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The Dream of a Common Language

When I was in elementary school in Needham, Massachusetts, each week we had a Spanish class with Señora Waters, a teacher who broadcasted to all of the classes in the school on a television screen and was assisted by a stuffed bear appropriately named Osito. We learned how to say different kinds of food and the colors and the days of the week. It was my first real exposure to Spanish, and I remember not really thinking much of it then, except that it was pretty cool that there was a teacher on a TV screen talking to us. I couldn’t sense then that the rhythmic, lyrical vocabulary that was being transmitted to my seven-year-old brain would eventually not just become a part of what I would later do, but who I would later become.

When we learn languages in school, they are broken down into their parts. We learn vocabulary, grammar, sentence structure. We learn pronunciation and spelling and usage. We learn the rules, and we learn the exceptions. And all of these things are part of language, of course, but they are not what language is. Language is so much more than a sum of its parts.

Thinking about the transformation of Spanish in my life from a list of vocabulary words on a piece of notebook paper to this living, breathing part of my personality is like watching a child grow. I remember running home after Spanish class in sixth grade and telling my Mom I’d learned how to say scooch in your chairs—“Escuchen!” I remember during an oral exam in high school realizing that I was just talking in Spanish without having to translate my thoughts from English in my head. I remember in Chile when I was sixteen and I realized I was counting something in my head in Spanish. I remember sitting around the table with my first Chilean host family seven years after I lived with them and realizing that I understood 100% of what was being said. I remember the first time I got mistaken for Chilean. Spanish had morphed from a subject in school to an undeniable force in my life, something that was real and alive and important.

Spanish isn’t the subjunctive or the tú form or the car-gar-zar verbs or the accent marks or the rolled R’s. Spanish isn’t textbooks or quizzes or oral presentations.

Spanish is my second host mother Gladys thanking God for her entire family during her vow renewal and saying thank you for me, her “hija adoptive.” Spanish is driving around with my host brother Cristian blasting reggaeton and using choice Chilean curse words to describe our hangovers while we chug Gatorades. Spanish is talking to my eighth grade girls during recess about their love lives. Spanish is chatting with José, the bartender at the restaurant I worked at in Evanston when business was slow. Spanish is watching my first host mom Cecelia start to cry when she read the card I made her for mother’s day. Spanish is gossiping about telenovela characters with my host aunt Liza. Spanish is talking about nature and environmentalism and great music and How I Met Your Mother with my friend Diego. Spanish is about helping Jennifer, an Ecuadorian student, adjust to life at Yarmouth High School. Spanish is discussing dreams and poetry and translation with other teachers. Spanish is Cristian putting me in a headlock and telling all his friends that I’m his real sister, and that I’m more Chilean than American. Spanish is getting asked about and telling my life story to cab drivers. Spanish is being thousands of miles away from home and still feeling like I’m surrounded by family.

This weekend as I drove down from the Andes into Santiago after a full day of powder skiing in July, feeling that warm, tired feeling you get after a day of being outside in the snow and laughing and goofing around in Spanish with two of our new Chilean friends, I felt a sense of belonging and connectedness to this country so full and overwhelming I thought I might burst. And though I hadn’t realized it at the time, that is what all of my years of work in the classroom were leading up to, were allowing to come into being. That was the largeness a language could grow to occupy in your life. As vast and sprawling and stunning as the mountains we were driving through.

When I am in class with my middle schoolers, I am teaching them vocabulary and grammar and pronunciation and spelling. I am teaching them all the building blocks of language, all the concrete, cut and dry aspects that say nothing for what a language can do, what a language can be. I am teaching them how to say the names of the different foods, of the days of the week, how to tell time and talk about future plans. I am teaching these things and these are the same things that I first learned, all those years ago in the second grade with Señora Waters. Because as small as they are, as small as they seem, they are the way in which you are able to arrive at a later point in your life when you are on a bus in the middle of Chile and you realize that the language you were taught and the language you are teaching now are so important not because of what they contain but because of where they allow you to go.

Watching my students running around the room laughing and yelling English vocabulary as we play games on our last day of class, I feel a warm contentment when I realize I am enjoying myself as much as they are. I look at all of their little faces, eyes shining, cheeks pink and smiles broad.

