Thursday, January 3, 2008

MONSIEUR O'KEEFE

Grudges are heavy burdens to carry over a long period of time. I know. I have carried one for more than forty years. I am not particularly proud of my grudge; it is not especially noble. But it is mine, and I have taken pains to cultivate it on a regular basis. In turn, it has always been there when I’ve needed it.

My grudge dates back to 1966-67, my first year at Duke. Shortly after arriving on campus, my fellow freshmen and I were given a series of placement exams. One was for foreign language. As it turned out, three years of goofing around in Señor Marvin Woodard’s high school Spanish classes did little to prepare me for the expectations of the Duke foreign language department. Consequently, I scored too low on the Spanish exam to place into the second year, and I had too many years of high school Spanish to qualify for the beginning course. My only option was to take another language. My choice was French. I forget why.

Our course schedules arrived toward the end of Freshman Week, and I noticed with some amusement that my French teacher’s name was O’Keefe. Everybody on the hall got a kick out of that. I thought it was a good omen. And so, with a light heart and a heady feeling of beginning anew I arrived at Monsieur O’Keefe’s classroom in Carr Building, East Campus, on a bright, crisp September morning. It took Monsieur O’Keefe about ten seconds to dispossess me of whatever good feelings I had about taking French.

As I was settling in my back row seat, Monsieur O’Keefe pulled out his gold Zippo, snapped open the top with a flick of his thumb, and lit a Marlboro. After exhaling a long blue plume of smoke, Monsieur O’Keefe introduced himself en français. Then, fixing us with an unnerving stare, he stated his credo in plain English: “I believe,” he said, “that the greatest educational motivator is fear.” Stunned silence, followed by a few nervous coughs. Monsieur O’Keefe went on to explain the particulars of his belief, enumerating the ways in which they would be made manifest in his classroom. All of this took three Marlboros.

As he sat there smoking and scaring the shit out of everybody, Monsieur O’Keefe began to radiate a persona that was somewhat at odds with his physical appearance. At first glance he was a short, blond-headed, unremarkable man in his mid-to late twenties. Black horn-rimmed glasses gave him the look of the young Michael Kane in The Ipcress File, and a perching slouch suggested something of the vulture. He wore desert boots, the sine qua non of the sixties grad student, and the ever-present Marlboro completed the image.

In the first couple of weeks of class, Monsieur O’Keefe’s credo took hold in a variety of tedious and time-consuming requirements. First, we were forced to go to the language lab for a certain number of hours a week. There, we would find a booth, thread our reel-to-reel tape into one of the machines, and be driven berserk for an hour by the scratchy, muffled voice coming out of the headphones. It was torture. In addition, each week Monsieur O’Keefe required us to memorize the entire dialogue from the French textbook and recite a part, when called upon in class, without reference to the book. The dialogues were those inane vignettes that always had Emile meeting Jacqueline at either the Tour Eiffel or the Bois de Boulogne. We were the only section of French 1 that was required to memorize them. I checked around.

To make things worse, Monsieur O’Keefe gave daily quizzes on vocabulary and sentence structure. He graded them on the binary scale – you made either an A or an F. I remember getting back quizzes that had one or two red marks on them – an accent mark correction, or a spelling mistake – everything else was just fine. Grade: F. Same with the dialogues. Miss one word of the recitation: F. You were either right or wrong. No in-between with Monsieur O’Keefe. The man was relentless, smoking one cigarette after another and handing out F’s like they were party favors. Once, while walking on campus with a date, I happened to cross paths with Monsieur O’Keefe and greeted him with a cheery, “Bon jour”. He stopped and corrected my pronunciation. I feel certain that later in the day he recorded another F by my name in his grade book. Still, I struggled on.

