I recently overheard a group of students talking about OPIs. In case you aren’t taking a foreign language class, the acronym stands for oral proficiency interviews. The students all felt they had done poorly, and they seemed to enjoy discussing their shared linguistic ineptitude. As a teacher I winced, but as a former student, I had a flashback to high school French class.
One day when I was a sophomore, we had an honest-to-goodness Frenchman visit our class. His name was Monsieur Zachary, and we enjoyed seeing this charming elderly man in his beret. He told stories from French history and sang us a song about the Champs Elysees. Then he decided to test our French pronunciation. The teacher, Madame Whittemore, looked nervous.
She had good reason to be. My high school was in Conyers, Georgia, a town where French culture struggled to flourish. And the student who our guest selected for the impromptu quiz was an unfortunate choice. Mary Sue was a fine person, but, bless her heart, languages were not her forte. Let’s just say that her accent lacked a certain “je ne sais quoi.”
All the man asked was for her to repeat the phrase “I want” in proper French, but the tragedy unfolded something like this:
M. Zachary: Please repeat after me,
Mary Sue: Jer ver.
M. Zachary: Non, non, non. JE . . .
Mary Sue: JER . . . VER.
This went on for another four or five minutes, with no change in the result. I heard that later Monsieur Zachary went back to France, a broken man. Plus, I don’t remember Madame Whittemore inviting any more authentic French people to our class after that.
But I soon made my own faux pas. I was halfway decent at French, and the teacher nominated me that year for Governor’s Honors, an academic summer camp for students who had no talent in sports. The competition for a spot involved an oral interview. I was terrified. Unlike a written test — where you are not present to see the teacher’s disappointment when she grades your exam — an oral interview is a real-time opportunity to crush the spirit of a grown person.
All these years later, the incident is a blur, but I’m fairly certain that, among other blunders, I managed to tell the interviewer that I was the youngest girl in my family. Those gendered nouns got me every time. Naturally, I spent that summer at home.
But that was not my only competitive humiliation in French. Once a year, Clayton State College hosted a creative arts festival for high schools in the greater Atlanta area, and they had a category for French drama. The best student in our class had written an original play in French and was hoping that the festival would be his big break. He just needed a cast to perform it.
The group he recruited was hardly La Comedie-Francaise. We had no acting talent, no memorization skills and almost no personality. But Tom reassured us that we would not have to memorize anything or even pretend to act. We were simply going to sit on the stage in a circle and do a choral reading of his play.
We rehearsed three or four times. The reason we did not rehearse more was that Tom could not stand it. I read somewhere that the playwright Jean Paul Sartre used to sit in the audience during rehearsals of his plays and moan in agony. Tom was more polite as we butchered his play, but quite a few times I saw him biting his nails. And occasionally his arm.
When the day of the festival arrived, we slumped into our seats in the auditorium, dressed in the usual high school grunge, and awaited our call. The Von Trapp family we were not. Consider our horror, then, when the group before us hit the stage running with period costumes, memorized dialogue and even choreographed sword-fighting. As they exited to thunderous applause — and shouts of “Encore une fois!”— our play was announced.
No doubt inwardly cursing the fact that he had been born in Georgia instead of Marseille, Tom took to the stage, and in eloquent French, explained to the judges that we did not realize the level of staging expected and were only prepared to read an original play. The judges let this travesty proceed, and we got through it somehow. We even received an honorable mention in the foreign drama category. However, since there were only three entries, that means the judges awarded first place, second place, and honorable mention.
That was 30 years ago. I doubt we’ll have a cast reunion. Oh, well. Que sera sera.