Categories
Fulbright

Do You Have Time for Me?

This is the story of a student, and this is the story of a teacher.

You will want something heartwarming, uplifting, and transformative.

Perhaps this is not that.

***

At the end of January 2018, I returned from five months of living and teaching in the country of Belarus where I was a Fulbright Scholar. For those months, I left my family in the United States and went by myself on a grand adventure.

Belarus is a country about the size of the state of Kansas, with a population of roughly nine-and-a-half million people. The president has held office since 1994, and that is the reason why Belarus, more closely aligned with Russia than any other former Soviet republic, is also known as “Europe’s last dictatorship.”

Although I had sought this opportunity and was ready to say “yes” to everything, the truth was: for me to go on this Fulbright, to relocate to the city of Polotsk near the Russian border – for me to rent an apartment and throw myself into untested professional waters – this was something much more than a grand adventure.

It was a chance to see who I was when untethered from all I’d carefully cultivated over decades.

***

In my new city, I taught at several locations, and I taught different groups of students, but one of my main duties every week was to teach at Polotsk State University. At the university, every Tuesday, I was scheduled for two 80-minute classes back-to-back. The first class was fifth-year students (the undergraduate degree path in Belarus is a five-year course, so the fifth-year students were in their final year); these students were charming, dedicated, delightful.

After their 80-minute class, the next class was fourth-year students. There was some confusion with the enrollment for this class, and it ended up that I taught two different groups of fourth-year students who alternated every other week, setting up a rotation where I would see each group of students once every two weeks.

The fourth-year students were messier than the fifth-year students. Perhaps it was because their schedule was somewhat irregular, or perhaps it was because I was teaching to them a class that had never been heard of or seen in their curriculum before. With the fifth-year students, I was teaching a customary class, Extensive Reading, in which we read and discussed American short stories.

But for the fourth-year students, I had proposed to teach a class I had developed in the United States called Writing for Social Media. We thought the students would love this. The students thought they would love this. Maybe the students loved it.

It was hard to tell.

The fourth-year students excelled at absenteeism, attended infrequently, and often didn’t turn in work. It felt like I was teaching at my home college, in some ways.

But when those fourth-year students did attend class, they were a joy. When they were in the classroom, they were attentive, fun, and energetic. When those faces were in front of me, I forgot how ineffective I felt in their absence.

It’s important to note: when it comes to any kind of teaching, I’m high-strung and anxious. I don’t sleep well when I know I will be heading into a classroom. Most definitely, I don’t cruise into the place tossing candy out of a top hat. Rather, I spend significant agitated time in the bathroom as the minutes to the class period tick down.

When put into a new situation, such as teaching in a country like closed-off Belarus, my nerves were even more heightened.

As a result, every Tuesday, when my two back-to-back classes were finished, I felt a rush of endorphins, a glorious and sweet relief that exhaled, “Whew, I did it!” As celebration, once the students had departed, I would run to the bathroom down the hall for another kind of exhale.

Most Belarusian universities and public places are equipped solely with squat toilets. No toilet paper is provided, nor is soap, towels, hand dryers, or hot water. This spartan approach is at odds with the effort that goes into personal appearance. In Belarus, everybody is turned out – as a rule, Belarusians look chic, they look crisp, and they own irons. I was trying to keep up, so when I taught, I wore fancy shoes. Thus, even though I was flooded with relief that I’d made it through my classes – YES! – I still had to navigate the pedestal squat toilet – two steps up — in high heels for the after-class exhalation.

***

One particular day, I’d had my trip to the toilet and returned to the classroom to wait for the next teacher to arrive so I could hand off the key. Sometimes she showed up ten minutes, even twenty minutes, into her class period – she had tea to drink in the faculty office, gossip to catch up on, or questions from the “professor of the professors” to answer regarding her dissertation. Her students didn’t mind; they were perhaps happier to see me than her – because, again, Belarus had been so closed off from Westerners that in this city of Polotsk, with a population of 90,000, and in the neighboring city of Novopolotsk, with a population of over 100,000, I was the only native speaker of English. For those who’d spend years studying the language, my presence was a chance to experience authenticity.

On this particular Tuesday after I’d been to the toilet, I was hanging out in the hallway, waiting for Vera, the teacher of the next class. I loved to hang out in the hall and watch the university students in their native habitat, but I also loved to linger there because into the wall outside my classroom was embedded a cannonball from 1812, from one of the times Napoleon’s troops had invaded Polotsk. I liked to stand there by the door outside my classroom, leaning, resting my hand on the cannonball, rubbing it and thinking, “When else in life will I be able to casually stroke a cannonball?”

On this day, as the cannonball and I were hanging out, I heard a voice come at me from over my right shoulder. “Excuse me. I have a problem.”

It was one of my fourth-year students; I wasn’t quite sure what her name was yet. When it comes to names in Belarus, as in Russia, there are a lot of Nastyas, a lot of Dashas, a lot of Elenas, Irynas, Alionas, with occasional Sonyas for variety. But with this student, I couldn’t think of her name even though she was standing in front of me, telling me “I have a problem.”

Then, in a flash, I remembered: Yana. Her name is Yana. This is the Russian diminutive of Johanna. Yana.

Relief flooding me, I said, “Oh, Yana, yes. What is your problem?”

Inside myself, I was braced and nervous. When a student comes up to a teacher and announces “I have a problem,” the words send a gong of doom ringing through the teacher’s skull.

In very broken English, she communicated, “I need help. My English no good. I need help. You have time for me?”

At this point of my experience in Belarus, I was constantly overwhelmed. As the only native English speaker in the area, I was a kind of celebrity. I was teaching my classes at the university; another day each week I was teaching at the language center in a nearby city; another day of the week I was volunteering at a gymnasium with high school students who were training for a Language Olympiad. When I would leave my apartment or walk home from campus, I would be chased by Belarusian English teachers who would breathlessly ask, “Next Wednesday, could you come to two of my classes, 80-minutes each, with second-year students, and talk on the topic of Travel? A slideshow would be very interesting.” Or another time, “Could you come do two 80-minute classes with my first-year students? We’ll try out a round table discussion on the subject of The Intersection of Culture and Colors.”

Even more, I went to fitness and yoga classes, and every time I left the studio, there would be two or three women wanting to walk me home – to practice their English. The ten-minute walk could take thirty. Sometimes it ended in someone’s home, with tea and cake and photographs.

Absolutely, I was overwhelmed by the enthusiastic attention that alternated with days of drifty loneliness. Whereas my life in the U.S. has a steady, predictable pace to it, Belarus was a study in extremes. Indeed, when Yana said, “Do you have time for me?” I felt an internal panic, a scream rising. What I wanted to say was, “NOOOOOOOOO, PUBLIC INTERACTIONS EXHAUST ME; MY COUCH AND I NEED MORE MOPING TIME!”

But still. She was a student. And I was her teacher.

Of course, the answer was “Yes, I have time for you.”

***

We arranged to meet the next week in the square in the middle of the city where there’s a big fountain. It was October, and the water was piping. Kids after school were playing in the fountain as their parents and grandparents hovered nearby.

Yana and I had decided we would sit on a bench and just talk to each other so she could practice her conversational English. On that gorgeous October day – that kind of October day when the sunlight is slanting sideways, and the whole world seems like it’s glowing, the leaves skittering across cobblestones – on that kind of October day, Yana and I sat for two hours on a bench, chatting and watching kids play.

I knew for this to be helpful time for Yana, I shouldn’t be the one talking. Rather, I needed to get her talking. I went for the easiest possible opener: “Tell me your life story.”

Yana began with the fact that she was from a small village about an hour outside of Polotsk, and her coming to the university was an achievement for her family and her village. She loved her parents, her sister, her older brother, their spouses, her nieces, her nephew. She was devoted to the kids and would help them every day with their homework and play games with them. Her family was her life.

Jumping to important life events, she rewound three years, disclosing, “My head start hurting. Bad head hurt. I no okay.” She went to a doctor, then a lot of doctors, and after many exams they discovered that Yana, at the age of 21, had a brain tumor.

It was difficult for me to find out all the small details of Yana’s medical journey because her English vocabulary was limited. When I asked her, “Did you have surgery?” she looked at me blankly. I tried “Operation?”

She got that one. “Yes, yes.”

