Things I’m Noisy About

“Anita, are you hungry?” My friend asked me in the lunch line. “You’re exclaiming at everything you’re seeing, and I’m just enjoying hearing your delight!”

Well, I was hungry, but the real truth was that I’m always noisy about the things I love, so when there’s wonderful colors and flavors around me, I start crowing and cheering and talking in superlatives. Plus, I haven’t lost the wonder of working in an institution where lunch–colorful, fresh, creative food– is waiting when I walk to the food bar every day. And today’s fish tacos with cilantro lime slaw really and truly was the best lunch all year.

Since bloggers are allowed to rant and rave about whatever they want, and this blogger tries hard not to complain or rant, (but sometimes she fails, judging by the looks of another post that’s simmering) I’m going to be noisy about two things I’m excited about at the moment.

  1. People frequently ask me for book recommendations, and I’m thrilled to give them ideas and push books into their hands, but it always mystifies me because I don’t know why they come to me with their questions about books. There are other people who read far more than I, but I wonder if I get asked about books because I’m just noisier than others about the books I read.

I’m part of a book club, where we read a book a month and the person who chose the book leads the discussion afterwards. (We take a break in the summer, in which our sole group activity is a grilled steak dinner. The men grill, and the women bring salads and desserts. “This is such a perfect evening” we kept saying to each other as we cuddled babies around the fire and drank coffee and looked at the stars. I’m the newest member, and don’t know all the traditions or rhythms yet, but it has been most enjoyable.) Our current read is River Town, two years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler, who relates his experience as an English lit teacher in China with the Peace Corps.

 It takes me to my own experiences of teaching English as a second language, the child-like identity you have to take on as a foreigner, the way life narrows down to finding the right word to buy supper, the simpler lifestyle that comes with living in a small apartment in town far away from family, the freedom of stepping on a train to explore an even newer place, the love/hate relationship locals have with foreigners, the stereotypes that every nationality presupposes on other nationalities. Peter tells his story with great heart without being sentimental, and I frequently giggle at the stories. The folk lore, the quirks such as the “Happiest Man in All of Fuling as well as the Luckiest,” the teaching bloopers, and can you imagine–pet birds in cages that you bring with you and hang in the rafters when you hang out in the teahouse with your cronies. Can you imagine!

Everyone should experience being foreign at least once. It is terrifying and embarrassing, but wonderfully clarifying and exhilarating and deeply enriching.

19 Travel Quotes to Inspire Your Wanderlust

2. For many years, I dreamed of taking voice lessons. Then for a couple months in Poland, I was at the right place at the right time and exchanged voice lessons for English lessons, which was a singular experience.  I think the Slavic way of singing is different from what I was wanting, plus, my teacher wanted to make me a soprano and insulted me when he said “Most altos are lazy sopranos.” I have no hard feelings. It makes a good joke, and now I think I understand the point he was trying to make. I will always treasure the English lessons where we watched musicians’ speeches and songs. His English was advanced enough to understand the poetry, and I always think of him when I sing “Heal their hearts, heal their souls, their lives can be golden if your love enfolds.”

Last summer, I started going to a voice teacher at the local college. My friends had told me I’ll like her, and they were right. Claire is an incredibly gifted soprano, deeply sensitive to her students. I often wished for 30 minutes to catch up and then 30 to sing, because it was like meeting a friend every week. She hears what isn’t said or sung, and knows what I need to hear or do to improve. In the lessons, I learned that when you hand your soul to a stranger you don’t die, which helped me feel less fear in other settings like public speaking. I learned that driving onto a campus and finding my way into the right building isn’t impossible. I learned that I can sing higher  and sustain lower than I thought I could. I learned that I can bomb a recital, forget everything I knew to do, and still not die. Unfortunately, I’ll never be a credit to Claire, and this week I had my last lesson with her. New responsibilities and other things to learn have crowded out this privilege, but I will always value those lessons. I experienced the law of the echo and the enriching power of a focused discipline.

Of course, the best voices train for years, but I think everyone should take voice lessons for at least one year.

A Special Kind of Recycling

environment-1297354_1280

There should be a word for déja vu reversed. Maybe ‘tables turned’ is the idiom I want. Or “what goes around comes around.”

It happened after work when I was hurriedly eating my solitary supper before rushing off for my voice lesson at the local college. I was keeping an eye on the clock when this warm wave of memory washed over me.

