After agreeing to pick me up at ten o’clock, the last words Ricardo said to me was ‘hasta mañana.’ He grinned. In my innocence, I thought I understood, being one of the words Spanish has given to the world’s linguistic canon, along with siesta and fiesta.
Ricardo arrived on time and we set off, my sense of direction, usually good, was totally disorientated. My apprehension increased, as we began to drive away from the centre and through what looked like poorer areas, panic began to set in when the buildings disappeared altogether and I found myself on the road to Toledo. A barren wasteland lay to either side of the carriageway, decorated by debris. Worn out shells of old cars, unruly rolls of every type of wire, tin cans, and cardboard cartons, anything that could be dumped, was. Everything was coated in mixture of desolate rust and dust. This was definitely not the Madrid of the guidebooks I has so greedily soaked up as I anticipated working in a cosmopolitan European capital. I had now gone past the point of worry, as not only had I got myself into this mess but a friend was to join me in two weeks time. And I had given her every assurance everything would be okay. I felt I should really be asking Ricardo some questions, I decided to go for the direct rather than diplomatic approach.
‘Ricardo where are we going?’
‘What’s hey taffy?’
‘Getafe is a place. I work in Getafe.’
‘I thought you worked in Madrid.’
He turned and grinned, ‘Don’t worry it’s very near Madrid it’s a dormitory town. Madrid is like London.’
Then as if on cue to get Ricardo out of hot water, as suddenly as they had vanished, buildings appeared like a mirage in the wilderness and the name Getafe suddenly began to appear on the road signs. The first journey to Getafe seemed endless but takes only about twenty minutes.
Then the next thing I knew I found myself in a school. It occupied the ground floor of a group of apartment blocks. Adjusting to the violent contrast in light, the words of my travel mates came eerily back to mind. As the bus from London emptied while we meandered down through Spain, I had struck up conversation with the remaining passengers. They had mostly been female students who were returning from working as au pairs for the summer. Warning me that English was not well taught in schools and I would have problems working with Spanish school children. I showed a confidence I did not feel, trying to assure myself more than anyone else, I explained,
‘I’m only going to give conversation classes in a secondary school, to the children with good levels of English. My not being able to speak Spanish will motivate them to speak in English.’ I was beginning to understand what their knowing looks had meant.
However, when my vision recovered, I realised the interior was dim and quite foreboding, the walls were dark grey and bottle green. Ricardo introduced me to Cypriano co-owner and headmaster of the school. Then Ricardo turned, gave me his Cheshire cat like grin once more and told me,
‘You can give a class now.’
‘Me, now?’ I asked.
‘Yes, the cheeldrren will be happy to have a native teacher.’
‘What do I have to teach?’
‘Anything, it doesn’t matter. Just look in their books. They have their resit exams tomorrow.’
‘Mañana,’ I tried out my first Spanish, to cover up my complete sense of helplessness.
Ricardo laughed, ‘No tomorrow.’
Feeling unable to refuse, and more than dubious about the ethics of sending in an almost complete rookie to face exam re-sits, I was ushered into a classroom. Apart from a well-used blackboard and some scraps of last term’s chalk, I clock watched through the hour trying to teach the difference between Yours Faithfully and Yours Sincerely. Feeling definitely more ignorant of English grammar than my students, I literally read the grammar notes in their textbook and tried to write more comprehensive examples using the chalk, which screeched but didn’t work on the blackboard, which refused to be written on.
In a flood of sweat, as much from my baptism of fire as the searing heat, I emerged consoling myself, it had been the first class and I had been unprepared, things could only get better, however Ricardo was waiting with that smile,
‘How was the class?’
‘Fine, however I would have preferred to have been a little more prepared, I don’t want to give a bad impression to my students.’
Ricardo replied with that smile, ‘Oh that doesn’t matter this is not your school you are going to work somewhere else, this is where I work.’
It hadn’t taken long to learn exactly what that grin meant.
