By Susan Rubinyi
My multilingual, multicultural road begins with my gifted high school French teacher, Mr. Robert Pann.
I’ll never forget walking into class the first day and introducing myself.
“Susan Rubinyi?” said the energetic young man enthusiastically. “Votre pere c’est Benno Rubinyi?”
“Oui,” I answered, wondering how on earth he knew my father’s name.
As I found out later, Mr. Pann’s father, Harold, had been the Head Prop Man at Columbia Studios at the same time my father worked there as a rehearsal pianist. Not only did the two become friends, it turned out we all lived on the same street in West Hollywood, just a few blocks away. By the time I was born, Mr. Pann was already on his way to college, embarking on acquiring multiple foreign languages.
After this fortuitous beginning, I quickly learned his enthusiastic manner carried over into his teaching, transforming what could have been dry memorization of conjugations and irregular verbs into exploring a vibrant world of both language and culture. The conversational method was perfectly suited for an auditory person such as myself and I am forever grateful to him for recognizing and encouraging my linguistic potential. I always joke that though facility in music, language, and math supposedly go hand in hand, I ended up with two out of three. (Hint, I barely squeaked through High School Geometry).
From the beginning, he extended our experience far beyond the basics of French grammar, into an artistic world of poetry, music, cuisine, every aspect permeated with a sense of joie de vivre, both the culture’s and his own. Every week, we would listen to and sing along with recordings of classic French chansons with artists like Edith Piaf and Charles Trenet, memorizing poems by writers like Verlaine.
Extending our experience of the culture beyond the classroom, we were given an assignment to visit a French bookstore in Westwood Village and pick out a volume of poetry. I was pleased to be able to communicate in French with the owner, asking him to recommend some possibilities. He immediately reached for a slender volume of Rimbaud I still have to this day, heady stuff for a 17-year-old! I chose to memorize a beautifully crafted shocker, “Le dormeur du val,” with a strong anti-war message. Later I would discover, to my astonishment, Rimbaud stopped writing poetry at age 19 so perhaps this was a fitting choice after all for someone my age.
When I finally reached France a few years later for my Junior Year Abroad, I must confess I fully expected to find a country filled with sensitive kindred spirits, walking along the romantic cobblestone streets, reciting poetry and humming the poignant melodies of the chansons. My initial two weeks in Paris in large part fit this idealized vision. My subsequent year in a less welcoming, less aesthetically-pleasing provincial city even French people find unfriendly, was another story entirely, though I did return to the US with near-native fluency so it wasn’t a total waste!
A year later, I had my first experience teaching Beginning French as a Teaching Assistant at Berkeley. Following Mr. Pann’s model of transforming the study of another language into an enjoyable exploration of a new culture, I quickly found myself in my element. Often, I would bring my guitar into class, sharing my loves of language and music, introducing my students to the rich tradition of the French chansons.
Years down the road, by choosing to raise Ben bilingually, I myself discovered a previously unexplored part of French culture, the chansons and comptines a French child learns, as integral a part of Ben’s background as the American equivalents. I had tried, on a number of occasions, to track Mr. Pann down and finally succeeded in doing so around the time my book on my son was published.
“Yes, I heard about your book and saw your TV interview,” he said to my surprise. “One of my neighbors told me about it.”
He sounded friendly and energetic as always, modest as I tried to convey to him what an incredible difference he had made on my life’s path. I asked if he’d ever be interested in meeting for tea. Thanking me, he said:
“I never look back,” explaining once he had retired from teaching, he went on to other interests like birding.
I sent him a copy of my book and got a lovely email in return. I kept hoping he would change his mind about meeting in person but respected his feelings. And though such a meeting is now impossible, the light he shared with me, and his students continues to illuminate both my path and Ben’s.