No hablo espanol.
Ich spreche ein bisschen Deutsch.
And I am an English teacher, so, naturally, I live within the English language. I started to learn German when I was six and my family was preparing to move to Germany in the late 70’s. I remember learning that fenster was window. Wand was wall.
As I grew up, I learned more German, was one of the few kids in my school who didn’t take one of the Romantic languages. Any Spanish I learned came from Sesame Street and, later, Dora. I was comfortable in my world…my German and English world. With a teeny mixing in of ASL…I can totally ask you how you are doing and where the bathroom is. And then I can sign, “God bless you.” Which is important when you have directed me to the closest bathroom.
But Spanish? Nope. Just a few words…like how to count to nine (not even ten), a couple of colors, grandmother, cat, dog, bee, apple, and fart. Yes. Fart. And with some cleverness, I could call you an apple fart. Manzana Pedo. Wow. Talk about serious tri-lingual skills there.
After an un-long winter break, I returned to my classroom a couple of weeks ago to begin the next semester with a new collection of students. I had my confidence slung over my shoulders and at least three new ideas I was going to implement. I was ready for the challenges.
Come on Goliath! I’m ready for you!
No Goliaths. At least, not yet.
Nope. Two meek, little David-girls coming to me with their heads slightly bowed and their faces flushed with confusion and possibly frustration.
One speaks Mandarin and has some decent English skills (she just needs time to translate).
The other speaks Spanish. No English.
Wait a minute. Didn’t I tell you that I speak English and German? Remember that whole I only learned Spanish from Sesame Street and Dora? I’m not ready for these little Davids to come into my classroom. I am not even certain how to help them!
My Mandarin student, I learned a couple of days ago, does have a good start on the English language. I know I already wrote that…but my desperation in how in the world I was going to teach her relaxed a little when she told me in halting English that she was over-whelmed by all the words.
Got it! Okay. So I’ve started throwing videos online of the lessons we’re teaching in class so that she can see things at her pace. I can take care of her. Once more. She needs time and I think I can give that to her.
But my other one, my David who looks at me, her face distant as she dreams of..her home country? A language that I slur through and love the sounds of because they are round and curl through my mouth and feel exotic and vibrant, like massive scarlet flowers saturated with spice and sunlight. Maybe she dreams of a teacher whose form of communication is not Google Translate and high-fives and thumbs up signs.
Last night, I called my son. I had an idea about creating short movies in which I could teach different phrases, words, and concepts.
Parts of a building
Parts of a town
I called my son who is a theater major. Surely he and his friends could make videos in which they basically teach my student English. And as we were talking, he brought up the name of his girlfriend, a fabulous young woman who is bi-lingual..English and Spanish.
Oh, I pounced. I jumped really hard at the idea. They could make the videos together! He could speak English! She could speak Spanish! My problems were over. I could find a way to teach my David and preserve my shredding dignity!!!
“I’m sorry, Mom,” my son said. “I just don’t know if I have time.”
Before you judge him, please understand that he is a theater major. He is in the middle of tech-week right now which means he has rehearsal every night for hours. And he is a full-time college student. And he commutes to the university. And he has a part-time job. And he is helping with the dramaturgy for another professional production. When my son says that he might not have any time, he’s not exaggerating or fabricating excuses.
We chatted for a few more seconds before hanging up so he could head to rehearsal or work or class. But then his amazing girlfriend texted me and I texted her back and then knew I had more questions than patience, so I asked if I could call her. She asked for a little bit of time since she was going for a fitting for a show she was performing in.
Forty minutes later, my phone started quacking (yes, I use the duck ringtone…I think it’s funny). As she walked across the campus, my son’s girlfriend, who has Latin American roots, chatted with me about the being an English language learner, about what it was like to help other students learn the English language, and the frustrations associated with being an English language learner. She described well-meaning people talking r e a l l y s l o w l y while keeping their eyes WIDE open and using huge hand gestures. Sure, slowing down a bit is helpful. My husband was able to become fluent in German by watching the news/listening to the radio. He said that the first thing he had to do was to figure out when words ended and began (hence why speaking slower is helpful).
But what my son’s beloved said that truly stood out to me was the important acknowledgment that even though my student is an English language learner and might speak and understand English at a kindergarten level that she is not ignorant or stupid. This young woman could be a genius and I would have no idea because my Spanish skills are pre-school. I know what the letter look like but don’t know how to say most of the Spanish alphabet. I learned the number 10. And forgot it as well.
It’s easy to stand in my glowing classroom, under the lights, with poetry on the board behind me and feel smart. It’s easy to look at my degrees and my certifications and endorsements and feel accomplished.
It’s hard to look in the eyes of a bored, frustrated young woman and feel like a failure. This young woman has untapped potential and I need to find a way to bore into it and help her push forward. And, to do so, I have to find a way to communicate beyond Google Translate.
My son’s beloved told me about Duolingo. I downloaded the app last night and started learning.
I can now go to a Spanish speaking country and possibly tell someone (everything depends on dialect and vernacular, of course) that I eat bread and drink water.
Yo como pan. Yo bebo agua.
Yo soy una mujer.
I am a woman.
Yesterday, I could call you a cat fart…Gato Pedo.
Today, I can tell you that I need a taxi.
Yo necesito un taxi.
God, please help me if I just wrote something insulting.
Today, I took the day off for a doctor’s appointment (that will be another blog because it was kind of a surreal and gorgeous experience….trust me). With the time left over, I went to Barnes and Noble and strolled through the stacks, feeling a mild depression pushing through my gut as I wondered if I would ever have a book there.
I migrated to the Spanish texts. Stared at the titles…and found The Hunger Games in Spanish. I will be teaching this in about two more weeks.
You see, I was originally planning on teaching my Spanish-David basic fundamental English. I’m still going to do that. But I really believe that she is capable of so much more than just the Gracelesscurran version of Sesame Street. I want to engage her mind and teach her the same way I would teach my other students.
I don’t know how to explain simile to my Spanish-David. A comparison using like or as makes sense…in English. I know that Spanish literature will have metaphoric language and similes….but….I’m stymied.
But I’m pushing forward. Because I also bought her Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist, a novel that I know will also challenge her mind, a novel saturated with meaning and intent. I think it’s appropriate that I bought her a novel which is about a poor young man journeying toward his dream. He never gave up. He never allowed himself to be defeated. In so many ways, this young woman makes me think of the main character in The Alchemist. She is on a journey. And she is taking me with her, guiding me past the dusty corners and stumbling blocks I unintentionally created.
And there, within both of our hands, is the rod given to us by my son’s beloved. She encouraged me to step well outside my comfort zone, to accept that I need help and to seek it. Tomorrow, I will email the Spanish teachers in my school. Maybe I can find a different way to get the videos I want. I will find a way to teach a child whom I knew wasn’t unteachable but I couldn’t find a way to speak to.
I will find a way to do my best and to care for others. And, as I do so, I will learn and prepare and do all I can.
Buenos dias, gusto mucho!
Good morning…nice to meet you!