At the age of forty-one, I am returning to school and having to think of myself as what my French textbook calls “a true debutant.” After paying my tuition, I was issued a student ID, which allows me a discounted entry fee at movie theaters, puppet shows, and Festyland, a far-flung amusement park that advertises with billboards picturing a cartoon stegosaurus sitting in a canoe and eating what appears to be a ham sandwich.
I’ve moved to Paris in order to learn the language. My school is the Alliance Française, and on the first day of class, I arrived early, watching as the returning students greeted one another in the school lobby. Vacations were recounted, and questions were raised concerning mutual friends with names like Kang and Vlatnya. Regardless of their nationalities, everyone spoke what sounded to me like excellent French. Some accents were better than others, but the students exhibited an ease and confidence I found intimidating. As an added discomfort, they were all young, attractive, and well dressed, causing me to feel not unlike Pa Kettle trapped backstage after a fashion show.
I remind myself that I am now a full-grown man. No one will ever again card me for a drink or demand that I weave a floor mat out of newspapers. At my age, a reasonable person should have completed his sentence in the prison of the nervous and the insecure–isn’t that the great promise of adulthood? I can’t help but think that, somewhere along the way, I made a wrong turn. My fears have not vanished. Rather, they have seasoned and multiplied with age. I am now twice as frightened as I was when, at the age of twenty, I allowed a failed nursing student to inject me with a horse tranquilizer, and eight times more anxious than I was the day my kindergarten teacher pried my fingers off my mother’s ankle and led me screaming toward my desk. “You’ll get used to it,” the woman had said.
I’m still waiting.
The first day of class was nerve-racking, because I knew I’d be expected to perform. That’s the way they do it here–everyone into the language pool, sink or swim. The teacher marched in, deeply tanned from a recent vacation, and rattled off a series of administrative announcements. I’ve spent some time in Normandy, and I took a monthlong French class last summer in New York. I’m not completely in the dark, yet I understood only half of what this teacher was saying.
“If you have not meismslsxp by this time, you should not be in this room. Has everybody apzkiubjxow? Everyone? Good, we shall proceed.” She spread out her lesson plan and sighed, saying, “All right, then, who knows the alphabet?”
It was startling, because a) I hadn’t been asked that question in a while, and b) I realized, while laughing, that I myself did not know the alphabet. They’re the same letters, but they’re pronounced differently.
“Ahh.” The teacher went to the board and sketched the letter a. “Do we have anyone in the room whose first name commences with an ahh?”
Two Polish Annas raised their hands, and the teacher instructed them to present themselves, giving their names, nationalities, occupations, and a list of things they liked and disliked in this world. The first Anna hailed from an industrial town outside of Warsaw and had front teeth the size of tombstones. She worked as a seamstress, enjoyed quiet times with friends, and hated the mosquito.
“Oh, really,” the teacher said. “How very interesting. I thought that everyone loved the mosquito, but here, in front of all the world, you claim to detest him. How is it that we’ve been blessed with someone as unique and original as you? Tell us, please.”
The seamstress did not understand what was being said, but she knew that this was an occasion for shame. Her rabbity mouth huffed for breath, and she stared down at her lap as though the appropriate comeback were stitched somewhere alongside the zipper of her slacks.
The second Anna learned from the first and claimed to love sunshine and detest lies. It sounded like a translation of one of those Playmate of the Month data sheets, the answers always written in the same loopy handwriting: “Turn-ons: Mom’s famous five-alarm chili! Turnoffs: Insincerity and guys who come on too strong!!!”
The two Polish women surely had clear notions of what they liked and disliked, but, like the rest of us, they were limited in terms of vocabulary, and this made them appear less than sophisticated. The teacher forged on, and we learned that Carlos, the Argentine bandonion player, loved wine, music, and, in his words, “Making sex with the women of the world.” Next came a beautiful young Yugoslavian who identified herself as an optimist, saying that she loved everything life had to offer.
The teacher licked her lips, revealing a hint of the sadist we would later come to know. She crouched low for her attack, placed her hands on the young woman’s desk, and said, “Oh, yeah? And do you love your little war?”
While the optimist struggled to defend herself, I scrambled to think of an answer to what had obviously become a trick question. How often are you asked what you love in this world? More important, how often are you asked and then publicly ridiculed for your answer? I recalled my mother, flushed with wine, pounding the table late one night, saying, “Love? I love a good steak cooked rare. I love my cat, and I love . . .” My sisters and I leaned forward, waiting to hear our names. “Tums,” our mother said. “I love Tums.”
