In May or June 1956, when I was 12, my parents planned a summer trip into Mexico with several of their best friends. I would be sent to Blue Mountain Camp in the Catskills, near Pine Hill, New York. But to enhance their trip, they hired a large stately black man with graying hair, a Dr. Marc Desgraves, a Haitian, to teach them some Spanish.
Now as it happened I had started my own study of Spanish nine months earlier, in Señor Zago’s twice-a-week class at just-opened Van Wyck Junior High in Queens. I had been picking it up quickly, in part because I loved the language itself, and I enjoyed teaching myself the Latin American pronunciation instead of the proper — but in my mind less useful — Castilian that was then taught students. Spain had another decade or two to go under Franco, and who would want to visit there in the meantime?
In any case, my parents encouraged me to sit in on their Saturday living room sessions with Dr. Desgraves. My sister Susan, 15, was there too but had… let’s say, other interests. Dr. Desgraves was impressed with my facility.
By the end of lesson two, Dr. Desgraves proposed, “Give me the boy for a year and I’ll teach him five languages.”
This statement filled me with terror. I’d recently read the Classics Illustrated comic-book version of Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast and imagined being yanked rudely from home, away from my cozy room and familiar one-block-long street, taken thousands of nautical miles from any Comfort Zone, perhaps never to return to my family — no anchor, no safety, just the raw, ocean-filled world! Somehow I never managed to clarify whether “Give me the boy” meant actually leaving home; it failed to occur to me that I might not after all have to actually go anywhere…
This could have been a life-changing, super-empowering experience. As it developed the plan was for Dr. Desgraves to prepare, in his own handwriting, little spiral notebooks for Susan and me, with both vocabulary and grammar in French, Spanish, Italian, German and Latin. He also gave us these little books, French Without a Teacher and the like, for all four modern languages. We were supposed to read his spiral notebooks and perhaps practice but we didn’t get very far — I likely read further than Susan. On Sunday we spent an hour or 90 minutes reviewing our lessons with him and we got through four or five sets of books before setting off for summer camp, when the whole operation was forgotten about forever. Certainly, entering ninth grade the following September, with all the petty preoccupations endemic to that stage, I was not about to remind my parents to continue my education on such a level. We never saw Dr. Desgraves again.
But even a few years later I realized what a loss I’d sustained! What an immeasurable advantage I could have gained in my life with a knowledge of these European languages! Not just in my academic and business career but also in my ability to communicate in so many places where I later wanted to travel! — and to where I could have moved myself and lived! It was an opportunity never to be repeated…
Indeed I did make some further attempts on my own, and once with friends, to pursue such languages. Once Sputnik was launched only a year after Dr. Desgraves’ disappearance, my high school friends and I — ladled up and thrown into extra science courses — determined to learn Russian. I was the teacher, staying a chapter ahead of them in the Berlitz book. Evenings that summer we’d play touch football in the street until it got too dark, then come inside for the Russian lesson. But as the summer progressed we found the darkness, even as it expanded its sway over the earth as September approached, less of a barrier than formerly. And with a deft kick or two, the streetlamp could be inspired to come on and do its job. Sputnik and its idiom were put on hold by American touch football in the street.
Around this time I was also studying the guitar and learned numerous high-emotion songs in Spanish — love songs and Spanish Civil War songs. In my tiny sphere for performing and singing these, I became famous. My Spanish teacher Miss Miller, who invited me to play in her class, gave me a 99 on my report card. No doubt too I imagined that these foreign-language performances with elaborate guitar techniques would impress certain girls I might have had my eye on.
In college I had two years of German and, a year after graduation, found it slightly useful on my first Europe trip — unexpectedly in Czechoslovakia, Hungary and parts of what was then Yugoslavia. My first major destination was Greece, and I used the opportunity to study the language spoken there with locally-purchased Greek Made Easy. And back in college I had even audited a literature course in Spanish and another in French.
In graduate school I discovered that Spanish didn’t count for a Ph.D. I had to pass tests in French, German and either Latin or ancient Greek. My test-taking skills permitted me to squeak by without in any sense learning either French or Latin.
When I was 29 I spent a month in Mexico, most of it traveling alone. I hadn’t used my Spanish ever, really, and hadn’t looked at it in years, but by the second day in Aguascalientes I found I was able to speak and be understood, using the words that I did know to get around the roadblocks created by the words that I didn’t. Following the thread of a young woman I’d met on the train to her boyfriend in Guanajuato, to his roommates, to San Miguel Allende, I did better and better with my Spanish. In Mexico City, on a new friend’s advice, I stayed at the Casa de los Huéspedes, where it was easy to make more new friends. Later I flew to Oaxaca and from there rode a ramshackle bus to market in the village of Zaachila. All this experience was affirming — discovering, by being able to communicate, that in fact I was not cut off from the local people in this part of the world.
Of course I grew up half a block away from Parkway Village, a development built for the families of United Nations delegates and workers at the Secretariat. At certain periods most of my friends — Chinese, Indian and Pakistani, Ghanian, Swedish and French — lived there. Perhaps I heard these friends speak to others and to their parents in their native languages though I don’t believe I learned anything more than Bouge ton cul! from my historic archrival Pierre.
But in 1985, ahead of a 3-week trip to Ukraine, I made a strong effort to renew my Russian from the high school touch football nights and push far enough upriver that a conversation might be possible beyond “Where is our pencil?” (“karandash”). Much of the trip we were with my Baltimore friends who’d learned to speak Russian but in one or two situations my rudimentary language was useful. But the time when the KGB detained us at the authentic and altogether spontaneous Red Oktober Square Victory Day rally (May 1985; and we’d happened to have lost our passports the day before, no joke!) I pretended not to understand them. Which was pretty stupid. (See my future write-up; remind me).
Much later, when I was living in Singapore, I learned a hundred characters’ worth of Mandarin, some colloquial Hokkien and some market Malay for use in Indonesia.
And in 2008 Grace and I had ten lessons in Italian ahead of our planned year in the Cilento that didn’t happen. Now I’m working on Spanish again.
How did my parents ever find Dr. Desgraves?
It’s a commonplace notion that youth has agendas other than formal learning.
I don’t begrudge the fact that in my teen years there were a lot of football nights and almost no study nights.
For reasons that my 12-year-old mind couldn’t fathom and didn’t want to know about, there are times when it can make sense to seize an opportunity to jump a light-year ahead.
School homework was a chore I’d speed through in as few minutes as possible, not caring whether my scribble was right or wrong. (On the tests I could turn it on. Thus: high school.)
But the effort that Dr. Desgraves’ life-changing offer would have demanded from me amounted to something well beyond school homework.
I’m 95% at peace with that teenage playing and maybe 85% accepting of the difficulty of the languages I didn’t learn and the far greater difficulty of learning one now.
Don’t we know by this time that learning — like wisdom — gets done the hard way?