Thursday, September 07, 2006

Mme. Szclarczyk

I should have known. My sister warned me that our high school didn't have a reputation for being top-notch. But I couldn't quite wrap my brain around the idea that the A's and B's that I was getting in French, and my membership in the French National Honor Society, were nothing but a sham.

So it was pretty embarrassing to have to explain to my parents and grandparents that the results of the college's placement test indicated that I needed to be placed in Intermediate French II, a non-major course. But the worst was yet to come: When the department held its welcome meeting for freshman French majors, I was mortified to realize, watching all the other students laughing and nodding their heads, that I was clearly the only person in the room who had absolutely no idea what the professors were saying. So I did the only logical thing: After the meeting, I spoke to the department chair and asked to be placed in Intermediate French I. I spent my entire college career a year behind my fellow and sister French majors. And when I chose to spend my senior year in France, rather than doubling up and taking 19th and 20th Century French Literature in one year . . . well, let's just say that, while I wouldn't have given up that year in France for all the tea in China, my knowledge of 19th century French literature still has a huge hole where Victor Hugo ought to be.

But there was a silver lining to this cloud, and her name was Mme. Sczlarczyk. Mme. Sczlarczyk was a French phonetics professor with a peculiar attitude toward grading: She would never fail a student—but she wouldn't let any student pass, either, until his/her French pronunciation was good enough to warrant at least a B. She would simply give an Incomplete, semester after semester, until the student met her exacting standards. Some students were in her "course" for as long as four semesters straight! And how, exactly, did the students remain in her "course?" It's simple: She tutored them. She would see us between classes, in small groups and/or individually, until our pronunciation met her standards. She continued to tutor students at no cost until her husband became ill and she no longer had the time. I feel fortunate, indeed, to have benefited from her dedication.

Contrast that to some professors today (Hubster, CPA and newly-appointed full-time college Accounting instructor, excluded) who won't give a student in need of extra help the time of day, much less free tutoring. Granted, there are limits: No amount of private tutoring in a specific subject is going to help a student who enters any class without basic reading, writing, and/or math skills. For those students, remedial education is needed. But a student who knows the basics shouldn't have to go begging for help if some of the material being studied is a bit challenging. How does one deal with a college professor whose first reaction to a student who has the basic skills and a strong interest in learning but appears to be falling a bit behind is to tell him/her that he/she is a poor student who should hire a private tutor and will probably fail anyway?

I know what my own experience was, when I was falling a bit behind. That's why, some thirty-five years later, I still remember Mme. Sczlarczyk.


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