“Who was it that went to the piscine?”my wife asked the other day as she walked into our family room where I was sitting watching television.
I wasn’t sure what sparked the question, although conversations about the French language have recently been popping up in our home as my son is taking the class in middle school. It’s a story I’d shared with her before.
“Phillipe” I responded. “I’ll remember that for the rest of my life!”
When I started taking French classes in New York, in 7th grade of Junior High (that’s what us old people called “middle school” back in the day) we had a French textbook that we would read from.
“Open up to lesson one, we are going read aloud” the teacher would say. She would always read the lines first so we had at least some guidance as to how we should sound.
Speaker 1: “Où est Sylvie?”
Speaker 2: “Au lycée.”
Then she would point out some poor kid in the front row to start and one by one each student in class would read the two-line conversation, trying desperately not to mangle the words.
Once the last student had read, the teacher would continue.
“Please turn to the next page.”
Again she would read first before asking each student to read aloud.
Speaker 1: “Où est Phillipe?”
Speaker 2: “À la piscine.”
Some kids would get it right, some would get it sort of right. Some kids, especially those with the thickest Long Island, New York accents, would read the text and the teacher would follow-up with a long dissertation on tongue placement, including lots of nasally sounds and exaggerated lip formations.
During that one year of 7th grade French class I’d estimate each student read those four lines somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,726,864 times. Who says rote school lessons don’t work?
I never really learned much French even after taking four years in secondary school and another two semesters in college. I just was never very interested, I guess. But, I’ll tell you this… when I’m on my deathbed someday, I’ll still know where the hell both Sylvie and Phillipe were!
In my junior high school there was this kid named Peter Curto. He was an eighth grader when I was a seventh grader. Peter was a tough kid, with long, sandy brown hair and always dressed in jeans, heavy black boots, a t-shirt and even while inside the school he’d be sporting one of several denim jackets he owned that were decorated on the back with full-size appliqués of rock bands like Led Zeppelin and Blue Oyster Cult. Our school called these kids “heads” back then or “dirtbags” if you really wanted to pull out a derogatory description for someone.
Peter was not a mean guy, at least not that I remember. He wasn’t necessarily intimidating like some of the kids in junior high that looked like they were thirty-five years old with beards and muscles and thick silver chains connecting their wallets to their belts, while I was working my hardest to just barely sprout out a few pubic and armpit hairs.
I knew Peter smoked cigarettes and assumed he was involved in plenty of other illicit activities. I sometimes wondered what his home life was like, but in reality I didn’t really know him very well. But for whatever reason he would often sit at the same lunch table with me and my posse of unbelievably dorky friends. There we would be, clustered around a table in the cafeteria, my friends and I dressed in khakis and Izod polo shirts and eating Wonder Bread Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwiches that our Mom’s had made and packed up in a brown paper bags for us to bring to school. And there would be Peter Curto, in the middle of all of us, perhaps like a bouncer or security guard, but more likely standing out like a Biker at a Mensa convention.
One day during lunch, Peter came to the table a little bit late, carrying a banana. He sat across from me and I watched as he cracked the stem of the banana and started tearing its yellow peel off. He didn’t say anything to the group, just worked on peeling that banana until he was holding the bottom like a handle with three or four sections of peel hanging over his hand. Then he took a big bite, chewed it up and swallowed it, looked over at me and said “man, I fucking love bananas!”
That’s it…that’s the story.
I don’t know why I remember that day or more specifically that five or so minutes of my life. Or those four lines from my 7th grade French textbook. It’s really not information that needs to be socked away in my brain like some important document or cherished family heirloom tightly secured in a lock-box at the bank. There are many other seemingly irrelevant moments in my life that I clearly remember as well, to the point where I have this mental list in my memory of minor events, conversations, passing happenings, that frankly I shouldn’t be remembering but likely always will. Remembering each one, of course, reinforces it even stronger.
Sometime as I get older and more forgetful, I wonder how much brainpower and space this stuff is taking up.
If I could get rid of some of these memories, maybe I wouldn’t have such a hard time remembering where I put my keys.
Perhaps I left them “á la piscine.”