Friday, April 16th, 2010

Dear Mr. McCormack

apology iconDear Mr. McCormack,

I'm sorry for rejoicing over the prospect of your hometown being destroyed.

I should never have been in the class you were teaching in the first place. French 2, at Red Bank Regional High School, first semester 1986. The teacher who had taught the French 1 class I had taken the previous year, my freshman year, had been something of a pushover and either didn't notice or didn't care that I had been cheating on pretty much every test he gave, and so awarded me a passing grade even though I hadn't learned how to say much more than Je m'appelle David-oh, and the words for "to dance" and "to sing," dancer and chanter, for some reason those always stuck in my head.

So that very first day, when you greeted the class in French (and with such a perfect accent-you were actually from France, I was surprised to learn!) and kept talking to us that way, like we were supposed to understand what you were saying, well, I had a pretty good idea that I wasn't going to be able to bluff my way through for very long. It being the start of a new school year, we students were rambunctious-laughing, joking, still half-fried from summer. You asserted your authority. Standing at the front of the class, not smiling, you spoke to us sternly, all these crisp, mellifluous words I didn't understand. It took you a long time of repeating yourself, and some help in translating from some of the more conscientious students, but eventually I was made to know that you expected us all to write a one-page essay about what we did over the summer, in French. You handed out paper. I looked around. Were you serious? There was no way I could do anything like that. Could anyone else? Just how far behind had all that cheating left me? Quite far, apparently, as most of the class set themselves to writing. You sat down at your desk.

I stared at the empty page, marveling at how hopeless my situation was, thinking about the old saying about how when you cheat, you're really only cheating yourself. Well, here I was. I decided to give it my best shot.

Je m'appelle David, I started. Mon vacacion de summer c'was magnifique…

I wrote more like this, sprinkling the few French words I knew amongst the mostly English bullshit. Le weather was tres bien. I wrote the letters as big as I could, gave myself two-inch margins, took up as much space as possible with cross-outs. Still, I looked at the page, a quarter full; it was ridiculous. So I decided to make it more ridiculous. I stood up and walked up to your desk. "Excuse me, Mr. McCormack?"

You corrected me. "Escusez moi-"

"Escusez moi, M. McCormack. Where are you from in France? What city did you grow up in?"

"D'ou venez vous…"

"D'ou venez vous…"

"Je suis Nicoise," you said, with a quizzical expression. "Je suis originaire de Nice."

"Merci," I said. I knew Nice was the name of a city in France. I even knew it was spelled like "nice." I went back to my seat, sat down and started writing again.

Mon favorite du jour de la summer, I wrote, was when le president de Etas Unis, monsieur Ronald Reagan, declared war on La France. La jour de tres joueoux! When president Reagan dropped le bombs on le cite de Nice, all le garcons y all la femmes dances y chantes!

Terribly obnoxious, and about half as clever as I thought it was. (Although, considering it now, I wonder whether Reagan ever did harbor a secret desire to attack France-or at least announce something like that while recording a soundcheck for a radio address.) I cringe a little when I think of what my face must have looked like as I passed my essay in, what yours must have looked like when you read it. The next morning, during homeroom, I was called down to principal's office where I was told that you did not want me to come to class anymore, and that my mother had been called in for a meeting with you and me and the superintendent, Dr. Nogueira.

My mother was not happy to come to such a meeting, of course. And you and Dr. Nogueira were both frowning when we all sat down. I avoided eye contact with everyone and tried to suppress the smirk that so often crept onto my face when I was being reprimanded-a nervous reaction that was rarely taken for what it was. That day, though, I admit to feeling a bit of pride when you told my mother that you'd never been so personally offended in your career. My mother, who was a teacher herself, a professor at Rutgers, looked very sad. I was punished that night at dinner-a short grounding.

My guidance counselor switched me out of French 2 and into Spanish 1. And I'm sure the next three years were better for it for all involved. You didn't hold a grudge. You were actually a very nice guy, one of the teachers at the school who seemed to honestly like and care about the kids. Seeing each other in the hallways, or on the class trips you sometimes chaperoned, we eventually developed a friendly rapport-in English of course.

This year, as it turns out, I'm (maybe!) going to France for a vacation-five days in Paris, my first time there since my short stint in your class. From what I've heard, it's a place where speaking French comes in handy. So I will be at a disadvantage. Once again, I'll be reminded that it was only myself I was cheating all those years ago. I fully expect some waiter at a café will insult me to my face without my ever knowing. Hard to say I won't deserve it.

43 Comments / Post A Comment

Miles Klee (#3,657)

the new niceness

brianvan (#149)

Seems to have all worked out, but still: What kind of adult gets that worked up about a smart-alecky 15-year-old making a joke about the military annihilation of their hometown? PERSPECTIVE, sheesh. Detention, extra homework, done.

Moff (#28)

Well, I wouldn't have wanted him in my French 2 class mostly because he didn't know French.

I laughed so hard at this, Dave Bry. This is like the dumbest thing ever that I would totally have done too, if the gods had not decreed that some other kid do it a few years earlier. It reminds me of how in German class, my friends and I thought the height of hilarity was making every sketch we had to write and perform about a drug deal gone horrifically wrong.

Dave Bry (#422)

Ha! That IS the height of hilarity. There was a physics teacher in my school, Mr. Woodward, who had a real thing against the high school in the next town over, a town called Rumson. He would write the questions of all his tests as very entertaining slander. "A boy from Rumson is carrying two vials of crack, each weighing ten ounces…"

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

In middle school a bunch of my teachers had the terrible idea of having students do short skits about what we had learned. Invariably, my friends and I would toss in as much violence, inappropriate content, and absurdist humor as possible, and then giggle uncontrollably straight through the performance so that no one understood what was going on.

