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Language of life

The journey of a teacher from foreign borders to retirement
Evie Snoeyink
Mrs. Cheryl Koth of the Foreign Language department teaches a French class the grammatical rules of the language. Koth’s time in front of the classroom is winding down as she is set to retire from a 22 year teaching career at the end of the semester.

As she strolled through the streets of Paris, she could feel her time there growing shorter, coming to an end. The months changing to weeks, weeks changing to days.

The sounds of a foreign language, its soft syllables, filled her ears.

The view of the Eiffel Tower captivated her eyes.

Now, the halls of Normal Community High School replace the city sidewalks. The slang of America’s youth replace the sounds of a foreign language. The seemingly endless fields of corn replace the majestic Notre Dame Cathedral. Her months once again are changing to weeks. The weeks once again changing to days.

After 22 years of teaching French, Mrs. Cheryl Koth’s days of standing in front of a class – teaching about French art, the different King Louises, the dialects of the language… are coming to an end.

An end, woven together with an equally unique beginning.

A beginning that lead Koth to travel the world – and to travel the district, before finally landing at NCHS.

As a student studying French at Northern Illinois University, Koth decided to transport herself and her studies overseas and experience the language first hand – as she began to study abroad in France.

Banking, shopping, even using the phones were all moments of turbulence Koth had to overcome. Her path to a new culture wasn’t always smooth and clear.

“I had a headache for months,” Koth said, “trying to figure out what people were saying to me and how to respond to them.”

But even with those barriers, something about the place continued to keep her there: a love for the country and a love for the language, once it all started to come more fluently.

While most students went home after a semester, Koth ended up staying for two years.

It was a time when she traveled over Europe and where “all of the art and history came to life.”

There was no more flipping through the stagnant pages of history books, no more critiquing works of art from behind a textbook because the history was there, the art was all around her.

But eventually, it was time to board the plane and come back home.

“I came home from France,” Koth said, “and wanted to use my French.” So Koth went to work for the Board of Trade and downtown Chicago became her new adventure.

With the birth of her second child, Koth and her family made the move to Bloomington. Not wanting to raise kids in a big city. Koth stayed home with her kids for a while until she felt herself “going a little bit stir crazy.”

Koth, unable to stay put, ventured out to Illinois State University obtaining a degree in education and preparing herself to be a teacher and a guide.

“I knew day one of student teaching,” Koth said, “that that’s what I was meant to do.”

The beginning of Koth’s new career took off with her teaching classes at junior colleges. Koth then accepted a part-time teaching position at Chiddix Junior High School.

In her years with Unit 5, Koth taught French at Chiddix, Kingsley, and West before she landed as a full-time French teacher at NCHS.

“I never not loved a day in my classroom,” Koth said. “I love sharing my passion, the language, and the culture of French speakers with students.”

Not only was Koth sharing a passion and a language in her classes, but she was also forming relationships. “I knew I could trust her,” Karla Ontiveros, a former French IV student of Mrs. Koth said, “with personal stuff, but also ask her for help with homework and anything I didn’t understand. I had that trust with her.”

Koth didn’t just keep these relationships bound to the borders of the United States.

Koth, unable to stay away from the country “she fell in love with”, lead twelve trips with students to France.

The group sizes have ranged from 13 to 52 students, Koth being the only chaperone.

The year of 52 students “was a bit scary,” Koth said. “I was praying every night before I went to bed and every morning before the day got started that nobody got hurt.”

And even though Koth may never take a group of high schoolers as large as that to a foreign country again, it was all worth it.

“It’s so exciting,” said Koth “to share a culture that I love with the people that choose to travel with me.”

Yet, Koth didn’t need to go far to share another culture with students.

In the past years, the doors of NCHS have been a gateway for an increased amount of Congolese students, who, to Koth’s enjoyment, speak French.

Koth has been working with these students on anything from learning how to go through the lunch line, to learning how to open a lock to even translating for Ms. Joan Fee in the Guidance office.

“I have spent just about every free period first semester… translating for the Congolese in this school,” Koth said.

“She loves the French language,” Mrs. Mary Esther Baldwin, a colleague in the foreign language department said. “She loves being a part of teenagers lives and helping them.”

And it is what Koth will continue to do, even through retirement. It will not be the end of her journey. Koth’s tour of the district is not over just yet.

There has been discussion in Unit 5 about a new position where someone would travel the district helping translate for French-speaking students and their families. A position Koth would gladly take if it still allows her to keep traveling the world, spend time with her grandkids and follow her son’s college golf team.

“Then I wouldn’t be so sad [about retirement],” Koth said, “if I know I can still see students.”

It is only natural that a person who has done as much traveling as herself finds a new niche with a group of students who have also shared the same experience of stepping foot on to foreign ground. It is only natural that a person who tells her classes, “If you don’t learn anything else, learn how to say thank you and how much and where’s the bathroom in several languages,” puts off retirement to share those phrases with students who feel as if they are voyaging through uncharted territory.

There was a time when Koth was in a foreign country, not knowing the language, not knowing the customs, herself having to been taught all these things, now, Koth is that person for someone else.

For some, retirement would have been an end, a time for goodbyes. For Koth, it is time for a new beginning. A time to travel and experience new countries; brave a cruise from Hong Kong to Cambodia to Thailand to Singapore. A time to spend with family members, both new and old. A time to spend with Congolese students, sharing culture and language. For a total of 22 years Koth has been teaching the French language, but now she will embark on a new journey experiencing the language of life.


This article originally appeared in the February 2019 print edition of the Inkspot.

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About the Contributor
Evie Snoeyink, Editor in Chief
Evie Snoeyink is a senior at Normal Community High School and is involved in Student Council. This is her third year working with the Inkspot, and she is the Editor-in-Chief. On the weekends I enjoy hanging out with friends and watching movies. I am interested in learning about different cultures and beliefs. In my free time, I enjoy reading books.
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