I had to take four semesters of language in high school and it really pisses me off that I have nothing to show for it.
We had to choose between Latin, French, and Spanish. Well, actually that’s not quite true: there were a couple of splinter groups, each with like, five kids, that took German or Russian. But they were so freaking weird, no self-respecting Lancers — yes, we were the St. Augustine Lancers — would get caught dead in a class with one of those nerds.
(When asked what a “Lancer” was I would always say we remove infected moles.)
I took Latin and French my first year. I wanted to take Spanish like everyone else, but the Jesuits convinced us Latin was the key language because once we learned the “root words” we’d be able to master any of the other languages.
I ended up switching to French because I had trouble mastering the root words, like “et tu” and “sic semper.”
The truth is I only took French because we had devised an elaborate cheating system based entirely around Gary Bergeron, who had come to us from Quebec via Panama. Not only did he speak fluent French and Spanish, but he was one hell of a soccer player, so much so that we started a team built entirely around him.
We called him “Frenchy,” of course, or “Lafayette,” and plied him with our lunch money to give us test answers.
I should point out that I was an incredibly gifted cheater. My mother once pointed out that if I spent as much time studying as I did cheating I wouldn’t need to cheat.
I’m the guy that discovered you could write all over a plastic ruler with a sharpened number 2 pencil, and it wouldn’t be visible unless you turned it just right into a ray of sun. It worked for two years but one day, all the Jesuits got wise to the trick. It was as if they sent the teachers to a training school, kind of like Marines go to Quantico, so they can learn the latest terrorist tricks and torture techniques.
For Frenchy, I devised a relatively straightforward, but quite effective, scam. It all involved timing. Let’s say it was a 25-question multiple-choice test. Bruno, who sat near the front, would start things off. His single cough would mean Question #1 was on the table. Then, Frenchy would either blow his nose (meaning the answer was a), make a guttural burp for b), make a yawning sound for c) and so on.
If one of us missed an answer, we would chime in with our signature cough and that would reset everything. After a while, as more and more of the guys caught on it sounded like a tuberculosis ward, which drew the attention of Frère Raimondo. Yes, that’s what Brother Raymond made us call him.
The Frère thought he was on the cutting edge of technology because he had one of those Rosetta Stone type systems to teach French. We would all wear headphones, and a voice would come on and say something in French. And we’d repeat it. Then the voice would say what the phrase meant in English, and so on.
I had a grand old time with it. Every time The Frère asked a question in French, I would blurt out a totally vulgar answer that usually included words that mean genitalia and, very often, Brother Raymond’s name.
“Où est la bibliothèque?” the voice would say.
“Où est la bibliothèque?” I would reply.
“Where’s the library?” the voice would say.
“If it were up your backside, you’d know.” That’s when the Frère attacked me.
Unfortunately for me, that’s when I found out the hard way that the Frère could tune into any one student to hear what his answers were. When he heard mine, he came charging down the aisle from behind, grabbed my hair, and ripped me backward onto the floor where he proceeded to pummel me. I escaped the rest of the beating by feigning unconsciousness.
That was the end of the audio learning experiment, but that first lesson is etched in my mind, just as the imprints of Frére’s little shoes in my back.
I wanted to take Spanish, but the Jesuits convinced me I wouldn’t need it. Now I live in a town where it is spoken freely all around me. As for Latin, I admit, it does not enjoy widespread use — they don’t even speak it at Catholic Church services anymore.
But I’ll tell you this: when I get to Paris some day, I’m going right to the library.
Rick Murphy is a six-time winner of the New York Press Association Best Column award as well as the winner of first place awards from the National Newspaper Association and the Suburban Newspaper Association of America and a two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee.