The Benefits of A Minor in French


There comes a time, for most high school students, to pick a foreign language they’d like to learn. When my time came, I already knew: French.

At this point in my life, I had never been to France, thought about going to France, or hitherto expressed any interest whatsoever in anything French. So I can understand why my sudden desire to learn the language might have confused my friends and family.

What was unexpected, however, was the immediate backlash. “What do you wanna learn French for?” Because, well, I don’t know. Why not? “Who speaks French?” French people and people who learn French, I suppose. “Why don’t you learn a language that will benefit you more?” Well I already know English, which benefits me quite a bit, so I’m not quite sure what your quarrel is.

Spanish, I soon learned, was their preferred alternative: the second most widely spoken language in the United States, so it would probably be smarter to devote my time to learning how to speak it. You know, just in case. This argument made sense to me, and at that age, I was very easily swayed by people who seemed to know more than I did. So I bid au revoir to my French dreams and registered for Spanish, which turned out to be boring and deeply uninteresting to me.

So boring, in fact, that I dropped it too quickly and ended up with insufficient foreign language credits. I was accepted to Rutgers, but only to their school of environmental sciences, due to this deficiency. (I suppose environmental scientists have enough on their plate without about learning how to say ‘global warming’ in another language?) In order to switch to the school of arts and sciences, I would need to remedy this grievous oversight by taking a foreign language course.

All of the resentment and bitterness I had repressed from high school came immediately swirling to the surface, and with an aggressive sort of excitement I registered for my very first French class. Take THAT, pragmatic naysayers! I’m learning the language of looove, and Beauty and the Beast, and Phantom of the Opera.

I like to think I have a natural flair for languages, because I took to French very quickly and with minimal difficulty. It helped that I became mildly obsessed with it, engaging in ridiculous and Hermione Granger-esque behaviors such as reading my textbook and workbook for fun, attempting confusing conjugations we hadn’t yet learned in class, and watching Amélie until I no longer needed subtitles. I was always one of the most vocal students in my classes; never failed to turn in assignments on time, if not early; and I joined the French Conversation Club, a hilariously awkward weekly gathering of students self-consciously conversing in various mutations of French.

By senior year, I was pretty secure in my working knowledge of the conversational and grammatical mechanics of this previously exotic language, and completely fed up with the academic aspect. I just wanted togo. After graduation I was accepted as an English teaching assistant in three elementary schools, where I would be responsible for teaching English to rosy-cheeked children several days a week and get paid for it. I couldn’t believe my luck. The fall of 2010 found me packing my bags and flying to Paris, my home for the next seven months.


Then reality set in. To be fair, the reality wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t great, either: my first couple weeks were fraught with much confusion and a disturbing lack of communication between my employer and the schools I would be working in. I received many blank looks from harried administrators after stumbling through an introduction, after which they would basically ask, “Wait, so – why are you here? Who sent you?”

The teachers were just as confused, but eventually willing to concede control of their classes to this perfect stranger; sometimes, too eager – one teacher quickly began to view my arrival as a 45 minute break. I soon realized I had been misled; minimal knowledge of French would have left me floundering here, despite my employer’s previous assurances to the contrary. ‘You only need to speak English’ sounds awesome in theory, but when you need to explain the rules of Simon Says to 25 five year olds who can barely say “hello”, you need to make some concessions. You need to speak French, and speak it well. Thankfully, my overzealous efforts assimilation the past four years paid off, and I like to think I was a half-decent English teacher.

A few years have passed since my return to the States, where yes, there are indeed French people and people who speak French, but few opportunities to exercise my ability to do as such. To be quite honest, I’m not sure my conversational skills are where they were in my golden years. Sometimes I forget really basic words, like ‘yesterday’ or ‘chicken’, and plunge into a downward spiral of shame until I remember four days later.

I could attend conversation meetups, in a poor, sad echo of my college group, but I must admit that I am not optimistic about the other attendees: elderly expats? Frustrated spouses of French people? Hardly vibrant and hip French 20-somethings, who could instead talk to their own friends – easily, with slang, and without needing to slow down to be understood.

