”Don’t ask yourself what the world needs, ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
i have never been happier to receive a workbook than i was this evening when i once again became a student in a french class, something i haven’t been or done in over 18 years. that was the last time i was actively learning french in a classroom, was assigned french homework, was being taught by monsieur v who allowed us to choose our ‘french’ names — a practice that seemed purely enjoyable at the time but that now gives me pause and makes me wonder whether i would have experienced my french classes differently if i had chosen the name marguerite or genevieve or josephine instead of denise, which mme. w, in her oh-so-french ways pronounced with full french flair when i was a mere eighth grader. and so it stuck. and i was denise — or, du-neez — for the duration of middle and high school french.
but tonight i was simply me, no pseudonym, sitting in a class with da-VEED and ni-NAH and our teacher for at least the first two classes, MAH-ree-Lor, qui est parisienne et a habite en philadelphie pendant douze ans. actually, i might have used a “pendant” when i should have used a “pour” or an “il y a”, but that is what i am hoping to remember and figure out over the next few months.
when i walked into the alliance francaise, i wasn’t expecting much more than information about when classes start. i had assumed that they had already started and that i would be playing a bit of catch up. but when i arrived, mlle. r pointed me out to mme. m who began a placement test tout de suite! and before i knew it, it was the end of my senior year in college all over again (when, without having spoken or written french with or for anyone other than myself for four years, i am proud to say that i passed the french proficiency exam that only days before i learned that i would have to take — and pass — in order to graduate with my BA. such is the case when one only gets around to filing the requisite paperwork for switching majors in her second semester of senior year.). so mme. m asked me my name and what i do and why i want to enroll in french classes and what i did last weekend and what i plan to do next weekend — completement en francais, by the way. and so the words came tumbling out of my mouth in clumsy, ill-formed phrases, which sound so lovely and full of francophilic beauty in my head and occasionally in my dreams where some magic fairy must smooth over the rough patches with the proper conjugation and appropriate vocabulary (instead of my insistence on mixing up revenir with retourner and spurting out passe compose when i was searching for the plus que parfait.)
and then, a few minutes after it began, it was over. mme. m had a pleasant look about her, the deep lilac color of her sweater making her seem just a bit sweeter than i suspect she really is. it probably didn’t help that i kept apologizing as i desperately sought the right phrasing in our brief dialogue. in a reflexive moment, i suppose it did give me yet another moment of camaraderie with so many sitting in classes who encounter the dreaded pop quiz — lack of preparedness is a viscerally frightening experience, especially when the reserves we usually draw on in moments of stress or urgency are low. and my french stores were low, if only because the last time i spoke more than three continuous phrases in french to someone was… well, so long ago i truly cannot remember — although, scarily, i suspect it was my “Surprise! you have to pass a language requirement”-french-exam fourteen and half years ago. mondieu!
mme. m, despite her measured demeanor, was kind toward my performance. she first asked whether i could stay for class tonight. i nodded for several seconds before answering, “yes.” she said that i needed to brush up on my verbs (duh.) but that she would place me in level 202 (intermediate!) and if that worked out, i could stay. otherwise, i could drop down to a lower level (no chance in hell!). it was one of the few times in recent memory when levels and assessment held a great deal of currency. specifically, i was fully aware of being assessed on a consequential scale and appreciated the nervousness that accompanies testtakers, from small children to adults in all manner of settings. simply put, tests are hard.
for the next hour and a half i bathed in the sounds of a french-only dialogue with my two classmates and our temporary teacher, who allowed us to introduce ourselves and ask questions of one another and of her, before we delved into some workbook activities. yes, workbook. and my inner uber-nerd had to be kept at bay as, with each passing minute, i became more and more elated at the fact that i was understanding the words and the phrases and expressions; and even when the exact word wasn’t always within reach, a way of expressing something with the approximate meaning and therefore to be understood was still possible. this wasn’t merely the proverbial getting back on a bicycle; it felt more like entering a local bike race after not having ridden for 20-some-odd years. accepting the initial wobbly legs, time to get used to the feeling of the pedal pushing up against one leg as you push down with the other, the vibrations of the road penetrating your brain through the conduit of your hands, resisting the thought that a fall is imminent as is a crash, and loving it despite the worries. for some reason i have yet to understand, i feel completely at home speaking french — even my to-call-it-rusty-would-be-kind, still-only-communicating-not-composing quality french. in fact, i had to contain myself and resist from hugging and kissing any and all strangers on the street when i left the downtown building, and settled instead on a wide, goofy grin that wouldn’t leave my face even after i arrived at home.
i am, once again, a student of the french language. although if truth be told, i never stopped being one, but as much as i support and advocate for a definition of education that looks beyond the classroom, this and other recent classroom-based learning experiences continue to move me in the ways they invite me to be still, to consider seriously the subject at hand, to embody learning anew.
and following in thurman’s words from the opening epigraph (taken from a gchat away message on t’s profile, a former student, current co-author and friend), a long-dormant part of me certainly came alive tonight… and it’s already taken me to oh, so many wonderful wheres… et encore, je suis joyeux.