The Great Spanish Language Saga: One Man’s Journey to Freedom

I blame my lack of Spanish proficiency on my fifth grade teacher, Ms. Craiger. When the school year began, one of the key selling points of her classroom agenda was that we would spend time each Friday learning Spanish words and phrases. Living in Texas and being at an age where those phrases could get lodged in our pint-sized brain folds, this made sense. Those Spanish lessons never materialized though, just another campaign promise from our blonde ex-sorority girl teacher who we loved. As such, I wasn’t faced with the language crisis until my sophomore year in high school. It was required that we take a few semesters of a foreign language and again, living in Texas, Spanish made the most sense. There were some off-beat kids with superiority complexes who took German, but the majority of us were coming up with fake Spanish names for ourselves and learning to ask poignant questions like “¿Donde esta la biblioteca?”

I’d managed to function just fine within the deck of English words I’d accrued to that point so perhaps the linguistic part of my brain was rebelling against these foreign rolled “R’s,” but I struggled mightily with the language. Learning individual words wasn’t the problem; that was simple memorization. Even phrases weren’t that cumbersome when memorized as mouthy vocabulary words. But when it came to forming sentences as a mode of actual communication, this language was not plug-and-play. I learned that through my exams, when I would string a series of vocabulary words together and trust that it made sense. It rarely did. Be that as it may, I made it out of my first class alive and slightly more learned than when I entered. I was proficient in inquiring about the biblioteca.

As a junior, I entered the next level of Spanish classes with optimism, believing I’d be able to skid through as I’d done the previous year. It was clear upon arrival this was not the case. As luck would have it, that class coincided with my ascent to editor of the yearbook. With that as my excuse, I began skipping Español to spend that hour in the yearbook room instead. This was possible because I was one of a few students on our staff who’d learned and perfected our teacher’s signature. With so many staffers on so many deadlines, she’d grown tired of having to write our daily tardy slips. As such, she left it to us to write them for ourselves. With a pack of slips in my desk, I regularly went to class late or not at all, all of which was “signed off” by our advisor.

Actually, I’d been a forger in training from a young age. During the dark ages of my upbringing otherwise known as the seventh grade, I thought I’d entered a new realm of freedom having survived the hellscape of junior high football. I thought I was an overcomer and would spend the rest of seventh grade walking in victory. Then the off-season started.

There were two options: I could either train in the off-season program or I could be a part of the track team. I figured the latter would be more interesting. I wanted to be a long jumper. The feeling of flying through the air and knowing I would land in fluffy sand was something I could absolutely wrap my brain around. I figured this was a flighty sport I could throw myself into, literally. I bought track shoes and on the first day of practice, headed out to the field with the other guys and girls. That was the other reason I was drawn to the track program: there were girls on the team. I knew enough about myself to know I’d never cut it as a sprinter or a distance runner, God didn’t give me those gifts, but He did give me the gift of gab. For a week or two, some girls and I stood by the long jump pits and talked the hour away.

Eventually, the coaches paid attention to us and had us run some drills to see how far we could jump. I wasn’t a natural. Rather than being told I could work at it and make something of myself athletically, I was told the long jump wasn’t in my future. I was too lumpy and as such, I was sent inside to spend the hour with the other football players in the off-season program.

To me, this was purgatory. It wasn’t as bad as football practice, but it was bad. I enjoyed weight training day but the other days were spent on a wrestling mat doing wrestling drills, something I found revolting. A bunch of sweaty adolescents rolling around, leaving a trail of sweat behind them on the mats like slugs–it was awful. I found that not only was I lumpy, but I had neither the flexibility nor the confidence to force my body over itself to roll around with the other slugs.

So in an attempt to escape the slug-life, I began hiding out in the band hall during that first period athletics class. I’d write a note excusing myself from being late to school, sign my mother’s name and take it to the office after first period claiming I’d just arrived. I was actually quite good at it, until the day I got sloppy. Handing the note to the office attendant, I saw her raised eyebrow of skepticism. I should’ve known then to run for the hills but instead I went to class and began my day. A couple hours later, I was called to the vice principal’s office.

Our principal was a charming, pleasant-spirited man who was probably a deacon at his local Baptist church and knit in front of the fireplace with his wife and 2.5 kids. Our vice principal however was a notoriously mean woman known for only dealing with the really bad kids. She looked like a mix between Camilla Bowles and Miss Viola Swamp from Miss Nelson Is Missing. Perhaps she was nice in real life, maybe a little like Miss Nelson herself, but at school she dealt with the kids who were the dregs of suburban society and for the time being, I was one of them.

Shuffling my feet into her office, I was so terrified I physically shook. She called me Mr. Brinson, something that made me feel like I’d soiled myself, and she didn’t even bother to question me. She told me that because I was a liar and a forger and a miscreant and a louse, I would have to go to Saturday School where I could reflect on how decrepit a human I was. Maybe she didn’t use that language, but it’s what I heard. It felt like the entire bottom part of my body had become empty, a cloud tethered to my spine. She told me she’d called my mother and that it was in my best interest to apologize to her when I got home from school. She also told me she had no interest in seeing me in her office again, something we agreed on.

I floated back to class, dead man walking, trapped inside a rain cloud of my own shame. I was unable to concentrate on my assignments for the rest of the day and after what felt like the longest bus ride in history, I sat defeated on the little plaid couch in our den. That afternoon, I realized the worst thing I’d done wasn’t getting into trouble at school, but hurting my mother’s feelings. That day ended my seventh grade streak of wrongdoing, specifically lying. There were no more terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days. That day, I became a young man who followed the rules.

Until my second semester of Spanish in high school.

