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Seriously. I have red hair and a beard. What did you expect?

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Life Lessons from Spanish Class
ghost of redbeard
mtlawson
On Sunday, my eight year old son decided he wanted to learn German.  While I’m used to his occasional intense bursts of interest, this was a new topic for him.  “Why do you want to learn German?” I asked him.

He shrugged and kind of kept his eyes from looking at me as he diffidently moved around.  “Just because.”

My wife thought it a good idea to get a German/American dictionary out of the bookshelves in the basement, but I had a slightly better idea.  I hunted around in the basement for an old German Language textbook that my wife had used at one point.  (The nice thing about being married to a pack rat is that you know that you’re going to have something around for times like this.)  I handed the textbook to him, and he happily opened it.

“Hey!  I can’t read this!”

I decided that I probably shouldn’t tell him that the textbook was written for high school students.  “I know; it’s a textbook on how to read German.  It’ll help teach you how.”

“Okay!”  He then ran upstairs to his room and was soon buried in the book.

As I sat down to continue the drudgery of restoring the family PC from the disk crash on Friday (see my previous LJ entry), my thoughts turned to my own experiences in learning a foreign language.  They were –in a colossal understatement- interesting, and what I took away from that had little to do with the language itself.

Unlike the way classes are designed today, you had to wait until high school to learn a foreign language.  The minimum requirements for graduation in Ohio were two years of a foreign language, and the options I had at my high school were French, German, Latin and Spanish.  When I listed my language choice at the all boys high school I was going to attend, I chose Spanish.  It was a practical choice, I thought, given that there was an expanding Latin American population and most of the Western Hemisphere spoke English or Spanish.

That first year of Spanish, however, was difficult.  The first day of class –hell, the first day of high school- a kid who turned out to be a self-important prick took an instant dislike to me during class, and as he sat in the row next to me in Spanish, his goal in life became thinking up new ways to torment me.  I was, I suppose, an ideal choice:  I was a geek, I wore glasses, and I got good grades.  While I was athletic (I played the equivalent of select basketball and baseball for four years in grade school and I ran track in high school) I was never a jock.  I never hung out with the cool kids, the druggies, the metalheads, the band geeks, the rock star wannabees, or even the smart-yet-cool clique.  I was definitely a geek, back when being a geek meant you’d get a swirlie in the toilet if other kids thought they could get away with it.

As the Spanish class was the only one this kid and I took together, Spanish became a kind of living hell for me.  While I liked the material and enjoyed the teacher, my tormentor took any fun out of it for me.  If anything, I turned my frustration into my schoolwork with an ‘I’ll show them!’ attitude about it.

I survived that freshman year, but I dreaded my upcoming Spanish II class.  My fears, however, were short-lived:  my tormentor had terrible grades and was assigned to a lower level class.  Without him around, my life in class became much more enjoyable, yet something kept nagging at me.  My teacher kept saying that once you have enough of the basics down, your mind will make that sudden leap and you’ll be able to internalize all of the rules without stopping to translate.  The trouble was, I never seemed to get to that point.  When performing speaking drills with the class, I had to keep reading ahead to find out which exercise was going to be mine just so I could figure it out in my head before my turn came.  Perhaps, I thought, maybe I wasn’t getting it because I hadn’t taken enough classes.

Therefore, at the end of sophomore year I signed up for a third year of Spanish. 

As the high school graduation requirements were met after two years of class, most of my fellow students didn’t bother with a third year.  In fact, only one other student did.  Well, I thought, this isn’t a big deal; it’ll just be the two of us.

My first inkling that my third year of Spanish was going to be different was when I received my schedule in the mail.  “What does that mean?” I asked the office lady, indicating my Spanish III location.  I’d stopped by the office before school so I could figure out where I’d be going for my Spanish class.

“Ah,” she said, looking at me like I was the village idiot, “you have to go next door for that class, just like the Latin III students.”

“Oh.”

‘Next door’ meant the all girls school, which was -quite literally- next door to my own.  While the Latin III and IV classes were taught there, having Spanish III there was a new experience.  Apparently my high school felt it wasn’t worth the effort to keep a class open with only two students.

A short time later, I encountered my fellow Spanish III classmate.  “Well,” I said, “I guess we’re both going over for second period.”

“Mine’s third period,” he replied, showing me his class schedule.

My guts clenched.  This can’t be good, I thought.  This really really can’t be good.