I followed up with “Cancer?”

She knew that word. “No, no, no. It okay. I was okay.”

“It was benign?” I clarified.

“It was okay.”

Then she made it clear she had many treatments after her surgery, the aftereffects of which were that she had debilitating headaches still, but she also fell into a kind of depression, suffering from cognitive challenges that made her flat, grey, nonfunctional.

During this time, she dropped out from the university; stuck in darkness, she couldn’t handle being a student. For the next three years, Yana stayed in her bedroom in her parents’ house in the village. The only person she would speak to, the only person she would allow into her bedroom, was her mother.

Every day, her mother would bring in food and try to cajole her. She’d bring in the little nieces and the nephew. Desperately, she tried anything, everything, her every effort asking, “Can we bring Yana back to life?”

Always, Yana refused every overture. Every day was NO.

It got so bad that Yana was hospitalized. There under the October sun, kids splashing nearby, she haltingly explained, “They take me…asylum. Asylum. One month. Bad place. I believe asylum…horrors. Asylum worst place in the world.”

I decided not to press for details on those horrors, but my takeaway from those two hours on the bench was that Yana was different. In Belarus, you don’t see a whole lot of different.

After Yana was released from the asylum, something inside her flipped. She decided, “I’m going to rejoin the world. I’m going to re-engage.”

Bravely, tipping towards the light, she walked out of her bedroom and out of her house. She returned to the university.

When I saw her that fall in my classroom as a fourth-year student, I hadn’t realized it was the first time she’d set foot on the university campus in over three years. I hadn’t realized that when she was sitting in my Writing for Social Media class, she was returning to the world of the living.

As we talked on the bench that October day, she said to me, glowing like the autumn sun, “Now, I fine. No stresses, no pressures, no problems. I look my classmates, these girls, hair, make-up, boots, boyfriends, all look same. Me? I not same. I fine. Nothing bother me.”

***

After that day on the bench, Yana and I agreed to meet again two weeks later. By that point, the weather had changed; stark and windy, November helped us decide to meet at a coffee shop.

Again, we spent two hours together. Contemplating how to fill the time, I had been intimidated, thinking, “She pretty much gave me everything that first day. I don’t know what we’re going to talk about.” Punting, I packed some games into a bag.

As we sat down at a table with our lattes, I asked her if she knew the phrase “to be a guinea pig.” No, she did not. I explained the idiom and told her she was my guinea pig with these games because I wanted to know if they would work for non-native English speakers.

Yana’s eyes got big when I pulled out Bananagrams.

For two hours, we sat there, starting off easy and slow – “We don’t have to play by the rules,” I told her, spreading out the tiles. “Just take some tiles and try to put together words in English. I’ll help you. Can you see some words there?”

Oh, yeah, she nodded. Uh-huh. She could see some words there.

Upping the difficulty, I pressed, “Can you link some words together, like in a crossword?”

Sure. Okay. Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Yana nodded and moved tiles.

Then she got quiet. Her head was down. As she slid more tiles in front of her, I realized she was improvising her own variation of the game.

She had spelled the word deep.

To its end, she had attached the word horizon.

She’d seen the movie.

Her eyes continuously scanning the tiles, she told me, “I want put more after horizon. What I do?”

“Well,” I mused, “horizon could become the word horizontal if we add some letters on the end…”

Yana’s eyes brightened, and before I quite knew what was happening, we were launched into a version of Bananagrams that involved the creation of compound words and portmanteaus and strings of overlapping text.

Having run out of space with deephorizoosafari, Yana started a new line with balloon, asking, “Hmm, what I do? I want add more.”

Looking at the word, I suggested, “Well, if you add a -y, you’ll have the word loony growing out of balloon. We have this cartoon in the United States, Loony Tunes, that’s really famous; do you know it?”

No.

I explained Bugs Bunny and Sylvester the Cat and Tweety Bird. Then we added letters to make: balloonytunes. Excitedly, we kept the growing word evolving – adding, re-spelling, shifting – “Ah, how about tuna? Tuna is a kind of fish!”

Placing the letters on the end of the growing word, Yana read aloud, “Balloonytunafish…what I add?”

“What’s the word for a person who takes a rod and a line and stands in the river trying to catch fish?” I challenged her, miming my description.

“Fisherman!” Yana yelped. “Balloonytunafisherman!”

Starting a new word, her brain churning as she tried to figure out the spelling, Yana came up with squeal. Immediately, mind-bogglingly, she saw a word to attach: algebra.

Her hands restless on the table, picking up letters, considering, discarding, she kept going. I helped her with vocabulary and spelling, but she was a firecracker. For an hour and a half, we strung together words.

Before we finished, I realized something important.

I was watching this young woman, so excited, so involved, this same woman who had spent three years in her bedroom, refusing to speak to anyone but her mother – and this young woman was lighting up the space around her in a coffee shop, stringing together letters, enjoying the burble of her brain. She was happy. She was excited. She was pipping.

Clocking the wonder of transformation, I marveled: “Her English is not limited. She does not have ‘a problem.’ Yana’s English is amazing.”

***

After Yana and I met those two times, she tried to schedule more meetings.

Each time, she had to cancel. She had to go to the doctor. Another time, her class schedule changed for the day, so I got messages from her, begging off. “I can’t come. I’m sorry. I can’t come.”

In terms of our class together, her group met with me seven times. Of those seven classes, Yana attended three. Her group was to submit to me five written assignments. At the end, Yana had turned in two.

In terms of the classroom, Yana was terrible. And I felt like a terrible teacher.

So.

This is the story of a student, and this is the story of a teacher.

You will want something heartwarming, uplifting, and transformative.

Perhaps this is not that.

***

But.

***

At the end of our conversation that first day under the October sunlight when we sat on the bench and watched the kids play in the fountain, I said to Yana, “I am so happy we had this time together. I am so happy we had one-on-one time, and now I know more about you. As soon as I get home, I’m going to message my husband back in the United States, and I’m going to tell him all about you.”

In return, Yana beamed. “As soon as I leave, I send messages and do phone calls. My family in village, they wait. They know I am meet you. My family know this first time my life I speak with foreigner. They wait hear me. When I call, I tell them – “

her words cracked me open, made me need a kleenexboyfriendshiplollypop, bestowed a benediction upon five months of lonely, exhausting, untethered, gratifying, glorious, unimaginable adventure –

“When I call, I tell them, ‘The English teacher from America, she make me most happy I can be.’”

Damn. I grabbed her for a squeeze.

And then we turned our faces in opposite directions to begin the trek to our respective homes.

Slowly, deliberately, contentedly, we walked away from each other, two changed people, forever connected.

***

This story was first told at the Gag Me with a Spoon community storyshare. If you’d like to hear it spoken: https://www.listennotes.com/podcasts/gag-me-with-a-spoon/perhaps-this-is-not-that-HKjLDkc76TO/#edit

Yana gave me permission to write about her, in case you feel your panties getting bundled.

________________________________

If you care to share, click a square:
Categories
Fulbright

Who, Me?

My friend Helen, a colleague at the university, arranged the whole thing. 

Weeks ago, Helen pinned down a date when I’d be free to visit her son Sasha’s gymnasium (an academically advanced K-12 school) — the same gymnasium she, herself, attended — and spend some time talking to the English teachers. 

The idea was born one Monday after Sasha’s teacher asked him what he had done the previous weekend; when he told her he had spent time speaking English with an American, her eyebrows shot up. “Alexander, you can’t tell stories,” she chastened. The very idea that one of her students had been speaking English with a native speaker…why, she’d had five years as an English major at university and been teaching for quite some time, all without ever encountering a native English speaker. That this nine-year-old said he had spent time with an American and spoken English to her was preposterous! 

Except. Y’know. 

So an idea was born.

As soon as I agreed to visit the gymnasium and speak with teachers there, I worried that I should prepare something. Fortunately, Helen comforted me, “No, no need. You can just tell them about your teaching, and, to be honest, you can say anything; mostly, they will be excited to be in the same room with a native English speaker, so they will just want to hear you talk.”

Well, all right, then. Yes. This would be the next of a breath-taking many.

When I wrote my Fulbright proposal, I outlined a plan where I would teach two university classes along with an extra hour each week devoted to something more “conversational,” say a club or a group or something. It was this proposal that Fulbright accepted and is giving me grant monies to complete.

