Just call me Jacqueline: Confessions of a closet francophile

Iíve had a long term love affair with all things French for most of my life. The history, culture, art, wine, music, architecture, perfume, cuisine, fashion, wine, bread, cheese, pastries ...

Oh, and did I mention the wine?

Basically, you name it, and if it has to do with France, I love it. Well, with the exception of their politics, penchant for adulterous leaders and proclivity for labor strikes. And actually, now that I think about it, I never really liked all that folk dancing either. (Sorry, Madame Niederer.)

Iím enamored with the French language as well. It is at once melodic and expressive and I love the way the words feel in your mouth before rolling off your tongue and spilling from your lips.

As out of practice as I am now, I do a fair amount of tripping over those lovely syllables. But I still think theyíre every bit as lovely as when I could speak them with ease. Now, without a glass or two of that fabulous French wine to loosen my tongue, Iím inclined to keep my deteriorated language skills to myself. I can still understand both the written and spoken word with a fair degree of alacrity, however, so all those years of study (14 or 15 I think) arenít entirely for naught.

I was first introduced to French in 7th grade. At that time, it was the only foreign language option offered at Oxford. (It had replaced the Latin taught when my older siblings had gone through the school, and has since been supplanted by Spanish.) Since there was no Francophone version of my first name, I became known to my language-learning peers as Jacqueline.

Pronounced Ďzhak-LEENí not ĎJACK-uh-lynn,í thank you very much.

Two years of middle school French under my belt, I aced the French proficiency exam we had to take and couldnít wait to continue my studies in high school. For the next four years, it was Madame Niederer who continued to instruct us in the finer points of all things French. My love of the language, the people and the country grew during that time, and thanks to the French Club, I also had my first opportunity to visit France.

The French Trip, as it was so creatively known, was one of those whirlwind tours where you were shuttled on and off a bus by an umbrella-carrying tour guide whose main goal in life was to shuttle you on and off the bus. Oh, and show you a few landmarks in between. But it was still awesome. A serious case of jet lag interfered with my enjoyment of Paris, Iím afraid, but oh how I loved the South of France.

It was memories of that trip, as well as a desire to read Simone de Beauvoir in the original French, which inspired me to further my language studies at good old MC, despite the fact that it wasnít required in my course of study. (Which, considering I double majored in International Business and Economics is fairly shocking. I hope theyíve changed that by now.)

After a brief hiatus, I picked up where Iíd left off with French under the tutelage of Madame Nonnie Wanger.

It was Nonnie Ė who I love almost as much as my own mother Ė who convinced me not only to minor in French, but also to participate in an intensive summer language program at LíInstitute Catholique in Paris.

Thatís right. A summer in Paris. It was without a doubt an experience of a lifetime.

Since I graduated from Manhattan, my opportunities to employ those language skills have been fewer and further between than I expected. (Which is why Iím so rusty.) But I still love all things French. Barring those exceptions I already listed, of course. Occasionally, Iím able to brush them off and put them to good use, but not nearly as often as I would like. For the most part all those years of study are little more than a footnote on my cluttered resume.

It wasnít all for naught, though. Because Iíd like to think that what I gleaned over those years has made me a more well-rounded person, with a greater understanding and sensitivity of other people and their cultures. And I think that, truly, is the biggest advantage of any language study. That you open your horizons and realize there is more to this planet than the portion of it we call home.

Thatís why I was not absolutely horrified to learn that one of the cuts being contemplated by the Norwich City School District would phase out the districtís French language program.

Would it be a shame? Of course, it would. Iíd like to see students have the opportunity to study any language they want, whether it is French, Spanish or Mandarin Chinese, for that matter. But the financial reality is that all of our area schools are facing tough decisions right now. They have to make cuts, and none of those cuts will be easy. Each will have an impact on the school, the students and the community.

As I lamented in Thumbs last Friday, Iíve already written more articles on the budget woes of our local district than I can count. All of our schools are losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in school aid. They are also saddled with skyrocketing health insurance premiums, rising retirement contributions and other increasing costs. And donít forget those contractual wage increases they are locked into.

I know that in particular is a hard pill for taxpayers to swallow when they themselves have had to forgo raises for another year. If they are lucky enough to still have a job, that is. It is that very inability of our local tax base to shoulder any more of a tax burden than they already are which necessitates these cuts. Iím thankful that none of our districts are even contemplating passing on the full weight of their state aid losses to residents, because I think that would likely be the straw to break the back of our struggling local economy.

And because thatís not an option, every district is poring over their budget with a fine-toothed comb. No one wants to see teaching positions eliminated or programs cut. I think that weíre all worried that these reductions will jeopardize the quality of education our schools provide. But we have to realize the financial reality districts face. Weíre not talking chump change, but rather a million dollars or more in most of our districts.

Iím not really what youíd call a glass-half-full kind of girl, but I am trying to find something encouraging in all of this. What Iím trying to focus on is the very fact that times of great crisis open us up for great change.

Now is the time for innovation. I hope our schools can find a new way of doing the business of education, one that is more cost effective and more efficient and will actually broaden the potential for students. With todayís technology, the possibilities are endless. Take the language thing as an example. Itís not entirely out of the realm of possibility that students could have their choice of any number of foreign languages to study. French, Spanish, Italian, German, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, Urdu, Latin, Ancient Greek Ė you name it.

Itís not going to be easy to get to that point, however. As I heard one administrator say, there can be no Ďsacred cowsí in this process. Cuts are going to have to take place, and they are going to hurt. Everything will have to be on the table, and people will have to prioritize what they canít do without and what they can sacrifice in the short-term for the long-term viability of our local education system.

I urge everyone to get involved in the process. Take the time to contact district administrators, attend school board and budget meetings. Voice your concerns, opinions and beliefs. Offer solutions and suggestions. Help our schools make decisions that we can all live with when it comes to these cuts.

Because, honestly, if youíre not willing to take those steps, you have no room to criticize.

Follow me on Twitter ... @evesunmelissa.

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