Entries tagged with “Stanford University”.


I was raised by Christian Science parents in Berkeley and attended Berkeley High School, but in the middle of my junior year I abruptly transferred to a boarding school in St. Louis. The story of how that came about illustrates what a teenager is capable of doing out of fear.

As a 16 year old, I often chafed at parental restrictions on my driving and staying out late, but at Berkeley High, I earned good grades in most subjects. Advanced Latin, however, proved to be a step too far. One afternoon in the fall of 1959, I went directly home after school in order to spend extra time studying for a Latin test only to realize the battle was lost. Given my grades so far, it was impossible for me to pass advanced Latin.

It was a frightening thought. I had never received less than a C in any class, and that alone had brought down my parents’ wrath. I had been grounded and had my allowance cut for a month. What might happen when I brought home an F was too awful to imagine.

It was obvious I couldn’t still be living at home when report cards came out. But what to do? Suddenly I remembered a Christian Science high school my parents had mentioned in glowing terms. It was called Principia and was safely located 1,800 miles away in St. Louis. I feared the school might be overly religious, but anything was better than facing my parents with an F in Latin.

I got up from my desk and went looking for my mother, who was in the kitchen cooking dinner. “I want to go to Principia,” I announced. My mother was startled, but given the pressures of trying to raise a headstrong teenager, she didn’t oppose my request. Instead, she took it up with my father, and a week before Berkeley High mailed home my grades for the fall semester, I boarded a train for Missouri, having no idea what I would find.

At Principia, where football players were generally smaller than at Berkeley High, I was big enough to play offensive tackle. I’m No. 74 in the middle of the back row. Because Principia’s sports program was far more modest than Berkeley High’s, I was able to letter in both football and track during my three semesters in St. Louis.

Principia Upper School had a newly opened, suburban campus on Clayton Valley Road, and the place had the pleasant charm of brick buildings and expansive lawns. Its religious atmosphere was about the same as in my home back in Berkeley.

A few days after I had been assigned a room and roommate, I got a call from my much-distressed parents. They had received my report card from Berkeley High and discovered I’d flunked Latin. How could I have done so badly when I’d been assuring them I was doing okay in Latin? “I’m as surprised as you,” I replied with feigned concern. “I must have blown the final exam. Everything seemed fine before then.”

My parents started scolding, but I interrupted to say I was being called away to Sunday dinner. Reluctantly, they said goodbye and hung up. In fact, there was nothing going on — other than my jubilation at being beyond their reach.

I sometimes practiced high jump barefoot. At Berkeley High, good jumpers were able to clear six feet. My best jump at Principia was five feet, six inches, but when I made it, that was enough to win the event, which was the last of the day in a track meet with John Burroughs Academy. When the high jumping finally got underway late that afternoon, each school’s total points happened to be the same, so my not-so-high jump won the meet for Principia.

Berkeley High had taught most courses a bit earlier than Principia did, so I frequently was already familiar with subjects when they came up in class. Nor did Prin offer any Latin. As a result, I was one of the top three students in my graduating class.

All this helped get me into Stanford University where circumstances eventually forced me to again take Latin. This time, however, my grades were three A’s and two B’s. Ironically, it was my best subject as an undergraduate. How could that be?

First, thanks to my classes at Berkeley High, I was already familiar with basic Latin. Second, the night before each final, I sat down with a Latin-English dictionary and practiced translating passages from Caesar’s Gallic Wars, The Aeneid, etc. The passages were typically ones the professor had emphasized in class, and I figured some of them were likely to be on the exam. That quickly turned out to be true. Three times I managed, with the help of a dictionary, to translate every passage on a final exam just before I took it. My flight from Latin was over.

Perhaps because I was born midway through the US involvement in World War II, I’ve always felt an affinity for popular music from that era: We’ll Meet Again by Vera Lynn (1939), In the Mood by the Glenn Miller Orchestra (1940), The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy by the Andrews Sisters (1941), The White Cliffs of Dover also by Vera Lynn (1942), and many more.

