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I think that out of all high school teaching positions, the foreign language ones are hands-down the most depressing. Stunningly narrow-minded, yes, I am aware. Call in the political correctness squad and the witnesses for the defense, of which I am sure there are plenty. They can listen too. Sometimes, when you sit in Calculus, you might get a brainwave: hey, yeah, I want to be a high school math teacher. Or maybe you run into your third-grade teacher while you’re getting ice cream instead of reading The Sun Also Rises for the test tomorrow and think, you know what, I want to make a difference like that.
But do you ever sit in Spanish IV, stare down at the glossy pictures of Barcelona at night or a morning in the windswept Andes and think, I want to teach this gorgeous, mythical language in small-town America to recalcitrant teenagers who are going to forget everything you’ve laboriously ground into their heads the second they catch sight of a shiny object?
Of course not. The whole purpose of leaning a language is to broaden yourself, open up avenues, everything they promise you that those educational backpacking trips will do. To make more opportunities, not less. Why would you learn to communicate with millions more people than you had before, then shut yourself up in a classroom and patiently coach 18-year-olds through the proper conjugation of “comer” when really they should have learned that four years ago, only they didn’t, and now you have to shove philosophical notions about justifiable homicide out of your head as you tell them that “embarasado” does not mean embarrassed, so please don’t try to use it that way, especially if you happen to be male, in which case you’d probably be heralded as a miracle like the huge drowned man in Gabriel Garcia Marquez, except everybody just read the Sparknotes instead of the book and you’d be wasting your time.
So why are you pacing the linoleum up there, twirling a dry-erase marker and trying to explain the future perfect? (And really, why the hell did they come up with that tense anyways, it’s not like anybody actually uses it). Standing beneath the alphabet cards (which seriously mess everybody up, because you see the blocks of ice in the shape of an H and just want to bury your head in the sand and moan piteously) and the posters of the Running of the Bulls and the Mirabal sisters’ house? Patiently inking in enough missed accents on quizzes to make a squid floating along somewhere near Samoa inexplicably shudder? Why do you do it? Why’d you learn the damn language anyway?
You glare at me as if you can feel the heat of my rhetorical questions, as if asking-but-really-demanding that I stop being judgmental, muchasgraciassenorita. But that’s silly, because you’re glaring into thin air. Because I’m you. Your snarkier bits, at any rate.
There’s such a dearth, you think, eyes roving around at heads ostensibly bent over workbooks but actually over the cell phones hidden in the bunched-up sweatshirts on their laps. Of…what you got into this job for because you saw it in yourself and wanted more than anything to awaken it in others. Any flash of brilliance, anyone who grins at your jokes or shows an interest—when it comes, you latch onto them as if Pablo Neruda just walked in the room with a steaming plateful of tamales filled with the secrets of the universe.
Your fault. Really. I mean that in the gentlest, most constructive-criticism-esque way possible. You yourself sat in one of those horrible desk-chair contraptions that give left-handed people a hellish time and moaned about what a b**** “esquiar” is to conjugate, because, really, it is. You read the culture sections of your textbook, dreamed about the roughing it in the Amazon and trying to figure out what exactly that is floating in your paella in Spain, and is it still alive? So what happened?
“Nevar,” you say, writing it on the board in big block letters, because that’s how you roll. “Only conjugated in the third person. Ever.”
There’s a flash of a wicked smirk from the fair-haired boy sitting in the third row and a hand shoots up. You stare a little, and almost drop the marker. He’s shy; when you make him actually, y’know, speak the language all these underage terrors are supposed to be learning in here, his voice is stilted; you’ve mulled a little over whether he’s just trying to hide the fact that He can pronounce the hell out of any word you throw at him, which here is like having a gigantic sparkly L tattooed on your forehead. That suspicion rears up and hits you squarely between the eyes as he says, “What if you’re writing artsy poetry?”
“No,” you say firmly, but your mouth twists and you know thanks to a few brief romances and the associated raptures from your significant others that your eyes are shining invitingly. “Never in the third person.”
“Take nevar,” he says, and it’s like someone’s let the wild horses loose. “What if you wanted to say…uh…” You can tell he’s only pretending to think because it’s the most self-control he can exercise at this point; he’s already got the whole harebrained madcap scheme planned out in neon flowcharts in his mind. “I snow gratitude on those around me.”
“Okay. So when you’re all grown up and writing poetry in Spanish…”
“In a sombrero, in Buenos Aires…” I ignore the stereotype; it’s not nearly as bad as hearing “buenos nachos” a thousand times. In the morning.
“In prison for having knife fighrs and writing bad poetry…”
“No, see, I’m a political prisoner. The poetry writing doesn’t start until after I’m arrested.”
“All right, so they beat you for your bad poetry. Fifty lashes for nevar conjugated in the ellos form, a hundred for nosotros.”
“Fair enough. And it’s like the Iliad, where the Spanish Gods look at me being hunted mercilessly and debate whether to intervene while they eat churros and wear sarapes with feathers on them in their pyramid.”
You firmly believe that most of these horrific inaccuracies have been instilled in his mind by the elementary school Spanish curriculum, and it’s a crying shame because this kid’s on a roll.
“Eventually they decide to strike you down like a piñata for your egregious and willful misuse of the Spanish language, so once they’re done there’s nothing left but a smoking crater in the prison floor.” You’re pulling out words you haven’t used since those days in college gallivanting and philiosophizing around Sevilla; you’re kicking sleeping, cobwebby parts of your brain into high gear, like trying to gun a pickup truck dating back to the conquistadores up a hill while singlehandedly fighting the Cuban Revolution and conjugating every irregular verb in the blasted language in twenty-nine different tenses.
This is why you decided to teach. Dios mio, this is what you thought it’d be like. This madcap kid grinning up at you like you’ve sold him the winning lottery ticket; this guy who burst out of his shell with a mariachi band and a conga line in tow. He’s going to try to curl back in as soon as the spell breaks and he starts getting weirded-out looks from everybody in the room who’s not asleep, but he’s not going to fit, because he’s swollen too big for it, like the Amazon River overflowing its banks. He’s flushed, he’s smiling, and here’s this part of him that bit the bait you didn’t even know you were dangling, that’s going to stay with him like pico de gallo ground into the rug (the artistic similes were never your selling point, it’s okay). Maybe he’ll nurse it into full bloom. You’ve lit the fuse of a crapload of illegal fireworks and now you’re going to watch them explode like Cinco de Mayo. He’s going to be brilliant.
Or he’s going to be a Spanish teacher. Somebody’s got to do it.