The Day of the English, and the Pilgrims Hugged the Native Americans.

How do I even begin to describe English Day? I mean, adjectives are easy. Stressful. Chaotic. Loud. Confusing. Educational (?). Red. White. Blue. Cute. Hilarious. Exciting. Messy. Exhausting. Fun. That all describes my average Monday-Friday at school, so what was this English Day that practically sucked out my soul but put me in absolute adrenaline rush Control Freak Organizational Championship of the World status?

Colombians are big on Special Days, especially at school. English Day is common in a lot of schools here, and it’s a specific day set aside to celebrate English education. This year, we (the English department, aka two other teachers and I) decided to be extra ambitious. First, we wanted to organize an inter-scholastic English spelling bee, then have students put on performances in the afternoon with the theme of U.S. holidays. Phewf. The weeks leading up to the Day itself were absolute locura and left me dreading the morning it would all come together – but it did. The spelling bee was impressive and – aside from some on-stage tears by the littlest kids – smooth sailing. My UConn roommate Kasey was in town and some of my WorldTeach friends came too. The afternoon performances were perhaps less than…informative of our holidays, but highly entertaining.

The Run Down:

- 4th and 5th graders prancing around with hand painted Easter eggs….

- 7th graders dancing to Katy Perry (only girls, because they got into a big fight with the boys and kicked them out of the dance the day before)

- My 8th graders playing a Christmas rock ‘n’ roll mash-up (and due to communication errors not singing Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer that they totally mastered with Kasey’s help)

- 11th graders coming out of left field with a New Year’s Eve dance to “New York, New York”

He spells, he sings Sinatra…what can’t this guy do?

- 10th grade boys rocking Cotton Eye Joe (obviously my idea) and Michael Jackson (obviously their idea) versus the girls dancing to Adele – 4th of July, the Yankees vs. the Brits, get it??

- 9th grade leprechauns with an adorable Dropkick Murphys and Britney Spears combination (festive correlation lost somewhere)

- 6th graders dancing to Thriller

- 2nd and 3rd graders…oh my god I will never look at my favorite holiday the same ever again because it will never be as precious as their Thanksgiving performance. It involved a lot of hugging, a poem about turkeys and a special dance performance.

Picture quality is icky because of the terrible auditorium lights (and 16 year old assistants)  but you get the idea.

Now, I breathe again.

And hear someone humming the Chicken Dance tune at least once a day. And join in. That’s what we call cultural diffusion.

(Apologies for repeated pictures, disorder, and overall blog hiatus. Internet problems, always.)

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Family Day.

Recently, in the midst of all 7 billion things I had going on the past two weeks, Gimnasio Moderno Santa Barbara dedicated a Sunday to school Family Day. Family Day was part fair, part pageant, part talent show and all fundraising for new computers and technology. There were food sales, intense bingo, raffles, auctions and of course a vallenato band performing. The teachers also performed a typical Colombian dance that had me frustrated to tears during the rehearsals (EVERYONE YELLING LOUDLY IN SPANISH AND NOT EXPLAINING THINGS CLEARLY) but came out pretty well according to the audience.

Despite some debilitating afternoon downpours, Family Day was highly successful for our school. And now, if anyone in Tabio had any doubt about who I am, they know. Sigh.

Dia del Profe

Riddle: How many times can one commemorative holiday be observed by a school of 200?

Answer: Thus far, maxing out at three, with intentions of four. Colombia’s Día del Profesor (Teacher’s Day) was officially Tuesday, May 15. Wikipedia tells me it marks John the Baptist’s appointment as patron saint of teachers? Sure.

Tuesday was marked by cheery students, aware that they were missing most of their classes, wishing me a happy day and some bearing gifts. I got candy, cards, notes and even perfume from a seventh grader. At mid-morning the celebrations started with a tae-bo aerobics instructor that the students had invited…naturally. Then the teachers shared a brunch of crepes and fruit salad also collaborated by the students. In the afternoon, everyone gathered in the auditorium for a video tribute to the teaching staff, followed by a mariachi band also organized by the students. It was really fun and I appreciated it at a different level – as someone who has probably never known that Teacher’s Day was a real thing.

Celebration number two was rather anticlimactic. Minuto de Dios, the large corporation that runs my school and some of my friends’, had a routine Saturday meeting for all the teachers in the system. Normally, we play the volunteer card and don’t attend, but there was talk of Teacher’s Day recognition so it seemed like a good time to show our faces. It ended up being church, team-building and trivia with an underwhelming though appreciated lunch.

