All in the Mind

Mitya Ku/Flickr
Mitya Ku/Flickr

The new unit of the upper-intermediate class textbook featured a discussion topic: nurture vs. nature, under the heading, “It’s all in the mind.” Have you ever heard that phrase? I asked. Neither of the two students had, so I prodded. “What might it mean?”

The students, both girls, showed little interest in guessing. I told them. One of them, 15 years old, did not react at all, and the other, a year older, made a thoughtful face and nodded. Neither could come up with an example. I offered some from the world of sports, and asked for comments. Still, the students were not engaged. The better student, the younger one, shook her head at every question, even the ones that weren’t yes-no questions. I asked the girls to think of things they were good at. The next step would be to decide if each talent was learned or innate. First though, the list of talents. Again, the better student shook her head. “What do you mean?” I asked, and she answered, “None.”

“You’re not good at anything?”

She shook her head, slipped back a bit in her seat, and I asked again, “There’s nothing you’re good at?” I named a few possibilities: cooking, drawing, singing, doing puzzles, memorizing math formulas before a test, applying makeup, getting along with people. No. I stared. She shrugged, ducked her head, laughed, and threw a glance at her classmate. I frowned. I could think of several things I knew she was good at: avoiding eye contact, conjugating verbs, reading quickly and accurately for the main idea, arriving on time, and choosing stylish clothing. But she would not name one activity.

The previous school year, I’d had six students in this group, but only two had returned in the fall. A class of two is more difficult to teach than a class of four or six. With two, however, I could really focus on individual needs, if the students cooperated. The younger girl needed to speak, the other to make coherent sentences without breaking into Spanish at the first difficulty. I knew I could help them if they cooperated. The younger quietly gave answers to the grammar exercises when I asked. But she would not offer an example or anecdote, and would not speculate about any subject. Unless she was reading from the book, she never strung more than three words together. For talk, I invariably turned to the other, as I did again that day.

Her name was María. Last year, she had been plump and blond with pale, pinkish skin, wavy hair, and dark eyes under thick dark eyebrows, and she too had refused to talk in class, after the first month or so. I couldn’t understand it: she wasn’t supercilious, and she was anything but shy. Coming late into class, she seemed flamboyant, seeking the attention of her late entrance. So why not speak? When working in pairs, she was open and willing to have a go, no matter which student was her partner, though she seemed to murmur rather than speak forthrightly. But with me, in a class discussion, not a word.

Over the summer, however, a transformation had occurred. She had grown taller and slimmer, and she was bustier. I had thought her almost plain; now she seemed beautiful, as if a curtain had been drawn aside and she had come forward, into full view. All of her acting and preening from the previous year were practice for this year, when she had come into her own. Seated, shifting often in her chair, crossing and uncrossing her long legs, turning this way then that, she never appeared bored, merely distracted. Compared to her olive-complected classmate with the long, straight hair, classical features, athletic body, and retiring attitude, María was showy, glitzy, even gaudy. Faded jeans, loose gauzy purple sweater, a thin shirt underneath, good posture. Had she sat up so straight last year? I had remarked on the change already, but one day I remarked on it again, when the topic in the book was fashion. “You wore a uniform last year, didn’t you?” Yes, she had, she said, laughing as if at a childish phase, deep in her past. She had also had some dental work, I remembered, so I checked. Yes, she confirmed, she had. She flashed a big smile.

I gazed at her. “Last year you hardly said a thing,” I observed.


“Brackets?” I echoed. Of course—the British word for “braces.”

Her laughter was a happy trill. “I had brackets!”

“You couldn’t talk because of the brackets?” I imagined she’d realized her pronunciation was off, and shame had kept her quiet.

“I didn’t want anyone to see!”

I was confused. Were her brackets a secret she was ashamed of? “No, but l didn’t want anyone to see!”

I stared at her. For vanity, she’d gone months without showing her teeth? That appeared to be the gist. I shook my head. “Did you think anyone cared?”

“No, but I didn’t want anyone to see me like that!” She laughed again, as if to say “How silly!”

To get back to the lesson, I turned to the words I’d written earlier on the board: “Nature or nurture?” Now we would categorize their talents as one or the other, inherent or learned. They hadn’t volunteered any talents yet, but I knew enough to suggest a few. “María,” I asked, “do you think your storytelling talent is intrinsic, or did you learn it?” Maria was squinting at the board. She was 10 feet away but could not read the words. No need to ask where her glasses were: at home, where no one would see her wearing them. She admitted she couldn’t read the board and laughed when I scolded her about her glasses. Beautiful smile, laughing eyes.

If she couldn’t think of any talents, we’d move on to character traits. I had a surprise in store for her: vanity. What would she say? With a different student I wouldn’t dare. A different student might clam up or take offense. But not María. Because humor and self-knowledge were also traits of hers. She was fun-loving and fun. María, I want on the record, makes me laugh!

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Clellan Coe, a writer in Spain, is a contributing editor of the Scholar.


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