Ramblings of an ESL Teacher: Day One: Apparently, You Can Pay Me to Go Back to High School

I used to say “you couldn’t pay me to go back to high school.” All the time. Okay not all the time. I wasn’t harboring some five year old grudge against my high school (there were and still are some amazing people in my life that wouldn’t be there had I not gone through my public school system) just that when anyone mentioned high school or high school problems I thought about how going back to high school could easily be placed on any of Dante’s rings of hell and I would have found it aptly placed. This was also my general response when talking about teaching. Over the years many people have told me that I would make a great teacher, granted some were more blunt than others by supplementing that suggestion with “only high school though” comment. People have not only suggested being a teacher but also a guidance counselor and I have always disliked these ideas for two reasons 1) you couldn’t pay me to go back to high school and 2) the monotonous repetition of repeating the same lecture five times a day year after year to a bunch of kids that could not possibly care less about the subject would be utterly mind numbing to me.

Then I became an English teacher in Spain. For some reason the limits you place on yourself in the US (or your respective home country) compared to those you place on yourself in another country are vastly different. Kinda like the limits you put on yourself at summer camp or the limits (or lack there of) you put on yourself your freshman year in college/university. They are just different. Can’t explain it, well I could but I’m not going to, you can figure it out. For example, living in another country with a family and taking care of children five days a week would sound like a jail sentence in America but place me in Europe near a Ryanair accessible airport and I’m all yours! Or place me in front of a classroom of stinking teenagers (and I do literally mean stinking, deodorant people!) in the United States where 90% of the students would be donned in a combination of any or all brands including Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister, American Eagle, Coach, Michael Kors, Ugg, Northface, Victoria’s Secret, etc… and I would laugh in your face. But, put me in front of teenagers that are learning English as a second language because they have a desire to move outside of Spain or simply want to go to London and it’s worlds different (not that I have actually taught in the United States but just based on my very limited exposure to the teaching atmosphere). And I obviously know all of this because I have taught English for all of one whole day!

Today was my first day of teaching, incase you didn’t guess. This is a huge feat in of itself because the Spanish government, no surprise, decided to screw me over at the last minute. Now it wasn’t exactly the Spanish government that screwed me over as it was the agency that writes the contracts for my school. You see this whole idea about teaching English this year was spawned last year when my host mom decided that she wanted to convince me to stay longer and I decided it was going to take more than five months to master the Spanish language (surprise, surprise). At last that led me to decide to spend another year as an au pair with the added bonus of also being an English teacher. Being me I, of course, planned out exactly how I could get my Spanish visa and my working permit before last summer so that I could go on a wonderful summer vacation and spend all my money knowing that I would have a nice pay check and job waiting for me when I got back to Vigo. Several different Spanish entities decided to put a stake in this plan.

The first was my Spanish school. They refused to give me paperwork saying I would be a student this year before I passed my exam (second week of June) and got my grades (third week of June). Thus I needed to wait until August to apply for my visa and thus would have to come back right after getting my visa to apply for a work permit. This was all very squishy because I had heard the visa process could take anywhere from 2-6 weeks and the work permit required 3 months. With a potential October 1st start date this was not really going to work. But then some fabulous news came; I didn’t need the work permit! The agency (damn them!) told me that as long as I had a visa I wouldn’t need a permit. Perfect! This works perfectly. I could go home in August apply for the visa allow for the 2-6 week process and come back to Vigo and not have to worry about the 3 month-long waiting period for the working permit. Wahoo! This was made even better when my visa process went as smooth as tequila running down a spring breaker’s throat. (While I’m here I would like to send a shout out to all of those who listened to me vent, stress, and FREAK OUT about my visa process. In the end you were right and it was easy.)

