I was thirteen years old when something happened that would change my life. My grade seven teacher, Mr. Thyne, a frowning man with a thin moustache, round glasses and a waft of black hair combed over the top of his head, told me I wasn’t smart enough to continue French classes.
I wasn’t devastated by the news. I saw French as a hopeless pursuit that, as most Canadian Anglophone adults proved, would end in an extremely limited ability to speak the language. To this day, they most Ontarians say, “Bonjour,” more like, “Bonjer.” I’d give you more examples, but that’s pretty much all they can say.
Following the initial jubilation of no longer being forced to parlér Français, I felt left behind. I, the only kid in my class, had been labelled too stupid for French. I sensed the dismissal of other students as I walked down the hall to attend special classes instead of to French.
In the final month of the school year, Mr. Thyne held me back after class to have another one of his chats. This time, he told me that if I didn’t work a lot harder, then I would be forced to repeat the year.
In previous years, the minimal effort I’d put forward had always been enough to pass. I’d never been told I was on the verge of failing. Now, I was suddenly terrified that I’d end up left behind, forgotten, a nuisance to society that had to be dealt with twice just so some basic concepts would sink though my thick skull. But with those fears came the chance of redemption.
Our last assignment of the year was a poetry assignment. Each student was handed a blue scrap book. It was due in two weeks time. For me, failing wasn’t an option! In fact, I set out to write the best damn poetry assignment any seventh grade teacher had ever seen!
Having special classes three hours a week instead of French gave me tonnes of extra time. Furthermore, I even worked on the assignment nights and weekends at home for hours on end.
For the first time in my life, I felt extremely proud about an assignment. The hours I’d put into creating poems, and tracing artwork to go along with the verses, was meticulously laid out on each page of the scrapbook. I was sure I’d be the only student who filled out all thirty pages. The minimum requirement was eight.
My hand shook as I handed the assignment in. I already dreamed of what the result might be…
Some smart kids sat the table across. Upon receiving their homework, they would say things like, “Oh, an A-plus. I hardly even tried.”
Now it was my turn. I expected to see the A-plus, combined with praise about it being the best assignment in the class.
Each afternoon for the next ten days, I went to the class hoping to see the graded assignments ready on the corner of the teacher’s desk. Finally, on the second-to-last day of school, they were there.
The entire afternoon, I shifted in my seat, staring over at the neat pile. I’d never been so anxious in all my life. My heart threatened to jump out of my chest at the anticipation.
Five minutes before the bell, the teacher began to call out names, one at a time, as he handed the graded assignments back. Perhaps to taunt me further, my paper was one of the last in the pile. I walked up when he called my name, the classroom felt smaller, my breath became ragged and my palms sweaty. I took the scrap book and went back to my desk.
Suddenly, I didn’t want to open it. I was afraid of what I’d see. If he had really thought it was something special, and from me of all people, wouldn’t he have asked to talk to me about it? Wouldn’t he have handed me back my assignment first, or acknowledged me with a pleased smile as I collected it? My watch was set to the school’s exact time. There was one minute to the end-of-day bell. I waited, watching the seconds tick by with a lump in my throat. I’d open it with thirty seconds left.
Mr. Thyne talked to the class, but I didn’t hear him. Thirty-two, thirty-one, thirty...
It was time. I opened the book - nothing at the front. I flipped to the back. C +. There were other comments in his spidery scrawl, but all I saw was the C +. My hardest effort, my best work ever, was worth a C-plus. The room seemed to close in further and my throat constricted causing my breath to come in short gasps. Tears welled in my eyes and I glanced down at my watch, wanting to escape.
But, I’d tried so hard …
I got up and walked toward the door, the welling tears on the verge of breaking. I threw the assignment, hard, into the garbage pail next to Mr. Thyne’s desk and walked out as the bell chimed. Chairs screeched across the floor behind me. I didn’t even go to my locker but ran out the school doors and straight home.
I didn’t want to fail. I wanted to be back in French class, even though I sucked at it.
In part due to my parent’s protests, the school agreed to put me on probation for grade eight instead of fail me. If I struggled, they’d pull me back again.
In grade eight, I attained the second highest marks in my class. Five years later, I graduated from high school, followed by a Bachelor of Business degree from University.
My one boon was being monolingual. It bothered me more and more, especially as I began to travel. I met Europeans who could flip from one language to another, sometimes speaking as many as five or six languages perfectly. I just spoke English. But that was going to change.
****Work in African adventurer rant. The learning of languages fit in with another goal.