It’s the first evening of any given beginners’ Spanish class I’ve taught over the past twenty years. In old-school ‘repeat-after-me’ fashion, we’ve gone through a myriad of words, practicing the pronunciation of the vowels and some of the sounds specific to the Spanish language: the silent ‘h’, the h-sounding ‘j’, the y-mimicking ‘ll’, the don’t-mess-it-up ñ, pronounced like the ‘ni’ in the word ‘onion’ and the dreaded rolling of the ‘rr’. I ask the students to turn over their papers and look at me, paying close attention to what I’m about to say. «Me llamo Rosamaría,» I say slowly. «Me llamo Rosamaría.» Then, without a word, I go around the table, gesturing for each student to do the same. Me llamo Julia. Me llamo David. Me llamo Sandra. Me llamo Miguel. We do this again and once they’ve got it down, I look at each student and tell them their names. Te llamas Julia. Te llamas David. Te llamas Sandra. Te llamas Miguel. Then, pointing at myself like a maniac, I get each of them to tell me my name. Te llamas Rosamaría. This done, I generally tap my wedding ring to indicate ‘husband-oncoming’ and say «se llama Francisco.» Around the circle we go again as they tell me the name of any significant other in their lives. Se llama — se llama — se llama. And so we go on, not once referring to any notes. I am bound and determined that each new student will leave the room that night, able to introduce themselves, me and their family or friends.
Over the years, I’ve grown as a teacher and continue to try new methods and activities — but never with this. Me llamo Rosamaría. ¿Cómo te llamas? will be the starting point of every first class until I teach my last. While I admire Eckhart Tolle’s whole ‘live-in-the-present’ mantra, my present experiences are very often playing out film-like in tandem with my past; and while this may fall short of the widely respected guru standards of the day, it is a perceived reality I value. I am in the Spanish class with the new students but I am also in a memory.
It’s 1989. Late June. I am at a party somewhere. I can’t remember where. But it is in a garden in a valley with lots of shade and citronella candles burning on the patio. The atmosphere is lovely, just the way it should be with boughs becoming silhouettes against the darkening skies and half-filled glasses gleaming on the tables. With the exception of two American men and myself, everyone is Mexican and, with the exception of me, everyone is speaking Spanish. Though I’ve studied Spanish for a year, I’m still extremely shy and too timid to speak it. As the night wears on, I’m getting more and more frustrated with myself for not trying to jump into the mile-a-minute conversations bubbling around me. Finally, Francisco, my boyfriend, tired of translating for me, takes advantage of a lull in the chatter and says, «Mi novia está aprendiendo español … en la universidad.» My girlfriend is learning Spanish … at university. The room falls quiet and the hostess of the party turns to me and says, «¿Cómo te llamas?»
I’ve never heard this question before. As my heart jumps into my throat, I start repeating it in my brain, frantically hoping to locate it the mental archives of all things learned in Spanish class. But alas. That specific question is nowhere to be found. The hostess asks me the question again, this time more slowly. How can I not know what she’s saying after a year-long Spanish course? The tears begin to well up in my eyes and Francisco whispers in my ear, “She’s asking you what your name is.” But it’s too late; a tear has escaped and I’m completely tongue-tied. The setting and the company may be beautiful but I’ve given up … on that evening at least.
In that moment of silence, my own silence, I begin to listen to the only other non-native Spanish speakers in the room, the two American men, both married to Mexican women. They are jovial, telling stories and joking in Spanish. They are completely at home, living in Spanish. And as I observe them, I promise myself that one day, I will speak like they do. I will be able to live in Spanish without relying on Francisco to translate for me.
When I look at a new group of students and say «me llamo Rosamaría», I am also at a party somewhere. I can’t remember where. But it is lovely, just the way it should be with boughs becoming silhouettes against the darkening skies and half-filled glasses gleaming on the tables. When I look at the students and say «me llamo Rosamaría», I’m answering a question which I couldn’t answer in “real” time. I’m thinking of the American men, of the promise I’m making — and keeping — hopefully sharing.