It wasn’t that I was necessarily breaking the rules; I just wasn’t adhering to the educational construct other students were adhering to. I spent the semester only showing up for class when there was an exam, completely forgoing attendance or homework assignments in favor of working on the yearbook. After the semester ended, I was called down to the vice principal’s office. Each grade level had their own principal who’d follow them through the four years at school, so Pete and I had established a good relationship. Sitting down in his office, he laughed as he looked at the paper in front of him.

“So I called you up here because I don’t really understand what I’m looking at. This says you got a 5 in Spanish.”

“Yeah I didn’t do so great. That must mean a 50 something,” I responded.

“Nope. It’s literally a 5 as an average for the semester. Did you ever go to class?”

I explained how I’d been there on exam days and that I’d chosen to study privately. I used the excuse that I’d become the editor of the yearbook mid-year so I was trying to make up for lost time. He laughed again as he told me I had to go to class. He also told me I was smart, which was my basic take away from that meeting. Feeling like Sally Field, Pete liked me, he really liked me, and I retook the class the following semester to make it out of high school with my diploma intact.

I took Spanish again at a small community college while I tried to figure out what to do with my life. My class happened to be a night course and twice a week, I tried to focus on learning something beyond where the biblioteca was. The problem was that my class took place in the middle of “Must See TV” and I was far more interested in going to Tiffany’s house to watch Friends and Will & Grace than I was in sitting in class. My grade reflected that decision.

Once I was at a bigger university, the cycle started all over again. I barely squeaked by the first Spanish class and through vehement amounts of complaining to anyone who’d listen, I was tipped off that I could take the next two classes at the community college down the road during the summer. Not only would it cost less to do so, but the classes were known for being less stringent than the ones forced on us at the university. I signed up, ready for a bird course, but there would be no flying through this. Gone were the fun songs about de colores. Community college Spanish is basically a conveyer belt to get you through with a grade that’ll transfer back to your home school. As long as you can hang onto the belt, you’ll be alright. I think my belt had a warp in it because hanging on in those classes felt like hanging onto an inner tube in the middle of roaring rapids.

From the beginning of my collegiate Spanish career, I began to accumulate a hefty deck of notecards. Hundreds of verb conjugations, nouns, and adjectives piled up in stacks and semester after semester, I toiled over them, trying to retain enough to earn a passing grade. In my other classes, I worked just as hard but with far more appropriate results. I did my homework, wrote my papers and studied for my exams to earn A’s and B’s. I did the same for Spanish but was so incapable of grasping the concepts that I shouted with glee when I received a C.

In the final semester of my senior year, I had to take my fourth and final Spanish class in order to graduate. Common sense would dictate that if an institution required students to take a certain amount of foreign language credits in order to graduate, those semesters would focus on conversational linguistics applicable in the real world. Yet the fourth semester of Spanish was a literature class, which meant reading nothing but poems and short stories in a language I barely understood enough to find the biblioteca. I was going into debt learning to write literature in English, what was the purpose of forcing me to take a literature class in another language? I imagined the Spanish professors having masochistic department meetings where they traded horror stories about the ingrates in their classes–people like me–and plotted ways to fray our nerve endings and interrupt our sleep cycles. In my head they did so while singing a chorus of “Oh Ratigan” to the head of the department.

Determined to pass, I attended that Spanish literature class every day and did all the reading whether I understood it or not. I even had my Spanish major roommate as a live-in study guide but at the end of the semester, I could see a dark hole where my passing grade should be. I realized that in order to pass the class, I had to ace the final exam, which led me to do something I’d never done in nearly twenty years of schooling: I begged my professor to pass me.

The decision was shame-based. To that point in my education, I earned the grades I got and was stuck with them either way. However, I’d already been accepted into a Master’s program, something that now teetered on my ability to pass Spanish. I’d spent the time studying, I’d given it my best effort, and I knew I was still lacking. So I walked to my professor’s office like a peasant to the gallows, took my seat across from him and pleaded my case. He was a tiny Hispanic man, shorter than most of the students, and he loved Spanish literature. His eyes lit up when he read a poem by a Spanish author aloud, something that might’ve happened for me as well had I understood what he was saying. But I didn’t and as such, my future was entirely in his hands.

I pleaded whiny, puny, wimpy pleads. I’ve been in class, I’ve done the work, I’m just not good at this and I need you to let me out. Please. Release me so I can go to grad school. I actually asked to be “released.” Thinking back, it was basically prayer-pleading, I was just praying to God and my Spanish professor in unison–both of equal importance in my life in that moment. He chuckled to himself and told me not to worry. I told him he didn’t understand. I was a shaky and frightened like a Chihuahua in a thunderstorm and I’d remain in this unhealthy nervous state until I knew if I could walk across that stage. He told me not to fret.

The only time I’d ever heard of anyone being told not to fret was when an angel told a human to chill out in the Bible. But I had no chill. I worried nonstop until the morning my grade was posted, when next to my name, sat the letter D. In my book, that D stood for diploma and I called my mother yelling into the phone that I’d gotten a D. “I got the D! I got the D!” something that probably made my neighbors nervous. My mother told me it was the only time in my life she was proud that I had gotten a D.

That afternoon, after my friends were done with their finals, I invited them over to be witnesses at a ritual sacrifice. I stacked up the mounds of hundreds of notecards, emblems of years of struggle and frustration and I set them in the kitchen sink. In front of the friends who’d stayed up all night helping me memorize each word and phrase, in memory of those who’d tried to help me in the past, and in honor of the little man who benevolently blessed me with the ability to graduate, I lit the cards on fire. I imagine this was similar to the bonfires my Cherokee ancestors lit to thank the Creator for a bountiful harvest. I watched as words like la bolsa, la alcoba, y el champú lit up in flames and I thanked that short, kind Hispanic man for freeing me from the class that had afflicted my life for the better part of a decade. I still think of him fondly every time I pass the biblioteca.

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