Tense aggression in the heat of frustration. What to do? My body can’t take this explosion of anger, I’ve got to have a physical outlet. Stupid Barbie, why don’t you do what I want? I hate you. Bite, clench hard. Quickly take a look. It’s all bent. Why did I do that? Now she’s ruined.
She still lives in a large plastic bin of forgotten toys in a basement, frozen smile, frizzy hair, and deformed hand.
School bus. Meekness puts me on the radar, makes me a target.
Get out of my space, get away from me…
Through my geeky spectacles, I’m seeing red. I wish I wasn’t alone on this bus, I wish I had a forcefield of friends to protect me. Body recoils, hotly tense. I hate you. I want your ugly, mocking smile to go away. My fist jumps out like a snake from the bushes, and connects with a hollow thunk. The bully facade crumbles to give a glimpse of his true face: a confused pre-teen boy who desperately needs to be cool.
I escape from the school bus, and soon after I notice small rocks dancing at my feet. Turn around, and he and his friend are throwing their parents’ decorative landscaping pebbles at me. Very tough indeed. I speed-walk home, tail between my legs.
I’ve learned that “no” is a question of interpretation. “Leave me alone” communicates an invitation for more undesired attention. My pathetic defenses have been exhausted. There’s a key to surviving here that I just don’t have. Why don’t I have it; how do I get out of this?
In class. Day after day, explicit sinister whispers chip away at me. I wish I could take my skin off and disappear. One after another, ugly comments meant to do what? Wear me down, violate my comfort; I’m tired of it. What did I do to deserve it? Tension, heart is boiling again. Stop fucking with me. I didn’t ask for this.
Teacher leaves room, and I can liberate the Me that lives inside, vibrant and angry and electric. The current extends out from my hand, slices around to meet his face. Jaw wobble, sharp intake of air, now I’m tingling. I plaster on a smile, eyes forward, like a good little scholarly robot-mannequin.
A student is going on the offensive; they’ve taken constructive criticism personally, which has led to aggression; at least, that’s what it feels like.
Needles in my skin, chest is hot. Voice and hands want to tremble.
I’ve given my professional opinion, and this poor sap feels the need to retaliate, and turn to the typical cheap ploy of ping-ponging their insecurity back onto me. I’m not having it. This time, I’ve got a full arsenal of words at my disposal. With firm professional efficacy, I defend my position and steer this person out of my space.
Same internal response.
Different course of action.
“I don’t get it.”
Hands up in the air, head shaking, breath hissing in exasperation, body leaning back as far as humanly possible from the table. Downturned haddock mouth, brow furrowed, head slouching into a temple massage, fingers tense and aggravated.
It never ceases to amaze me, that this behavior comes from grown-ass adults: parents, doctors, lawyers, accountants, managers, generally functioning members of society.
Sometimes, I stare blankly back in response. No follow-up question, no attempt at clarification. I see expectancy and hope looking back at me; these are eyes that just want the answer, dammit!
When I see my adult students react poorly to frustration, I think back to my childhood. When my father spoke to me in Spanish and I didn’t understand, or when I had a difficult homework assignment, he’d nod his head in exasperation and exclaim: “Aprende!” Learn!
If only those were the magic words. “I don’t get it,” and instantly, you’re exonerated from the responsibility of mental exertion.
In a perfect world, I just give the damn answer, and we can all move on!
In the world of language learning, that just doesn’t cut it.
The moments of frustration, mental blanks, forgetting what we’ve seen dozens of times before… Years of experience have taught me that that is where true language acquisition happens. Learning to navigate through those difficult moments, to roll with them, not allowing them to completely block us: these skills differentiate between those who will succeed, and those who will not.
Alleviating a short moment of frustration by giving the easy way out does a disservice to the student. They are freed from the obligation to try, and thereby cheated out of an opportunity to learn. I want to echo my dad’s simple, yet timeless nugget of truth: Aprende!
Memories, circa 1995.
I had an “overactive imagination” that fed ravenously on anything mysterious or taboo.
I was morbidly fascinated by the true-crime and conspiracy programs my dad would watch late at night. I’d sneak out of bed and get a peek of the television; wide-eyed, I’d take mental notes about potential warning signs: creepy white guys and alien tracks were at the top of my list. Did you know that a distinctive stone is produced in the spot where an alien falls to the ground?
(I just tried Googling “alien leaves stone on ground where it falls on its butt” to find the original clip on Youtube. No luck.)
I would get a cold thrill when I heard the dramatic music of America’s Most Wanted. John Walsh’s composed newscaster-like persona told sinister murder stories with a detached, factual demeanor that totally creeped me out. I was haunted by the composite sketches and mugshots they’d display at the end of every dramatized murder re-enactment.
Immediately thereafter, I’d run to the bay window overlooking our front yard and rip open the heavy curtains to look outside. All I would see was the same orange streetlight glow reflecting off car windshields. Quiet suburbia. A little too quiet, if you asked me.
Thus was born the conspiracy-driven investigative fixation of my childhood.