The third invitation came from Oscar Lozano, one and only Mayor of Tabio. All teachers in Tabio (I think nine schools in total?) were invited to lunch on Friday. Afternoon classes canceled, we were treated to a huge cookout lunch of meat, potatoes, avocado and yucca and an excellent live band playing salsa, merengue and vallenato. Beers were flowing all afternoon but the real fun started when waiters delivered a bottle of aguardiente to each table and the dancing commenced. Have I mentioned that I adore Colombians?

The Parents Association was supposed to have a lunch for us today as their contribution, but it was canceled.

Día del Profesor Official Tally

Celebrations: 3

Anthems sung: National (twice), Cundinamarca (once), Tabio (once)

Live bands: 2

Meals: 3

Snap bracelets from 7th graders: 1

Tae-bo: 1 hour

Attractive gym teachers from other schools: 1

Canceled classes: 5

Cheers (both the drink kind and the voice kind): many

Favorite Things.

It would be easy to sit here and whine about being isolated, teaching a million hours a week, I don’t have internet, the altitude hurts, living here is expensive, 14-year olds suck sometimes, my favorite jeans ripped, in fact half of my clothes are falling apart, I get less vacation than a lot of WT people, I’m super behind on work, I’m not in Guatemala and I’m out of boxed wine. Let’s be serious though, no one wants to hear about that, and I signed up for 14-year olds and ratty clothing a long time ago. Instead, here’s a list of some of my favorite things about my time here in Colombia.

  1. Bus rides to Bogotá.

I spend a lot of my weekends in the big city and sometimes even venture in for a weeknight affair. The bus ride is about an hour depending on traffic, but it’s scenic and relaxing. Sometimes there are attractive bus attendants who take my money and smile at me. I’m usually buzzing off a long week of teaching and Tabio, ready for whatever the big city will throw at us.

  1. Lesson planning.

It’s kind of like writing papers in college. I procrastinate and dread it, whine and stress about it and often have way too much on my plate, but at the end of the day, I really enjoy it. I look at the book for a few ideas, and then do whatever I want, because they’re my classes and I wear the bata (lab coat-looking white smock.) Even if it doesn’t go as planned when I’m actually teaching, I’ve had a lot of fun coming up with some lesson ideas that pertain to the current grammar or vocabulary. I get to be creative, organize things and use my brain, so basically all of my favorite activities in one shot.

  1. Acting a complete fool with my friends in any given setting.

There’s something about experiencing a totally new environment with people from your own country and background that makes for excellent friendships. We know what it’s like to be here, and to be there. We’re spanning two cultures in a frustrating, consuming process, and we have every right to laugh about it and cause a scene in public places just for existing.

  1. Cheap earrings.

One of Tabio’s greatest assets is its handicraft stores. Bad day? New earrings.

  1. NP&

This is a half-human, half-puppet satire show on Sunday evenings on one of the main news channels. I love it because it so openly mocks current events, leaving nothing and no one safe. There are snarky songs and when they portray President Obama the accent is hilariously offensive. It’s been great for my Spanish and general comprehension of Colombia’s take on news and affairs.

http://www.noticiascaracol.com/informativos/noticiero-np-con-los-reencauchados

  1. The national anthem.

It’s catchy, it’s patriotic, it gets stuck in your head with its archaic lyrics and just begs to be sung or hummed at any given moment. Also, it plays on radio and TV stations every day at 6am and pm.

  1. My students.

They are so funny, intelligent, creative, endearing, interesting and sincere. I never saw myself teaching middle/high school, and I definitely never saw myself loving it.

Just don’t ask me if I’m fluent.

I’m finally noticing that my Spanish is improving, at least to where it was when I left Ecuador which was definitely my peak of bilingualism (I think I was in Guate for too short of a time and surrounded by too much Tzutujil to improve much there.) I know I’m back in the game because in the past few weeks I’ve picked up more colloquial phrases, slang and sayings than my entire time here. I think it means that my brain passes over the content of what I hear, because it automatically registers what’s being said, and focuses on the words that don’t immediately make sense. I’m going to talk like a 16-year old Colombian by the time I’m done as that’s whom I spend most of my time with. This country has more specific words than I’ve noticed anywhere else, though whether it’s the degree of immersion or the language itself, I don’t actually know. The things I write about in Sh** Colombians Say are the most common but there are hundreds more and I’m collecting as many as possible first hand.

While my listening comprehension is solid (and do I ever overhear some great conversations at school – I’m like the fly on the wall) I still struggle to express myself sometimes. I usually have the words somewhere, I just occasionally fumble putting them together if it’s not a standard issue question. I’ve left more than one conversation frustrated because I really want to get my point across but it’s hard in a second language and foreign context.

