<So much is going on in the world these days. It’s quite overwhelming. A religious fundamentalist kidnaps young women in Nigeria, the Zapatista Comandante Marcos “steps down” (even though he maintains that the Mexican government is “still the most expensive, and ugliest, prostitute”), yet another young American “man” engages in a war on women using knifes and firearms (The US destroys nations abroad over terrorism, and – along with a little help from the NRA – funds domestic terrorism with the ridiculous and outdated “right to bear arms”), UkraineUkraineUkraine, troublingly ultra-right wing parties nearly gain control of the EU, and – just to keep the list short – the military in Thailand overthrows the government. Just a few headline events from the past few days.> Huckleberry thinks, elbows supporting his face via right palm to cheekbone rest. Churro grease stains the newpaper. He stirs his coffee lightly in an attempt to momentarily distract his mind from the barrage of depressing and repulsive displays of inhumanity spelled out in emotionless black ink on monotonous grey paper.
From the still morning air of Cáceres, one would never guess that any of these extreme things could occur. The town fair has begun, classes are almost over, and normal life keeps on keeping on. It feels so incredibly far from the world of The News, both that of Spain and the rest of the world.
There is a point of reference in town called, The Horse. It’s a statue of Hernan Cortes (one of the most famous Spaniards who conquered Mexico), but people refer to the horse he’s riding – not the historical figure. There’s another statue of reference, The lady with the newspaper. Her name was Leoncia, and her statue commemorates the fact that she was the last traditional newspaper seller.
In another realm of his mind, that wasn’t so heavily distraught by relentless global displays of inhumanity, Huck felt like this tired old granny – Leoncia – who, having knocked Cortes off his saddle, rides The Horse into town bearing the news, “School’s out! (Forever? He hoped not.)”
The news bearing Granny Leoncia, partially becuase Huckleberry is so incredibly out of date (culturally: for example, there are two people in this world who still refer to a period of courtship before dating someone – Huckleberry and a wonderful lady named Liz who also happens to be a trained musician. Coincidence?).
The Horse, for obvious connotations of triumph.
The school year spent as an English Teaching Assistant was, generally, a success. He survived. The students survived. The real teachers survived. To measure just how surprising this is – let us reflect on the fact that a local bartender Miguel recently said, “When you go back to Canada, I’m going with you!” That’s right, this outcome was so improbable that – by Jove – Huck just might actually be Canadian.
Either Huck is Canadian, or he is getting old – because he actually enjoyed being a teacher. Granted: there was no grading nor test giving involved, there was no failing of students, and there were no angry and poorly behaved
children parents to deal with. Even so, the classroom portion of this school year was fantastic. Why? For several reasons, one of which being the human resource of about 15 English teachers who were always willing to help. Further, about two thirds of the students really wanted to improve their English; motivated classes and unmotivated classes are like night and day. Huckleberry may have learned more about teaching than about Spanish this year, but it’s hard to say if that’s necessarily a bad thing; because, he learned quite a bit.
While the list of good things about the auxiliar de conversacion position at the EOI Cáceres can go on and on and on, there was one difficulty that stood out from the rest of the picture altogether. Rather, it crept into the corner hoping not to be called upon. As Huckleberry found out rather immediate-like upon his auxiliar de conversación inauguratory week of classes – being placed at an EOI is a huge stroke of luck. It’s relatively straightforward and without curveballs. The one major issue is essentially confronting the unthinkable. Spaniards, at least here in the Southwest, are social machines. They talk. They talk loudly. They talk forever. They talk over each other. They talk across other conversations. They talk when someone else is talking. They talk talk talk all anybody ever does is talk.
Except in the classroom.
I’ll spare you from detailed accounts of the horror that Huckleberry saw in classrooms; but there were petrified alumni, unresponsive apparent amnesiacs, souls possessed by demons of the mute variety, students cursed with what must be the worst set of teeth ever witnessed in the age of man. Huckleberry saw so much terror. Have you ever been the cause of fear? Have you ever been the direct source of another’s self repression? Have you ever been the specter of TOTAL FAILURE?
It’s strange. One of the most social populations on earth enters the classroom and the moment they have to speak in front of others…alone…it is more silent than a pack of nuns observing quiet meditation in a nunnery off miles from the city center. They would say things like, “Mr. Medusa, our education system is to blame – we never learn to talk in front of the class in our education system.”
“Well,” said Mr. Medusa, “there are a few ways to get around this.” <My word, I’ll have to bank on the Spanish culture’s insatiable appetite for FUN and GAMES in order to help them speak with confidence.> “Do any of you like, Role Playing?” <This is dangerous territory> Huckleberry thought, <but, sometimes you have to enter the abyss to come out sane and sound.> “Now, without getting too sinful, let’s do a little role playing – maybe you’ll all open up a bit and get more comfortable, if you’re…some–one–else(double eybrow raise).”
Silence. Stares. Miscommunication. “What’s that, Medusa Man?” asks a perplexed woman.
<Hmm. Time to teach by example. I don’t want to bend, to give in, to…use Spanish (!)> Huck thought. <Yes, go for the weakest one – and convert them into a conversational beast with the rest of the class to bare jealous witness. Yes, that’ll do.> Huck scanned the faces for the student that most avoided his attention class after class.
“Excuse me, what’s your name?” he asked the girl by the window.
