August 4, 2011

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


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 thoughts (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, the Montreal Canadiens hockey team, Edith Piaf 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 liked his classes. In my mind, Ira was as smart as Ellen Rees. Among other things he said, "Oh, Spanish is going to be fun." In shock, I almost fell on the floor. What the heck was Ira doing taking Spanish?

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.

Our freshman year only three languages were offered. We were to become our school's first graduating class. By the time we entered senior year in 1959, since there was other grades at DAHS, additional languages were available because the pool of students had grown.

French was one of my favorite high-school classes. I took three years with a teacher having the least French name one could imagine, Thaddeus Kalinowski. He had never been to France, much less Quebec, but the man was a fine instructor and I was well prepared for two semesters of French at Hofstra.

Among other things I learned in French class was that Piaf, as in Edith, means sparrow.

The memories of other DAHS grads follows:

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.

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.


The photo, from the 1960 yearbook, is of Mr. Kalinowski teaching a French class.


Anonymous said...

I took Latin mostly because my dad, who was a teacher, said it was the basis of all Romance languages, and it would assist in writing English. I took three years (teachers name unremembered) and in addition to being fun and not very hard it was also cultural in terms of Roman history. One thing I remember was a special project we had where we had to build or draw something Roman. Rich Humbert brought in a feather and a bucket based on what the Romans did during feasts so they could binge and purge. We all though it was funny.
In the last two years I doubled in Latin and German. I learned enough German to pass freshman German in College. I had been told that I needed it for science. This turned out to not be true and I changed majors out of science anyway.

Sent from my iPad
Laurence Bory

susan weldon said...

i have no memory of why i chose to take french. perhaps it had something to do with yves montand. i loved mr kalinowski (thad kal to his fans) because he was flamboyant, funny, warm and clearly loved his job. i did well enough in high school french to test out of college first year french into intermediate class. i became enamoured of french film (or maybe french actors - alain delon, john-paul belmondo - need i say more) and developed into something of a french cinema devotee (aka snob). the names godard, truffaut and chabrol were sprinkled throughout my pretentious ramblings.

i lived in paris with my soon to be first husband for about 6 months and we went to the La Cinémathèque française every night with a film student we had met and completely immersed ourselves in that world. our friend, patrick florsheim, eventually became a well known french tv actor and appeared in the films "diva" and "frantic" which were in wide release in the us.
i still love french film and thanks to mr kalinowski i often don't need the subtitles.

Bill said...

I made my language decision the same way Frank did, except using different logic. I eliminated French immediately since I hated to hear it spoken on TV and in the movies. Just sounded to effeminate to me. I thought German and Spanish were for the real smart kids, so that left Latin. Besides, I was an alter boy from 2nd grade till 6th, and I had learned the whole Mass my first year, plus, my Mom spoke very fluent Italian, and I thought, they have to be real similar or even the same. Wrong!! I took 3 years of Latin, I, II and III 7th 8th and 9th and while it did help me, (and still does), with English and vocabulary, all I took away from the 3 years of Mr. Bray spitting on me was 'cave canem' - Beware of dog, and 'in directum' (I swear) meaning straight ahead! Used to like to answer different questions with that one: "where is the teacher?" "Indirectum" "Where should I put this?" etc.

Bill Fey class of 68

Anonymous said...

I never took a language in H.S. Took Mech Drawing because I thought I might be an architect some day. At Hofstra, as a college frosh, I took French. My French teacher strongly suggested I switch to Russian. I ended up taking four years of Russian and can still write Russian script as fast as I write English script. BTW, my Russian teacher was also my French teacher. Dr Mary Emery,who spoke 5 languages fluently, who had been in a German camp, had been beaten to the degree that she had little balance when walking, had been an interpreter at Nuremburg, and who came to the U.S. with a PhD, only to wash floors and become a nanny on the North Shore prior to landing a position at Hofstra.

Jim Urban