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, 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 and 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.