Lately, I’ve been listening to a language-learning podcast to work on my Spanish. My husband, Frank, is a Spanish speaker, and when he’s angry, he really does rant in the mother tongue, à la Ricky Ricardo. I’d like to know what he’s saying about me.
Besides, Frank has made an effort over the years to learn about key aspects of Caucasian culture, such as hiking, country music, and underseasoned foods. So I feel obligated to return the favor.
The podcast is okay, though the hosts speak English with a Scottish brogue and their Spanish pronunciation is modeled on the lispy accents of Spaniards. As a native Arkansan familiar mostly with Latin Americans, I sometimes struggle to understand what’s being said on the podcast in any language.
But I figure the challenge of making sense out of the discombobulating babble will keep me focused and alert. Either that, or I’ll end up speaking Spanish like a Glaswegian-Castilian-Rican-redneck.
This is not my first attempt at learning Spanish. I took classes in the language during high school and my first year of college. I have retained very little of that instruction, however—probably because it was crummy.
My first Spanish teacher in high school was Señorita Austin. She was young and sickly—the trouble had something to do with her kidneys—and she couldn’t maintain order in the classroom.
When she wanted us to settle down so she could deliver the lesson, she’d say, “Escuchan bien” (listen well), over and over—“Escuchan bien, escuchan bien”—in this sluggish drone that had little to no effect on the classroom’s rambunctious element, of which, rest assured, anxious, grade-conscious yours truly took no part.
Sometimes, though, it would seem like everything—the rowdy students, the inexperience, the kidney trouble—would get to be too much for poor Srta. Austin, and she would snap. Once, for instance, her familiar chorus of monotone escuchan biens built to a startling crescendo.
“Escuchan bien, escuchan bien,” she began, low in pitch and flat in intonation as usual.
And then, summoning up-to-now unheard reserves of vocal might, she thundered the unforgettable words, “When I say escuchan it means SHUT UP!!!”
Later, Srta. Austin devised a new disciplinary strategy. Rather than droning or screaming, she’d ring a little porcelain bell at us when she wanted us to be quiet, and those who didn’t comply would be given chores after class.
But this plan didn’t go over well, seeing as how most teenagers don’t particularly care for being treated like a butler in an old black-and-white movie.
That’s why, when Srta. Austin stepped out of the classroom one day shortly after the start of the bell regime, David G. crept up to her desk and removed the clapper from the inside of the bell so that it could no longer tinkle.
When the teacher returned, the sense of gleeful anticipation in that room was like the buildup to a sneeze and the buildup to a roller coaster drop combined. The eventual climax—silent bell flapping, agitated instructor reddening—may have only resulted in stifled giggles from the students, but in our hearts it was as if Alice Cooper had descended from the ceiling to sing “School’s Out.”
Even those of us who felt sorry for Srta. Austin for being sick and in over her head couldn’t help but rejoice at the demise of the demeaning bell.
She didn’t come back to teach Spanish the following year, and I heard that she died soon thereafter from her longstanding malady.
Oddly enough, David G. also died not long after high school graduation. As I recall, he was in an accident involving a propane tank that exploded.
He and Srta. Austin hated each other, and yet they’re joined forever in my mind by their premature deaths and a prank that was at once cruel and liberating.
How do you say “life is strange” in Spanish?