I only remember tidbits now: the jolly old uncle from an Anne McCaffery short story, drunk and drowned by his own vomit (Literature); a retarded debtor trying to chop down trees with her newly delivered infant, while John Oglethorpe looks on approvingly (Georgia History); a child abandoned in a gutter by his parents because he can't keep his possessive pronouns straight and keeps accidentally giving their things away (French).

The fact that I still find all this stuff funny makes me kind of proud of my youthful writing skills and kind of embarrassed at my immature sense of humor.

belltolls (#184)

Didn't they offer Franglais at your school? You did that beautifully. Not to worry about speaking too much French over in Franceland. I spoke it fairly well at one time and lived in Paris for about a year. I tried to never speak English while I was there. But invariably the French would say something like, "Perhaps, we could speak in English?"

Yep, pretty much all you have to do is say to someone bonjour and they will switch to English. Also when shopping a lot of times I would point to something and say "je voudrais" or "combien?" and complete the transaction.

How is it that M. McCormack is "originaire de Nice"? Slightly misdirected exchange program for the Black Irish?

jfruh (#713)

There are lots of people with Irish names in France. Some Irish left Ireland because discrimination against Catholics under British rule, and a bunch fled there after an abortive French-sponsored Irish revolt in the 1790s flopped. There was a French president in the 1870s named Patrice de Mac-Mahon.

oudemia (#177)

Also lots of Scots! And folks with names like d'Ouilliamson. (And of course Houellebecq was once Wellbeck.)

Vulpes (#946)

Lots of Scots and Irish went abroad as mercenaries, too, since it was either that or farm rocks. Also, apparently in the Middle Ages Scots were almost like Jews in that they were bankers and merchants and had their own city quarters and everyone kind of hated them.

Pardonnez moi, mais Monsiure McCormack era un giant douche pour reporting vous a le Principal. Ou est son sense de humour? Vous owe him no apologiee.

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

Je voudrais un omelette. J' Accuse.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

I think the personal touch of asking where the guy was born so he could specifically blow it up might have pushed it over the edge into creepy territory.

C_Webb (#855)

Apropos of almost nothing, do kids still take Latin in order to do well on the SAT? Or do they just take SAT classes, and maybe a language that people speak?

HiredGoons (#603)

I took Latin exactly for that reason.

Tuna Surprise (#573)

I took Latin to do well in law school, thank you very much.

Me, me adsum qui feci.

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

ivefay liveaay

Addendum: It was 100% mandatory, never openly stated to be for this purpose per se , and certainly not in lieu of a third language "that people speak." I hated it then, loved it in grad school. Invaluable for Americans studying German; French, not so much, weirdly.

I've heard that some Jersey schools no longer require study of foreign language. This is appalling! And hopefully in no way related to Monsieur Bry!

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

I had friends that did this. I didn't bother. My decision was vindicated somewhat by still getting a great score, but mostly by the way they would insist that "Veni Vidi Vici" should be pronounced "wenny widdy wiki."

Before you go, learn to say, "If it weren't for us, you'd be speaking German" in French. Your waiter should like that.

HiredGoons (#603)

I am going to use this when I go to Paris in July!

Ask them if they celebrate our Independence Day. (Actually, didn't they help out?)

HiredGoons (#603)

Anything to irk the British.

You do know what your karmic punishment would be here, right?

Paris in July.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

"Si nous ne vous aidait pas, tous de vous parleriez Allemand," I think? It's been a really long time since I took French. "N'avait pas vous aidé" might be better. Conditional tense agreement is pretty hard!

Bittersweet (#765)

Or you could just say, "Vous ne parlez allemand. Je vous en prie" and leave it at that.

hman (#53)

Dave /Bree/?

HiredGoons (#603)

This is why I took sign language. You can always just shrug your shoulders.

Acutally, je parle assez bien français que vous philistin.

Mindpowered (#948)

Vous n'avez jamais réfléchi sans doute qu'on peut se considérer insultés, nous, parce que vous avez pas appris l'anglais, vous ?

checkonetwo (#3,234)

to dance = danser

Dave Bry (#422)

c'est terrible. je suis philistin.

Mindpowered (#948)


Could I see some merchandise that the rats haven't found?
J'aimerais voir de la marchandise que les rats n'auraient pas touché.

melis (#1,854)

Bonjour, Monsieur le marchand de livres. Eskervous avez le Jeeves Inimitable et le Continuez, Jeeves! du maitre Vodehouse?

OuackMallard (#774)

Best one yet.

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

Ok, Choire, if that is indeed your name…

Let me explain to you the purpose of a website. It is not to communicate with the people in your own little circle jerk.

It is to amuse the Internet. It's a 24/7 7 day a week endeavor. Post something new.

Ted OBrien (#4,461)

Mr. Mccormick said I had the WORST French accent he'd ever heard. I was like, dick! you coach girls soccer and like it.

[irrelevant side note: he was right and a pretty good coach]

Jeff Barea (#4,298)


Given that we're commenting on a soccer coach I'd say that was a double mocha latte mochachino.

Nrbelex (#1,742)

Not sure if this is funny or sad (and certainly doesn't merit a public apology), but when I was taking Spanish, I was far worse than you, yet received no punishment. I suspect my teachers had seen far worse. When taking Spanish quizzes, for example, I would answer the few questions I knew, then flip the paper and draw an impossibly whimsical scene which both filled the time other students were diligently regurgitating their memorized vocab words… and acted as an outlet for my hatred for all things Spanish. It worked out in the end!

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

Not asleep yet, so more commenting across the liberal spectrum. I'll be checking…

jmw1072 (#4,577)

OK, so I read the Awl, have been for a few months & I am scrolling through articles today & I see this one. Dave Bry? From LS? Mr. McCormack? My soccer coach? Nice. :)

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