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Telling Tales Out of School - Blather. Rants. Repeat.
A Møøse once bit my sister ...
Telling Tales Out of School

First, a quick update I've meant to pass on: the Rochester Red Wings will be remaining where they belong, as their landlord came to its municipal senses and passed a fair lease renewal with some much-needed improvements to the ballpark.

For tonight, though, I want to reprise a couple of stories I've shared with Facebook in the past week or so of my misspent youth in a Long Island school system. A friend of mine there teaches medieval studies at Trinity College in Connecticut, and has published one of the most definitive Chaucer collections out there.  I replied to something she wrote with a tossed-off Canterbury-style couplet, and got a gold star for my effort. (Well, in medieval times, probably would've been more like a dark grey;)  This reminded me of my own connection to the text from back in the real Dark Ages of my high school career. And therein hangs, well, a Tale:

My 11th grade honors English teacher (Mr. Kraus, who all the EMHS people here will remember) was a big Chaucer guy. Even had us memorize passages in middle English. He'd nominated me after the year ended for consideration for a scholarship competition through the National Council of Teachers of English. I don't remember if I passed a preliminary round with some kind of writing sample, but I became an NCTE finalist that year- one of maybe two or three from our entire now-senior class. There was a free-form writing sample you selected yourself, along with a timed essay.  For the former, it being 1976 And All That, I did a riff on Chaucer called "The Philadelphia Tales," of modern-day pilgrims headed for Independence Hall.

I wish I'd kept it- hell, I probably assigned the copyright to the buggers and they've sold thousands over the years- but I remember the closing couplet, from The Voter's Tale:
"The whole damn system needs to be renewed;
You get elected- all we get is screwed!"

I didn't win.  But at least I remember a little of the language, unlike my other school experience from back then which came back to mind just last night.


Again, it was a response to a post by a friend from elsewhere, who spoke of having little recollection of any Spanish she ever learned.  I replied by recalling what I can't recall- how I managed to study that language for a full decade, from elementary school into college, without ever really "getting it" in my head.  And one of the main reasons why is the way we were taught. Not by immersion, or reading, but by listening to and memorizing snippets of the spoken language played to us either in the classroom or in the "language lab" piped into our ears through headphones.  Millions of American kids learned- or rather didn't learn- from this method- and one author, who I came across again last week (I commented on her post when I first saw it five years ago) still has the same stupid exchanges burned into her brain that I have cluttering mine:

My quest to learn Spanish began in 9th grade by memorizing a dialog I still remember today:

Hola, Isabel, como estas?
Estoy bien, gracias, y tu?
Bien gracias. Oye, quien es ese chico?
Es un amigo mio.
Como se llama?
Se llama Juan. Ven y te lo presento.

This was accomplished by Mrs. S presenting bits of phrases for us to repeat over and over the first week of class. We were not given a book nor allowed to see any of this in writing. The second week, we threaded the phrases into still-unintelligible sentences. The third week we repeated these sentences in unison with an LP that played through our antiquated headphones. If all this wasn't funny enough, the headphones were not synchronized, and some were off by as much as five seconds, resulting in mayhem dressed up in very bad Spanish accents.

One of the dialogs we memorized those first weeks took place in a school cafeteria and had one student declare to another, "Albondigas! No te dije?" Even then, we all knew that there would never come a time when we would have occasion to say, "Meatballs! Didn't I tell you?" It soon became a secret shorthand outside of class. Whenever an adult did something we thought silly or asinine, one of us would shake our heads sadly and sigh, "Albondigas! No te dije?" and the rest of us would laugh our heads off. This continued until a new student from Puerto Rico smirkingly informed us that we were screaming out a word that was slang for "testicles" in Spanish!

Wow. Now that takes albondigas.  Likewise, I had some good-sized ones myself to have passed myself off as even remotely being conversant in the language in front of classroom teachers and, eventually even tenured native-speaking university professors. My original comment to this author's post recounted this mierda del toro on my part:

I took Spanish from fifth grade through sophomore year of college and never "learned" the language- but always got good grades because I wrote well in English and just translated word for word. The triumph was a higher-level Spanish lit class at Cornell in 1979. The class was mostly Latino engineering students taking it as their gut liberal arts course, and they wrote fluent technical manuals. I wrote my papers in English, translated them, and did better than they did.

Watching Call Me By Your Name the other day, it was fascinating watching the actors moving seamlessly among perfect English and (best as I could tell) just-as-perfect Italian and French.  I'm guessing they didn't have their time wasted in formative years learning what "El tocadiscos es descompuesto" meant.


Then there's the exchange I got into  tonight, about something I don't particularly remember from high school, fortunately: guns.  I do remember that, at least at the time my sister attended some years earlier, the athletic department fielded a rifle team, with a full-on range somewhere in the school cellar. They were quite good, I'm told.  Anyway, in the wake of last week's most recent carnage, some alum chose to recall this along with a snide remark about "Guess we weren't such snowflakes back then."

I couldn't let that go, so I confronted it with reason rather than name-calling. The whole thread's been taken down- the site isn't supposed to get into political things- but this is how I recall responding:

I'm sure the members of that team were given extensive safety training, were monitored by their coaches who knew them personally, and would never have had the opportunity or desire to walk into a gun shop on their 18th birthday and come out with a Bushmaster.  We also used dangerous chemicals in science classes, but none of us ever went all Tim McVeigh, for exactly the same reasons.

Not that I'm entirely dispassionate about the whole thing- and I'd be more than happy to tell the Nuts Running America to fuck themselves in modern English, middle English or conversational Spanish. Fortunately, even Beowulf could have told them off:

This entry was originally posted at https://captainsblog.dreamwidth.org/1514069.html. Please comment here, or there using OpenID.
2 comments or Leave a comment
glenmarshall From: glenmarshall Date: February 20th, 2018 08:52 pm (UTC) (Link)
My language tapes seemed to always be "¿Dónde queda la biblioteca?" or similar street dialogues. But I need to use "Encima de los espaguetis, todos cubiertos de queso, perdí mi pobre albóndiga cuando alguien estornudó."
weebleswobble From: weebleswobble Date: February 22nd, 2018 12:02 am (UTC) (Link)
i am NOT an audio learner, i am a visual learner. i need to read it or see it in order to get it to stick in my head. it wasn't until my third year of Spanish that the teacher had us sit in headphone labs and listen to conversations and answer questions about them. it was horrible, i couldn't understand what i was hearing. and i was getting A's in Spanish. if a teacher gives a lecture at the front of the class, i have to take notes, i have to write down what they say or i wont remember it.

and *giggles* at albondigas
2 comments or Leave a comment