I’ll just continue to languish here, with only my memories of France to sustain me through the occasional bouts of nostalgia, and every so often, google tickets to Paris to remind myself that I definitely cannot afford them. Somewhat bilingual, that ain’t half bad. It looks great on resumes and occasionally comes in handy, when the non-French speaking individual would just see or hear a nonsensical grouping of letters and think ‘French word’. Whereas I, having labored for countless hours on the complex structure and technical minutiae of this language, can immediately translate hier and poulet, and who can ask for more, really?


This post appeared on The Penny Ledger on September 10, 2013.

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Professional Development


Today was one of those rare days that I was let out of the building where I teach to learn about teaching. PD, or Professional Development, is always a blessing, particularly as we sail into the warmer, happier days of spring and summer. My PD today lasted from 9 to 11:45 am, meaning I woke up a full two hours later than I normally would, and I had the freedom to wander around afterward, making the sort of frivolous springtime purchases that this sort of unexpected liberty provokes.

Now, sitting in the buzzing Union Square B&N, waiting for my tea to cool, I can’t keep my eyes from darting around every couple seconds, taking in the page-flipping, finger-clacking, lip smacking mass of humanity surrounding me. What are they all doing here? What enables them to just sit here, blithely undisturbed by the kinds of responsibilities and anxieties that plague me nearly sun up to sun down? The obvious response, of course, is they could very well be thinking the same about you, and who are you to say they aren’t as stressed out, or more, or of course mind your own business and put the lid back on  your tea before it spills all over your laptop.

Growing up, I often heard my father assert that an individual will know she’s found her calling when she would happily do her job for free. Now that I am more or less Grown Up and have my own Real Job, his words haunt me whenever I have a moment of quiet reflection – which is usually on the train, when the battles and political intrigue of A Feast for Crows grow too wearisome. And I come to the sad realization, every time, that no, I absolutely would not do my job for free.

As with most families, I unwittingly followed my father into the arena of education. I do not use the word ‘arena’ with creative whimsy. Most days feel like I am fighting a battle – whether it’s a battle of wills between me and a student, a battle with unforgiving curriculum and learning standards, a battle with the deplorable state exams we subject the students to, or simply the battle that continually rages within me, struggling to keep up with the myriad duties I have while others are flung at me out of left field.

‘Learning on your feet’ does not do justice to the experience of a first year teacher, particularly one who works with students with special needs. ‘The blind leading the blind’ feels more apt. Basically, this job is hard. It’s constant, and it’s relentless. I have to get up and walk into this arena every single day and essentially put on a superhero cloak when I would rather whimper in a corner. So, no, I don’t think I would do this for free. In fact, I would posit that I am not compensated enough. But as I am merely a first year teacher, the scaly, damp underbelly of the Department of Education leviathan, there is no point in entertaining that thought.

However, of late I’ve found more reasons to pause my cynical musings. There have been moments, increasingly often as this academic year crawls to an end, when I feel compelled to stop and examine a situation with a student before reacting to it. During the pregnant pause between scolding and response; discipline and acceptance (or, more likely, the lack thereof) I gain a sense of clarity. Their insolent smirks, rolling eyes, sucking teeth – these are not actually declarations of war nor aspersions cast upon my worth as a human being. They are very immature reactions to being told off, when they know they’re wrong, when they know their friends are watching. They are, if we’re going to get really real, the exact same things I did 10, 11 years ago. But when I became a woman, I put away those childish things. My students? They’re still stuck.

Seriously – do you remember being a preteen/teenager? Do you?

I wanted to be a writer. I dreamt of publishing the kinds of books I devoured when life was chaos and school was chaos and my parents were chaos and the only things that shut up and made sense were the worlds I could escape to. I found solace in these words, words written by adults who knew what it was like to be a teenager and somehow made it through, mostly intact. I wanted to provide the same comfort, the same sense of loving camaraderie, be the literary shoulder that other struggling kids like me could cry on. I wanted to never forget what it was like; in my eyes, that was the heinous crime so many adults committed, daily, with oblivion and disdain. Forgetting. And life has oh so subtly assured me that I won’t: I’m surrounded by adolescents. Every. Day.