With my visa in hand I headed back to Vigo and sat in ignorant bliss until one week before my anticipated start date when my principal/ landlord/ fair host mother/ co-English teacher/ food provider came in and asked me for my NIE number, my work permit number, and social security number. I stared at her. Had I been a cartoon my eyes would have been the size of my face and wide open with only two quick deliberate blinks to the *tink tink* sound blinks only make in cartoons or my head would have simply just popped straight off as many heads did on Tuesday night’s episode of NCIS. Neither of these happened, nor did I scream, “You told me I didn’t need it!” Instead I slowly, figuring out what I was going to say word-by-word, said, “I have my NIE, but I don’t not have the other two because the agency told me last year that I wouldn’t need it.” She looked at me and calmly said, “ahuh” and turned and walked out of the room.

To make a long story shorter I had to apply for the work permit which required me to find two different parking spots, speak Spanish to an umpteenth amount of Spanish speakers and go to two different offices of the Spanish government. I was able to get the information I needed. After a run around town, a test of my Spanish proficiency, lighting a firecracker under the agency’s butt, returning to one of the said offices, going on an emotional rollercoaster ride, and waiting 4 business days I received my work permit. Three-month waiting period be damned! Turns out that agency had a few connections with the work office and after they sent in the big guns, since they realized they had royally screwed up, and pushed the right buttons they made this go a lot more quickly than usually. In turn I only started two days later than I was supposed to! Which is why I started today with my 8th, 9th, and 10th grade students rather than my 3,4, and 5 year old students on Monday. I jumped in headfirst. Little kids are easy. You give them candy, let them jump around, sing, and scream and they love you; high school students are the hardest on teachers, I should know because I was once one.

I was fine with this because I was actually super excited to teach these grades because, like many people had told me before, I believed these grades would be my strengths. That is why I was totally fine all morning and wasn’t worried at all about teaching. I had this in the bag! I had my PowerPoint explaining how I am in fact from New York but I do not live in New York City because, get this, New York City is just an “itty bitty” piece of the entire state of New York.

(Now I actually described New York City as “itty bitty” to every class in Robin William’s Genie voice quoting “itty bitty living space” when he was referring to the fact that his lamp/living space was in no way proportional to his “phenomenal cosmic power.” If you’re still not picking up what I’m putting down watch this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SfTfXLLJlzM . Unfortunately, no one got the movie quote but they did find me entertaining. It’s fine I suffer from this problem when speaking with some native English speakers too. It truly takes a certain type of introvert and/or couch potato to have watched the number of movies and TV series I have watched.)

Moving on to the entire point of this blog post… Today after teaching six different classes (one advanced and one not advanced class of each grade 8th -10th) I realized that going back to high school now would be AWESOME! 1) Smart phones are fabulous! (Though the tells for students being on a smart phone are way more obvious than texted one handed under a desk by feeling the keypad I would have figured something out.) 2) While my hair and dermatological issues have not changed much over the past five years I have one thing that I didn’t have back in high school and that in confidence! Dear lord has it changed since high school! I stepped into that classroom and I could instantly tell who was popular, who was smoking something, who was dating whom, who the braniacs were, and who the soon-to-be drops out were. While I could do this all in high school I had to adhere to the rules of these social parameters, meanwhile, as a teacher, I hold all the power. Mwahahahah! Just kidding. Not really. And this is what made me feel like I could take on this year of teaching 26 lessons a week spanning 13 grade levels.

Some other random things I learned my first day:

