an extended #tbt

Destiny isn’t really my thing.  I’m not religious, and I don’t look to a higher power for my life’s grand plan.  But every once in a while, I can’t help but take a step back and observe how different experiences and decisions have connected the dots during my first 23+ years on this crazy planet.

In my hometown, students begin foreign language study in middle school and are given the option of French or Spanish.  At age 12, I chose Spanish, partially because it seemed more practical and partially because it’s what my older brother had chosen four years earlier.

In seventh grade, my first year as a Spanish student, my experienced yet energetic teacher, Mrs. Noyes, asked us to choose Spanish names, and I selected Esperanza—hope.  Spanish came easily to me, and I did well in the subject in middle and high school, but I was never particularly excited about it.  When senior year rolled around, I had the choice of taking AP (Advanced Placement) Spanish or Spanish 5, a culture-based class with little grammar.  My lack of passion for the language and already AP-heavy schedule encouraged me to choose the latter.

A note from my first Spanish teacher, Mrs. Noyes, in my seventh grade yearbook -- "Good luck in your long happy life.  Speak Spanish!"

A note from my first Spanish teacher, Mrs. Noyes, in my seventh grade yearbook — “Good luck in your long happy life. Speak Spanish!”

The following summer, in preparation for my impending entrance as a freshman Communication Studies major (my, how things change) at Northwestern University, I had to take an online placement test to determine my progress toward the “equivalent of two years of university-level language classes”-requirement.  I vividly remember sitting in my family room with my laptop, watching a Red Sox game and absent-mindedly choosing between ser and estar and conjugating verbs in various tenses.  I had studied Spanish for six years, but I was placed in second-year university Spanish.  Oops.  I probably could’ve passed out of the requirement completely if I had put in a little effort.

But thank goodness I didn’t.

Having an easy breezy Spanish 121 class in my schedule for all three quarters of freshman year was a welcome sigh of relief among all of the other stressors of the first year of college.  During that time, I started to hear buzz around campus about the magical experience known as “study abroad.”  So it was only then, after finishing my requirement (and then promptly changing to a different major with no language requirement at all), that I continued taking Spanish classes voluntarily.  I almost transferred to a different university, where credit transfer red tape most certainly would have prompted me to stop studying the language altogether.  Instead, however, I stayed at Northwestern and started connecting with some excellent native professors and dreaming about a semester spent in another country on the other side of the world.

On September 1, 2010, that dream came true, as I hugged my parents goodbye and got on my first ever international flight, landing in Sevilla hours later, jetlagged, overheated, and confused as hell as to why the heavily-accented syllables that my host family spoke to me sounded nothing like the Spanish I had studied for the previous eight years.  However, a little serendipity and a lot of linguistic trial and error changed everything quickly, as I was lucky to make some wonderful Spanish friends and connect intimately with locals.

Had it not been for any of those twists and turns along the way, starting at age 12, I probably wouldn’t be writing right now in a blog about my life in Madrid.  This journey could have been different if I had chosen to study French rather than Spanish.  Or if I had taken AP Spanish and/or paid more attention while taking the placement exam and thus passed out of the language requirement at Northwestern altogether.  Or if I had stopped studying it at NU after freshman year.  Or if circumstances were different and I had a less magnificent study abroad experience.

But no.  The path I followed gave me the desire and confidence to return to Spain to work as an English teacher for not one, but now two years.

Where will these little connected dots take me next?  Only time will tell.


Toledo, in photos

I finally made it to Toledo, one of the most important places to visit in Spain, and only an easy 30-minute train ride from Madrid.  Though I did not purchase either of the Castilian city’s traditional products (marzipan and swords), nor did I pay to enter any of the various impressive monuments it has to offer, I fell in love with Toledo’s beauty on a sunny and crisp autumn day.  And now I’m proud to say I’ve been to five of Spain’s thirteen World Heritage cities!  Here’s a taste of my day in Toledo:

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get up, stand up

While the train workers were on strike this past week, the previous week saw the latest strike and protests for the education field, this time for all levels, from preschool to university.  Tuesday and Wednesday were strike days for students, which were met with a moderate response, but Thursday was the grand culmination: a strike for teachers, students and parents alike.  At our school, approximately 80% of the students stayed home on Thursday, while about half of the teachers did the same.

A note on the white board in the teacher's room, reminding staff that there'd be a meeting the day before the Oct. 24th strike

A note on the white board in the teacher’s room, reminding staff that there’d be a meeting to discuss the Oct. 24th strike

The anger and frustration are in response to the LOMCE, a new education law that is quite unpopular among many (well, really all of the Spanish people I have spoken to about the topic, though I’ll be the first to admit that my sample could be biased).  The reform has been pushed through the various levels of government by the majority Partido Popular; some of its measures are already being felt, while others could be implemented as soon as next school year.

A banner hanging outside my school: NO to an anti-democratic law.  The LOMCE doesn't educate -- it converts us into slaves of the system."

A banner hanging outside my school: NO to an anti-democratic law. The LOMCE doesn’t educate — it converts us into slaves of the system.

Among its reforms, the LOMCE will:

  • replace “Education for Citizenship” (a type of ethics course) with Religion and/or Values in K12 education, both of which will be graded and weighted the same as other core courses.  The last time Religion was a part of the public school curriculum was during Franco’s fascist regime.
  • ensure that every student has access to publicly funded education in Spanish.  This means that the provincial governments of provinces with a second official language (Cataluña, Galicia, etc.) will be required to pay for the private education of any student who wants to study in Spanish, if a public school taught in Spanish is not locally available to that student.
  • repeal the ban that forbade the government from subsidizing single-sex private schools, many of which are run by the Catholic church.
  • create new national standardized tests at various educational levels with significant consequences for students, effectively beginning to sort them into “university-bound” and “vocational training-bound” tracks as early as age 12.
  • increase the already high student-to-teacher ratio that is acceptable at each level of public education.  On a personal anecdotal note, at the high school level, I have classes of 36 students, and a neighboring town has an economics course whose class list reaches 51.
  • make college access more financially challenging in an already crisis-stricken country.  Tuition at public universities has risen by over 60% in recent years, while funding for scholarships has dropped by a similar percentage.
  • worsen working conditions for teachers.  Salaries have been frozen since 2011, while workloads have increased.
  • diminish course offerings in art, technology and contemporary history, looking at the student exclusively as a “future laborer,” according to critics.

Although the protests, albeit well-attended, were largely incident-free, my brush with “danger” at last November’s general strike encouraged me to steer clear this time around.  However, the Marea Verde (Green Tide), the name of the opposition who can be identified by members’ green shirts and banners, was in full force despite the rain, voicing its discontent with the state and future of public education.  I hope their voices will soon be heard.