Selections from A Life Lived Elsewhere

P R O L O G U E

How do I sum up four months in forty minutes? (That’s about the number of minutes it takes me to collect my thoughts for a blog post, give or take a few hours.) Well, quite simply, I don’t. I pick and I choose certain experiences to tell a certain story.

I am a bad small talker. Anyone who knows me can tell you that I am a bad small talker, and this is because I hate small talk. I am uncomfortable with it and have no idea what to say. After the “Hello, how are you?” and “I’m fine, thanks”, with occasional exciting tidbits thrown in, I’m at a loss for how to continue a conversation. To break the silence and give the Conversation Topic card back to the other person/people, I can often be caught saying, “Tell me a story!”

My life is a story. In this post, right now, I will tell you a story. I will tell you a story in the book called My Job, and I will eventually tell you a story about my struggles. You are reading, folks, my chronicle of a life lived elsewhere.

C H A P T E R  O N E  :   T H E   J – O – B

At present, my life’s work is divided into two major components: teaching English to Spanish children and adults and healing myself through diet, exercise and increasing self-awareness. If any of you are looking for a job, I wouldn’t recommend that you do what I did to land my job: all I did was breathe my first breath on U.S. territory. In addition to being a native of a primarily English-speaking nation, I had a four-year degree and an advanced level of Spanish knowledge (although a much more introductory level suffices) to earn my status as an attractive candidate. However, I cannot account for how selective the program is because in addition to fulfilling the requirements, I had 8 years of experience working with children in a wide range of capacities. Nonetheless, I do have friends who haven’t worked with kids in a teaching capacity and were thrown for a loop upon entering the classroom (and exiting and then entering again for the first several months).

My colegio.

My colegio.

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Me as Balthazar for a Three Wise Men holiday celebration.

The Spanish government gives all of its language assistants a monthly stipend of 700 euros – about $950 – in exchange for a minimum of 12 working hours per week at a school of its choice. I work at a small school in a small village in Galicia, Spain with wonderful teachers and drive-me-crazy-because-they’re-so-impossible-and-lovable-at-the-same-time students. Is there a word for that? They’re a ratio of about 1 part sour to 9 parts sweet, if sour-sweet can be used as an adjective to describe them. The structure of the program is pretty unstructured, as it simply places us at a school, pays us each month and then leaves the rest up to the school’s director. My schedule is wonderful, as I work Wednedsday, Thursday and Friday mornings from 9am until 2pm with a free planning (or last-minute bank or shopping run) period each day. I work in classrooms alongside or even in the absence of four other teachers; in some classes, I am the lead teacher and I lead the lessons independently with activities of my own choosing, in others I work with the teacher and give a lesson on his or her topic of choice, and in others I am there as an “English expert” to turn to when the teacher or student is at a loss for words. It varies based on the needs of the teacher at any given time.

In the classroom, I get uncomfortable if I speak for an extended period of time. I speak to explain, and then I emphasize that the students speak to practice. In my experience as a student and even as a teacher, I have found the Spanish style of teaching to be focused more on one-sided lectures than on responsiveness and conversation. While I am here, my goal is to hone in on responsiveness and conversation in English and to see to it that each student I work with speaks English that day – and more than the standard Hello, How are You, I’m Fine Thanks. I uphold this policy with my students and with (most of) the teachers. I uphold it because that is the same logic that helped me to dramatically improve my Spanish as a student two winters ago: I learned the most Spanish in conversation with people who spoke no English, because I couldn’t revert back to asking for a simple translation. So, my common remark to people who ask me for a translation is a sarcastic “I’m not your translator.” (Which is ironic, because I would love, love, LOVE to be a translator/interpreter!)

One of the teachers jokingly using his phone to translate the word "kids" from the book's title, The New Kids by Brooke Hauser.

One of the teachers jokingly using his phone to translate the word “kids” from the book’s title, The New Kids by Brooke Hauser.

Outside of classes, I have started a reading club for teachers at the school – so far, we have an intermediate and advanced book club, and I am on the verge of finding some reading material to start a basic club. Outside of official work at the school, I also teach English privately to six students ranging from a teenager to an older woman in early retirement. I understand that the ability to speak English in this day and age is a gift, especially given the undeserved high ranking of predominantly English-speaking countries in the distribution of world powers. As such, I feel the need and the desire to share my gift and help as many people improve their English as possible and I am grateful to have this opportunity to do so. Also, I am more than willing to talk more in depth about my experience in this program with anyone who desires. Before moving on, I will highlight a couple of the things that I have learned and unlearned so far. My experience with diet and overall wellness will be expanded in another post.

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Source unknown.