The reality, of course, has far exceeded that accepted proposal. Yes, I teach two classes at the university, but instead of a club or casual conversation group, I also teach a class of combined sections of students for the university’s language center in the neighboring city each week, along with, more recently, sometimes helping out with the language center’s Friday night club meetings. Beyond that, I have been going on Fridays to a local gymnasium to work on oral communication with some of their students who are preparing for the Language Olympiad competition season. Filling out the schedule have been the times when colleagues catch me in the hallway or in the middle of town and ask me to visit their classes and give a couple sections of students 80-minute guest lectures on, say, travel. Oh, and the conferences — there’s also presenting at conferences, like the one in Minsk in September, the one in Polotsk in early October, the one next week in Minsk in mid-November. And then there was the time last month when I was on a day-trip with a gymnasium to visit a school in a town about an hour-and-a-half away when one of the teachers from the school recognized me from the conference in Minsk, told me it was her birthday, and exclaimed that seeing me at her gymnasium was the best present she could imagine…oh, and also, when could I come back to give a talk to the students at her school? Later that same day, a gymnasium student asked me for private lessons to help her with verb tenses, something which, as a teacher of native speakers, I’ve actually never taught. You need help with modals? Uh, I might need to google “modals” first, k? And then prepare a series of 45-minute lessons on the past perfect and future continuous, to boot? On top of all that, there are the wonderful, heart-moving students who want to meet periodically at a coffee shop for a few hours of English conversation practice. Oh, and all the ladies in my fitness classes who walk home with me to practice their skills. 

All of which is to say: my throat is scratchy, I had to stop saying yes to everything because the overwhelmage was making me cry when I was alone in my apartment, and my biggest challenge the past two months has been figuring out what “balance” looks like during an experience that is unique to anything I’ve ever known. How do I know when I’m doing enough? How do I know when it’s okay to draw the line? Is it acceptable to push back when participation seems mandated more than chosen? How can I possibly say no to the kindest, loveliest people in the world? Can an introvert who plays an extrovert on tv come out the other side of Fulbright Belarus without being shredded into a knotted tangle of gratitude and exhaustion? Is coming out the other side as a knotted tangle of gratitude and exhaustion actually the goal — because, in the long term, I won’t remember the exhaustion, but I will always remember the gratitude? 

In any given moment, I still don’t know the answers to these questions, but I’m trying to figure out the pacing so that each day feels like everyone’s needs have been considered. On my side, I need lots of hours alone, long stretches in front of the computer, a book, or a puzzle. Without those chunks of time for retreat and battery recharging, I feel a scream of hysteria rising from my gut. At the same time, though, I am here for a reason: to make connections, get into rooms with Belarusians who want to learn and practice English, and learn more about this corner of the world. Even more, on the days when I don’t have any formal commitments, the hours can get long, and sometimes by nightfall, I feel flat and grey inside.

Thus, this past Monday, usually a day off, saw me visiting one of the gymnasiums in Novopolotsk. I had done a quick weighing of my internal balance — and the answer that emerged was yes.

The engine in this plan, Helen drove me there in between teaching her own classes. Every time I am with women in Belarus, I appreciate their can-do energy, such a remarkable counterpoint to my own do-I-have-to energy. As we drove, I asked her, “Your days are always so full. Do you like it that way?” Oh, yes, she thrives off being busy — looks for things to keep her occupied, in fact, if there’s a lull.

Wow. What would it feel like to be wired like that? Does this mean Helen actually gets a full night’s sleep before she heads into the classroom instead of lying awake, blood running cold with fear and adrenaline, for three hours before the alarm goes off? WHAT WOULD THAT FEEL LIKE, TO BE RESTED AND SANE BEFORE WALKING INTO A ROOM OF EXPECTANT FACES? 

I could learn a lot from Helen.

After the car was parked (outside the building where Helen’s parents live, next to the gymnasium), we chatted easily as we walked through the courtyard leading to the school’s front doors. Oh, she’d been reading a book by author Tom Holt, and get this, it mentioned Duluth, Minnesota! Of all the —

We walked through the doors of the gymnasium, laughing, our heads turned towards each other as we hooted, but, hey, oh, oops, suddenly I realized some sort of event was happening at the school, so perhaps we should tone it down, lest we interrupt.

Standing inside the main doors were three lovely girls dressed in costume, and nearby was a chic woman holding a camera with a long lens. Ooooh, it looked like the gymnasium was hosting An Event! Would I maybe get to peer into an auditorium and watch a few minutes of a performance? Yessssss. Subtly, I began limbering up my clapping hands.

Those girls in costume looked amazing, and I couldn’t wait to find out what was going on.

A split second later, one of the girls began to speak, “Dear Jocelyn, we welcome you to our gymnasium…”

As it turns out, I was what was going on. I was The Event.

Hooboy. Here we go again. 

Quickly, I plastered a huge smile onto my face and held it there, micro-muscles faintly quivering, as the three girls worked through their prepared lines. They were adorable, so it was easy to react enthusiastically: “You three are amazing! Wow, wow, wow! This is the best greeting I have ever received! How many languages do you speak, anyhow?”

Three. Hey, America, get this: these thirteen-year-olds speak three languages: Russian, Belarusian, and English. Even better, they speak them while wearing rad headbands and holding warm sweetbread rings. 

Swooping in with her camera, the chic woman (teacher? headmistress?) posed us for some photos, allowing me the opportunity, for the fiftieth time since I’ve been in Belarus, to regret that I forgot to lose twenty pounds from my frame and twenty years from my face before leaving the States. Those long lenses forgive nothing.

Once the clicking ceased, the entire group was shepherded upstairs to the teacher’s lounge to deposit coats and purses before being whisked down several more long corridors into a classroom.

The strongest sense memory I will take from my time in Belarus will be of the sound of high heels clicking down dim corridors followed by the whoosh of a door opening before I am ushered into a bright room, blinking dumbly under the florescence as a crowd of expectant faces comes into focus.

Oh, hey, hi. It’s me. A lady who sometimes goes five days without donning underwear when she’s in that glamorous place called USA.

On this particular day, the desks were full of English teachers; Helen, the long-lens lady, and the three bedazzled students filed into the remaining seats. As I centered myself at the front of the room, everyone took out notebooks and removed caps from pens.

Panic clutched my chest: “So maybe I should have prepared something. Because it’s looking like notes will be taken.” Everyone in the room, including me, wondered what I would be talking about.

Trying to break the ice, I asked the assembled women a few questions about their work. Two or three were willing to speak, so that helped pass twenty seconds. 

Quickly taking stock of my surroundings, I registered that there was no computer in the room, so I couldn’t plug in my flash drive and pull up one of my several prepared slideshows. And there was no whiteboard in the room, so I couldn’t dig out my markers. Hmmmm. Well, there was chalk.

Punting, which I believe is a term from a little-known American sport called “futbol,” I wrote my name onto the chalkboard and launched into a much-used spiel about the meaning and difficulty of my names, deciding in the moment to tack on some explanation of middle names versus patronymics, and as long as I was at it, I trotted out my family member’s names and explained how I didn’t change my name when I got married and how my husband I and chose to give our kids my surname and not his and how that’s unusual in the U.S. but how the choices behind names have meaning and power and how it was difficult for the American brain to wrap itself around the use of, say, ten primary female names in Russian and, hahaha, on more than one occasion in Belarus I had found myself at a table with three women named Olga, and so if anyone, anyone at all, had any questions please feel free to ask,

and then I paused to allow for questions, which meant the room fell silent, every face placid and blank, a wall of unmoving expectation reflecting back to me that I was up front, and therefore, I was the one who should be talking

because, of course, the whole point was that they wanted to hear a native English speaker emit words from her mouth.

Still hoping for an assist through shared energy and conversation, I tried turning the tables. “Could some of you tell me about your teaching? Is there something that’s particularly hard for you as English teachers in Belarus?”

Silence.

Beat.

Beat.

“Something you wish you could change or that we could discuss today, all together, and maybe realize it’s a problem we all share?”

Silence.

Beat. 

Beat.

“Because it’s a great opportunity, to have us all in this room together, where we can compare stories and maybe suggest some strategies or activities that have worked in the past.”

Silence.

Beat.

Beat.

