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Larry Hyman: How I psyched the French system out and got a 19 out of 20 on my final

The group in Bordeaux consisted of 98 students from the various campuses of the University of California, by far the largest group coming from Berkeley. (A native of Los Angeles and student at UCLA, I had never visited Berkeley--or San Francisco, for that matter.) We had begun our stay with six weeks of French language courses in Pau in the Pyrenees. My spoken French was very shaky, but because I had a natural inclination for grammar (and hence for passing grammar tests), I was placed in group 5 (out of 6), where group 6 was the most advanced. I wound up in literature classes in Bordeaux with students from Group 6, at least three of whom spoke fluent French without an accent. I on the other hand was still learning and especially failed to master French stylistics. If you have seen the old style of French schooling in the Truffaut movies, I was the Antoine Doinel whose essay was always chosen to be read out loud for ridicule, particularly in the Lettres Philosophiques class, where the other 3 American students spoke and wrote flawless French. When the TA asked me why I did not know French as well as the other three, I politely explained to her that I had had less French, but that in any case, she should please not read my essays in front of them, because it embarrasses me. (She was surprised to learn that we don't do that in the US!) Even though I consider myself le plus grand francophile qui soit, maybe it was at this time that I first noticed that I couldn't find a good way to say "You are hurting my feelings" in French.
There was one area where I, however, triumphed over most of the other Californians: in organization. Ever since the 10th grade, I had followed a lesson from my English teacher which obviously "spoke to me": "When you write an essay, start with an introductory paragraph where you list three things you are going to say. Then write three paragraphs in which you treat each of the three things. Then write a final paragraph where you recapitulate what you have said and offer a brief conclusion." Such a boiler-plate seemed very reasonable, if not obvious, given my scientific bent. However, even though adopting this strategy as a UCLA Freshman in English 1A, I could barely get a B on an essay, no matter what I did, not even on my final paper entitled "A typology of humor in Sheridan's School for Scandal". (Little did I know that I would be a typologist some day!) After receiving a C+ on one essay (on another literary topic--they didn't really want to teach writing, rather literature), I went to see the instructor, who I thought was an old professor, but realize now must have been a 30 year old teaching assistant. "I don't understand why you are giving me these grades," I protested. "This is a writing class. I took every honors and advanced placement English class I could in high school, and I know how to write. I also know how to organize an essay." "Yes, you certainly have a gift for organization," she responded, and then continued in a soft rising intonation: "But couldn't you be a little more profound?"
On one of the last journeys of the Italian student ship, the Aurelia, we had attended a lecture by a University of California professor who expanded on the three words that, to him, best summed up the French: "Les Français sont raisonnables, sensibles, délicats." We joked about this lecture all year in Bordeaux, but quickly learned from our classes that the French are very cartésiens, insist on rational thought and clarity: Ce qui n'est pas clair n'est pas français! What's more, they write their essays in three Hegelian parts: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Each of my teachers were insistent that this is what they wanted to see in our essays vs. the stream-of-consciousness writing many Americans were used to submitting in high school and college English 1A. The monitrice who had read my essays aloud to complain about my French (but not about my organization), once screamed at the class, each syllable clearly punctuated: "JE... VEUX... MES... TROIS... PAR... TIES!" ('I want my three parts!').
So it came time for finals. I was studying the text on Leconte Delisle when it suddenly dawned on me that I should probably memorize some of the poems for the final exam the next morning. So I did. When I got there, the question we were given for the three-hour written final was "Leconte Delisle et l'histoire". I looked at it, puzzled. We had had lots of experience attending the cours d'agrégation where we saw that someone could take two lines of Voltaire and do a three-hour explication de texte on them. But what did this mean? Did the professor mean the representation of history in the poetry of Leconte Delisle (which was packed with references to antiquity) or the place of Leconte Delisle's poetry in history? "Ah, voilà!" I thought, "I have two parts!" So, in paragraph one I had "What does this question mean?" and offered two possibilities. Then I had two sections ("history in Leconte Delisle" and "Leconte Delisle in history"), each embellished with a few lines of poetry I had memorized, followed by the conclusion. I remembered being worried that I had only two parts, not three, for which I was sure I was going to be graded down.
I can only reconstruct what must have happened. It turned out that the professor, Monsieur Flottes, the leading expert on Leconte Delisle, had decided to grade the finals himself! I assume that he read the other essays first and could not believe that my classmates submitted their perhaps brilliant ideas in one rambling paragraph after another. He must not have been warned that American students, or at least the literature students of my generation, were not accustomed to organizing their papers into sections. So with his disbelief reinforced by one essay after another, he must have been quite relieved when he got to mine, and did not even notice the French mistakes! I actually finished my 3 finals earlier than most of the students taking other courses and went on a weeklong trip to Italy with my Eurailpass. When I returned for the Diner d'Adieux, I was shocked to discovered not only that I had gotten a 19, when 13 or 14 was a usual good grade, but that the 97 other students all knew about it. Whatever Monsieur Flottes did mean by "Leconte Delisle and history", to the Californians in Bordeaux, I made history that day :-)!