I’ve had a few misfortunate slips in Spanish in my classes, and believe me, I won’t be forgetting a common word that also means “fornicate” in Colombia. Because of that, if my students (9th and up at least) ask me what a swear means in English, I tell them to the best of my knowledge. I don’t have any problem educating them in things that they can’t learn from books, aka saving them from future misunderstandings about the pronunciation of “beach” and “bitch.”

My high level of Spanish is a blessing and a curse at school. As it is, communication can be very difficult, so without knowing the language that everyone else is speaking I would be extremely distressed in my placement. It’s essential for building relationships with other teachers and understanding most of what’s going on, and it’s often much more effective for discipline and calling attention. I understand that it’s far easier to tune out a second language, so when I’m yelling “Listen please!” it doesn’t register to a 13 year-old brain quite like “Escuchen por favor!” does.

Spanish is also a burden. My kids know I speak it, and they will pester me nonstop with “How do you say this? How do you say that?” until I have to remind them that I AM NOT A DICTIONARY. They get upset when I legitimately do not know a word that they’re asking me. If they don’t understand something, they whine “profe, in espaneeeeeeshhhhhh!” I think they would make more of an effort to speak English with me if they didn’t know there was another option, but as the only fluent speaker among 180 kids and 20 teachers, I can’t exactly hide it.

I try to consistently use only English with students throughout the day, even if they talk at me in Spanish, but sometimes it’s just nice to have a conversation in a language we both understand. Part of my role as a foreign volunteer is cultural ambassador, and I would much rather give and receive accurate information at the expense of some English retraction than leave things unclear. Sometimes it’s just plain frustrating to be misunderstood all the time. I always reiterate that I’m still learning Spanish and I know languages are hard. Mistakes are inevitable and rewards are absolutely immeasurable. I wouldn’t be living and teaching 20 miles outside the capital of Bogotá if I were good at physics.

…I would have a salary instead…and benefits….and be WAY more boring.

Sh** Colombians Say, Part 3

A series of posts dedicated to the intricacies of cultural Spanish expressions that offer insight on the Colombian experience. Some may be specific to Latin American Spanish, the Andean region, Colombia, in and around Bogotá, small towns or even the kids at my school. They’ve caught my interest and maybe  found their way into my vocabulary.

Chinos/as means Chinese people. Except in the Bogotá area, where it means “kids.” By now “chino” comes flying out of my mouth without hesitation but it was a confusing day or two before I figured out that no, people here are not outwardly racist against the Chinese (and there’s definitely not an Asian population in Tabio to even make it relevant). They just have weird slang.

Que pena… essentially means “I’m being a huge pain in the ass right now…” or “I’m about to do or say something super inconvenient for you…” or “I just did something obnoxious/rude and I feel bad.”  It’s literally something like “what a pain/shame/misfortune/embarrassment” and used how we say “Excuse me/pardon”, though more frequently, to ease the blow of an inconvenience or imposition.

“Que pena, I’m interrupting your class because…”

“Que pena, profe, I’m late because…”

“Que pena, the internet in all of Tabio isn’t working today…”

It’s never what I want to hear, but like “tranquilo” is an excellent defensive phrase. I’m certainly guilty of conjuring my best “confused and pathetic light-haired foreigner” face and “que pena”-ing my way in or out of situations as needed.

Es que…

THE EXCUSES. Holy Simon Bolivar, they are full of excuses, and they really need to step up their game. I know, it’s probably universal with teaching high school, but I can’t relate because I did my homework. If I spun a tall tale or two in order to buy time or miss a class in college, at least they were credible. Anyway, I can’t figure out if they’re testing me as a foreign/new teacher, or if the excuses really work in other classes?

“I don’t have the text book.”

“Someone took my pencil case.”

“I left my notebook at home.”

“My backpack got wet and ruined the worksheet.”

I can’t even decide if I would rather hear an attempt at a more elaborate excuse, or let them stick with the one-liners.

“Teacher, we couldn’t do the homework yesterday because we were in the soccer tournament.” I laughed out loud at this because they were so sincere, so convinced it was a legitimate reason. Wrong crowd, boys.

“I had my notebook, but ______ borrowed it to copy the work she missed, and I did the homework on a piece of paper but I started to copy it in my notebook and then I left them both at home.” (Yea, me neither.) Overall I’m kind of an asshole when they bring forth the excuses. Just do your work! I did my homework in high school and college, and guess what? I still had fun! Crazy!

