Parlez Vouz Anglais? (November 17, 1999)

She had been waiting for this day for months. On this one test rested the ultimate fate of her young life. Such is the way in a bureaucratic society, her mom said.

It was a beautiful morning on the top of the Coast Range mountains as the rising morning sun shown down on her radiant face. I can do this, I am ready, she thought, as she sipped her morning coffee. Last notes checked, running for the waiting Chevy Blazer, the image of optimism, at 7am she left for The Test! 

They traversed the four miles of dirt road reaching the top of the hill to be greeted with the familiar view of the Pacific Ocean glimmering on the horizon to her right and the Ukiah Valley on the left. Somewhere down in that great sparsely settled basin was the building that held the key to her future. The twisting, logging-truck-worn, paved road to Ukiah was being traversed by the lilting sounds of the lovely French language. 

As the clock neared 8 o’clock they pulled off the freeway, headed out Talmage Road, turned on East Side Road and came to a stop at the Department of Public Education. She was about to take the CHSPE, the California High School Proficiency Examination, the test that, when she passed, would be her plane ticket to Spain to start her first semester in college. She kissed her mom goodbye and with her head held high, walked to a small gray building at the back of the sprawling complex.

She walked in and found a seat next to a boy about her same age, of oriental extraction. The room was filling up with young people of all descriptions. A little purple hair here, a “skater” with a “whitewall” and a long haircut there. A young Mexican girl… The future of Mendocino County? The World? 

The test started. Out of her empty video cassette holder she took one of her many newly sharpened pencils. The math went well, much easier than European math and the poem that had the question and answer problems was real interesting and then finally a 15-minute break. 

The “industrial strength” soap in the ladies’ room had given her hands a bad rash, or was it partially nerves? Oh well. 

Back in class now the test required her to write a story, either about a best friend or a best teacher. This would be the hardest part of the test for her because just two years ago she had come to this country, not speaking one word of English. Now at 16 she could get that valuable piece of parchment that gives one the laurels and plaudits to be accepted into academe.

Her first year here she had enrolled in the eighth grade class at the Mountain Meadow, Waldorf School. Her classmates helped her with her basic English skills, which she augmented at first with “My A, B, C Book” etc. But the rest of the curriculum was easy. That year she “graduated” and was speaking the pretty good English, merci boucoup. She then checked out the local high school, but found it to be a social and educational prison. So what to do?

Her mom, Joelle, and I had been doing some home-schooling together, so why not do some more? Joelle had been a speech therapist in Europe, dealing often with children of several nationalities at once, so for her this would be time consuming, but not difficult. I soon realized that our teaching styles were quite different when at 11 o’clock, her little porcelain bell would ring, and out of my front door would leap Coralie, her brother Gregoire and my son Trevan. 15 minutes, no!, not 16 minutes, later the same bell would bring them back to their stacks of papers and books.

There were stories of Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon Tiki, special math and algebra problems, spelling tests, work study (Coralie had saved enough money for a plane ticket to Europe) and — my class — English and Creative Writing. I never was really any good at learning, much less teaching about interrogative or imperative sentence structure, but there I was going through books of language exercises. But mostly I taught just plain old writing. And at this point in Coralie’s life I hoped I had done well enough for her.

She sat at her test, she now had to write a story. Using the basic format I had given her — an opening paragraph, one that caught the reader’s attention and held promise of an interesting story. The body, the large part of the text that, when verbally shaped properly, could stand on its own two feet. The Finalé, one that, if you read directly after the opening, would make sense, but could or should be filled with at least one surprise — she started on the one about her best friend. But she found it was going nowhere, so she stopped and started writing about her best teacher. The test over, she reviewed her work and then strode out into the noonday sun.

My bike roared over the cool mountain roads. The valley floor was warmer as I putted down State Street, passing Jerry’s “La Bamba” low-rider and many other valley people. I pulled up to the CHSPE parking area, pushed out my kickstand and got off the bike. I walked over to a guy sitting in a deck chair and asked him “How long till the test is over?” “Another 20 minutes, but some people have already left,” he (as a teacher) officially said. I talked to him about my daughter, Lasara, who had never gone to public school and was accepted at Santa Rosa College with no other paperwork than a hand-written resumé. We also talked about education in general. Then he said that he liked my writing in the AVA. “Do I know you?” I said. “Yeah, kinda,” he smiled. “My brother used to write for the AVA. I’m Larry Gluckman. Small county, huh?” 

Coralie strolled down the cement pathway, looking over to me and asking “Where’s my mom?” “Five minutes,” I responded. Right on time, Joelle showed up. Every one was, at last, relieved. Did she do good? How couldn’t she?

Her mom lent her the leather jacket and cowgirl boots out of the car, then she hopped on the back of the bike and we were on our last ride together. She always liked riding on the bike and there are very few Harleys in Spain. But that’s where she will be next week. So this ride and this story is dedicated to a young woman who knows where she’s going, and just how to get there. 

Au revoir and bon voyage.

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