If memory serves, it was 50 years ago today (or maybe tomorrow) that I first set foot on French soil. I think maybe my flight back then departed JFK airport in New York on December 29, 1969, so I must have landed at Le Bourget airport in Paris on December 30. That day would be the pivotal day of my life. Since then, I have flown across the North Atlantic Ocean about 90 times, because I was always unhappy staying away from France for very long.
In 1969, I was 20 years old. I had been born and had grown up in fairly remote little town on the North Carolina coast called Morehead City, pop. 5,000. Both my parents were born there, and we were part of a sort of a clan, I guess. I had about 30 first cousins, 15 on my mother's side, and 15 on my father's side of the family. I went through school in Morehead from kindergarten through 12th grade. My family was working class, I guess you'd say. My father was a carpenter and cabinet maker by trade. My mother was a clerk in a gift shop from the time I was about 10 years old.
I graduated from from high school in Morehead City in 1967. I was a good student — president of the school's chapter of the National Honor Society. I earned straight A's for all 12 years of my primary and secondary schooling, I believe. Getting a B on my report card would have thrown me for a loop. I had summer jobs from the time I was 15, working as what we called a car-hop, carrying meals out to customers in their cars parked in front of fast food restaurant. Then for two or three summers I rented Sunfish sailboats and gave summary sailing lessons to people who wanted to try them out. And I worked for a couple of summers in the tackle and bait shop at a local fishing pier, including one summer on the night shift as a short-order cook in the pier's grill room, flipping burgers and making egg sandwiches for hungry fishermen from 9 p.m to 5 a.m.
Earlier, I had come into contact with people who spoke French. I must have been 10 or 12 years old when a local man returned home from being stationed in France as a member the U.S. military. He brought his French wife with him. Her name was Colette, and she and her husband had two daughters who were maybe five years younger than I was. The girls and their mother spoke French together, and I was fascinated to hear a "foreign" language for the first time in my life. My high school offered a four-year French program, and I signed up for it. It turned out that I had a talent for it.
When the time came to figure out what I would do after graduation from high school, I of course wanted to go to college (as we say in America, meaning university). It never occurred to me that I could become a student at a university outside North Carolina. Fortunately, there were several very good universities in the state, including the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and, nearby, Duke University in Durham. I ended up at Duke because I got a scholarship — my family didn't have the kind of money it would have taken to pay my tuition, room, and board at a private university like Duke. The scholarship covered it.
I took a test the university used to evaluate new students' level in French, and I was judged to have good enough skills to be exempted from the first two years of French language courses at Duke. Taking two years of classes to attain that level of competency in a foreign language was a requirement at Duke and other universities back then. At Duke, students like me who didn't need the language classes were still required to take a year of classes in French to prove they could do so successfully. That meant literature, and the teacher of the class I took was a very well-known professor — an American who had spent many years in France, and who had written numerous books about French literature.
That professor, whose name was Wallace Fowlie, liked me. He taught in a way that fit perfectly with my style of learning and test-taking. He would give a lecture about some famous author or some period of French literature. Then he would give us a test that was designed to make us to say back to him, in writing, what he had told us in the lectures. I think he taught the class in French, but it's hard to remember. There were about 20 of us in his class, and I got an A on every test, I believe. After my first year at Duke, I had satisfied what was called "the language requirement" and I moved on to focus on other subjects, mostly mathematics and science. I had gone to Duke with the idea that I wanted to become a marine biologist. My father wanted me to be a scientist.
Was I ever miserable during the time I was studying those subjects and taking no French classes! I struggled that year, which was the worst of all the years I spent as a student. At the end of that second year, I and all the other students at Duke were required to choose "a major" — a subject that they would focus on for the next two years to earn their bachelor's degree. I considered majoring in English, but I went to talk to a couple of professors in that department, and they didn't seem very interested in my credentials or prospects. Then I went to talk to a couple of professors in the university's French department. They welcomed me with open arms. I had done very well in professor Fowlie's classes, and they must have thought I had potential. So for the first semester of my third year at Duke, I signed up for a couple of French classes and again became a happy student.
But the truth was, my real and greatest desire was to go spend some time in France. Duke had an agreement with another school, Vanderbilt University, under which we students could apply to spend six months in Aix-en-Provence working on our language skills and studying French literature and history. So I applied and was accepted. Vanderbilt arranged a charter flight for us from JFK airport to Paris. We were on our own as far as getting to New York was concerned. I flew from Raleigh-Durham airport to New York. It was the first time I ever flew on an airplane. It was snowing when I got to JFK and met up with the other students who were going to Aix to spend the spring semester there. I knew several of them from having been in French classes at Duke with them. There must have been about 25 of us.
We landed at Le Bourget and were met by the Vanderbilt professor who was going to be the leader of our group and director of the study-abroad program in Aix. His name was Jean Leblon, and he was Belgian. We spent a night or two in Paris, in the Latin Quarter at the Hôtel Monge on the rue Monge, before continuing on to Aix-en-Provence on another chartered flight. Monsieur Leblon took us out to a restaurant that first night, and he had order a roasted suckling pig for our group dinner. I think he was trying to shock us protected and provincial young Americans. Seeing a whole roasted pig on the table, with an apple in its mouth, did the job. But for me, the pork we ate much reminded me of pulled pork and the "pig-picking" barbecues I had always enjoyed in eastern North Carolina.
I had only had classes with one native French-speaking professor at Duke, and she was a teacher whose conversation classes I did not enjoy. I did like Monsieur Leblon, and I liked the other teachers who worked for the Vanderbilt-in-France program. The class I did best in was focused on French pronunciation and phonetics, but I also enjoyed the literature and history classes. I admit, though, that I mostly just enjoyed being in France.
After a week or two of preliminary pronunciation lessons, the teacher of the phonetics class gave us our first real assignment. We were to learn a 10- or 12-sentence passage (M. Seguin et ses chèvres...) in French and then read it in class while our voice was being recorded. And then the teacher would critique each student's performance, and explain to us how we could improve our spoken French. He was brutally honest with us students, and didn't hesitate to tell some of them that they had a long way to go to become fluent. To me, it felt like he was berating students rather than encouraging them.
When my turn came, I read the passage and hoped for the best. I don't remember being particularly nervous. Over my first two or three weeks in Aix, French pronunciation had suddenly started to make sense to me. I lived with a family, shopped in markets, and ordered food in restaurants. I met some French students who were enrolled in the Université d'Aix. I started listening to French music on the radio and going to French movies. The spoken French language had really started making sense to me.
Well, I read my passage in front of the teacher and the other students, and prepared to be told I needed to make a lot of progress over the course of the semester. When I finished reading, the teacher paused for a minute or two, reflecting on what he had heard, and then he asked the other students what they thought of my reading. They of course didn't know what to say, but the ones I knew as friends from classes at Duke were positive. Finally, the teacher said to the class: Eh bien, c'était parfait. He had no criticism to offer. I was stunned, and of course really pleased. I was off and running. I ended up spending seven school years in France between 1970 and 1982, as a student and then as a teacher — teaching English to French students and adult learners.