First let me say that my experience in Oaxaca in this intensive Spanish immersion program has been more positive than negative. But what has been negative has been truly, madly, deeply, bizarrely negative. Think NBC’s Community as re-imagined by David Lynch. Those of you who follow the blog will remember how I mentioned in this post how my class, which started out so great, took a hard turn to the left with the addition of two nearly-fluent students. I have no idea why they were placed in our class — where most of us had just taken one or two semesters of Spanish (some of us only at once a week sessions in night school.) At first, I worried that what seemed to be their resentment at being placed in the class, and the whiff of condescension some of us thought we detected, would be a problem. That was the least of our worries!
In the beginning, our teacher seemed a bit prickly and very strict about maintaining a Spanish only rule in the classroom, but all of us accepted that as best practices for shock treatment in Spanish immersion. What was shocking was how the addition of two near fluent students seemed to make her feel free from the obligation to bother with anyone of lesser abilities. Starting with clearly expressed preference for her two new students, her teaching style quickly descended to what felt like open contempt for those of us not so linguistically endowed. After such a strong first week, I soldiered through the second week, telling myself that I was imagining these things. That is until some of us started comparing notes and the attrition began. One woman was only there for a two week program, so she just stuck it out for the second. Another woman was nearly reduced to tears in class and after. And a third woman, who I thought was far ahead of me in speaking ability, got herself demoted from the B1 section to the A2 section just to escape the humiliation. One guy — admittedly a bit of a slacker — spent what little time he bothered to come to class writing “bullshit” and bruja in his notebooks. Most of the other students, especially those who really needed the credit, just kept their heads down.
By the third week, things had disintegrated to the point where the teacher would roll her eyes and pull disgusted faces before I ever opened my mouth to answer a question. For all she knew, I could have been on the verge of rolling out a dialogue like Salma Hayek in a Telenovela (Hey, it could happen!) But I could tell that she’d completely written me off except for a few pointed comments about some people not studying hard enough. In my defense, let me say that on the midterm, 15 points were possible. I scored somewhere between 14.5 and 14.8, so I don’t think I could be accused of slacking. But then writing and grammar had never been my problem. Throw me a Spanish verb — even one I don’t know — and I could probably conjugate it in Presente, Preterito, Imperfecto and Sujuntivo. But ask me if I want a taco and a beer and I’m babbling like Señor Elmer Fudd.
Soon the class seemed to be run for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many (sort of like how the GOP is trying to rig our political system.) When one of her favorites decided he was taking a week off to go to the beach, but wanted some grounding in the Subjunctive, she shoehorned it into a day filled with another tense and direct and indirect objects — seemingly for his sole benefit. A week later, and knowing that it would be on the test, she never bothered to review it at a more learnable pace for the rest of us. I ended up teaching one of my fellow classmates, who was confused about it, during a break while the teacher sat there munching a tostada, completely uninterested in coming to this student’s aid.
The whole business reached critical mass when the teacher started rigging parts of the class for maximum humiliation. We played games such as the Mexican versions of Jeopardy and Pictionary. But soon she was loading up HER team with her near-fluent favorites and openly jeering and cheering against us dummies on the other team. Again, for the record, us dummies scored 3 or 4 points to her team’s six in Pictionary, which I consider a technical victory since we had to look up the Spanish versions of the words once we’d figured what the picture was about — while she just shouted out the word for her team. Of course, her team always beat us!
Finally, by the second ten minute break yesterday, I’d had enough. Seriously. If you want to be Bad Teacher, at least look like Cameron Diaz. I just walked off campus, skipping the last hour of class, and took myself to my favorite coffee shop for a couple of strong double cappuccinos. Yup, Drama Queen. Walked out. Didn’t look back. If she asks me where I was (and she probably won’t as I’m now beneath her notice and contempt) I guess I’ll airily say something about an uvas emergencia.
I spent my time at the coffee shop productively drafting a long ranting letter to the school’s director — in the tenses of Present, Preterite, Imperfect, Subjunctive AND Conditional, a tense she didn’t even bother to frickin’ teach us. Then, in the best use of my dollar here in Oaxaca, I used my tutoring session that afternoon to have my tutor help me polish the letter. Priceless!
That was more than enough drama for the day, but I still had my two hour Conversation workshop. It’s a class I dearly love, largely populated by friends I’ve made here, and led by a wonderfully energetic, patient and enthusiastic recent college graduate from Mexico City. She’s not trained specifically as a teacher, but she’s a great natural, with an innate ability to get everyone participating willingly without the need for “calling on”. But again, those transfer students. Two weeks into our class, two guys from some university in Indiana joined us. One was an enthusiastic participant and the other sat silently (and somewhat sullenly) shuffling flash cards and refusing to talk. Today, some of us made the great mistake of gently encouraging him to participate.
Big mistake. Nely, our teacher, always provides us with a conversation topic to spur us to add vocabulary words to the mix. It’s a great technique. She poses a question that can be answered with simple sentences, more elaborate discussions if we wish, or just simple nouns and adjectives. She writes them on the board, so that everyone has contributed, everyone learns from everyone else, we all work to our own pace and we all walk away knowing a lot more Spanish words. Today’s topic was relationships and meeting people. In an attempt to build our vocabulary of adjectives, she asked us to contribute to two lists: Our Ideal Man or Our Ideal Woman.
Suddenly, Mr. Silent Shuffling Flash Cards piped up and unleashed a series of filthy and sexist jokes and comments — all in English. It was clear that Nely didn’t really understand half of what was being said, since it was all idiom, so the rest of us took over, telling this oaf “En Español solamente!” When that didn’t work, we started thumbing through our dictionaries for words like “inappropriate”, “not suitable” and “please tone it down”. Wasted effort. He then launched into a horribly racist joke that is too vile to repeat here but did include the phrase “Ching Chong Chinaman”. I could see my Okinawan/Hawaiian friend, Keith, bristling. And normally soft-spoken Kenyetta from LA started drawing herself up with Oprah Attitude. I could almost see the thought bubble over her head, “Boy bettah not start telling Black jokes.”
Finally, I resorted to the only tactic that seemed likely to work, the old “Talk to the Hand” palm in the face. We were sitting in horribly strained silence when Roseann bounced in with a lovely tale — all in Spanish — about the funny and unlikely start of her friends’ twenty year marriage. Tension broken. Class ended.
My final Station of the Cross? At our farewell dinner tonight, I had to sit next to the Director of the language school who wanted to know all about my experiences. Not the time or place to go into the negatives.
Have you ever tried to eat a Oaxacan feast while biting your tongue?