I remembered how my English students would rush in after their work day, fling a coat off, and sink into a chair. I made it a point to have a warm, cheerful classroom, and a bright, positive attitude. During our lessons, I cheered and cajoled and guided and believed in them when they couldn’t. My students, individually or as a group, would relax, smile, and even laugh. Actually, we laughed a lot. Often. Head down on the table laughing. Leaning out of the chair laughing.  Then they said things like “Coming here is like therapy” or “I had to stay for this late meeting at work, but I didn’t want to miss this lesson” or “The train was late, and I was so angry, because I didn’t want to cancel with you.”

Eating my supper in a rush, I suddenly understood them. Now it was me whose head was tired of thinking, whose creativity was wrung out by 5:00, and who couldn’t wait to walk into a doorway of light to a welcoming, confident person who knows what she’s doing.

My teacher teaches voice like I taught English, and I am like my students were. I was coming off of 6 weeks of no lessons due to a bad cold, and this was like starting from zero, like all the time she’d put into me was nothing. The first few scales were really, really horrible, even I could hear it, but she never flinched. She knew what I needed, knew the incremental baby steps to take, and got me do things I didn’t think I could do. And we talked about other stuff as fast as we could between warm ups and French pronunciation.

Just like it was with me and my students.

This kind of pay back is beyond-words-delicious.

Now I need an English teacher to help me with my metaphors.

A Garden Tea

summer-783344_1280She’s been my student for several years, a woman older than I with a husband and grown children. She lives in the same apartment building I do, and for our last meeting, instead of having an English lesson, she invited me to her house. But first, she said, if the weather is nice, we’ll go to her in-laws to see their garden.

Sure, I said, that would be lovely.

So we met outside our building, and the sun was warm, and she took me first to a bakery down the street. The best bakery in town, she said, and she had me choose two kinds of cake. Then we walked around the block to her in-laws and before I walked through the gate, I had to stop and smell the wall of roses in front of the house.

The garden was pristine, orderly, a well-hidden opulent secret behind a fence on an ordinary street. They told me the place had been in the family for 3 generations, and their passion for the place shone in every corner. We took off our sandals to walk in the grass–it’s a carpet! the mother-in-law said with sparkling eyes.

The three of us sat in the garden to have tea and cakes, and had a glorious, easy mix of languages. The older lady brought out the elaborate cards that her daughter had made so that I could admire the hand-work, and we talked about hobbies and her family and mine and how we used to have a garden too.

Then the noises we heard above us stopped, and a wizened and spry elderly man came out of a tree with a saw in his hand. The father-in-law. He lifted his cap at me, sat a little to the side of us, and told me a couple jokes, then climbed back up into the tree. I felt that I’d just entered a story.

One of the jokes: A Polish man walked into a English dentist’s office and said he has a tooth that needs to be pulled. The dentist asked “Where?” The man said “Tu.” And the dentist pulled two of the poor man’s teeth!

A drop of cream from a piece of cake fell on the grass. Oops, I made the carpet dirty, the older woman grinned. It was incredibly easy to talk with them. Of course there was a lot behind our conversation. I’ve spent hours listening to my student tell me how she eats special diets and prays and goes on pilgrimages and learned about forgiveness and how worried she is about her family members who have cancer.

They talked between themselves for a minute, then my student said her mother-in-law is wondering how old I am. I thought we’d talked about our ages in some lesson, but she didn’t remember, so I explained that last Friday I had a birthday and now I’m 41. Both women jerked back and gasped. I don’t believe it–I said you’re not more than 25 or 26, the mother-in-law said. Which of course made me laugh and laugh and endeared them to me even more.

She hugged and hugged me good-bye and wished me all the best, and as we walked past the flowers to the gate, I held the lady’s arm and said when I’m her age, I want to be as hospitable as she is. You will be, I feel it, she said, her eyes twinkling.

I don’t know what inspires a woman to take in her daughter-in-law’s foreign language teacher and push tea and cake into her hands and show her all around the garden and love her as generously as an old friend would.   I don’t know why the elderly monkey-man came down just to say a couple genuinely funny jokes and disappear again. I don’t know how time stops but the watch keeps moving and forces me to leave so that I can make the next meeting.

I only know that I was graced with exceptional kindness yesterday, and I have a new role model.

Mixed Media

crayons-623067_640

I’d been breathing different air all day because of a lighter teaching load, and a field trip to the library for my babies’ class, my affectionate term for my six and eight year olds. We read Dr. Suess stories in honor of his birthday yesterday and ate marshmallows and, back at school again, colored green eggs and ham pictures for the wall.

