Becoming “Teacher”

This story starts here: Canta y No Llores (Once Upon a Time in Mexico)


When I showed up for my first day of classes wearing the only dress slacks I owned, I was in no way officially qualified to teach English. Still, I believed my strange mix of skills would carry me through. I was trained in experiential education, had always loved to write, and was learning a new language myself. I could anticipate the questions that would appear when navigating between Romantic and Germanic tongues. What I wasn’t prepared to do was answer why “goose” becomes “geese,” “mouse” becomes “mice,” but “fish” are always just “fish.” (By the way, what do you call a fish with no eyes? A fsh!) And a fsh out of water I was.

I got the job because a friend of a friend ran the school’s language department. She had lost an English teacher to maternity leave and was delighted to find a native speaker willing to run classes for a semester. I went in, taught a sample lesson, and was hired. In a strange reversal of usual border politics,Β  they paid me under the table.

There were many things I hadn’t expected. In the U.S., colleges don’t hold beauty contests nor do they throw elaborate Christmas pageants. I was forever losing students from class because the principal had called them to decorate the stage or rehearse a song. Still, within my classroom’s four walls, I reigned supreme. I was only a year or two older than most of my students, and quickly realized that I had to increase the tension of the tightrope I was walking between being teacher and friend. On the first day of classes, I had asked all my students to call me by my given name. They giggled, as embarrassed as if I were telling them how babies are made. Finally, one shy, curly-haired student raised her hand. “Teacher,” she murmured, “We could never do that. It would be disrespectful.”

This small bit of forced formality was probably for the best. Within days, I was grading homework assignments that made me sigh. “Write a paragraph about something you love,” I’d instructed one class, and found myself reading over and over again that, “I love you, teacher, because you are the most pretty.” The next day, I cranked the tightrope tighter and informed my students that flattery will get you a D-.

Soon after, I had my first showdown with La Reina de Belleza – the beauty queen of her grade. For the first few weeks, Julieta had been biding her time, feeling me out for weaknesses. On the fourth Monday of class, she arrived with a laptop and sat in the front row, pecking away until her scarlet fingernails blurred. I complimented her typing ability, then reminded her I didn’t allow computers in class. “Pero Maestra,” she whined, “Estoy hablando con mi novio.” “But Teacher, I’m talking to my boyfriend.” I walked straight to her desk, firmly closed her laptop, and then addressed the class. “Won’t all your boyfriends be charmed,” I asked, “When you tell them how handsome they are in another language? But you will tell them after my class.”

Despite these isolated flares from the strict dragon living within me, I was usually in the mood to play with my students. No doubt, having fun with something is the best way to learn it, and so we debated, told stories, and sang. Sometimes my students accompanied me to lunch after class, and they got an indecent pleasure from pushing hotter and hotter salsas on me. I felt like eating what they recommended would somehow earn their respect, and one day I doused my tacos in habanero sauce and ate, cringing, until my lips grew puffy and red. The next day, a fellow teacher told me that most locals wouldn’t touch that stuff, and my feat was becoming school legend. Dragon lady, indeed!

After that first semester, I was invited back. I taught higher level classes then, and got to help students with real-life projects like translating research proposals into English. I loved my work. At the end of that second semester, I held a house party where a student DJ set up his turn tables and the others brought bag after bag of tamales and cold beer. Standing to one side in my overflowing living room, I watched other teachers and students playing cards and laughing together. This wasn’t unique – in Mexico, professors andΒ  students hang out regularly – but hosting that party loosened some knot in my chest, and I finally felt like I belonged in this place.

With only four classes and summers off, I still had buckets of free time for exploring. My partner was studying for a PhD in ornithology, and he worked as a guide leading birdwatchers through some of the most magical places in Mexico. The hot days of June and July ran through my fingers like sand as we traveled to places where rivers of raptors filled the the skies over Totonac and Xapaneca ruins. Through this side of life in Mexico, I would soon meet Liliana, a humble princess living in a house made of flowers.


To read the next part of this story, click here.


54 responses to “Becoming “Teacher”

  1. If you can achieve “I love my work,” then you’ve won the contest. You’ve won the game of life. You can overcome heartache, personal setbacks, family problems…anything…if you love where you’re going when you get out of bed on Monday morning.

    My sister teaches at the university level. She lost a job once because she became too friendly with the students. They like a separation.

    Re: ornithology. I spent a few years in the Coast Guard patrolling the waters off Florida. Have you ever seen a flying fish? It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen. A fish with insect wings. Now, HOW did THAT happen, I wonder?

    More, please.

    • Yes, those were good days… I loved walking into a classroom and finding people who were actually excited to spend the next hour with me. Not every day, sure – grammar is grammar, after all – but many days.

      I’m sorry to hear that story about your sister. That’s the very reason it took me two semesters to work up the nerve to host that house party – the idea of drinking beer with my students seemed to cross some line, even though in Mexico, it’s not the case. Did she move on another position she loves?

      Also: flying fish are AMAZING. Did you see the movie version of Life of Pi? The scene where the flying fish overtook his raft was my favorite moment. They’ve got such *force* behind them! THWAP.

      • After I posted that comment, I realized that flying fish have absolutly NOTHING WHATSOEVER to do with ornithology. I have no idea why it was brought to mind. If you’re gonig to have me post comments around here, then you’re going to have to get used to lapses in logic like that one. And typos. Those, too.

  2. Such a lovely story and looking forward to the next piece. It’s wonderful when we start to feel settled and can enjoy the life we are living. What ever happened to Mexico?

