10am. Spanish Class. Adults.
In class we talk about teaching in an Academy. My Spanish teacher, Paula, waits patiently as I string words together. It must be about as exciting as someone reading your junk mail while mispronouncing every second word. So, in an effort to spice things up, I insult all kids in Spain, and by proxy, their parents.
‘The kids here are different to the children I taught in Ireland. They are louder and their listening skills aren’t very good.’
Paula, herself a parent, ignores my negativity and praises my oral expression. A grown man of 33 I am not beyond basking in the warm glow of a teacher’s praise.
Mark, a fellow teacher and classmate, remarks that he has a very different problem with a group of college students. None of them will talk and the atmosphere is stifled and awkward. Paula says she’d prefer a silent classroom to the clamour of noisy kids any day. I’m not so sure I would…
4pm. English Class. 14 year olds.
They amble in, sit down and say nothing. It feels unnatural that so many people could make so little noise. I feel awkward. I rearrange my books. They are teenagers, but what’s my excuse? They are waiting for me to get the show on the road. I put on a fake smile and turn to greet them.
‘How was your weekend?’
‘Good. Not well. What did you do?’
‘On Saturday I hang out with my friends. In Sunday I study.’
It’s the same answer, every Monday. It’s the same stuttering start, every Monday. My questions hang in the air. I think cheese. They think mouse traps.
There is a collective groan when I tell them to take out their books. I feel their pain but act like nothing gets me more fired up than second conditionals.
I try to chisel through the mask of indifference with praise.
5pm. English Class. 8 year olds.
With five minutes left, I cut an A4 page in half. There are exclamations of excitement as kids spring from chairs. I call three names and place a paper in front of them. I step over to the other side of the room, call four names and place another paper before them. The team with three see their handicap as a badge of approval.
‘It’s because we’re smart,’ they say triumphantly.
Both teams apply a similar tactic; give the smartest pupil the pencil and huddle around him/her. Once they are set up they turn to me;
‘What write? What write? Animals? Hobbies?’
For a few blissful seconds they are silent and awaiting my instruction. Team captains have their pencils poised for action. I show them my stop watch.
‘One minute. Words beginning with C. Go!’
Pencils dash across pages. Teammates scan the walls and pore over textbooks for examples of the target word. Mikel, caught up in the excitement, dances in the no-mans-land that exists between the two teams. His gambol is viewed with suspicion by his opponents. Accusing fingers stab the air;
‘He copy! He look!’
I direct the dancer out of no-mans land to the food section of his textbook.
‘Cake! Cheese!’ he exclaims.
His opponents hear him.
‘Gracias Mikel,’ they say slyly.
‘De nada,’ Mikel replies.
I countdown the last ten seconds.
‘Stop! Count your words.’
The words are counted and recounted. The team of four wins. The captain with the team of three is not pleased.
‘Another. Another,’ he demands. But time is up. He is not happy. The dancer bursts into a victory dance. Words are exchanged. You don’t need to understand Spanish to realize they are not exchanging pleasantries.
As they leave, preoccupied with conversation, one of the girls taps me on the elbow. I expect she wants me to draw a smiley face on her text-book; it’s my little way of praising their good work and she craves ‘caritas’. She has my marker in her hand. She jabs the marker at me.
‘For you,’ she says and draws a smiley-face on the board.