Hit the Ground Running
So it’s late August 2010. I had been in Tampa all of about 72 hours and here I am in front of classes of mostly freshman. I hadn’t really dug much into either french or german in recent years but I had learned them both well enough in high school, college and grad school that it came back to me very quickly.
The french kids were there because they needed to have a language and for whatever reason spanish wasn’t the answer. The kids taking german were fewer but they seemed a bit more focused. Students willing to take a language they know is a bit more difficult tend to be the ones who aren’t afraid of doing some work and actually want to get something out it.
My biggest fear was, “What if I can’t explain certain points of grammar because I myself never really got it?” German, if you’ve studied the language, has some very convoluted grammatical structures. Must have been dreamed up by some sadistic Nazi SS officer bent on making our learning of their language as difficult as possible. “How was I going to explain to them things that I myself didn’t understand?”
Well the answer lay in the fact that I was now 57 instead of 17. My little brain had matured over the years. Concepts that seemed incomprehensible at 17 made pretty good sense at 57. I’d read ahead a little bit….researched things on the internet. I still had lots of german-speaking friends in Washington….I got it figured out. And I myself learned and finally came to understand things, such as proper use of the genetive case, that I could never figure out in high school or college. Of course, back then – in high school and college – I spent my life in a weed-induced mental fog where I was lucky if I could remember my name never mind grasp the complexities of german grammar. In college, as in high school, I put a good deal of time and effort into things that weren’t….uh….exactly directly related to academics.
In some ways I was too young to go to college at the age of 18. I just wasn’t mature enough. But for me, coming out of high school in 1971 I had a choice:
A) You can go to college, Daddy pays the bills, gives you a car and basically supports you; or
B) You’re drafted and get a one-way ticket to Vietnam.
Hmmm, really tough choice…. yeah, lemme think about that…uh…okay…..I’ll go to college.
The one thing I really did like -and was good at- was learning foreign languages. I loved the history that went along with it. So that would be my area. I was a B+ student in high school. I could have done better had I applied myself but when weekends rolled around there was a keg of beer some place and some girls to mingle with so I was off and running.
College was better because now I could get into political science…the why’s and wherefore’s of all that went on….that combined with my time in Europe I think provided an excellent preparation for teaching these Tampa high school kids french and german.
Learning a language is more than just nouns, verbs and vocabulary. It’s essential to have an understanding of what contribution, good or bad, this country whose language you’re learning has made to civilization.
At this time the Iraq War was winding down. The French opposed it from the beginning. We weren’t getting on with the French and it was popular back then to poke fun at them and joke about them being cowards and so forth. “Freedom fries” and all that nonsense. I think it is lost on many Americans that it was the help we got from France that enabled us to defeat the British at Yorktown in 1781 and ultimately win our independence. We probably could not have done that without them. Where did the Statue of Liberty come from? France. Just because you disagree, argue, have fights over things does not mean the basic, underlying friendship is not in tact.
After all, in the last century, each time the Germans have held a knife to the throat of the French….who do the french scream for? America! See they really do love us, especially when the Germans are about to kill them.
Our relations with Germany are a bit more complicated. We’ve fought them twice in the last century….and we beat them twice in the last century. For the last 70 years they’ve been good democrats (with a small ‘d’ which means govts based on genuine democratic principles – free elections, freedom of speech, etc) and that’s how it’ll stay. Some of my early german students still think that Germany is all about Hitler and the Nazis. That was only 12 years. Yes, 12 ugly years, but only 12 years. There’s Bach, Beethoven, Mozart (okay, he was Austrian), Johannes Gutenberg, Martin Luther….Germany has made enormous and positive contributions to western culture and civilization, but all these freshmen students seem to know about Germany is Dachau and Auschwitz.
Freedom High School in Tampa
Over the course of the three years I was at Freedom High School I was the only german teacher and one of just two french teachers. In my second year I had two sections of German One so that told me the german program was growing…so I felt pretty good about that. Come the end of that year I am the last to find out that there would be NO German One the following year….which was the kiss of death. I discovered this by pulling the schedule for the following year out of my mailbox….my dept chair knew, the Asst Principal knew — but no one bothered to tell me, probably because they knew I’d hit the roof. But really I had nothing to say about it. If students didn’t want german, then that’s it. How could I force them to sign up for a course they didn’t want to take?
That spells the end of the german program. On top of that the french program is seeing lower enrollments. Spanish is still strong but students are looking for non-European languages, Arabic, Farsi (Iran) and Chinese…and with good reason.
So that meant the class that started with me my first year there at Freedom, 2010, I was going to miss their senior year. I was not happy about that. You have a kid for US Govt or World History, he’s in one year and gone – you don’t see him again. Language though is cumulative. We offered three years of German. Some students I had three years in a row. By the end of the third year you feel you know them pretty well. You know what extra-curricular activities they’re doing, maybe you get to know their girlfriend or boyfriend, you learn a little something about their family…. two of my german students lost their fathers unexpectedly while they were my students. You can only imagine the trauma that inflicts on a teenager. You really get to know them as a person rather than just a name on a class roster.
This is what happened to me. I developed something of an attachment to a small handful of these kids.
One of my shortcomings as a teacher is that I don’t enforce rules very well. And I don’t enforce them equally. I tend to come down on boys harder than on girls. I grew up in a family with no sisters, just four boys….and I guess I’ve got this idea that if you yell at a girl they’ll break…. shatter to pieces. So I tend to let girls get away with things that I really shouldn’t where I’ll crack down on a guy in no time. One constant struggle we have in high school is with cell phones.
Official school policy says no phones during class at all……period. I was not good with enforcing that because I didn’t want my students to think that my class was like a prison. I wanted them to be able to relax a little, hopefully enjoy it and maybe even learn something. So I was a bit fast and loose when it came to things like kids having phones out.
Well by the time you’ve had a student for a second year you know this or that kid pretty well….I know who’s doing well and who’s struggling and I tend to make the struggling kids focus on their work a bit more. But if it’s the end of the day, the end of the class, and some kid wants to pull out his phone to check his text messages, so what? The sky is not going to fall.
Two of my german students and one french student graduated with honors and are headed off to the University of Florida. Another has gained admittance to a military academy, which is nothing to sneeze at. I wrote him a letter of recommendation that I hope helped him get in. Another is headed into the Marine Corps. It makes me proud to see these kids succeeding in life and knowing I had a hand in it; at the same time it saddens me that the only time I’ll see them will be if I bump into them at the grocery store over the summer. I’d like to sit and listen to what their plans and aspirations are….luckily they’re all pretty good with email…and I’m hoping they we can stay in contact that way.
There are a lot of rewards to teaching. Money certainly is not one of them. Don’t go into this field if wealth is your goal. You are rewarded by meeting lots of great people, impacting the lives of hundreds of students. Hopefully they carry those memories with them as happy times. I certainly do.