Finally, the woman with long blonde hair in the back corner spoke. 

I loved that woman with long blonde hair in the back corner.

“We have difficulty getting our students to speak. They never want to talk because they are afraid to make mistakes.”

YOU DON’T SAY HEY I WONDER WHAT THAT FEELS LIKE TO BE A TEACHER IN A CLASSROOM WHERE NO ONE WANTS TO TALK IS IT MAYBE SWEAT-INDUCING?

Running with the brave teacher’s comment, I launched into some responsive blather about how the problem with students in American classrooms is getting them to shut up — chuckles all round for that one — before frantically trying to come up with descriptions of what I’ve done in the past two months with Belarusian students that has gotten them talking. As long as I was on a random verbal meander, I threw in things I do in my teaching in Minnesota, passed around a handout regarding writing as a process, mentioned letting students use their phones as part of activities, explained the slang word “stan,” maybe mentioned that Beyonce’s sister Solange has a new album coming out, and emphasized that good communication isn’t perfect communication but, rather, when a message lands with an audience despite its imperfections.

Case in point: the previous twenty minutes of my life.

Kindly, attentively, the women in the room had absorbed every off-the-cuff thing I’d said. Many of them had written notes related to some randomness I’d tossed off. Occasionally, some of them had leaned over to their seatmates to whisper thoughts that didn’t seem like “I hate this woman and wish she would shut up.”

Eventually, after asking for the third time if anyone had any specific questions for me (there was one: “How long will you be in Belarus?”), I announced, “Well, then, I guess that’s all I can think of. I really appreciate you asking me here today!”

Whew. 

Just as I turned to wipe off the chalkboard, the eldest of the bedazzled teens rose from her hard wooden seat and said, “Dear Jocelyn, now we ask you to coffee time with tea also.”

Yes, of course. As we do. How could I have failed to anticipate this would be part of the deal?

Two minutes later, after walking down a long, dim hallway as high heels clicked, I was ushered through a door into yet another bright room. At the sight of the well-laid table, I plastered another huge smile onto my face and called upon those micro-muscles to hold it firm. “Wow! This is beautiful! I am ready for a cup of tea, to be honest, and these sweets look excellent!” 

Over the next few minutes, as I asked questions about cakes and chocolates, most of the teachers filtered into the room. I was excited for the chance to sit around a table together and talk with them more intimately, outside the construct of a traditional classroom layout. Truly, sitting at a table in a small group, face-to-face, is where the best exchanges take place, all the better when there’s chocolate.

I had underestimated this gymnasium’s ability to make a visitor feel special, however; just as a few teachers and I started to relax into conversation, the door opened, and in walked the cutest, most dapper, best-prepared young saxophone player I’ve seen since my own son played that instrument.

“Dear Jocelyn, my name is Pavel, and it is my pleasure to play for you this morning.”

For the next ten minutes, conversation was impossible, but who wants to talk when “Strangers in the Night” and then Billy Joel and The Beatles are being played?

 
Helen was the most-attentive audience member — clearly a mother of a young son herself.

When Pavel’s performance finished, we teachers sampled the tasty cake, drank a few cups of tea, and talked about the use of computers in language teaching (turns out it would be more effective at this gymnasium if the internet worked reliably and with speed). A couple of the teachers spoke not at all, but later, when I told Helen I had worried I was boring them or making them wish I would leave, she assured me being low-key and passive is part of the Belarusian way, in the process reminding me that I shouldn’t always assume people’s body language is a reaction to what I’m putting out there. Sometimes people’s body language is about what’s going on inside of them. When it comes to absorbing this lesson, I am *coughcough* a life-long learner. 

Interestingly, it was only as we wrapped up — needing to hustle out so that Helen could get to the university for her next class — that I realized our visit had taken place during a holiday break, when students weren’t in attendance (except those who’d had the honor of being invited to perform for the American Teacher), but during which teachers had to be in the building nevertheless. Well, huh. So maybe the diversion of an unprepared native English speaker was a welcome one for at least a few of the teachers. Suddenly, I felt better about my rambling, no-topic talk, more able to accept that, for these teachers, hearing the language of their study and profession used in a way that was natural and unrehearsed might have been worthwhile.

In addition to kinking itself as it learns the names here (just ask the seven Nastyas in my classes), my brain has been working hard to comprehend just how important — how valuable — native English speakers are to both teachers and students in what has long been a “closed” country. At first, I was dismissive: if people study a language and use it, then they can speak it, and that’s as legitimate as anything. When I studied French, there was no deep internal desire to get into a room with a native French speaker; it never occurred to me that this mattered. What’s more, with today’s technology, second-language learners are able to hear the studied languages spoken by natives speakers all the time as they stream videos and watch movies…so what’s the big deal?

Being in the presence of live spoken English from someone who’s not running every utterance through an internal editor is a very big deal, in fact, and I’m only now really understanding how much it means to Belarusians to have us here. A live speaker can convey the dynamism of language in ways that no streamed YouTube video ever can — because a live speaker is reacting in the moment, responding to the energy and faces in the room, jumping topics and verb tenses, dropping word endings, speeding up and slowing down, adding gestures and grimaces, folding in slang and idioms without conscious thought, blurring word boundaries, asking questions, considering answers, initiating conversation. Most of all, a native English speaker puts on the spot those who have learned the language, as they say here, “artificially.” Can a person ever be confident she is using a second language effectively until she’s said something to a native speaker and seen that it has been understood?

Having settled into this Belarus experience, I get that now. I get that every time I can say yes, I might affirm years of study and work for the people in the room. Or I might unwittingly have something tumble out of my mouth that is completely new and fascinating for those in the audience. Definitely, always, even if I’m a bumbling idiot, it is worth showing up.

As Helen and I walked down the dim corridor, the long-lens lady’s high heels clicking satisfyingly next to us, I felt the mixture of relief and buoyancy that comes at the end of every public interaction. My feelings expanded into awe and gratitude a minute later when Long-Lens Lady packaged up my sweetbread before handing me a gift bag containing a souvenir mug.

Gollee. These people are good.

In the car, Helen and I relaxed. That had been nice. But now she was running late for her next class, and we were still fifteen minutes away. No matter, though; her students would wait, and she was glad we had the time together. When would I be able to visit her classes with first-year students and talk to them about American culture? How about some time in December, I offered, because then my daughter will be visiting, and it will be interesting for her to visit some university classes, along with providing the bonus of TWO native English speakers in the room. Oh, yes, Helen agreed, that would be great.

Words flowing thoughtlessly, I continued talking, telling Helen about the friend who will visit the week after Thanksgiving and who will rent a car and bravely navigate her way from Minsk to Polotsk after dark, fresh off her flight, without any Russian in her arsenal of skills. 

Then, suddenly, surprising me in the middle of a sentence, Helen whipped her hand off the gearshift and grabbed my gesturing hand mid-air. Clutching my hand tightly, even emphatically, she interrupted with an excitement I’d not seen in her before: “You are like a unicorn! I never thought in my whole life I would hear an English speaker actually use the future perfect progressive, but you’ve just done it! I never thought — I can’t believe — I just assumed it was something in textbooks but which no native speaker would ever use, but here you’ve gone and done it. The first time in my entire life, I have heard the future perfect progressive used in real speech, right here in my car. I cannot believe it!”

What had I even said? And what the hell is future perfect progressive again? Frantically, I tried to pedal my mind back to 1993, shortly after the break-up of the USSR and the last time anyone explained anything like verb tenses to me. “Future” is no problem. That would be, like, tomorrow. Okay, okay, and I remembered “perfect” is something that’s “over and done with.” And I knew “progressive,” that enemy of red states. Lemme see, carry the three, minus the seven…so, putting all those concepts together, it seemed I’d used some verbs that indicated something in the future with hints of completion presented simultaneously with something ongoing?

Well now. I still had no idea what I’d said, but one thing was clear: I am pretty impressive, indeed.

Laughing as Helen still grasped my hand — her excitement making it impossible for her to let go — I admitted, “I have no idea what I even said. What did I say?”

Somewhat breathlessly, Helen told me. “You just said ‘She will have been traveling for 24 hours by the time she gets here,’ and that is the first time in all of my life that I have heard a native English speaker and not just someone reading from a textbook use the future perfect progressive! I cannot believe it, I tell you. I never thought I would witness this in real life! Never!”

