As many of you are starting your time as a language assistant in Spain I offer some reflections on my own past experience. The views I share are entirely my own and are meant to serve as a creative way to express myself as well as being a subtle criticism of the North American Language Assistant program in general. I don’t claim to have all the answers on how to improve the program (although I do have many suggestions), nor do I want to start blaming specific people for my experiences because the program’s weaknesses spread from the top down.
I encourage readers to comment about their own experiences (good and bad) to give a more accurate feel for the program. What has surprised you these first few weeks? Do you think your school was well prepared to receive you?
Welcome to Carmona
The explicit graffiti and prison like gates throw me off a bit. I’m looking for a small town’s high school and this isn’t quite what I expected. It takes me a good ten minutes to figure out how to get inside the building—I’m from a small town where people keep their doors unlocked and this buzzer/intercom system is foreign looking and intimidating. Finally, someone rings the buzzer and I sketchily follow him inside.
I’m greeted by the conserje who, only after two years of working there, I understand to be a mix of doorman, janitor, and office assistant… a jack-of-all-trades. I communicate who I am, thinking that perhaps someone is expecting me on my first day. It’s not the case but he hands me off to the English department with a smile.
Don’t Run For Cover (Yet)
A wailing sound comes out of the loud speakers. I jump and cover my ears. I’m pretty sure the fire alarm is going off but no one seems concerned. After thirty seconds of deafening noise it stops. As I see students and teachers rushing around I realize the horrible sound was just the bell, a signal to change classes. Why it has to sound like a bomb warning is a question I still have.
Students sprint through the small halls to let off energy. The majority of them don’t actually have to change classrooms (the teachers are usually the ones who change) but they aren’t allowed to stay in the classroom alone between periods. So they run, jump, wrestle, and flip while others eat chips, candy, donuts, and sandwiches from the school cafe. They shriek and scream and make passing through a living nightmare, complete with shoves, flying food particles, spilled liquids, and body odors. What should only last three minutes is often drawn out to ten or fifteen, as many teachers arrive considerably late to class. After unlocking the door, taking attendance, checking homework, and quieting the students it’s not unusual to have only thirty minutes left of the hour-long period.
The students are talking over me, again. I try to reel them in—“Please, listen! Be respectful!” I ask. But they don’t understand me. The few students that want to listen give me an embarrassed smile of apology on behalf of their classmates. They accept that the majority rules and unfortunately the majority do not want to learn English; they’d rather study for their chemistry test next period. Meanwhile, I’m stuck in front of a class of thirty teenagers, prohibited from addressing them in Spanish, and basically talking to myself. On the verge of a nervous breakdown, I try to make eye contact with the classroom teacher. No such luck, she’s too busy correcting exams in the back of the classroom. The buzz grows louder and I stop trying. Perhaps finally realizing that I am no longer talking, the teacher bangs loudly on a desk and shouts, “Quiet please! Prestad atención!” There is a thirty-second lull in the various conversations and study sessions, and I am suddenly being grilled by thirty sets of eyes that read annoyance. And they told me teaching would be rewarding…
Redemption: The Small Things
It’s 11:00-- break time. Call me antisocial but I prefer not to go to breakfast with the other teachers. I use my thirty minutes to disconnect a bit from the chaos and enjoy some fresh air. Carmona is a beautiful town for a walk.
It’s a week before the town fair and a woman approaches me. I recognize her as a teacher here, but I don’t remember meeting her. “Lorén!” she shouts, “I hear you don’t have a flamenco dress for the fair so I made you this!” She gives me a handmade pin, a flamenco dancer in a vibrant blue dress. It’s beautiful and unexpected. I wish I could express how much her kindness has impacted me, but I make due with a “Muchisimas gracias! Qué bonito!”
It’s my last week of being a language assistant and after each lesson I explain to the students that my time with them has come to an end. Some look disappointed, others could care less, and the majority is just anxious for the bell to ring (or wail). Occasionally, I get a few questions about what I’ll do next, if I’m going back to the US, and if I’ll ever come back to Carmona. After one class two girls approach me. They thank me profusely for my time with them (which, by the way, was only one hour every two or three weeks) and they apologize for their inattentive classmates. They ask for my email and I give it to them. They express their desire to visit the US one day and I encourage them to immerse themselves in English TV, books, and music. When I say goodbye they start to cry, they are thirteen after all, and it’s touching to see I’ve made some sort of impact.