My high school French teacher was Miss Leah Silverman. She may have changed the course of my life. I’ll never know that for sure, but I suspect she did.
I always loved the French language from the moment I set foot in my first class in 7th grade. It came easy to me and I enjoyed it. I wanted to share what I learned so I made my brother and cousin take classes with me at night so I could teach them what I learned. I took it for three years in middle school and then continued on in high school.
Miss Silverman walked into my first French class in high school. She was very plain looking. Pale skin, red hair always in a bun, and she wore little, short black boots on her feet. Her dresses were all identical except for the material. I suspect she made them all herself from a McCall’s pattern. All boxed dresses, a pocket on each side, collar, and three button on top. She always walked into the room promptly, with an arm full of books and got right down to business. I think she looked older than she really was because of her appearance. She was the epitome of the word old maid.
Miss Silverman took teaching very seriously. There were no jokes or digressions to stories of her life or trips to France. We stuck to the book and learned our grammar, vocabulary and culture. Somehow she took the joy out of learning French for me. She made me uneasy though she never really did anything to me.
As in any language class, participation is very important. It’s the only time you really get to practice speaking the language. I hated to speak French because my accent was terrible. When she called on me, I was nervous and uneasy, which didn’t help my accent at all. One day, after struggling to read something out loud, she asked to see me after class. I dreaded this like you would not believe. After class I reluctantly approached her desk. She told me that my pronunciation needed work and that I should pick out a sentence a day to read to her after each class. I was dying inside. There was no way this exercise was going to end because my accent was terrible. Then I remembered that my young English teacher knew French and offered to help any of us if we needed it. I decided to go to her, have her read me the sentence, and then try my best to imitate her when I got to French class. That worked. However, it also killed my confidence and ability in continuing with French and maybe teaching it one day.
When I got to college, I had the option of continuing with French or taking a new language. I chose to take Italian. I was afraid that I was not good enough to pursue French and felt maybe the other students would be ahead of me. Ironically, my brother went on to major in French when he got to college.
It’s now 40 years later and I still remember the first sentence I picked out to read:
Hier, toujours cheminant en revant, je suis arrivee sur la queue de la Seine. (trans. Yesterday while walking and dreaming, I arrived at the mouth of the Seine.) I will say it out loud every now and then and tell the story of Miss Silverman when I do. And I will wonder, if I had had another French teacher, if I would have continued my studies in French and became a teacher.
I guess I will never know the answer. But maybe I do…
A bit more irony. In 2001, 30 years after leaving Miss Silverman’s class and forgetting all my French, I went to a local college to take French classes. I got all A’s and the professors suggested I take graduate classes and get my Master’s degree and teach. I got all A’s in the graduate classes too and write two papers, in French that were over 25 pages each. I love French literature and being in class. So I think the answer to my question is yes I could have easily majored in French and become a teacher if Miss Silverman had bolstered my confidence instead of shooting it down.