English as a Second Language pitfalls abound

Dangerlandia.
Dangerlandia.

I fell off the journaling and drawing wagon. First, I ran out of paper in my journal. Second, I ran out of drive. Third, I’ve been very busy. Add that all up and you get nada.

This week some kid drama finally got the writerly juices flowing. We have one group of kids formed by two distinct factions. Some kids come from an extended family group where they are loved and generally accompanied to all classes by an adult. Other kids are free roamers that live nearby. These free range kids are less well supervised and rougher around the edges but they have their own cohesiveness. They look after each other. All of the kids are kids and prone to testing limits. All of them are mixtures of devils and angels. They are each unique individuals.

My neighbor April and I consult regularly on the topics I teach and the group dynamics. April knows all the children and is fully fluent in the language and the culture.  She’s a mother and wife. I could not succeed without April guarding my back and propping me up. She’s never in class but always knows what’s happening. It’s nice that she’s neutral. Kind of like the school principal.

This week a spat between factions may or may not have happened. One member of one group texted me to complain about treatment by the other group. According to the texter faces were made and bad names were tossed around. This all happened in a bit of a melee when my attention was in one place and the kids had swarmed around the yard. Vikki (my usual enforcer) was absent this day. The kids were pushing the limits. Sawdust was thrown. There was yelling. There was running. Mostly everyone was smiling. I stopped the sawdust throwing when I wouldn’t let them in the bathroom to clean up. They complained of being itchy and I said, not my problem. You want to roll in the dirt you’ve got to like being dirty. Anyway, that all passed. The kids were only mildly chagrined. We ate cake and fruit and everyone went home.

The next say I got the text saying the more well off group had started the fight and that they were teasing the other kids because they never brought food to share. Now the texter is a known manipulator. She conned me into taking her cousin to the beach and then tried to develop a successful cover story for the cousin when they returned. The cover was blown. Perhaps the suntan, sand, and dampness were giveaways? Ten year old kids can be quite inventive but hiding widespread evidence is hard. Everyone (but me) got in deep doodoo over that one. Despite this I was concerned with the underlying element of truth that was obvious. The ‘richer’ kids were lording their slightly better circumstances over the poorer kids. I had seen it myself in the condescension in class.  One group always has pencils and paper. They leave home with supplies because someone is taking care of them. The other group I provide with pencils and paper. Nobody reminds them to bring their supplies. Having grown up under this type of kid on kid oppression it made my stomach churn.

Rather than dig deeply into the he said/she said I assured the complainant that I heard her and told her not to worry. I told her the food wasn’t important or her responsibility. Meanwhile I forwarded the texts to April to confirm that I had read them correctly. Burt and I discussed the situation. We agreed to set some actual rules of behavior and debated the food issue. Burt was for banning food from the kids and I was ambivalent. We also agree only one activity at a time. Chaos had ensue when some kids did origami, some threw sawdust, others went sightseeing on the roof. Everyone would do whatever the activity was together. No more wandering off to amuse themselves.

April and I met up and we were in agreement. One group was lording over the other but we could handle it by teaching and insisting on respect and tolerance. No name calling, no faces, blah, blah, blah, the whole you don’t have to like each other but you have to respect each other speech. Meanwhile April would help the other kids gather together some fruit to bring so they could participate in the very important cultural ritual of sharing food. That issue was quickly put aside when I mentioned that I was teaching ‘I am…’ and I said the kids said. Soy morena, and I said I am latina, and the kids said we are not latinas and I was in the linguistic racial quagmire of identity politics. What was the right thing to do? In that instant it was nice that my pupils are children. They quickly dropped the subject of skin color. So I asked white April and her brown friend. What is the English translation of I am brown. The guy said to use brown. It’s how Mexicans describe themselves. So that’s decided, I think, and head off to teach the next class.