The sensation that things were not quite right kept increasing, and as I said adios to Cypriano and set off in Ricardo’s car to my school, I had a sense that I was on a greater voyage of discovery than I had anticipated.
Leaving Getafe, we took to the Toledo highway once more, direction Toledo. Not long after we took a sharp lunge to the left. As we turned a sharp bend, two modern school buildings came into view; the first was a centre for people with learning disabilities, and the second was La Cooperativa Los Angeles.
As I entered the school, I shivered. The interior was bleak and gloomy; though I soon learnt that without air conditioning blinds were kept down to create shadow in an attempt to cool the interior. People, who I took to be teachers, were wandering around. Their steps echoing in the shell of the school building; there is nothing so silent and so sad as a school without children. I shivered again. Ricardo began beckoning as he caught sight of people. He presented me, proud of his native speaking teacher trophy. I was in no doubt – I was the star attraction.
One week later, we returned to the school, this time we drove directly there. Turning the corner to my latest place of employment , as I opened the car door, I was hit by the noise. The Cooperativa was teeming its inmates were back. Oozing with the creatures of all shapes and sizes, I was on this occasion oblivious of the surroundings, even less so when I was dropped into the capable hands of Marga.
She had a strong personality and even stronger body language. Language barriers were never to be a problem with Marga. I trailed behind her like a lost sheep and entered a classroom. No rows were visible to the naked eye so I followed her exact path weaving between the desks. She carpet bombed the class which they took in their stride, drew a clock face on the board, which was followed by her opening her arms as if she was about to hug the whole class then she swung on her heel inscribing an enormous 6A on the remaining space on the blackboard. At this point, the class erupted in cheers, hollering and applause. I got the message I was in class 6A. I gathered, between Marga and the clock that I was somehow supposed to meet 6B, 6C, and, 6D in the coming hour.
Meeting the Students
As no one could ever agree on who was to accompany me from class to class all the pupils came in conga formation, from 6B into 6C then 6D. The instructions passed on like a relay race, I the baton, the clock drawn on every blackboard in every classroom. I emerged an hour later; another raw nerve experience to add to my accumulating list. The only thought in my mind, Ricardo I’ll kill him. Conversation classes, this lot need military drilling. Head counts had reached more than 40 in every class.
My final entourage from 6D had the honour of returning me safe and sound to Marga, who was downstairs in the school cafeteria, where I was met by smiles and pats on the back. Marga direct to the point, she was to teach me my first swear words in Spanish. ‘Solo o con leche?’ Solo is black coffee literally coffee on it’s own, and con leche, coffee with milk.
‘Solo,’ I replied. A small shot of caffeine was just what I needed; having just met the entire sixth course, I was to meet all of the seventh. The coffee didn’t take long to work, my brain moved up a gear; ideas on how to survive began to fling themselves around in my head. Coffee seemed to be over all too soon. I was snapped out of my brainstorm by Marga, who duly deposited me in 7A. The clock was on the blackboard again, by the time I had managed to get all forty plus to say their name and play a round of hangman, the foreign language teacher’s life saver, time was up. The kids were having fun, I relaxed, so much so, I ran out of time and never quite made it to one of the classes. I never did find out which one.
I was retrieved by Marga, using my fingers I let her know I hadn’t met everybody yet. Marga shrugging her whole body rather than just her shoulders gave a massive swing of her arm. I took a deep breath, preparing myself for some type of rebuke, I mustered the few grains of energy I had left, but just as her arm arched at its highest point, her fingers snapped like a breaking nutshell, she delivered her one word verbal arrow, – ‘Mañana.’
I had to turn away, mañana used as a get out clause by Ricardo was one thing, however Marga’s performance was what I expected of a true Spaniard delivered with total aplomb. Every muscle in my body pushed onto pause, to prevent an uncontrollable attack of the giggles taking over me. As relief swept over me, I recalled the words of Lisa St Aubin de Terán in her book – “The Slow Train To Milan” – “We have a lot of words to convey time in English, but nothing with that specific urgency of mañana.”