Although I grew up in the Chicagoland area, my parents both hail from Canada, our Great White Neighbor to the North. This explains my love of hockey, a trait that seems to have been passed down to me genetically along with a tendency to wear flannel shirts, funny hats, and a love of beer so profound that it causes a severe speech impediment, which other people call “speaking French”.
Seriously. One time a bartender in Montreal told me, “Your French is much better when you’re drunk.”
“That’s nothing,” I said. “Bring me another drink and I’ll run for Prime Minister.”
“That would be an improvement,” she replied. “This one’s on the house.”
Of course I had to learn French somewhere. Only the Welsh have a language that’s 100% alcohol-based. Don’t believe me? Here is the Welsh translation for a common Welsh saying, “Please place a trout in my special place”: “Rhowch brithyll yn fy lle arbennig.” I’m not joking, that’s an actual Welsh sentence. Welsh is less a language than it is a never ending bad Scrabble hand. But French is at least partially based on rules and common sense, so it had to be learned. I learned French after having taken it in school for 12 years.
Frankly, the word “learned” isn’t terribly descriptive of the process by which French words became lodged in my brain. The word “learn” implies a certain level of effort, of which I gave very little. I seemed to have learned French in spite of myself, possibly by osmosis. From first grade through junior high, I took French lessons along with classmates from my mom, who volunteered her services to the local school district. Whether she did this because of a dedication to learning or because she was a masochist is open to debate, because I was anything but a model student during French class. You think I run off at the mouth now? You should have seen me before I learned a little self-control:
Mom: Ok, class, what is the French word for “lobster”?
Me: (fifteen minute monologue about lobsters, seafood, Red Lobster, fake nautical-themed restaurant decorations, and how my female classmates seemed to have grown boobs over the summer)
Mom: Greg, go to the office.
Me: You can’t send me to the office! You’re my mom!
Mom: Fine. Go home and go to your room.
The French word for lobster, by the way, is “homard”, or “langouste” if you’re talking about a spiny lobster. This represents 60% of what I can recall of the French language without the help of beer, due largely in part to the ridiculous behavior I engaged in during French class. (I also know how to say, “Will you sleep with me tonight?”, but that has less to do with French lessons, and more to do with a certain God-awful song released in the 70’s.)
My behavior was no better when I took French in high school. My mom could not teach French in high school because they already had a foreign language program, and also because they tended to be sticklers about technicalities like making sure the teachers were licensed and qualified.
I don’t want to imply that my mother was anything but a wonderful teacher (which she really was), but she was apparently allowed access to school-children without a background check or any type of qualifications whatsoever.
Principal: And how may I help you today, ma’am?
My Mom: I would like access to your school children even though you are not familiar with my background and I have no qualifications whatsoever.
But in my high school, that shit didn’t fly. They already had a French teacher, Ms. Daley, and I learned her weakness on the very first day of class.
Ms. Daley: Hey, your mom teaches French in grade school and junior high, doesn’t she?
Ms. Daley: Haha, I better be nice to you or your mom will try taking my job! Haha.
Me: Yeah, she’s talked about doing that.
Ms. Daley: She… She has?!?
Me: Oh yeah, she talks about it all the time. Hey, can I leave class early so I can… I don’t know… Not be here?
Ms. Daley: Sure! Yes, whatever you want! Be sure to tell your mom I said hi!
That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much. Ms. Daley was terrified that my mom was going to take her job, and I did absolutely nothing to disabuse her of that notion because this fear allowed me to get away with all kinds of behavior.
Me: Hey, Ms. Daley! Wouldn’t it be cool if a tornado came by and whipped a piece of sheet metal right through your head?
Ms. Daley: WHAT?!? GO TO THE OFFICE!
Me: Jeez, I was just sayin’. Hey, what’s French for “just sayin'”?
Ms. Daley: Uhhh… “Je dis simplement”
Me: Cool! You just taught me something useful! I can’t wait to tell my mom!
Ms. Daley: …
Me: (big smile)
Ms. Daley: Glad I could help.
That was an actual exchange the two of us had, in front of the entire class. I had this poor woman as my teacher for four whole years. One time I discovered how to make a “meowing” noise while keeping my mouth completely still. I tried it out in class one day and watched with no small amount of amusement as it drove my teacher mad.
“Is… Is that a cat?” she’d ask the class. Of course the class heard it too, and soon the whole class was looking out the window, in the hallway, and under desks for the source of the cat. “Seriously, did anyone bring a cat to class?”
Finally, sensing something was up, she looked at me and asked me if I knew where the cat was. Before I moved a single muscle to answer, I meowed again. “There it is again!” she said, and continued her frantic search for the phantom cat.
