Recently heeded a call for volunteers from my town's middle school. Once I had dropped my name in the hat, it wasn't long before I received a call from an enthusiastic teacher. "I have three seventh-grade boys," she said, "who desperately need a French tutor."
My spirits flagged a bit. "But I don't speak French," I told her.
"Don't worry," she assured me. "It's very basic. In any case, these kids would benefit from a positive male role model."
I halfheartedly discussed details of the arrangement with her (two one-hour sessions a week), then signed off with a faint-hearted "Au revoir," which was almost the sum total of my French know-how.
What had I gotten myself into? As a Spanish speaker, I took some comfort in the realization that I could build some bridges between the two languages. But when it came to free expression, I would be hopelessly adrift.
Ironically, I had been given French instruction in grammar school in the early 1960s. This consisted of a grainy black-and-white program beamed into Mrs. Cherico's fourth-grade class by the infant National Educational Television system. I still recall watching, along with 30 of my classmates, the antics of Jacques and Marie, two French children to whom we were expected to relate. The goal, as explained by Mrs. Cherico, was to repeat everything these children said.
Most of it went right over my head. Mrs. Cherico was of little help because she didn't speak French either and was learning along with us. All that I remember of the program is the opening "Bonjour," and the closing - you got it - "Au revoir."
And now I was en route to my first tutoring session, feeling more as if I was on my way to a lunar landing, not knowing exactly what I'd find once I had sat down.
When I arrived at the school, Mrs. R, my contact teacher, introduced me to Dan, Peter, and Ryan. The boys only half-acknowledged me, which I saw as a good thing. Maybe they wouldn't take great notice of my French - or lack of it - either.
I led the boys to a small classroom and spent the first few minutes of our session just chatting, in an attempt to get to know them. They all agreed that French was difficult. "What's the hardest part?" I asked.
Ryan was the most loquacious and immediately volunteered, "The words!"
Dan and Peter chimed in with, "Yeah, learning new words."
I had come prepared for this. "OK," I said as I divided a dozen index cards among the boys. "Each of you look in your book and pick out some French words you want to learn. Write one word on each of your cards."
I looked on as my young charges went to work, scratching away with their pencils for 10 minutes. After they were done, I spread the cards out on the floor in front of them. Then I took a rubber ball from my pocket and handed it to Dan. "OK," I said. "Bounce the ball, and try to hit a card. If you do, and you can pronounce the word, you win the card."
The boys went at this with alacrity. They shared the ball, called one another's hits and misses, and listened carefully as vocabulary words were pronounced. Of course, I had little idea whether their pronunciations were accurate, but assumed that their consensus on any given word was probably close to the mark.
Before I knew it, our time was up. I drilled them one last time on the new words, without the cards, and was surprised at how much they had retained. As they left the room, Peter turned to me and, in all innocence, remarked, "You don't speak French, do you?" I admitted that I didn't. His response: "Cool."
As I lingered in thought, I realized what had just happened in our little classroom. I had been cornered into doing what a good teacher is supposed to do: not so much imparting information as facilitating the search for knowledge.
With renewed confidence, I hurried home, where I took out my rsum and, under Work Experience, ceremoniously added the words "French tutor." Why not? By the end of the school year, some five months hence, who knows how much I will have learned from my students?
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