French Summers in Austin in the Age of Abu Ghraib

The Rio Grande (downtown) campus of Austin Community College
Cropped from a 2014 photograph by Larry D. Moore (CC BY-SA 3.0)

When I recall my time in college almost two decades ago, I remember scenes and moods.

The prickling of my damp skin when I stepped into air-conditioned buildings in August in the Piney Woods. The odd thrill of sneaking into classrooms late at night to watch classic movies on the projector screens while student security guards turned a blind eye. Basking in the love of my new friends as I walked back to my dorm through pouring rain, which seemed to keep coming down throughout that October. But also the loneliness and impotent anger I felt as an antiwar student at an evangelical Christian college in Texas during the early 2000s. Then the exhaustion and euphoria that hit me in the middle of each week around 3 a.m. during the misbegotten semester when all seven of my classes met on Tuesdays and Thursdays. And then, as looming storm clouds forced the outdoor ceremony into the basketball arena on the day I finally graduated, feeling as happy, sad, confident, and scared as I’ve ever been, then sensing catharsis as the rain started while our new local congressman, Louie Gohmert, gave our commencement address.

A few days ago, I learned about the deaths of two people who defined two of my summers during those years.

These were the summers I spent taking intensive French classes at Austin Community College for transfer credit. To me, because of those summers, ACC will always be one of America’s greatest academic institutions, showing what an accessible public education can be. And it will always be entangled in my memories with National Public Radio, which was then my most important lifeline to the larger world.

One of the deceased was John Aielli, a longtime host at KUT, Austin’s premier public radio station.

During those summers, my car radio was tuned permanently to that NPR station. Morning Edition played as I drove into the city for French class. On the drive back afterward, Aielli’s music program kept me company until Fresh Air came on. Later, at home—whenever I could get away with it—I’d switch on All Things Considered.

Aielli’s show, Eklektikos, introduced me to styles of music, and really an entire aesthetic, that I’d never spent time with before. And during the show, at the top of the hour, news updates from NPR calmly told the truth about what was being done in my name in Iraq or Guantánamo Bay. To this day, I associate the war crimes Americans committed at Abu Ghraib Prison with a certain stretch of highway in Central Texas.

I consumed this programming, all of it, like water in a desert. Bear in mind: During my first year in college in Longview, I had been literally the only avowed war skeptic I knew, on or off campus. But now, as I immersed myself in public broadcasting, I also came to realize, with some amazement, that most of my classmates in Austin were on the same page with me.

An antiwar protest in Austin in January 2007, photographed by Mirsasha (CC BY-NC-ND-2.0)

John Aielli died this Sunday at the age of 76. His death made news in Austin.

The other deceased man I have in mind, whom I actually knew in person, was Marc Prévost, a French teacher at Austin Community College. Last week, I learned that he died more than five years ago, when he was just 73.

M. Prévost was the instructor for my first college French class at ACC. I had him as a teacher only once. I know essentially nothing about his personal character or his academic career outside that classroom. But in the span of (I think) about six weeks, he became one of my all-time models for what a college teacher can be.

I’m still trying to live up to the example he set that summer.

A short, cheerful man with a dry sense of humor, who had come to the United States from France as a young boy, M. Prévost taught introductory French as if nothing mattered more. Basic vocabulary, grammar, and idiomatic speech were the tools he offered us for becoming fully educated human beings. And he expected us to use them well.

M. Prévost liked his students, and they liked him. But he ran a tight ship. I remember his teasing someone who translated ça va bien as “it’s going good” instead of “it’s going well”: “It’s an adverb! After I teach you French, I’ll teach you your language, too.” It sounded affectionate rather than cruel, but he meant it.

The cover of the second edition of the textbook "Horizons," showing regular rows of crops in farm fields, with a single tree framed against blue sky above them.

For M. Prévost, there was no dichotomy between a traditional approach to formal education and a humane orientation to liberal learning. He had co-written our textbook, the contents of which he knew backward and forward; he could tell us the page numbers without looking. With that textbook, he drilled us for hours, one student after another, no volunteering, until we could summon a vocabulary word or grammatical construction to our lips without thinking. He assigned regular quizzes and hours of homework every night.

But he also taught us how to write a fairy tale in French, introduced us to French cinema and music and food, taught us French jokes, and helped us see that cultural differences could be liberating. (It wasn’t for nothing that his textbook was called Horizons.) He also gave us back much of the credit we had lost on the writing assignments if we simply corrected our mistakes.

There were no extra credit opportunities that I remember, but my final score in that course was perfect. And it was not an empty grade. I don’t think I have ever worked harder or learned more.

Looking back, I can’t separate the meaning of that French course from the larger meanings of those two summers. Practicing the passé composé, tuning in for radio reports from Ofeibea Quist-Arcton and Sylvia Poggioli, watching Apocalypse Now for the first time after I found it for sale at Wal-Mart, hearing the Polyphonic Spree because John Aielli was obsessed with them, checking my grades on Blackboard, reading Foucault’s Pendulum because it was mentioned by somebody at Crooked Timber, memorizing irregular verbs, updating my blog from computers in the ACC libraries, daydreaming about the future—all of it was part of my project of figuring out how to be an adult on my own terms.

The academic discipline imposed by that first French course, and then by the three other courses I took later with other professors at ACC, helped define a matrix of reality that made intellectual and cultural freedom seem attainable. That’s because it let me prove to myself that I could think in a completely new way—but a way that had discernible rules—and thus gain access to layers of the global human experience that had been locked before. It validated all my efforts as a student, formal and informal alike, as nothing else ever had or ever has.

I don’t know whether any student has ever had a comparable experience taking my courses, but I can hope so.

I hope that my courses, too, have sometimes successfully rejected the false dichotomies between tradition and progressive education, or between formal rigor and personal freedom. I hope some of my students, too, have found that studying new external human realities through the lens of my courses provided them with tools for rebuilding their personal worlds.

And although I never truly knew him and can’t say what kind of person he was, I hope somebody one day will feel about my death the way I felt when I learned about the passing of Marc Prévost.