Es que. Es que. Es que. Es que literally means “It’s that…,” a way of starting a sentence to explain something. I consistently, Spanglishly affirm that I will not sympathize with the “es ques” and now they’ll start to say it then laugh. It doesn’t mean they do homework more consistently, but I like to think they’re more self-aware.

Beloved GMSB students translating this with Google, I think you already know how I feel about the phrase “es que.”

Dia del Idioma/Language Day

A few sights from school on Tuesday, celebrating the Spanish language with a parade and seriously impressive theater and dance presentations. I’ll upload more in the next few days.

Sh** Colombians Say, Part 2

A series of posts dedicated to the intricacies of cultural Spanish expressions that offer insight on the Colombian experience. Some may be specific to Latin American Spanish, the Andean region, Colombia, in and around Bogotá, small towns or even the kids at my school. They’ve caught my interest and maybe  found their way into my vocabulary.

Ganas is the best word ever and I’ve been in love with it since I first heard it in Spain. There’s really not a direct translation, it’s something along the lines of “enthusiasm,” “drive” or maybe a strong expression of “feel like it.” It’s constructed with the verb tener, so it’s said like “You have to have ganas” or “I do/don’t have ganas to do something.” You can have ganas to win a game, to get a good grade, to go to the movies or eat ice cream. It’s versatile and positive – even if you don’t have ganas to do something, it’s nicer than saying you don’t want to. Let’s face it, you gotta have ganas.

Time

Stereotypes blah blah blah, Latinos are late, cultures in South/Central America are more laid-back and time is a more relaxed concept. In my experience, it’s typically true, and I’m ok with it for the most part. Let’s be serious, I haven’t been on time for a social engagement in years, so clearly I’ve adopted the habit in some ways. Sometimes, though, it’s a struggle.

Ya! “Ya” is an extremely common Spanish word. It’s excellent because it means “now,” “already,” “almost,” “soon,” “yet” and just about every other time expression. It’s terrible for that same reason. If someone inserts “ya” into a phrase, it is absolutely impossible for a non-native speaker to determine the meaning or timeframe indicated. Ya is perfect for operating on loathed Latino time, because saying “ya” doesn’t pin you down to any specific hour. It makes life confusing in all situations, and I absolutely cannot stand it coming from my students’ mouths.

Standing in the hall talking instead of going into my class? “Ya, profe, I’m coming.”

30 minutes into class and they haven’t even cracked their notebooks, let alone started the assignment? “Ya, ya ya! I’m doing it!”

Homework due? “I’ll give it to you ya.

What time do you have to leave for the field trip? “We’re going ya!”

Already? Soon? Now? Later? WHEN??????

Ahora/ahorita Unlike its counterpart above, “ahora” has a literal, fixed meaning. It translates to “now.” It does not mean the same thing that our “now” means. Ahora and its sneaky diminutive ahorita can mean any time from today to…never. It’s one of the hardest words to adjust to culturally, because we don’t take “now” lightly in the northeast USA. I’ve decided, after about 16 months of international field research in various Spanish-speaking countries, that there is no way to ever pin down the concept of right NOW this very second that I’m speaking no questions asked. My students will say they’re doing something “ahorita”, and my response is “NO. NOW.” Classic example of something they can only learn from a native speaker. I always have to slow down my Spanish and pantomime madly when trying to figure out if something is actually “ahora,” the way my inner Nutmegger like things to be ”ahora,” or if it’s the other kind, the way Colombia does “now” (and possibly everyone not within 3 hours of Boston or NYC? THE HORROR.)

Ok we have an assembly…now…but NOW NOW? Right now? Like, I’m teaching two more classes now, or everyone else is already in the auditorium now?

Yet of course, the vagueness is liberating when I can say it myself.

Why they call me “Teacher” and it’s not weird.

Calling a teacher, “Teacher” in the states sounds anywhere from childish or ignorant to a bit rude. I’ve quoted several times that students call me “Teacher Brighid” at school, and it’s not because they’re horrible at English or unintelligent.

In Colombia and other Spanish-speaking cultures, teachers are profesores. Profesor(a) is a title, like professor in English. Instead of calling their teachers Señor or Señora-Something like we would say Mr. or Mrs. in English, students say Profesor or Profesora. In my school, among others, the students address teachers by their first name, making me Profesora Brighid. Students learn that the word for profesor is teacher, so calling their adult educators “Teacher” is logical and acceptable. I could rock their worlds and explain that we, in fact, do not say that in U.S. English, but if any of them do an exchange at a North American school or university they can learn for themselves. After all, utter confusion in foreign environments builds character.

Therefore, I answer to any of the following:

“Brighid!”

“Profesora!”

“Profesora Brighid!”

“Teacher!”

