaust a word that I knew was bad but didn’t really get why. Anne explained that to me. She also though was infallibly honest. I think we heroize her a bit too much. She was a teenager; she fought with her mother and her sister, she had a crush on the only boy she could, she was a brat at times, a saint at others. Her flaws were amplified by the situation she found herself in, as were her great moments. I appreciated her more when I was older and I marvel now. This girl, in hiding for persecution based only on her beliefs, wrote that, in spite of everything, she still believed that people were good at heart. One of my favorite moments of my semester abroad was visiting the Secret Annex and paying my respects to the dreamer who hid there. It brought into my world something I had only imagined in a book.

Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen

I came very late to Austen. Shocking I know and one of my best friend was the one who properly introduced me to her finally in high school. Once I’d had my first introductions, there was no going back. Austen’s brand of romance, humor and tone hits such a perfect cord with me, I read a lot of literature simply because it is marketed as “Austenesque.” I even read all the continuations, moderizations; I watch all the movies, no matter that I’ve seen five other versions. Hell, I own three versions of Pride & Prejudice on DVD. Well this isn’t my favorite of Austen’s work (Persuasion holds that honor), it was the first I read and therefore the one I owe for making me a Janeite.

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Gregory Maguire

I think I found this wandering the aisles of Borders. I had read Wicked and enjoyed it though it was a dense read and Confessions sounded as if it were along the same lines. Not so. Confessions was a much more approachable book, a book with a much clearer plot and the lines of the story, while still grey, a bit easier to follow. It was not the first time I had read a revisionist novel (clearly since I had read Wicked), but it was the first time I grasped how cool the concept could be. Iris was my kind of girl; a brilliant, plain Jane, someone who is just trying to do the right thing and who, in a moment of weakness, thinks about doing the selfish thing. Many years later, Confessions would inspire my senior thesis ensuring that fairy tale retellings will always fascinate me and also remind me that nothing is as black and white as we would like.

The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I think perhaps I saved the best for last. The Little Prince is a book you have to grow into. I had a copy on my shelves from an early age though I’ve no idea where it came from. I had read it, enjoyed it and then forgotten about it. Then it was handed to me in 11th grade French class and suddenly it was a book of wisdom, of life lessons, a book I could always turn to for comfort, for hope, for a touch of whimsy when I needed it. It teaches you that there is always more than one way to look at something, that you must always tend your baobabs, and that sometimes, those things staring you in the face are the very things you were looking for in the first place. It is a story of trying to find one’s way home and the things you discover along the way. While high school French class touched me in many ways, The Little Prince is the gift I treasure most and I’ll pull out my copies (one in English and in black and white, one in French with the color illustrations) and remind myself of its lessons whenever I have a bad day.

What would the world be like with no children’s books?

Among the blogosphere, the debate over children’s books versus young adult book versus adult books seems to have gotten very intense this year. It could just be me of course but it does seem to have erupted into a big “thing” and everyone has needed to weigh in on it. Personally, I don’t get what all the fuss is about. I enjoy reading – whether the book was meant for six year olds or ninety-nine years old, it makes no difference to me. In fact, some of the best reads of my life were meant for audiences much younger than me. Why adults seem so hung up on the latest young adult reading craze is beyond me. At least everyone is reading right?

Personally, some of my favorite books to this day are considered children classics though I didn’t appreciate them until I was much older. Reading Le Petit Prince in 11th grade French class changed everything – never mind I’d read it as a child and not understood what all the fuss was about. Perhaps it is only as a stressed out teen worried about getting into college that the baobab analogy makes sense. Anne Shirley guided me through 6th grade and now, her books take on new meaning as I trudge through my mid-20s with no Gilbert in sight but still plenty of laughs to be had. Doesn’t Anne seem like someone you’d like to be able to go visit with a bottle of wine after a hard day? She would remind me, as she once so comfortingly noted to Marilla, that tomorrow is a fresh day, there are no mistakes in it yet.

So thankfully, I’ve never walked away from what the rest of the world regulated to kids sections of book stores which is why I got to enjoy Harry Potter before my friends found him and directed them eagerly to The Hunger Games once a friend had already steered me in its direction. Sure, parents hem and haw over the appropriateness of these books for kids but even among the violence, these books are discussing fundamental problems all kids face – the search for who you are, who you are going to be and what you will stand for. I’m in my mid-20s and still figuring that out which is why I think these books, designed for kids, have such universal appeal. We never really stop wondering what we’ll be when we grow up and reading stories of brave, smart kids on the same path are comforting.

Especially since adult fiction just seem so depressing in comparison. It’s always a novel about death or depression or divorce. No one ever seems happy in contemporary fiction. There are ambiguous endings and the hero doesn’t always triumph in the end. I have enough of that in reality people; that is not what I like to find when I open up a book to escape for a few hours.

Take for instance the book I just finished, The Mysterious Benedict Society. Four smart (smarter than I will ever be), brave, resourceful kids go into danger to save the world and they win! Against all odds and reality, these four brilliant children do what no adult could do. They solve puzzles, connect the dots and act more bravely than I am (pretty) sure I would be able to in my (what the world thinks) vastly superior knowledge. It is slightly implausible? Sure, but why on earth would I want to read it if it was possible?