Q: Tell me about the job you used to have.
A: The Spanish Ministry of Education has a program for North Americans, where you get paid 700 euros per month to speak English in public schools for ostensibly twelve hours a week.
The first year, I taught in an elementary school that also had a nursery, and I was assigned to come in during all the art classes. Most of my time was spent in the nursery with three-year-olds.
Q: How did you teach kids who were that young?
A: I would sing a song about colors. It went: “What color is the sun? It’s yellow, it’s yellow, it’s yellow…” Then we’d cover the color of the sky, grass, a kite, etc.
It was the same thing every time. I spent two years singing that song.
The nursery school teachers wore lab coats, and they would say, “Catherine is like Dora the Explorer! She speaks English and Spanish!” and the kids would look at me with wonder for ten seconds before starting to crawl all over the place.
I thought, “I do not deserve your tax dollars.”
Q: Were the kids cute?
A: I remember one time, one of the little ones said, “Seño, he cagao,” which means, “Teacher, I pooped.”
I loved the kids, but at the same time, I was going a little nuts. Every day, it was the same song, and I was teaching the numbers one through ten while the teachers waited for me to leave so they could keep teaching. I’d thought I was a smart, capable person, but really I was just a burden and a babysitter.
Q: Wow. So you mostly attempted to teach three-year olds.
A: The second year, I also taught gym to sixth graders. They had a blackboard in their gym, and the teacher would make me write down the rules for volleyball in English and quiz them. I had never played volleyball before, and I don’t think I ever saw them play. They just had to have a really detailed knowledge of the rules in English.
Other times, the teachers would completely surprise me with the lesson plan. Right before leaving me with the kids they would say something like, “Catherine is going to sing you a typical American Halloween song.”
Q: What would you do?
A: I’d say, “Well we don’t typically sing songs at Halloween.” Then I’d try to invent a game instead. A great one is to have kids draw monsters to practice colors and numbers. A monster with five blue heads, for example, and three green arms.
At the same time, I was in a book club. It was a group of American women who had Spanish husbands and kids, and they were a lifeline because I finally got to speak in complex English sentences with adults. One of the women turned me on to another job.
Q: What was that job?
A: It was a program that gave a week of free English immersion classes to college students in Spain. So the students got to come to Granada, and they’d spend a week living in this monastery with full immersion.
I’d go every lunchtime and we’d get these three-course lunches, and my job was to make conversation in English during lunch.
All of the teachers were British and so when I would say “How are you?” to the students, they would reply with things like, “I’m knackered,” pronounced “ka-nack-red.” It took me forever to figure out what they were saying.
Q: What else did the job entail?
A: Every Friday night I would pick up the college students at the monastery and take them to the Alhambra. I was supposed to give a tour of Granada in English, and then we’d climb up this steep hill to the Alhambra and I’d walk them through the palace. Only official tours are allowed there, so I was told to make it look like I was just bringing a group of friends.
Q: Did someone teach you what to tell them?
A: I did very basic research and I passed on stories that I didn’t necessarily fact-check. For example, Granada was a stronghold of the Moors before the Spanish Inquisition. At one point we’d pass through an archway, and I said they’d hang the hands of thieves there. I’d heard that from a Spanish friend and had no idea if it was true.
Q: I guess maybe they didn’t know what you were saying anyway?
A: They didn’t speak much English and most were doing it for the free trip. But I do remember some of the really enthusiastic students. I’d always ask them what they did during the day. One girl worked in a lab as a research assistant and said, “I work with mouses.”
I said, “What do you do with the mouses?” and she made these chopping gestures.
I said, “Oh you decapitate them!” and she said, “Yes, and then I take out the brain.”
So she was able to learn the word “decapitate!”
Q: What were the tours like?
A: The program would give us these little picnic bags, so we’d eat our sandwiches at sunset and then go into the palace. I had to make sure the students scattered so it wouldn’t look like I was giving an illegal tour, but then they’d come up to me if they had questions.
Q: And what if you didn’t know the answers?
A: Sometimes I made up answers. There was one room where the ceiling looks like honeycomb. It’s this stunning, intricate ceiling, and the name of the room kind of looked like the word for “bee” in Spanish. So I’d tell the students, “This is ‘the bee room.’”
Later I found out that the King had invited a family into that room and slaughtered them there. So the room was actually named for that family.
Another story I liked was about the Fountain of the Lions, one of the main attractions at the Alhambra. I would tell the students how the Moors were known as ingenious engineers. They created all of these irrigation systems in the desert and a silk industry in the mountains after they were pushed out by the Christians. Anyway, at the fountain, every hour, water would spurt out of one of the lion’s mouths. So it had been this amazing elaborate clock before the Christians came. Then, the Christians took it apart and couldn’t figure out how to put it together again.
Q: Is that true?
A: I’m not sure, but I know the fountain doesn’t work and apparently it used to.
Q: Why did you stop doing this job?
A: When I wasn’t working as a tour guide, I’d work on farms. And one summer in Galicia we had to plant something like 15,000 beans. The only audiobook I had on my iPod was Tina Fey’s memoir Bossypants, so I just listened to that over and over while planting beans. Eventually, I thought to myself, “I should go to grad school.”