Friday, October 29, 2010

School Days

I.E.S. El Fuerte is the name of the high school where I teach English. El Fuerte’s bilingual program is new and all the staff is very ambitious to create a bilingual environment.  The teachers are learning English as well, so many of my days at work are spent speaking only English. 

Watching the students and speaking with them is a perfect demonstration of how learning a new language comes more easily to children.  It seems the more years in one’s age, the more difficult to pronounce, remember, and understand a second language.  The younger students learn more quickly and have less trouble recreating the sounds that traditionally give native Spanish speakers trouble (“sh” or “st” for example).   I never realized how difficult English is until I began this job, trying to find ways to explain grammar other than “That’s just the way we say it”.  And reading.  Spanish words are pronounced exactly as they are spelled, there are even accent marks to tell you which syllables to stress.  In English, as we came across in learning to read, words aren’t always what they seem (would, bought, bake).

I am lucky to have such well-behaved students, as most children in Spain are famous for acting like orangutans.  They are very eager to participate and also kind to one another.  The first year students are at the wonderful age where they haven’t yet noticed that boys and girls are too different to be friends, or who has money and who doesn’t—they haven’t learned the cruelties that come with teenage angst.

Every day of the week the first and second year bilingual students have one class in English, with me. For the hour period the lesson and all communication is supposed to be in English.  Many students think I don’t know Spanish. I am an assistant in Math, P.E., and English Language and I have weekly meetings with each teacher to prepare the class. The Physical Education teacher is especially motivated and I love working with him and playing with the kids.  Assisting the English language teachers is also enjoyable. One of my favorite classes was the day I taught the children “Yellow Submarine” and we learned vocabulary like “waves”, “friends”, “sea”, “life”.

This week and today have been exceptionally enjoyable as it was Halloween.  The students were very enthusiastic in their pumpkin carving, classroom decorating, and gory costumes.  I acted as a judge for the contests and it made me remember being in school, so passionate and spirited about things such as classroom decorating.  I think those activities are just as important in education as the traditional reading, writing and arithmetic.  Today’s festivities make me excited for Thanksgiving, where I can teach something to unique to my culture, to Christmas, Valentine’s and Easter too. 

Working with children, always excited and enthusiastic, fills me with energy.  I love the students very much. And I can see there may be a problem because I just want to spoil them all. 

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The gifts from Nati´s family, my bedroom, and the view from my balcony

Gracias a la Vida que me ha dado tanto

“Mind your head,” Nati tells me as I part the hanging bead curtains and enter her home.  Inside the white kitchen she introduces her family—kisses on both cheeks from her father, her mother Natividad, her brother Prudencio, sister in law and young nephew.  They sit at the kitchen at the table, each with a pruning knife, adding peach slices to a large plastic bowl. 
Preparando preservos.” Preparing preserves, they tell me.  Juice, jams, gifts for the neighbors—Nati’s father laughs—they have more peaches than they know what to do with. 

The Martinez family home is a cave.  As a young couple, Nati´s parents turned the hillside caves into homes in the 1950s, adding amenities like running water and electricity as recently as the 1970s.  The family has been on the land in Andalusia for over five generations, every year harvesting food, pressing olives into oil and stomping the grapes down to wine.   
I can tell Nati is proud of her family’s history—of the cave houses and of the natural way of living.  She leads me through the cave maze that is her family’s home, not missing a room, closet, or bathroom along the way. The many bedrooms, sitting room, patios and gardens have been added to the original small cave as the family has grown.  The white walls hold decorated plates as well as paintings of saints, First Communion photographs, and children’s drawings.  The Andalusian home feels more like haunted and forgotten tunnels, with new rooms dug farther underground for the mere sake of construction, of creation pushing through.    
The Martinez family has lived and worked this land for generations.  I now understand when she refers to her village, she really means it. 

