I can do many things. Speaking French is not one of them.
It was the spring of 1961, and I was finishing my seventh semester of French at UNC. Chapel Hill was all abuzz with plans for the upcoming graduation. It was a happy time for both graduates and their families. College seniors were ready to take on the world.
Now, you might think with seven semesters of French under my belt, I would be darn close to fluent - maybe even majoring in French. But it wasn’t exactly what it seemed. In my day (and I like to think every day is my day), students were required to take three semesters of a foreign language. I had taken French in high school, so it was a no-brainer to continue on that track. French 1 and French 2 at UNC were a snap; basically a repeat of high school French.
Next up was French 21 - a class intended to utilize the many Romance Language skills I possessed. We were translating lots of French literature into English and also becoming more and more conversant. I COULD DO THIS! And I did, over and over again. Ultimately, I dropped French 21 or received an incomplete four times.
Fast forward to the second semester of my senior year of college - and I still needed to pass French 21. I mastered the art of keeping my head down every time the professor called on students to answer questions in French, busily tying and retying the shoelaces on my white bucks for the entire class.
Soon enough the semester was coming to a close. The problem was, I really hadn’t learned anything. I had kept my head down and really barely listened for the entire class. But, I had to take the final exam. This was the final semester of my senior year - or at least I hoped it was. No turning back now.
The professor informed the class that the final exam would be graded 50% on how well we did translating a passage from French to English. The other 50% would be questions in English to be answered in English about French authors. That was my opening. I just needed a tutor to cram into my head a massive amount of information about the authors we had been studying all semester (or at least most of us had been studying). A friend of Karen’s was an outstanding student who was willing to help drag me across the finish line. She was my ticket to a diploma. We spent hours together. There was nothing I could possibly be asked about authors I couldn’t answer.
Crunch time arrived. It was exam day. I answered the English questions about French authors in English. I was getting pumped. Then came the translation exercise, which I recall was a combination of Russian, Dutch and Swahili, with a few recognizable French words (operative word few). I did my best. I took my exam blue book up to the professor at the front of the classroom and inquired as to how soon he would be posting grades. He looked up from his chair, peered over his scholarly glasses and inquired, Monsieur Young. I did not respond. He said it a second time, louder and slower, Monsieur Young. This time I recognized Young, likely not Monsieur, but that was good enough to engage. You need to pass this class to graduate don’t you?, he asked. Oui, I replied sheepishly. It’s worse than you know, sir. My parents are in their car now driving from New Jersey to see me graduate.
OK, Monsieur Young, let me grade your exam right now. You can stand right here and watch me do that. He looked first at the English answers to questions about French authors. Tres bien, Monsieur Young you have graded 50 out of a possible 50 points for that section. You need a total of 60 to pass this class and you already have 50.
Out came a red pen for the translation. You have never seen so much red on a piece of paper. Had I cobbled together enough correct answers to get me over the mountain top? Finally, he looked up and said, Monsieur Young, you have scored 12 on the translation. 50 and 12 equals 62. Congratulations. You will graduate.
He cut me some serious slack. Were it not for his kind heart, my 62 could easily have been a 59 or lower, and I might still be at UNC taking French 21 - with my parents making their annual drive to see if I finally made it.
UNC has long since tightened its academic standards. As an out-of-state kid I wouldn’t even bother to apply today. I would never get in. But, that was then and this is now, and that diploma hangs proudly in my office every single day as it has for the entire 61 years since I graduated.
That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.
DY: In Just a Few Words is a blog that comes out when something needs to be said or every Tuesday - whichever comes first. Davis Young is a communications professional who adds 50+ years of experience and perspective to issues of the day. His emphasis in DY: In Just a Few Words will be humor (a touch of sarcasm here, a pinch of facetiousness there...). Once in a while, he will touch on something a bit more serious - but hopefully not too deep or depressing.
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