Language isn’t about words. It’s about people.


Last Thursday night, while conversing with my host mom and neighbor in the comfort of our little home, we were interrupted by a loud noise. There was a snare drum and there was shouting. My host mom went outside to investigate, and found her curso (she is a profesora jefe...like a home-room teacher or class sponsor) calling her name in excitement. They had just won the fútbol championship at the liceo (basically an equivalent to intramural soccer) and they decided that they needed nothing more than to run to our house to share the news with their beloved profe.

It was a moment filled with sheer joy and pride by all involved. Certainly the neighbors were irritated by all the commotion in the street at 9:30PM on a school night, but it did not matter. This class, containing significantly more males than females, may not be considered a particularly intellectual bunch, but they are fanatics of fútbol. Love is an understatement. They are passionate about fútbol and this was their night.

I took a photo to commemorate the occasion. The next morning at school, my host mom shared the photo with her students. They immediately hung it on the wall with decorations declaring their victory. I would bet anything in the world that these kids will not forget this night. And neither will we.


3C  campeones de fútbol 2013


I feel acutely that I have been neglecting my blogging duties (oh boy- doesn’t every blogger start at least one post like that?). I really have been working on a post for the last month, but just haven’t been able to reach a conclusion. And unfortunately, my post today is to announce that my blog may get even quieter as I take a two-week hiatus to travel home during a family illness.

It’s hard to leave the school so late in the game. Although I intend to return for our last week of classes, leaving now means my teaching time is pretty much over. Whatever they will learn from me, be it how to conjugate the verb “be” or how to take a few deep breaths when they’re angry, the lessons have pretty much been taught. At this point, there is nothing left to do but say thank you and goodbye. I definitely can’t say that every student or every class has been a success story, but I think, maybe, a couple have. On Friday, two classes showed me what the joys of the job can be; they participated, they got quiet when they needed to, they agreed to leave their anger at the door. I couldn’t have been more proud or joyful to be their teacher. The light of those classes amid the struggles of the rest of the week seemed comparable the super moon, glowing through the fog and smoke on Saturday night and illuminating the blue highway Sunday night as I peered through the curtains of the bus to Santiago.


There are times when it is good and important to be far away, and there are times when you need to be close to home and family, offering each other care, support, and love. That time is now for me, and it is as much a part of my journey to the ends of the earth as any of my adventures. For now, sitting in a quiet open foyer at the Santiago airport, I am just grateful to live in a modern world that allows me to cross the globe in little more time than a heartbeat.

Practice makes perfect


This is what it looks like to learn a language in one year.


In regards to this video, I couldn't agree more. Learning a language is a struggle. If you can put your fears of rejection behind you, however, you find that native speakers are generally very patient and willing to help if you show a genuine interest in learning and truly put forth an effort.

My biggest advice comes from my experience studying abroad in Spain. It is something I still have to remind myself when I get tired or frustrated...Put yourself out there. Speak. Speak. Speak. You can listen to conversations all day, but only your listening comprehension will improve if you refuse to contribute your ideas orally. You don't realize how much you are improving while you are immersed in a culture of native speakers, because you are so focused on keeping up and working to get to their level. You don't fully appreciate your language development until you remove yourself from your surroundings and reflect on how far you've come. When you reach that point, it's a magical moment. Enjoy it. And while you're at it, embrace all of the struggles along the way. They make for great stories...  


The Unbearable Lightness of Teaching

The school I work at in Copiapó is called Vicente Sepúlveda Rojo, or just “Escuela 18,” as we tell the colectivo driver in the mornings when my history teacher host mom and I make our way the six blocks straight up into the hills, hanging heavy with morning fog. It is a public K-8 school in a peach colored building in a bad neighborhood far away from everything, where all kids who are kicked out of other schools in the city get sent.

“The kids live in a different reality here,” my head teacher said when I first started, telling me stories of kids with alcoholic and drug addicted and incarcerated parents, kids who had been abused by family members, kids who were using drugs themselves, kids who had severe learning disabilities, kids who were being bullied regularly by their peers, kids who in class when we learned how to talk about family could not write down the names of their fathers and mothers because they didn’t know what they were. I looked around at the ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen year olds who came into her class every day and wanted to hug every one of them, even the ones who sat in the back and ignored everything or bothered the other kids or swore or fought. How could I expect a kid to care about learning another language when most of them were barely making it through the school day?

