Dear 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.