For some reason, which to this day remains a mystery to us both, my good friend Patti Bailey and I were placed in an advanced French class upon entering Notre Dame Prep as freshman so very many years ago. Perhaps it was our grade school record that led them to make certain assumptions about our proficiency in French. We had both attended the same Baltimore parochial school where we were taught French from 3rd grade on. There was no textbook or one-on-one instruction as I recall. Just Madame Coq au Vin,* a petite, middle-aged woman with a Parisian accent and dyed black hair pulled back in a tight French twist teaching us via closed circuit TV. Back then, every classroom had a TV set perched high in an imposing, monolithic, wooden cabinet positioned at the front of the room. The school had converted part of an old washroom on the first floor into a fully equipped TV studio. It was from there that Madame Coq au Vin, sitting at an empty desk in front of a drab, blue curtain, was broadcast into our classrooms every week. As she recited sentences in French, we would repeat them robotically in our classrooms, 2 floors above. It was all considered very au courrant, s’il vous plait. So naturellement, after 6 years of instruction, Patti and I were placed in the conversational French class as freshman. Unfortunately, however, between us we could only put together three or four sentences in French before reverting to a weird sort of broken English (neither French nor English really), eventually abandoning the effort altogether. Quel dommage (what a pity). Or as we used to say because we were, well, idiots and thought it was all so very funny, “Quel frommage” (what a cheese). And so, on the first day of French class at NDP, Patti and I found ourselves sitting amongst 15 other girls who were all vibrantly engaged in a lively and fluent conversation with the teacher, Sister Mary Dormez-vous.* En Francais. Not a word of English was spoken. Patti and I looked at each other with panic in our eyes and dissolved into tears. It is the only time I can remember crying in high school. We approached Sister after class and through our tears explained how this all “must be un, une terrible mistake and how we didn’t belong in le, la class, and how, oh mon dieu, if it was all the same to Souer, could elle please transfer us to une autre class, as soon as c’est possible, merci very much.” She looked at us with what can only be called disdain and without a word – in French or English – waved us towards the door. The next day, Patti and I found ourselves sitting in a, shall we say, less advanced French class where we happily settled in and actually began to pay attention. Mieux vaut tard que jamais. Today, though neither of us are what you would call fluent in the language of the Gauls, we can, nevertheless, give directions in French to wily Parisian cab drivers and confidently navigate our way through a French menu, thereby avoiding at all costs the ris de coeur. It pays to be bilingual.
Ms. Sharon Moser, the current, middle school language teacher at NDP is multi-lingual; fluent in English, Spanish, French, and Latin. Although personally, she dismisses the notion of Latin fluency on technical grounds since, as she says, “It’s a dead language so, you know, there’s not a lot of opportunity for conversation.” Still, I am impressed. Recently, I had the chance to sit in on her 7th grade French class. And what a joyful experience it was. Sharon Moser is the type of teacher you wish your kids could have for every subject. She makes learning the foreign and unfamiliar fun, accessible, and relevant (a sign, which hangs in her classroom states: ‘A language isn’t foreign once you learn it’). And, unlike most other teachers, she has the added benefit of retaining a few teaching assistants. Several dozen to be exact, many who have been with her throughout her career. Madame Moser, you see, often teaches with puppets. The results are spectacular. On the day I was there, I took a seat in the back of the room and watched her classroom pulsate with excitement. As each young middle-schooler arrived for class, she greeted Ms. Moser with a bright and sing-songy, “Bonjour, Madame” and then headed straight for the puppet rack. Each girl grabbed her favorite one and quickly slipped it on like a glove, wriggling her little hand upward along the inside of its back until it made its way into the puppet’s perpetually smiling but toothless head. Together, hand in, well, mouth, they made their way back to the desks where the student took a seat and the puppet sat on the young girl’s lap. From where I sat, I could see no situation where the