At mid-semester, the French instructors gave a common exam to all first-year French students. To my surprise and delight, I made an A. The next week Monsieur O’Keefe gave his own mid-term. I made an F. That’s when I decided to request a conference with him. We met in his office, and I remember that he was not exactly welcoming. Still, I made a great effort to be courteous. First I confessed that foreign languages were not my forte (he agreed). Then I attempted to make my case. First, I told him that I felt I knew more French than my grades were indicating. Monsieur O’Keefe just stared at me. Then I told him that I was spending a lot of time studying, but was frustrated by getting F’s for minor mistakes on his quizzes. Monsieur O’Keefe continued to stare. At that point, sweat beading up on my forehead, I fired the heavy artillery. I asked if it seemed right to him that I could get an A on the department exam but fail his. Monsieur O’Keefe pulled himself up from his slouch and spoke. He said that the problem was one of two things: either I was not working hard enough, or the Admissions Department had made a mistake. That was it. No encouragement, no kind words of any description. And that’s when the grudge took hold.

Somehow I got through it. Despite taking the first semester exam with a broken right hand, mononucleosis, and a terminal case of tonsillitis, I struggled and fought my way to a D. I repeated the performance, without the handicaps, in the second semester. By the skin of my teeth I slipped out of the clutches of Monsieur O’Keefe and into second year French. And in a divine case of topsy-turvy, I drew the easiest teacher in the department, a very nice Jamaican whose name, I’m embarrassed to say, I don’t remember. In any case, the first test I got back from him had red marks all over it. Grade: A. After that, it was all downhill. I had, it seemed, learned a lot from Monsieur O’Keefe, I just didn’t get credit for it.

In a way, I never got out of Monsieur O’Keefe’s class. For years I have been plagued by recurring nightmares in which French demons run amok, handing out F’s. I know they’re French because they wear desert boots, they are rude, and they chain smoke Marlboros. When academic horror stories are exchanged, I have always been confident that my struggles with The Monsieur would compete with anything on the table. In fact, taking my measure of revenge, I talked about him to anyone who would listen, and I painted the most unflattering portrait of him that my vocabulary would allow. There have even been times when I have fantasized about bumping into Monsieur O’Keefe on the street somewhere and giving him a good thrashing – or at least an insulting slap across the face with a limp glove. Then, at some point I began to regard him in the way old boxers regard opponents who had beaten their brains out in the ring. Monsieur O’Keefe had come to be more than just my nemesis. He had caused me a lot of pain and anguish over the course of one year, but he has been a muse for more than forty. I’m not sure I would want to do without him.

AFTERWORD

Just the other day, I dusted off my grudge and was carrying on about it to some friends at a downtown greasy spoon. I got laughs in all the right places, and I received sympathy when it was called for. My companions agreed that Monsieur O’Keefe was a terrible excuse for a human being, and then we began to speculate about whatever became of him. I decided he had probably become the card man for a French-themed whore house in Las Vegas. More laughs.

When I got home, the question of Monsieur O’Keefe’s whereabouts persisted, so I got busy and conjured up Google on my computer. I typed in O’Keefe, professor of French, and hit the send button. Seconds later a list appeared, and there right at the top was a website for Dr. Charles O’Keefe, Professor of French, Denison College, PhD Duke University, 1968. My man!

I should have stopped right there. Instead, I clicked on his website and read that “Charlie” O’Keefe was a much beloved professor who had won awards for his teaching and was, according to one of his colleagues, “alive to the wry ironies of life.” Wry ironies of life? I brought up his picture, and there he was: a bald, cuddly figure with a twinkle in his eye and a warm grin spread across his face. My wife took one look at him and said, “It’s Mr. Rogers.” She was right. The monster had turned into a sweet little old man, revered by his students and loved by his colleagues. I was devastated. The target of my forty-year grudge no longer existed. Talk about “wry ironies of life.” Indeed.

On reflection, though, I decided that Monsieur O’Keefe must have grown and learned from his experiences in the classroom at Duke. After all, he was just six years older than I was when he taught me. He probably figured out that a teacher can be demanding without being niggling and distant, and perhaps he looks back on his early forays as a graduate instructor with some embarrassment and misgivings. Or maybe not. Whatever the case, I am thinking about letting bygones be bygones. I can no longer tell my stories about the monster monsieur without Mr. Rogers’s image floating up and dousing the fire. On the other hand, maybe the new ending makes for a better tale – the capacity for change, redemption, and all that. The better part of me says that’s the way to go. But I have to admit, it’s hard to give up the grudge. It’s been such a guilty pleasure all these years that I hate to let it go.

Bob Williams ‘70
October, 2008