My very failed attempt to learn French…

Moving from Jr. High School to High School was a big step for me for many reasons. Reason number one was that I would actually have to travel a bit to get to school. A subway ride from 14 st in Manhattan to the Grand Concourse in the Bronx was now necessary. While it was usually about a 45-minute trip, one could never be certain with the Subway system, so allowing plenty of time to arrive at school on time was important.
Up to this point in my somewhat young life, I had been able to simply walk to school from our apartment, a luxury I found out that I took very much for granted.

Secondly, the level of discipline increased significantly. Catholic Jr. High was bad enough, but the standard had just gone way higher. Hell, my high school actually had a “Dean of Discipline” and he relished the role. You can read more about this phase of my education in previous posts about my High School years at Cardinal Hayes.

The “big step” I want to talk about today is an academic one; the requirement that I study foreign languages. One language, Latin, was required because of Hayes being a very traditional Catholic school. Much of the Catholic Mass was still conducted in Latin back in the day, so we had to be very familiar with it for our duties at Church and perhaps even for our future roles as Christian Brothers or Priests. The other language we had to take was elective. I had the choice of taking Spanish, German or French.

Now, remember, I only knew one language… that was New York street language. It involved a significant amount of “shrugging “, facial and hand expressions, and grunts. Perfect communication mechanisms. I think some Italian families never uttered real words to each other.

So, now, despite not being a master of the English language and absolutely clueless in Latin, I had to pick another one. The smart bet would have been Spanish. Many of the kids I knew were either Puerto Rican or Cuban and they spoke Spanish fluently. Despite not understanding it, I heard the language regularly. I could have picked up a lot from them. Spanish was the smart bet. So, I chose French. I still have no idea why. I probably saw some cool guy in a fabulous suit, with a hot girl by his side speaking it in a James Bond movie, who knows?

I liked the way the language sounded; romantic, poetic, sexy and musical. I assure you, my attempts to learn this classical language were aberrations to what I just described.
I knew I was in trouble the first day I walked into the classroom and was greeted by a suave, blue-eyed Christian Brother: Brother Marseille’.

Yep, Brother Marseille’. He didn’t just know French, he was French. With a huge smile, he greeted us as we entered the room:

“Bonjour! Mes merveilleux garçons! Bonjour! “( good morning my wonderful boys! Good morning!)

Me and a couple of others;

“What did he just call us?”

(Clearly, Brother Marseille’ had way too much class and sophistication for the South Bronx.)

Me and a few others:

“He called us Marvo arsons… what the hell does that mean?”

“I don’t know, but he was smiling, so it must be good” ( followed by numerous shrugs, head shakes, and grunts)

……and so it began.

Brother Marseille’ made it clear on our first day that he felt the best way to teach French was to allow no English in the classroom. From now on everything would be in French. We would learn by context and association.

“What? “Followed by more shrugs, etc.

Bottom line, I was lost from day one and never recovered.

He would attempt to teach us by having easy to follow conversations with us. He would pick one guy and begin the conversation. After a full half year, here is an example of a “conversation” with me.

Please try to visualize this taking place in French. ( Brother Marseille’s French was obviously impeccable.)

Brother Marseille’: “Good morning, Mr.Ortolano!”

Me: Good morning ( so far so good)

Brother Marseille’: “how are you today?”

Me: “I am well “(on a serious roll)

Brother Marseille’( smiling now) “where is the library?”

Me: ( after major hesitation) “I am cold”.

Brother Marseille’( raised eyebrow) “No, No… Where. Is. The. Library.”

Me: ( shoulder shrug) “I am hungry”.

Brother Marseille: ( perplexed, raised voice) “Mr. Ortolano! Listen, Please! Never mind the library. Where do you live?”

Me: ( grunting) “I have a new coat”

Brother Marseille’ ( ready to shoot me or himself) “ No! Mr. Ortolano! No. Please sit down!

Me going to open window as that is what I thought he told me to do.
…… and so it went.

During most classes, I just sat there trying to be as inconspicuous as possible… hoping he never called on me for conversation time. I swear I noticed him look in my direction at times. His eyes appeared to glaze over for a moment before he quickly looked away and called on someone else.

Many of the guys actually did pretty well learning the language. Then there were the rest of us who looked longingly out the window, thinking about Yankee Stadium just a short distance away. We would exchange glances during class and  our facial and body language said all that needed to be said:

“You have any idea what he said?”
“Not a clue”
“This sucks”
“I know!”
“How much longer?”
“This sucks”
“So do the Red Sox!”

All that communicated without uttering a word… why the hell do I need another language??

-où est la bibliothèque

-j’ai un nouveau manteau



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