Friday, March 26, 2010

The Finish Line

Well, it's official: I did it. As of this morning at 1 PM I have a fancy certificate to tell the world that I Am A Teacher. Of course, for me the mental change happened awhile back (see blog entry from two weeks ago), but the world tends to need a piece of paper as proof-- and now I have it.

I leave Guadalajara tomorrow morning at 9 AM, for a long-weekend jaunt to Puerto Vallarta, on the coast, where I plan on a healthy dose of sun, sea, sand, and hopefully snorkeling. On Monday evening I will take a night bus to Guanajuato, a traditional central-Mexican town and UNESCO world heritage site. In Guanajuato and its neighbor, San Miguel Allende, I am excited to explore winding cobbled streets and experience semana santa (holy week) in a state famous for its beautiful Easter ceremonies.

I'll be back to the city for a day or so before my flight home April 7, but the truth is that my real time in Guadalajara is finished. The comforting routine of walking up Calle La Noche to catch the 629 bus is finished after tomorrow morning: no more barking dogs or old women sweeping dead leaves and fallen flowers off the street. No more ducking next door for a mollete (toasted bread with frijoles and cheese) or a Coke Zero during 11 am break. No more discovering new bars on Juarez or watching the old timers dance salsa in Expiatorio Explanada or explaining grammar points to 10 bored teenagers. Guadalajara has put its claws in me without my permission. I have to imagine I'll be back.

This city has given me so much, after all. After my trip this year I was hungry to make a start in a new place and experience the opposite of the nomadic existenced I lived in 2009. Guadalajara has given me a taste of this, enough to confirm the suspicions I harbored that I could easily fall in love with everyday routines thousands of miles from home. And as I've written here before, this city has made me a teacher. The woman who writes her name in neat letters on a white board and then launches into a spiel on the present unreal will always be a part of me, wherever I go.

It's given me something else as well. Just as quickly as I Became A Teacher, I suddenly find myself a functional trilingual. Not that my Spanish is perfect, or even close to complete in any way, shape, or form. I still can't speak well in the past tense; I still only understand between 65 and 90% of what is said to me. But for the past 10 years of my life I have been someone who speaks two languages, and this week I found myself ably ordering tickets, discussing world events with my host family, and chatting with strangers a bus stops. I can't pretend to be bilingual anymore. The shift to thinking of myself as trilingual means foward growth and change, something not always easy to come by when you're an unemployed 20-something. And I have Guadalajara to thank.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

...or hardly working?

Who would have thought that a one-month 140-hour intensive training course would be hard? Well, me, for one, but I didn't imagine it would take up quite this much of my time. I spend from 9 until 7 at school every day and sometimes (when I have to prepare for exams or write essays) for awhile after. This week is the culmination of all that work, and that means there's a new big task due every day. And that means very little blogging time for yours truly!

In other words: check back soon, I have lots of amazing things to tell you about my Equinox celebration (which included amazing wild boar tacos and dancing with Aztecs next to ancient pyramids at sunset.) But the time for that is, alas, not yet. I have a mess of essays, applications, lesson plans, and tests to deal with.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Si, soy yo.

I was running late for school when I first heard that phrase. In my regular life I often run late, anyway. But throw in the profound inconsistency of the Guadalajara bus system (only in this city you can start out 20 minutes early and STILL arrive at school 15 minutes late) and everything goes to hell.

That means that on the lucky days where taxis are available, I sometimes take one. In this case, I had given up on the 629 bus ever appearing and hopped into a cab waiting in the seething traffic that backs up to my shady street every morning. The cabbie eyed my white skin, immediately claimed that his meter was out of order, and demanded 70 pesos (about $5.50) for the ride. (Maybe I should be fairer to him: maybe he was the type to try to fleece everyone.) I may have only been living in this city for 2 weeks, but veteran of the broken transport system that I was even I knew that the cost should only be 40 pesos. I told him this; he offered 60. Forty, I said, or I'll find another cab.

Which is how I found myself standing in front a long line of honking automobiles approximately 100 meters from where I'd started. I'd just turned to walk toward the city when I heard, "Senorita!" A second cabbie was leaning out his window, a young woman in the backseat. He explained that this woman was heading somewhere close by: would I like to hop in, and he would take me wherever I'd wanted after we dropped off our primary cargo?

We wheeled through the city, dodging stop signs and weaving through stop lights, all the while keeping up a brisk patter of Mexican slang I could only vaguely understand. At one point, in the midst of all the chaos, the cabbie's cell phone rang. "Bueno!" he said, in the typical Jaliscan greeting. "Si, soy yo."

The phrase, which means "Yes, I am me," quickly struck my fancy. Of course, taken in the same answering-phone context, the American "This is he/she" is no less odd or nonsensical. But regardless of the usage, I liked "Si, soy yo" immediately. In Anthropology, there's much talk of language having the power to shape an individual's world view. In this particular instance, I thought, the cabbie was reconfirming, and recreating, his identity every time he answered the phone.

At the intersection of Madero and Enrique Martinez I paid my 40 pesos and hopped out, scampering into class a mere 13 minutes late. I probably wouldn't have given the whole thing much further thought, but for two reasons:

1) "Si, soy yo" is a common telephone greeting here in Guadalajara, and once I started hearing it I couldn't stop.
2) Soon after I encountered my own incidence of language/identity dynamics

I should say that I've never aspired to be a teacher. From a young age writing was everything I wanted, although once I got to college Anthropology joined my interests, jostling with my older career ambitions for space. I've always loved the English language, and all the things I can do with it, but teaching never called to me. It wasn't until I spent last year almost exclusively with people speaking English as a second, third, or fourth language-- and until much of my discussions with those people centered on the quirks and mysteries of my mother tongue-- that I thought I might enjoy making a job out of it.

