French Lesson

When I was a junior at Dillard University, I left my home campus to study for a year at Wellesley College.  This experience was my first real opportunity to study outside a segregated environment and the change brought with it great apprehension.  As a visiting junior, I was one of a small group of African Americans at Wellesley.  Having chosen to major in French, I was doubly isolated as few minority students took upper-level French courses.  So here I was in 1965, a black student from a black college studying at Wellesley where I was feeling isolated in many ways.  The fact that I did not speak or understand spoken French made me feel even more alien because my French classes were taught in French.

Having had no international and few transcultural experiences as a child, when I became a college student, I sought out foreign language study because I felt it would liberate me intellectually as well as socially from the narrow racial and cultural horizons to which the South of the fifties and early sixties consigned me.  Most language instruction of that era was in English.  As a result, I had mastered French vocabulary and grammar without having encountered native speakers or been afforded the opportunity to become proficient in understanding spoken French.  I had not been introduced to a high-level program in language study where oral proficiency was expected.  In my junior year, when one takes more advanced courses, this proved to be a problem.

Dillard, a historically black college in New Orleans, was a familiar, homogeneous, supportive environment for me.  Wellesley was an entirely different world where wealthy students studied in an isolated, though beautiful environment steeped in New England white culture.  As an impoverished, young, urban black woman, I felt that I stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb.

After several weeks of sitting through classes in a fog and missing all French assignments, I summoned the nerve to inform one of my instructors that I could not continue.  I stated firmly that I could not understand lectures and that I had to drop his course.  To my surprise, he stated rather matter-of-factly, "Don't worry.  Just keep doing the work and attending class and eventually you'll understand the lectures."

Discouraged by his apparent insensitivity to my plight, I was doubly disheartened.  However, I continued the work.

His advice, it turned out, was extraordinarily correct and even inspired.  Had I left that course, I would have left French behind and changed my intellectual direction.  I would also have been persuaded that there were some endeavors that lay outside of my range of intellectual ability.  Because of his insistence that I could do the work, I stayed in the course and, with time, I came to understand and speak French, achieving fluency much more easily than I thought possible.  Eventually I earned a Ph.D. in French at Harvard and served as a professor of French like the Wellesley instructor who taught me how to have confidence that I could stand up to intellectual challenges.

Most important, since that moment, I have never felt intimidated by any problem that could be solved by intelligence.  There have been many moments in my life when I have been tempted to declare that success was impossible.  Inevitably, I remembered the words of my French professor and the glorious feeling of freedom and empowerment that I felt when the impenetrably foreign sounds of spoken French gave way to a clear matrix of meaning no longer closed to me.

Every time students come to see me to proclaim that they wish to drop a course because they do not understand the material, I tell them this story.  In many ways, this simple advice given to me by my French instructor empowered me in my lifelong quest for education and convinced me that the most important thing one can do for children is not accept the limitations they are so willing to impose on themselves.


-Excerpted from The Right Words at the Right Time,
passage by Dr. Ruth Simmons, President of Brown University