Thursday, June 24, 2004

Three Horses per Month and Water for Everybody

For anyone who doesn’t know, besides my job at Barnes & Noble, I have a part-time job teaching adult ESL (English as a second language) to employees of Whole Foods. It’s a pretty sweet deal for the students because they don’t have to pay for the classes or even leave the store. And some of them truly appreciate it and work hard, showing up for every single twice/week class and studying enthusiastically when they’re at home.

Francisco is not one of those students. Now, he definitely wants to learn, especially because he’s been working at Whole Foods for roughly 15 years and can’t be promoted any further until his English skills improve.

And he tries. But he has some deeply ingrained bad English-speaking habits that are incredibly difficult to break and, well, he doesn’t do his homework.

Anyway, I didn’t bring him up so I could publish his progress report, but I wanted to give a little background.

So, the other day Francisco was telling the story of a party a friend once threw him when he was working at a Whole Foods in Palo Alto. This is how he tells it:

“She make me a party and she rent a, it’s a, how you call? Like a when you have wedding?”

“A reception hall?” I ask.

“Yes, well, and we have dancing and carne asada. I make the salads and also some soup. We have DJ he play the música, and it was the best party in my life: water for EVERYBODY!”

He says this last part while spreading his arms wide to illustrate the amount of people who enjoyed this particular aspect of the party. His eyes are all lit up, like he is just so proud for having pulled off water for everybody.

Water?!” I ask. “What do you mean? You just served water?

“Yes,” he says, still beaming his self-congratulatory smile, “for everybody.”

I was laughing, but I was also trying to figure out what was so special about this water and his ability to procure it for everybody. Was it a drought year? Was it that they were extra hot & sweaty from dancing and he was happy there was enough for everyone? And who serves water at a party anyway?

His classmates were all laughing at him until he clarified that he was talking about aguas, fresh drinks they make in Mexico using water and other things like rice or fruits (horchata, tamarindo, those sorts of drinks). He was proud because he made the drinks, and apparently they were a big hit. Oh, he hates alcohol and wouldn’t allow any of his guests to drink it, so I guess he figured he’d better have a good alternative.

Somehow, despite the fact that he speaks English a lot better than my beginning students, Francisco’s particular brand of miscommunication always makes me have to try (often horribly unsuccessfully) and stifle a giggle.

The other day he was talking about how he bought a house in a town called Madera and was going to be renting it out. It’s a big house, but he’s renting part of it to a family of three for only $300/month. We were all intrigued, wondering how he’d make the payments if he had to pay rent here, too, and he was charging so little.

“Oh,” he said. “There’s another man, he wanna stay there. I gonna rent him a room for $300/month and 3 horses.”

“Three horses?” asked Rosi, another student.

“Yes, $300 a month and 3 horses.”

“What do you mean, you’re charging him 3 horses per month?” I asked.

“Yes, 3 horses.”

“Horses are very expensive,” said Rosi.

An image came to mind of a future snapshot of Francisco standing outside his home in Madera, surrounded by hundreds of horses, which have been breeding and making him a rich man. In the snapshot, he’s wearing his same ultra-happy smile and spreading his arms to show off the fruits of his ingenuity.

I had to come to and get to the bottom of this.

“What are you gonna do with all those horses?” I asked. "How can he afford to give you 3 horses per month?!"

“Whachyou mean?" Francisco asked. "It’s just 3 horses.”

“Oh, 3 horses total?”

“Yeah, he keep 3 horses there. I charge him $100/month each horse.”

“Oh!” The collective light bulb went on and we all relaxed a little, now that we didn’t have to go on and worry where Francisco would get the money to feed 3 new horses every month.

I love my English classes. And trying to help my students through their struggles with this language makes me appreciate it more, not in spite of all of its idiosyncrasies, but because of them.

Many concepts I teach require tangential explanations of the exceptions to the rules, the connotations if you say the thing the wrong way, the 16 alternate meanings (do you know how many ways you can use the words “pick up” together?), or the 6 words that either look just like it and mean something different, or sound just like it but are spelled differently and mean something else entirely.

You know, it feels good to know something well. And it’s FUN to meditate on a question a student asks and think, ‘how do we use that? Would that be more or less polite? And why?'

And also, my students know Spanish with an intimacy that my 2nd language learner skills will never allow me. I think it must feel good for them to know something well, too. I can see it in their faces when I ask them how to say something in Spanish, or when I say something wrong and they have to correct me.

There’s a feeling of accomplishment when you can confidently say, “I know this. No, I KNOW this. And I can help you.”

And having something to teach to people who want to learn is rather addictive. So I’m going to grad school in the Spring and learn me some more. :)


Doug said...

Bravo! I work with illegal aliens who work for a lumper service that unloads trucks at Safeway. I'm a receiver and would have a hard time doing my job if they didn't do their job well. We play a game where I catch them in mistakes because that's my job but they also catch me in mistakes and that's fun for them. We have a lot of camaraderie even though they don't speak much English. I try to sneak watermelons outside to them whenever I can. They appreciate it and I appreciate them. So I can relate.

Nessa Willson said...

Oh my gosh, that's hilarious! Not laughing at him, but he seems to be quite a character. I didn't know that Whole Foods had a program like that. It makes me think a bit better of the world, knowing a grocery store takes the time to help their employees succeed in trying to achieve a brighter future.

Samuel Aguayo said...

I have no problem speaking spanish with my family and friends even though I'm not as fluent. But I tend to hesistate using my spanish with new people I meet. Especially at work. Alot of spanish speaking folks tend to assume I only speak gringo so they'll ask me questions in english. So although they are struggling to explain themselves, and I'm struggling to understand, I don't help our communication problem by speaking spanish. The entire time we are talking in english I'm asking myself, "Should I speak spanish?" After they leave I feel kind of bad because I could of helped them by speaking spanish. I only seem to speak spanish when someone else initiates the conversation in spanish. Weird.

I appreciate your comments on my blog. I never put that much effort into any essay for Prof Cox. I spent too much time on it. And congratulations on grad school. I'm not sure if congratulations is the right word. But I think its great and good luck next spring.