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After Work: French Class

…Walking into the classroom and sliding into one of the desks with the impossibly tiny writing space brought back all kinds of memories, some delightful ones of the six-year-old me, some not so happy, such as the awkwardness of the bespectacled bookish girl who was my fourteen-year-old self…

Dona Gibbs signs up for a 10-day French course and discovers that learning can be huge fun, and New Yorkers really are prepared to talk to one another - in a foreign language.

The first day of school. For me these words are wonderfully evocative. They conjure up little shivers of anticipation. New kids. New teacher. New pens. And a crisp new
notebook. No matter how many courses I’ve taken the exciting feeling is as strong as when I was six. And as fraught with dread as when I was fourteen.

Recently I signed up for an intensive French class at New York Alliance Francaise. It was three hours a day for ten days taught entirely in French from the “Bonjour” at 9:30 a.m. to “Au demain” at 12:30 p.m. with a ten minute break at 11 p.m.

It was somewhat of an experiment for the Alliance. Some of the staff felt that New Yorkers would never devote this kind of time commitment, but two classes of ten students each were formed.

Walking into the classroom and sliding into one of the desks with the impossibly tiny writing space brought back all kinds of memories, some delightful ones of the six-year-old me, some not so happy, such as the awkwardness of the bespectacled bookish girl who was my fourteen-year-old self.

The students’ motives for learning or brushing up their French ranged from conversing with a Parisian girlfriend to working as a nurse on the Ivory Coast. Mine was mundane—buying vegetables, bread and cheese in the Nice market.

I glanced around. Everybody was terribly intense, perhaps feeling those old unwelcome high school insecurities once again. Long after the braces have been removed, the glasses replaced by contact lenses and complexions no longer marred by pimples, deep inside us there will be forever be a part of us that never gets beyond first year of high school. The class was wary, straining to understand an unfamiliar language, writing down strange words and constructions with those brand new pens in brand new notebooks.

Break time came and the class bolted to get coffee. Everyone left separately and sped off in different directions.

After break, we began again.

And so went the first day. I was totally exhausted. Three hours was a long, long haul,

The next day we plunged into learning how to introduce ourselves and ask for telephone numbers and addresses. We were then assigned to introduce ourselves and get as many telephone numbers and addresses from our classmates as possible in 15 minutes. New York competitive zeal won over New York reserve hands down.

I have never seen a group coalesce so quickly. By day three we not only knew a few sentences, still spoken slowly and with pronounciation that would give a Parisian the heebie-jeebies. Day four brought more French but with jokes and laughter so raucous that instructors in adjoining rooms asked us to keep the noise down. By day five several students made plans to get together over the weekend.

By day six we knew what everybody’s real life job was, who was married, who was engaged, who was off to graduate school—information that you could go for a lifetime not knowing about your New York neighbor. All pieced together in French.

Days 7 through 9 we learned that the sole male in the class, the one with the aforementioned Parisian girlfriend, could do the most incredible imitation of a motorcycle I’ve ever heard. Fortunately, he has a good reason to show off this talent. He teaches seven and eight year-olds.

We heard in detail all about the wonderful finance, the rotten restaurant job and school plans. Anything and everything in the wonderful diverse area of true small talk was discussed in French. No, we weren’t ready to debate politics, the writing of Rimbaud or hold forth in a salon but boy could we discuss the merits of the seaside versus the mountains.

Break time was now coffee together.

The instructor was thrilled with the progress and brought in her colleagues to show us off.
Three hours now passed quickly. And so did ten days.

The last day melancholy lingered in the air. Classes were coming quickly to an end. The instructor bade us one last “au revoir”, tears glittering. At the end of three hours the class left, chatting during the elevator ride down, vowing to get together. On the street there were hugs, waves and goodbyes and we then went our separate ways. The magic was gone—but hopefully not the French we’d learned.

If only high school had been like this.


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