An aspiring writer chiseling away at her block, with a toothpick.
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Merci Madame

October 21, 2019


I stared at the piece of paper in my hand. Red ink covered the page; corrections that I didn't understand because they were all in French. My cheeks flushing, I fought to keep down the growing wave of embarrassment and shame. This was the third time I'd failed History. Up until a few months ago, I had never failed a quiz before. Back in Thailand, I was at the top of my class (which actually wasn't saying much; there were only 11 of us). Here in France, I was a dumb exchange student who couldn't even get one correct answer on a 5-question pop quiz.

Before I could begin my usual routine of self-deprecation, though, a voice interrupted me .

"Sirin, I'd like to talk to you about your grades."

Madame Barbereux was a petite woman—smaller than half the girls in my class—with sharp almond eyes and a dark brown pixie cut. Despite her intimidating, no-nonsense personality, I knew she was a reasonable person. There was no way I would be expected to keep up with a high school curriculum in a language I barely spoke! I was certain she would understand.

"Frankly, 0/5 three times in a row is not acceptable."

Alright, I guess I was wrong.

"I know you're a foreigner here, but I want you to know I won't be making any exceptions for you. You'll be treated—and graded—exactly the same as everyone else."

This was not what I had been expecting to hear. Most of my teachers had been very lenient with me, and I had become accustomed to words of encouragement and support.

"If you work hard and do your best to understand the material, your grades will reflect that," Madame Barbereux continued. "Remember: you're here to learn, and the only way to do that is by not letting language barriers get in the way."

A few days later, Madame Barbereux announced we would be having our first History test the following Monday, and I was prepared to ace it. I borrowed a friend's notebook and copied everything down, Google-translating every other word. Over the weekend, I spent hours studying the material. I watched videos in English, made notes, then translated those notes to French. I highlighted important words and translated those, too. I spent over two hours making "study sheets" and stayed up late memorizing them. By the time Monday rolled around, I knew I had the material down pat.

As soon as I received my exam, I flipped it over, ready for all my hard work to pay off. But one look at the first question and I was ready to break down in tears.

The voice in my head started screaming: ESSAY QUESTIONS?! ESSAY QUESTIONS?! Does she WANT me to fail?

After having a mini-panic attack, I ended up getting permission to write the essays in English and received a barely-passing grade on the exam.

Madame Barbereux always wrote comments and suggestions for each student when grading their exams. Mine included: "Not bad for an exchange student. However...". I felt I had to push harder if I wanted to earn her respect.

Unsatisfied with myself, I resolved to study harder for the next test. And the next one. I started preparing by writing practice essays and timing myself. Madame Barbereux's comments and guidelines for improvement were extremely helpful, and I saw my writing improve significantly. Each time I finished a test, I would say to myself: This is the one. The one you're going to ace.
Then I would receive an 11/20, complete with several lines of comments explaining what I did wrong. This vicious cycle continued until the day I completed my first History test entirely in French.

Two academic essays in less than an hour, in a language that was not my mother tongue, on a subject that even some of my classmates found challenging. I was spent, my hand cramping from all the writing, and I could not have been more proud.


Good attempt. You'll be expected to write all your exams in French from now on.

And so the cycle continued. But this time, something had changed. I knew I was finally on the same level as a failing French student, as opposed to a barely-passing foreign one. Madame Barbereux called on me more often in class, which forcd me to hone my speaking skills as well as my writing ones. Eventually, my average grade climbed to 15/20, and finally I received my first 19/20.

When I look back on that moment, I remember how proud I was of myself. Not because of the grade, but because of how much I had improved and how many hours I had put into that improvement. I realize now that behind that hard-earned success was a teacher who believed in me with a fierce and unrelenting determination. She believed I could accomplish anything if I put my mind to it. She was determined to push me beyond what I thought were my limits, and she knew that making things easy for me was not the way to do it. Throughout my entire exchange year, she was one of the only people who treated me as a French student. She refused to give me special treatment and, in doing so, made me feel I was equal to my peers. She made me believe there was nothing they could do that I couldn't. She instilled in me a work ethic I never thought I had, and taught me that failure was the path to success.

Sometimes the best lessons in life are learned outside of the classroom, and a teacher's job is to plant the seed for learning. I was lucky to have encountered a teacher who understood that. The things she taught me in ten months will stay with me for the rest of my life.


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  • annaocxo

    Loved this so much from the very beginning I knew I just had to keep reading!

    over 1 year ago
  • PalmLeaf

    Thank you guys so much! You made my day :) @luluwrites11 @Julia Warnock @HermioneGranger67 @Charisse Marison

    over 1 year ago
  • luluwrites111

    Simply incredible! It still amazes me the challenges that people who move to different places for a while have to face with the language, learning it so quickly. (Not to mention other challenges) This is so inspiring and very well written. :)

    over 1 year ago
  • Starflower

    Wow, that sounds like a difficult year! I've been struggling with Spanish for a long time and haven't gotten very far past "¡Hola! ¿Cómo estás?" Your writing is amazing and engaging. :)

    over 1 year ago
  • HermioneGranger67

    Wow! This is good writing! The words really flow and I love how you added just enough detail, but not too much. This is great!

    over 1 year ago
  • Charisse Marison

    This teacher of yours sounds amazing! Also, great job with the french! I would have failed for SURE!

    over 1 year ago