Boom. Yo soy gorda. First sentence of the day at the next class. I am fat. The girl saying this is indeed overweight. The word fat in English has become so laden with political and social implications that I was again, stunned. How to traverse the nuanced world of body image? Even in Mexico, where a zaftig figure is appreciated, there is a point where a person is simply fat. But where is that point? Where is it on a 11 year old girl? A girl that is noticeably less fat than the year before? In the moment I decided to simply translate and be nonchalant. After all, there’s nothing wrong with being overweight. It’s a state of being for most of the US and Mexico. So we moved on. Then I got what’s the difference between being big and being fat? Ahhh…euphemisms for obesity are in the works here too, I thought. I failed to adequately explain this and obfuscated. Feigning a loss of language is helpful in many circumstances. Meanwhile we will continue to encourage an active lifestyle and healthy snacks.

There. What do you think?

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Yamileth y Beto
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Mari

 

 

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Who inspires me? Vikki. We should all help the Vikkis of the world.

Vikki quietly at work with everyone else.
Vikki quietly at work with everyone else. She’s third from the left.

Who inspire me? Who is my hero? Important questions that I could not easily answer. I was hung up on the hero as a larger than life example that is doing great deeds for humankind. I was thinking the notorious RBG (Ruth Bader Ginsberg). Or Oprah. Or Eleanor Roosevelt. I went down that road for a while but I realized I never think about these people. I never look to them for inspiration. Of course I admire them and all they have accomplished but I don’t want to be like them. Frankly it’s my everyday peeps that keep me motivated. Burt, Abril, Ivonne, Peg. Business owners, teachers, mothers, caretakers. People making the best life they can with what they have. The kids I work with motivate me but really, deeply, the person I feel most inspired by is Vikki. Vikki is an example we can all look to for inspiration.

I’v eknown Vikki five years. Here is what I know of the facts of her life: Vikki is 26 years old. She’s married to German and has a 5 year old daughter Germani. German works 6 days a week. Vikki is a mother but also works. She manages our yard and she caretakes for other people. Vikki cleans houses. She takes care of Germani. Their home blew away in hurricane Odile 3 years ago. They move in and out with family here in Pescadero and house sit for people. They have a trailer on their rancho but it is inconvenient for school and work. They have had the same 30 year old Forerunner as long as I have known them. Her mother and father used to live nearby, too, but they returned to the mainland to take care of her grandmother. She has brothers in the US.

Vikki is always eager to work. She is always ready with a smile. She is never embarrassed to take the bags of clothes I bring every year. She spreads the stuff I collect among family and friends. I trust her to get the shoes, purses, and clothing to whomever can use it.

What most impresses me though is not her smile or work ethic or generosity. It’s her leadership. She comes to all our classes and gets down to work. If we are painting she paints. If we dance she dances. If we make hula hoops she makes hula hoops. She leads the girls by example. Vikki is all in. She is 100% committed. If there’s a disruption she helps me settle down the kids. She is unafraid of the unknown. Any idea is a good idea. Want to run a 5k? Sure? Want to learn ‘The Wheels on the Bus?” Yes. Want to sing in public. Yes. Want to learn English. Want to learn guitar. Yes. Yes. Yes. I’m not sure if I’m teaching English for the girls or because I know Vikki wants to learn. She is hungry for the chance to grow and learn. I want to show her everything I know how to do. That’s inspiring. I wish I could speak better Spanish and know her better as a friend. She is always calm and ready. She is my motivation. She is my inspiration.

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In Mexico

Burt and I and the mascotas arrived at our place in Mexico a couple of nights ago. Hurricane Irma left the place the greenest we’ve seen it. There was no noticeable damage to our property. A friend’s place rolled away in a flooded arroyo. A massive personal disaster. That got me thinking of how the end of the world as we know it is always thought of as a cataclysm happening to all of us at once. Reality is someone, somewhere is experiencing the end of the world as they know it every day. It’s happening all the time. Many of my older friends are struggling with health problems. Every season we return to find someone, or more likely, several someone elses have died since we were last here. Living our life this way, between worlds, is kind of like a strobe effect. What time normally buffers into a gradual accretion of events like sedimentation behind a dam turns into a cataclysmic tsunami of news. Restaurants closed, beaches built upon, friends gone forever.