I still have faith that I will fulfill my original dream one day. I’m in my 20s, so the proverbial night is young, however dark and full of terrors it may be. But it makes sense that this is where I am right now. I don’t love my job and I wouldn’t do it for free – but maybe that’s not the point. An all-consuming passionate love for my job, at my age, is a myth. (And if you’re 24 and adore your job, spare me and keep it to yourself.) I’m too green to have found my dream career, and I’m learning to be okay with that. I’m still growing. Like my students, I have days where I just want to suck my teeth and roll my eyes at the world. But when my tantrum has passed, I remember to grow up. I remember exactly why I’m here: my students. Their education. Their well-being. Not, necessarily, my paycheck.

This epiphany, each time it graces me with its presence, makes donning that superhero cloak much easier.

Professional. Developing professional. You know what? It’ll work for now.


This post appeared on The Penny Ledger on September 3, 2013.

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A burst of clarity on the train (journal extraction).

I need to remember these moments, when the blood is pounding swift through my veins: the heady rush of confidence and unshakable surety; the jogging pursuit and slight shortness of breath; when chaos rules, but not unbearably.

Right for right now. All of it. Right now. Of that I’m certain.

Tomorrow is, well, another day.

If you know anything about me, or, less dramatically, if you have come into contact with me at least three times, you know that I often change my hair. I grow bored and dissatisfied very quickly and convince myself that if I don’t do something to remedy my boredom and dissatisfaction I will most surely perish. This has led to more hairstyles than I care to count, paid for with amounts of money I don’t care to remember.

(No, seriously, whenever I’ve stopped to think about how much money I’ve spent on my hair over the course of my life I just want to lay down in a dark room for a long time.)

I made the decision to go natural for the first time when I was 13, after a braid removal process gone horribly wrong (basically, I took my extensions out and didn’t detangle my hair before washing it, resulting in knots so resolute my mother had to cut off all of my hair). This was a lot less traumatic than it could have been, because my mother chattered constantly about how I’d have a whole new look; I could stop perming my hair and allow my hair to be curly and beautifully healthy. I was totally on board until frustration set in about three years later and I permed it again.

The second time I went natural was while I was studying abroad in England my junior year, and this time, I promised myself, would be the last time. I began researching natural hair blogs and Youtube videos and, as anyone who has followed the natural hair movement knows, this led me down a never-ending bunny hole of oils and pomades and lotions and twist techniques that I ate up greedily. I wanted to know it all. I couldn’t wait for my hair to finally embrace the coils and kinks I had denied it for so long. When I touched down on American soil, I gleefully cut off all the permed hair that was left and proudly rocked my TWA (for those not in the know, that is naturalese for ‘teeny weeny afro’).

I was true to myself; I haven’t permed my hair since then, although I have certainly gotten irritated with the upkeep and surrendered to the alluring call of braids and twists in the meantime. Battling with my hair every day just grew wearisome and I needed a break, although I knew I was damaging my scalp with the constant tugging that comes with tightly installed extensions. I knew I needed to either choose to stop getting them or deal with a funky/nonexistent hairline for the rest of my life, but the cycle was hard to break.

I had always viewed locs as natural hair nirvana; a level one could only reach through devotion and total obeisance to the ideal of eschewing all detriments to black hair. I loved the idea of locs. Whenever I pictured myself as an adult, it was with locs. With every New Year and the self-reflection that accompanies it, I would regret not having started them that year. But it was the commitment that terrified me. If I got tired of any other hairstyle, I could simply change it. Locs, not so much. They’re forever. The idea both charmed me and frightened me.

However, after years of flip-flopping, I finally decided it was time to do it. Get locs. Commit myself to healthy, growing hair, free of the torturous pulling and manipulating that I had subjected it to for so long. So I made the appointment and went.

I’m really happy with the salon I chose. It’s only 15 minutes away from where I live and my loctician is a little odd, but charming. She used these amazing oils to moisturize my scalp (I had never even heard of honeysuckle oil but I am now its number one fan) and hummed and fretted while she separated my hair into the individual sections, not satisfied until they were evenly parted. She was firm but friendly with my naivete, and offered me a bowl of delicious kale salad while I baked underneath the dryer. Before I left, she scheduled me to come back for my first re-twisting for a month from now.

I know what you’re wondering now. “So how do you like your new locs??” To be perfectly honest, I’m planning on buying a couple of hats and scarves this week. My baby locs are tiny and crinkled and completely immune to gravity. I knew this would be the case going in, however. The first couple months are going to be the worst, until my hair actually begins to lock and the locs thicken and lengthen. I’m not thrilled that I have to wait so long to feel comfortable with my hair, but I chose this, and I’m excited for the result.

