Things I want to ask my high school Spanish teacher

Many days I leave work as an English teacher in Japan wanting to hold a reasoning with my high school Spanish teacher. In a reasoning, you ask your partner searching questions, listen to their honest answers and opinions, and you yourself are equally frank and open.

I really want to reason with Senorita Blake on many things like the taste of words in a foreign language, when she first got interested in Spanish, her experiences in Spanish speaking countries, her favorite Spanish words, and so on.

But most of all, I really want my high school Spanish teacher to tell me how exactly she got through every class teaching a language to students who just didn’t understand that they were being taught a language.

How come you didn’t tell me to try tasting the words? I might ask her. To become so intimate with this language so much so that I could decide by taste that I didn’t like some words. Like I just don’t like the taste of the word ‘boob’ in English, so I don’t use it.

Maybe she would tell me that she did tell us those things, that I just don’t remember. And she would probably be right. In Spanish class, all kinds of tastes were on my lips– patty, or bun and cheese or rice and kidney for  dinner that evening. Many things, but not Spanish.

What was Spanish? Spanish was the subject I chose instead of geography. Spanish was something my dear friend was good at, but I wasn’t. Spanish class time was a time I felt lost. Spanish was songs or performances in Spanish by bright students at school events. Spanish was a thing. It was many things, but it wasn’t a language. It was not something used by people somewhere to organize their lives. It was not something actually used for communication. It was like a code. A code that if I could decipher I would get high marks on the CXC exam. Like Maths.

Spanish felt like Maths. Isn’t that unfortunate? Spanish felt like a cloudy block of rules and patterns that I just couldn’t penetrate.

Now, I live in a country where I’ve mastered daily conversation in the language. In Japanese, I can order my food, tell the doctor what’s wrong with me, buy sugar instead of salt. It often feels like a bothersome set of rules and patterns, but it’s not as indecipherable as I saw Spanish, and I don’t associate it with Maths. Most days. The obvious difference with this situation and my Spanish class is that here, I am immersed. The people around me speak the language I am aiming to speak.

But it’s neither my fault nor Senorita Blake’s that I never actually met and spoke with Spanish speakers all the five years I studied Spanish. Or that I was never in a setting where Spanish was the only or primary means of communication. That didn’t even occur to me as a possibility. Because, like I said, I didn’t even know I was studying a language.

How Senorita Blake must have felt like she was on a failing mission sometimes. Or perhaps it was enough for her to be able to use a language she loved every day. Of course, all students weren’t like me. For some, Spanish was Spanish, not Maths. Its sounds were musical, its rules logical, its patterns predictable, and where they were not, caramba, that was exciting, not frustrating. Maybe those students went on to meet Spanish speakers in their lives.

As I eventually did meet one Spanish speaker, who was my second Spanish teacher. He was from Cuba. One of the benefits of my teaching job at the time was that you could enroll in one course per semester. I chose a beginner Spanish course.

Well this time, fear was worse than anything. Fear of speaking up in class. I felt that what I said would sound completely wrong to this native speaker. Plus by that time, I had already lived in Japan for a bit, and all the foreign language signals sent to my brain were Japanese. So a lot of Japanese came out in the Spanish class. Now Spanish was like Japanese. Again, I’m sure not all students were like me. But I think for a good number of them, for whom it was a compulsory course, Spanish was like Maths. But I was in that class with the understanding, finally, that Spanish was a language. However, I still had no practical setting in which to try using the language.

Similarly, my students don’t use English outside of class, unless they are super motivated and have some goal they want to achieve like studying abroad. But some might go on to work in jobs that require them to use English. Some might end up with friends or even family from English speaking countries. Some will eventually find relevance for all this English.

The contexts are different, but there is also a lack of practical opportunities for people to use Spanish or French, the two main languages taught in Jamaican schools. I would ask Senorita Blake what she thinks of this. Outside of becoming a Spanish teacher, what other jobs are there where you can use Spanish in Jamaica? A smattering, maybe. In a previous job, I was asked once in the two years I was there to read an e-mail in Spanish. I have one friend who uses Spanish in his job. Spanish he learnt while studying in Cuba. Or maybe you can become a teacher of teachers, like Senorita Blake did.

Of the hundreds of thousands of students who study Spanish and French each year, how many will go on to become Spanish or French teachers? And is the sole purpose of (language) study preparing one for a job? I don’t think so. But when it comes to practicality, that’s the low hanging fruit.

Of the hundreds of students I have taught and will teach, how many will ever meet another English speaker? How many will actually use English to communicate outside of a classroom? Of course English is different from Spanish in global use and Jamaica is not Japan.

But maybe Senorita Blake can give me some advice on how to teach students for whom English is not a language.

Shock, Laughter, Pain

A few different thoughts

1.

