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.
I leave the house while the world is still sleeping.
Blue dawn is just giving way to cool golden daylight. There’s an unseasonable chill in this midsummer air. Even the sheep are still huddled together, snuggling among the low tree branches on their hill. Arriving at the station, I see one other lonely soul waiting on the deserted platform. The orange LED timetable display is blank, dormant.
Shuttered houses snooze, while the first birds are swooping and cackling above our heads.
I wait for the tinny tell-tale vibration of the tracks that signal the train’s arrival. Birds cheep, cars rev into second gear, plastic trash bags rustle. No vibration, no train. The sky darkens, cool air licks up my spine and blows away my grogginess, giving way to worry.
I’ve been pacing, while the minute hand has sliced through half a revolution. A husky wheeze of a bus engine signals behind me. A rosy-faced motherly woman commands the immense steering wheel, and waves me over. Climbing aboard, rosy perfume mingles with the fatigued, stale odor of bus seats who’ve seen better days.
There’s always one passenger who’s got to make friends with the driver; today, it’s a woman who looks just like her, short and plump with hair to match. Her rough smoker’s laugh matches the wheeze of the bus engine, periodically firing off as we gallivant through the countryside.
Bus bounces through impossibly narrow country roads, past steep green hills of grapevines that make way for flat horizons of corn fields. Detours take us through isolated roads, until we reach the point of no return: a road barely large enough for a horse and buggy. A Herculean effort is necessary for our valiant driver to back on up out, and eventually we find the main road.
The passenger next to me is glued to his smartphone. I recognize him as a train employee, on his way to work like the rest of us. His globby fingers daintily poke at the touchscreen, and he’s still wearing yesterday’s 5-o’clock shadow. I keep sneaking glances at him, just another guy on the Saturday morning bus. He seems so much smaller than the man whose gaze I avoid while he suspiciously scrutinizes my train pass.
The bus finally hauls its tired mass into the station. I left home nearly 2 hours ago. My legs are a blur, propelling me through the familiar streets rendered foreign in Saturday morning light.
The streets are dingier in the gray light. I pass by a man, roughened and beaten down by life, shuffling stiffly along, hollow mouth agape, framed by a dirty beard and long-neglected hair. The sight of him inspires disgust, then hot shame.
Past the post office, whose sidewalk reeks permanently of urine, sprinkled with crumbles of doubtful origin… Are there THAT many large dogs left to freely defecate on this same sidewalk? Doubtful.
A man strolls along, engrossed in the glow of his smartphone, which emanates suspiciously pornographic sounds.
Just before arriving at work, I catch a whiff of shair. Why is that rank-ass smell following me today?
Rip the door open at work, and there’s nobody but my coworker chirping, “Good morning! Your student called and said she’s gonna be late for class…”
I crouch into a squat and collapse into laughter. Sweet relief mixes with exhaustion and sudden buoyancy. Everything’s okay, and I can finally take a moment to laugh at the thoroughly bizarre start to my day.
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.
I step into a baby clothing store on a whim, looking for a gift for a friend who’s just given birth. The shop is cheerful and whimsical, with a fluffy pastel cotton-candy interior. I’m a bit disoriented in this foreign world of cutesy teeny-tiny fashion.
Smelling fresh carrion, two black-clad saleswomen croak “Hello” and descend upon me. They bare their teeth into something resembling a smile.
One of them, an older woman with deep-set eyes, indicates the rack for newborns. I peruse the adorable clothing, realizing a simple onesie costs 55 euros…
I have no time to fake a polite exit before the dark-eyed woman re-materializes in a cloud of heavy perfume and the oppressive stink of 30 years’ worth of cigarettes and red wine. There’s something sinister about this husky-voiced woman with stingy hair and George Washington’s wooden teeth, cooing at me with a saccharine voice.
“How old did you say the baby was?”
“Uhm, about 2 months.”
“So it’s NOT a new baby then!”
“I guess not…”
“Et, c’est dans quel pays?”
My eyes narrow in confusion, and my mouth is parted–I’m breathing discreetly through my mouth.
Quel pays? What country? What kind of trick question is this?
She repeats herself, cartoonishly enunciating “Quel PAYS?” Her gray teeth stand out against the spackle caked on her face; she looks like a 20’s vaudeville clown.
