April 5, 2015
The professor and six fellow students sit around me in a semi-circle. Walking amongst them, I consult the well-worn book in my hands, with its yellow-highlighted passages. Flipping ahead, I see not enough are marked; I will run out. I wish I were more prepared. I begin to read them some passages, though I had meant to have more to offer than reading them excerpts. Feeling nervous now.
“And this passage introduces a sex scene. Oh, you don’t want to hear about that!” I say and keep going. I expect them to object, to prod me into reading it to them, but they let me skip it. They don’t even laugh, as I had hoped. I best wrap this up quickly; I’m running out of material. I don’t even know what my points were.
“I chose Edith Wharton because of my interest in 18th century English literature,” I say. I say “Wharton” three times, hoping to pronounce it correctly. It never comes out right. “Excuse my speech impediment.”
“Nineteenth,” someone corrects me. “Nineteenth century.” Is that even true? I really don’t know anything about her. I hope it is a her. Maybe this is one of the authors whose gender I confuse, and I don’t have that right either. “She liked to write about 19th century manners.” I’m hoping I’m right. Hoping. Was she British? Wasn’t she in New England?
The students know the word patois, the book’s title, because it was just made into a movie. What does the word mean? I offer its linguistic meaning; will that suffice? I check the front pages of the book. “You may think this is a modern book, but it is from 1871. But I first heard the word patois in 2005, way before the movie.” I’m making some point; what is it?
I read the book’s French subheadings aloud as best I can, not even being able to make out all of the scrawled cursive letters, and knowing my pronunciation is only fair. I make up words I can’t decipher. I assure the students that their own audience won’t know the correct pronunciation either, so they also can just do the best they can.
“How long did you study 18th century British literature? French?”
“Two years studying French.” Now I wish I had studied harder. And read Edith Wharton. A lot.
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