We laughed some more, and eventually Helen had to shift gears, so my hand returned to my lap. But still. The moment stuck with me. Continues to stick with me. Will have been sticking with me for decades when I’m 90 years old. 

I’ve gotten used to taking myself for granted. That’s what it is to live inside your own skin, in your usual, comfortable world. I’m just a lady who likes beer and puzzles and no underwear. I’m nothing remarkable.

But now. Here. In this Belarus experience. I’m starting to realize I have something special to offer just by being myself and letting words drop from my mouth. And so I need to say yes and say yes and say yes again, even when I really don’t want to, even if it leaves me wrung out and weepy.

Because maybe ending up as a knotted tangle of gratitude and exhaustion is actually the goal.

Because in the long term, I won’t remember the exhaustion,

but I will always remember the shyness; the gifts; the sweet applause; the tentative questions; the constant requests; the lovely articles on the university website; the woman walking me home from Zumba looking up words on her phone as she tries to explain in tear-filled English a devastating fight with her daughter; the students standing up at the end of class and weakening my knees by saying, “Thank you for the interesting lecture”; the adolescents in costume on a day off from school carefully enunciating their scripted lines because it is an honor; the boy in the front row — a different boy every week, but always, there’s the boy in the front row — who is studying IT but who loves speaking English so much he can’t be hushed; the unflagging kindness and support of my English-teacher colleagues, so many of them now treasured friends; the 19-year-old boy who messages me on Instagram to say he thinks my daily stories are so funny he hopes I never stop; the cashier at the grocery store who runs to the produce section to check the SKU number of my apples because I didn’t understand her question in Russian; the other Americans having their own versions of this experience right now, all around Belarus, who have become a family that sustains me when I think I’ll crack from missing my people back home; the teenagers who teach me new words every day, slowly enunciating pronunciation while my tongue twists; and, of course, the woman who clutched my hand in spontaneous joy over a verb tense.

Without question, in the long term,

I will only remember the gratitude.


 

 

O Mighty Crisis is obviously not an official site of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State. The views expressed on this site are entirely my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations. Duh.

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Five in Five

Butt Hurt: Tuesday, February 28

Gack! Here I’d hauled my cookies downtown and raced breathlessly into the lobby, readying myself for a much-needed yoga class, only to be greeted by a sign on the counter announcing a class cancellation. 

What made it worse was that I’d known the teacher couldn’t find a sub and there would be no class, but I’d totally forgotten — my brain full of Jessie Diggins, what to pack for 57-degree temperatures in Tennessee, grading drafts of research papers, and wondering why the city doesn’t crack down on off-leash dogs. 

Well, as long as I was ready to work out, I figured I might as well get return for effort and head upstairs to the Boot Camp class due to start in ten minutes. 

The Boot Camp class I hadn’t attended in more than a year.

The one that leaves me unable to climb stairs for three days afterwards unless I moan and pound my quads with every trudging step.

That one.

Fortunately, although the legendary teacher, Anna, mixes up the class regularly, I was still able to hang in there with all the stations ALTHOUGH FINE I WILL ADMIT I CHEATED DURING THE PLANK WALK EACH TIME BECAUSE I CAN ONLY INCH FORWARDS ON MY PALMS AND TOES THIRTY-ONE TIMES BEFORE MY LUNGS ARE IN MY THROAT SO THEN I HAVE TO STOP AND PRAY FOR A BIT TO THE GOD OF FLOORBOARDS.

But other than the plank walk and the open-mouthed scream lap around the track when I was yoked to a hyper-fit dude named Alex as he dragged my dead weight behind him at a speed faster than I’ve ever run before, I handled the hour.


Now it’s today.

The day after Boot Camp.

Friends, my ass is yappin’. 

I cannot sit, stand, squat, bend, lunge, or move a fingernail without oooooohhhhmaaaannnn. The only thing worse than the day after Boot Camp, in fact, is two days after Boot Camp, which means the oy-vey is getting worse by the hour. Do not tap me tomorrow, even lightly like a feather’s breath, or I might punch you by mistake. 

My ass hurt when I awoke and sat at the computer to grade student work; it yelped when I poached my morning egg; it hated me when I crouched next to drawers to paw for clothes; it yoiked when I climbed stairs to a classroom at the college where a candidate for a position in our department was about to present his teaching demonstration.

Seriously, it was noon, yet the crook of my rear felt 28 hours in.

But then. You guys. As I sat in the classroom, waiting to absorb the presentation of a guy who really wants a job, my glutes relaxed — perhaps to balance out the wild racing of my mind. See, the candidate, before he started explaining how he would teach the concept of “an essay” to developmental students, came around the room and shook everyone’s hand. When he got to me, I said my name, but even as I spoke, he was nodding and waiting, a comment prepared.

“Oh, I know you, Jocelyn. You were my teacher in 1997 at Riverland Community College; we read Memoirs of a Geisha…” — my Novels class! — “…and I still remember the attendance policy on your syllabus told us we could never miss a class for a Beavis & Butthead marathon, but it would be okay to miss if it was for a Ren & Stimpy marathon.”

How could an ass not go soft in the midst of such an unexpected, strangely delightful moment? How could a butt wallow in pain when an English teacher stood in front of an English teacher and connected their dots? Sitting there, shaking this guy’s hand, feeling life inchworm — tail end squinching up to meet the head — my below cheeks went slack as my facial cheeks flushed red. I wasn’t embarrassed, but something about a forgotten past manifesting into a very real present welled up me in a way that made my face red. Maybe it was because my dean and colleagues witnessed the exchange; maybe it was because I’d seen his name announced as a finalist and had a blip of “Do I know that name? Nah.” Maybe it was because his words took me back to a time when I felt more secure in the classroom than I do now, twenty-one years later when my cage has been rattled enough that its bars are less secure.

At any rate, I blushed fully while my tush became mush.

Ahhh, that felt good. For a full half hour as I listened to this fine young teacher explain himself, from the way he teaches essay writing to his personal disclosures about his father’s death, rebelling against his Jehovah’s Witness upbringing, finding salvation in the classroom, my rear reveled. When he randomly interjected a quick quip about the way a colleague’s nephews used to call me “Batgirl,” my brain tripped down twelve different paths. At the same time, my hand wrote feedback about the teaching presentation.

And then it was over.

Buttocks re-tautened, I got in the car, left campus, and took myself out for some air at my favorite place to ski. The temperatures were warm, too warm really, but I wanted to unfurl fully into the lovely gift that is two feet of newly fallen snow. 

 

Getting out of the car taxed my ass, as did every two-inch movement necessary to put on boots, hat, coat, gloves, and skis — repeated again fifteen minutes later when I returned to swap out skis, from waxed to waxless, because this was a very clumpy day in the moods of snow.

I wanted to move my body to help the soreness recede for even an hour. I wanted to move my body so my brain could process the emotions of seeing, out of the blue, someone whose life I had impacted when I was 30 and he was 18, someone whose life had gone on to mimic my own. I wanted to move my body because every last thing on the planet feels better when I do. I wanted to move my body because doing so is a gratitude.

Most importantly, I wanted to move my body because I wanted to follow in the steps of someone who affected me during a formative time, wanted to practice the technique of someone whose abilities moved me, wanted to flex my ass in tribute to someone who showed me a new way of being: Johannes Klaebo, that gold-medal Norwegian who takes hills like he’s out for a run with skis on his feet.

My ass is yappin’.

My mind spirals repetitively through memory.

Somehow, the two are linked.


