Monsieur Mandel

Monsieur Mandel

They called him the Bald-Headed Book Snatcher.

He roamed the lunch area of my school, Hughes Junior High in Woodland Hills, California, where I grew up. Someone, perhaps Mandel himself, had decreed that all textbooks must be protected using paper or plastic covers. When he spotted an uncovered volume, he would snatch it and add it to the stack of books he kept in his classroom. The student, to get the book back, would have to bring a cover to the classroom. 

My friends thought he was strange—okay, he was strange—but he became an important person in my life, because he was my French teacher. 

His name was Jules Mandel. Monsieur Mandel, as we knew him, towered over his classroom with a fearsome authority that dwarfed his side job as a book snatcher. A pioneer of the Auto-Lingual Method of language instruction, or ALM, Mandel taught French by speaking it, without translating into English. The idea was to learn the language in a more natural way, as children learn. 

The problem was that he was scary. 

For some reason I took that as a challenge rather than a threat and did well. Not so my friend Danny Lorsch, who would sit two rows over, quivering, slumped down to avoid being called on. Mandel, alert to fear in all its forms, rarely failed to find him. 

Mandel went on to a fine career helping to run the language program of the Los Angeles Unified School District. He was scary, but that guy could teach.

Under his stern guidance, I acquired a student’s knowledge and vocabulary, and I imagined myself visiting France someday, lounging in a sidewalk café while munching on croissants and sipping coffee. Sadly, by the time I made it to France, I had forgotten most of my language skills. The croissants were good, though. 

As for me, I speak and write English. I enjoy traveling and discovering new cultures, but I admit to feeling uncomfortable about using the languages. I try to learn a few phrases, but truthfully I’m not so good at it. This bothered me for a long time, but not so much these days. 

I love English. I’ve set up my own little corner of the world, where it’s all I need. I think even the Bald-Headed Book Snatcher might have been okay with that. 


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