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I drum my fingers on the desk, tapping out a horribly rushed “Washington Post March.” When I’m anxious, I tap. A chorus of “nous-nous-nous-nous-nous” accompanies the neurotic drumming; what else can I do but idiotically repeat that one syllable over and over and over, until the glaring error on my homework corrects itself?
The repetition corrodes my brain until I no longer recognize the train of nouses, but instead begin to think about habituation. “I’ve said ‘nous’ so much, with no results, that my brain is no longer reacting to the stimulus, and… oh, right, habituation, I have to do biology and—Habitat for Humanity—I need to get the forms for that.”
The ugly black error suddenly pounces from the paper, scattering my wonderfully disjointed thoughts. No longer protected by a short attention span, I’m left with only repulsion—not towards the French language, which has treated me surprisingly well throughout the years— but towards myself. I’m the traitor, not la langue française! I think of my old teacher, a Russian martinet who warned us the first day of freshman year, “You will learn French the Russian way!” I wince as an imaginary Madame materializes behind me, staring at my unforgivable error in disgust. “Were you under the eeenfluence when you wrote this?” she caws, unleashing her legendary and fearsome insult upon me.
Établimos. Établimos. That’s a Spanish conjugation, Emily. It’s one thing to accidentally write “ma mère y moi” before bashfully correcting my error, and another thing entirely to completely forget the correct ending for the nous form.
I consider the consequences of my summer Spanish course with rue. If Spanish conjugations have displaced my ability to conjugate French “ir” verbs, what nouns are now permanently missing from my mental compendium of French vocabulary? Has el esposa rudely shoved la dépanneuse off into oblivion?
As I try to ignore the mental image of a broom sweeping a tow-truck into an abyss, an even more disturbing thought enters my head: “What if my brain has reached its limit?” I try to conjure up the violent broom again, but I find only caustic self-doubt. I remember my wonderfully arrogant days in summer, reading up on Pascal’s Wager and the Levinthal Paradox. I feel like an idiot for believing that I could neatly amass fact after fact. Will I reach a point where new definitions refuse to remain in my mind at all, when the words on the page fall from my consciousness immediately?
Now aware of the limited space inside my brain, I scold myself for wasting precious neurons reading Wikipedia pages on Raffi. I immediately become ultra-prudent, labeling facts as either dispensable or practical. “Semelparity is also known as ‘big-bang reproduction’” is practical; “Harry Potter’s birthday is July 31” is not.
J’étais si stupide! When nervous, I also begin to think in French. Nous n’avons qu’un peu de place dans nos cerveaux…
Wait—avONS. O-N-S! The moment that my brain becomes aware of its success, it attempts to shut me out again. However, I stick my foot in the door and capture the conjugation. Feverishly, gleefully, vindictively, I scratch out établimos and write établissons.
I chew on my pen tip with satisfaction, and decide to search for the “Bananaphone” lyrics after finishing French. I consider my petit fiasco, and wonder if I’ll ever learn. I decide that I won’t; my brain lets go of the fact that sin2x + cos2x = 1, and reluctantly accepts the exultant “boop-eh-doop-eh-doops” of Raffi’s “Bananaphone.”
[Note: The “2s” in both sin-x and cos-x are superscript, and all words written in either French or Spanish are italicized.]
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