Despite the seasonal inventory of who’s here, who might return, and who’ll never return we’re happy to be home. The gang of girls is scheduled for their first class on Tuesday. They are shining stars in our wandering lifestyle. Back to work and play. Our English teacher is no longer available so I am going to plow on ahead. Lesson plans anyone?

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More Abstract Thinking

Drawing or dibujo
Drawing or dibujar. This student got the concept of no straight lines and proportion.

Jolyn is continuing to teach these kids how to paint. It is not just a kid’s art class with random crafts and silly drawings. Jolyn is working on the elements of design, light, color, and technique. Translating is a challenge for me but the results show the older kids are getting it. This week they did an exercise where they had to draw a still life with only straight lines (no curves for that banana, chamaco!) and then paint it with only one color. Jolyn demonstrated and I explained as best I could that it was an exercise with artificial limits that helped the brain to see the world in a different way. That we were stretching the way our eyes and brains and fingers work. The youngest kids were stymied but didn’t lose patience. A lot of curved lines and flat drawings from the youngest ones but the older kids were impressive. I saw depth of field and proportion and balanced drawings. One frustrated kid asked if we could do origami again but she kept painting. I remember feeling the same way when I was a kid in art class. I never got the abstract stuff. Now I do. I wonder when my brain caught up?

I wonder if we are helping or enriching their lives and I realize that sitting quietly and trying something new is a great exercise. They are exposing themselves to a new experience. They may never paint but they are learning that it’s not magic. That painting is a skill with techniques requiring work and practice. After class we have hula hooping and cookies and song. Sometimes I think they take the class so they can eat cookies and play with the hula hoop.

Man spreading knows no age limits and crosses cultures. This one boy is taking up the space of three girls.
Man spreading knows no age limits and crosses cultures. This one boy is taking up the space of three girls.
Stile life with the usual suspects
Still life with the usual suspects
The teachers example. Drawing with no curved lines, showing the light, painting with one color.
The teacher’s example. Drawing with no curved lines, showing the light, painting with one color.
Working hard to understand.
Working hard to understand.
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Superficial accounting

Boys
Boys: Ivan, Diego, Yasub, Beto, y Rudy

Boys prefer red. I guess. I hate to generalize but there they are wearing red. Maybe it’s their parents? This week I gave away note pads as prizes for each kid that sang the Hello song solo. Everyone of them did it and did it well. Wheels on the Bus was revealed as a massive group effort of lipsyncing. All kids got the open and shut and round and round and back and forth but that was it. The connecting phrases evaporated into thin air if I didn’t lead the song. Five Little Monkeys had some gaps at this phrase: One fell off and hit his head. I’ve been demonstrating the hit head so many times I have a stiff neck so I was surprised to hear a lot of mumbling when the group sang it without me. More repetition. Less action on the head.

On the up side these phrases are solid:

1. Hello, how are you?

2. I am fine, thank you.

3. I like…insert a favorite color or food.

4. I am…insert age.

This is because Alejandra is working them hard and we review it in singing class. I can take credit for up, down, in and out, round and round, and do the Hokey Pokey.

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Intercambio

Explaining the lyrics to Over the Rainbow.
Explaining the lyrics to Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

Look to the left of the man standing in this photo. There’s Burt sitting in on the intercambio Spanish/English mixer at the Palapa Society of Todos Santos. My Spanish teacher invited me to come to the Intercambio and chat/platicar with people learning English. I was anxious but agreed. Chatting in English is hard enough. How would I ever chat with a stranger in Spanish and English? I bribed Burt with an offer of a dinner out if he would come with me. Burt can talk to anyone and he can talk a lot. Maybe I could hide behind him.

As usual, all fears were unfounded. We sat in a circle and each chair was alternately occupied by native Spanish and English speakers. Nobody sat with people they already knew. We were given 15 minutes to talk in Spanish and then 15 minutes to talk in English. My partner, Rocío, was a 24 year old woman born in Guanaguato on the mainland of Mexico. I was lucky to have a mainlander as my partner. Mainlanders, generally, speak more clearly than Bajeños. Rocío was even shyer than me so I took the lead and interrogated her on all the usual personal questions. How old are you? How many siblings in your family? Where were you born? Where do you work? What do you do? Then she grilled me. I received similar questions but she didn’t ask my age. I guess I looked too old to answer. It was nearly impossible for her to believe I was childless by choice. That’s a radical idea in Mexico.

