I met Ana, Carlos and their frazzled mother, Laura, in the middle of a stone-clad plaza, anchored by a large church. As we walked to greet each other for the first time with the Spanish dos besos (two kisses) the flock of pecking pigeons gathered in the center scattered to red terracotta roofs above. Not being the first family I tutored, I assumed they would follow the same general Gaditano family mold I encountered with my other students: always-on-the-go mother, two competitive kids that called each other gordito (little fatty) and a jovial father who liked to try out his English. I thought this was a family that lived in a tight, but bright beach apartment with buenas vistas of the Atlantic.
We walked into what I thought was the patio lobby of an apartment building, but when Laura set her purse down I realized we were in their living room. My mouth dropped open as I gazed up at the levels ascending to a skylight, throwing sunshine on the brightly-painted ceramic tiles covering the walls and bouncing in turn off the marble floor and white, wood trim. I was in a historic mansion that embodied the style of all things vibrant and Spanish, but not the sort of place that I had actually seen people live in.
"Maybe I should see all the different studying situations before we begin," I suggested.
Clases Particulares. That's what private, under-the-table tutoring lessons were called. Although I didn't know exactly what teaching these classes entailed when I first arrived in Cadiz, Spain, I knew that I wanted to find them because they equaled more teaching hours which equaled more money and hence, financial freedom to travel on my long weekends. Fresh-out-of-college and neck-deep in student loans, I hadn't come to Spain with much money. But, I needed to travel, because that's what you do when you're abroad, right?
"The teachers at school often say she is distracted, as though she is in another world," Laura told me of Ana on the first day of class.
And distracted she was, along with her younger brother, Carlos, who I noticed would get away with things under the radar because the majority of attention was going to his sister's bad behavior. With no child and teaching experience knowledge to draw on, keeping them entertained for an hour and a half became a weekly headache. One of them would wander out of the room for five or ten minutes at a time, lost in the mansion. I didn't know what to do. Leave one to find the other, hoping in the meantime the one I left wouldn't wander off as well, or stay there teaching the one I had pegged down at the moment.
"Where is your brother?" I asked Ana, pulling her down from the mahogany dining room table for the eighth time that day.
"Haciendo caca," she replied smugly. I stood still, gaping at her as the translation slowly dawned on me, the Spanish equivalent of "taking a shit."
I couldn't keep them still. On the fifth class I realized that something had to be done. Their parents weren't paying me to sit on a silk cushion while their children wandered around the house. Having them sit at the dining room table for an hour and a half was not an option, so I made a decision and acted.
Ana stared at me with widened eyes as I joined her on the marble-tiled floor beneath the table, textbook in hand. The absurd idea of the profesora being on the ground, too, kept her fascinated enough to learn for about half an hour, then we migrated to the winding staircase up to the skylight, followed by the couch.
I would always return home to my roommates and friends with the latest stories from these students, who I nicknamed "The Mansion Maniacs," and then follow the story with an Ibuprofen. Although the children gave me a headache, I began to think of each class as a new challenge to keep them entertained and teach them English.
"During this hour, you can only speak to Jacque in English," the parents told the children I tutored time after time. I found this close to impossible and often less than a minute after the parent said this, I found myself slipping back into broken Spanish.
"Pegar. What is pegar?" I asked, citing a word I had just heard Carlos use.
"You know, like this," he said, and slapped his face, "Mi hermana me pega siempre." My sister always hits me.
The kids taught me just as much Spanish as I taught them English.
When I talked to adults in Spanish, they always looked at me quizzically, mouthing, "Que???," leaning in closer, "Que???"
Not kids. These eight-year-old Gaditanos had the open minds to process the absurdities and grammatical inaccuracies that must have exited my mouth. Because of this ease, within five minutes of class I found myself slipping in and out of Spanish without stammers, between their fanciful Gaditano slang. My muscles didn't tense like when talking to adults.
The more Spanish I learned, the more I realized how witty and clever my young students were with their play on words and jokes. Gaditanos are known to be theatrical and love bromas (jokes).
One day, I was teaching Carlos and Ana prepositions (below, above, beside, etc.). As always, they were bored with my work and decided to make the activity more interesting, using their creative license to change my Halloween/furniture preposition flashcards. They replaced the piece of furniture word with "caca" (shit).
"A ghost above the caca."
"A witch beside the caca."
"An alien below the caca."
"A ghoul in the caca."
Well, at least they understand how to use prepositions, I resigned. We would have to save the furniture words for another day. Vamos por partes. Little by little.
One day I was packing my things as usual. Laura had left the money for me on the piano. As I was gathering it, my eyes caught a picture. It was Ana, perhaps when she was five or six, with another little girl that looked exactly like her.
"Who is—," but then I quickly stopped myself, a thought settling in my mind. I saw the housekeeper nervously eyeing me, her broom frozen. I glanced over at Ana. She was busy covering a worksheet on weather vocabulary with drawings of Sponge Bob Square Pants, humming to herself.
"Well, have a great weekend," I said widely, to everyone, trying to keep my face as normal as possible while the housekeeper let me out.
As I meandered home, my feet absently passed over the narrow cobblestone streets. I turned over the thought that Ana had a twin sister. Had. And suddenly, everything made sense. This family who seemed to have it all at the same time had lost so much. I had been given a window into this world, at once making me realize how important the care and compassion of other people who enter their lives is held. Even though I never said it to their faces, I at once felt awful for calling them "The Mansion Maniacs." You can have all the money in Cadiz and still feel like you have none, I thought, my hand unclenching around the wrinkled twenty euro bill I had forgotten was there.
How do I possibly act to these children now that I know this? More games? Still the same? Treat them different? And then I wondered why the mother hadn't told me, let me know why they had problems, why Ana was often "in another world." These were thoughts that worried my mind before the next class. But as soon as I walked in the door the following week I knew what I had to do. I had to treat them like normal. The mother hadn't told me about this because she wanted them to have as normal of a childhood as possible. Their lives had to march forward, and not everyone that entered it could be a mourner with them.
I would never have imagined that an eight-year-old Gaditana could give me insight on how life marches on, with humor and fun at every junction, despite the difficulties along the ride.
These classes, with children who my life randomly interwove to meet, weren't just about going into a student's home and teaching English. They were also about the intimacy behind this, the intercambio (exchange) of views and ways of dealing with the world. For a sliver-sized window into my life, I got to see a cliff-top view of theirs. It wasn't just about the exchange of two global languages, but also to know someone so different than yourself, yet at the end of class, still be able to laugh over the same bromas (jokes).
Now, as I'm ending my journey in Spain, despite teaching many clases particulares, my bank account is still low and I still haven't seen all the wildly elegant cities Europe has to offer: Prague, Rome, Amsterdam, Venice. . . But, I think these classes supplied me with something even richer than international travel on the weekends. They gave me a lens to (almost) completely understand the opportunity I was given in Spain, and improve my Spanish along the way.