I have learned a very important truth that is best summed up by a quote from this image that has been going around Facebook. Oftentimes, we do not see things the way that children see them – or any student, for that matter. I often see people give up, exasperated, when someone doesn’t understand something and ultimately resort to the easiest option to solve the issue. With English education, that can be a catastrophe. Patience is not easy, but it is the most rewarding. I have learned that each child may need something explained a particular way in order to understand it. In English education, the goal is not to translate. The goal is to motivate the student to find his or her own answers within the framework of the target language. It is difficult and it is challenging, but it is eventually rewarding.

A real-life example can help to demonstrate this point. Many of my students either have not yet learned or have a weak mastery of the English alphabet. No matter how many times I repeat the letter “e”, at least half of any given class will typically write down the letter “i”, which has the same pronunciation in Spanish. I was completely frustrated because I have been spelling obsessively with the children for the past few months, stressing words with vowels almost exclusively. Because I know that students must learn by doing – because by doing, they begin to understand – I have begun to trace letters in the air as I pronounce them and have students trace them with me. When I am working one-on-one with students, I take their fingers and pronounce and trace the letter. Somehow, something is connecting in their brain when hearing the letter and seeing/tracing its outline are connected. In this instance, I have learned that no matter how many times I or they pronounce the letters, the problem was not with the children and their “lack of studying”, as many teachers commonly argue. Could that be part of the reason? Possibly. I won’t rule it out. I do, however, believe that some of the fault lies in the strategy – maybe the best way for them to learn the alphabet isn’t by just by repeating it, or just by writing it. If they think that the English “e” is an “i”, then they are pronouncing it and writing it like an “i” at home.

Most of our teaching team on a happy Friday morning.

Most of our teaching team on a happy Friday morning.

I am working on the process of unlearning some things that I have previously learned. Unlearning is infinitely more difficult than it is to learn something and it takes a lot more concentration. I am unlearning the need for maintaining an invisible line between students and teachers. I was as stiff as a tree trunk the first time that a student came up to me and hugged me tight, and I nearly jumped out of my skin the first time I student ran up to hold my hand and share a story with me. I have gotten so used to being worried about complaints…and with the craze in America about all of the disgusting sexual predators posing as educators, health instructors, or religious leaders, it’s not hard to understand why. In the US, one of our goals as camp counselors, as mentors, and as teachers was to always spend the least amount of time (read: no time whatsoever) in physical contact with the students. In Spain, the opposite is true: the leaders and teachers are overflowing with compassion and they shower it on students and colleagues in the form of hugs, “cheeky” kisses, and loving taps and caresses. Over the past several weeks, I have begun to hug the children back, give light taps on the head or shoulder in encouragement, and play with the children during explanations or story times (like grabbing a child’s hands and pretend-dancing with him to explain what Mr. Sugarplum is doing during a scene from Alice in Rock Candy Mountain). As unnatural as it may sound to North American ears, I have grown more comfortable with touching people more in conversation in general – as s/he does with me, I may touch a teacher’s arm or place my hand on a teacher’s shoulder as we have a conversation. In Spain, it is simply closer to be more affectionate. So when little Dani comes up and hugs me, I give him a hug back. And when little Manuela takes my hand to share a story with me, I squeeze her hand gently before letting hers go.

And with that folks, I leave you to live your lives. Are you an auxiliar having a similar or different experience? Can you relate to any of mine, auxiliar or not? I’d love to hear about it. And remember: Now is the only guarantee, so make it count.

NOW Is Our Only Guarantee

Three weeks ago today, I was frantically and quietly packing my material possessions into two large suitcases and two backpacks at 4am, trying my best not to wake the 58, 24, and 1-year-old sleeping in the adjacent bedroom. My sister Ari, the 24-year-old, would wake up in the next hour to take me and my abuelita to the airport, where we would board the first flight from Los Angeles to Chicago, then Chicago to Madrid, then Madrid to Vigo.

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Spain’s Got Mo. Again. This time, I am not back as a student, which I was from fall 2011 to summer 2012 in Córdoba. I am back as an employee! More specifically, as an Auxiliar de Conversación, an English Language Conversation Assistant. The Spanish government chose mealong with 434 other Americans, Britains, Russians, Chinese, Portuguese, and Germans, to live in its country and promote my culture and language in Spanish classrooms for 8 months.

Just because the first language I learned was English. I am honored by the opportunity and fully aware of the many privileges I am awarded as a United States citizen. (I am also fully aware of the many prejudices I am subject to as a woman, as a Black woman, and as a person with PCOS – polycystic ovarian syndrome. That’s intersectionality for you.)

My final weeks in the United States were spent having “lasts”: last American cheeseburger, last family reunion, last middle school reunion, last Metro ride, last traffic jam. I decided to tackle Spain once I got to Spain, and so I secured a hotel just a couple of days before leaving and made sure to tell Bank of America I was going abroad. I knew I could handle everything else once I landed.

