AUBURN – When the Maineiacs hit the ice Friday night, some Franco-Americans’ eyes may tear up.
Not because they’re seeing their favorite hockey players, but because they’ll hear children sing a familiar song.
After three weeks of practicing, the Fairview Elementary School chorus will sing the American and Canadian national anthems before the game. None of them speaks French, but they will sing it in their rendition of “O Canada.”
The invitation to perform came from Ernie Gagne of Lewiston, a substitute teacher who recently got his teaching degree. He is “100 percent French” and a Maineiacs public-address announcer who pronounces the French players’ names with an authentic roll of the tongue.
Hockey fans love to see children involved in games, Gagne said. It’s common for youngsters to sing, but not in French.
That decision “happened spontaneously,” said Fairview music teacher Brian Gagnon.
When the 64-member chorus was learning to sing “O Canada” in English, they held song sheets with the lyrics in both languages. They asked about the words they didn’t recognize.
Gagnon, who grew up with both parents and a grandmother speaking French, sang those lyrics for them.
“Why don’t we sing it in French?” the students asked.
So Gagnon added a third lyric line to the song sheets: a phonetic pronunciation to help them learn.
During a recent rehearsal, he coached his students to sing the anthems with a certain style: pride, respect and dignity.
He demonstrated, singing part of the song in French.
“Car ton bras sait porter l’pe; il sait porter la croix!” Gagnon sang. (Translation, according to Department of Canadian Heritage: As in thy arm ready to wield the sword, So also is it ready to carry the cross.)
His students tried it. Initially they had a difficult time.
Gagnon created a mini language lesson, explaining how letters sound different in French.
“Say, ‘Car-ton bras sait por-ter,'” he instructed.
“Car-ton bras sait por-ter,” the students correctly repeated.
Phrase by phrase, Gagnon broke the song down phonetically. Throughout the lesson, he talked to them about the local Franco heritage.
“How many of you have a ma tante or mon oncle, a memre or pepre (aunt or uncle, grandmother or grandfather)?” Some hands shot up.
Many of the hockey players are French-Canadian, Gagnon said. Hearing the song in their language will mean a lot to them. “You’re going to make a lot of people happy. If my grandmother were around today hearing us do this, she’d be very proud. Think of that as you sing.”
Some 45 minutes later, the song sounded better.
“That was awesome!” Gagnon said, grinning.
After rehearsal, several students said they were happy to learn some French words.
“I think it’s hard, but I like it a lot,” said Katie Naum, 11.
“I think it’s pretty cool because most of my family background is French,” said Gabe Henson, 10. “I’ve wanted to speak French. Now I get to.”
Ally LaVerdiere, 9, said her great-grandparents were from Canada, and she thought her great-great grandmother was from France.
She predicted Franco hockey fans would be pleased with the performance Friday night.
“The people from Canada will be very happy and surprised that we put in an effort to learn it in French.”