The teacher killed some time accusing the Yugoslavian girl of masterminding a program of genocide, and I jotted frantic notes in the margins of my pad. While I can honestly say that I love leafing through medical textbooks devoted to severe dermatological conditions, it is beyond the reach of my French vocabulary, and acting it out would only have invited unwanted attention.
When called upon, I delivered an effortless list of things I detest: blood sausage, intestinal pâté, brain pudding. I’d learned these words the hard way. Having given it some thought, I then declared my love for IBM typewriters, the French word for “bruise,” and my electric floor waxer. It was a short list, but still I managed to mispronounce IBM and afford the wrong gender to both the floor waxer and the typewriter. Her reaction led me to believe that these mistakes were capital crimes in the country of France.
“Were you always this palicmkrexjs?” she asked. “Even a fiuscrzsws tociwegixp knows that a typewriter is feminine.”
I absorbed as much of her abuse as I could understand, thinking, but not saying, that I find it ridiculous to assign a gender to an inanimate object incapable of disrobing and making an occasional fool of itself. Why refer to Lady Flesh Wound or Good Sir Dishrag when these things could never deliver in the sack?
The teacher proceeded to belittle everyone from German Eva, who hated laziness, to Japanese Yukari, who loved paintbrushes and soap. Italian, Thai, Dutch, Korean, Chinese–we all left class foolishly believing that the worst was over. We didn’t know it then, but the coming months would teach us what it is like to spend time in the presence of a wild animal. We soon learned to dodge chalk and to cover our heads and stomachs whenever she approached us with a question. She hadn’t yet punched anyone, but it seemed wise to prepare ourselves against the inevitable.
Though we were forbidden to speak anything but French, the teacher would occasionally use us to practice any of her five fluent languages.
“I hate you,” she said to me one afternoon. Her English was flawless. “I really, really hate you.” Call me sensitive, but I couldn’t help taking it personally.
Learning French is a lot like joining a gang in that it involves a long and intensive period of hazing. And it wasn’t just my teacher; the entire population seemed to be in on it. Following brutal encounters with my local butcher and the concierge of my building, I’d head off to class, where the teacher would hold my corrected paperwork high above her head, shouting, “Here’s proof that David is an ignorant and uninspired ensigiejsokhjx.”
Refusing to stand convicted on the teacher’s charges of laziness, I’d spend four hours a night on my homework, working even longer whenever we were assigned an essay. I suppose I could have gotten by with less, but I was determined to create some sort of an identity for myself. We’d have one of those “complete the sentence” exercises, and I’d fool with the thing for hours, invariably settling on something like, “A quick run around the lake? I’d love to. Just give me a minute to strap on my wooden leg.” The teacher, through word and action, conveyed the message that, if this was my idea of an identity, she wanted nothing to do with it.
My fear and discomfort crept beyond the borders of my classroom and accompanied me out onto the wide boulevards, where, no matter how hard I tried, there was no escaping the feeling of terror I felt whenever anyone asked me a question. I was safe in any kind of a store, as, at least in my neighborhood, one can stand beside the cash register for hours on end without being asked something so trivial as, “May I help you?” or “How would you like to pay for that?”
My only comfort was the knowledge that I was not alone. Huddled in the smoky hallways and making the most of our pathetic French, my fellow students and I engaged in the sort of conversation commonly overheard in refugee camps.
“Sometimes me cry alone at night.”
“That is common for me also, but be more strong, you. Much work, and someday you talk pretty. People stop hate you soon. Maybe tomorrow, okay?”
Unlike other classes I have taken, here there was no sense of competition. When the teacher poked a shy Korean woman in the eyelid with a freshly sharpened pencil, we took no comfort in the fact that, unlike Hyeyoon Cho, we all knew the irregular past tense of the verb “to defeat.” In all fairness, the teacher hadn’t meant to hurt the woman, but neither did she spend much time apologizing, saying only, “Well, you should have been paying more attention.”
Over time, it became impossible to believe that any of us would ever improve. Fall arrived, and it rained every day. It was mid-October when the teacher singled me out, saying, “Every day spent with you is like having a cesarean section.” And it struck me that, for the first time since arriving in France, I could understand every word that someone was saying.
Understanding doesn’t mean that you can suddenly speak the language. Far from it. It’s a small step, nothing more, yet its rewards are intoxicating and deceptive. The teacher continued her diatribe, and I settled back, bathing in the subtle beauty of each new curse and insult.
“You exhaust me with your foolishness and reward my efforts with nothing but pain, do you understand me?”