A side-note: In this school, we LOVE Dr. Suess! He makes our job easier and more pleasant in many ways. I love the magic of the babies stumbling to sound out English and hearing words fall off their tongues and catching the hang of the rhythm even if they don’t understand all the words. I laugh with them at all the crazy creatures and the colorful feet. If you’re trying to elicit language, these stories help!

Then I had a no-show student, and another cancelled, so I could go home early. On the way, I walked past a gift and art supply shop, and stopped to see the new window display and gasped at the beautiful new mugs. Every day, this proprietor changes at least one of the three window displays and I get huge pleasure out of just looking at things as I walk past. They’re always closed when I pass in the evening, but now I was earlier than normal, and remembered I needed some paper for a project and couldn’t resist the siren call.

This shop is cram-jam full of porcelain and glass and canvases and frames and notebooks. The walls behind the counter are covered and double-stacked with paint tubes, brushes, pastels, and more pens and pencils. I always imagine the paint flying out of all the tubes to create fantastic bright swirling designs in the space above it. This place holds endless possibilities to plan and dream about but I knew I had to keep moving because it was minutes before the shop closed and I didn’t want to make them impatient.

The younger shop assistant helped me graciously with a mixture of English and Polish and found the paper and pen I needed. The older lady appeared in her fluffy, elegant, white chignon, looking the perfect part of an art patron. I paid, but couldn’t quite leave. I just stood a couple seconds and looked around and sighed and said smiling, “I want many things.”

A rollicking chuckle came out of the girl, and she said, “Me too!”

Laughing with a stranger who speaks a different language from me is simply wondrous.

Beyond Money

We completely wore out the fun Grinch story. I’m happy not to hear it for another year. So I chose to read Tolstoy’s “Papa Panov’s Christmas” to one student on Saturday. The story about the shoemaker expecting to see Jesus has many versions and translations, and this one was abbreviated, but even so there were some phrases and words that challenged my high intermediate level student.

To help her be able to take it in more easily, I read slowly, deliberately. When the cobbler kept watching the window for Jesus, I suddenly felt my throat constricting and slowed my words even more so I could control my shaking voice. Maybe he had missed his visitor? I felt his ache of disappointment. When the cold girl came with her hungry baby, my student’s eyes brightened and she interrupted: “I think she is Jesus!”

When we finished the story, she said she’s going to find it in Polish so she can read it to her children. No one ever said that about the Grinch story, even though we got lots of class mileage out of it.  In his simple story, Tolstoy encapsulates the deepest longings and satisfaction of the human experience, and I felt honored to share it with my student and see her understanding.

Outside our apartment block is an outdoor market. At any time, I love shopping there, but these days leading up to the holiday season, it’s an Experience. I stood in line at the little old lady’s stand with the big blue barrels of sour kraut and pickles (the best in the town, everyone agrees). Beside us was another stand with three enormous square tubs that held maybe a foot of water crowded with dozens of fat, gasping carp. I tried to watch discreetly and not be too slack-jawed but all I wanted to do was stare and shake my head.

Older people stood in line at the tubs (my observation is that no one younger than 40 is willing to buy live carp and kill them) and carefully pointed to the fish they’d chosen. The beefy men selling them would scoop out the carp, weigh them, and pop them into trash bags. It was serious business. I couldn’t decide if the men were so serious because they were opportunists taking advantage of the tradition and the old people, or if this is simply the way things are done. I’ve been told that carp is the high point of the Christmas eve meal, so clearly buying, killing, or selling it is not a joking matter.

In other parts of the market, people were laughing and talking and exchanging wishes. I bought half a meter of beautiful lace for some presents sometime, and the ladies were so relaxed and positive and pleasant and wished me a merry Christmas as I left. Celebrating this season in a Polish town is so rich that I think everyone should be jealous of me.

This morning I had my last session of the year. My student is 71 or so, a retired Russian language teacher, and she had asked that this lesson would be Christmas carols. So I prepared music and lyrics for my favorites, “Lo How a Rose” and “O Holy Night.” She came with an elegant centerpiece she’d made with greenery from her garden, plus a box of butter cookies she’d made, plus 2 CD’s so we could listen to her favorite Polish carols. I made green tea for us, and we listened to the songs and sang along as we wanted, and drank tea and I munched her cookies and chatted in Polish because, well, it’s easier for her than English.

At the end of the hour, she was preparing to pay for the lesson, and I put my hand on hers to refuse it, saying today wasn’t a lesson, only pleasure, and I can’t take money for it. It wasn’t an English lesson, any way you look at it. “No, Anita, I beg you” she said, “You’re young and you need things. Please take this to buy what you need–maybe carp, or some meat?” She was dead serious.

