Wednesday, October 24, 2007

American English

The voice at the other end of the phone spoke perfect English, with a slight German accent.

Are both of you English?

No, no, I replied. Neither of us is English; we are both American.

But I spoke with your husband before, and neither of you sound American. You must have lived in England for a long time.

No, no. We have never lived in England.

But you don't sound American. Maybe your parents were English?

No, no. I thought I would turn the conversation a bit. Can you tell me more about the English Club at school that I am going to teach? How many students am I likely to have?

Oh, not so many, eight or 10. Eight or 10 native French fifth- and sixth-graders, once a week at lunchtime, for the remainder of the year. She went on: And they have English during their regular class time, so this is really just for practicing conversation, you know. 50 minutes, and it goes fast. I'll be there, too, I'll be in the next building, doing the ping-pong club, if you need anything.

It goes fast when you have prepared material for 100 minutes, in my experience, but I decided not to say so. Instead, what sort of things have been successful in other years?

Oh, you can talk about culture, sing a song or two. Talk about the Queen. Or--I guess--maybe not talk about Mr. Bush? If we really insist on being American, the hesitation tells me, then maybe I can't talk about the Queen. But maybe not Mr. Bush. Maybe you could find something to talk about in American culture? Or...your national anthem?

I have a vision of trying to hit the high G in the Star Spangled Banner in front of a room of French pre-adolescents. Not the Star Spangled Banner. Not Mr. Bush. Lincoln's Second Inaugural might be a bit beyond their English skills. Thunder Road might be hard to explain in a country that doesn't have screens on windows, much less doors. The Red Sox? Julia Child? E. B. White? Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? Town meetings? New York City in the snow? My moment to touch the future of France, and show these children an America besides the Iraq war and McDonald's, and it's hard to know where to begin.

If the 50 minutes gets long, I can always talk about the Queen.

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