An hour and a half later, I found myself trudging along with one of the Latin students into the office at said girls’ school and asked about our class locations.  We were both taking a third semester of computer science and figured we’d bite the bullet together.  As the painting of a dour nun glared down at us, the office ladies there told us our classroom numbers.  He quickly disappeared down a separate hallway, and as I approached the door to my class I had this sudden urge to flee.  No, I thought, let’s do this.  You want to prove you can speak Spanish, you can do this.  The door was open, and I knocked on the frame as I stuck my head in.  “Spanish III?” I asked.

Thirty one pairs of eyes turned to look at me.

“Si si,” the teacher replied.  “Miguel?”

“Um, yeah,” I managed, as a breezy giggle swept the room.

“Good.  Welcome to class.”  She introduced herself, and asked me where I wanted to sit.  “There are some places right up here,” she said, indicating the front.

I grabbed a desk in the back, right next to the door.  “This is just fine,” I managed, earning another giggle from the girls.  As I received my textbook and my syllabus, I swear I felt like I was in one of those dreams where you walk around naked, only this was worse.  Dear God, I thought, I’m the only guy in a class of thirty girlsThirty attractive girls. 

I knew that most of my classmates back at my real school would kill to trade places with me, and once I got back to home base after class ended and told them about the male/female ratio I discovered, it was instant notoriety.  You’d have thought that the girls were fighting over me judging by the reactions of my hormonally charged classmates.  Yet there I was, a socially awkward geek, stuck in a situation that you’d find in one of those ABC After School Specials.  Or a Brady Bunch episode.  Or a bad softcore movie.

While I knew very few girls in the class, I was certain that all of them knew enough about me.  I counted at least six girls in the class who I attended grade school with, and it wasn’t a big surprise to discover that I’d been gossiped about even before I showed up that first day.  This was a chance to put on a good face for myself, and even here my geeky reputation followed me. 

As I sat in class that first week, I’d like to say that I applied myself to my studies.  Hell, it would have been nice to admit that I daydreamed about the girls around me, but all I felt was discomfort.  If the ratio was a bit less than 30:1 –like, say, 2:1- it would have been okay, but this whole thing was more than a bit overwhelming.  About the only thing that saved me that first month was that my Spanish II class had finished ahead of theirs, so the first three months of class was spent in review material for me.  My classmates, after a week or two, seemed to forget I was there when I arrived, and I suddenly found myself privy to discussions that the male ear typically didn’t hear:  periods, cramps, boyfriends, dates, cliques, clothing (including underwear, as I discovered), and makeup.  I was in way over my head, and I knew it.  About the only thing that wasn’t discussed within my earshot were frank assessments of boyfriends’ anatomy, for which I was profoundly grateful.  (That came later, and is part of another story.)

Some of my classmates back at my high school wondered –after a month or so- why I wasn’t hitting on any of the girls there, but they didn’t get it.  I simply didn’t enter into the equation for any of the girls there; I was harmless, I was safe, I was a geek.  If I did try to date someone there who didn’t say “Ew,” (yes, that did happen at least once), everyone in the class would know it and probably critique it.  I didn’t need that sort of visibility.

My solution was to make myself a low profile.  Sure, I made small talk with the girls around me, but I kept quiet and didn’t linger when class was over.  I was striving for survival, but in doing so a window opened up and I was able to view the girls’ lives from the inside, without the distractions of either the opposite sex or parents.

I now understood exactly what the lone girl who showed up for my sixth period Chemistry class must feel like, and I decided that if she could do that, I could do this.  I wasn’t being a trail blazer or anything, while she probably was.  We were only a generation or so removed from women being discouraged from entering lots of scientific and engineering fields, and while my discomfort was minor, hers was much larger:  she wasn’t just fighting disproportionate numbers, but the attitude of society.

That year, I learned a few things about empathy and respect that go far beyond whatever Spanish I was taught.  Women became real to me in a way that I would never have understood otherwise, probably not even in a co-ed school.  Oh, don’t think for a minute that my hormones suddenly switched off or something –they didn’t- but I learned an important lesson that more than a few of my male classmates probably struggle with to this day:  how not to think of women with sex in mind, but rather as equals.

I work with women everyday on my IT team.  Women are bosses, mid-level managers, and executive VPs in the company I work for.  In college, I was outnumbered by women 2:1 in my Physics graduating class.  The most brilliant scientist I’ve ever met or studied with was a woman.  (She’s a Math professor at Johns Hopkins, in case you’re wondering.)  The two best technical people I knew on my IT team were women.  None of this bothers me the way it seems to bother quite a few of the people who show up at my local barbershop or I overhear at the local bars, all because of the lessons I learned that junior year in high school. 

