Saturday, January 16, 2010

By Dan Pine

What did you do in the war, professor? As it turns out, a lot

Youth is wasted on the young. So said George Bernard Shaw, and I know what he meant. Sometimes I wish I were more like Coco Chanel (she said “I regret nothing”), but with another New Year’s come and gone, I can’t help feeling regret over certain blown chances from my younger days.

I’m not talking about roads not taken. I’m fine with the roads I took.

I’m talking about moments that, had I been more thoughtful, might have become enriching encounters, rather than fleeting fancies.

Case in point: My high school gang and I were know-it-all hippies, respected by kids for our wild ways, loved by teachers because we appeared thirsty for knowledge (we faked that pretty well).

In senior year, we cooked up an idea to get credit without having to, you know, work. We developed a bogus plan for self-education, in which we would write a curriculum, find teachers to teach us and do our own evaluations.

We called the program the Foundation for Research and Educational Development, or F.R.E.D.

The name was a joke. The whole thing was a joke, an excuse to ditch class. But deploying Eddie Haskell/Ferris Bueller–like charm, we persuaded school administrators to give us most of the semester off for F.R.E.D.

Of course, we did have to “do” something. So, in addition to touring area high schools to examine their educational approaches (and hang out with our friends there), we undertook one worthwhile activity: We learned French.

One of us knew a guy who ran a local language school. Michel Thomas was a dapper Frenchman who claimed his methods were so effective, he could teach in two weeks what would normally take two years in regular French class. To prove it, he would waive his fees and teach us for free. Best of all, the high school gave us two weeks off to try it.

So for six hours a day, every day, we sat in Michel’s plush offices, headphones on, lessons unspooling on the reel-to-reel.

Pretty soon we were speaking French quite fluidly, if not fluently. When the school administration challenged his methods publicly in a local newspaper, Michel turned scarlet and fumed, “Zees I don’t take!”

His methods worked. That summer, I traveled to France and conversed with people amazingly well, thanks to Michel.

As for my regrets, in addition to pulling a shameless con job on my school with the whole F.R.E.D. thing, I never stopped, not even for a moment, to learn more about my teacher.

Turns out Michel Thomas was born Moshe Kroskof in Lodz, Poland, though he grew up in Germany and, after the rise of Hitler, in France. After the war broke out, he changed his Jewish-sounding name so as not to stand out.

Still, he was arrested and tortured by the Gestapo, survived French concentration camps and served as a commando with the U.S. Army Counterintelligence Corps. After the war, thanks in part to his linguistic skills (he spoke 11 languages), Michel helped bring to justice hundreds of former Nazi officers.

Michel settled in L.A., opened his school and became a force in language education. His method is taught the world over. When he died in 2005 at the age of 90, he left behind a great legacy.

I knew none of this until I read his obituary five years ago.

As a kid, I never bothered to ask Michel about his life, never realized he was a Jewish war hero. To me, he was just a grown-up with a funny accent.

Now that I, too, am just a grown-up, I wish I could thank him. First, for helping me learn French (though I later took Spanish and Hebrew — today I often lapse into a kind of Spahebrench mess).

But mostly I wish I could thank Michel Thomas for his courage during the war, for fighting so valiantly and for living life so gracefully.

Youth wasted on the young? Maybe. But perhaps that is what Michel fought for: so that Jewish kids like me could live a life so absent of fear, we could afford to finagle a semester of smartass indolence.

Merci, Michel. Reposez en paix.

1 comment:

  1. Although Michel Thomas had a gift for teaching languages, some of his war claims were exaggerations or outright lies -- and over the years they've been debunked by numerous sources, including an Oscar-winning documentary, a Justice Department Nazi hunter, the L.A. Times, Le Monde and Newsday.

    For details, visit