I’m looking at the goofy smirk of someone who’s delivered a burning comment, minimizing, derisive. Defiant whispers in my intimate classroom setting, being interrupted, receiving groupfuls of disgusted stares. Perhaps without realizing, my students can be decidedly unprofessional. Deers in headlights turn aggressive. “I don’t understand you” leads to uncomfortable feelings, and the instinct to deflect and lash out with a cutting remark.
I’m no stranger to the vulnerable insecurity that arises when your language is symbolically taken away. Suddenly confronted with the inner discord of translating a rainbow of thought into black-and-white, just to be understood. Not to mention that in France, classic pedagogy is infused with the idea that you can always do better, no matter how good you think you are. Liberté, Egalité, Critiquez. Make a mistake, and pay for it. The language classroom is no different.
Many of my students have lived the trauma of classroom humiliation at the hands of the all-powerful Teacher. Being shamed for the crime of being wrong, the hurt when classmates chimed in to further deride them. They’ve been trained not to ask questions, to expose a vulnerable moment. It’s easier to shut down. A common student response, be they 8, 18, 38, or even past retirement age.
Interactions with me can make ancient antagonistic feelings bubble up. I am seen as a critic, an insolent interloper, imposing my language–deemed simple, inferior, lacking nuance or artistic merit–onto my student. I become the symbol of their Old Rival.
English itself becomes a fetish object. Adored, yet feared. Necessary, yet despised. Simple, yet frustratingly irregular and nuanced. A language of countless verbs, a language of action. Not like French, a language of adjectives and lush description. English, a language that contains far more words than theirs, with double meanings and endless colloquialisms. Many don’t understand the true complexity of operating in a language where you cannot translate word-for-word.
In those moments of student frustration and corresponding contrarian response, I’m no longer speaking to an adult member of society, but to an insecure child, that lashes out with an antagonistic “I know what YOU are, but what am I?” This speaks to my inner child, who hates to be told what to do, is tired of people lording their authority to minimize and patronize me, to diminish my intellect, my language, my heritage.
No, I refuse. It does a disservice not only to myself, but to my student, if I am no longer present. My role is to facilitate, unblock, decode this system, to break it down into sensical, ordered, comfortably logical bits. Not to field proverbial spitballs. So I wait out the emotional hailstorm, extracting linguistic information.
Storm dies down. Move in, execute my grammar lesson, administer study tips and friendly goodbye’s. Deep breath.
If only they knew how often I must become the emotional bouncer, keeping out the riffraff.
“Attention, all passengers for the 11:20 train for _____. Due to–”
A herd of elephants trumpets by.
“…we regret to inform you that there will be a significant delay. We apologize for the inconvenience.”
Bouncing into the information office, I see the usual old dogs at their post, along with one grizzled unfamiliar face.
“Hello! I’m meant to take the train at 11:20, but I didn’t catch the reason for the delay…?”
I try to speak as naturally as possible, but my accent gives me away. My French is like a dog wearing a hat: innocuously unnatural.
Tired, deliberate, his response lacks all pretense of social niceties:
It does not concern you.
Excuse me, but I have the impression that it was just announced.
It. Does not. Con-cern. You.
His tone adds, “Fucking foreigner.”
His stern face dully chastises me, through deep frown lines and a graying smoker’s pallor. Maybe he always talks to women like this. Maybe he’s sick and miserable, and needs to vomit his misery onto others. Maybe his dog just died, and his boss made him roll into work today anyway. Maybe his partner is terminally ill, and he’s angry at the world. Maybe he’s just a Grade-A asshole.
10,000 maybes, and it’s likely that not one is correct. Whatever the reason, it is irrelevant. I know I will meet him again, in countless other forms.
My friendly demeanor melts away, and with a bite in my voice, I thank him for the information and bid him good day. I resist the burning urge to flip him off as I turn on my heel and escape.
My logical mind is outraged: I’m not to be cowed by one passive-aggressive backhanded comment. What nerve he’s got, shirking social conventions of politeness! How dare he! A brute like that shan’t speak to me in such a ghastly manner! I’ve a mind to dress him down!
Someone tell that big talk to the pressure in my chest that’s feeding the fire in my throat. Angry tears boil over. I wish for thicker skin, for French that could cut, for some witty Bette Davis-style comebacks: grace with a touch of disdain. Yes, if only I had a sharper tongue! Then these people wouldn’t mistreat me; they’d respect my invisible anti-bullshit forcefield. I feel infantilized, maladjusted, incapable of survival in this world filled with Grade-A assholes.
I speedwalk away, hiccuping pathetic tears, hating myself. The more I walk, though, the more the burning subsides. What am I doing? Is my core this easily swayed by an external force? Why do I need to wait until I’ve become the Perfect Me to be acceptable? No, I’m deserving of respect now, first and foremost from myself, because I can’t count on anyone to fork it over automatically.