After a week of sporadic cat calls, I clued a few classmates into what I had been doing. The next week, I continued to make cat noises, but now everyone in class insisted that they did not hear a cat. This worried Ms. Daley greatly.
Ms. Daley: Seriously, didn’t anyone hear that?
Ms. Daley: Oh, c’mon! How could you have not heard that?
Ms. Daley: THERE IT IS AGAIN! DID YOU HEAR THAT?
Ms. Daley: I… I’m going to go get a drink of water. Everyone please read chapter three of Suivez La Piste to yourselves.
Over the course of four years, my behavior got progressively worse, often including flagrant, out in the open cheating. The cheating was greatly facilitated by the semi-circle desk arrangement, which allowed us to cram five or six desks in close proximity to each other, making it almost impossible to not see other people’s tests. Still, I used the occasion to piss off my increasingly impotent teacher.
Steve: (whispering) What did you put for number 3?
Me: (normal voice) Je t’aime.
Steve: (whispering) What?
Me: (sigh) (loudly) J-E SPACE T APOSTROPHE A-I-M-E, Je T’aime! Jesus!
Ms. Daley: Greg, I hope you’re telling Steve you love him, because otherwise you’re cheating.
Me: I do love him. I want to have his babies.
Ms. Daley: Ok. As long as you’re not cheating.
Me: Well, we’re also cheating on this test.
Ms. Daley: Just… Just take the test. By yourself, ok? No cheating.
Me: Ok, but I’m not making any promises.
Seriously, I was a little shit. If I wasn’t disrupting class with endless wise-cracks or flagrantly cheating (although I got A’s easily enough since I’d been taking French for eight years), I was digging up dirt on Ms. Daley and referring to it in class.
For instance, Ms. Daley lived in the same neighborhood as my girlfriend, and one night after a party, one of my friends threw open Ms. Daley’s front door and yelled, “Julie, I’m drunk and ready for some lovin’! Get ready, baby!” And then he hauled ass. So next week, I’d drop the phrase “drunk and ready for some lovin'” into play during class to see her reaction, which was to ask to see me after class.
“Greg,” she’d start, using her grown-up serious-face, “I’m going to ask you a serious question, and I promise that if you tell the truth you won’t get in trouble. Were you at my house last Saturday night?”
“Hahaha, no. You know Doug Forchner, right?”
“Yes, he lives across the street from me.”
“Yeah, he told me that he saw some guy open your door, scream that, and then run away.”
This wasn’t exactly a lie, as Doug Forchner did see someone do that: Himself.
My junior year of high school, I was told about a potentially criminal rendezvous Ms. Daley had had with a senior student of hers that she had sponsored for (get ready for this) French Camp. The student in question refused to answer any questions about what had happened, but a good friend of his was adamant that they had bumped uglies the last night of camp, a story which seemed much more likely when she all of a sudden showed up at his house when he threw a party a couple of months later. She was dressed very casually, sipped on a beer, and stayed glued to his side until he finally locked himself in a bathroom until she left.
“Ok, before class is out, I want to remind everyone that every year I sponsor a student to attend French Camp. If you’re interested in being that student, I have some forms you’ll need to fill out.”
“Ms. Daley,” I called out. “I heard that kids get molested at this camp. Is that true?”
There was utter silence in the room as everyone looked at Ms. Daley, who was frozen in place. Finally, she realized that her silence was implicating her even more than I was, and a quick, “Haha, that’s ridiculous.” was her weak reply.
The last semester of my senior year, I gave up any pretense of behaving. I had a t-shirt made up that read, “French Blows!” that I’d slip into before class; I’d often prepare questions to ask Ms. Daley – In German; and for a class project, a classmate and I made a French Vanilla Rum Cake with so much booze in it that it got confiscated. The remainder of the booze was used to prep for our French Class Dinner, a yearly event for seniors held at a fancy French restaurant. Ms. Daley was the head of After-Care, which was the school’s program for students with substance abuse issues, and so she was not amused when she pulled alongside us in traffic on the way to dinner to see us mixing cocktails as we drove merrily down the road. (She was also not amused when I took snails off the hors-d’oeuvres platter and arranged them as if a race was under way, and very much angry with my friend when he basically threw a salad at me from across the table.)
Finally, the last week of class, I managed to get myself kicked out. This was a result of a concerted effort to see how far I could push my luck. It started when we had an argument in class about, of all things, French accents.
Ms. Daley: Todd, your accent is a little off. You’re pronouncing it with a Canadian accent, not a French accent.
Me: What’s wrong with a Canadian accent?
Ms. Daley: It’s wrong.
