Cynthia Yancey


I went off to college when I was just seventeen, without my compass, not knowing where I was headed. I only knew that I was finally, not a minute too soon, leaving my Kentucky home. I was welcomed into the Department of Foreign Languages at Ole Miss like a cherished family member. Professor Simon, French Canadian himself, was married to a French woman. They invited me to go on a student tour of Europe after my first year of college. 

I may have forgotten along my way to thank my father and my grandmother, who held the purse strings in our family, for their generosity, which was truly abundant. Three cheers now I send to my long-dead father and grandmother for supporting this stretch into other cultures, which changed my life.

On the tour of Europe that summer and during the weeks we studied in Vichy, I made one of my all-time best friends, Lincoln Hall. He was studying German; for me, it was French. To put many trips into a nutshell, I went back summer after summer to Dijon and Paris and Quebec City to learn that loveliest romance language. Eventually, I signed up for graduate studies in French and taught it as a graduate assistant.

I switched soon afterward to premed, then medical school. But the year before med school was to start, I realized that all of those studies might be forever lost if I did not cement French into the recesses of my mind by making it really come alive before I plunged into my upcoming years of medical studies.

So in January, before med school was to begin in late August 1978, I landed a job in Paris as an au pair, a foreign young woman who works and lives in a French family. When the au pair job didn’t work out, I walked along the Seine many nights, as alone as I have ever been, trying to find my way, and then I did.

After a month or so of working in that family, which was struggling with two little children and a fresh, raw divorce, I left the au pair job and landed, of all places, in a Baptist boardinghouse in the quatorzième arrondissement in the south of Paris, rue Liancourt, rooming with a precious sixteen-year-old Parisian orphan named Odile. She taught me not only French, but also how the only way to really learn a language is to go to bed each night and wake up the next morning speaking it, to put oneself in a setting where the mother tongue is no longer helpful. Days, I studied at the Sorbonne; then at night, I came home to Odile to practice the spoken language as we shared the stories of our lives.

I may never forget sweet Odile, listening to my phone conversations with my father and asking, “Qu’est-ce que signifie ce ‘sir’ que tu dis si souvent?” (“What is this ‘sir’ you say so often in conversation with your father?”) We always answered our father “yes, sir” or “no, sir.” She hadn’t learned that in school, and in fact, we never spoke English at all, but she must have understood some of those conversations.

When I returned to Mississippi, started med school, and gave birth to my first son, Odile called me occasionally. My French then was still fresh enough for a good, long conversation, but since, it has dwindled to the point I am hardly able to converse at all when occasionally I have a West African patient in the clinic. But I still understand when I am spoken to in French, and I don’t believe it would take long at all to rekindle it, if ever I were to need that lovely language again.

And actually, just this week, I had the most beautiful pregnant patient from Senegal come for care. After greetings in French, I was reduced to telling her and her husband, in English, a little about delivering babies in Senegal for a month during my training. I told them the only Wolof, the native language of Senegal, that had stuck in my mind were the words I had needed to say at least a thousand times that month, “Oubil sa danka y pusil!” which means, “Open up your legs and push!” No matter whom I use my lone Wolof expression with, it always brings a chuckle.

When I ultimately had to transform my vision of international health work from the world stage to my downtown clinic in Asheville, North Carolina, I quickly found that French was not the language I needed to speak on a daily basis. Somehow I had to learn Spanish. With two jobs and four kids, it wasn’t going to be easy.

I started in a big night class at the Asheville-Buncombe Technological College. After a couple of sessions, I realized we were going to graduate being able to do little more than bargain in the market in Mexico. So I went to the University of North Carolina in Asheville and set up an appointment with the head of the Foreign Language Department. I asked him which of their classes I could take that would help me develop a functional use of Spanish. He suggested his best teacher, who happened to have a lunch class that fit as perfectly as school can fit into one’s work schedule.

I will never forget the day she taught us the imperative mood with expressions like, “No tenga miedo de equivocarse.” It seemed to be at once a grammar and a life lesson. “Don’t be afraid of making a mistake,” my teacher taught us. I went at Spanish grammar with a fury, then followed her advice and set up several intensive homestay study weeks in Guatemala and Ecuador.

My best teachers, though, were always the sweet patients in my clinic each day. I was amazed at their patience and tolerance of my elementary conversational skills.

Many years on down the road, after the Health Department had outsourced my women’s health clinic to our local, federally qualified health center, I found myself suddenly teaching a classroom of Spanish-speaking patients about their pregnancies. I asked the head of the clinic to allow me another intensive time out of the country to study. Thus my buddy Rae and I landed in Cusco, Peru, not at all far from Machu Picchu, to live in a Cusqueñian family and to study Spanish intensively for ten days.