I was ever-vigilant, on the lookout for crazed murderers in our suburban cul-de-sac. I also set intricate traps in my bedroom to thwart potential extra-terrestrial room invaders. Webs of yarn strung like a spiderweb, marbles on the carpet to make an intruder slip and fall, my toys placed with painstaking precision so I’d spot any slight disturbance or irregularity in their arrangement. The only intruders I ever caught were my poor parents trying to tuck me in.
Fast-forward to adulthood.
I’m a notorious fraidy cat. I don’t enjoy watching horror films, or any media with extreme, graphic violence. However, I’m still fascinated by grisly stories, true-crime cases, and creepy unsolved mysteries.
Hearing a true scary story around a campfire is way creepier than watching fictional dramatized storytelling on a big screen. A mental image is vibrant enough, and even more terrifying than someone’s attempt to visualize a “scary” image. Our imagination fills in the dark cracks with those terribly personal innermost fears, those secret things that take hold of us in our nightmares. Our own intimate fear triggers that make our pulse quicken and give us chills when we’re alone in the dark of night.
As for me, I don’t set alien traps or supervise neighborhood surveillance anymore. But I always lock my doors, keep my eyes open, and take an extra cautionary peek over my shoulder. Just in case.
The house is quiet. Slide the wooden door closed, sit on my tuffet. Turn on my flashlight hanging by a string above, and open up a book. The inside of my closet door is decorated with song lyrics and stickers. This is my space.
Later, I expanded my territory to the basement. Despite the fact that I was on an ever-vigilant watch for the boogieman coming around the corner, it was my quiet hideout. I had a carpet that was older than I was, and the oil tank took up half of the room. One yellow bulb illuminated the space. But it was mine.
I’ve always appreciated solitude.
When I was in school, I dreaded hearing the teacher say the words: “Choose a partner.” I enjoyed working on my own. Team sports made me anxious. I preferred individual sports. Solo activities like reading, drawing, painting, doing crafts, music, sewing, and writing were what made me feel happy and fulfilled.
Later, this would embolden me to satisfy my curiosity and see the world. Why wait around for someone else to join me? I am capable of fulfilling this dream on my own.
Now, I’m 30. I stamp my train ticket, find a seat to plonk myself down in. I watch the world pass me by, and imagine myself flying over the fields, frolicking and dancing around barefoot. I see my reflection in the train window, and I can see those other Mes in a kaleidoscope of brilliant reflections. I nod, they nod, we all nod. This feels right.
I am free to do what I want, travel where I want, and live how I choose.
The question is: Where to go from here?
It’s summertime. I don’t know what day it is, nor does it matter. Summer days tended to flow from one to the next, and the memories stick together as if I lived a whole summer’s worth of adventures in one long day. I wake up with a start, with the thrill of excitement at starting a new day. The first lazy rays of sunlight seep into my room, bringing the silent air of mystery that I’m enamored with. Nobody else is awake, nothing moves. I’ve got this special time all to myself.
I slide out of bed, barefoot and already dressed in shorts and a t-shirt. No need to change, I’m fine just as I am. From the kitchen I grab a little plastic bowl, then slip on my sandals and quietly sneak out the back door into the garden.
The sky is still an inviting shade of bluish-violet, which means today I’ll be able to see the watercolor sky redden until the first shock of sunlight spills over the horizon. That special kind of sunlight that tints everything it touches and makes it glow, like I’m looking through rose-colored glasses. The birds are yawning out their first peeps and chirps of the day. As the sky warms gradually, the birdsong swells and the air fills to saturation. The smell of the dew on the grass is uplifting, and the unmoving air leaves a refreshing chill on my skin.
I like being here alone. The presence of anyone else here in my special world would undo its perfection.
In this calm, still moment, I don’t even want to breathe too loudly, for fear of disrupting the sanctity of it all. The whispers of last night’s dreams are still in my head, and reality feels abstract. Time is immaterial, and it feels like anything and everything is possible. I feel capable and independent, like I have no limitations and the world is mine to discover.
I walk slowly and deliberately toward the back of the garden, where the raspberry bushes sit. The raspberries wink at me from their hiding spots, scattered among vibrant leaves. The color combination is deeply attractive: variegated shades of green leaves and beautifully arched stems are punctuated with the luminous red berries.
I pick the first raspberry of the day and pop it straight into my mouth: the seeds crunch and the fragrant, sweet, slightly sour berry flavor overpowers my taste buds. The flavor is so concentrated that I can both smell and taste it at the same time. Glorious. I continue to hunt through the thorny vines to fill my plastic bowl with more. I love the satisfying feeling of a freshly-ripened raspberry slipping off the vine–to me, they look like little crocheted hats meant for garden gnomes.
As my bowl fills, I dream about the raspberry waffles that Mom will make in my favorite Bugs Bunny waffle iron. Maybe she’ll let me pour the batter and make my own waffles today…
The flavor of that first berry fades, and I consecrate myself to my task. The day has begun.