Whenever I read one of Jim Hines’ posts about rape or the treatment of women (or even the entire Polansky affair), my first reaction is often stunned amazement that people would think that way.  After all, we’re more than twenty years removed from my junior year of high school, and I like to think that the generations ten to twenty years younger than me have figured equality out.  But then I consider what I see and hear locally, and realize that Cincinnati doesn’t live in a vacuum.  I look at my own daughters, and hope they will have a future where they won’t have to worry about the weight of society’s attitudes toward women, but rather they can go out and do what they want to do in life.

And my son?  Well, I wonder what life lessons he’s going to get out of his exploration into a foreign language.  Maybe he won’t get anything so life altering as I did, but you never know.  Although knowing him, he probably won’t notice a thing; we don’t call him Mister Oblivious for nothing.

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Heehee........ I've taken alot more language classes. I don't know if I picked up any life lesson quite so valuable save the appreciation for different cultures. Though through all of that, I did learn that all cultures have the same basic 'vital points' that some people see as different... like religion. Every culture has something. People take this is a 'oh they're different' look instead of 'yes, we believe in something too'.

But mostly I learned that when you tell a guy you speak Russian, they want to call you Nadia or Nikita and think of you as a Russian spy. No, seriously. I get that ALL the time. Maybe American men have just seen James Bond too many times. ;)

I took 2 years of French and 2 years of Latin in HS. Then 1 semester of French and 3 years of Russian in college. And a few weeks of Irish Gaelic. And I've audited a few ASL classes and tried teaching myself.

I like languages. I just wish I could become fluent in one. :)

The one thing that always disappointed me was that I wasn't able to have that light finally click on in my head and I could instinctively 'get it'. Maybe if I'd taken one more year of Spanish, but I had to make a choice: Spanish IV or Chemistry II. I chose Chem II as I was deciding whether to go either the Physics or Chemistry route in college, and I was going to need the extra year of Chem anyway.

When our oldest started Kindergarten and I began to take her to the bus stop, one of the moms there looked awfully familiar to me. After about a week or two, I suddenly realized that she was in my Spanish class way back when. Once I began to tell her who I was, her eyes got really large and she practically fell over. "Oh my God! You were the quiet kid in Spanish class! I would never have guessed!" She then had to show me off to her husband, who apparently knew the story.

Heehee... 15 plus years later and still remembered. Nice. :)

I was one of those kids who never had a particular group. I floated here and there but was only really close with one person. But I was ok with that. HS was for learning and fun... mostly fun.

High school wasn't so much fun for me. When I graduated, I pretty much cut the cord and decided that I was going to start fresh in college. I did, and I never looked back.

I have to admit that a big reason why I'm not on FB is because I know that people I'd rather forget about will find me there. LJ is a more insular community that caters more toward writers/artists, and I'm fine with that.

I ought to post some more stories from those years, like my experience in a student exchange day or the time I accidentally reformatted a computer and destroyed a boatload of a teacher's data.

Ahh, you just described just about every physics class I took since high school. Though occasionally there would be one other female. And yes, it IS intimidating to walk into a structure like that. In one class I never had my name called for roll call as the professor said "It was obvious you where there".

And good luck with the German. I wanted so much to take it in high school, but they stopped offering. They only offered Spanish, with the career counselor telling me I had to learn it if I wanted to be able to get a job. (Yes, I'm contrary, and that made me adamantly hate Spanish. And yes, he said job. He said I was too stupid to go to college. ;)

There were so few physics majors at UD -an average of 2-5 graduated per year when I was there- that there wasn't really much of a ratio to speak up in the upper level classes. The Math professor I mentioned earlier double majored in Math and Physics, and believe me, I knew she outclassed me.

I was told by a mutual acquaintance that when she went to grad school at Stanford she had a hard time adjusting as everybody there was just as smart as she was.

As for the feelings of isolation, I did go through a similar situation in college when I took those upper level history classes for the minor requirements. This was especially acute in the US Legal and Constitutional History class, where there were three groups: the pre-law students, the history majors, and me. By then, however, I'd grown enough of a skin that I didn't let it bother me too much. It was very awkward at the professor's Christmas party, however; all of her students got an invite, and as she was also the department chair there were lots of other humanities professors.

Oh, and as for the German, I suspect that my son decided he wanted to learn German because he'd been reading books on the history of Cincinnati. Given that there's a huge Bavarian presence here, it would be only natural that he'd become interested in the language.

Of course, he still not talking about the why of it, so it's all speculation for now.

And yeah, I hate career counselors who try to kill your dreams, especially when it's obvious you're willing to try hard.

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