Having lived in the poorest of West African villages with my daughter Sarah, and having worked in so many developing nations, I was pleasantly surprised at the old-world simplicity of Cusco. The buildings were sturdy and clean. The mountains loomed to 11,000 feet behind the old cathedral on its city plaza that sparkles with little lights at night running between its sculptured central fountain to the colonial porticos of shops and cafes that line its periphery. To me, Cusco seemed just right, second world-ish, neither opulent nor poor. As Rae and I walked its ancient cobblestone streets from the home where we stayed to our little school up the mountain, young Cusqueñians tried to sell us their art and jewelry. One of the boys called himself Pablo Picasso. A painting of his hangs in my kitchen.

I’m afraid they may have overshot when they graded my placement exam and put me in a super-advanced class with just one other student, a Chilean kid who grew up speaking Spanish but wanted to learn grammar. Many times in my life, I have found myself in that place of being on the very edge of my learning potential with folks ever so much smarter or more naturally talented or able than I. Each time, I have pushed myself to perform alongside them, be it in the halls of medical school or, as in this case, speaking a language as eloquently as I possibly could alongside a kid who grew up in a bilingual home. I was at once in heaven and on the hot seat, and I was loving it.

The first weekend, Rae and I hiked through the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu itself. When we passed through its gates early one Saturday, and entered into that paradise on earth of ancient Incan pyramids and ruins rising up through the layers of mist outlining the surrounding green mountains, there was silence from the crowd of five hundred or so tourists gathered for this experience. Every single one of us in that international crowd found Machu Picchu simply too breathtaking for words. I saw the Chilean kid near and went and embraced him. No words in any language could be uttered. The expressions on our incredulous faces were those of students living a magical moment beyond our wildest dreams.


Back in the classroom, just off the town square of this lovely colonial mountain town of Cusco, words mattered again.

My teacher Miguel was a tall, cool, young Peruvian who taught students for a week at a time. He was a cheerful, fun-loving man. Then, at the change of guard the following week, he stayed with me and the Chilean kid, but we were joined by a couple of Italian men, also a bit too cool for words. They sat at their laptops, playing games, writing on their Facebook pages in the midst of our intensive Spanish studies. They had introduced themselves as a couple who had just recently arrived in South America after touring Europe by train.

Midway through that week, the dark, handsome young teacher entered the classroom lightly, because that is how he always entered. But he seemed to have a still-lighter lilt to his step that day as he walked to the board with chalk in hand, a sly smile on his healthy, red lips, saying the time had come for a real lesson in street slang.

I didn’t hold onto a lot of his mierdas and chingados, or the expressions that contain those choice “shits” and “fucks,” but I really loved that this professor would take time out of his class to teach us such. Then he moved on to a lesson in more esoteric tenses. It was a past subjunctive he was trying to impress into our heads that day. He asked for examples and turned to one of the too-cool gay guys, who was busily tapping his computer keys, not expected to be able to respond, but who nonetheless blithely, with just a moment’s hesitation, did answer.

In response to Miguel’s request for an example of this past subjunctive tense, the young Italian pushed his laptop back and, with barely time to think, said with an ever-so-slight Italian accent: 

Yo estaba tan cansado…como si hubiera estado chingando toda la noche…” with no apparent stretch in his capacity for language-learning, perhaps because he was, in fact, describing himself so well at that very moment. To me, though, it was a moment of genius for this brand-new, apparently disinterested Italian to say so very smoothly, “I was as tired as if I had been fucking all night!” 

It was one of those surreal moments in life when my mouth dropped nearly to the floor in disbelief that this fellow might multitask as only a millennial could do, that he might be sitting at his computer talking with his buddies on Facebook and all the while assimilating the Spanish past subjunctive with street slang. My amazement was followed seamlessly by huge, congratulatory laughter.

Our young teacher was equally happily awestruck. Standing at the blackboard, he doubled over in incessant, sidesplitting laughter, until we all thought he would either cry or crawl under that little table we were gathered around. We wondered what he might do if one of the headmasters caught wind of this bright moment in all of our days, wondered how Miguel might capture and hold onto this rare moment of teaching for a long time to come.

Personally, I felt like shouting from the rooftops, “I am NOT in Kentucky anymore. This is exactly where I want to be in the world!” with these brilliant young men, learning language in a setting richer than I had ever previously imagined. Every single one of us seemed delighted to be in this particular little classroom, in a multicultural, perfectly tolerant, intellectually heady environment, studying and learning together, all the while having such fun.

I am not sure I could pull back any of those complex constructions now, but memory of this moment has colored many of my duller days with the realization that life can be so good. As good as that one day in a classroom in Peruvian mountains, in the colonial city of Cusco, learning to use the past subjunctive verb tense in the context of street slang with some of the brightest young men I have ever known.

As I eventually headed back home to my own mountains in Western North Carolina, it seemed to me that when our dreams become our stories, we have a duty to write them down and weave them forevermore into the fabric of our lives. 


© Cynthia Yancey

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