One more experience under my belt, one more internal growth spurt. Ready for the next meeting with another manifestation of that unbearable condescension that I despise. Next time, every time, I don’t want to be so quick to minimize myself. There will always be another grating external force. I’m learning that it will sway me only if I allow it to.
A very efficient woman buzzes around me, her motherly gray bangs swaying with every maneuver. “Considering your age, we’re going to perform the scan, as well as an ultrasound.” You’d think she was twittering around the kitchen, baking cookies for her grandkids. Instead, she’s buffing the space-age machine that towers imposingly over us. High technology that cows me into submission. My kaleidoscopic internal world is irrelevant in this sterile, colorless examination room.
I’m standing topless, hands behind my back. A mannequin with foldable, poseable limbs. Expert hands guide the lead apron across my lower body. She manipulates me, tucking my breasts between the plates. The top plate is transparent, and she sends it down with a tap of her foot. My glands, impossibly flat.
No joy, sensuality, life. Still youthful and pert, they haven’t yet known the searching mouth of a suckling baby. They’ve never produced milk, never given life. Under this fluorescent light, they’re no longer fleshly beautiful symbols of my femininity or fertility. Here, they’re just a piece of meat, in a clinical setting. Like a sample in a petri dish, ready for fastidious, detached scientific observation.
Next room, another machine. Doctor enters. Arms up, supine. The ultrasound wand glides over my sore mountains. He stares at the screen, and I twist my neck up to watch along. He pauses at the sight of each furry black cloud. Two clicks measure them. Glide, click-click.
“You have benign cysts. It’s common, one in three women has them. They may get inflamed and sore, so we’ll keep an eye on them. There is nothing cancerous here.”
He wishes me a good-day, and doesn’t even shake my hand. I suppose it’s not medical protocol to shake a patient’s hand after you’ve prodded about and scrutinized the ins and outs of her funbags.
White coattails flap crisply out the door. I scrape the viscous gel off my chest and dress myself. Strange. Just beyond that door, I’m expected to observe a modicum of physical modesty, yet my rainbow voice can come back. Here, I am reticent in my nudity.
Back into the clean, fluorescent lobby, where I melt into a bucket chair. Vacant. Depleted.
The secretary mispronounces my name, and I answer anyway.
I take my charts, and the smile I give her feels awkwardly distorted.
I step out of the cool white clinic and back into the searing, chartreuse summer air. Breathe deep, hiccup. Sweet tears of relief. My weak protest mantra “I’m too young for this” that had marched so defiantly through my head has dissolved, overtaken by my mother’s insistent wisdom: “Check yourself regularly!”
I’m glad I listened.
Just me and F, cruising down the highway. Car full of music, snacks, and overnight bags; my socked feet rest on the dashboard.
I’m spying on the families in neighboring cars, making fun of them all.
Identical families in identical vehicles running off to identical rental properties to have identical vacations. Dads with polo shirts and reflective sunglasses driving the family vehicle, while Mom rides shotgun, staring hypnotically ahead at the infinite road stripes. Uninterested kids melting from boredom in the backseat. An occasional disgruntled mother-in-law is sandwiched between her mouthbreathing grandkids in the backseat, boring a hole into the back of her disappointment of a son-in-law’s skull with her iron gaze. A family’s worth of bicycles jimmy-rigged to the back of the vehicle, impeding their rear view.
Cutting off drivers on the highway to hurry to some banal destination, just to eat overpriced rubbery seafood and subpar waffles, and sit on a lackluster beach while your kids lament about missing their carbon-copy friends. Take a few washed-out, blurry photos that end up sitting in a shoebox to collect dust until after the funeral.
In other words, livin’ the middle class dream.
“Are we gonna be like that someday?”
His right hand moves from the wheel to my knee and tenderly squeezes, eyes straight ahead. “Maybe.” Suddenly, a clueless errant driver weaves into our lane. F’s face hardens as he grips the wheel and hits the brakes to avoid them, all while muttering uncouth things in French. (Roughly translated, it’d be something like: “These unfortunate gentlemen are ill-informed about the art of driving; ’tis an act better left to those more capable of doing it.”)
I make a silly face at the driver as we pass them by, and I burst into laughter at their confused expression.
No, we’ll never be like them…
We arrive at Scampi, our friends’ home near the beach. When we pull up to the house, we’re greeted by Mama and Papa, holding bright-eyed Baby 3. Babies 1 and 2 run outside to greet us, in a dust storm of blonde hair, blue eyes, joyous shrieks, and general excitement at receiving visitors. Papa is happy to see F, to increase the testosterone-to-estrogen ratio in the house, and Mama is happy to chitchat with me in English. Fresh beverages fizz and glasses clink to herald our arrival. We catch up with our friends while Baby 3 coos and giggles, and Babies 1 and 2 twitter about in a show-and-tell flurry of sparkly princess stickers and bold finger paintings.
