Learning About Life and French with Dr. Lydia Aiken-Wilson

Dr. Lydia Aiken-Wilson states, at the beginning of her Intermediate French class, that she wants her students to translate, from English to French, the African proverb “An old person dying is like a library burning down.” She gives us one week to translate this and sixteen other sayings, using “whatever means necessary.” She tells me that I better get some help!

Lydia, who is a walking library, is still burning bright! She always begins her classes strongly and on time. The afternoon class, that I and about ten other students, aged 55 and up, attend is the second one she teaches every Friday at the Lifelong Learning Institute in Chesterfield, Virginia. In between the two classes, she rushes to teach French to an eager group of kindergarten children in a nearby county public school. She also transports a Caucasian wheelchair-bound woman to LLI  so that her friend could take part in another activity. Lydia also enjoys attending and singing at the First Pentecostal Church and she carries and reads her Bible with her every day. It’s ironic that Lydia, who calls herself an African-American, has chosen to teach in a building that used to be operated as an all black school that Chesterfield County operated during the era of mandatory school segregation. It’s hard not to notice that she is one of the few black members at LLI. However, she gets along so well with everyone, that most of the white members tend to forget her skin color. In my after-class interview with her, she said that has taught French at LLI for about four years and that it has been very rewarding; she feels very blessed that she has been able to share her gifts of teaching French with the mostly retired students at LLI. “Their generosities and kindnesses are sometimes overwhelming, particularly at Christmas time, when they shower me with gifts.” She is very proud of her race and is often the first one to remind us that she is black. We can see Lydia at LLI almost every day; when she is not teaching, she participates in LLI’s Reader’s Theatre,  Spanish Class, and in my Poetry Workshop and Music Appreciation classes. During my recent class on Tony Bennett (see LitChatte.com Blog), she reminded us that Bennett wrote in his book that we were studying, Life is a Gift, that he was severely reprimanded and demoted in rank by his Sargeant during World War II when he tried to invite a black army buddy to an armed forces social gathering. He was also ridiculed in the 1950’s (also during the period of segregation) when he chose to stay in the same second class hotels as his black mentors, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Nat King Cole. She also pointed all the section in Bennett’s book when Stevie Wonder had the honors of presenting Bennett with the United Nations Citizen of the World Award. When I played a duet of Wonder and Bennett singing “For Once in my Life,” it was all that Lydia could do to keep from crying!


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Lydia, as she prefers to be called, is no stranger to segregation. She grew up and received her education in all black schools and colleges in North Carolina, where she received a Bachelor of Arts Degree in French and a Doctorate of Divinity. Interestingly, this native black southerner has lived, traveled, and worked throughout the U.S. and the world teaching French. But, before her travels, she taught junior-high French for fourteen years in Florida. She proudly mentions that, in the 1960’s, she was the first black teacher to integrate the public schools in Jacksonville. She laughs and says that her white students adored her and called her “a walking freckle.” We shared an ironic moment when I told her that, during the same period she was teaching in Florida, I was the only white teacher to teach at an inner-city all black neighborhood in Philadelphia. She asked me to share about my experience. I told her that my class was so popular that the Principal was besieged with parental requests to place their children in my class. In reflection, she said that our shared integration experiences were two sides of the same coin and that it “made chills run down her spine.”

After teaching in Florida, Lydia traveled and taught all over the U.S. and the world including Ohio, Osaka, Japan, and Paris. She said that her favorite experience was during the 1993 and 1994 school years when she was a Fulbright Exchange Teacher at John F. Kennedy High School  in Senegal West Africa, teaching English to African French Speakers. She reminded us in an earlier class, that French is the official spoken language in many African countries that were originally “settled” or colonized by the French, including Senegal, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Niger, Rwanda, Chad, Guinea, Burundi, Benin, Togo, Gabon, Seychelles, and several others.

I recently became interested in trying to understand French when I came across that language so often in studying English Literature. I had to give up reading the interesting story of Villette in Charlotte Bronte’s novel because her book was laden with so many French words and phrases. I also had to look up the meaning of the concluding French lines of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Case of Marie Roget.”  They were a key part of my recent Master’s Thesis at Virginia Commonwealth University. One of my main thesis advisors, Dr.Marcel Cornis-Pope, said that I could not get at the deeper symbolism of Poe’s story without understanding the last line of the story. Of course, he was right but I will discuss that story and translation in a future blog I co-write for LitChatte and the Poe Museum in Richmond (www.poemuseum.org).

When I discovered that LLI had a beginning and intermediate French classes, I signed up, first for the beginners class. Somehow I got through that, but now I barely can keep up with the intermediate class because the other students have studied French in high school or college. I have had several years of Spanish but never studied any French. Even though I struggle in this class, Lydia encourages me to keep working. I persevere because she makes the sessions so much fun. A few weeks ago, we worked on translations. The one that spoke to my present situation most is, “Qui ne risque rien n’a rien,” which, I think, means, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” Lydia  asked us, in English, “What  do you call a person who speaks three languages?” The answer is, tri-lingual. Then, “What do you call a person who speaks two languages?” Of course, it’s bi-lingual. Then she asked, “What do you call a person who speaks only one language?” When no one could come up with the answer, she laughed hilariously and stated, “An American!” Last week, she brought in a basket of groceries and products made or bought in France. She asked us to try to figure out what the product was, what the slogan said, and what ingredients  were listed on the package. We had so much fun  trying to explain what the stated benefits were to a jar of laxatives, or “laxatifs.”Who can avoid laughing at constipation jokes, regardless of whether they are in English or French?

After class, we discussed the African proverb translation assignment. She said that she isn’t so sure anymore whether she should modify the original proverb to say, “A wise person dying is like a library burning down.” I said that I thought that she had brought up an interesting question, but that I hardly considered her clarification worth changing the old African proverb. I said that I thought that any old person who died must have learned something valuable and replaceable in his or her lifetime. She agreed that, perhaps, the statement has more meaning in Africa (where old people are still valued) than it does in America, where they are not usually regarded very highly. After the class and interview, I looked up the French translation of the original African proverb. I found that it might be translated as, “Une vielle personne qui muert est comme une bibliothéque qui brule vers le bas.” Just, don’t ask me how I came up with the translation.*

*My apologies to French readers that I couldn’t find out how to place an ^ over the “u” of brule.


Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education (1973) and in English Literature (2015). He earned a Doctorate in Education in 1987. He is married and has three adult employed daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. Currently, he serves as a literature teacher, board member, and curriculum advisor for the Lifelong Learning Institute in Chesterfield, Virginia, and the founder and chief editor of the literary blog, www.LitChatte.com. He is also an editor of the “Correctional Education Magazine,” and editing a book of poetry written by an Indian mystic and meditation teacher. Murray also serves a board member and occasional volunteer tour guide, poetry judge, and all-around helper at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia. You can write him at ellisonms2@vcu.edu.



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