There is an extremely pervasive Chilean slang word used to describe people who are being a pain that comes from the word that means “heavy”—“pesado.” I’ve heard the kids use it to describe teachers they don’t like, and even more I’ve heard teachers use it during lunch hour to describe kids who don’t behave in their classes. How can they not be pesados with all the heaviness around them all the time, all of the things that they are far too young to have to be dealing with, but that they are dealing with anyway? The level of English in all the grades is extremely low, and I knew that coming in I wasn’t going to produce a single fluent English speaker in the four months I had to teach, but I wanted to at the very least bring some lightness into their worlds, which themselves were so unbelievably pesados.

Teaching is not like a desk job. It is not static, it is not steady, it is not reliable, it is not something that allows you to let down your guard. You have to be “on” at all times, as my mom has always told me from her many years of teaching, and I didn’t realize how true it was until I was suddenly up in front of a room of students for 90 minutes at a time by myself, having never taught before. It is thoroughly dynamic—the energy you bring into the room is contagious, one way or another. And just as your energy is felt by the others in the room, you are distinctly able to feel the energy they bring as well. The highs and lows are pronounced—you can go from experiencing the ballooning pride when you’ve actually gotten through to a kid one second to the desperate helplessness when they simply refuse to cooperate the next.

Ana* is a girl in my eighth grade class with a punk-rock haircut, multiple piercings and a practiced apathy, a girl who practically begs people to give up on her so she can then resent them for it. She and her friends come into my classroom every day during recess to hang out and chat, where she throws in English words she knows and then when she comes into class sulks with her headphones in and refuses to do the work. My head teacher has told me that Ana’s mother abandoned her at a young age and she now lives with her grandmother, who started treating her like a disgrace to the family when Ana cut her hair and came out as a lesbian. Her first class with me, Ana participated with enthusiasm and was in the class by far the student who knew the most English. But the next week, she crossed her arms when I passed out a written activity and walked out of the class shortly after when I wouldn’t translate swear words for her. I talked to her later that day, telling her things I figured she probably didn’t too often like how I thought she was smart and could do really well in my class, but that she had to come in and do the work if she wanted to stay, and I thought in the naïve and overly optimistic way of someone who has seen Stand and Deliver more times than they’ve taught an actual class that maybe that little self-esteem boost would be enough to offset a lifetime of rejection, and left the conversation thinking that next class she would return transformed and ready to learn. The next week, when she handed in her quiz empty without even attempting to answer a single question, I felt the heaviness hit deep.

There are those days, the ones where you feel like you have an opportunity to save someone and you are completely botching it, and then you realize that just like you can’t make a twelve year old speak fluent English in four months of once-a-week class, you can’t save someone from a lifetime of disadvantages either. But you can maybe, just maybe, bring a little lightness. Because after the moments where the Anas hand in empty quizzes and pull their hoods over their heads, there are the moments that make you remember why you wanted to do this in the first place. The ones where one of the most hyper, impossible-to-control boys in your sixth grade class starts jumping around the room, dancing cumbia and chanting “HALF PAST ELEVEN, HALF PAST ELEVEN” when you are teaching them to tell time, making you laugh until your jaw hurts. The ones where you overhear a kid telling your head teacher that “aprendimos HARTO con la Miss Carolyn” (we learned SO MUCH with Miss Carolyn”) and you feel a little like you might burst. The ones where a kid who you’ve been told is getting terrible grades in all of his classes gets a near perfect score on his English quiz. The ones where kids make you little drawings on the graph paper from their notebooks and yell in protest when you tell them you’ll only be teaching them until winter break.

In one of my fifth grades classes there is a boy named Maximiliano* who is widely considered by the teachers to be a complete and utter menace—and not necessarily for bad reason. I have seen him at recess fighting with other kids, causing trouble with teachers, and generally behaving inappropriately. In my class, there have been days where he whines that he doesn’t understand English, that he doesn’t want to work, that he can’t do it. And then other days where he runs around like a maniac bothering other kids and making it nearly impossible for me to address the class. On the day we learned about the members of the family, he refused to participate, saying bluntly that he didn’t have a family, only a dad.

