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Helen Merrigan-Martin

We all have what I like to label “moments in time”; those events which have a profound influence on the path we travel. These defining moments can range from a seemingly minor encounter to a life-altering experience. My decision to become a French teacher was located somewhere in the middle of this great spectrum, although at the time it felt like the hand of Fate! A trifle melodramatic I know, but to my ten-year-old self, it was a powerful experience. I’m getting ahead of myself. Please allow me to backtrack!

When I was little, I loved to read everything. I loved to try to untangle the mystery of words and to make sense of this seemingly random collection of letters. I had a particular fascination with the labels on Carnation milk! The tin of milk was a staple on our table for every meal and I read and re-read the label first in English and then in French…well I tried the latter with limited success. I tried to match the English words with their French counterparts. I cannot describe how excited I was to study French when I went to school! I started identifying words like “lait”, “sucre” and “sauce”. There was meaning there! It was from practicing these recipes that I learned to roll my “r”.

Fast track to Grade 4 and my “moment in time”. Our French teacher, never a particularly patient individual, was trying to teach us the time. Over and over we did the drills while he pointed to the large cardboard clock on the ledge of the chalkboard. He’d say the time, we’d repeat after him and so on and so on. After what I’m sure he considered reasonable practice, he asked “Quelle heure est-il?” Not one hand went up. When he called on individuals to answer, he invariably got an incorrect response. His frustration mounted until he angrily demanded of the class if there were even one person who knew the time. Heart racing with fear (for I had no idea where he was going with this) I raised my hand and into it he placed the Holy Grail of the classrooms of yesteryear …the pointer! I was to take over! Even as I write this I cannot help but smile as I think about the excitement and trepidation racing through me at that time. When I turned to face my peers and began “Il est une heure” with the pointer shaking a mile a minute, I decided two things: I would be a French teacher and I would never get mad at my class. I’m sure that you realize that the latter has been an impossible goal by times!

When I was in Grade 11, a group from our school went to Québec. I was so excited! Imagine, I could use all of the grammar that we had spent years learning and converse with the real French people! They were going to be so impressed when this group of girls from Newfoundland arrived in their fair province! Imagine my chagrin when I couldn’t understand a word! To make matters worse, I couldn’t put all of my wonderful ideas together into a coherent sentence. The love of my 17 year-old life, a handsome Quebecer whom I had just met, was to remain an unknown. His English was practically nonexistent and all I could do was “passé composé” him with a little “futur simple” thrown into the mix. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. Conjugating verbs does not a relationship make!

When I went to Memorial I wasn’t really certain that French and I had a future together. Quebec had left me with a lot of doubts; my goal from my “moment in time” seemed unattainable. In my first term it seemed that everyone could speak better, understand more easily and had better accents than I did. In my second term I met a girl who had been to the Frecker Institute in Saint-Pierre. She was really excited about her experiences there and even better, every time she opened her mouth French words and expressions fell from her lips. Here, I thought, was what I needed! The next year, off I went to Saint-Pierre to be immersed!! To say that I learned a lot is an understatement. The entire experience firmed my resolve to teach French and it never wavered again.

At Memorial I completed the required courses for my double major. Once I got into the Education Faculty I met a lot of really interesting individuals on both sides of the desk! I think that the most practical courses that I completed there were the methods courses. They gave me an opportunity to take the abstract ideas that I had been studying and give them concrete form. The professors challenged us and made us think about the “why” and, more importantly, the “how”. Back then we visited schools a few times a week and didn’t get the experience of an internship like students do today. My co-operating teacher was an absolute dynamo and she had a powerful impact on my teaching.

When I graduated, I applied for a number of jobs. My French degree made finding a job easy. I was hired to teach in a small community on the north-east coast of Newfoundland. It was Grade 4 all over again! I was both very fearful and very excited! The school had from Grades 7 through 12 and a population of about 150 students. No French had ever been taught there and I was to begin the program in Grade 7 and the next year move it into Grade 8. Oh, the possibilities! Oh, the young minds just waiting for the opportunity to learn our second official language. I was rolling along those first weeks in total oblivion, believing that all was right with the universe; I was fulfilling my destiny. One day, when I was teaching the prepositions…standing dans une poubelle with an SRA box sur ma tête and the desk derrière mon dos, a student raised his hand to speak. Mentally patting myself on the back for my creativity and willingness to go outside the box, no pun intended, I calmly waited for the young man to speak. He wanted to know why they had to waste time learning this foolishness, why they couldn’t do more…gasp…important stuff. I was, to use the vernacular, gob-smacked! I had thought that I had a class of mini-me’s!

Needless to say, I have evolved over the years. I still teach outside the box, some would claim that I’m not even in the room where the box is located, but this is typical of French teachers. We are, by nature, creative and energetic! I still love what I do and I believe that it was meant to be. The great irony! I hate cooking and baking – no recipes for me in either language! Sorry Carnation!