22 January 2011

An English Teacher in Spite of Himself

When I am lounging around on a warm winter afternoon on a park bench under a manicured tree in the Jardin, the main plaza up town, I am often approached by young Mexican students who are on assignment from their English classes. These are always students of Middle School age, adolescents. They are usually dressed in their school uniforms, which at this time of year are warm-up suits in appropriate school colors with insignia. On some occasions, such as today, they do this assignment in mufti for reasons I know not. Maybe it was another holiday.

They are 12, 13, or 14 years of age, shy and uncertain about this business of speaking English. I must appear an approachable soul. I quite often pass the time helping a little group of these students complete their required field work for their English class consisting of an interview of a native English speaker. I have had occasion to chat with students visiting from Celaya, a city a fair piece from here where native English speakers are harder to come by. Those students were accompanied by their teacher. When the students are from San Miguel, there are no teachers to be seen.

These encounters follow a pattern. Two of the more intrepid students, always boys (I am sure that I don't look that approachable to the girls), will come up to me and tell me that they would like to ask me a few questions. They have their questions for the interview already written out in their notebooks.

What is your name?

Where are you from?

Why are you here?

Do you like Mexico?

What do you like about Mexico?

Do you like the Mexican people?

Do you like the Mexican food?

What kinds of Mexican food do you like?

They get upset with me if I say anything in Spanish.

No! No! No! Only English please.
While this little interrogation is going on, other students in the area will see that these two have a cooperative fish on the line. Soon a little crowd of students builds up around me.

I like to reverse things on them—force them off of their configured script--thinking that we might as well try to turn this whole thing into a real conversation in English. After answering a question, I ask my own.

Do you like North American food?

What kinds of North American food do you like?

The answer to that last question is predictable.

I also like to direct my questions to someone other than my initial interlocutors, such as, say, that little girl hiding in the back of the group who would say nothing at all without this prompting.

One can very quickly judge the level of English that the students in front of one have mastered simply by watching the expressions on their faces. When they are mystified, they are quite clearly mystified. I often slow down and simplify things and pause between each word, attending to my enunciation. I figure a Midwestern United States accent is as good a place for them to start as any other in this hemisphere, although someone from Alberta or Massachusetts or New York or Mississippi might disagree.

When all is said and done, the students always have to have their photos taken with me with their cell phones or little cameras. First one takes a photo of a couple of the others sitting next to me. Then they change places and more photos are taken. I believe they do this in order to prove to their instructor that they actually completed the assignment with a live English-speaking person. Toward the end of the photo session, I begin to feel downright celebrity-like.

I mention all this because I am certain that the benefit I myself derive from these encounters far exceeds whatever attenuated benefit the students derive from them. These sessions never fail to make a large dent in my cynicism. I always walk home afterward in a grand and satisfied mood.

I tend to generalize because I must in order to make any sense of world, while at the same recognizing the terrible unfairness of generalizations in specific instances. That said and generally speaking, my experience with human beings of this age group has not been good over the course of my life. I appreciate the received wisdom that it is difficult stage in life what with the physical changes, the surging hormones, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. But pray tell, what stage in the life of a human being is easy?

Every age has its own difficulties. My point of view has been that if one acts the asshole, then one is an asshole regardless of one's age. Because I have encountered so many assholes of the ages of 12, 13, or 14, I have made it a point to avoid them. These young men and women, these Mexican students, have convinced me that that was probably yet another of my many mistakes.

The emergent grace of young adulthood tinged with a remnant awkwardness of childhood. The great bravery displayed in overcoming a natural and understandable shyness. The evident delight in being treated as fellow adults and interesting human beings in their own right. The easy smiles and laughter. I am telling you, they tug at my heart.

I have come to appreciate that the era in which I grew up, in which I was an adolescent, was extraordinary. The post-war United States of America was marked by a blooming material prosperity and a rampant optimism, compromised only a bit by the fear of nuclear annihilation, that is without precedent in human history. It was an aberration, a unique one. It is difficult to see how it will ever be replicated again anywhere given the predicament in which we find ourselves.

These young people of whom I have become so fond will, within their life expectancies, face intractable problems arising out of the simple infestation of this planet by our species that boggle my imagination. Those will be their problems not mine. Nonetheless, they make me a believer in the species again. I wish them well.

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