Throughout the month of June, all across Chicago, high school graduations – and the caps, gowns, suits, ties, and formal dresses that are part and parcel of these celebrations – abound.
Among these ceremonies was the Alliance Française de Chicago’s “Award Towards Excellence,” where some of the most festive stories were shared as the young graduates addressed their audience in both French and English. Most described the cheese they had tasted at gouter (snack time), their excitement about future study in Paris, or the Concordia Language Villages funded by the Alliance. But the most heartfelt words were reserved to express their appreciation of this two-year, weekly program and what proficiency in French language and culture meant to them.
To the Alliance’s Director Jack McCord, the two-year immersion program is one of the very best parts of his job.
“I love the interaction between students, teachers, and Alliance staff. We get to know them and see first-hand the results of their participation in the program. Every year I teach a cooking class. Sometimes I will focus on making a classic French cake, or another course I prove that it is possible to cook a simple French meal more cheaply and with fewer calories than a Happy Meal.
“But most of their time is spent with our teachers, who are very skilled and passionate about the classroom experience for the kids. Over ninety percent of our students go on to college and most are among the first in their families to do that, so the life outcomes are compelling. Many of us on staff, on the Alliance Board, and on the Woman’s Board find ourselves tearing up at the awards ceremony. We feel the students’ pride in themselves and their great sense of accomplishment.
“We began with a single donation from a board member and just a couple of schools. We now work with six Chicago public high schools, and there are 50 in our program. The program is designed to enhance basic language skills and to encourage future studies beyond the two-year foreign language requirement.”
In 1998, Board Member, Chair of the Educational Outreach Committee, and French tour de force, Francine Saltoun, went to Julius Lewis (who was, at that time, President of the Alliance), with the idea for the project.
“Our students travel far distances, often taking a train and a bus, but they have the discipline to meet our requirement that they cannot miss a single class. The program is often a lifeline for them. It is obvious that they come away with great self-respect as well as the ability to speak the language, appreciate the French culture, and flip a crepe high into the air and catch it again.
“Our graduates keep up with us through Facebook, and one student, who received a full Harvard scholarship and now works for Google, wrote recently to say that he wouldn’t have gotten into Harvard without our program.”
Woman’s Board members not only bring madeleines, chocolate croissants, and other iconic French food each week for gouter, but it is the funds raised through their biannual gala that help support the program.
Jan Notz, who often attends graduation, commented recently:
“Francine has done an extraordinary job. She is devoted to the Outreach students and has helped them in so many ways to adapt to and feel comfortable in the world of French culture. As a Woman’s Board member, it is a privilege to have the opportunity to get to know these motivated and enthusiastic young people.”
On Bastille Day in 2003, Jack McCord was offered the job as the Alliance’s Executive Director. A member of the Alliance for 20 years before that time, and a participant in its wonderfully varied programs, Jack, like many of us, wrestled with foreign language in the beginning.
“I was a middling student of French, grade-wise at least, up through high school. I loved the language, not the homework. Once I arrived at Indiana University in Bloomington, known for its strong world language departments, I had to get motivated. I found out that all these great French speakers there were not French, but American! I thought: I want to do that!
“I think I am blessed with a bit of an ear for languages, but I worked really hard on grammar and my accent during a year abroad in Strasbourg. That really made it all jell, and I came home fluent in French. Then, when I moved to Chicago in the late 1970s, the Alliance was about the only place, other than a few theaters that showed French movies, where you could access French and keep it up. I would visit the Alliance to get out of the retail or advertising worlds, where I worked at the time. I would take a mental voyage and immerse myself in the library, join an improv group in French, which was a riot, and worked on a diploma in business French.
I remember the fun of those days, talking with Eleanor Wood Prince at evening receptions, an elegant lady who spoke excellent French. Our Salon on Chicago Avenue is named for her.”
Oscar Regalado, who participated in the program while a student at Lakeview High School, is proud to call himself a Francophone. He always returns for the “Awards Towards Excellence” ceremony. A graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago, he recalled the fun of visiting Québec and understanding “seventy-five percent” of the language. He shares, “I participated, thanks to the Alliance, in summer courses at Concordia Language Villages in Minnesota, where you can only speak French. At the Alliance I learned that it is ok to make mistakes when you are trying to learn a new language.”
That simple truth is so wise – and should be remembered by all of us striving toward linguistic excellence (but maybe only reaching mediocrity): it is not perfection we should take pride in, but in what a truly special experience it is to learn a new language.
Mark Campbell Photography