There are moments, I find, when, though you’ve already eaten dinner, you are filled with a sudden spirit of duty to order bottomless wings and fries and an entire shakerfull of margarita at the Applebee’s that nearly touches your hotel. Maybe it’s the American flags everywhere, maybe the fact that you are stationed basically right next to one of the largest military bases in the world. I do not imagine I’m alone in feeling this. I ooze onto the last of the wings and absorb them, and then I get another order not because I want more—I’ve already had about ten, they are boneless, and this is, remember, Applebee’s—but because they’re bottomless. I paid extra for this. My work paid extra for this; they paid to fly me to El Paso for a single day; eating more wings is the least I can do.
In my non-wing hand, I hold my phone, poring over the free PDF I found of 501 Spanish Verbs. It’s been back and forth between this and changing the language on Skyrim on my laptop to Spanish as I practice for the training I’ll have the next day. Memorization of grammatical structures and vocabulary versus immersion in the target language: it’s an age-old debate. Though, I should clarify: I’ve been playing Skyrim in my hotel room, not at this Applebee’s. Could you imagine?
I should also clarify that nothing about this trip requires me to learn Spanish. This is a routine intermediate Excel training, in English, as all of them are. I’ve done it a hundred times. And I know from the last time I was here—this is my second of three one-day Excel training trips to El Paso—that at least half of my students will have English as their first language, and that all but maybe one or two of them will speak it totally fluently.
And yet, here I am, studious, dutiful. Tipsier than I meant to get at this Applebee’s. I’m thankful it’s only about a hundred feet to my hotel. I’ve been trying to learn Spanish since November or so, a month before my first trip here, and by trying to learn Spanish, I mean thinking about Spanish and wishing I knew it but ultimately doing nothing about it until the plane ride, more or less. And I’m not completely sure why I feel this duty. I suppose I’ve been wanting to learn Spanish anyway, though, until recently, it has been somewhat low on my list, meaning it might have been another twenty years before I got around to it.
I think a big part of it is wanting some feeling of belonging, which, yes, I acknowledge, is incredibly corny. I’m not the first White American to measure my coolness and, I don’t know, chakra alignment, in terms of my ability to eat, pray, or love in a place that feels exotic to me, but I might be the first to do it in Texas.
You must understand, though, that belonging is not a feeling I’m used to in my work. Even before everyone started staying home, I didn’t have a reliable office space to work in where I would see the same people every day. I would be commuting to a totally different work environment populated by totally different people most days. It’s actually relatively uncommon for me to have any sort of continuity with a group of students, much less a group who are all so kind, and who give me a ride to the Mexican buffet place where we all have lunch together and then back to the airport when the day is over, and who at least feign being impressed with my progress in Spanish from month to month, though pretty much all of it is just the result of a stress-binge the night before. Having even just a precious few days over which I and someone else can learn more about each other, and I suppose about Microsoft Excel too, like I joke (not a joke) when I step away from my computer to use the whiteboard in the classroom—this makes me feel like a real teacher.
Two days ago, I emailed a few students from that group about signing up for an online class I’ll be doing next month that they had expressed some interest in (not sure if I’m allowed to do that. Oh well). Who knows, maybe I’ll be able to slip a Spanish phrase in the chat pod, now that I might have a reason to practice.
Jeffrey (‘17) ultimately settled on studying film and media studies and French, though food is his greatest passion. He lives in Grand Rapids and is trying to teach himself computer science so he can, among other things, cyberbully Elon Musk.