My college French teacher never spoke English in class, with one exception. The exception was the day Jack Kerouac died.
The teacher was a short, slight, gentle man, neat in appearance, with closely cropped hair. This was in contrast to his students, who appeared unkempt and bohemian. Another difference between him and us was that he knew what a bohemian was.
The day Kerouac died, he wrote the author's name on the board, along with the title On the Road. Then he shocked us by asking in English: "Does anyone know this man, or this novel?"
None of us did.
This devastated him. I will never forget his look of deep disappointment. This look, and his use of English, convinced me that Kerouac must be very special.
After class, I went straight to the library. I read about Kerouac and took out On the Road. Reading it moved me in the same way it moved many college students. It made me feel alive.
I went on to read more of Kerouac's work, as well as more about him. One story I cannot forget is how he wrote the first draft of On the Road. Kerouac assembled sheets of paper into one huge roll, fed it into his typewriter, and pumped out the novel in just three weeks, in a continuous, spontaneous act of thought and motion. (Amphetamines may have helped.)
I was enthralled, and still am. While some critics doubted Kerouac's greatness as a writer, no one can dispute that he had something - except maybe Truman Capote. A recent New York Times article about the literary history of word processing repeated Capote's famous quip about Kerouac's On the Road manuscript: "That's not writing; that's typing."
This is what got me thinking again about Kerouac, a truly romantic, partly mythic figure whose idolization isn't finished. On the Road, published in 1957, is finally expected to become a movie. Starring Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, and Kristen Stewart, it's scheduled for release this year. If it's done right, it's bound to send more young people on adventures, driving the small roads from New York to California, stealing cigarettes and food as they go, trying to be free, trying to understand life and find themselves.
I'll likely stay put, though I may reread the novel. As for my French teacher, who has passed on, I'd like to think he's aware that one of his students, who didn't learn much French, did learn something from him on that day when he found it necessary to speak English in class.