Dinnertime approaches, and our tummies growl. The men stride into the backyard to start the fire for our barbecue.
I hold a hand to my empty stomach and look out at F.
Someday, we know there’ll be something more in here.
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.
Walking through the vineyards on my way to the train station, my carrier pigeon buddy arrives to escort me to the station. He coo-coos alongside me until we reach the threshold between nature and civilization. There, his red beady eyes wink me a “Good luck.” Thanks, pal.
Arriving in town, it’s one of those days where I want to say “Fuck my job.” What am I, some kind of language workhorse? I resent the fact that the corporate masters own my time, even if it’s just 5 hours today. That’s 5 hours off my dreaming time.
All the same, I’m in town, and at least for now, I am indebted to my corporate masters. Unseasonably cold winds tug at my coattails, and my head is pounding for an unknown reason.
I tiptoe erratically around the sidewalk, studded with trampled bits of dog shit. No way am I getting my red leather boots dirty. The cold air invades my nostrils and freezes my brain, aggravating my headache. The fragrance of the first spring cherry blossoms irritates me even more.
The area around the train station is a lot better-kept than in other cities; no seedy sex shops or vaguely-disguised titty bars to be seen, no cannabis fumes in the air; just nondescript bistros that are a bit too antiseptic for my liking. I peek into one, and a middle-aged cook eerily stares back at me, while he scrubs an already-spotless zinc countertop with a clean white towel. Even their ashtrays are immaculate. Freaky.
I approach the monolithic structure, the medieval castle, squatting in the middle of town. Just across the street from its fat, monstrous towers sits another bakery, more modern with dark hardwood floors, and an alluring glow to its sandwiches and pastries that sit on deep blue-gray ardoise slate slabs. I pick up a kouign amann, a Breton specialty: it’s a crispy, flaky, buttery sticky bun. The hammering in my head starts to subside when I take a bite of the luscious pastry.
As I chew and walk on, I’m peeking into chic restaurants, neighborhood barbershops, deserted bookshops and quiet upscale boutiques. A stylish woman walks past, and the sickly sweet cloud of her perfume chokes me as she walks past, her heels confidently stabbing the ground with each step. I catch myself feeling inadequate in her presence, and I think back to a former student of mine, who was a picture of perfection: successful, affluent, immaculately dressed and coiffed. Yet her eyes had glistened with desperation when she confided how deeply she regretted the direction in which her life had gone. I wonder what happened to her.
I drop into another favorite spot, a red-bannered bakery run by a genial bald-headed baker, who always seemed to be dusting flour off his hands and apron in a cloud of magic. His breads and pastries are some of the best in town, and I order a sandwich for lunch. He grabs one off the top of the stack with his large hands, knobby and solid from a lifetime of kneading dough.
Finally, I slide into my favorite café, a neighborhood dig that’s clean, with a good atmosphere, and proprietors that leave you alone to think. I’d like to think I’m becoming a regular, alongside the old salty Italian man who critiques the French and their politics between sips of red wine, rolling his Rs and calling everyone cons (dumbasses)…
I ease into the seat next to the door and order an espresso with water. I catch a cool draft every time the door opens, along with a few wisps of cigarette smoke that sneak in. I don’t mind. I’m surrounded by rough caw-caw guffaws. The server who’s about my age, the older couple that runs the joint, and the old-dog regulars; they laugh and gibe between bites of food, sips of wine, drags of cigarettes. Like a goddamn family sitcom. They’ve got nowhere else to be, except there, giggling and shooting the shit. Hell, neither do I.
I realize my headache has ceased.
I’m satisfied with life in this moment, and smile into my hot cup of black coffee.
Just another Thursday.
“I’m afraid of being made fun of.”
How many times have my students confided this fear in me? Ashamed to struggle, flustered at their mistakes, looking like they want to disappear.
I wonder, What’s the big deal?
Since when do strangers’ opinions matter? Why are we so ready to give away our confidence to imaginary people who fictionally criticize us?
This mentality seems to speak to the greater idea that unless you’re going to be great at something, it’s not worth trying. Anything less than excellence is insufficient. You run the risk of entering the annals of history as a Failure.
Is our sense of self-importance that inflated, that our failures, never mind our very existences, will be remembered for more than 5 nanoseconds?
Push the logic a bit further, and it falls to pieces.
I screw up, forget things, commit acts of thoughtlessness.
I have a funny accent when I speak foreign languages.
I’m sure my lipstick is never smooth and flawless.
I trip over my feet, my skirts ride up, I get parsley in my teeth.
At times, I have no idea what to say. I get testy on occasion.
I ruin recipes and often write what I think is garbage.
So what? We all do.
Criticism from one person is fleeting. As is the embarrassment of screwing up.
More than fictional criticism that hasn’t happened yet, we should be afraid of leaving this world with regret in our hearts, at not having tried.
Let’s get over ourselves, and just do it.