M’aider! Mayday!

Most teachers and professors spend the first day of school combing over the syllabus with their new students. They talk about different class projects and (more importantly) how much they will impact the students’ final grades. They discuss academic integrity and the penalties for cheating or plagiarism while everyone self-righteously looks around, wondering who will be the one to get a zero because they pulled their term paper from Wikipedia. They rattle off their absence policies as their students calculate how many classes they can miss without fear of retribution.

As thorough as these syllabi may be, however, they always fail to address a critical issue. In all my time as a student – including my years in college and grad school – I’ve never once had a teacher explain the protocol for the dreaded instance in which you run into them outside of class. 

Anyone who’s ever seen their teacher at the grocery store or their favorite coffee shop knows the feeling. Seeing a professor outside of class is like seeing your pet at school or walking into your bedroom to find a jazz combo rehearsing.

It’s like seeing a clown in the oval office.

Alright, I guess that’s not so outlandish, so just forget I said anything.

Simply put, seeing a teacher anywhere other than the front of the classroom is awkward. It’s jarring. It forces you to recognize the fact that teachers are people too; people with hobbies, coffee cravings, and personal lives.

And I’m here to tell you that any situation in which you end up thinking about your professors’ personal lives is a bad situation.

Over the years, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to get used to the immediate shock of seeing your teacher outside their natural habitat. At this point, I simply smile, ask how they are, and make some remark on the weather before gracefully excusing myself and running in the opposite direction.

The only professors with whom this strategy fails are those who teach foreign languages.

I’ll give you some background information about my track record with foreign language classes.

It all started in high school when I took two semesters of Spanish online. Some people may tell you virtual language classes work just as well as in-person lessons. Those people are liars. I don’t remember two sentences in Spanish, though I do remember taking advantage of the computer-filled room designated for online coursework in my high school and pretending I was on the Starship Enterprise (shout out to Commander Rosemary, my classmate at the next computer who was forced to play along with my games and help me destroy the alien fleet).

In college, I took three semesters of German, which was great, but didn’t help prepare me for my semester abroad in Italy. I therefore spent another semester studying Italian with a teacher from the Tuscan town in which I was living. To satisfy the graduate language requirement during my master’s program, I took two semesters of French in which I got more mileage out of the phrases “Sacré bleu!” and “Bon appétit” than anyone ever has.

All these language classes gave me ample opportunity to run into my teachers outside of class.

I want to be clear: my foreign language professors have all been great teachers and interesting people. They are all polite and would undoubtedly greet their students warmly and cordially in any situation. Language teachers have a way, however, of greeting their students in the language they teach.

On the surface, this may just seem like a friendly nod to their role in your life. But a language professor greeting you in the language they teach is the equivalent of your math teacher forcing you to recite the quadratic formula if they run into you outside of class. It’s like your history teacher seeing you at Starbucks and, instead of saying “Hello,” asking something like “How about that Battle of Hastings in 1066, huh?” It just isn’t good form. When you leave that classroom, you’re off the clock.

But for some reason, foreign language professors insist on trapping you in this perverse improv exercise; a series of “yes, and” – excuse me, “ja, und” or “sí, y” – statements until the teacher takes pity on your soul and releases you to think about what you’ve done.

I would say I’ve always been pretty good at talking to adults. I don’t mean grad students, I mean real adults. The kind who host Thanksgiving dinner or own a meat thermometer or have their own cell phone plan. I was always sure to make a good first impression with my teachers on the first day of school. I speak up when talking with senior citizens. None of my friends or significant others have ever had to worry when introducing me to their parents or grandparents. Whether by pulling out a reusable witty comment, pointing out the most interesting aspects of the weather on any given day, or throwing in phrases like “Well, with the way the economy is going,” I can reliably navigate a conversation with an authority figure.

The last time I ran into my graduate French professor on the sidewalk, therefore, I was faced with a unique dilemma. It was as if I had the proverbial angel on one shoulder, who represented my deep-seated need to please others, and a cartoon demon on the other, who lobbied for me to extract myself from the conversation at any cost.

“Hi, Sully,” said my professor politely.

It was English. We all – angel, demon, and me – heard it. The demon wiped his hands together at the easiest situation he’d ever cheated his way out of.

And then the angel pounced.

“Bonjour, monsieur. Comment ça va?” I blurted as the angel repeatedly stabbed the demon with his own pitch fork.

My French professor and I both stared at each other in horror over the choice I’d just made. My teacher, ever the gentleman, was first to recover and ploughed on valiantly (probably making a mental note that he was now destined to be late for any upcoming obligation he had). “Ça va bien, et toi?”

It would have been enough for me to respond, “Ça va bien, merci,” and move on with my life knowing I’d taken care of the niceties. But the angel on my shoulder was a sadist and was now peeling off the demon’s fingernails one by one as he screamed in agony. Before I knew it, I’d followed up with a shaky “Que fais-tu pour le week-end?”

The teacher responded that he planned to use the weekend to cook, go on a walk, visit with friends, and read. Then, as if his own imaginary demon on his left shoulder was taking charge, he said the two fatal words: “Et toi?”

My mind went blank. I could not remember the French phrase for something simple like “I will sing this weekend,” much less a more honest “I will spend the next two days cringing every time I think of this moment.”

Practicing. Jogging. Eating. Grocery Shopping. These were all things I planned to do over Saturday and Sunday, but for how much I could recall from class in that moment, these activities might as well have been so rare in France that no one had ever thought to name them. While the angel on my shoulder – who at this point had realized he was out of his element – frantically gave the demon CPR, I thought back on the textbook chapter most recently covered in our lessons: les sports.

“Je vais faire du sport,” I signed.

My teacher raised an eyebrow. “Quel sport?” he asked politely?

Running. Baseball. Basketball. Literally anything would do if I could only think of the word. As I cast around in my memory, one term from the sports chapter forced its way to the front of my mind. Without thinking, I blurted it out.

“Le football américain.”

The angel and demon froze and stared open-mouthed. Neither of them could have predicted this.

My French teacher looked down at my 5’6’’ frame and nonathletic build and, perhaps remembering a remark I’d made earlier that week that I didn’t really play sports, seemed to decide things had gone too far.

“Très bien, Sully. Bon week-end. À bientôt.” Without another word, he hurried off before I could cause either of us any more pain.

This all happened about a year ago. Since then I’ve learned a lot. I’ve gotten better at French and have made a concerted effort to brush up on my German, Italian, and Spanish. Most importantly, I’ve made a game plan for the next time I see one of my foreign language professors outside of class. I’ve got one phrase in my back pocket which, if spoken in a convincing croak, will save me from any future humiliation.




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