Today a student told me she slept for 22 hours straight over the weekend.

I thought she had made a mistake when she said she went to bed 9:00 Friday night and woke up 7:00 Saturday night. You mean Saturday morning, right? No, Saturday night, 22 hours sleeping.

I only want ten hours. How tired do you have to be to sleep for 22 hours? Now, I’m pretty tired after teaching four 90 minute classes today. And night feedings are a standard part of my life. So I generally exist in a half awake sphere. But I think I’d have to be dead, as some other students suggested, to sleep for almost an entire day.

2.

What kind of people say ‘one stop’ on the bus? My husband asked me that over the weekend.

Cover of a Jamaica Observer magazine from a few years back.

Board a bus or taxi in Jamaica, and you might hear people say ‘one stop driva’ when they’re ready to get off. But as my husband noted, not everybody says it. Also, he said sometimes people laughed when he said it. Sometimes, he said, they asked him to repeat himself a few times.

I laughed throughout this entire story, but I am really left wondering what kind of people say ‘one stop driva’.

3.

Saw a story about brutally raped women who were turned away from one hospital, and made to wait for an extended period at another. I almost cried. The story highlighted a number of challenges in a system that is simply under resourced.

I sometimes hesitate to read these kinds of stories but I feel reading is one small way we can honour the humanity of the victims.

Driving across Jamaica, virtually

The most recent drive across Jamaica video I’ve watched.

Whenever I really miss home, I type ‘Jamaica drive’ into YouTube and I’m taken across the country via a camera on somebody’s dashboard.

In these videos, the sky always looks bluer, the clouds, always look fluffier, the sun always brighter than I remember. And the mountains always look greener, but undeniably at home in this shining landscape.

Oh! My words are saturated with nostalgia!

I pay close attention to the streets and the buildings in the videos. If it’s an area I know well, I check to see if anything has changed. Sometimes, without warning, a memory linked to a place comes rushing back.

But usually, there are no specific memories. I often just watch and watch until I’ve had my fill. Other times, I leave the TV while I do chores– the images of Jamaica becoming a natural part of the decor in my foreign home.

Baby-waiting in Japan

Thirty-four weeks pregnant with my first child in a foreign country. I don’t know how different the experience would have been in Jamaica. But I have read many things in English about foreigners’ experiences being pregnant in Japan. And in terms of procedures, etc., a lot of it has been the same for me.

Nevertheless, I am feeling now, for the first time since being pregnant, a need to document something of this experience. Anything. For memory can be so unreliable.

I want to remember the father-to-be in our hospital prenatal  class who listened closely to my less than perfect Japanese, and filled in the gaps when I couldn’t come up with the right words fast enough. I want to remember how amused I was by the silence in a roomful of expecting mothers just before the start of the maternity classes offered by the city. I don’t know why I was amused.

I want to remember some the things I found interesting or were grateful to Japan for having. Like these classes. Or my six weeks of leave before the birth, eight weeks after and up to a year of childcare leave thereafter.

On a personal level, I want to remember things like the baby’s first fluttery movements or my overwhelming desire to just sleep on my belly. And I want to remember my life before a baby. But I’m 34, so that might not be so hard to remember.

PROCEDURES

I went to a clinic about nine weeks in to confirm my pregnancy. The doctor gave me a bit of paper to present at the city office. There I received a mother child handbook in which all details of doctor’s visits are to be recorded until the child is about six years old, I believe. I also received some vouchers to be used at each doctor’s visit, and a bag with all kinds of baby related literature and some baby goodies.

At about ten or eleven weeks, I started going to the hospital where I intend to give birth for my appointments. It’s called Kyorin Daigaku Byouin. Large hospital. On my first visit, the doctor spoke to me in Japanese. The second time, English. I was surprised. Since then, it has been a mixture of both.

I’ve attended two sets of prenatal classes that cover everything from changes in your body to how to bathe a newborn to how to know when you’re in labour. At the most recent hospital class, we got a tour of the maternity ward. Everyone oohed and aahed in front of a big glass window of the room with the newborns. Soon one of those little things will belong to us, we might have been thinking.

I’ve been going to the hospital every two weeks. Most times, the appointment is with the doctor. The last two times it’s been with midwives. My weight gain came up early on in these visits. The last time I was told that I’m ‘over’. I have gained about 12 kilograms so far. The recommended upper limit is 15 kilograms. The midwife repeatedly said I shouldn’t diet, though I should be careful. Short of dieting, I don’t know what else to do. So I will carry on for the next six weeks. I am not sure this is something I want to remember, but I feel I won’t forget anyway.

I’ve finished shopping, my hospital bag is packed, and the baby’s bed is made. We are just  waiting. I really want to remember this waiting feeling.

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