When we switched to English it was obvious my partner was terrified and new to the language. To ease her suffering I told her I’d ask her the same questions in English as I just had in Spanish. Rocío did very well and revealed to me immediately the difficulties of learning English from Spanish. It is painfully obvious to me what my difficulties are in learning Spanish but now I can see the other side and it can help me speak Spanish, too. Shortly afterwards I worked with a friend and he made the exact same mistakes. Here they are:

How old are you? I have 24 years.

Where do your parents live? My fathers live in Guanaguato.

How many children are in your family? I have seven brothers. This answer was astonishing until further questioning revealed that 4 of the brothers were girls and 3 were boys.

And the terrible THE. Th-uh is very difficult for some to pronounce. There is no Uh sound in Spanish. It’s like me trying to roll my Rs. I need some Viagra for my tongue to get a rolled R.

So in Spanish when asked your age you tell them how many years you have not how old you are. When asked about brothers and sisters, everyone is included under hermanos. Male gender always wins in a group of mixed gender. And, parents as a two some are not mom and dad but fathers. Same reason as the brothers. We worked some on the THE but I had no good advice.

After the chatting we sang a song in English and a song in Spanish. We are not ready for our choral debut. There was a lack of enthusiasm and ability all around. We could blame the faulty lyric sheets but I think we were just tired.

Time flew and it was really fun being helped and helping somebody new. It was also fun planting the subversive idea that not every woman has to have a baby.

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T minus two weeks

This is not an endorsement.
This is not an endorsement of the claims made. I blocked out the picture.

Slander is illegal in Mexico. You cannot tell lies and call it free speech. Their rules are much tougher than in the US. The anonymous posting of the leaflet to the left made me laugh and cringe. It’s so easy to ruin a person’s work reputation and also so very difficult to find out if somebody is a good worker.  I have no idea who made this poster and took the time to staple it (6 staples and a piece of tape) in a prominent location. As a partner in a contracting team that makes its living through word of mouth I can’t quite decide what to think. Certainly there are very bad workers here and every where. There are also dishonest workers. There are also forces of nature and society and geography that make getting things done in Baja seem like the impossible dream. Then there are the bad clients and the unhinged clients and the just-can’t-see-eye-to-eye-clients. There might even be a disgruntled former girlfriend. A failure of language or understanding can morph into a tragic misunderstanding about what is and isn’t possible. Reflecting upon bad or incompetent bosses and workers I have known (I am sure I have been both) it frequently seems to be a failure to reach an understanding on expectations. And that’s with everybody supposedly speaking the same language. This picture makes me want to know more but, sadly, my own mind has been poisoned. If I see this guy I am going to give him a wide berth.

Meanwhile we are two weeks away from our return to the U.S. Hopefully our work season will go better for us than this guy’s season went for him. We have two large projects on the agenda. A guest house remodel in Portal, Arizona and finishing the basement of the house we built for clients two years ago.

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OFF-Off-off-Broadway

An arriving student seeking a welcoming kiss. Pretty much made every trip to town worth it.
An arriving student seeking a welcoming kiss. Pretty much made every trip to town worth it.

The Bridge to English 2014 Inaugural Concert has come and gone. After two months of weekly singing classes a performance for the ages was presented to friends and family of our music students. The Gypsy Carpenters learned a lot when they participated in the 3 hour holiday extravaganza of kindergarteners back in December. What they learned is 25 minutes is all you need to blow your audience away. If it’s a flop, it’s over quick and if it’s a success, there is nothing wrong with leaving the crowd hungry. We had snacks for the past show party.

