Taking a year to be immersed in Spanish serves up endless opportunities to talk with students and parents with limited English. But it also allowed this educator to dig deep into fiction providing unexpected personal and professional enrichment.
I just came back from a week of real beach vacation in Mexico in the town where I lived for almost a year in 2003 (and became fluent in Spanish), right before I began my master’s degree at Bank Street. It was paradise, and also probably the only week in this entire year that I did NO work. I mean, nothing related to teaching, schools, education policy, or writing about education. I thought relatively little about teaching, which was a refreshing change of pace and surprising since I was traveling with a friend who is also a teacher. I got to hear and speak lots of Spanish, visit Mayan ruins, and eat great fresh food and fruit juices (aguas de fruta) that can only be so yummy in Mexico, and relaxed on the beach.
And I read a lot. I thought about bringing my latest nonfiction picks, which are related to education: Leadership is an art by Max DePree and Linchpins by Seth Godin. Both have some important implications for teaching and schools and are very worth checking out if you aren’t familiar with them. However, in the end, I chose not to bring either of these.
I read only fiction. My first pick was a debut novel by accomplished poet Rebecca Wolff called The beginners. I was interested in it after hearing the author interviewed on NPR—in particular, that she’s a poet writing her first novel, that it’s about adolescence, and that it takes place in Massachusetts in a town near Salem with a rich history. It turned out to be quite interesting and engrossing, although I agree with the reviewers who say that her style and use of literary elements sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. I also read Mind of my mind by my favorite science fiction author Octavia Butler, the second book in the Patternmaster series. As is the case with all of her work, this book was amazing to read. Butler’s ability to create believable and insightful characters with otherworldly abilities is just exceptional.
Now that I think about it, this is the only time since last summer that I really took the time to read fiction. I’ve read so much nonfiction, which can be easily interrupted and read in snippets. Fiction is quite different for me. As Simon Lesser argues in Fiction and the unconscious, fiction creates a world and interacts with our unconscious minds. Entering a virtual world of fiction requires a “relaxation of the vigilance” of the mind, usually applied to real-life situations. I find this very hard to do in my usual busy life. But it was wonderful to slow down, relax, and surrender to a story.
In a way, I did work this past week. I’m an English teacher (and was an English major in college) who focuses the majority of my course on novels. How did I get to a place where I hardly read it myself anymore? How hypocritical is that? This week of vacation got me back into the world of fiction, and I hope to stay there for at least a few hours per week.
I also realize that speaking Spanish—living in Spanish, really—was great for my own second language development. The ability to speak Spanish serves me with my students and some of their parents who have limited knowledge of English.
This all reminds me that I love my job. There is so much variety in my “work.” The things that enrich me personally also enrich me in my teaching. Also, I should go on real vacations like this one more often.