“French is French,” Charles Hicks tells me adamantly over coffee at Pat’s Pizza, on State Street. Hicks is the coordinator and sole teacher for the Maine French Heritage Language Program, in Augusta. He’s lamenting the idea that the French spoken in Maine isn’t perceived as “real” French.
Maine has a rich French heritage with nearly one-third of our residents having French in their background. That heritage is evidenced by the many French names of towns in Maine, among them Calais, Caribou, Montville, Presque Isle and, of course, Paris, just to name a few.
“There was a time when they would beat kids in elementary school for speaking French,” Hicks says, “so it totally made sense that you wouldn’t want to teach your kids something that would get them hurt.” But in consequence, much of the French language and Maine’s deep French legacy is being lost.
The Maine French Heritage Language Program (MFHLP) looks to change that. Established six years ago by Julia Schulz, who also co-founded the prestigious Penobscot School of Language Learning and Cultural Exchange, in Rockland, and Chelsea Ray, an associate professor of French Language and Literature, at the University of Maine at Augusta, MFHLP is a nonprofit after-school French language and culture program for children in grades first through sixth. Held from 3-5 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the Buker Community Center, in Augusta, the program is open to any interested students in central Maine.
Hicks himself has had a roundabout trip on the way to his position as coordinator of Augusta’s Maine French Heritage Language Program. Growing up in western Massachusetts, on the border with New York, his first experience with the French language came in college where he was, initially, a political science major. After spending his junior year abroad in France, he fell in love with the language and culture. It inspired him to pursue his master’s degree in the French language at the University of Maine at Orono. This led to a two-year stint in Fort Kent, an Aroostook County town in northern Maine with a large Franco-American population, followed by another prolonged stay in France as part of an advanced graduate program.
On returning to the states, Hicks spent 12 years as a traveling French language teacher to students in grades K-6 for schools in Manchester, Wayne and Mount Vernon. After budget cuts in 2007 killed the French language programs in many Maine elementary schools, Hicks took a position with MFHLP as a French teacher. When the coordinator left a few years later, Hicks embraced the dual roles of sole teacher for the program and also coordinator for its nonprofit fundraising efforts.
In addition to those duties, Hicks also teaches at Lawrence Junior High School, in Fairfield, and is an Adjunct Professor of French at Kennebec Valley Community College, in Fairfield.
There are nine central Maine students in this year’s Maine French Heritage Language Program, seven from Augusta and two from Waterville, although Hicks would like to see that number increase to 20 in order to have enough students to organize both a beginner and an advanced class. Currently, all students are taught together. The program teaches children French language and culture through the use of fun activities and games, and with cultural excursions to places like the Maine State Museum. The program costs $9/class or $18/week per student.
On Saturday, April 27, 2019, the Maine French Heritage Language Program will host its big annual fundraiser, “Springtime in Paris,” from 6 – 9:30 p.m., at Le Club Calumet, on West River Road, in Augusta. The event features French food and music, as well as both a live and silent auction in order to raise money for the program. They are looking for people interested in attending, at $40 per person, or sponsoring a table of eight for $300. The money raised from this event will support the continuance of the program for the rest of the year. Tickets can be purchased at brownpapertickets.com, or by calling Wendy at the Buker Community Center, in Augusta, at 626-2350. Checks should be made out to “City of Augusta.”
They are also looking for people willing to donate items for the auction. Although items related to the French culture or language are preferred, and will usually go for a higher bid-price, any type of item will be gratefully accepted.
Anyone with questions about the program, or the “Springtime in Paris” fundraiser on April 27, is encouraged to contact Hicks by email at MFHLPAugustaME@gmail.com or phone at 215-3621. The language program is also in need of community volunteers, especially those with a knowledge of the French language, history or culture.
“French is French,” Hicks says again, at the end of our interview, “and we want the kids in Maine to learn it because it’s part of our heritage.”