  1. Advanced kids separate themselves like boys and girls at a middle school dance while non-advanced kids tend to intermingle. More pondering theories on why this is to come in the future.
  2. My psychology major will not only help me understand these kids, but it also has an unknown-to-me intimidation factor. Cool.
  3. I was made to be the fly on the wall, observing human behavior is absolutely fascinating!
  4. “Has got/Have got/hasn’t got/haven’t got” make my ears bleed. Has/Have and DOESN’T/DON’T have. Done.
  5. Being a T-Rex must have been excruciatingly difficult. While I did say I was the picture of calm cool and collect before my classes started I was fighting some typical fight or flight emotions once students actually entered the classroom and all eyes were on me. Especially when I handed the class over to the students and allowed them to collectively ask me five (yes! only five) questions about myself. Since I refused to be dubbed “the teacher with sweat stains,” because, let’s be honest, we all remember at least that one teacher/professor that had the most horrible sweat stains. Mine: Mr. O’toole 7th grade Language Arts and Biology for Jocks professor who’s name I have since forgotten but his pit stains will live on forever in my memory – as will his subconscious cursing. So with this in mind once my sympathetic nervous system decided to betray me I kept my arms from my elbows up glued to my sides. This made doing my this-is-how-big-New-York-State-is and this-is-how-big-NYC-is gestures very difficult. And for my third and final TV/ Movie reference please refer to the following link to understand what was going through my head, aside from Mr. O’toole and forgotten professor’s name’s sweaty pits.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fQ7rezDwqEI

 

Advertisements

Strangers on a Plane to Porto

Today I took off to Vigo, Spain for the second time.

This trip was much easier than the last one considering I was able to bypass the Swedish detour and head directly to Spain (of course by directly to Spain I mean I flew into Porto and took a bus to Vigo where I met up with my host family). This was an extremely easy trip considering the drive to Newark airport was such a breeze it allowed me to check in, jump to the next terminal to get my last Pumpkin Spice Latte from the only Starbucks in the airport, jump back to my terminal and hang out with my parents at Chili’s over Pomegranate Margaritas and bottomless tortilla chips before boarding my flight. In case this travel experience couldn’t get any better I boarded my flight to land myself in my very own personal 4-seat row all to myself. Now for those who know me and are aware of my vertical challenged-ness you will understand how epic this was. I could not only lie down but I could lie down comfortably! This was definitely a Snapchat worthy moment! I attempted to angle my camera to get my beautiful four seats without getting the strange ladies across the aisle from me on the other side in the shot when the guy sitting across the aisle closest to me asked if I wanted him to take a picture for me. Mortified that I had officially become that ridiculous looking person trying to get the right photo angle I explained I was simply just trying to show off my seats.I never did get that picture.

And thus began my THREE hour conversation with the guy sitting across the aisle from me. We started talking about times we’ve flown before and gotten lucky to times we’ve gotten not so lucky to then discuss where we were headed. I said Vigo and whether it was because I was finally on my flight to Porto (aprx. Two hour bus ride from Vigo) or this man was just well traveled he actually knew where Vigo was. Amazing! This then lead us to discuss our perspective trips. I talked about how I was going back to Vigo to teach English and how he was going to visit family.

We continued this conversation and jumped from current events to recent life experiences through travel and other experimental learning. Turns out though he lives in Michigan half of his family lives in Connecticut (the half that doesn’t live in Portugal) at which point I mentioned I am a UCONN graduate. Thus began the Huskies conversation spanning from sports to the effect the NCAA has on athletes and schools and whether the way athletes are pushed through university is really acceptable, also mentioning my personal experience with athletic stereotypes as I was a UCONN athlete my four years there.

The conversation wound itself back to current events somehow and continued to discuss the trouble brewing between Scotland and England and the impact this will have on the trouble brewing in the Middle East. Of course we were referring to the recent ISIS video and proceeded to debate whether someone who had grown up living and breathing the ISIS mentally is more of less of a threat than someone that has chosen to adopt the ISIS mentality. (Luckily, while the flight was boarding, I had been able to read a few key articles in my free International New York Times paper on these very events.)

This somehow brought us about to Putin and Eastern Europe comparing what is happening now to what was happening many moons ago with Hitler and the beginning of WWII. Discussing the persecution of Jews, that is still present today not only in Germany but also in the United States. This of course led to institutionalized racism and Spain and Portugal’s blind eye to racism compared to the United States’ and Brazil’s racism levels (he had spent some time living in Brazil). We were talking about how the United States does still seem racist, and is still racist, but how our melting-pot background is going to give us key advantages in the future.

