Sprechen Sie Deutsch?

In response to my last post, Mom sent me a photo of Cheo and myself from when we were little, probably second grade for me and kindergarten or Pre-K for Cheo. In it, I’m wearing my favorite jacket, a silver windbreaker with an American flag patch on the shoulder. I think it said “Monaco 🇲🇨 ” on the back and was supposed to be like a Formula One racing jacket. AJ Foyt was a popular driver at the time, and since “AJ” were my initials, I felt a camaraderie with him. Occasionally I’d check the sports pages (yes, it was a printed newspaper at the time) and look for his name and stats. If the Indy 500 was ever on TV, I’d cheer for him. I was never into Indy or NASCAR too much but it was fun as a boy to have a driver to root for.

I also remember my silver jacket since I’d wear it to school every day. We attended The Catlin-Gabel school in Portland, on the west side up on the hill. Dad would drive us to school from northeast Portland about 40 minutes in our 1975 Volvo station wagon before heading to his job downtown as a copier salesman at Xerox. As a kid, I didn’t realize that it was an expensive private school. We studied French and German, had music lessons, and played soccer on a huge field. It all seemed completely normal to me. Looking back, I’m incredibly grateful for the privilege to have gone to such a well-heeled institution for my formative years in the first through fourth grades.

On the flip side, I never learned any Spanish in my twelve years of compulsory education, and our high-falutin’ liberal teachers felt it necessary to teach us handwriting in italics rather than cursive. Later in a sixth grade aptitude test I couldn’t identify a capital cursive “Q” on sight. I kept shrugging my shoulders and calling it a “2“. If anyone reads my handwriting today (a hodgepodge of printing and italics) they probably think I’m a physician writing a script… Mom called it “chicken scratch.” I call it “unique.” Tomato, tomahto.

For some reason, at Catlin-Gabel I preferred French class to German. They were in the same building next door to each other and scheduled adjacently. Madame Overlie was our first instructor, and we learned colors, numbers, and parts of the body. We also watched movies in French with English subtitles and played with Smurfs, those little blue plastic figurines with the funny hats.

My German teacher (I forget her name at the moment) was more austere and was prone to curt reprimands if we got out of line or spoke out of turn. I’m not saying she was a fascist or a Nazi, but seeing movies about WWII later did slightly remind me of her strict disciplinarian ways. Same with my childhood dentist, Dr. Strange, who wouldn’t let you cry while she was extracting your teeth. “Stop crying,” she would say firmly, with a light slap on the cheek. Nowadays such a practitioner would be wholesale hauled off to jail for abuse, but in the ’70s that was the price we paid for straight teeth and a beautiful smile. C’est la vie. Anyway, I don’t remember much about my second grade German teacher except her sharp facial features and smart spectacles. But I can still count to ten to this day, and I know a few colors.

My jacket was “Silber-“, which in English sounds like “zilba”.

Now I use Google Translate for all my German. “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?


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