I learned so much more than a foreign language

I took four years of French in high school with Lester Maroney, a good teacher who was also a little crazy. Lester would hand out detentions as if they were candy and would smile while doing so. Forgot your homework? Detention.

Laughed at a joke? Detention.

Tripped while entering the room? Detention.

At one point I had amassed 87 detentions with him, most certainly a school record. I spent most of them playing chess with the guy and chatting about life. It interfered with track and field practice quite regularly, but otherwise it wasn’t bad. In fact, I think that Lester enjoyed these afternoons together and was liberal in handing out detentions to me as a result.

Lester would also assign a zero as a test grade for poor behavior, meaning that despite your ability to speak, read and write French, you could fail if you did not behave well.

I was often handing in extra credit assignments just before report cards were due out in order to save my grades.

Lester was also fond of nicknames, and so a couple weeks into my first year with him, he began to refer to me as Dickus. Considering the other variations of the name that had been used throughout my school career, this didn’t seem too bad.

When my brother came along a year later, Lester modified the name a bit to accommodate Jeremy’s arrival. I became Big Dickus and he became Little Dickus.

A victory of sorts for me, I suppose.

My high school did not offer a fourth year of French, so when I asked about the possibility of taking another year of foreign language, Lester created an independent study for me, allowing me to tutor a French 3 class (one which my brother was taking) while working on some more advanced assignments independently.

To be honest, the class turned out to be a bit of a joke. I didn’t learn much, but I was awarded the French Award at graduation.

Lester no longer teachers at my high school, but I managed to find a record of some successful legal action that he took against the school after he was reprimanded by the principal for an incident in which he “made use of a learning center to socialize with students and became embroiled with the person in charge of the center."

This sounds just like Lester. Socializing with kids and becoming embroiled in something or other. Surprisingly, this incident occurred five years before I entered the halls of BMR, yet I never heard a word about it.

Next door to Lester was Mrs. Winn, the Spanish teacher. Because the classrooms had a connecting door, we saw Mrs. Winn a great deal and I soon established an adversarial but friendly relationship with her. She would laugh at the number of detentions that I had been assigned or chastise me for forgetting a homework assignment, and I would tell her that Spanish was akin to guttural speak.

One of the greatest insults that you can bestow upon a French speaking person is the phrase:

Vous parlez français comme une vache espagnole.

Translation: You speak French like a Spanish cow.

At the height of my battles with Mrs. Winn, she would say this to me, and I would attempt a meager retort.

Determined to win some comeuppance during my senior year, I created a poster that featured an enormous cow with a speech bubble over its head reading:

Vous parlez français comme une vache espagnole.

Then I cut Mrs. Winn’s photo out of my yearbook and glued her head shot to the cow. I still have that yearbook today, with a hole where Mrs. Winn’s smiling face once appeared.

I stuck the poster to Mrs. Winn’s projection screen, so that when she pulled it down to use the overhead projector, the poster would be seen by all in the room.

Needless to say my joke did not go well. But I learned a valuable lesson that day. Though there are teachers who are willing to banter with students, make jokes and have a little fun, sticking a woman’s face to a cow’s body is never, ever a good idea.

Upon discovering the poster, Mrs. Winn charged into Lester’s classroom and assigned me multiple detentions. Though her detentions were not nearly as entertaining as Lester’s, it was the look of disappointment and genuine sadness on Mrs. Winn’s face that had punished me the most.

After Mrs. Winn left the room, Lester lowered his voice and told me that he thought the joke was “damn funny.”

Lester was wrong that day.

Though I can still speak a little French, read a little more, and oddly enough can still recite French poetry from memory, it was the look on Mrs. Winn’s face that day and the knowledge of what I had done to her that served as the greatest lesson that I learned from my four years of high school French.

There is such a thing as going too far.