“No, no, no…” Her colleague joins in behind, and they are now both braying at me, in tandem: “Pays, pays, pays…” All that’s missing here is an undead barbershop quartet to complete this ghastly spectacle.
What did I do to gain entry to this hellish dog and pony show?
“The south of France…?”
“Oh, voilà! You know, we only ask because every region’s weather is different, every season is different, which you must keep in mind when shopping…” Her smarmy response disgusts me, and their logic has me stumped. I don’t belong here in this farce. I respond with logic that might speak to them:
“Well, this is a travelling baby. You know, the kind of baby that travels all over France with her parents, so any kind of clothing would be fine… At any rate, thanks very much for your help, have a great day!” I chirp and fly out of the store.
The air outside is heavy and oppressive, offering no relief from the burning that stings the back of my throat. I feel foolish, destabilized, unsettled. Despite their bizarrely condescending behavior, I still suspect the fault lies with me and my insufficient French.
It’s time to retreat home. I’ll buy the gift another day.
My own little slice of hell.
It’s the morning business rush; the 9am-ers position themselves along the platform, discreetly eyeing the competition.
The train wheezes into the station, and all order is lost. Herding themselves in front of the door, they commit the cardinal sin of train travel: Never impede passengers trying to exit. Those poor saps barely escape before the herd lumbers on, in search of fulfilling their primal need to sit down. The tense scuffling of feet, exasperated sighs, desperately roving eyes and sudden acrobatic manoeuvres at the sight of an empty seat… I have to admire the organized chaos.
In summertime, add in oafish commoners with ill-fitting cheap sunglasses who lug too much baggage onboard, along with their cross-eyed hyperactive children. Solo travellers scurry on to find an empty pair of seats, plop down, then protectively seat their hardside luggage next to them. I walk by, and they avoid eye contact.
It’s a 15-minute ride. I think I’ll survive if I stand.
I try to read, but I’m distracted by the flutter of conversation around me. Banal conversation, rehashed. Kids, weather, job. I burrow deeper into my book.
Suddenly I catch a whiff that offends my senses, emanating from the miserable latrine. My nostrils are burning. Good God, have these people no shame? Passive-aggressive territoriality at its lowest. How dare they subject the rest of us to the injustice of smelling their beastly morning constitution? Is this what freedom looks like? Forcing others to suffer the indignity of inhaling their ungodly coffee-fueled evacuation…
We approach our destination, and these bovines elbow discreetly toward the door. Self-important squares need to be the first off the train. Underlying message: “I’m more important than everyone else here.”
Indeed, we are at the center of our respective universes. Every morning at 8:24am, there are a hundred supremely-important universes fighting an imaginary battle for a prime position on the livestock transport line.
The herd shuffles forward, hooves clacking in the urgent rush. A self-herding mass, headed straight for the abattoir.
My heart bays: I don’t belong here.
I’m at a plastified table at a roadside café.
Gwen Stefani trills “Just a Girl” in my head, and I tap my feet with the drumbeat.
This place is an 80’s dream. Rows of glasses behind the bar, backlit in flourescent. Recessed lights overhead illuminate the curved bar, which is paneled. It looks hollow, as if the panels were made from balsa wood, ready for a Hollywood stuntman to crash into.
All customers, me included, have found seats in various alcoves along the perimeter of the wall. We’re burrowed in, and nobody makes eye contact.
Scratch-ticket enthusiasts scratch.
Lotto gamblers hand over betting slips.
Construction workers puff generously-rolled cigarettes and drink espresso from tiny cups.
Neighborhood regulars with gravelly chuckles sit muttering to themselves.
I listen, write, sip coffee.
My coffee tastes weird, watery and tinny, giving me the impression the water and grounds have been re-used.
A subdued, anonymous air hangs still in the café. Outside, traffic moans and chugs by. A huge truck bed is full of spiralled hay bales, like great unrisen cinnamon buns.
A parking lot buzzes with morning vitality. A man, half-asleep and wearing two days’ worth of five-o’clock shadow reaches into his car, thereby exposing the forbidden recess of his upper buttcrack, and his flaccid paunch hangs forward.
All the while, I’m humming to myself.
I’m just a girl in the world…