The addition of foreign language study was one of the things that made seventh grade a watershed year for me. I sat by the window, third row from the front. Not too close, not too far back, according to Madame Manouil's ironclad seating chart. I can still hear Madame's voice as she began the daily liturgy in that gateway to French:
"Bonjour, classe. Comment ça va?"
"Bonjour Madame. Ça va bien, et vous?"
This was followed by the repetition of the precise day of the week, the date, and the year – in unison, in French.
Something must have clicked, since I can still remember not only her tone of voice and imperious demeanor, but those building blocks of French and foreign language instruction itself.
She was the real deal: stern, correct, formal, very Gallic. Formidable! But every so often she would soften, show a wry smile at our antics, and say something in French that was guaranteed to go right over our heads.
To learn the body parts in French, we did not trace ourselves on large pieces of paper, as the students in my school do today. Madame pointed; we responded in French – or else.
"Faites attention, Monsieur Nelson!" she would say.
Once we had detected a certain potential rhyme in the word for frog in French, grenouille, we were dangerous – mostly to ourselves. How you say "detention" in French?
As I prepared to try my spoken French for the first time in 35 years, I became a student once again. I thumbed through my 1,000 vocabulary flashcards, testing my memory and pronunciation, trying to fill in the gaps as I found them and come up with a retrieval system so I could think on my feet while on vacation in France.
My synapses were fine, but the timing needed a little adjustment. In my mind's ear I heard myself as I wanted to sound, and I aspired beyond my seventh-grade abilities.
But I sympathize with those seventh-grade abilities – because every day as a school principal I see seventh-graders simultaneously striving to master the intricacies of an unfamiliar language and struggle with the rationale for their struggle.
Now that I have the vantage point that encourages language study, I wish I had paid better attention when I was a student. Will my seventh-graders take a clue from my present endeavors and strive in their Spanish studies, pending future trips or encounters when it will be useful? J'espere que oui! I will be their model – of effort and of its value.
Of course the best foreign language class is the one you take when you land in the middle of a country where the foreign language is spoken. There's nothing like hunger, thirst, obtaining directions, renting a car, or finding shelter to motivate communication.
This is standards-based instruction and authentic assessment at its finest. Such instruction happened to me twice while I was in 10th grade. I went to Glasgow, Scotland, and, a little later, Paris. The English I heard in Scotland might as well have been a foreign language to my ill-attuned ear; French really was foreign. I managed to eat well both times, and I learned that leaving one's cultural and linguistic comfort zone is a good thing every so often. It snaps you back into the seventh-grade view from the third row.
In 10th grade, my French teacher was Madame Hamilton, an Englishwoman who had grown up in France. As I recall, her mother was French. She had a wonderful accent, a patient demeanor with us frisky 10th-grade boys, and knew when to frappe nos doigts (figuratively) in order to bring irregular verb conjugations to the front of our thoughts.
In 11th grade, I had Madame Haggarty; in 12th, Madame Wohlers. That made six years of French instruction. The voices of all these former teachers wafted through my preparations for traveling.
Now that I'm on my own, I wonder if I'll butcher the classical language of Western diplomacy, make train reservations on the right date and time, order snails instead of grapefruit, and, most of all, make friends or offended acquaintances. Am I still in that seventh-grade, third-row seat by the window? Or will I have made it back to the front row in Madame Wohlers' class?
How do you say, "May I have another croissant?" Third row-quality French won't buy much food, I'm afraid. Better to be first row for this trip. But I can still hear Madame Manouil's accent as I practice, "Faites attention! Je ne veux pas manger des jambes de grenouilles, merci!" That is, "Pay attention! I don't want to eat frog legs, thank you!"