The gifts I have been given thus far on my trip are so great I feel I cannot express my true gratitude.  Irish Rebecca and her mother Margaret last week with the apple struedel, “Feliz Cumpleanos” candles rapidly melting into the pastry.  The daily phone calls fro Nati checking up to make sure I’ve gotten along okay. The “Welcome to our Family” hug from the school principal.  Last night when Nati took me for tapas and then to her family’s home, she gave me a plastic bag filled with almonds, grapes, eggplant, apples, tomatoes, parsley, peaches and melon from the farm’s storeroom.   When she opened the door to the cellar she watched my face—knowing it would be something I’d never seen. The cellar was similar to what we would think of as a workroom or a tool shed, cement floor and walls, no windows and workman’s tools scattered about.   Sinister hooks hung from the ceiling. 
“To hang the ham dry,” Nati noted. 
The room put off a surprisingly pleasant smell of ripe summer fruit and drafty air.  The colors were just as appetizing. Thousands of almonds, still in their festive casings, carpeted half of the cement floor.  Parsley lie drying upon a pink bed sheet in front of the almond sea, and grapes of all colors and sizes lounged on the table.  Pumpkins and melons crowded the far corner of the cellar, while apples, peaches and prickly pears filled the brown sacks around the doorway. 
We stood in the storeroom and cracked the almonds with our teeth.  More than the sound of the nut cracking, I remember the percussion like beat of the almonds as I ran my hands across all the shells.  On the inside of my mouth, the inside of the nut tasted immediately creamy, like a sweet milk, very giving in its chewiness, and very rich. 
Perhaps having to work for the treasure inside—the cracking and picking apart, the brave work of the teeth and nails—makes it in fact more delicious, more rewarding, than dipping your hand in a bag and throwing four salty almonds on your tongue.  These cellar almonds are strong and bold, some bigger than others, each unique in appearance, but not in taste. I want to eat almonds like this forever.   

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Settling In

When you begin to thank God for something and you realize you have yourself to thank as well, well that is something to be proud of. 

I am so thankful to be given this opportunity for such monumental growth and discovery, and I thank myself for taking it. 

Loli and her husband Antonio live across the street from me and when Rebecca and I stand at our balcony, watching the people come and go below us, the older Spanish couple call out, “Hola” and we wave back.  My apartment here in Baza is unbelievable in the fact that it is furnished, beautifully decorated, and amazingly cheap in rent. 

From buying a cell phone to buying groceries, and spending time with my Irish roommate Rebecca and her extremely giving mother, Margaret, I am reminded that people are the same all over the world. In the U.S. I forget to remember that people in Europe travel, use cell phones, read novels and take Christmas vacations just as we do.  I was under some arrogant impression that the U.S. was king, and that Europe, Asia, and South America merely copied everything we did. It is nice to be in a place where I am reminded that humans all over the world really just go about their days, getting up for work, drinking cafĂ©, spending time with friends, and loving their families.

It has been one week since I left the States and most of my time has been spent settling in.  I ate one night at a Chinese restaurant—which was entertainingly odd to see Chinese women speaking quick, accented Spanish.  The Spanish do not believe much in the way of vegetables, sticking to mostly eggs, meat, and cheese.  For me this will be a challenge.  It has been nice to have Rebecca’s mother here, although she speaks no Spanish, she has done all the mothering—from helping us pick out sheets for our beds, to buying our first month’s supply of groceries.  She is a petite woman with quaint pearl earrings, and says things such as “here ya fellas” and “Oh I wouldn’t...not in a month of Sundays mind you”. 

From Hello to Hola
My Spanish speaking skills have come back more quickly than I imagined, with words like huelga (strike) and mosca (fly) coming out of my mouth before my mind has time to muddle them over.  The accent here is not too thick and I was lucky enough to make a friend on the bus down from Madrid and spend four hours speaking of wine, Franco, bullfights, films, and Disneyland.  Citizens of Baza are excited to use their English with me, although it doesn’t go much past “Yes!” , “Go!” , “Hello.” 

My coordinator, Nati, the woman in charge of the Bilingual Education Program at I.E.S. El Fuerte (where I begin teaching next week), has exceptional English and I enjoy listening to her speak in her formal British accent, selecting each word carefully before using it. Nati is a brilliant woman, who just accepted her PhD on Monday for her studies in South African literature.  Nati calls me daily to make sure I am doing okay, adjusting to the changes in home and in culture.  She is warm, welcoming and accommodating.  Just as I did with my family in Chile, I managed to be connected with the best of the best in Andalucia. 

This weekend I will head to Granada, the bigger city and I'll begin classes on Monday.  My school is clean and nice, not to mention very advanced—each student is given a laptop to take home.  I will assisting the P.E. teacher, the math teacher, and the Geography teacher instruct in English and I will be helping Nati develop her Bilingual Education program at IES El Fuerte.  You can never know for sure, but something tells me I am going to love being back in the classroom.

Thank you for reading.