Last week’s post-traumatic stress brought on by tough guy teens that failed to sing a single syllable of any songs brought divine inspiration. As directress of this revue I was wondering how best to present the material. I wanted to do a group vocal exercise with all our students and staff and family and friends but then what. Being a ploddingly predictable engineer at times, I was stuck on the idea of putting the kidlets up first and building in age until we had the oldest and most jaded amongst us taking the stage last. If the teens failed to produce we’d just fizzle out and have to skulk home. My other idea was to end it all with a grand Hokey Pokey. Hundreds in concentric circles wagging and shaking and twisting and turning on my command, but how to inspire a grand Hokey Pokey after the silent lip syncing of surly teens? There was my answer! I’d put the teens on first and get them out of their misery and not allow them to stew or conspire while the tweens and niños slayed their parents.

I told Serena my idea and she agreed it was brilliant and she added, merciful. The teens could get up and out and like a terrific vaccination it would be over before they knew what had happened. And that is exactly what happened. Serena introduced us and the Bridge to English program and then we called up the teenagers to do their bit. They never saw it coming. While Serena finished with the business of things I gave them a pep talk. You can see by the crossed arms and grim demeanors that most of them didn’t believe a word I said. Too bad for them. I was right. They were all stars. By going first the audience was warm and kind and gave them big cheers for their whispered renditions of Three Little Birds, There’s a Bad Moon Arising, and Stand By Me. They were wonderful. Wigged out by the twin goloms of peer pressure and an audience they stood up and did their best. It’s hard to breath and make much noise if you don’t want to be seen in public making a mistake. Kudos for the kids that stepped up and tried. A special shout out to Burt that gave them not a beat to rest between songs. He made it move so fast they never had to take their eyes of the lyric sheets and see who was watching.

The tweens and younger set killed us with their smiles and spot on rhythm. On Top of Spaghetti elicited some delirious moans of recognition from gringo parents. Nick Nack Paddy Whack left me gasping for breath. I’ll need to up my aerobic training for next year. Our teapots all poured hot water onto each other since I had never bothered to try and get everyone pouring in the same direction. Choreographer I am not. I could hardly keep my own handle and spout organized. And then it was time. Time for the show stopping Hokey Pokey. I called for body parts. I got eyes, shoulders, feet, legs, hair, fingers….and…cadera. Um…Cadera? We’re practicing English. English, please, and there it was, in a surreptitious, almost naughty tone from the depths of the legion of children surrounding me, Our Holy Grail of the Hokey Pokey…bottom. BOTTOM did you say? Bottom.

And so it was. I did all the parts and repeated (I know not why. Perhaps, menopause?) thee times feet. I kept searching for the missing part (leg) and said feet over and over. Ah well. Repetition is how you learn. The whole show took 25 minutes. Perfect. Snacks awaited.

How lucky are we two to have been part of this? Another facet of our musical life building community wherever we are. Thanks to Burt, Bequia, Tom, Magi and Cathie and all the Bridge to English teachers for helping me out. We couldn’t have done it without you.

The youngest kids gathering and waiting for their turn to shine.
The youngest kids gathering and waiting for their turn to shine.
I'm telling the teens that they are 'ESTRELLAS' stars. They chose not to believe me but they were anyway.
I’m telling the teens that they are ‘ESTRELLAS’ stars. They chose not to believe me but they were anyway.
Bang that tambourine (pandero).
Bang that tambourine (pandero).
Serena, Burt and I play coach, conductor, backup...whatever it takes to get the show going.
Serena, Burt and I play coach, conductor, backup…whatever it takes to get the show going.
Do the Hokey Pokey.
Do the Hokey Pokey.
On Top of Spaghetti
On Top of Spaghetti
World famous bottom shakers of Todos Santos.
World famous bottom shakers of Todos Santos.

 

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Bridge to English Show in One Week

Future music teacher.
Future music teacher.

