Memory: End of French class in high school. Teacher cried when I told her I wouldn’t be taking French the following year.
Okay, so I’m retired now. After thirty years of teaching high school French I suppose I’ll be bored out of my skull from now on. Maybe I can still do some tutoring to keep myself busy. I do have fond memories of teaching. The way their eyes brighten when the students finally pronounce those difficult words just right brings a smile to my own eyes. So many wonderful students I’ve had the privilege of teaching. And some of them probably even can still speak French.
Ah, but there was that Mr. Kent. Such a promising student. I remember clearly the day he handed in his final exam at the end of the sophomore year. I couldn’t help smiling at him. Such an affinity for language, and always the first to finish. “Merci beaucoup, Monsieur Kent.Vous êtes toujours le premier à terminer.“
So quiet he was. And yet he shocked me with his reply to what I thought was a mere confirmation of his expected enrollment in my third year class.
“No, Miss Cochran. I won’t be signing up for your next class,” he said sadly. “I just can’t take it anymore.”
I remember being stunned into silence as I heard these words. The third year class wasn’t mandatory, only the first two were prerequisite for meeting the college entrance requirements. But he was one of my best students. At the time my mind couldn’t grasp the possibility that he would forsake me. Yes, I took it personally. After all, I was young myself – only 25 at the time – and still exhilarated with the promise of teaching young minds. The sixteen year old Mr. Kent seemed to like me well enough. In fact, it was clear he had a high school crush on me. So what did I do wrong? Why was he telling me he ‘couldn’t take it anymore?’
“But Mr. Kent, why? There is so much more to learn. And you seem to love the language.”
He stared at me for what seemed eons, but in reality was probably less than a second. Reading his eyes gave no clue to his thinking. He seemed angry; no, sad. Or was it confused? Or something completely different?
“I’m sorry, Miss Cochran. I simply can’t. Have a nice summer.”
I remember my own eyes tearing up. My idealism was shattered. I wasn’t the superhero that would stimulate youthful desires of world travel, the search for cultural knowledge, the multilingual fluency of a cadre of French-speaking adults. I was a failure. One of my best students was rejecting me and everything I hoped to be.
It took me years to understand. I still taught – thank goodness I didn’t let this incident distract me from my the profession I loved – and I achieved great satisfaction in knowing that many others went on to live the lives I idealized in my youthful goals. It helped that a few years later, after he graduated, a fellow student of his explained the problem with Miss Ridley, the student teacher that took over my class for the third semester that year. How Mr. Kent was disgusted with the way the two brightest students in the class manipulated and tormented the inexperienced substitute. How the lack of respect in that one semester soured him so completely on the idea of learning French that he couldn’t take it anymore. It explained why he became quieter, more withdrawn, more reticent in his last semester with me. I only wish I knew then of what had happened. Rather than take it as a personal affront to me I could have seen it as a sign that he needed someone to step in to help. I was young; too young then to see his needs.
I understand that he never quite learned French, even while living therefor several years, but that he nevertheless became successful and happy.I take great solace in that thought.
Ah, but so many memories of my years teaching high school French. This one, bittersweet, stays with me even as I move off into retirement. Yes, tutoring it is. Only I won’t focus merely on correct pronunciation. I’ll delve into what makes each student live for learning. It’s time to make those goals more than just an ideal. And those tears from so long ago, I treasure them for the memory they have become, and the smile they bring to my face again.
David J. Kent is the author of Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate. His next book, Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, is due out late July 2017.