The Andrews Sisters

A particular favorite was an Andrews Sisters swing-jazz song, which I grew up calling My Dear Mr. Shane. I’m sure most of you have heard it at one time or another sung as: “My dear Mr. Shane, please let me explain/ My dear Mr. Shane means you’re grand./ My dear Mr. Shane, again I’ll explain/ It means you’re the fairest in the land.”

But as I discovered while reading about the song not long ago, many of us have had it all wrong. The line isn’t “My dear Mr. Shane” but rather “Bei mir bistu Shein,” which is Yiddish for “To me you’re handsome/beautiful.” It was the first major hit for the Andrews Sisters, who used Germanized spelling in the original title, “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön.” In singing it, however, the Sisters used the Yiddish pronunciation Shein for the word meaning “handsome/beautiful.”

As the story goes, Jacob Jacobs (lyricist) and Sholom Secunda (composer) wrote the song in 1932 for a quickly forgotten Yiddish musical comedy, I Would if I Could. In 1937, the American songwriter Sammy Cahn heard a black group sing it in Yiddish at the Apollo Theater in Harlem and was intrigued by the melody and impressed by the audience’s reaction.

Cahn bought the rights to the song for $30 from Secunda, who split the money with Jacobs. Cahn gave the song English lyrics, and composer Saul Chaplin jazzed up the rhythm. Later that year the Andrews Sisters recorded it, earning them a gold record for more than one million sales.

Soon various versions of Bei Mir Bist Du Schön were being performed throughout Europe, including in Nazi Germany. The song was a hit there too until its Jewish origin was discovered and it was banned.

Ultimately the song grossed $3 million, of which Secunda and Jacobs got very little. In 1961, the copyright expired, and ownership reverted to them. Finally, they began receiving appropriate royalties.

The Star Sisters

The best video I’ve seen of Bei Mir Bistu Shein being performed features a Dutch group, the Star Singers, who included it in a 1983 medley of Andrews Sisters songs. Check it out. It’s good theater as well as good music.

My initially mishearing Bei Mir Bistu Shein as My Dear Mr. Shane is, by the way, a phenomenon called a mondegreen. As I wrote here a year and a half ago, the word mondegreen comes from people misunderstanding a line in an old Scottish ballad, “Thou hae slay the Earl of Murray and laid him on the green,” as “Thou hae slay the Earl of Murray and Lady Mondegreen.”

Another notable mondegreen is a line from a hymn, “the cross I’d bear,” being heard as “the cross-eyed bear.”

In other linguistic matters, researchers from Stanford University have been studying the accents and expressions of residents in various regions of California.

When I was a student at Stanford half a century ago, we were told that in comparison with accents in such places as the Deep South, Boston, and New York, Californians have a neutral accent. We supposedly sound like typical television anchormen. In fact, we Californians don’t all speak English the same way.

The ongoing Stanford study has been taking note of how people in the Central Valley, for example, pronounce various words. Is it wash or warsh? Greasy or greezy? Do they pronounce pin and pen the same way? Significantly influencing Central Valley English, the researchers found, were the “Okies,” who migrated to California during the Dust Bowl.

The researchers also spoke with people in Shasta County, according to a Stanford news report. In Redding, the report noted, they found “a phenomenon called ‘positive anymore,’ where the word ‘anymore,’ historically used only in negative sentences (‘I don’t shop online anymore’), is used in a positive sentence (‘I shop online anymore’).”

I showed the Stanford report to a friend in Inverness who wasn’t impressed. “Seems like a waste of resources to tease out differences which really don’t matter,” he responded. “Who cares about the small differences of white people in California?

“I just don’t see any value in it, except to the linguists who probably received grants. Hard for me to think of anyone outside that narrow field who would applaud the research.”

To me, on the other hand, the research amounts to linguistic anthropology. By their use of language, we can tell where various families came from, even when the current generation isn’t sure. But then, I studied English and Communications at Stanford, so the research probably seems more fascinating to me than to others.