But today when I handed him a short written activity to do, he sat down quietly and he filled it out, asking me clarifying questions and finishing it without trouble or complaint. In that moment I was glad that I wasn’t having to reprimand or cajole him, and that he wasn’t bothering his classmates to the point of them not being able to work.

After the written activity we moved on to a game involving the new vocabulary they had just learned. While Maximiliano was usually the kid sitting with his arms crossed and only reluctantly if at all participating in games, today he jumped up to take his turns and got at least a couple of the answers right. In one moment I caught a glimpse of him smiling involuntarily and saw that his entire face had changed. The game was swirling on around him and he was wholly focused on it, grinning and engaged despite the fact that he was supposed to be an atrociously behaved, unintelligent terror of a student. It didn’t matter that he was cooperating so I didn’t have to discipline him, it didn’t even matter that he had gotten the definitions of a few vocabulary words correct, it mattered that even for a few fleeting seconds, he had lost himself in the world of the game, and smiled from a place that was real and genuine.

When students enter and leave the classroom, they say hello and goodbye to me with an “Hola, Miss,” or “Chao, Miss,” and the traditional Chilean greeting of a kiss on the cheek. Most of the girls do this, and some of the better-behaved boys, but Maximiliano was always the first one to sprint out the door without a word—I was lucky if he even waited for the bell to ring to do so. Today he was the last one out of the room, packing up his things and putting his desk back in its rightful spot after it had been displaced during the game. On his way out, with no one left in the room to witness him but me, he turned back and waved. “Chao, Miss.”

I felt that one, too. I felt the absolute, soaring lightness.

Photos from the Road

Valdivia at Sunset: 


Termas Geométricas:


Morning in Villarica:


the Clouds of Lago Caburgua:


Los Ojos de Caburgua (the eyes): 


Futrono on a cloudy morning: 


Which cleared away for a sunny lunch hour in Llifén: 

This same afternoon was the day of the Kia adventure... it may have been terrifying, but we got to see this waterfall: 


Puerto Montt showed us a STUNNING rainbow in honor of the Día de Glorias Navales: 


Los Saltos del Petrohué, tumbling turquoise, as the peak of Volcan Osorno emerges from the clouds: 


The delta of Río Petrohué as it feeds in to Lake Esmerelda, or Lago Todos Los Santos: 


Huge birds soar over the Islotes de Puñihuil in Western Chiloé. In the summer, this part of the island hosts breeding penguins. 


In the winter, the area is isolated and silent. And the sunset is unbelieveable: 


Eastern Chiloé is famous for its UNESCO World Heritage Churches. Some of note include those in: 





and Chonchi (my personal favorite):


The view from our Palafito hotel in Castro was lovely (we got lucky with views!)


And we finished up back in Puerto Varas, checking out the church (before my camera died) and the views of the volcanoes across the lake (after my camera died...)


Of course, by now, this is all old news, but in case you were still wondering what Southern Chile looks like in the fall, doubt no more.  

Enjoy this song...


A fellow volunteer in Chile showed me this. It's extremely accurate. For those of you who have learned/are learning a foreign language and have traveled abroad, I'm certain you will relate.



a lesson in humility

Every so often something happens to manifest the level of poverty here. And I realize how naive I am to so often overlook it. And how blessed I am to have that option.

I was hit by a brick wall during a simple conversation with my debate students after our first round of competition. We decided that we should go see a movie, since we had been waiting so long for our driver to pick us up in the city (this began as a joke, but quickly turned into serious scheming for the following week). I was on-board, but we needed to convince the other teacher...Suddenly one of my students admitted that he had never been to the movie theater in Temuco. He explained that he often paces outside, but never goes in. He's scared. I asked him why, anticipating a creative or ridiculous response of some sort. He hesitated and then said, "Pues...con este dinero, alguien puede comer."

"With that money, someone could eat." 

This simple statement held immense impact. Coming from such a fantastic individual. Someone who is humble and friendly and hardworking. Un buen caballero. Someone who comes from a supportive family and would never lead anyone to believe that his economic status happens to be lower than some of his peers'...