The weather outside is frightful –driving rain coming horizontally in strong wind. No snow in sight. I hang onto my hood, walking home, and I’m sooooooooo glad vacation has started, and there are a million things I’m happy about, but something more than rain is making my cheeks wet.

The things I need are beyond money. What I have is more than I can hold.

Caramels and Apple

goggles

They should make weather protection for eyes–something apart from aviation goggles.

Every morning, the wind is colder than the day before, and it makes my eyes water.  Scarf. Gloves. Boots. Heavy coat. I’m well-supplied, but on my walk to school, I always think about Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter” as I wipe my streaming eyes.

I’m always afraid people think I’m crying on my way to work. I could cry about many things, but my job isn’t one of them.

I like the challenge of finding the balance of pushing a student and helping them relax and talk. I have a student who just about won’t talk, and I haven’t figured out if it’s a speech issue or learning problem. It makes me revisit Torrey Hayden’s accounts of her electively mute children, and how she got them to talk. I love the challenge even though it exhausts me. Her smile tells me she enjoys the class even though she doesn’t tell me so.

In different classes, I like doing things with our hands while we learn. Push pieces of papers around to form phrases or sentences. Make a hedgehog out of fruit. It’s not as tidy as a neat stack of books or papers, but it makes me happy.

I love the kiddo whose family has lived in different countries, so he’s used to hearing other languages, and he never tries to talk Polish to me. He’s only 8, and he wrinkles up his face to try to think of how he can tell me something, and when he laughs he closes his eyes. Our lessons always have plenty of merriment.

A student, new to the class of women, brought a bag of caramels to share. She asked if it’s ok to give them out at the beginning of class. She wanted to be careful not to interrupt a formal class time. I said of course it’s ok because I LIKE candy. The lady beside me explained to her, “Anita isn’t professor. She is friend.” That was high praise, in a culture that is super careful with their definition of ‘friend.’ So we all chomped caramels during the whole lesson.

The best part was when the new-comer didn’t want to say her sentences when it was her turn. “Nie dam rady.” (“I can’t do it.”) But the four women around her urged and coaxed and pushed her to try, as only women can do, and she did it superbly. I cheered for all of them.

It’s important to me that my students feel comfortable and equipped to do what I ask of them. Sometimes I miscalculate and a worksheet is too easy or too hard. This week one of them had fun constructing this sentence: “You don’t know what I know” when I’d given her work that was too easy. Her pleasure at using the right pronouns made her eyes sparkle.  This is the student who is so energetic that she fairly buzzes, and after an hour with her, I feel energized instead of tired.

This week there was the teen who is crazy about Apple, and talks endlessly about Steve Jobs trivia. And the other teen who talked to me for 45 min about her taekwondo competition in Budapest.

Yup, I’ve got the best job in town. Cold walk notwithstanding.

 

 

Photo Credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/48262246@N06/4998700820/”>Tangentical</a&gt; via <a href=”http://compfight.com”>Compfight</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;

 

 

 

 

Vignettes of the Week

This week’s days were filled with lesson plans and laughter and music. Conversation and music ricochets around the hard walls and stair well of the school and makes me think that the place is a kind of an alive, breathing organism where we do life and English lessons and love.  There were curved, earnest, little fingers flipping memory cards.  A high five for me from a student who also is  proud of being 40. Endless chatter–and birthday cake– in a class of women who are all buddies.

And best of all, the little crescent moons on a little boy’s face when he closed his eyes to laugh when I asked if he has a snake for a pet. I completely lost my heart to him and his twinkly eyes and can’t wait for a whole year of classes with him and the two other 8 year olds. While teaching children is not my strength, my inner child is really happy with glitter and glue and paint on my fingers. Doing little craft projects while listening to English children’s songs is what I call low-stress language learning, which suits me down to the ground.

Oh yes, and the honesty of the lady who said “I’m not good at anything–this is my complex.” But then she told me how she makes her own almond milk and nutella and she inspired me to try it. And another student, in a lesson about friendship, couldn’t believe how I have a friend I’ve never met, and have Skyped with her only one time. She was so incredulous she dropped her head onto the table. “It’s your personality. You have 1,000 close friends because you’re such an open person.”

I tramped home thinking, I’m so rich, I’m so, so, rich. I have so, so, so many friends that color my world and help make me who I am.

And the week isn’t even finished yet.