I arrived in Guadalajara with writing tutor experience but nothing else. I'd never made a lesson plan. I knew nothing about learning methodology. I'd taught people things before, for sure, but had never gone beyond. I had never pictured myself in a classroom. I had never graded an exam.

Much has been said about the moment a med student becomes a doctor. Is it when he/she dons a white coat for the first time? A first patient? A first death? All I know is that on my first day in the classroom I introduced myself. In classic school style, I wrote my name on the board in clear print. "My name is Ms. Greenberg," I said. And as I said it, my decade and a half of public school education kicked in. Giving yourself a new name is a powerful thing, especially a name with such strong connotations. "My name is Ms. Greenberg" was all it took: just like that, I was a teacher.

Nothing changed, really; or rather, nothing was there that hadn't been before. In the coming hours of practice teaching I found enthusiasm and humor to temper grammar mechanics. I experienced a sweet satisfaction in seeing dawning comprehension on the faces of students who moments ago did not understand the difference between "might" and "will" or simple past and past participle tenses. I wasn't a new person, but I was something I hadn't been before. The words, the style of address so unique to schooling, were that powerful.

A few days later I was out for drinks with some classmates from my training program. Lesson planning was seeming less alien. I wasn't getting jittery before teaching so much anymore. As we toasted with Coronas, I corrected somebody's grammar, and we all laughed. "I can't help it," I said without thinking, "I'm a teacher!"

Si, soy yo...

Monday, March 8, 2010

Please state your objective

Honestly, I've been trying to post this entry for almost a week now, but my schedule is just too damn frenetic. So the entry that was supposed to begin like this...

"Well, I'm here. After a canceled flight, 1.5 hours of frantic rescheduling, two super early mornings in a row, and 48 hours of lost luggage misfortune, I am here in Guadalajara"

... actually now encompasses an entire week in Mexico. A fantastic, crazy, busy, educational week that saw me doing a great deal. The first few days especially were really intense, but I'm getting into the rhythm now. We spend a lot of time in the classroom-- I've taught 4 practice classes already. Now I know how to make a lesson plan; now I understand the difference between present perfect and present perfect progressive; now I know how to correctly conjugate the verb "to drink," which always eluded me.

I live with a host family (grandfather, grandmother, parents, college-age son, and enormous rambunctious puppy named Bruno) in a peaceful neighborhood 20 minutes by bus from the center of the city. The house always smells like frijoles. My abuela cooks dinner and while we eat we often watch TV together-- last night it was the Mexican version of "Are you smarter than a fifth grader?" It turns out that my Spanish is much better than I ever would have dreamed. Not amazing, of course, especially as I still lack the ability to speak in future or past tense with any regularity. But I can communicate and my vocabulary is building by the day. I'm learning to use words like "entonces" and "conmigo."

I know to get off the bus 4 blocks past the big park, then walk past the old-style cafe where gray-haired men play dominos at pretty much every hour of the day, crossing Juarez and turning right past the mollete stand to school. On Friday night I drank tequila for 4 hours with an Australian, a Canadian, and a teacher from South Carolina. On Saturday I climbed ancient Mexican pyramids and ate some of the best fajitas of my life while watching pelicans swoop over a tranquil lake. Last night I enjoyed an evening of charming old people dancing salsa in the open air. In short: I'm settling into Guadalajara.

Settling in means I have more time for thoughts, and think I have. Spending so much time lesson planning has started to affect other parts of my life as its structured format bleeds into my world view and daily actions. The question of what materials I will need for a given activity becomes considerations about packing for a day trip or even to go into the city. How many minutes this activity will take calls on my time management skills, or lack thereof. And then there is the ultimate in existential questions. What is your objective?

In the context of a lesson plan, stating the objective is practical and easy. What is the goal of this segment of the lesson, or of the lesson in general? Do I want my students to grasp the difference in conditionals between "If I pop a bike tire I will have to buy a new one" and "If I pop a bike tire I might fall off"? Am I aiming to have them master the ability to write a solid summary? It's all entirely concrete and non-threatening.

That is, until the question ricochets off the boundaries of its neat form and starts bouncing around other important concerns. What is my objective here in Mexico? To earn a certification to teach English as a second/foreign language, for sure. But what about in addition? Am I hear to make friends? Am I hear to learn what it's like to live independently in a foreign city? To experience Mexico? To improve my Spanish? The answer to these questions affects my priorities and thus the life I will be living in this city. When to stay home and get enough sleep, when to take advantage of couchsurfing parties and fun drinks with classmates? Which is better, a homestay far from the city with the opportunity to practice Spanish but little independence, or a hostel where I can feel like an adult and take advantage of the city but lack the chance for language work? For now, the homestay wins out, but conflicting motivations remain.

And of course, then there's the larger picture. The question of an objective is scary to an aimless, uncertain 20-something like myself. It encompasses every uncertainty about my life path, my goals, my plans. What is my objective and can I fulfill it? Is my objective the quintessential journalist dreams of a recent college graduate, stoked or extinguished by economic troubles? Is it the back-up ideals of a year or two in Europe teaching? Is my objective to have adventure? To find love? To establish myself in a career I enjoy? Is it just to enjoy the sublime margaritas and Sunday morning tamale breakfasts?

Of course, life isn't a lesson plan. The bell is not going to ring; no problems can be solved with corny print-outs of 90s-style clip art or a dialog about going to the library. But thinking about My Objective seems to have come with the territory of my time in Guadalajara, just as much as mariachi bands, sunny days, and cafe con leche.