This then led me to discuss South Africa and my internship at an HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention focused nonprofit that allowed me to point out key failures within the organization from a ground level all the way up without fear of stepping on people’s toes nor worrying about overstepping my bounds. He then proceeded to tell me this is an American trait that is being actively recruited by companies these days because up and coming companies do not want the European one-track-mindset nor the Chinese or Latin American do-not-question-mindset but rather the American question-everything-mindset.

We found ourselves discussing issues a little closer to home at this point when he divulged two key doses of perspective: 1) You don’t know what you don’t know and 2) you MUST live in the now.

The first key point was referring to how I saw things as an easy fix in the company I was working for in South Africa but ultimately did not know all the key factors such as funding restricts, though this was the first time this came up he mentioned this line a few more times over the three hours.

The next was because his younger brother had recently been diagnosed with a rare frontal lobe brain disorder that has taken away his personality along with his ability to spell his name and recognize those he had had strong relationships with.

Though this conversation escalated quickly we were able to keep up for quit some more time discussing linguistics of languages since he’s fluent in English and Portuguese and I had spent some time studying Spanish over my previous time in Vigo. Which of course brought us back to the Spain v. Portugal conversation and the institutionalized racism issues that are embedded in their languages.

This continued until we were halfway through our flight he decided to try and nap and I decided sleep was not nearly as important as finally being able to watch HBO’s The Normal Heart since I had been trying to watch it since I had finished the play over a month earlier. I don’t know why I did this because time after time I tell myself that since I have read the book/play I will be immune to the typical emotional turmoil of said heavy book/play such as The Normal Heart. (Side note: The Normal Heart was originally written as a play by Larry Kramer spanning the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in 1981 to 1985 from a gay activist’s perspective in NY. It was recently adapted by HBO and made into a movie starring Matt Bomer, Mark Ruffalo, Taylor Kitsch, Jim Parsons, and Julia Roberts just to name a few. Amazing play and movie, I highly recommend both!)

So, as I should have well known, the movie made me cry like a baby only moments before the entire plane lit up like a Christmas tree telling everyone to wake up breakfast was about to be served. I was in no shape to be seen, as tears were still streaming down my face, so I hid under my sweatshirt and blanket and curdled up in my row of seats. I placed my tray table down to receive the breakfast of which I only ate the mini Twix bar and continued to hide under my sweatshirt. Finally, I was able to pull myself together and pretended the redness in my eyes was just a testament to the aptly named red-eye flight I was on. My talkative friend next to me tapped me on the shoulder to see if I had slept well and thankfully ignored the redness in my eyes. We bantered for a bit before I actually fell asleep for the first time on the flight. As we disembarked we stayed close to each other and he decided to use his American passport to go through customs rather than his Portuguese passport. (Must’ve been because of my brights and shining personality.)

We both made it through customs and he asked if I would watch his bags while he went to the bathroom and he returned the favor upon returning from the restroom. Once I received my bag (for once I wasn’t the last bag out of the plane!) we shook hands and said our goodbyes.

I walked out into the Portuguese sun to wait for my bus to Vigo. We never saw each other again.

***

He was 68. He is an international business professor at a university in Michigan and was flying to Portugal to meet up with his wife and half of his family. Before heading out on his flight to Portugal to meet up with his wife he had stopped by to take care of his 61 year old brother with extensive frontal lobe damage and bring his 6 year old granddaughter to see the Connecticut beaches. He had hopped his son would have attended Norte Dame but unfortunately he was diagnosed Bi Polar and was unable to do so due to medical issues. He had lived in Brazil for 19 years and had faced numerous ups and downs in his life. He shared all of this with me, a complete stranger, over a 3-hour conversation on a plane. He told me about how his and his sister’s lives had changed after their younger brother was diagnosed with this frontal lobe disorder at 61 years old, for it could happen to either of them or both of them too, at any time.

And with that I embark on my next adventure: teaching and au pairing in Vigo, Spain. Remember to live in the now everyone and you don’t know what you don’t know!

Thanks for reading!