Me: (in English accent) Bloody ‘ell, yer accent is bloody wrong, it is! Listen to that Yankee claptrap! C’mon, luv, give it another go!
Ms. Daley: Haha, I get your point. But we’re learning French, so we want to pronounce it the way they do in France.
Me: You mean in a French accent?
Ms. Daley: Yes.
Me: Well, I’ve been to Canada, and I can tell you for a fact that they don’t speak fucking Swahili there.
Ms. Daley: Excuse me?
Me: You can’t say that a Canadian accent is wrong!
Ms. Daley: Yes, I can. I’m the teacher.
Me: Well, sieg heil, mein Führer!
Ms. Daley: What did you just say to me!?
Me: Sorry, I’ll say it en Français: (throws hands up) We surrender!
I told you I was a little shit. Over the course of the next week, I increased the number and quality of my interruptions until she finally snapped. The final straw came when she asked me if I would like to be sent to the office, and I answered “Oui”. She ignored this, but I persisted and asked her in French if I could go to the office. “That was ok, wasn’t it? My accent wasn’t too Canadian for your taste?” Finally, after four years, she’d had enough. The last class before the final, she kicked me out.
The only reason I had continued to take French in high school was because it covered pretty much the same ground I’d covered during the eight years of French I’d already taken. It was an easy grade, and because the final year was considered Advanced Placement, a passing grade meant that I’d get college credit for it as well.
So because I’d gotten good grades for the semester, I didn’t have to worry about the final. I got really, really, really high for it. Sitting at my desk, I could hear people around me laughing at how stoned I was, something I played to by loudly asking if anyone had any chips. The final began, and I just laughed and went up and down the Scan-tron sheet filling in answers in a predictable pattern: A, B, C, D, E, A, B, C, D, E, …
As we were leaving the final, my last as a high school student, Ms. Daley said to everyone, “Good luck in college! Remember, ne pas de drug! Ne pas de sex!”
I laughed and said, “Ne pas de chance!” and began to walk out of French class for the last time.
“Greg,” said Ms. Daley with a smile on her face. “Could I see you for one minute?”
I was so stoned that I thought she’d give me some sort of, “We’ve had some ups and downs, but I’d like you to know that I wish you well” kind of speech. Uh-uh.
“Can you take off those sunglasses when I’m talking to you?” she said.
“I understand. I mean, really. I understand why you’re wearing sunglasses indoors, Greg. I am in charge of the After-Care program, you know. And I do not approve of what you’re doing.”
I don’t know why I didn’t expect this lecture. I guess I was really high. “Ok. Is that it?”
“One last thing,” she said as she held up my Scan-tron test, with its neat, diagonally-patterned answers giving away my lack of effort. “Did you know that if I can prove that you didn’t put forth an effort on the final that I can fail you for the whole semester? Have fun taking French in college, Greg. You may leave now.”
Of course, college was still on the other side of what promised to be a summer filled with girls, beer, and drugs, so this bad news didn’t keep me down for long. The next day, I showed up at school along with the rest of the school, to clean out my locker. As I was doing this, Jill, a good friend and classmate of mine approached me.
“Hey, I’m going to see what I got on my French final. You want to go with me?”
“Are you fucking kidding me? I already know how I did, and I don’t want to give Daley another opportunity to gloat.”
“Oh, c’mon. It’ll give you one last chance to drive her crazy.”
So I shrugged and went along for the ride. We walked into Ms. Daley’s class to find her sitting at her desk, packing up for the summer.
“Oh, hi, Jill! Are you here for your grades?” She read off Jill’s grades and then turned her attention to me. I had expected her to gloat, maybe, or perhaps show some anger. God knows, I’d earned it. Instead, she calmly said, “Greg, you got an A for the first quarter, a B for the second quarter…” and then she shook her head and laughed. “I don’t know how the hell you managed to do it, but you somehow got a C on the final.”
Jill burst out into laughter as I said, “That’s fucking HILARIOUS!”
“Au revoir, Greg,” said Ms. Daley.
“Auf wiedersehen, Julie,” I answered. We both gave each other a smile, and I walked out of French class for good.
But Ms. Daley and I were not done yet. Thirty minutes later, a friend and I sat at a stop light in my car. I held a joint below window level, and after a quick scan for cops, lifted it to my lips and took a huge, lung-busting hit. It was then that I noticed Ms. Daley in the car next to me, looking right at me. I coughed out an impossibly large cloud of smoke, stomped on the gas, and hung a quick right turn.
“What the fuck?” asked my friend.
“That was Ms. Daley! My fucking French teacher!”
“She’s not your French teacher any more.”
“Hahaha, that’s right!” I said. “C’est ça,” I added, in what was probably a Canadian accent.