by Hugh Gilmore
Ssssh. Don’t talk to me now. I can’t afford to draw attention to this corner of the room. In fact, don’t even look my way. Pretend I’m invisible. That’s what I’m doing. If he sees me, he’ll call on me. This is awful. How am I going to last till 8 p.m. when this class ends?
I glance at the classroom clock. No! It’s only 6:52? It was 6:52 a half-hour ago. Maybe I can go to the bathroom and stay there with “stomach cramps” for a long while.
That’d probably not work. Profesor Needham will see me and ask me in Spanish where I am going, and expect a Spanish answer. “Adonde va?” he’ll say. And I’ll try my best to say I’m sick and going to the lavatory for a moment, but my words will come out in Spanish as, “The clouds cover the ceiling so bugs can sing, si, Profesoro?” And he’ll say “No profesoro … No ‘O’ … Profesor.”
Why didn’t I sit behind a larger woman? Or one of the two big guys in the room. I’m shrinking like a scrotum in an Arctic pond, in fear he may still see me.
If I can stop trembling like an aspen for a moment, I’ll remind you of what happened to propel me here. I wanted to learn Spanish. Local university courses cost thousands of dollars a semester, community colleges cost hundreds, and adult evening schools are cheap. I enrolled at Cheltenham
Township Adult School for the first of ten sessions for $78. That means I’m paying $7.80 tonight for the pleasure of being tortured by a man who wants me to speak in a tongue me no got.
I entered the classroom ten minutes early tonight. Ten other students of various ages and sizes and types sat there already. The professor sat at his desk. Everyone was silent. Bad sign. Fear. Wariness. And though the class was “Conversational Spanish,” the teacher seemed determined to not offer any conversation until the clock struck the appointed hour.
In a whirl, another dozen people entered. The teacher rose, gestured to us all and said something whose emphatic hand gestures meant we should rise and remain standing. He walked over and closed the door and walked to the board and wrote, saying each word as he completed it, “¡Ola! Me llamo Juan.”
He turned and pointed to himself, “Juan.”
¿”Como se llama usted?” turning to us, pointing at himself: “Juan. Me llamo Juan.”
“Your name is Juan?” someone ventured.
“Si,” he said, just as he began the reign of terror by pointing at the lady in front of me and saying, “¿Como se llama usted?”
I forget exactly how she answered. I did notice that he was going row-by-row, seat-by-seat, as though he intended to ask each and every one of us this confusingly constructed Spanish question: “How do you call yourself?”
I was a foot taller than the lady I’d been trying to hide behind. I considered sidling over and hiding behind one of the men, or perhaps, even better, the large American flag draped in the corner. No, I’d just seen him catch my eye. He had me marked and measured. I’d have to think.
I started thinking. I looked at the board: “¿Como se llama usted?” I’d just whack it apart and put it together again. “Como” means “what?”; “se” = “is”; “llama” = “your”; “usted” means “name.”
The inevitable came round: “Senor,” our teacher said, pointing at me, “¿Como se llama usted?”
I felt my face redden. (I always know when I blush, and that knowledge – Hugh, you’re blushing! – makes the blush spread and deepen and usually then trips the brain-freeze switch, and whatever I say while I wait to de-blush seems to come from a scripted backup generator that kicks on to keep me from running away.) But I determined to fight through. “Mi” (My) “usted” (name) “se” (is), “Oogh” (silent H).
Wrong. That’s not what the words mean.
He said the correct answer, whatever. I repeated it successfully on the third try. Whatever. “Don’t call on me again, ever,” I prayed silently.
Eventually everyone had been questioned and had sat down. El Profesor then wrote some more phrases on the chalkboard, enough to construct a brief conversation.
Then he pointed at two people and indicated they should come up front and pretend they were strangers meeting (which they were). Here’s the script:
“How are you?”
“Fine. How are you?”
“Fine. What is your name?”
“My name is Doris.”
“Nice to meet you.”
“Gracias. What is your name?”
“My name is Bill.”
“Nice to meet you.”
Sounds simple, except that from the moment I realized I would have to go up front and do that script from memory, my brain, my face, my neck, my heart and my soul felt they had been sprayed with Freon and I was trapped inside. I had no idea in advance I’d ever feel that way. I had contracted a bad case of brain freeze.
Was it “buenos,” or “buenas” or “bien” I should say? Dias or dios? Me or mi, llama or llamo, and was it usted or ustedes? – I’d swear he used both. And what order did they come in? Bits of remembered German came to me, and some French, even the Swahili I knew from living in Africa years ago.
I was nervous and also a bit annoyed. I was telling myself I didn’t sign up to be embarrassed in front of strangers. In fact, I decided to assert myself and say, “Please don’t call on me anymore. If I have something to say, I’ll raise my hand.”
(To be concluded next week)