Chimera Song Mosaic
Friday, March 19, 2004
29 Psalms, California

I had such an unsettling experience today. I did not recognize my own handwriting, and after the lady had taken it from my sight, Lance criticized me for not being able to reproduce exactly my signature from when I was 16. For one thing, I didn't really like who I was back then, so I wasn't going near that ridiculous signature. For another thing, I am very apologetic about my handwriting, and no matter how I try, it just doesn't seem to get any better. (Funnily enough, I am a teacher, so when my students ask me what that means, I just shrug and tell them. And then I apologize.) Let me explain further: we were in a notary's office in Reynosa, working to get my Mexican nationality reinstated. In Mexico, Lance explained, your signature means something; it has to match itself, or it will be questioned. He said he has had several checks returned, uncashed, from the bank because they questioned his signature. Sure enough, the notary saw me loop my name onto the page and frowned with concern.

"Is this how you sign your name now?" she asked.

"Yes, this is her current signature," Lance said.

"It's fine as long as all the documents match," she said.

I didn't say a word. The brief exchange was in Spanish. As far as the notary was concerned, I was mute and illiterate. This is not a dream, but it was like a dream, to be illiterate. I started crying (there it goes!) right after the notary left us alone in the office, and Lance told me not to worry, that I could study Spanish during the summer when I am not teaching.

"What's the use?" I said. "Then I'll just go somewhere else and have to go through it all again!" (referring to travel or life abroad). But I was just being difficult and, as I have been lately, defeated.

This is not the same as traveling in a "foreign" country; this is signing your name to an official document that you can't even read. This gives me a fraction of insight into what non-native English speakers must experience when getting their driver's license or buying a house or filling out citizenship applications. Or people who can't read.

Needless to say, it was freaking me out. It didn't help when Lance said, "You don't know what you just signed; I could be screwing you over," and "I'm a semi-competent Spanish-speaker." I looked at him and said, "Then why did you let me sign it? That document written in legalese?" He said, "Oh, I understood all of it; I can read anything." Rubbing it in.

But he didn't mean to rub it in. He actually then helps me by telling me that native Spanish-speakers sometimes make mistakes (although it sure doesn't feel like it when you are speaking to one), just like native English-speakers, mispronouncing Venez-OOH-ala and saying something is "pitch red"--they are misunderstanding their own language. But I am too Spanish-naive to hear it. Everything "they" say sounds perfect to me--a perfection I can't approach.

But earlier, while we were in the waiting room, two nuns came in and Buenos dias'd when they should have Buenas tardes'd--and everyone acknowledged it! I couldn't believe it! The difference between Buenos dias (morn to oneish) and Buenas tardes (after oneish to pre-darkish) has always given me the greatest anxiety--I can't even greet someone. When I asked Lance about the mix up, he said, "People are always mixing it up." But he added, "But it is only five after one."

The other funny thing about the nuns is that, when they came in, Lance and I looked at each other and were totally shamed into silence. We had just been talking about atheism, and I was about to explain to him how I might, hypothetically, explain to my students why I am an atheist, and in walk the nuns! With their Buenos diases! It was like the beginning of a joke--or a Seinfeld episode. I thought it was just surreal. Just today, a student had asked me in class if I was an atheist. I said, "Am I am atheist? Don't you think that question is a little personal?" But my problem now is that I wish I had told him (them) the truth. Why not? Doesn't it help atheists everywhere if we come out? (I suspect there was at least one in the class.) Doesn't it give students one example of a lovable atheist (who has control of their grades, no less)? I'm 30 years old, for goodness sakes! Do I need to keep hiding from people?

But the reality is that I want my students to like me--I don't want to be a pariah. The majority of my students have made it very clear that they love God--some--and not a small number--have even written personal essays about how God saved their lives and how they were sinful and greedy and horrible people before they got back to Jesus (I have a hard time imaging these sweet students as any kind of person I would reject, but I guess I have to take their word for it). Most of the students are Catholic; some are Christians, who typically announce it on the first day of class. This makes me cringe; I have un-fond memories of being badgered by would-be evangelists in high school. Am I afraid of my religious students? Maybe, but I do also want to be sensitive to those who have had more of what I would consider sheltered lives; I don't want to shock or influence them with my reality. One 40ish student recently told me that she was shocked to discover that the author of Nickel and Dimed smokes poet (or pot!) occasionally. I was shocked at her being shocked. And a little toke is a long way away from eschewing salvation.

So this is yet another thing I don't know what to do about. I have figured out language acquisition, though. I think people learn languages (primary or secondary) because they are motivated to do so. My parents tell me that I resisted learning to speak until I was three or so; I had an older sister who was (and still is) a very perceptive advocate. My best success with Spanish has been when I was staying with a new friend in Venezuela for a couple of months, and we were stuck in the apartment together with nothing to do, she not speaking English, and me having a pretty big Spanish vocabulary, but a lousy lead-in. If there's someone you want to play with or trade with or sleep with, and there's a language barrier involved, you will overcome it. If not, you are in for some serious effort before you'll see any results. So the passive stabs at Spanish and German and French that go on in American high schools are, by and large, setting people up for disappointment. Best to turn to Maslow's hierarchy of needs with a willing other language speaker.

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