    • Thank you! I’m glad your voice isn’t totally muted, and that you’re using it here. πŸ™‚ Oh, Mexico… a lot of things happened. I’ll get to them by the end of this series, but I can tell you in advance that remembering the end is bittersweet.

  3. That brought me back to my first day of work at any job I’ve ever had. There’s nothing but fear of the unknown going on there. And you remember every single smell and sound of that day. It’s freaky.

    • I remember how high and squeaky my voice was when I introduced myself, and how utterly panicked I got the first time my lesson plan didn’t fill the class hour and I had to think on my feet. This is the problem with only ever playing at being cool, instead of actually being it. πŸ˜‰

      • Yes! I love tortilla de patatas! They are really good with tuna or salmon in them (I know that sounds weird…) Smitten Kitchen has a dead on recipe, btw! I do need to share some stories from Spain… I actually found a journal I kept while I was there not too long ago… it was a lovely little trip down memory lane!

        • I’m so curious to go to Spain and see how the two places are different and how they are the same. I love Spanish movies and used to devour them, but I had so much trouble with the accents that I had to watch them with the subtitles on, even though I’m fluent in “Mexican!”

  4. I love the way that you presented this story, it’s absolutely lovely. I can somewhat relate to that experience of teaching students that are close to your age and having to draw that fine line. I had planned not to disclose my age, but one of the other professors unfortunately did it for me: but thankfully, the students took that more as a “protective” rather than a “trying to get away with things”, if people were talking in class they’d tell their peers to “shush” so I could talk. It is a rewarding experience, for sure. πŸ™‚

    • Apparently! But now that I’m not shaping young minds, I scoff at convention. The folks who made that rule are silly gooses, for sure. A whole flock of gooses.

    • I think the next chapter will come on Wednesday! I’m having such a wonderful time writing these… I often feel the same spirit of joy in your poems. πŸ™‚ As for my Dragon Lady… she purrs at you, since you aren’t trying to flaunt her rules.

  5. Oh Mexico!! I want to go back πŸ™‚ I couldn’t imagine trying to teach English over there though! What an interesting experience.

  6. Love the way you handled that laptop. πŸ™‚

    MTM used to teach architecture at the university level. They called everyone “Mr. This” and “Miss That” to really keep things professional and formal. It always sounded weird to get around his students and have them calling him “Professor Maher.” I was always like, “Who is that???”

    • It felt so good to put my hands in her space. I almost never do that, but it’s a total power trip. A gesture not to be made lightly. πŸ˜‰

      And yeah, Ms. Saia is my mother-in-law, not me!

    • Thanks, Nadia! (I just got a strange urge to call you Nadyeska. I’ve been talking too much with my Ukrainian friend.) Anyway… the next one comes out tomorrow, and I think it’s my favorite so far. πŸ™‚

  7. Ah, this story makes me think of my days of teaching English in Prague…except they were seeing how much beer they could feed me instead of salsa! Czechs drink the most beer in the world, per capita. Thanks for the great story, and I love that last picture of the house made of flowers! So pretty…

    • Oh, I’ve been told that Prague is wonderful! How long were you there, and when? I, unfortunately, hate the taste of most beer, so I would have had major trouble assimilating.

      • I was there for two years, and it is a wonderful city that you should definitely visit! And as for the beer, it’s quite difficult to assimilate without it (at least the group I’d befriended) one point I stopped drinking altogether, and I think they had a more difficult time adjusting than I did! πŸ˜‰

  8. Jennie, sister wife-
    You’re back.
    There is nobody, nobody, that writes like you. You weave a story with words that dance across the page. It’s real life that reads like fiction; it’s evocative; it’s real and surreal all at the same time.

    And now I’m craving Mexican food. The real stuff. The last time I craved Mexican food like this, I was pregnant! But I mean, authentic Mexican food: I was only there once – but it’s nothing like what you get in restaurants here.


    • You brought me back, lover. Really! You pulled me out of a funk of six unfinished half-posts and made me think, “I want to tell Samara a story. What should it be?” And your words now are just filling me to the brim like a bathtub of warm water. (With lavender bubbles for good measure!)

      As for the Mexican food… my only advice is to find the most dingy-looking, strip-mall Mexican restaurant you can. Chances are, their food will be delicious and authentic. If you’re the only non-Latina in the place, you’re onto something!

  9. You may have feel like a fish out of water, but clearly you retained your sense of humor – which can make ALL the difference. I love the joke you opened with at the start of this post!

  10. It seems you had a more structured time than I did. I was more like a private tutor — I taught English lessons to adults in office buildings, and had a lot of free time. Your storytelling is great here.

    • Thank you, Mistress of the Story. That always means so much coming from you. This kind of story is about as far as I venture into fiction… it’s all true, but I pluck and pull out what I like best. The fact that you create whole towns and mythologies from nothing… it’s marvelous.

    • Thank you for your visit, Diana. I enjoyed your article, and can admit that I’ve seen the tendency you described in myself. For much of my life, I was a staunch underachiever because I was afraid of overreaching and failing. It took me years to work up the courage to apply for graduate school. But now, in large part because of this blog, I take more risks. What’s the worst that will happen? I’ll be wrong about something, and learn the right answer instead of continuing to believe something false. Sounds like a good trade to me.

      I can see, though, why I couldn’t have understood this in high school. When you aren’t a fully developed person yet, you have so little to base your self-worth on. Now that I know myself much better, I recognize that getting “correct” answers isn’t the end-all, be-all. Thanks for sharing and making me think!

      • Appreciate the feedback, glad to know you better, J. I really like how you articulated your thoughts on self-development. You beat me to it: I’ll be addressing fear and blogging, well possibly in the next post.

        Keep up the great job. =)

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