August 15, 2010

How some of us decided what language to take in high school

Mr. Kalinowski, French teacher extraordinaire

By Frank Barning '60
One of my biggest high-school decisions was which language to take: Spanish, French or Latin. I was not the kind of young man who asked others for advice, so as with many other choices in my young life, I had to wing it.

For those of us who thought they were college bound, a big deal in eighth grade was waiting to see if you had been selected to take a foreign language during our freshman year at Division Avenue High School. I expected to get good news, and being a planner, chose a language in advance.

These were my thought (at the time) on the three languages:

Latin…this was for the really smart kids people who would attend elite universities, so that left me out. Or guys headed to the priesthood. That left me out, too.

Spanish…this was the easiest of the three. Therefore it was for the marginal people on a college track. So that removed Espanol from my choices.

French…this was the language for those of us college-bound kids who were, intellectually, somewhere in the middle. So, this was my choice. And it helped that I liked Maurice Chevalier, Brigitte Bardot and French fries.

When ninth grade started, I was in a French class with some really smart kids. The brilliant Ellen Rees comes to mind. She is now Dr. Ellen Rees. Why wasn’t she taking Latin, I wondered?

That first day of freshman year, I was chatting with my friend Ira Selsky after school and asked how he like his classes. In my mind, Ira was as smart as Ellen Rees. Among other things he said, "Oh, Spanish is going to be fun." What the heck was Ira doing taking Spanish? He was probably taking that language because he was so bright. A distinguished attorney, Ira practiced in the Los Angeles area for decades and Spanish was certainly useful in daily life.

It turns out that I was naive for thinking such stupid things about choosing a language. I wonder how many other absolutely moronic conclusions I reached while at Division.

Actually, French was one of my favorite high-school classes. I took three years with a teacher with the least French name one could imagine, the now deceased Thaddeus Kalinowski. He had never been to France, much less Quebec, but the guy was a fine instructor.

Years later, we happened upon each other at Shea Stadium. Mr. K asked if I had taken French in college and he seemed quite please that I had taken two semesters at Hofstra and felt well prepared.

The memories of other DAHS grads follow:

Warren Zaretsky, 1960
I only remember that "someone" said "it's a good thing to take a foreign language." I don't remember who it was or if there was any social, cultural, political, or economic reasons given. It seems it was just a generally accepted idea, like you should eat your vegetables and you don't fart in crowded elevators (well, not out loud anyway).

The choices were Spanish and French and "everyone" said that Spanish was easier. I took Spanish in ninth grade with Mrs. Camiera, a no-nonsense, stern woman with a Castilian lithp. Nevertheless, I fooled around and barely managed a 65. The following year I took French (might as well try the only other option) with Thaddeus Kalinowski -- a bizarrely flamboyant, exuberantly nerdy "piece of work," in natty suits, blue and pink shirts and contrasting bow ties.

I remember him flitting around the room, pounding on students' desks and screaming into our faces, "If I came to your house and woke you up at 3 o'clock in the morning, could you give me the principle parts of the verb vouloire?"

Somehow I passed three years with him, and even a semester's worth in college, Subsequently, when I went to Paris, my 3 1/2 years of French was useless, while my 1-year of failed Spanish stood me in good stead in Spain.

Melissa Shaffer 1962
I chose French, I think because it seemed more intellectual, you know Descartes, etc. and of course for the appeal of French culture in general. Also took Spanish because I loved languages. Took Russian also in high school because it was unique at the time and that appealed to me. Was able to use all those languages - continued Russian in college, finally got to go to Paris, and have used my Spanish since I went into the Peace Corps in 1967. We have a large Latino population in Connecticut, so I get to use at least a little Spanish daily.

Bob Castro, 1960
I have only vague recollections of the foreign language selection process. It seems to me that the guidance counselors had input to this event. I believe that we were told that completion of a foreign language sequence would enhance our chances of college acceptance and that we would have to take a language in college anyway. So, it would be better to start now and make taking a language in college easier.

For me, the choice of a language was easy since my dad spoke fluent Spanish. It was with great regret that Senora Cameira failed the only two students in her Spanish 1 class that had a Spanish heritage; me and Louie Lopez. Summer school at Levittown Memorial was not on my original list of things to do that summer, but due to some "urging" from my parents it became my new priority.

I wound up taking three years of Spanish and did reasonably well, especially in the Regents exams. Maybe that was because I sat next to Renee Gordon.

Since we were the first class in the school, the administration was
probably "hawking" languages since they had to go out and hire language teachers for Spanish, Latin and French and I'm sure that they wanted to know that they could keep them busy.

Dewain Lanfear, 1960
The best I can recall (how's that for a disclaimer from someone not running for office), I was told that many colleges still required Latin as a prerequisite and that many also required a total of five years of language. Furthermore, German was for students who were going to major in math or science, French was for those aiming towards the humanities, and Spanish was for everyone else. Based on that I took three years of Latin and two years of French (doubled up my junior year).

However "bogus" the advice may have been, those choices were excellent ones for me. In 1967 I walked into a language proficiency test for my MA in English and after a two-week refresher in
French, sailed through the exam without a problem. Of course I was aided by the fact that the passage for translation was exactly on my thesis topic, but nevertheless, I believe my DAHS training prepared me
well for that test.

By the way, in college I took two years of Russian and retained nearly nothing. I really believe that nothing we ever learn is wasted.

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