Translation Trauma

By Jay Lynch

Insignificant objects can sometimes trigger strong memories.

My home is very close to the high school, and I routinely jog on the track. The recent stadium renovation has made my evening exercise more interesting, as I witness the demolition and reconstruction progress. One evening, I noticed that a construction crew had created a pile of old classroom desks and chairs, apparently to be discarded. I interrupted my jog to ask a crew member about the old furniture.

“We’re glad to get rid of it. Most of the stuff has been around since the ’70s. It came from the old high school.”

Then came the flashback. I likely sat in those very chairs when I was a USCHS student in the late ’60s! I remembered using the desktops for legitimate work, as well as headrests for catching zzz’s during study halls. I imagined how much of my youth had been spent tethered to the molded fiberglass and steel, seven hours a day, nine months a year, for four years. The light blue, yellow, and pink colors were the groovy Peter Max-inspired palate of the day, and the contemporary style of the furniture fit the “mod” theme of the time that included bell bottom pants, paisley shirts, and miniskirts. The desks and chairs were in remarkably good shape for their age. Members of the school board at the time had certainly made a wise investment. As I recall, the desktops were nearly indestructible—impervious to pencil, pen, or pocket knife etchings of peace signs or slogans, like “End the War” or “Pat Paulsen for President.”

My two strongest memories of the funky furniture involve language classes, French and Spanish.

One of my French teachers at the time, Miss Norini, had a unique approach to testing students’ mastery of the language, as well as French geography, architecture, and culture. When she called your name, you were to use your seat as a step to climb atop your desk, stand at attention, and await instructions. She would then give you a location in France and tell you to describe your imaginary experience—what you’re seeing, hearing, and smelling. For example, she might say you’re at the top of the Eiffel tower and expect you to name the streets, buildings, and churches you’re seeing, describe the smells of fresh baguettes and fried snails, and define the imaginary conversations of street artists and café patrons. In perfect French, of course.

It was incredibly difficult and embarrassing! She stopped the practice after numerous complaints by parents, the most vocal being the parents of girls who wore miniskirts.

My second memory involved one of my best friends, Steve McNish. He grew up in Costa Rica, where his father was a geologist who mined bauxite in Central America for Alcoa. Steve was fluent in Spanish. Truly bilingual, he knew the language better than our Spanish teacher. But he took Spanish class for an understandable reason: to get a guaranteed A without having to study. He’d occasionally make intentional mistakes on exams or minor speaking errors to hide his proficiency and protect his right to take the class.

Steve sat behind me in Senorita Robert’s Spanish class. I was a mediocre Spanish student on my best day, so Steve would secretly help me improve my class participation scores. When Senorita Roberts posed a question to the class (in Spanish), Steve would kick the back of my chair to get my attention (or wake me up) and whisper the answer. I’d raise my hand with confidence, and get credit for doing so. If called on, I’d repeat the words Steve told me, without a clue as to the meaning of what I had said. The scheme worked well, until Steve’s devilish sense of humor overcame his benevolence.

While studying Don Quixote, Senorita Roberts asked the class, “¿Como se llama el burro de Sancho Panza?” As usual, Steve kicked my chair and whispered the answer. I raised my hand. As fate would have it, I was called on. I smiled, and boldly repeated Steve’s words, “Yo tengo un rojo trasero muy grande!

Senorita Roberts stood in stony silence. Her face turned bright red, more out of embarrassment than anger. Since the other students had little to no idea of the meaning of what I had said, she proceeded with the next question and the class resumed. I knew I was in trouble when I heard Steve snickering. When the class ended, Senorita Roberts ordered Steve and me to remain in the classroom. We’d been busted.

Senorita Roberts: “Juan Carlos (my Spanish name), I asked for the name of Sancho Panza’s mule. And what did you tell me?”

Me: “Honestly, I don’t remember.”

Senorita Roberts: Esteban (Steve), would you like to tell Juan Carlos what he said?

Steve: “Yo tengo un rojo trasero muy grande.”

Senorita Roberts: “In English, please.”

Steve: “I have a very big red butt.”

Steve and I spent 90 minutes in afterschool detention, which meant we were confined to the pastel-colored plastic desks in an empty room, facing opposite walls, with nothing to do but stare at the indestructible desktops. It’s probably why I remembered them so vividly when I noticed them haphazardly piled near the track during my run. 

If this article triggered a fond memory about Upper St. Clair, the high school, or another community event, contact Jay Lynch at

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