Miles to Go


Two students couldn’t make the last class before Christmas, but the third showed up. Like several other classes I have, this one happens to be unisex. A few years ago, when classes were larger, consisting of six or seven students instead of the worrisome two or three, single-sex classes didn’t happen, and you don’t need an advanced degree in math to understand why. But maybe you need a degree to explain it coherently. And another degree to determine how an all-female class differs from an all-male class, like this one. I wasn’t at that point yet, though the class makeup affects not only interaction between students but also between me and them. All boys, all girls, or a mix—I don’t know if I have a preference, but I do have one for class size: I like six students best of all, so that the burden to be lively is shared. Two or three students requires more agility on my part. And one? I tremble when only one shows up, slouches in his seat or sits demurely in hers. Either way, him or her, the pressure is on when one pair of eyes is lifted inquiringly. “Here I am, teach me if you can,” is often the message in that look, though sometimes it is a simple, “Please don’t hurt me.” It’s crazy—I sit there, afraid of a student who sits there, afraid of me.

The student who came that day is a high school philosophy teacher, and if he has fears, he keeps them well hidden. He is older than the other two students, and slower of speech. His slowness is deliberate, not due to a slow mind but to a tight rein on his words, as if he wants them lined up and all pulling their weight when they emerge from his mouth. My words are also a team, not of steady draft horses like his but of frisky foals, galloping around, the wagon they pull in danger of tipping and spilling it contents as it careens along. In contrast, his cart has all four wheels on solid ground. He proceeds slowly. The wheels creak. Nothing is lost in transit. I curse my frisky words when they get in his way. I bite my tongue. When the philosopher’s 25-year-old classmate is there, a charming, nervous student, I turn in relief to him for a comment because his words tumble out of his mouth, a litter of puppies flopping around. My foals step carefully all of their own accord, such is the protective instinct. No one, least of all I, pays attention to me. But where was that student now, in my hour of need?

This was my last evening of teaching before the Christmas break, but I knew my student had classes the next day at the school where he works. How much teaching he hoped to do was in doubt. But at my mention of unrestrained children and what the following school day would be like, he thought not of his high school students but his two young sons. He mentioned a party at the school of the four-year-old to which parents were invited, and he said he fervently hoped to avoid it. Here I cocked my head. He described in his careful English the program: in the morning, children would gather for the arrival of the three Wisemen, called the Kings, los Reyes, in Spanish, who would greet the children and speak of Christmas, and then collect the letters the children had written to them, much as children in the States write letters to Santa. My student said that his wife would likely go to this event and return home with their child. He, he repeated in his flat, careful voice—a teacher’s voice?—fervently hoped to avoid it. After lunch, children and parents would return for a party and chocolate, the hot, sweet drink which is similar to hot cocoa. Undoubtedly sweets would be offered. He and his wife were certainly not going to attend. “So your son misses the party?” I asked.

“He is young, his life is before him, there will be many parties to attend. Too many.”

I wondered about this attitude. Too much consumerism, too much sweet food and drink, too much exuberance. Okay. But don’t the Spanish say, Una vez al año no hace daño? Once a year does no harm. “Are you a curmudgeon?” I asked. He didn’t know the word. Scrooge was the example I chose to illustrate the meaning. From there we moved on to my student’s upbringing and his family’s tradition of holiday celebrations, the commercialism in the society at large, classic movies, and the difficulties of raising children. For this last subject, he did not use much English but conveyed his meaning perfectly with the self-mocking laugh and the grimace at the prospect of Christmas, New Year’s, and the King’s day (Reyes) on January 6 all before him, with a two-year-old, a four-year-old, and two extended families to celebrate with. The joy of his fellows at the holiday season did not bring him cheer. He would, I sensed, have preferred to let the holidays pass unperceived.

For an hour and a half that evening, we conversed. Had we been in a car, going someplace, I’d not have felt any pressure to fill the time because with the wheels turning below us, our progress would have been inevitable, talk or no talk. As it was, I worried. I made sure he spoke a lot, but how much of the practice was fruitful? Teaching English is more than just correcting students as they speak: it’s also about directing their speech to use certain structures, much as a trainer will make an athlete use certain muscles to build them up. The English books are very good at providing the contexts to encourage this. It may seem unnatural—it is—but over time, using those structures will become automatic, if the practice works. Was my student getting that proper practice? Was he making his team vary its pace, veer left or veer right, was he making it turn at the end of a row? His style was his business, but his buildup of language muscles was mine, and so I urged him to swing to the left, to swing to the right, to make his team trot.

Halfway through the class I glanced at my watch. We had been talking 45 minutes already. I sensed that my student was glad for this chance to get his words in proper order, point after point, and I had no intention of using the book that day. Instead, I asked questions, nodding when I understood him, tilting my head to indicate uncertainty or even incomprehension when I did not understand. I provided a few words from time to time. I observed to myself that a female student would have returned some of my questions. We talked on. My horses were calmer, his were still doing their important work of pulling the wagon. And both drivers, he and I, in the many nonverbal ways available, showed that the load was worth tugging along over the track through the wilderness. But did his team glance back or shake the harness bells to ask if there was some mistake on that quiet, cold December night?

No mistake. Just the woods waiting, the promises, and the miles still to go.

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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