Making Connections Past Language Barriers

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By Keith Cruz

Imagine spending a month in Andalusia, the southernmost province of Spain overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, drinking tinto verano and eating paella by narrow cobbled streets laid down five centuries ago. Sure enough, the bull-fighting, flamenco, siesta and Cathedrals that frame every setting sun made for a memorable trip, but what made my time in Spain as an English teacher so life-altering were the kids: the pre-pubescent, rowdy, soccer-crazy, perpetually sweaty boys who couldn’t pronounce my name were the heart and soul of my trip, and I am eternally grateful to them for helping me discover and articulate a life-long passion: Mentorship.

But one of my hesitations before my departure was my zero experience in teaching.  To complicate matters further, the boys and I cannot be more different. Forget the cultural differences and the yawning age gap. For one, we barely spoke each other’s language and I really don’t care enough about soccer to watch or play it. The latter, I might add, teeters on the border of criminality.

However odd and unlikely this alliance was, somehow it worked out like magic.  For a whole month, I taught English grammar, spelling, and pronunciation during class time in the morning, then supervised them during the afternoons. Our typical day involves playing games at the swimming pool, watching movies, and going on day trips around the area.  Surprisingly, they also exuded something my university education could not have possibly given me: a refreshingly infectious youthful idealism and a burning hope that tomorrow will invariably be better.

My greatest challenge  was keeping them engaged in the material because English grammar drills are as dry as it sounds. To overcome this, I devised ways to channel their competitiveness and made homework a lot more interesting: crossword puzzles, filling in strip comics, group games, and hangman. This effort made more work on my part, but the joy of it at the end of the day was knowing that the kids actually remembered a few useful things. But more than that, I became the cool teacher who was more like their big brother that they wanted to hang out with after class. Winning their respect and admiration went a long way because they took my advice about life at large seriously.

And so somewhere between “Lesson 1: Past Perfect Tense” and our last day together at McDonalds, I silently transformed into a person who wants to desperately find the good in people, to always strive for the best, and believe that when I fall, I can simply dust off and try again.

Nicolas Bouvier once wrote that “One thinks that one is going to make a journey, yet soon it is the journey that makes or unmakes you.” I think this quote and my short story illustrates the impact that an international experience brings.   While the monuments and museums are part and parcel of international trips, it is about learning a new culture, lifestyle, and in my case, seeing the world and knowing that you do have an impact and you can influence the world because someday, a kid might come up to you too and say, “I want to be like you.”

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