14. At the lingual front-line

Barbed wire, cameras, high walls, armed guards and a massive steel gate. At first sight, this nasty building blends in perfectly within this grim part of town. Just the kind of place where you’d stay away from. Yet there I was, invited and in good spirit. My curiosity waned after this poor first impression. Maria said she teaches at a high school, didn’t she? This looks more like a baddie-packed jail. There must be heaps of tattooed gang members, muscular crooks and merciless murderers beyond all the concrete. Episodes of Locked/Banged Up Abroad raced through my head: the rattling club over the bars, the relentless swearing, all the hateful stares and senseless fights. It made me sweat like a pig. Damn. Hopefully this won’t be a set-up. She saw my confused gaze, laughed and reassured that everything will be fine. Alright then… I was right behind her with hesitation. It didn’t turn out to be a joke or conspiracy once we passed the security check. I let out a sigh of relief. Yet another misleading first impression, the relaxed atmosphere caught me off guard. There wasn’t any time to readjust my views though. After a short tour we ended up in a meeting room. Upon entering, the consultation of her colleagues paused briefly. My presence triggered their interest once the initial surprise was over. They were too kind; this outsider shouldn’t be here in the first place.

Maria requested me to come to her class a little bit later. A few minutes didn’t make much difference since all hell broke loose on arrival. My presence didn’t pass unnoticed, and now they seized their opportunity to act wildly and make contact. Maria calmed down the savages and carried on. The damage was already done, no one paid attention during English lessons. All eyes were on the increasingly nervous stranger. She lost grip and changed tactics. “Ben, do you want to take over?” What?! No, that wasn’t our agreement. My refusal led to pleas from the pupils, and I succumbed to the peer pressure in the end. Alright, fine. This promoted assistant became an overwhelmed and unprepared guest lecturer on the spot. There wasn’t a magic-box of theories or experience to grab in. That wasn’t a problem for this ex-scholar and ex-student. The tactic was simple: imitate the interesting lessons I recall by common sense, improvisation and intuition. After a sluggish start, a bombardment of questions helped me out. The leg-up provided specific subjects to talk about by the assistance of (laughable) drawings and photographs. My method undoubtedly differed from educational books. Coming across as logical, sparking interest and speaking in a compelling manner was my approach. And it struck a chord. Enthusiastically I spoke about cultural differences, extraordinary people, particular events and daily life in other countries. The resulting dynamic brought me into a flow that felt so natural. The stray cat came out of his shell and turned into a barking dog.

While teaching I became fascinated about language. Communication by written or spoken language is so fundamental. Not only to function in society, it goes much further than that. Language proficiency is the fertile ground to grow. With language skills you become more conscious, go beyond the conceivable or the perceptible. Language categorizes and creates realities, or excludes them. Words are bridges for exchanging stories, information, feelings, experiences and ideas. Language also expresses a way of thinking and living: you become the words you (don’t) use. Language is the unique product of place, time, environment and personalities. Therefore, even using words with unequivocal meaning within one language doesn’t guarantee that the same is meant or understood. This is what makes multilingualism so special. Whole worlds open up once you pick up a language, or remain out of reach on the contrary. Regardless, it’s still a matter of watching your step on slippery ice, something I experienced on the spot. Picking up a foreign language (Spanish) based on another ‘foreign’ language is quite tricky. Especially if you’re dyslectic instead of a linguistic talent. This isn’t an excuse or a problem though. This minor weakness was simply counterbalanced by a firm conviction: where there is a will, there is a way. 

I thought It was all over once the bell rang, but they had another idea: if I wanted to join a football match. My left legs were shaking spontaneously, yet I didn’t lose my spirit. Make Robben, Sneijder, Van Persie and other well-known countrymen proud. Be a real ambassador and do Dutch football a favor. Unfortunately the difference between will and ability can be immense, which was the case in this sad situation. They totally trashed me, and then they (fortunately) left me to it. I licked my wounds and braced myself for the extremely busy public transport. Coming home took a while, as did opening Maria’s front door. Bars, security glass and four different locks; this building looked just as uninviting. Luckily what you see isn’t always what you get. She gave all sorts of well-meant advice in the living room: ‘don’t show papaya’, don’t use random taxis from the street, don’t go there and there, etc. Security was obviously a thing in Bogotá. Yet I didn’t feel intimidated or unsafe at all, rather immensely intrigued. South-America couldn’t introduce itself any better. This Gringo was sold and stayed put. Colombia became my harbor where I lingered till the bitter end. I did so out of inspiration. Out of wonder. And (of course) out of love for a lovely Latina…

Perhaps I’ll become a qualified (guest) teacher someday, and then hopefully a proper one.

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