places were reversed. But I can’t be sure. When everyone settled in, class began. Entirely in French, of course. They started off with Notre Pere (the Lord’s Prayer), recited in unison and with exquisite pronunciation. As the girls prayed, one or two of the puppets could be seen solemnly mouthing the words alongside them. Perhaps they added an extra prayer that they would perform well in the day’s main event, one in which they would play a key role (I thought the puppet named Kiki looked particularly nervous). Before the main event, however, Madame Moser had the girls participate in a rigorous verbal exercise, which can best be described as grammatical hot potato. The puppets sat this one out. In rapid-fire succession, Madame Moser called out the infinitive of a French verb while throwing what she refers to as “the conjugation cube” to an unsuspecting student. It was the student’s job to catch the cube and quickly conjugate the verb in French before passing the cube back to Madame Moser, who then randomly threw it and another verb to the next student. They conjugated about 15 verbs in 2 minutes. I can’t conjugate in English that fast. C’etait magnifique. Finally, it was time for the l’evenement principal. The plan was to break into teams of two and “perform” a conversation using the puppets as characters. One puppet played a French student; the other played an American student. The conversation – regarding the exchange of information about their respective schools – was pre-scripted by Ms. Moser but the girls could add flourishes in terms of delivery and emphasis. The girls were quite imaginative in what they improvised, including one team whose puppets accidentally bumped into each other on the street and another whose puppets were hanging out on a wall together, one leaning his head against his softly sculpted hand (a depiction of youthful ennui, I’m guessing). I noticed that as each team performed, a student who Ms. Moser referred to throughout class as “Mademoiselle Baguette” (an inside joke between them) had her puppet, Monsieur Bleu, lip-syncing the dialogue to every conversation from its seat. Rehearsing in preparation for their turn, no doubt. As the exercise continued, one team ad-libbed by pulling me into the conversation. I looked up from my notes to discover 4 pair of eyes staring at me, eagerly waiting for my answer to a question I had not heard:
“Excusez moi… Mademoiselle Hartman? Comment ca va?” repeated a furry sheep dog puppet named Lana who was operated by an adorable Irish looking redhead named Morrie. Morrie and Lana stared at me hopefully and then exchanged a knowing look between them.
“Comprenez vous?” Lana asked politely. By now, all eyes were on me. About 25 pair to be exact, including 7th graders, puppets, and gulp, Madame Moser.
“Oui, oui!” I rallied. “Je comprend.”
“Comment ca va? ” Lana asked for the third time, seamlessly picking up where she left off.
“Ca va, merci. Et vous?” I countered. Rather impeccably, I might add.
“Ca va, merci, ” Lana responded. At which point everyone turned their attention back to the front of the classroom where Lana and Morrie and their counterparts continued an animated discussion about what time they get out of school. Throughout the exercise, whoever played the role of the French student got great satisfaction out of delivering the line “Tu rigoles!” (“You’re kidding!”) in response to the American student’s revelation that in the U.S. dismissal is at 3PM (as compared to the French 5PM). I have never seen such a range of drama, contempt, and outrage displayed in a single line. It was an acting tour de force. And lo and behold, the girls were learning French and having fun at the same time! Brilliant. Madame Moser wrapped up the class by playing a CD of French songs and having the girls sing along, which they did flawlessly and with impeccable pitch and pronunciation (they also translated the lyrics together). The 12 year-olds, with their raspy little voices, took particular glee in attempting to imitate the typically throaty, guttural style of the French chanteuse, which they did through giggles, repeating with greater and greater exaggeration an especially nasal-y line in the chorus. At this point, they were performing for each other, really. Madame Moser didn’t seem to mind. In fact, from what I could tell, Ms. Moser’s job didn’t seem to be work at all. She was enjoying herself as much as the kids were. After class she told me, “I take such joy in seeing them succeed.” Everyone should have a teacher as engaged and engaging as Sharon Moser. C’est vrai. Elle est formidable!
* Some names have been changed to protect the innocent.