Walking through Target the other day, I felt a sudden urge to make a beeline for the doll section — Bratz, to be specific, and I picked out an exotic mini-fashionista named Yasmine to take home with me.
Now don’t get the wrong impression: I stopped playing with dolls years ago. So why, may you ask, did I make my mother shell out $10.99 for a little girl’s toy? It was to bring back memories of another me, a me that I never knew before, a me that came to life for four short weeks in the middle-of-nowhere, Bemidji, Minnesota, the land of blood-sucking leeches and mosquitoes almost as big as bees, home of a French immersion program called Lac du Bois — literally, the Lake in the Woods.
Yasmine was one of many French names on the long list that I was asked to choose from on my first day there. Think about it — you have no choice in your name; it’s what your parents decide even before they get a look at you, even before they know whether or not it suits your personality. For the first time in my life, I had a chance to choose a name that suited me in a different, alter-ego sort of way that Molly just didn’t. As Yasmine I was able to begin my transformation and grow into my new French identity. But this was just the beginning of my metamorphosis during my sojourn at Lac du Bois.
When I started French in eighth grade I immediately fell in love with it: the sound of the language, the beautiful way the words all flow together, the culture, and even the history of the French people. After one year of high school French, I decided that I wanted to immerse myself into a French language program, the better to learn it and speak it as quickly as possible.
On my way to Bemidji, first by one plane to Minneapolis and then by another smaller and scarier plane almost 200 miles to the northwest wilderness, I kept imagining strict and humorless French teachers, or myself becoming inconsolably homesick or always getting in trouble for speaking forbidden English. But upon my arrival, I was greeted by the smiling faces of my French-speaking counselors, and the serenity and isolation of Lac du Bois. I felt like I could be anywhere in the world, but with the French language all around me, it actually felt like I was in France! And I well could have been, considering that we were miles away from any American civilization and many spoke nearly flawless French.
Talk about culture shock, but good culture shock, because during my month there, not only did my knowledge of the French culture grow, my drive to learn more, as much as I could, intensified.
Looking back at who I was before I went to Lac du Bois, I feel like I have been transformed into a different person. Just one month ago, like many typical teenagers, I was slipping into some pretty bad habits, or at least it seems that way now. I had a coffee every day, went out with my friends, spent a good amount of time talking and texting on my cell phone, and wasted hours in front of the television and the computer.
While it seemed normal and just fine then, I realize now that time is precious and should be spent making the right choices to learn as much as possible and to open our eyes to new experiences and people, as well as opening new doors for the future. Being at Lac du Bois taught me this.
While there, I met villagers from all over the United States. There was a girl in my cabin from a farm in Minnesota who has been working extra hours on her farm for the past eight years so that she can keep coming back to Lac du Bois to learn French, because she goes to a high school that doesn’t have a French program.
I was amazed at how unpretentious she was, and how motivated she is to do such hard physical work to take a course that most kids, including myself pre-Bemidji, would have taken for granted or approached as a chore. One of the things I loved most about Lac du Bois was that I was surrounded by people who love to learn.
I’ve also come back with some definite ideas about what to do in the future. Some of my counselors were from a French-speaking country in Africa called Cameroon, a country that I only knew about vaguely, but now have an interest in exploring next summer by doing community service work with French-speaking children.
Though I am fairly well-traveled and consider myself lucky to have been exposed to many new experiences, I have to admit that my life here in Plainsboro has been fairly sheltered and it would be challenging to adjust to an intense community service program in rural Africa. But how often would an opportunity like this come, especially since I have seen and conversed with natives of Cameroon?
But even further down the line, my goal is to become a counselor at Lac du Bois and teach kids French just as my amazing counselors taught me this year. Being at Lac du Bois made me realize that the French language will always be a part of my life and that I will always want to learn more.
It did take some time to get used to being in an immersion program, just as it is difficult to re-emerge. At times right now I feel like I’m under water and I am hearing English through a fog, even when it is my own family speaking to me. Not hearing your native language for a month as well as eating French food all the time and listening to French music may sound tedious, but to be honest, coming back to Plainsboro, New Jersey was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. I love my family, my house, and my friends, but Lac du Bois felt like home, and I had an even larger universe of family and friends there.
I am a bigger person because of my experience there, and isn’t that what summers are supposed to be about, to expand your horizons and grow, maybe not height wise any more, but in terms of outlook and imagination and goals? At Lac du Bois, I was still Molly the American girl, but I could also be a Francophile, and take on the persona of a mysterious Parisian named Yasmine. And now, looking at my Yasmine doll from Target sitting on my shelf in my bedroom at home, I realize that Yasmine isn’t just my alter-ego from French camp: she is me, a girl with whom I learned to become one and the same through my life-changing adventure this summer.