This simple statement has opened my eyes. I now see subtle signs everywhere. I feel incredibly guilty and incredibly blessed. With this recent revelation, I've been reminded of why I am here and what I need to do. I have the power and the resources to help this community. And I must begin by instilling others with the confidence they need to help make a difference.   


This is Art. This is Art. This is Art.

Last week (May 27-31) was incredibly tough for me. I was by turns frustrated with my school and myself, and asked a lot of questions about value of experience. On Friday, after struggling to find the positive, find the good, and find the joy, I stumbled upon exactly the video I needed to see, posted by a friend online. It not only gave me a new perspective on my situtation, but a way to talk about it to the rest of the world. Below, I have included a link to the video as well as my response to it, originally posted on my Facebook page on May 31st. 


"To be honest, I have been living in a frustrating, in-the-way world. My school is unorganized. The students are disorderly. The language here is, well, a barrier. Some people expect me to accomplish great things in a short amount of time, and someone else cancels my precious classes so the students can stand around in the gym for "International Physical Activity Day" because they think they're "too cool" to dance. I get frustrated, I get angry, I get sick of not understanding. I feel like I could do my work so much better if everything else changed- if I was at home in the US, if my school got it's stuff together, if the rest of the teachers enforced classroom management, if I spoke the same language as my students. And all of that is true. 

For me, this video is a timely reminder to look at things differently. It's easy to see problems. Seeing them as "challenges" doesn't make them any more fun. And it's hard to see the good in them because it's simply not always there. But, you can choose to look at things in a new way- from another side, through a different lens. And sometimes, this involves fantasy- drawing a mustache on the picture, making up a story that probably isn't true. And herein lies one of the great truths of fiction: its purpose is not in denying reality, but in finding a creative way to interact with it and solve its problems."

Since that post, I have decided two big things. 

1) To think of my classes as pieces of art. From planning to execution, they are performances of choreography and improvisation. 
2) And, in moments of chaos to actually see the stillness. In moments of students screaming and tackling each other in the classroom, to purposefully see the boys and girls sitting still, quiet, and ready to learn, look them in the eyes, and give them a high-five. 

: In the week between the first time I watched this video and the time of this post, the original video has been taken down for a copyright claim. However, there are still many versions available because people like me believe that it's important- not just for us, but for everyone.

The Beginning of June

    One of the strangest things about now living in Santiago is that fact that we are in opposite seasons. I left the good ole US of A at the end of winter to arrive in Santiago for fall and now it's winter once again. I honestly thought my internal weather clock would be more messed up than it is by the reversal of seasons, but I mostly find that the hardest part is remembering what month it is. It feels like fall so it should be October, right? As of today, it is June. I keep thinking about celebrating Halloween when I should be wondering about how to celebrate the 4th of July. This past month, friends back home in the US were graduating college, my brother came home for summer and this upcoming week one of my friends is getting married. The weather is heating up back home and with it, comes the seasonal events like weddings, graduations, pool parties and barbeques. Meanwhile, I am debating buying another sweater and how much longer I can eat ice cream without my hands freezing off. 

    For the most part, the weather in Santiago has been pretty tame. We had a cold front a few weeks ago that plunged the temperatures down into the 40s which was followed by a few intense rainy days. It turns out that when Chileans tell you it never rains in Santiago, they mean it hardly rains. Also, it turns out that Chileans can not deal with rain. Partly due to bad city planning, Santiago is not entirely able to function when there is a large amount of water in the air/on the ground. Many homes in the outlying parts of the city where a bit flooded and schools and universities cancelled classes for a day. I even had a student tell me he wouldn't be in class because he was wet and didn't want to get sick so he was going home. Several students also suggested I buy a boat if we were going to continue to have class while it rained. A few cold days and a few rainy days have been followed by spectacular weather now! In fact, today, Katie and I ventured out for some ice cream (two ice cream mentions in one post) and ate it while watching a clown perform a show with balloon animals to tons of kids in the park.

    Random, right? I think one of the best things about being in Santiago and large cities in general is that there is always something going on. You just have to go on a little adventure to uncover it. 

besos emily 

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