Turnabout is fair play

In the angsty period after the birth of my first child, I wondered if I would be able to rejoice in my children’s successes without considering them mine. I mean, how much credit do you usually give to your parents for your accomplishments? Indubitably less than they’re due, but that is the way of things. Would I own their accomplishments as if they were my own? What if my children were not particularly accomplished?

I never considered, in the throes of generational myopia, that it might be my parents who would rack up accomplishments worthy of note. I mean, yeah. So my mom was one of the first ever Commissioned Lay Preachers in the Presbyterian Church. So my dad’s work in Africa probably saved the lives of hundreds of children. Yes, I went to my mom’s Master’s graduation. And you know every time that a fisherman in Deadliest Catch goes in to get medical care at Dutch Harbor… my father set up that clinic with telepresence. But my parents are my parents. They’re supposed to be nearly retiring, and, er, parental. Right? (Editor’s note: my mother says she was not such an early CLP. I’m still waiting for my dad to weigh in on what I said about him.)

And then, when I turn my back, they both go and make me sure proud.

My father has, over the last few years, grown more and more interested in local history. He made friends with the old folks who still own the oral history. He took their old black and white pictures and digitized them. He learned the stories about our adopted valley home. Then, he set about combining story and picture, legend and fact into a book. A real book. Published by real publishers and available in real book stores. It comes out next week, and he already has the author copies. You can get some sneak peeks in his blog.

Now this has been a long time in the works and comes as no great surprise. But man, that’s a big deal. I’ve wanted to write a book since second grade. But my father beat me to it! And I couldn’t be prouder!

Then there’s my mom. She teaches 5th/6th combo in a very small school in said mountainous valley. As part of her teaching, she includes a segment each week on French, and has for years. Well, she just won the “Eberspacher Award for Excellence in teaching of Modern Western European Languages”. She applied, but definitely didn’t expect to win, since her time per week is so short. Here’s her winning essay for the prize.

I was both surprised and honored to be nominated for the Eberspacher Award. Since I am not a full-time language teacher, I certainly never expected such a nomination. The student who nominated mewas in my highly capable 5/6 grade class. Her exposure in my class to French came in 30 minute a week doses. It has never been enough, but it has been a fun time for the students and me.

My introduction to the study of foreign languages was unfortunate. One year of junior high school Spanish followed by two years of high school Spanish left me with fragments of Spanish about Juan and his friends going to the library. While I remember the dialogues, their English translations are forever printed beneath. The study did not become a meaning-to-Spanish connection, but rather a
continual activity in translation. Biblioteca conjures up the word library and not a picture of a room of books. I do not blame my teachers. They were hampered by a curriculum, complete with tapes, and large class size. But both my teacher and I heaved a sigh of relief when the mandatory two years were over.

My next language experience came when my husband and I were posted to Africa. We made a six month stop on the way in France to learn French. Le Chambon sur Lyon was an immersion experience. We were greeted by Mme Rivier who spoke not a word of English (a claim I now doubt – but we believed then). She pranced around the room shaking hands with us and pointing to this and that. After a couple of bewildering weeks, patterns began to emerge and what she said began to make sense.

And the whole town was in on the activity. The first week, we could go to the patissaire and point at a chosen pastry. After the first week, we needed a s’il vous plait with our grunts. The community welcomed us and conversed with us in patient French. They did not sell me the knife I demanded for my six-month old daughter (my sister), but waited until I found the word for spoon.

The pivotal point in my French career happened in the pension (boarding house) associated with the school. One day a sign appeared on the dining tables which stated, Ici on parle uniquement francais. (Here one speaks only French.) I confess to tears of despair. I would never be able to talk again! But I did. My first meaningful conversation was with a fellow student, a Norwegian who didn’t speak English. We discussed infant baptism.

When we arrived in Zaire (now the DRC), I was much better equipped to deal with Tshiluba. A native Tshiluba speaker prayed for those of us learning Tshiluba once. He asked that we would have “windy tongues, and intelligence on top of the little we already had.” Windy tongues indeed! Grant my students windy tongues!

So when I entered my sixth grade classroom at Columbia Crest, I decided that I would teach my students something of what I learned studying French. Mme. Jeanpierre (my name is Johnstone) appears weekly in my class with her beret. That woman knows not a word of English! Fois is shivering and warming her arms. Chaud is the fanning motion. We greet and introduce one another, commenting on our health. We do calendars. We play Voila (also known as Bingo), and Allez Peche (Go Fish) to learn numbers. We go to the clock and door, and discuss others going to the clock and door. We watch The Red Balloon with a running narration in French. We struggle with why some of us are Americain and others Americaine.

Perhaps students do not leave my class knowing as much French as I would like. I hope what French they learn has a direct connection between the object or idea, and the French words. But the French they learn is a side benefit to something bigger. I would say my goals have more to do with language acquisition. I want them to know that learning a language can be fun! I want them to see that you do not need to dread learning a language. Play is a powerful tool in language acquisition and I want them to see that.

I also want my students to know that when faced with someone who does not speak your language, you need not be helpless. Patience, attentive ears, and observation can go a longs ways to untangling the nonsense syllables they hear. Students don’t hear that message in schools now. We teach them so much with direct instruction that they don’t necessarily know how to acquire knowledge without teaching. I want my students to know that they need not throw up their hands in despair when their Tshiluba/English dictionary fails them.

Especially, I want them to learn to create direct connections between language and meaning. I want them to avoid stopping at the English word on their way between un livre and the book on their desk.

So thank you, student, for nominating me for the Eberspacher Award. I hope it means that you took with you from Mme Jeanpierre, something valuable about French and about languages.

Way to go, parents of mine. I’m proud of you both.

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Brenda currently lives in Stoneham MA, but grew up in Mineral WA. She is surrounded by men, with two sons, one husband and two boy cats. She plays trumpet at church, cans farmshare produce and works in software.

2 thoughts on “Turnabout is fair play”

  1. Good post, Brenda. I feel the same way about my parents (for different reasons, of course). Your dad’s book is very cool news — I’ve been drafting away at a novel set in the Nisqually Valley in the early 20th century for years now (around the edges of grad school writing) and your dad’s book looks like a helpful piece of research. I’m going to need to put my hands on a copy.

    Thanks for your ever-thoughtful blogs. I thoroughly enjoy reading them.


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