The tortuous road to higher education

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.


I spent nearly two years aboard a French Navy aircraft carrier between ages 19 and 21. What follows takes place at the end of my period of military service.

Concurrently with the beach-boy fantasies, I developed a more complex and more convoluted life plan, centering on journalism. There was one journalism school in Paris that would accept students without baccalauréat, the sacred university admission exam I had failed twice. The school relied instead on a personal dossier of achievements, a blatant abnormality in the frigid, constipatedly meritocratic French educational system. I thought I might qualify by becoming one of the few French people – aside from some language teachers – who could really write English. Looking back on it, it was an imaginative but reasonable project. I imagined I would go back to California and spend two years in community college, concentrating on writing and literature classes. Older California friends had sent me the catalog of College of Marin, situated near San Quentin prison. I noticed that the college offered many courses in “Penology.” Of course, I thought that those were about using a pen, about writing, in other words. I applied and was accepted on the basis of the social promotion high-school diploma I had obtained during my one year in the US.

As soon as I was discharged from the service, with a one-way train ticket to Paris and fifty of today’s dollars in separation pay, I went back to work at the hotel where I had labored during my teen-age years. I had left such a good impression there that the concierge tried to talk me into becoming his successor. That was not a trivial offer but a sure path to riches. The concierges of high-end hotels are in a position to do wealthy guests many favors, from finding rare theater tickets at the last minute to procuring call-girls in the wee-hours of the morning. Often, both sides of a transaction reward them. Even a prosaic service such as getting shoes resoled overnight generates income. In his early forties, the concierge owned a stable of race horses. His plan was that he would sell me his position and that I would pay him over several years from the graft generated by my talents.

I was absolutely poor so, the offer was tempting. Yet, I declined cordially because, by that time, the thought of studying had become attractive. I saved enough tips in two months to buy a one-way ticket, passage on a student ship to New York, and a little more. On the ship, I met a buxom Christian Scientist blonde who was not a very good Christian but had a lively interest in science, at least in Anatomy. She could not bear to part with me so, she made me detour through Saint-Louis, her hometown. She was sweet and had beaucoup de tempérament, as my mother would have put it, but her father, an Army officer, was soon on to me and I had to keep going. By the way, the same girl had made such a strong impression on me that I hitched-hiked back to Saint Louis in the middle of the winter to be with her. And, no, she wasn’t very beautiful. I cannot tell this story here because writing soft-core is not my purpose right now!

I left Saint Louis by Greyhound bus. I arrived in San Francisco two weeks before classes were to start at the community college. I had no money left at all because the bus had made several stops in Nevada. At twenty-one, after three senior years in high-school (two in France and one in the US), after a few months traveling around Europe and getting into nothing but trouble, after almost two years well warehoused by the French Navy, I was finally ready. Suddenly, I became a first-rate student.

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