My First Day

By Juan Martinez

Before coming to El Taller, I had made many half-hearted attempts over the years to learn Spanish, either by flipping through old high school textbooks, or watching a little Spanish-language television, or struggling to speak while traveling in a Spanish-speaking country. At some point I had to admit to myself that I simply didn't speak the language. Even though I could understand my father's family in New Mexico, even though I owned a Spanish name, it was still a foreign language. After a trip to Mexico where I bumbled away in a "Spanglish" no one else understood, I was determined to celebrate this rich heritage I was missing out on. I decided to take a Spanish class. Which brings me to El Taller.

I worried over which class to take: beginning, intermediate, or advanced? I would not allow myself to be a beginner; I may be a gringo, but I figured I don't need no stinking beginner's class. The advanced class, I knew, was beyond me. So I enrolled in the intermediate class, with equal amounts of fear and pride. Armed with my Spanish name, heritage, and a few phrases under my belt, I figured the language would come flowing out of me like a virgin spring. All I needed was a little push. Through a bit of faulty reasoning, I figured that since I already spoke German, Spanish would be a snap.

I still remember clearly my first evening class a couple of years ago. I was very excited to be there at El Taller, in the airy, bustling loft, and it was not until I stepped into the classroom that I realized it had been a life-long dream, one that had been denied, or avoided, or forgotten. Finally, I thought, I will learn Spanish! The language of my other forefathers. We started right into Spanish for over an hour. I remember mostly nodding and smiling and trying to follow along. My head was fairly spinning at the break. For the second half of class, Bernardo (Palombo, the director of El Taller, for anybody who doesn't know) came in, plunked down beer and wine on the table, and began. Okay. Now we're talking! Like all the teachers at El Taller, Bernardo made it easy to follow what he was saying. It's one of the signs of a good teacher, I think, to make a student feel more accomplished than he or she might really be. It breeds confidence, and hopefully the lessons get absorbed.

We went around the room, introducing ourselves, giving both our real name and the Spanish moniker to be used for class. It was a varied group: a businessman hoping to branch out in his company's Spanish division, a social worker who wanted to understand her clients better, a teacher who already knew many languages, a few others. My turn came.

Me llamo Juan. Bernardo thought I had jumped the gun. What's my real name? I assured him that Juan is my real name. It took a bit of explaining, about my father's family in New Mexico, and my German mother. And that I don't speak Spanish. I continued.

¡Soy escritorio! I nearly shouted.

Bernardo looked at me, confused. ¿Eres escritorio?

There was something quizzical in his expression, and his question, that I did not understand. Thinking this was more of the call and response that we had already been practicing, I reiterated.

Si. Soy escritorio. I'm a writer, I thought I was saying.

There was of course a problem with my chosen profession. Escritorio means desk. It comes from escribir, to write (Latin: escribere). As does escritor: writer.

I'm a desk!

Bernardo is nothing if not a wise and humorous man. Determined to get to the truth, and not knowing a thing about me, he dispensed with Spanish. Smiling, he asked: So...You're a desk? (I've always admired that question.)

¿Como?, I said.

He was smiling, but wary. He was looking at me kindly, gently. People call themselves all sorts of things. One never knows in New York. A desk? No. Escritorio. Writer.

Ahh. ¡Escritor! Eres escritor.

Bernardo very kindly deflected my humiliation by taking the opportunity to write the offending words on the blackboard, suggesting we put together different words with similar roots, as facets of a singular idea. He wrote: escribir, escritor, escritorio. I put my head down and scribbled. It was an excellent introduction to this new old language, and a sharp blow to my foolish pride. And I think Bernardo was relieved, too.

I'm old enough now that the sting of feeling extremely stupid recedes quickly, but feeling a little stupid lingers forever. But since that first class at El Taller, I've practiced Spanish more and more, at home and abroad, and I've made plenty more mistakes, confusing myself and others wherever Spanish is spoken. The classes at El Taller stuck with me in other ways, too, though. I have been teaching ESL the last year or so, and I have found myself automatically employing the same methods that helped guide me with Spanish: the call and response, the emphasis on conversation, the practice of the language emerging from the person and leading out. Most of the students I have taught are Hispanic, so I appreciate their struggles, though in a different direction.

I enjoyed that intermediate class so much, and learned so much, I took it again. Since then, El Taller has expanded its curriculum, and now offers two levels of the beginning, intermediate, and advanced classes. I'm afraid I'm destined for even more intermediate courses. Vamonos!