“Ten cuidado, hombre!”

Or, how a Spanish boy taught me how to teach

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It was the very first class I’d ever taught, in Santander, Spain. I was supposed to teach English as a Second Language at Inlingua, a Berlitz-like after-hours language school.

Inexplicably, the director had assigned me to an unruly bunch of ten middle-schoolers. Three previous, veteran teachers had given up in succession, vowing never to face the hellions again. I was too inexperienced to know I should have refused as well.

The first few days were disasters. Indeed, my only achievement had been to cajole the kids on at least a few occasions to actually sit in their desks all at the same time. Getting them quiet, though, remained an elusive goal.

Pablo was the worst. In spite of his soft, green eyes and cute, angelic face, he was the ringleader, whose outbursts were the most disruptive, the most apparently defiant. If I could scare him somehow, make him fear me, the others might fall into line. But how? I spoke only beginning Spanish, the students little English at all.

I turned to my Spanish roommates and asked them how to say, “Be careful, buster!” Then I practiced the phrase over and over, endeavoring to feign Spanish fluency, and so earn the kids’ respect.

The next class I deployed my secret weapon amidst the worst of the chaos. I approached Pablo and, jabbing a finger menacingly in his astonished face, uttered icily, “Ten cuidado, hombre!

Pablo’s green eyes grew large, and the other students turned and stared, similarly stunned. I seized upon the ensuing, blessed moment of silence to add, “Now sit down and shut up! I’ve had enough!” They didn’t understand a word, but they complied. Success! For years afterwards I savored that scene as the beginning of my teacher preparation.

Truly momentous moments too often pass unnoticed. The real one occurred later that same class, while I was attempting to rid the students of their deplorable accent: “Dis,” “Dat,” and “Zurteen” instead of “This,” That,” and “Thirteen.” “You have to place your tongue beneath your teeth, blow some air and make it vibrate,” I instructed. “Like this,” I added, making an exaggerated sound like that of an engine revving up.

That was all Pablo needed. In an instant he’d fled his seat again, roving around the room with his tongue slobbering, popping wheelies like some sort of crazed drag racer. The others immediately followed suit, and, thus, it seemed chaos reigned anew.

Just before my simmering rage exploded, however, I noticed that every single student was finally making the “TH” sound correctly; and, in an instance of inspired madness, I joined the line of raucous students parading around the room, my tongue out the farthest. Eventually, the kids collapsed back into their seats, laughing uproariously. When they’d caught their breath, they turned back expectantly towards me. What was the next game?

Now, so many years in retrospect, I realize I didn’t teach Pablo to respect me that day. Oh no! He taught me the best way to instruct him and his friends: Instead of suppressing all their energy, silliness and noise, I needed to call it forth, channel it, then unleash it. And, as, day by day, I slowly learned to do so, those students and I came to love that class.

The Pablos of the world are still my favorite students.

(This is a preview of a collection of such articles I hope to publish soon: Rambling on Borrowed Time — A Teacher’s Marks)

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