 

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Five in Five

Five in Five: Saturday, January 27

    1. I was walking along today, listening to the Atlanta Monster podcast, when I peeped over my shoulder and was startled by a creeper on the path. Seeking to defuse the threat of him, I married him 18+ years earlier and fell in lockstep with his gait;
    2. Atlanta Monster is a podcast exploring the murders of young black boys in Atlanta in the late 1970s. The fear and threat of that scary season reached as far as Billings, Montana; I remember watching the news as the numbers of deaths rose. In this podcast, listeners learn how Wayne Williams was eventually caught and imprisoned for two of the murders — and then it goes further, to question whether Williams was actually responsible. I’m all in on this storytelling that seeks to upheave easily accepted prison sentences. Even more, I learned from this podcast, as I listened today, that it wasn’t until the 1946 Democratic Primaries in Georgia (and other states, too, I do believe) that blacks were allowed to vote. My mom still isn’t over stuff that happened in 1946, so how on earth can those who call today’s discussions “race-baiting” rather than “an attempt to acknowledge deep and continual racism” think that black Americans should just “be better” (read: “act more white”) and “get over” (read: “stop being rightly pissed as fuck”) the systemic quashing of their every chance not to get ahead but just to get onto the playing field? Without the right to vote in primaries, blacks had zero chance at representation and influence;
    3. This past fall, I taught a literature class that was loaded with students who were bright lights — absolutely burning up the discussions, always apologetic if they missed a post or a deadline. Currently, I’m teaching that same class again, and students this semester are, so far, “a bit more messy.” They are still getting up to speed with expectations, of course, but it’s interesting that weaker students come at the teacher harder, complaining that things are confusing or that the deadlines aren’t clear. I struggle sometimes to stay even-keeled and not reply: “Strangely, 35 students last semester all found the class clear and straightforward.” Anyhow, I’ve been musing about how strong students apologize when it’s not necessary and weaker students blame when responsibility could be taken. Can I end this one with a shrug and a sigh about human nature?
    4. I heard on the radio yesterday that Minnesota is one of the states with the fastest-warming temperatures in recent decades (with cities Minneapolis and Mankato two of the top five fastest-warming spots in the nation). Blech. If Minnesota doesn’t have claims to frigid temperatures, what does it have? Big mosquitoes and silent grudges, that’s what.
    5. So the public library is super nice and buys me books when I ask it to. Oh, okay: it buys books, and they aren’t actually just for me — but I am very good at using the form for requesting new materials be bought, which makes it feel like certain books are “mine,” at least for a few weeks. So a while ago, I requested the library purchase Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties since it was nominated for the National Book Award and has been getting rave reviews all over the place. The other day, My Personal Library Dude brought it home for me, and I am not disappointed. What I really like is how Machado’s writing feels so unique and wonderfully weird, but there’s no sense that she’s trying to be these things. More, it’s like she is perfectly able to express on the written page what her brain feels like, and it’s a wondrous place to visit. Mind you, her book has eight (??) stories in it, and I can only read one or two at a time, as the cumulative effect is too much. My favorite so far, and I’m only halfway through it, is “Especially Heinous,” a story that uses 272 fictional recaps of Law and Order: SVU episodes to take readers on a slow screech off the rails with Detectives Stabler and Benson. Although there are some crabby reviews of this story on Goodreads, it’s making me snort with laughter and feel pangs of envy that Machado could create an oddball structure that is achieving itself perfectly.

Examples of episodes:

“Or Just Look Like One”: Two underage models are attacked while walking home from a club. They are raped and murdered. To add insult to injury, they are confused with two other raped and murdered underage models, who coincidentally are their respective twins, and both pairs are buried beneath the wrong tombstones.

“Hysteria”: Benson and Stabler investigate the murder of a young woman who is initially believed to be a prostitute and the latest in a long line of victims. “I hate this goddamned city,” Benson says to Stabler, dabbing her eyes with a deli napkin. Stabler rolls his eyes and starts the car.

“Sophomore Jinx”: The second time the basketball team covered up a murder, the coach decided that he’d finally had enough.

“Uncivilized”: They found the boy in Central Park, looking like no one had ever loved him. “His body was crawling with ants,” Stabler said. “Ants.” Two days later, they arrest his teacher, who as it turns out had loved him just fine.

“Misleader”: Father Jones has never touched a child, but when he closes his eyes at night, he still remembers his high school girlfriend: her soft thighs, her lined hands, the way she dropped off that roof like a falcon.

———–

Typing Time: 15:39, which is a pretty healthy five minutes

Editing Time: 12:11 because I had to go find those Machado excerpts, and reading them as I copied and pasted cracked me up all over again, and also I had to scream and gnash teeth while fighting this blog template’s desire to enumerate every last thing whenever I hit Enter. This report brought to you from the hells off the html editor


 

 

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students

Nobody Listens

The last months have cast me into many varieties of stress and time-crunchedness, and whenever I do have free time near a keyboard, there is always non-blog writing that needs to be tackled. I miss blog writing. Lately, I’ve put seven minutes per week towards a long-suffering blog post, which basically means I get half a sentence written before the dinner bell rings.

What I have made time for, as a kind of joyful decompression, is doing quick recordings for Instagram Stories. In this era when Facebook is roiling with politics, judgment, disagreement, and adding spackle to the walls of users’ ideological bubbles, Instagram Stories feel like a safe place to just. have. fun.

Soooo, as a tide-you-over while I continue to hack away at that other blog post seven minutes at a time, please enjoy these IG Stories videos that I recorded the other day, recounting a quick interaction in the classroom. Because I am reliably a dipwad, I’m very proud of myself for remembering to download the videos before they disappeared into the ether, which is what happens to IG Stories after a day.

RIGHT NOW I HAVE EXCELLENT POSTURE HERE IN FRONT OF MY MONITOR BECAUSE I AM VERY PROUD OF BEING A BIG, COMPETENT, REMEMBERING GIRL.


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students

Celebrate the Student

SONY DSC

This week, I start my 25th year of teaching college English.

The brain, she boggles. Brain has been along for the entire ride–since the first day my clammy hands pushed open the door of a classroom on the University of Idaho campus. Clutching a stack of fresh-off-the-ditto-machine, purple-inked syllabi to my chest, protecting my carefully dot-matrix-printed Instructions to Self (first line: “Write name on board”), feigning confidence, I strode into the computer-free classroom, paralyzed by twenty-two sets of eyes that stared in shock at an instructor their own age. From that first day in Idaho, through a move to the University of Colorado–where Christian Coalition-ized students in the early 1990s wrote papers arguing that people with AIDS deserved it–and then on to the community college system in Minnesota–where I’ve taught students whose families were still scarred by the Hormel strike of 1985, students who are locked in the grips of meth and opiate addiction, students who increasingly embrace the culturally transmitted message that college is a place to learn workplace skills, not to gain a broad-based education–my brain has shrieked “Wheeee!” and “Whoaaa!” the entire ride.

Yet, she reels: 25 years?

How can this be, when I’m still a four-year-old who wants to feel the brown, crunchy grass of August under her scalp as she turns somersaults in the yard?

How can this be, when it seems only last week I noticed with frantic pride that my mom had let go of the bike seat while I pedaled wobbily down Forsythia Boulevard?

How can this be, when there’s still a part of me that’s waiting to be asked to Prom by someone other than a cute gay guy from the speech team?

How can this be, when I just want to burn up the dance floor at The Saloon, mouthing the words to “Groove Is in the Heart” until last call?

How can this be, when I still feel like a young mother, stuffing the desperate entreaty of “Someone, please, help the hours pass” beneath my smiles?

How can this be, when I’m busy falling in love every day with the man who’s been my husband for the quick blink of 16 years?

How can I have done anything for 25 years when I’m just getting started?

 

Naturally, as is the case with all interactions with the world, teaching has had its challenges. There have been students who scared me silly, students who broke my heart, students who pushed boundaries. There have been students, colleagues, and supervisors who have caused me to retreat into my office, lock the door, cradle my head into my folded arms, and cry. There have been students, colleagues, and supervisors whose words and actions have led to 3 a.m. pacing around the living room, a fleece blanket caped over my shoulders to ward off the chill. There have been long-term effects on my body’s health (I’m starting physical therapy for that nagging shoulder, most likely caused by mouse usage, but at least the pain counters the fire that runs down my left scapula when I write by hand), long-term effects on my defenses (I’ve gotten better at spotting sociopaths and drunks), long-term effects on my psyche (when someone treats me with affection, I now game out the many ways it might morph into rage).

I have earned every dollar, no matter what the public-institution-funding state legislature might argue.

On the other hand, if I’m a creature of free will, a woman privileged with choice, and I’m still doing this thing, then there must be more to it.

There is.

For every unnerving interaction, there are ten affirming moments with students, colleagues, and supervisors. For every time I’ve paced the floor in the middle of the night, there have been ten evenings of chattered debriefing with my husband, in the kitchen, rundowns where I tell him about someone emerging from a life of abuse to discover she wants to be a psychologist, where I regale him with classroom hilarity, where I cry the happiest of tears–the type that spill out when someone who lived in his car for two years earns a degree.

