On the first day of the school year this past October, I watched the students in my new pre-intermediate class cross the foyer toward my room, directed there by the secretary, who had met them at the entrance with a bottle of sanitizer. They came on, rubbing their hands, and when they reached my door, I greeted them. “Hello! Come in!” I said, and in they came, looking around uncertainly to choose a seat. “Hello, hello,” I repeated, sounding more jovial than I felt. For their part, they looked uncomfortable, not desperately so, like fish out of water, but wary, like the fish in my large outdoor tank when I drain the water on cleaning day and they swim in a steadily shrinking pool before I am able to grasp them and drop them into a big holding bucket while I scrub their reservoir. Like those fish, these people being funneled into my room found themselves in an ever-smaller space, and they advanced warily. That they were there by their own choosing didn’t seem to save them from some anxiety. I felt it. And yet, if some of my manner was an act, why not some of theirs?
After I’d introduced myself and gotten their names to check against my list, I asked them to say something about themselves. I demonstrated by telling them I was from the USA, had lived in Gijón for more than 20 years, and had two sons, two dogs, and two cats. Two of each, I thought, like an economy pack. Then I turned to a student, one of a pair of brothers. “Tell us about yourself,” I invited.
After he had said a bit about himself, it was his brother’s turn. This one sullenly said, “The same.”
“You also live with your parents and are preparing for the entrance exam for the military academy in Toledo?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“And you also play video games and your favorite sport is football?”
Those two yeses had come out sounding forced, as if I’d twisted his arm to get them, and the look he gave me seemed resentful, so I moved on. Later in the class, this young man turned to his brother and in Spanish asked about my instructions, given in English, and when he got an impatient answer back, he sharply raised then dropped one shoulder in a gesture to suggest incredulity. Speaking English, I asked him if something were wrong, and he answered in Spanish that he didn’t know English, so how was he to do the exercise. “This is how you learn, through trying,” I said.
I’d figured out by then that these two were not just brothers but identical twins. There were differences—the one who’d complained he couldn’t do the exercise was heavier, surlier, and not given to making eye contact—but the basic packaging was the same, and the identical masks, hair cut, and glasses showed they were fine with that. What about the filling though, the relleno?
I’m going to have trouble with you two, I’d told another pair of identical twins, girls, on the first day of class, about five years ago. Those two girls were beautiful. With their perfect skin, blue eyes, and thick sandy hair, they recalled for me the blond dolls in The Little Engine That Could, but I still thought I could see through the shell to the interior and discover some telling trait to let me distinguish between them. I thought that if I didn’t see it immediately in their eyes, I’d see it when they smiled. “Can people tell you apart?” I asked, because I certainly couldn’t, even by the end of the first class. Week. Month.
These boys were a different case. Not a matched pair but a boy and his shadow. The one I’d quickly identified as the slower was a vague copy of his brother, a loose outline of the real boy. By the end of class I felt certain he was doomed to stumble after his brother on the same path, always arriving second, always leaning forward to steady himself against his brother, and always sure to be shrugged off, a weight, slowing the other down. In answer to a question, the first brother said, “It depends,” and his twin echoed him when I asked a similar question. I moved on from their opinions to the lesson at hand, on stative vs. activity verbs: think and believe, for example, vs. run and jump, and the point that the present continuous is used with actions but not when talking about a state of mind.
Of course, that’s just plain false, and I felt it was my duty to tell the students. “Actually,” I said, “we use stative verbs in the continuous all the time.” I gave them an example. You reconsider a plan you made with a friend, and you say, “I think we should get a burger before the cinema, not after.” I paused. “But you could also say you’re thinking you should get the burger first.” Thinking, I explained, indicates an ongoing activity, an assessment of the situation, whereas think would show you’d finished with the process and had a final thought. But did I have to say that? No. It was more information than necessary, and I bit my tongue to stop myself from further examples that would only complicate the explanation even more and confuse the students. Too late. The sullen brother raised his eyes, as clear a signal as if he’d raised his hand. “Yes?” I asked, and what did he answer? Not that he wasn’t getting it yet, or wasn’t comprehending my meaning, but that he didn’t understand. He said it in English. No tentativeness of a developing state but a clear position.
But even clear positions often turn out to be developing ones. To wit, I’m thinking now, a few weeks into the new term, that I was wrong about the twins. The slow one has emerged as the quicker one, who gently, with no sign of impatience, guides his brother. His brother, the slimmer one, who does not turn to his twin, or lean on him, or welcome the assistance, is no shadow.
If they were pranksters, I might think they were pulling one over on me, as those identical girls admitted doing with friends or teachers, passing themselves off as the other. “Are you Paula or Andrea?” I’d often wanted to ask those girls. Wait and see, I told myself then. You’ll figure it out by the end of class. With these two, I’d wondered something similar. “Who are you? Shy and smart, or serious and struggling? Funny and teasing, or impatient?” But funny and struggling, smart, shy, stubborn, quiet, and wryly humorous—these young men confound my expectations. Fish. My students weren’t fish about to be caught, but flickering escape artists, surprising me with their twists and turns in the deep pool of their personalities. My hand closes on … shadows.
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