For 30 years, students in a Virginia French class have shared lives

Thirty years is a long time. Longer than most wars, mortgages and many marriages. And it is certainly a long time to take a French class. Yet, for 30 years, from 10 a.m. to noon every Wednesday, Kathleen Diamond has been teaching her French class in Alexandria, Va. To many of the same 11 students.

Katherine Martyn, 95 and still soignee in light wool and pearls, comes religiously every week, from a retirement home in a taxi these days, having given up driving after her husband died. Leaning heavily on a walker, she reports the progress she is making translating a memoir, "A Joyful Noise," into French, and fiercely resists all attempts to learn French slang, or anything not distingue.

Martha Stafford, 83, battled rare leukemia nine years ago. When she lost all her hair during chemotherapy, she bought a wig, assiduously looked up the French words for "bone marrow" and "cancer," and rarely missed a class. She can't really explain why. "I've just been there forever," she said. "Though I hate to admit it, because I'm not that good."

It's not as if they're all fluent. Martyn speaks with a distinct North Carolina accent. Molly French's accent reveals her South Jersey roots. Electra Beahler often mixes her French with her native Greek or a stray Spanish word she picked up while living in the Dominican Republic. And they all marvel at how much one can say while avoiding the subjunctive tense at all costs.

And it's not as if they're all best friends. A few see one another for lunch now and again. And some did travel to France together in the 1980s and 1990s, daring one another to go on balloon rides, take barge trips or eat raw oysters. But they still address one another as "Madame" and use their last names. They use the formal "vous" when speaking to one another, to show a certain distance and respect.

It's just that, together, they're "the French class." For decades, each has been sitting at the same place at the table &

Martyn to the teacher's right and either Mimi Mackall or Dorothy Graham, whoever arrives first, to the teacher's left. Although they have long finished their original textbook, each must give a presentation of their choice every week and be prepared to answer questions.

And, over the years, between conjugating verbs and discussing French politics in halting French, they have shared their lives. Births. Deaths. Divorces. Successes. Frustrations. The slow creep of age. "We know a lot about each other," said Hedi Pope, 87. "If you live long enough, it can be very interesting."

And through all the chaos that life can throw at you over 30 years, there is a certain comfort in having two predictable hours in a butter-yellow room at the Campagna Center on Washington Street. Safety in the familiar gilt-edged mirrors on the walls, cushy wingback chairs, floral divans and brass chandeliers, and the large polished cherry dining room table at which the French class gathers.

The people who have left the French class, save for the occasional man who lasted a semester, have not dropped out. They've fallen ill with Alzheimer's. Or died.

Diamond never imagined the class would last this long when she came to what was then the YMCA and asked for a job. She said she was a "slender, raven-haired, twentysomething" with a master's degree in 16th-century French literature and two toddlers at home. To get students, she had to compete with a host of other classes, such as Modern Dance for Figure Control, Poodle Grooming, and Bridge, a Whale of a Game, offered during the day to keep the ladies of Alexandria busy.

All these years later, Diamond is still slender at 60, but her hair is white. Her toddlers are grown men with toddlers of their own. Her marriage is over. Her parents have died. The Y is gone, and all the old classes, save hers, have ended as the women of Alexandria went to work.

It has become an old joke that she's either a very bad teacher or that her students are very slow and that's what's taking them so long. It's just that, for her, too, the class has become about more than French. She still takes attendance. She still assigns homework. She still collects the $95 tuition for each 10-week semester. She still raps authoritatively on the table with her knuckles at the start of class and asks her students to speak in French: "Toujours en francais, s'il vous plait."

Perhaps, she says, she has kept the class alive because she has had to. The word she uses is fidelity. "There's a continuum; I've learned that from them," she said. "That life requires patience. Steadfastness. Constancy. All these old-fashioned words. In the business world, people come and go. In my business, you're lucky to have a class last for one month. And yet this piece of my life has been constant. Maybe that's why I keep coming."

Each of the women studied the requisite two or three years of French in high school, save for Pope, who was born in Austria, learned French at 5 and as a teen escaped to become a dancer in America after Hitler invaded, and Graham, 89, who got her college degree in French. But they all began coming to class for different reasons.

Doris Gilbert was looking for ways to fill her time after she retired as a librarian. Susan Lancaster, 75, the newest member with only 12 years in the class, began coming because she fell in love with the way French sounded when she was a college student in Paris. She loves the elegant turns of phrase, such as "enchante de vous revoir," "as if they were really enchanted to see you again," she said.

Beahler, 74, who worked as a legal counsel on Capitol Hill and lived all over the world with her State Department husband, learned Swahili in Kenya, Spanish in the Caribbean and a smattering of Italian, and took a Berlitz class here and there. But it wasn't until she sat in on a French class in Tunis under a fragrant orange tree and heard the melodic poetry of Paul Verlaine that she became determined to learn the language and joined the class.

Sixty-six-year-old Mackall, the baby of the class, remembers, at 7, putting her hands over her ears, stomping her foot and yelling at her Louisiana Cajun father that she didn't want to learn French, his native tongue, that none of her friends spoke it. Then, years later, as he lay dying, he began dreaming again in French. He would tell her about his dreams. And she wished she could understand. She joined the class after he died.

The class members say they are a congenial group. That Diamond is an upbeat, gifted teacher. They say they have fun together. Stafford says they are almost like an encounter group, then quickly retracts that. It sounds too hippy-ish and confessional, she says. They are women of un certain age. They come from an era in which the soul was not something to be bared.

But every week, they must give a presentation about something. So at times, they talk about the news from Paris they heard on the radio or the latest book they have read. Madame Graham spoke the other Wednesday about alternative energy in Europe and global warming.

And at other times, it's the granddaughter who is living with the boyfriend and isn't married. The son who is giving up his job as an optometrist to become a handyman. Or how hard it is to sell the ancestral home. To stop driving. Or to watch old friends die. "You can say things in French that you can't in English," Stafford said.

Poppy Gardener, 85, missed a few weeks last year when her son was shot and her daughter-in-law killed in southern Virginia. She missed more class while she attended the trial. When she came back, she reported in matter-of-fact French what had happened. That was it. No questions. No discussion. The class moved on. And no one broke the cardinal rule: What's said in the classroom stays in classroom. She found herself looking forward to Wednesdays. "It made my life normal," she said. Talking about the case in French gave her distance, she said. "Like watching a French movie. You don't get as emotionally involved because you're concentrating so hard to understand."

And as she struggled to choose the proper noun gender, the right modifiers and verb tenses, the rest of the class listened just as intensely. And perhaps that is why the class has lasted 30 years. Because although there is power in telling your story, there is even greater power in being heard. "You know sometimes when you talk, the people are looking at you, but they're not hearing a word you're saying, or they're looking around the room for someone else who can advance their careers. But when you're talking and they're really listening to what you're saying," she paused. "It makes a great deal of difference."

Which is why Gardener's eyes become misty when she thinks of the class ending, as she knows it must one day soon as they reach what one member calls le dernier age &

the last age. "We would miss it," Gardener said finally. "It's become terribly important in our lives." (End optional trim)

Diamond tried to end the French class in June, but the ladies wouldn't hear of it. The small translation company Diamond started about the same time that the French class began is now a $9 million business with 35 full-time and 800 contract translators.

She travels the country constantly on business. She has moved to Winchester and must commute two hours to get to the class. Now, she thinks, is the time for the French class to end.

But she can't bring herself to end it. Not quite yet.

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