For every student who scares the crikeys right out of me, there are ten shining lights who blaze into the classroom.

One such light brightened this summer for me when she enrolled in Multicultural Literature. Every week, her discussion posts elevated the tone of the class; through her modeling, her classmates were able to see what the behaviors of a successful college student look like. Midway through the class, students were given a “Coming to America” essay assignment with a variety of topic choices. Each student could interview someone who immigrated to the United States. If the student lacked a firsthand subject, he/she could research an immigrant and report on that person’s experience of leaving home and the facing the challenges of assimilation–a topic option that yields entirely too many papers on Albert Einstein and, get this, Mila Kunis. Finally, if students had ever lived abroad for 3 months or longer, they could write about their experiences as “foreigners in new lands.”

Below is the response submitted by the tremendous student who made my summer: Sarah Y. After I read it, I immediately noted that her writing and story deserved a wider audience; I asked her if I could publish it on my blog. Her response was quick, enthusiastic, and lovely. From start to end, Sarah was a student for the ages, one who reminded me that

I couldn’t have a better job.

 

An American in Spain, 1998

Sarah Y.

 

In late 1997, my parents let me know that they were divorcing. I was in the middle of a very unsatisfying semester of college, my grandmother dying, and my future seemed a swirl of dank unhappiness. I instantly decided that I was moving home to take care of my dad. It seemed perfectly logical at the time: he wouldn’t be able to keep it together on his own. I knew I could give his life stability and my life meaning.

“Maybe you should go to Spain,” my mom hinted. Something in those words woke up a sleeping part of me, the curious, engaged person that had been stuck in a quagmire. The idea to travel seemed purely selfish, but it took my head out of my parents’ problems. It was also a good idea for my study of Spanish. So I jumped on it. Plans fell into place easily, as is the case with many good ideas, and before I knew it, I was on a plane.

I had a small backpack crammed with a few clothes. I didn’t take much with me because I wanted to be a minimalist and I also wanted to be forced to abandon the comforts of my American lifestyle. I would be living with a Spanish family, so my household needs would be taken care of. Electronic devices were not a thing yet, so a film camera and a journal completed my pack.

The plane landed in Madrid, and I was to take a bus to Oviedo, in the north of Spain, my home for the next half year. First I had to spend the night somewhere, which involved a series of transportation decisions and communications. I was congratulating myself on getting through this respectably while waiting for a taxi, when I saw a very blonde head bobbing my way. Next was the familiar smile, and I was standing with that girl Emily from my college! I was not super excited to see her, because I thought I could do better independently. I wanted the whole experience of Spain, unencumbered by reminders of my old life. Nevertheless, Emily and I teamed up, spent the night somewhere, shared notes and jet lag remedies, and got ourselves on the proper bus to Oviedo the next morning.

My eyes were glued to the landscape out the bus window. The lack of trees surprised me. There were some mountains, but not much else to look at. At midday we stopped at a roadside rest area, and I bought my first slice of Spanish tortilla, an egg and potato quiche. This moment of Real Food while on the road, and the discovery of the ubiquitous Good Coffee, made me fall in love with this country a little on my first day.

The initial journey came to an end in Oviedo, where I registered with my program, and met my host family. They lived in an apartment about a 45 minute walk from the University of Oviedo. Walking became my new way of life, and I spent most of the next six months on the streets, the lovely streets, the ones that were built before cars were invented, so cars did not fit. There were winding alleys and steps and narrow arches, and stone plazas with more statues than I’d ever seen before. I learned that young people rarely went into each others’ homes in this community, and so most youthful business was conducted out of doors. Couples necked on benches, and large groups of teenagers cruised in flocks through the parks. I had never lived in a city before, and along with all the streets and buildings, I had to get used to all the people, all the time, everywhere. I was a solitary, pale-faced, too-big, non-feminine anomaly among them, walking through the crowds and taking it all in.

My host family had two daughters, but one had recently moved in with her boyfriend, so they had a spare room for me. Meals were provided. I thought that this meant I would spend time with them and get to know what life was like in a Spanish home. The family was not very warm, and didn’t spend much time with each other. Each one had a different schedule, and although I always got a meal, it was usually sitting alone in the kitchen. Once, the mother told me that she wished we could all just take a pill when we got hungry. Mostly I lived on chocolate cookies and cured sausages, and the maid when she came would fix me rice with a fried egg and tomato sauce, and leave a huge salade nicoise for the family. Once in a while the mother would make croquettes or a fish called pixin, pure white and very flavorful. But like the rest of the people in this city, I started going out, and discovering the food of the city.

As my few supplies ran out or wore out, I shopped to find new things: shoes, pants, hair clips, notebooks, a knife. I was amazed by how shopping was done in this place. It was unheard of to browse. The shop workers wanted to know straightaway what you desired. I was not used to admitting to anyone what I was looking for. I was a wandering shopper. This didn’t work well in Spain.

I did eventually find out how to get what I needed. I also found a guitar, which I had been desperately missing. It was a cheap Korean thing. I was in the wrong part of the country to buy a bona fide Spanish guitar. This one had six steel strings that stayed in tune well enough, and a soft case with backpack straps. Back in my solitary room I focused on songs, writing down lyrics, and learning new melodies. Soon I had an idea: I would sometimes see scruffy people on the street singing and making money, and I decided to try it. After much scouting, I chose a place under an archway in the pedestrian zone. I lay my wool jacket on the cobbles in front of me and sang my heart out– all the American folk songs I wanted to sing. Carter Family, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan. Coins clinked together steadily down into my jacket. There were lots and lots of ones, but many fives as well. I usually played for an hour, and never made less than forty bucks. It all went to my eating/drinking/travel fund.

I wondered why people gave me money…. Was I begging? Did they appreciate the music? Or was it pity? Were the gypsies going to get mad at me for taking over their turf? As I played, I had a unique vantage point. I was staying still, and could watch all that was going on around me. I became invisible, in a sense, and could stare at people much more overtly. Dramas unfolded before my eyes. I learned another side of the city.

I had a boom box in my room, and I picked up albums, fueling my musical studies. All were American artists, nothing had anything to do with Spain, but here I had so much time to focus on my obsession. I also began to spend large chunks of time at the public library. The process to get a library card was excruciatingly complex, so I contented myself with sitting among the stacks, pulling out a variety of books, and then puzzling over the I Ching in Spanish, trying to find some oracle of wisdom to make order come to my life.

When I got sick with a bronchial infection, I didn’t know what to do. There was no campus nurse, no family doctor. At the weekly market that I walked through on my way to class, I saw a lady vending herbs. I described my symptoms to her, and she made me a bag of something to take as a tea. It seemed to work for a day or two, but then a classmate clued me in: I could just walk into any drugstore and buy antibiotics. That was a miracle.

One of my biggest challenges was finding who to hang out with. I imagined meeting Spanish people and making friends, really absorbing the culture through them. I loitered around the college, and skulked in the students’ coffee house. I made tentative eye contact, smiled. I carried my guitar around and made excuses to talk to people. Again and again, I was treated like someone you would pass on a New York City sidewalk. I was there, but I felt ignored, like everyone knew I would not be staying permanently, and I was not worth the investment. I watched friends sitting in pairs and trios at outdoor cafes, deep in intense conversations, touching each other, laughing ecstatically, their speech dripping with tantalizing obscure slang phrases that I would never know. I was not qualified to be friends with anyone. I would be gone soon enough.

So, I was left to the Americans. I spent part of my day with them in class anyway, and they seemed to be just as hungry for companionship as me. In my first week, I had been disappointed to learn that although I was enrolled in the University of Oviedo, I was not to be taking classes with the general student population. We Americans were stuck on the non-EU floor with a few Japanese, Australian, and Brazilian students. The classes were designed for non-native speakers, and were not challenging and full-speed like I had been imagining. It was not so bad, once I accepted it, as was hanging out with the Americans. But when I realized that my grade was based on the final exam, which I was sure to pass, I gave myself liberal permission to cut class and experience as much of the non-academic culture as possible.