“Teacher Brighid!”

At all levels of education, students efficiently and affectionately shorten profesor to “profe!”

More often than not, I am

“Profe!”

“Profes!” (if with other teachers)

“Profe Brighid!”

“Teacher profe!”

“PROFE! TEACHER! TEACHER PROFE! VEN! COME HERE! FINISHED! I HAF A QUESTION! CÓMO SE DICE…?”

Rule or Drool: Dia de la Mujer

March 8th was International Women’s Day. I thought it was just a Colombian holiday until I read my friend Natalie’s blog. If you want background, she succinctly lays out the history and other things that I don’t feel like Googling and summarizing.

In Colombia, Día de la Mujer (Woman’s Day) is a big deal. It’s like a cross between Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day (Mothers’ Day? I’ve been stressing over that apostrophe since my cake-writing days at DQ) in the U.S., but a seemingly more sincere message than February 14th and more inclusive than the second Sunday in May. Día de la Mujer is a day dedicated to appreciating the female sex with candy, roses, cards and well-wishes for women of all ages. I received double or triple the normal amount of treats that wind up in my pockets every day, and probably all 178 students called out, “Feliz día, teacher!” or tried it in English with, “Happy day, teacher!”

All were floored to hear that we don’t do Women’s Day in the states. Colombia is similar to other Latin American countries with which I’m familiar in that there is a huge idolization and appreciation for women, particularly mothers. That being said, the machismo influence also rules the country in many ways. Somehow the culture manages to revere women yet demean them simultaneously with high instances of domestic violence, job discrimination, pathetic reproductive rights and other faults – faults not even close to being exclusive to Colombia or Latin America. I’m not going to pretend to be an expert or exceptionally passionate women’s rights advocate (Kasey Ciolfi can take it from here), but we all know the U.S. has plenty to accomplish towards gender equality.

Back to Colombia. I love the idea of a holiday dedicated to women, I loved the gifts and salutations, I loved the way the entire country (or that seen from a sliver in Tabio and major news sources) embraced the holiday and accepted it as a fundamental day of the year. I was also turned off by some of the images. El Tiempo, a major newspaper out of Bogota, had an entire section for Día de la Mujer. The cover featured an illustration of a woman wearing a Superman costume with a bold “M” for mujer and the headline “Equidad es la meta!” or “Fairness is the goal!” Supermujer looked like a blond Lara Croft with a diesel six-pack framed by her cropped blue and red spandex. A paragraph introduced the content: a salute to the dedication, effort and work that women have contributed to improving their rights in Colombia and expanding their presence in social, economic and political domains. A quarter of the page was an ad for oral corrective surgery.

Inside, one article claimed that “Fairness is the strategy for equality,” which is a legitimate statement, but seemed to contradict the “Fairness is the goal!” headline. Equality is the goal. At present neither fairness nor equality exist. Again, this can be said for hundreds of countries, including my own dear patria (Latin origin irony noted, moving on.) However, I’m only living in one right now. The other features highlighted women in male-dominated industries, including cycling and NASA technology. The women strongly and positively represent female advancement in their respective areas.

Buried in the El Tiempo’s commentary section was a short letter to the editor from a concerned Bogotana who basically said, thanks for the flowers guys, but what about every other day? What about equal pay and opportunity? What about all the shit we deal with for being female?

Truth. Is it really a good thing to have an article about a female cyclist who surprises her male competitors by winning? Maybe she can just win and be in the sports section instead. Maybe I’m overanalyzing Día de la Mujer and coming off as a critic. It’s just, does SuperMujer have to look like a videogame heroine? Obviously she should be hot because she’s on the cover of a newspaper section, but why not a hot female scientist or engineer (or teacher)? Holding a flower from a caring, respectful man in her life?

An editor of the newspaper in question, Jineth Bedoya, received a “Woman of Courage” award on Thursday from Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton for working to combat gender violence – I’m sure she looks great in red and blue. Colombia should be lauded for making moves towards women’s rights, especially since it’s been preoccupied with a civil war and bouts of violence for many years. The special feature held odd messages, but it did exist.

I swear I’m not a cynical she-woman man-hater. I sincerely enjoyed Dia de la Mujer and all its messages.  Minuto de Dios, the Catholic corporation that heads my school and those of some other WorldTeach-ers, sent tokens to thank us for our womanly presence and work. I was slightly offended yet very much grateful for the useful gift: a pocket sewing kit and mirror.

Some of my Dia de la Mujer swag

Happy day!

(Note: there is also a Día del Hombre, or Men’s Day coming up. Maybe my seesaw social commentary will take a different route after that? Stay tuned.)