“Fátima”, she spoke.
“Alright Fátima, what’s your name gonna be today.” Huck thinks aloud to himself.
“FÁTIMA. My name’s FÁTIMA.” she insists.
“No, I know, I mean, right now – you are …Princess Diana.”
She shakes her head. “I don’t know her.”
<Better think of someone more famous, Huck> Huck auto-suggested. “Shakira. How are you today, my good friend Shakira?”
Fátima points to herself, mouthing the word and punctuation <<Shakira?>>
Huckleberry nods in approval.
“I’m doing really good today. I’m in Barcelona.” suddenly erupts the voice of a confident English speaking student that just so happens to be Shakira.
“Wonderful!”, Huck says approvingly. “What are you doing in Barcelona?”
“Well, right now I’m on concert tour of Spain. I have concerts in Barcelona, Madrid, Salamanca, Granada, and…Cáceres.” says Shakira, enthusiastically.
“In Cáceres, too? Nice. So, Shakira, what kind of plans do you have this summer?” Huck asked.
“Well, after celebrating the World Cup in Brazil with Pique I want to go to the beach with my friends and drink mojitos.” Shakira said rather matter of factly. After all, she’d been there -done that- before.
After using this point in the conversation to get Fátima to talk about her summer last year, he stopped making an example of the poor girl. It was impossible for the other students not to get the idea, and she did a great job. Sure, she made a few mistakes here and there, but for a student in first year of intermediate classes that never-ever-not-once had the guts to talk in front of the class before this was a breakthrough.
Beyond the fact that students don’t have as many opportunities to learn public speaking in the education here, there is another major issue blocking progression: small town social pressure. Cáceres is a larrrge town at 100,000 people with the infrastructure of a small city. There is a five minute radius that feels very city-like and then immediately fields off into the oblivion of myopia. Within that five minute walking radius, everybody knows everybody or at least everybody somehow knows about everybody’s everybody (Apparently, Huckleberry’s girlfriends are a poorly kept secret at the school. Problem is, Huckleberry hasn’t actually dated since he left the states. This doesn’t stop the students from asking about that pretty girl they saw him with the other day in the plaza boy did she have pretty hair Mr. Grimm have you been seeing her long? Is she Canadian too? She looked like she could have been Spanish but “Juan-Antonio, ehhhhssas cosas no se dicen a un profe poh favoh!” “hheeehh?? ¿Pero qué va? todos nos conocemos hace mucho y nuestras vidas son muu sosas pero ehhhte viene pacá hace un mes y jya le veo andando con esa morena guapita eso sí es interesante” “Andaaa, leé vihhto tamién durante el fehtival en la plaza.”
“Soooo, why didn’t you come talk to me?” Huckleberry interrupted the conversation, in hopes to get these 50 year old Spaniards who’ve known each other their entire lives (and gossiped their entire lives) to try at least speaking a little bit in English. “You should say hello next time!”
“Puehh…bu-tt, I was with, maeye wyeef! aaand, lahedichoque ‘Él, él eselprofe! peronoséquiéneslamorena’ “
Thus, along with being gun-shy in front of the class, many students were often too embarrassed to talk in front of classmates in case word got round that they said something A.) Stupid B.) Contrary to Popular Opinion or C.) if Mom and Dad were to find out that’d just be it! Others, like the gentleman in the above conversation, love talking so much – are such social beasts – are so delightfully nosy – that they can barely contain themselves and speak with ease; unfortunately, only in Spanish. The last case pointed out was often difficult to squash out because it’s just so damned endearing to witness a group of old friends act like classroom kids again barely able to refrain from funny anecdotes and humorous quips.
Indeed, teaching brought on uncountable humorous anecdotes: people saying piss instead of peas, randomly and innocently nailing sexual innuendos, heated debates on the value of speed-dating, and much much more. One day, for example, Huckleberry was asking about summer refreshments. One lady said she likes to drink Sin. ‘Sin’, in Spanish means ‘without’ and in this context it refers to a non-alcoholic beer. “Why, to drink Sin is a sin!” Huckleberry responded.
“What’s does ‘sin’ mean?” the lady asked.
<Well, first ‘Role-Playing’ and now onto explaining ‘sin’. I’m a terrible influence on these young, impresionable minds (wink wink, nudge nudge).> Huck thought. “In English, ‘sin’ is pecáo.”
“Pay cow?” one student said confused as to which language the class was using at the moment.
“No, pecáo, pecado en Ehpañol”, Huck corrected.
“Y eso ¿qué eh?” she replies.
“Sí, queheso?” says another. Unfortunately for this one, due to her thick Extremeñan accent she means to say ‘Qué es eso’ but it comes out all wrong and she says a very drawn out, “queso” which to Huckleberry means one thing: CHEESE.
“What? Cheese? No. Ehque pecáo se traduce a ‘sin’ en ingléh y cuando veo lahcervezah ‘SIN’ siempre pienso en ‘pecado’, y – lo es -porque beber cerveza sin alcohol es imperdonable.” Huck explains, best as he can.
“aaaahhhhhhhhh” replies the chorus of first year intermediate students.
This year was full of delicious memories and his experience as an auxiliar de conversación will surely influence the young Huckleberry for some time to come.
A very young and, as one student said, “more handsome now that you came to Spain” Huckleberry. Spain, making people handsome since 1479.