But I did become friends with the Americans. And we traveled together and experienced Spain together. We looked at thousand-year-old bridges and churches, and ate huge festive meals, and showed each other the bars that served French fries with twenty different sauces, and the underground pub with all the board games. We reminisced about Bon Jovi and the Beatles and TV shows that we were missing. We moved in a pack, and dared each other to be more outgoing. And then the Spaniards seemed to see us. We found ourselves in conversations with people who saw us less as individuals and more as a force. We had strength together. One week I rented a car with a couple of my best friends, and we explored the coast. In a sketchy neighborhood in Santiago de Compostela, we returned to our parked car to see a pair of threatening men flashing a gun. We linked arms, put our heads together, and laughed as we walked towards our car. No one got shot.

I still most often traveled alone. I went to France by myself one rainy spring week and cried in the Louvre, unable to absorb any art. I bought a book of poetry by Raymond Carver and sat on a Paris bench and got lost in it. In Bordeaux I met roller-skating kids and ate canned soup cooked on a hot plate in a dorm room, and tried to explain why I was not a hippie. I stood under an awning during a drenching cloud-burst with an old French man, and he gave me a vocabulary lesson. “When it rains like this we say it is ‘comme vaches qui pissent’” He wrote it down on a piece of paper and I tucked it into my pocket. Later I puzzled out that it meant it was raining like peeing cows.

On the way back to Oviedo, dreadfully sick again, I tried to telephone to find a room late at night and lost all my Spanish. The kind woman on the other end revealed that she was an American and she comforted me in my mother tongue. I was too relieved to be offended, and accepted my luck. I spent too much money for clean sheets and slept and slept. And then I bought more antibiotics at another corner store.

I wandered. I read Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon, and decided that I needed to experience bullfighting. Ciudad Rodrigo was having a fiesta and bullfight coming up, so I threw some clean underwear and a notebook in my backpack guitar case and hopped on a bus. I stepped off in Ciudad Rodrigo at ten in the morning, and walked smack into a group of three drunk young men who had been up all night. For the first time, real Spanish people were paying attention to me, so I kissed all of them. And then one of them said he had to go home to echar a las vacas. Let’s go to the farm and feed the cows. Then we’ll come back to the fiesta. I jumped in the car with these boozy strangers and got dropped off twenty minutes later on the side of the dusty road.

The fellow I was with, Pedro, lived with his parents and sisters. He slurredly introduced me to them and told me to get on the tractor. He started it up and we rolled toward the gate, and he motioned to his father to open it. The old man just stood there. “Open the gate!” he roared. The father shook his head. The mother came out. “Por favor, Pedro,” she called. “Por favor.” There was a standoff. I just stood on the back of the tractor, along for the ride. “I have to feed the cows!” “Please, Pedro. Get down.”

He finally gave up, and he stumbled to his bed and passed out, after telling me we’d go back to town and stay at his grandmother’s house that night. I was glad of that, because I knew the hostels were probably all booked up. I sat at the table, waiting stoically. The mother and sisters just looked at me. Then they fed me. They told me there was a bus back to town in twenty minutes, and told me where to stand to flag it down.

A couple hours later I was rolling once more into Ciudad Rodrigo. I never saw Pedro again. On my own again, I wandered the town, in this fragile, lonely, hungry state. The time was up for the running of the bulls, and I found myself in the perfect place, in a bar along the road they ran down. Iron bars on the open door warned people not to casually walk out. At the last second, several men jumped inside, and a couple of black shapes hurried by. We all filed back out and followed them to the plaza. I sat on bleachers as the bullfight happened. I tried to put myself in a Hemingway frame of mind, but I never quite understood the ritual. I was surrounded by men, this lone, strange American girl who wanted to do manly things. I didn’t work out very well. I returned to Oviedo, dusty and sad.

I went to Valencia with an American friend of mine to visit a Spanish guy that she had dated when he was an exchange student at her high school in Massachusetts. She was my best friend in Spain, but as we got nearer to Valencia, she distanced herself from me. Revisiting this friendship was on her mind.. We were there for Las Fallas, the big festival, where neighborhoods build huge sculptures and then burn them. On the way there I lost a contact lens on the bus, and spent the rest of the trip half blurry-blind. I was constantly disoriented, and had the increasing feeling that I was an unwanted companion. Not knowing what else to do, I tagged along, knowing I was boring and in the way. The ex-boyfriend and his friends were artists, into motorcycles and cocaine. My friend was swept along in the excitement. The best part of that experience was the sandwich that the ex-boyfriend’s mother packed me for the bus ride home. She squeezed tomato pulp onto the inside of a cut-open crusty roll, and layered on the ham and razor-thin slices of manchego. I ate it, and we rode home in silence.

With every experience in this country, making my way through these uncomfortable situations, my shyness dissolved. It had to. I forced myself to speak up, to be understood, to insert myself anywhere I thought was a good idea. And, I inserted myself in plenty of bad ideas. Through it all, my accent got pretty good. I learned new words constantly. I understood just about everything. I felt fluent, comfortable moving through the country. I would go to the movies, and know I hadn’t missed anything.

One evening I watched Good Will Hunting, a current American drama, overdubbed into Spanish, as all movies were. I don’t remember much about the movie except for the closing scene. A car hits the road, the road reaches West, forever. It is an absolutely American image, and for the first time, and like a load of bricks, I began to miss home. I had enough Spanish loneliness; I yearned for the American loneliness of the open road. I cried through the credits.

Six months into my stay in Spain, my mom came to visit me. We explored a few new places, but mostly I ended up taking her to some of my favorite finds. We went to the same paella place I had been to in Valencia. We went to the Inquisition museum, had many drinks, and many tapas, and stayed in lodgings one grade higher than my norm. One evening, in the plaza of a beautiful town, we took a walk before dinner, and the whole rest of the town was out, walking, holding hands, sitting together, gossiping. My mom decided this was an excellent time to show the world her faux tap-dancing routine. Maybe the sound of her leather-soled sandals on the plaza stones gave her the idea, I don’t know. I was mortified that she had blown my cover. I was suddenly just another American traveller, not cooler than all the rest. We were just as obnoxious as anyone. We went to dinner and my mom tried to speak Spanish with the waiter. She was getting it all wrong, but I couldn’t shut her up. I don’t know if I needed to prove more to her or to the Spanish strangers that I was good at this, that I could blend in and be part of this country. But she was the reality check: I couldn’t hide where I had come from. I brought her to the airport, and sent her back to her country.

While I was at the airport, I inquired at the ticket counter about changing my departure date. I had a week left, and $212 dollars. It wasn’t enough, but I was planning to play more music in the street. I just didn’t know where else I wanted to go. The lady behind the counter told me it would cost $200 to change my ticket. I boarded a plane a few hours behind my mom.

The same day, I was stepping off the Amtrak train in upstate New York, shell-shocked. My friends picked me up at the station, and we spent an evening together, trying to catch up, although everything seemed much too current to be news. It was so sudden, I was back, and I didn’t know what to say. The language that I had been working on so diligently had just evaporated from my surroundings. I continued to dream in Spanish off and on for the whole summer.

I haven’t been able to pretend that I had a fantastic, lovely time in Spain. For a long time I blamed Spain for being inhospitable and lonely. Now I think that I was going through a hard time in life, and it would likely have been hard no matter where I was in the world. I struggled with insecurity and lack of direction. With the false confidence of the uncertain, I went there thinking I would fit in, become European, be celebrated, stay forever. It wasn’t the case. However, in Spain I developed the ability to push myself out there, even with low self-esteem, to communicate and to perform. I found some real strength underneath the arrogance, and had more reasons to like who I was.  But in the end, I needed home and family. I missed the endless American road. I wanted to be driving west into nothingness.

I went home and worked at a gas station. Then I went back to college and no one had missed me while I was gone, but I didn’t necessarily need that. I knew what I needed, I loved everyone more, and appreciated the wonder that is a small college town in America. I was still looking for connection, reality, independence, and authenticity.

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When I finished reading this essay, I sat quietly for a minute, feeling, of all things, gratitude.

Thank you, Sarah, for pouring yourself into this assignment, for viewing it as an opportunity to record and clarify an important part of your life.

Thank you to all the students who are thinkers, workers, wanderers, wonderers–you students who remind teachers that they are privileged witnesses to transformation.

Indeed, thank you to all the students who make Year 25 of a teaching career feel not like a sigh of exhaustion but, rather, like the start of another beautiful adventure.

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