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You put what in your food?!

I visited Jean Francois Menard a couple months ago at Mass Academy. What an incredible character he is, full of life and mirthfulness, and occasionally merde, but in a delightful way. He's the Richard Feynman of bald high school teachers with Ph.D.s in French Literature: such a fascinating combination of jest and seriousness. He's the man who, when someone confused him for the Jean Francois Menard who translated the French Harry Potter, was thrilled to play along and do a book signing. He's the one who fooled his students in Paris into believing he'd suddenly attained a 'proper English accent' after a weekend spent in London. He is an odeophile -- my coinage, from the Greek, for a "lover of theatre" -- and brings theatre into life and the classroom. He is a singer, perhaps a low baritone or high bass, and would probably play a wonderful Ciaphas. He is, the most genuine of language teachers, a true lover of communication. He takes a passionate and often playful pleasure in people, in communicating with them, in having fun with them, in learning what makes them tick. Why consult the tarot when you can consult Menard? He's highly observant and perceptive, and will sometimes intuit things about me, or about the problems I present him with, that I hadn't even considered. His perspective is always interesting and unique, yet practical, and despite his confident opinions, he retains a very open mind. Sometimes, when his responsibility feels threatened, he takes on a demeanor of intense, determined sternness. It's best to steer clear during these times, but when the storm clears, it's as though it never happened. Though I haven't been his student, or rather, haven't attended his classes in... wait, he'd probably agree that the true classroom is life. Start again. Though I haven't been a junior at the Academy in five years, he continues to take a keen interest in me. After our talks I always come home with a new perspective, and even, a new interest in life. He is an older person who gladly admits to valuing weirdness. He puts so much energy into life, and into his relationships with people, and I feel no choice but to be inspired. I rarely write character sketches. I rarely write about people. Menard's is a portrait that I've always wanted to paint, though I've never seriously tried, because I knew every attempt would be inadequate. Yet, perhaps my attempts at putting the spirits of such characters onto paper, though they fail, may help me hone the skills of observation and perception, and the enthusiasm for life that I so admire in my teacher.

He always has fascinating stories to share, and this time, the joke was on him. He told me he was in France, trying to explain why Americans are so fat. He gave an answer I quite agree with: Americans are fat because we put so many preservatives in our foods. Yet, when he gave his answer, everyone responded with outrageous laughter. They urged him to give the same explanation to another group of people, so he did, and once again, everyone burst out in uncontrollable laughter. Then he remembered. He had used the French word "preservatif," which doesn't mean "preservative at all. He had been telling them -- had repeated his story more than once with confidence -- that Americans are fat because we put so many condoms in our foods! Oh, the joy of languages. Something similar, though not nearly as funny, happened to me in Germany when, as an explanation of why I didn't want to eat anymore, I told them I was drunk. ("Ich bin voll," means I am drunk. "Ich bin satt," is the proper idiom for expressing lack of hunger.)

I have raved again and again about Menard's language teaching methods, which were immersion-based, and involved sitting around a table and having interesting discussions. Little did I know there is so much more to it than that. He explained to me today what he was trying to do: he would often make fun of us in the language, hoping to provoke an emotional response, hoping we'd get angry and try to insult him back, or in some way incite a reaction. He did this -- in a theatrical, fun way, of course -- because when we are driven to react... placed involuntarily into real world situations... when we feel the real need to express ourselves, especially in anger, our inhibitions and fear of making mistakes are lessened. I do remember when I was accused wrongfully of laziness in Frankleben, I practically slipped into a near fluent German, out of the necessity of defending myself. In Menard's class, it was theatre -- it may be one of the subtle reasons I love theatre so much today -- and I would often look up words in the dictionary, trying to think of silly or shocking things to say in order to provoke a reaction in him. "I wonder what he'd do if I said....," or "I wonder where the class discussion would lead if I said..." or "I wonder how crazy they'd think I am if I said..." were frequent thoughts in my mind. If I ever said something like, "We put too many condoms in our food," he would probably look shocked, and go on talking confusedly about "preservatifs," perhaps asking if I put them in my food before or after using them for the traditional purpose. We'd all be confused, wondering what he was getting at, and when we finally figured it out, we'd never again forget that "preservatif" means condom!

It's sad that so many students are taught through repetition, through sacred devotion to their grammars, and never really learn to love language. Menard's goal was to plant a seed, to make language something we were interested in, or even passionate about, and to teach us how we could learn in the real world. I have learned that, I think, more than most people, but what I'd give to have another teacher like Menard! How much easier it would be. In fact, what I'd give to have a job like his -- to teach like that! -- teaching languages with that kind of freedom would be paradise. He told me something I'm surprised he'd never told me before. His method, though quite his own, and though he's always learning, was very much influenced by a man he studied under, Dartmouth professor John Rassias. The description of Rassias' method, on his website, sounds so much like what Menard does. I'm a little disappointed that I only learned about this recently. Had I known there were other teachers and even university language departments out there that do what Menard did, I most definitely would have chosen a foreign language major, at one of those schools! Why didn't he tell me? I don't know. Maybe I didn't have enough perspective at the time to know how great that would be for me. Maybe I was too obsessed with physics. Is it too late, or too expensive, with my B.A. in philosophy, to get a B.A. in foreign languages? I want to... though I wonder if, after some real world practice in foreign countries (or Little Germany, Manhattan!), I might be able to get into a graduate program. A lot of people with majors in foreign languages graduate unable to carry on the most basic conversations. I should be able to get into a grad program -- I studied Kant, Hegel, Heiddeger, Nietzsche -- not exactly in German, but that counts, right?

I emailed him to explain how passionate I'd be about finding such an opportunity -- or somehow taking advantage of this passion I have -- but he's just not very good at responding to his email, so I'll probably have to wait till I see him again. I wish he were my personal counselor.


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Jul. 5th, 2005 01:56 am (UTC)
good luck with that! and if you haven't heard, don't give up on contacting him for advice at some point. he sounds like an amazing man. :)
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )


Arthyen Ocean

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