I am sitting across the desk from a six year old girl who I’ll call Niña. She has dark brown hair pulled back into two ponytails secured by pink clips. Her shirt is pink too. It’s her favorite color. I know that because I asked. She is missing her two front teeth. We are in the hallway outside the classroom. I am sitting in a chair that was designed for small children and my knees stick up awkwardly and touch the small desk that separates us.
“How old are you?” I ask.
“Six,” she replies.
“Can you say ‘I am six years old?’”
She repeats after me.
“When is your birthday?” I ask.
“When is your birthday,” she repeats slowly as she gazes towards some imaginary point above my left shoulder.
I ask the question again. She shakes her head. She is shy and she puts both of her index fingers in her mouth and looks down at the desk.
“Bir-thay?” she says.
She looks confused.
“No te entiendo,” she whines.
“I don’t understand Spanish, you have to talk to me in English.”
“Que dices?” her frustration grows and she is starting to slip into a valley of helplessness.
“I can’t understand you,” I continue the charade. I am not allowed to let them know that I speak or even understand Spanish. If the kids ever found out, they would never speak to me in English again.
I broke character once. I was walking out of the teacher’s longue with a sheet of paper and a student asked me what it was. I speak mostly Spanish with the other teachers, so I was primed for failure.
“Es mi horario,” I said. It’s my schedule. He asked some follow up questions before I realized my mistake and I said, “I don’t understand you, please speak in English.” He protested but I denied it until he believed me.
I hate lying to children, but I do see the value in this approach. Learning comes from struggles. And right now, we are struggling.
“What month were you born? Was it January?” I hold up one finger.
“February?” I hold up two fingers.
By the time I reach December, I have given up with the hand gestures. She is still shaking her head and contorting her face into a perplexed smile.
“My… bir-th-day… is… in… April,” I say, pointing both fingers towards myself. “When is yours?” I point towards her.
She shakes her head again. I want to yell. “CUMPLEAÑOS! CUMPLEAÑOS! CUMPLEAÑOS!”
I have a small calendar and I point to the various months. She points to October.
“Now is October,” I point both of my hands down for some reason. Pointing down seems to be a proxy for now. “But is your birthday in October?”
She doesn’t understand a word of what I’ve just said. Am I that bad at my job? Am I that poor of a communicator? My self-doubts begin to grow.
Am I really an elementary school teacher? No, not even that – I’m a Language Assistant. Every 45 minutes, I switch to a new class. I mostly sit in the hallway with students like Niña and practice English with a standard list of questions. I am an assistant to the real teachers. I don’t know how they do it. How do they control these spring-loaded balls of energy? I watch them in front of the class the way a kid watches a magic show for the first time. It must be sorcery.
I was the world’s worst student in elementary school. I was a terror to any teacher who crossed my path. But that’s just how I was. I couldn’t have been any other way. I was being Rollie. When I started teaching, I was worried that all the years of bad karma would catch up to me. As I sit here talking to Niña, I begin to think that maybe it has.
If you told me a year ago that I would be teaching children, I would have said you were crazy. I would never do that. But I try to look at teaching as a new challenge, an obstacle to overcome. I am not naturally good at it. Maybe I can learn something from it. Learning comes from struggles, after all.
Simple, effective communication is something that everyone should learn. They should fly business executives to Spain and make them explain the word ‘birthday’ to a six-year-old. Talk about problem solving. Or maybe I am just trying to make my failure seem more noble than it actually is.
“Birth-day,” I repeat, extra slow.
She has all but given up trying to understand what I am saying. What is a birthday anyway? Who cares when you were born? My last birthday I was alone on a bus for most of the day. I was going between Seville and Valencia. The bus broke down and I didn’t arrive until one in the morning. When I checked into the hostel and handed my passport to the guy at the front desk, he looked up at me, “Happy birthday!” He was the only one who had said that to me all day.
And that’s just it! I remember a suggestion given to me by one of the teachers. I have an ace in the hole, but I really don’t want to use it. It’s like that little red button that you don’t press unless it’s a real emergency. I look optimistically at Niña, praying that it will come to her in a flash and I won’t have to use it. But she isn’t even paying attention anymore.
I clear my throat and take a deep breath in. “Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you!” I hate singing. “Happy birthday dear…” I am going slowly and emphasizing the melody more than the words themselves.
Her face lights up and she begins nodding. I stop my abysmal performance and let her gather her thoughts.
“Julio!” she shouts excitedly.