That said, don’t ask me for pictures until at least around month six because you won’t be getting them.

loc journey: day 2 and yes I am definitely counting.

don’t call it a comeback.

It took me several false starts to even locate this dusty old thing, and I am wildly pessimistic about the probability of me continuing to update with any semblance of regularity. But I thought that today, instead of spewing into the ever-listening, ever-uncaring ear of Microsoft Word, I would spew to you. You’re welcome!

I began my day with a movie: City of Bones, the first installment in the Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare. I first discovered Cassandra Clare through Livejournal; namely, her Harry Potter fanfiction. I remember seeing her talk about developing her own first book, then actually stumbling upon the book in Barnes and Noble. I remember being so impressed, and, as always, when confronted with the reality that sometimes aspiring writers become actual writers, somewhat diminished. As if, by their success, my chances of such are incrementally lowered.

I didn’t read the book until one of my managers recommended it to me with surprising, if not alarming fervor. I was firmly whelmed until I was roughly halfway through the book, struggling to keep up with the myriad number and species of characters (awkward redhead teen! awkward pining teen with glasses! intensely attractive demon hunter! ambiguously gay and also attractive demon hunter! pansexual warlock! nurturing werewolf! predictably mean vampire! gross…demon monster thing!). Eventually, I started remembering names and proclivities and become ensnared. It’s a little bit corny, but it’s a pretty exciting series, and much more fraught with identity and sexuality issues than I had expected from a seemingly supernatural-for-the-hell-of-it YA series.

Anyway. The movie adaptation was – expectedly – worse than the book, but still relatively entertaining and, y’know, cute. I was glad to go alone, because I couldn’t think of many people who would be willing to see this movie with me, and thus didn’t have to sit squirming in my seat, utterly sure that my theater companion was silently cursing me for bringing them to see something so juvenile and contrived. I liked the… young-ness of the whole thing. The possibility of true, undying love between two teenagers who had met 48 hours prior under the most improbable circumstances. But OMG! Better slam the brakes on those raging hormones because they might be siblings. EWWW. And yet, SIGHHH. While the loud teenyboppers who snuck into the theater made me want to commit hari-kiri on several occasions, my annoyance was also tinged with a fond nostalgia. I remember how it felt to see beautiful, doomed romance blossom between my favorite fictional characters. To see them kiss. I do.

After the movie, I strolled through Union Square and bumped into an old friend. Living in NYC is good for bringing you in contact with people you haven’t spoken to in way too long. Following the mini catch-up session, I bought a 90 cent pear for my boyfriend, who works a couple blocks away, and likes pears. He said thank you, and that I should check out the Barney’s warehouse sale one street over. I went. I was immediately overwhelmed and inexplicably angry. I left. Today I learned that I do not like warehouse sales.

I meandered over to Urban Outfitters, and after a disappointed browse through the sales racks, took a random turn into Rising Dragon Tattoos. Last night I had a tattoo-related revelation (this is much less dramatic than I am making it sound. I had an idea for my next tattoo) and decided that I should go talk to someone about it. The tattoo artists were pleasantly confused, so after getting  a business card, I left, promising to come back bearing a picture or two to help them visualize what I tried and failed to vocalize.

The rest of the afternoon found me in Williamsburg, happily thrifting in one of my favorite haunts, Buffalo Exchange. I ran into another old friend, and we spent an inordinate amount of time staring at each other in stupefied elation; it had been years since we had seen each other. For such a huge city, New York is stupidly small.

And now here I am, at a random bar I’ve never been to and probably won’t come to again, nursing my second Stella, butt sore from this unforgiving booth, thinking I might have to pee, stomach uncomfortably full from the fish and chips I didn’t finish. In a bit I’ll go home and get dolled up for the party I’m going to tonight.

(Pretty soon these empty summer days will be gone, replaced with the exhausting grey sludge of regularly scheduled work. If you’re reading this and you’re not a teacher, I know you’re cursing me for having this freedom at all. That’s okay. Curse me until your wand is blue in the face, and then come and teach middle schoolers all day, every day. There is a reason that there are some teachers, and so many other people who are not teachers.)

