It just started pouring outside and I have no umbrella. It’s 5:32 pm. One could say that’s still pretty early in the day, but my days also start early. Work-out, errands, auditions, classes, rehearsals. A whole lot of artist life you-name-it, plus the unexpected everyday fun of living in one of the most bustling and exciting cities in the world. To say I’m tired is an understatement, but it’s time to put on the teacher hat I enjoy so much. I take a deep breath, remove my earphones and push the door of an Upper East Side coffee chain. I glimpse a couple notebooks, a coffee cup, and an afternoon snack on our usual corner table. There she is, my always-on-time student. We greet with a hug.
“6 train is a mess today," I say, shaking my head. “One every 14 minutes. What have you worked on?” I ask as I take my coat off and sip some water.
“Not much, really. Been a crazy two weeks.” I rarely hear a response like that from her, but I like that she’s not apologetic about not doing her homework. New Yorkers are busy, and I appreciate her honesty. I notice a secretive smile on her face.
“Look,” she says, sticking her left hand at me to reveal a shiny but modest stone on her ring finger. My eyes widen with excitement and her smile turns even bigger. I congratulate her and just like that, good bye lesson plan! Wedding stuff is definitely more fun than the subjunctive. I’ve got this.
“So how did he propose? Use as many verbs in the preterite as you can,” I tell her in Spanish. So she goes into all the details, explaining with gestures and facial expressions. I listen and take notes. I'm not going to interrupt her riveting story for a few harmless grammar mistakes. She’s loving it all: the fact that gets to share something so personal with me, that she gets to do it in Spanish, and that I am so into her storytelling. When she gets done we both laugh at the fact that her fiancé tried to hide that bump in his pocket for way too long for her not to suspect something was up.
I’m married to an American myself, and I love hearing stories like these, but truth is engagements don’t quite work this way in Argentina where I’m from. She gives me a shocked and curious look.
“Really,” I, say, and proceed to share a bit of Argentinian culture. “Couples wake up one random day or talk to each other over dinner and agree that getting married might be a good idea. No kneeling on one knee. No diamond ring involved.” There might be some exceptions where a rings are purchased, but they are rare. My parents have been married for over 25 years and don’t even wear wedding bands. That was just their preference.
My student seems fascinated. She remarks that the Argentinian way might be better, since there’s a lot less pressure on the guy to make the proposal the most perfect it can be and on the woman too, if she’s not quite ready to say yes to such a thing.
Turns out her fiancé is Colombian and the reason why she, a native Jamaican, signed up for Spanish lessons with me in the first place. They had been dating for just shy of six months. The party is going to be in Spain, where his parents live, and she’s planning on trying a few gown designs at a bridal salon in Los Angeles, where her own parents live. This way her mom, who is a couturier, can help choose or make something special for her big day. I’m into it. A destination wedding sounds awesome. We start talking about Spain a bit, and all the different cities and the food. All of this in Spanish. I’d say her level is intermediate, but she can handle it. She’s always curious to learn, willing to try and never afraid to make mistakes.
She goes on to pull up a few pictures and hands her phone to me. “Only you, my mom and my best friend have seen these.” She’s talking about her potential wedding dress picks. Her mom likes “royal princess style,” and so does she. By that she means simple, but elegant. Feminine and sexy, but modest. I start scrolling through each one of those, which provides a great opportunity to review vocabulary about clothes and the body, and adjectives related to emotions. I also share my feedback on the dresses. Not every day do I get to play stylist, so I make the moment count. I open her notebook and start drawing sketches of what I think would look good on her. We are both very amused at the sloppy end results of my pen.
So far so good. Grammar: check. Vocab: check. Speaking: check. Listening: check. Culture: check. Good enough for me. I give her an article on great honeymoon destinations to read for homework. She says she might not get to it, now that her head is in wedding-planning mode and time is running out. I tell her not to worry.
This is how I like to do it: I always have something up my sleeve just in case, but I like to trust the opportunity I’m given to improvise and make the most of the unexpected. Sometimes being a creative means I get to dress up and play characters, but creativity takes a different meaning in my classes. When I teach, I also get to think outside of the box and come up with activities on the spot that no lesson plan can guarantee. But fun, that I can guarantee.
People learn more and better when engaged. Bonus points if the activity of choice helps you connect with your student on a deeper, humane level. Smiles abound and we all win. Any adult working a full time job in New York would appreciate a fun language class at the end of a long day.
I look at my phone. It’s 6:28 pm. Oh my gosh, that went by super fast. Time to wrap up and go. I grab my purse and coat and head to my next class. It stopped raining outside, skies are clear and I’m not tired anymore, just grateful I get to do what I love.
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