My first week in Spain went like so:

1.) Day One: Check in at Hotel San Luis. Unpack the “hotel” backpack. Eat, sleep, and search for apartments.

2.) Day Two: Convert USD to Euros. Open an account with a Spanish cell phone network provider (Vodafone). Set up appointments to visit apartments and buy rainboots.

3.) Day Three: Visit an apartment and find the one, a three-bedroom apartment in the city center with three young, fun, full-blown Gallegos.

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4.) Day Four: Take in the city. Visit Ponte Caldelas, the pueblo where I will teach. Meet a group of other auxiliares from the US, England, Scotland, and France for dinner. Try orejas (ok, I’ll translate this one: pig’s ears) as a dare-devil and gag on them, three times.

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5.) Day Five: Check out of the hotel and exchange contact information with the nice family that operates it. Move into my apartment and let my grandmother unpack my things (because she won’t have it any other way). Smile the whole way through, and plan to rearrange ever so slightly once she leaves.

6.) Day Six: Meet the school’s director at 10am and head over to the school to meet the teachers and introduce myself to some of my future pupils. Speak only in English, and speak slowly, because your accent is difficult, as they request. Return home and go out to lunch with grandma. Appreciate the silence of the streets during the country-wide siesta from 2:00pm to 4:30pm. Tour the city, eat dinner, sleep, and repeat. 

The only routine that I have fallen into is sleeping and waking once again. Even then, I keep the painful truth that Tomorrow Is Never Guaranteed at the forefront of my mind. One Monday in March, my mom was talking and smiling, although in pain from the advanced stage of her metastatic breast cancer. The following Monday, she was coughing up black blood. That Friday, she was talking to my sister, who had rushed to Las Vegas to be with her. On Saturday, unaware of the previous day’s turn of events, I received a text message saying:

“Mom is going to be taken off of life support.”

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Mom. My mom. My fun-loving, sensitive mom.

That text message set into motion a chain of events including the first flight from Hartford to Las Vegas, a night spent visiting my mother and then signing her death certificate, and the painful process of de-housing the house that my mom had called home for the past several months. I learned how to sell a car, how to tell people that my mother had died before my soul had accepted it as real, how to listen while a funeral director discussed the body parts up for donation, how to design a funeral program, and how to sum up my mother’s life in 10 minutes of music and pictures. I learned how not to kill my family as we spent more time together than ever before, discussing harder topics than ever before. Finally, I learned how to put it all behind me when I returned to school to walk across the stage and finally, finally, get my diploma.

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Tomorrow is Never Guaranteed. In other words:

NOW IS OUR ONLY GUARANTEE.

I would like to highlight a few people in the “Now” of my last three weeks who have shown me love, support, kindness, and (even for the fourth time) the way back to a place I had been several times before.

IMG_21551. Grandma

She uprooted her life from the hot border of Mexico to the rainy coast of Spain for no other reason than to be here for me. Little did she expect that she would have some eye-opening experiences of her own, such as taking a walk for pizza at 10pm in Portugal and trying octopus (which, as you can judge by her facial expression, she had decided she didn’t like before it hit her tongue). You have loved me unconditionally in the many shapes and forms that ultimately gave shape and form to the present me. Thank you for being you, and thank you for being here.

IMG_20912. Ari and Jade

They were my buddies all summer, and they gave me a big goodbye (ok, Jade slept through the goodbye) as I left for my flight. Thank you for being there as I struggled to re-find myself. Also, thank you for taking everything that wouldn’t fit into my four bags. I miss you very much.

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3. Marcos

This man is so much more than a taxi driver. Outside of possibly being the closest Spanish rendition of Prince Charming that there is, he simply took care of me and my grandmother for our first two weeks here. He was there checking me out of my hotel, checking my grandmother in at the airport, helping me navigate the bus station for a weekend trip and showing me around my future workplace. He was there for breakfast when my grandma left, preventing me from crawling into a hole and disappearing there for the rest of the day. He was Comfort in physical form, and I appreciate the support he provided to me and to my grandmother. Until next time, Marcos El Viejo. 

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4. The teachers, students, and administration at my school

The personal welcome I got from Director Manuel “Manolo” as he picked us up from the airport, waving off his errors in English with the phrase, “It’s better to understand and be understanded.” The patience, enthusiasm, creativity, and endless encouragement from the teachers every single day. The “Hello Morgyn!” and “Good-bye Teacher!” from the students, all eager to learn. The tiny hand belonging to little Dani that grabbed mine and took me for a walk at recess one Friday. All of these moments are imprinted on my heart, and I have already fallen in love with this small school in this small town that is making a big impact on the lives of nearly 300 students. Thank you for opening up your school to me. I will try my best to make it worth your while.

Why? Because Now Is Our Only Guarantee. Make the best of it.