There is no thesis to this entry. This was my day. I think now I’ll go and pee and try not to think about the mosquito bite I just got – and when I fail, as I always do, I’ll scratch it.

The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight: An unreview.

Hadley’s hands are braided together in her lap, and she takes a deep breath.

So,” Oliver says, sitting back again. “I guess we jumped right into the deep end, huh?”

What do you mean?”

Just that a discussion about the definition of true love is usually something you talk about after three months, not three hours.” (pg. 52)*

This is how I begin my book reviews, with a quotation that jumps out at me for one reason or another. I enjoyed this one because it contains all the essential elements of a good opening quote: it’s engaging, surprising, and neatly encapsulates the entire plot of the book: Hadley and Oliver, two strangers, meet and quickly fall in love. Boom. Done. Now onto the reviewing.

And here is where I got stuck.

I’m not going to write a review of this book, because I like to subtly inject my own insight, and on the topic of ‘love at first sight’, I have precious little to offer on the subject that isn’t a jumbled, garbled mess of slippery beliefs with a faint tang of bitterness. Instead, I’m going to say that yes, this was a good book, and then go on to explain why the entire concept of ‘love at first sight’ is a rather irritating one.

I suppose my real quarrel is with the word ‘love’. There are endless books, articles, editorials, columns, blogs, and blurbs on this most troubling and elusive four letter word. More poetry than one could (or should) possibly devour in a lifetime. Scores of films, some groundbreaking, some hilariously bad, yet we pay too much money to see them anyway. Love has been prodded, poked, stabbed, stretched, split and examined, wings pinned, legs spread, fine-tooth-combed, revered and reviled, praised and spat upon. Every transmutation of its examination has become routine, cliché, expected, wholly unsurprising, but what would we do without it? And so, here I am, another lowly writer in a sea of millions, taking my turn to stroke my own engorged opinion, adding my contribution to the perpetual, universal circle-jerk.

I have never been in love. There, I said it. Self-pitying as it sounds, I am not trying to garner sympathy, rather, explain my inherent difficulty in speaking on this subject at all. (So know that my perspective hails from the other side of the fence, where the grass is greener, or perhaps yellower, depending on your point of view.) Nevertheless, I have collected bits and pieces, bite-size morsels of truth and fiction from twenty three years spent soaking in American culture and media, enough to create my own haphazard conglomerate of a definition. So, to me, love, being in love, is this: a choice. A conscious, breathing decision, thick and coursing as blood, resolute and binding as death.

Dramatic? Maybe. Unrealistic? Certainly not. But the issue I take with the modern perception of ‘love’ is the glib bastardization of the word. Am I guilty of it? Absolutely. Everyone I’m friends with on Facebook knows that I ‘love’ Harry Potter, but despite what some of them may believe, I would not lay down my life for the boy who lived. To hear most people tell it, that is love—all-consuming infatuation. A glossy, glittery obsession. Heart-quickening, palm-dampening, stomach-fluttering. In other words, that feeling you get when you catch the eye of someone across a crowded room. Slowly making your way towards each other. Exchanging those first few words, watching the sparkling glint in their eyes, feeling the warm brush of their hand against yours like a slow, electric caress.

Sitting with them on a long plane ride, swapping secrets and stories as you glide hundreds of thousands of miles across the Atlantic ocean. Love at first sight. At first conversation, at first proximity, at first shared laugh.

Maybe that instant spark will lead to a lifetime of sacrifice and devotion. Maybe a fortuitous, random sequence of events can preface a story of two soulmates worthy of The Bard. Maybe that pocket of peace and acceptance that Hadley and Oliver discovered on their plane ride will blossom into a cocoon of marital bliss, despite their broken homes, despite their parents’ mistakes. Maybe.

Or maybe one day I’ll clamber over that fence, only to discover that everything I’ve written is bullshit.

*The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith

a slight shift.

I’ve decided two things:

  • I’m going to begin using proper capitalization (I still love you, e.e.)
  • I’m going to write my book reviews here instead of here.

And I realize I am way overdue for an update, I know, I know. I plan on telling the tale of my involvement in GISHWHES, one of the most ridiculous and hilarious experiences in my life. But it’s 11:30 and I have work in the morning and an episode of Community to watch before I go to sleep, so…another time.