Still night, heavy air. Windows open, shutters start to vibrate. A lightning storm hurtles in with rapid-fire bursts of daylight, bringing fat raindrops that smack the window frame, just missing their target.
Wide-eyed, I sit on the edge of the bed, stunned by the cacophony of light. Eyes dart east-west, chasing electric cat-tails.
Gargantuan bursts of lightning, shaped like the birch trees in the front yard of my childhood home. Jagged, spindly, white-on-black. I huddled under my mom’s handmade quilt while outside, the thunder cracked ferociously. One intense white blanket of light seared the sky, and made you afraid that it would rip itself open. The dread of the rumbling, hellish roar that was to follow. Like a cat’s hiss, a sudden electric scream that shook my bed and rattled my core.
But now, the volume’s been turned down. Frenzied white-gray bursts, halos of diffused light dance for me and only me.
This is the deepest part of night, where there is no time. It is eternal, pure and perfect.
Like the timid animal I am, I lay back in bed next to F, stunned into stillness. Our room is a frozen vacuum, illuminated by relentless, pulsing full light. This rhythm lulls me to sleep.
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.
Canoe base, night. Outdoor bar, live band. Throaty, wobbly experimental electro music. White dude with locked hair bopping in the glow of his laptop screen. An unbuttoned office-worker type plays clarinet in time, and a third guy strums an upright bass. A fourth member sits cross-legged onstage, fiddling with something.
I wait at the bar with F, among a pushy mass of people. It’s finally my turn to be served; the bartender gives a “hello,” and I respond with an echo. A woman who’s elbowed her way through the crowd has usurped my place and blurts out her order before me, and he sets about serving her.
Incredulous, I raise an eyebrow at her. She avoids eye contact and flashes her cracked smile at the bartender, exposing a silver tooth in questionable condition, and cigarette-stained gums.
Whatever. F and I take our drinks, and watch the quartet onstage, nodding vaguely and politely in time with the noise.
The man I had seen in the same café the day before passed by on his bike. “Can I help you get somewhere in particular?” Bashful, I replied, “No, thanks; just trying to get my bearings, is all.” He poked his head toward me. “Huh?”
“I’m trying to get my bearings.”
“You mean, find out where you’re at?”
“Oh. Good luck with that.”
He pedaled away, leaving me alone with my map.
You can’t find your way around if you haven’t decided where you’re going.
April 2012, Seoul.
I’m sitting across F at a barbecue joint. Sitting on long wooden benches, spicy marinated chicken grilling over a nest of coals on the table between us. We’re getting to know each other, but there are no first-date jitters. We’re chatting and shooting the shit. Normal human stuff.
The meat starts smoking, and I quickly grab the tongs to flip the meat. It’s burnt. I sheepishly smile at F and apologize. An exasperated server appears from nowhere and pulls the long silver ventilation tube closer to our “extra-crispy” chicken. The smoke whooshes away into the tube. We eat around the charred bits of meat, and chat on. Normally, I’d be embarrassed at this, the cardinal sin of Korean barbecue: Thou shalt never burneth thy meat. Curiously, though, in the face of this potentially date-ruining moment, I’ve never felt more at ease.
April 2017, France.
4 a.m. I’ve just woken up from an awful nightmare, and I’m in tears. Half-asleep, F slings his arm around me, and gently places a hand on my stomach. His touch brings me back to this reality: I’m snuggled up, cozy in bed, and safe. Shhh, there’s no reason to freak out.
In a single loving gesture, he puts me at ease.
This time, every time.
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 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!