Sometimes I feel like the lame old elk facing a pack of wolves when I teach kids. They can sniff your weakness. They have the killer instinct. Yesterday was our last class of music with the Bridge to English program at the Palapa Society. News that next week would be a joint show for family and friends was met with a range of enthusiastic jumping and disgusted eye rolling. The younger kids were predictably excited and ready to sing loud and show off their new skills picking out body parts for the Hokey Pokey, lamenting lost meatballs and playing the claves and tambourine. Teenagers wanted us to go away and sealed their mouths up tight as if they had never sung a line of Three Little Birds in their lives. Stupid Little Birds was the theme. I cajoled, I threatened the Hokey Pokey, I ignored them. Then I remembered I was bigger, older, smarter and a trained martial artist. So I laughed back and plowed on ahead with the program. Damn the eye rolls! Even if 2/3 of the group weren’t singing, 1/3 was and that’s who we were there for.

After 6 weeks Burt and I have learned this: each class is unpredictable from week to week and song to song. The kids you thought adored Bad Moon Arising’ won’t open their mouths if that other kid shows up and makes a face at them. One week nobody will make eye contact and the next week they are asking for hugs and the next week they scowl. I think the kids might be in the ‘change of life’, too. The only constant is the younger kids all want to shake their booty (or watch me shake mine) in the Hokey Pokey and the older kids do not want to do the Hokey Pokey, ever.

If you are in the neighborhood, come on down to the Palapa Society Thursday, 4/3/14, 4:30 for the show. Participation encouraged.

Best On Top of Spaghetti team.
Best On Top of Spaghetti team.
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Some of the cutest teapots I have ever seen.

 

She knows all the words to Three Little Birds and two guitar chords.
She knows all the words to Three Little Birds and two guitar chords.
She helps with my Spanish.
She helps with my Spanish. Alacrán = scorpion.
These guys laugh at me and I'm glad.
These guys laugh at me and I’m glad. Check out the rasta nation colored lego tower in honor of our reggae pick.
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Music Kids

Peace fingers
Peace fingers

We’re hiding out up on the hill watching movies while Burt’s finger heals.

Our last night working the film festival was spent as door guards/bouncers for a ticketed event in an exclusive boutique hotel. It was a night of flamenco with a live show and a movie about the world’s greatest flamenco dancer. The event sold out two weeks prior and more tickets were added as standing room only entrance. The standing room only tickets sold out. Not being part of the IN crowd I’ve never attended such a hot event and here Burt and I were, with another friend Jamie, keeping out the unlucky and unticketed. These types of jobs are great from instantly revealing people’s true nature. I saw some interesting manipulative behaviors from all walks of life as people wheedled, lied, argued and flattered trying get is to let them in. When their bids to gain entry failed most people shrugged and smiled and let us know they knew we were just doing our jobs. A few people looked like they were making mental notes on when and where they would get even with us.

Demand was so high and unrelenting that once ticketed people were seated or in place and the show started management decided to let even more people in. If people wanted to pay money to get into a too small venue with no seats and no access to the movie or dancers but rather to stand around, who were we to refuse? About half an hour into the show we started giving a little speech. You can go in, but there are no seats, you cannot see anything and we still charge you 150 pesos ($12). People paid. I could not believe it. It took me two days of thought and reading an article about Vanity Fair’s Oscar night party to realize some people couldn’t care less about the movie or the flamenco dancing. They wanted to be seen. It was weird to me. Then it got weirder. One woman went nuts on Jamie and me when we tried to explain: It’s hot, crowded, no seats and you can’t see the show. She responded with a condescending rant about us gringas and our rules and rigidness: this is México, we are free, we like crowds, you will never understand, you are an uptight gringa and are bound to your stupid rules and so on for quite a while…. Whoa, chiquituta, we were just letting you know what you were trying to buy. Clearly she wanted a free pass. Jamie and I (feeling rather unfriendly) remained in the door and when her lengthy bigoted psychoanalysis was over I said: That’ll be $300 pesos for you and your friend.  I happily pocket her money for the kid’s film school and let her pass. That was one nasty person. She left twenty minutes later. I guess she was seen and she saw. Two hours after the opening we were invited to leave our post and join our friends and bosses up on the roof for a low key drink at the uncrowded bar with an amazing jazz trio. That was lovely.

This lassie wanted a mature portrait.
This lassie wanted a mature portrait.
me, me, me
me, me, me

 

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