Barbara Russek, at age 25, and her mother Harriet Gerber Russek, boarding a plane for a trip to Paris.

By Barbara Russek

“How did you decide to become a French teacher?” It’s a question I’ve been asked many times, especially since moving to Arizona, where Spanish is practically the second official language. It all goes back to my mother …

Apparently, I was in love with language from a very young age. In one of the family stories, my father was scolding me at age two about something which has long been forgotten. “Daddy,” I said, “don’t talk to me harshly.” “How do you want me to talk to you?” he asked. “Talk to me gently,” was my reply. I still feel the same way.

To this day, the magic of words continues to delight and inspire me. As for the French component, I owe a great debt of gratitude to my mother, Harriet Gerber Russek.

Mom was a woman of eclectic interests. Tall and elegant, she loved fashion. Her matzo ball soup and chopped liver salad earned high marks in our family. She could play a decent game of both bridge and golf. She also loved French. Mom would often tell me stories of braving the cold winter nights of our home town, Saint Louis, Mo (named, incidentally for a French king, Louis IX) to attend French classes at night school. And I remember her pride in being able to read Huis Clos (No Exit) by Sartre in the original. So, when I was in ninth grade and had to choose a foreign language, Mom gently but firmly guided me to French.

I wish I could say that I was genetically wired to learn French, was a straight A student, and the darling of my French teachers, but that wouldn’t be an accurate description of how things went. First year was a maze of irregular verbs and almost having to turn my mouth inside out to approximate some of those new sounds. I sometimes think back to one of my high-school French teachers, Miss D. and her smug smile when one of her shining stars got up to recite. I was definitely not part of the crème de la crème of that class. Nevertheless, Mom continued to encourage me, and I persevered.

By the time I enrolled at Washington University, my grades began to reflect the fact that the jumble of information that had hit me as a high school freshman was at last starting to come together.

One day when I was a sophomore, I noticed a flyer on the front door of the foreign language office. A small private high school for boys not far from campus had lost its French teacher and was looking for a junior, senior or graduate student majoring in the language to take over a couple of late afternoon classes for the rest of the school year. At that point I had taken no education classes; however, what I lacked in qualifications, I made up for in naïve, youthful enthusiasm. The good news was they hired me.

I had no idea at what point these boys were in their study of French. A book was put in my hand and I had to fly by the set of my very modest skirt or dress, which were de rigueur at that school – no pants allowed. Yet within short order I realized that I was having fun – actually the time of my life – and a future career was born.

How do you thank someone, especially when that someone is no longer with us, for leading me to one of the best decisions of my life? After all, French does so much for my soul. Over the years, I got to teach one of the most beautiful languages in the world. In addition, French literature, cuisine, music and more were woven into my curriculum.

I frequently invited guest speakers living in the area – each from a different francophone country – to speak to my students. They learned a lot and so did their teacher!

I still love French and participate in a weekly conversation group at our local Alliance Francaise. After all, a return trip to la belle France may be just around the corner.

So, as Mother’s Day approaches, I just want to say a huge merci beaucoup to you, Mom– for my life, for your love, devotion and belief in me and for sharing with me your love of French. It’s been a great ride.

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