Enemies of Reading: ¿Mi vida loca? A grown man hides from his Spanish teacher, Part 1

Opinion October 14, 2011 1 Comment

by Hugh Gilmore

After failing to learn Spanish by watching “Sabado Gigante” on Univision every Saturday night for years, I broke down and admitted that I’d learn more if I took a course somewhere. Some books written in Spanish had never been translated to English. If I wanted to read them I’d have to learn the language.

And the same necessity applied if I wanted to watch Spanish movies and not miss half the action because my eyes were following the subtitles. I’d failed to learn Spanish the easy, casual, TV-watching way. I’d need to go back to school.

Admission of helplessness is always a necessary first step. Congratulations, Senor, but where will you take this course? That question occurred to me in early July. I started investigating by going to Google and typing in: “learn Spanish language Philadelphia.” That helped narrow down the choices to 3,960,000 possible websites.

An hour or so spent browsing led me to think that no area school, institute, academy, or even private tutor operating out of the back of a lunch truck, offered Spanish 101 during July or August. Since it wouldn’t be wise (for me, at least) to start at the 102, 201 or higher levels, I’d just have to wait for September. Waiting was not easy because I was pretty hepped up to get going.

In the meantime, I still had to find a place that offered Intro Spanish. Because I am old and lazy, hate being inconvenienced and never want to do homework again, I established the following criteria for the school: It had to be near my house, meet at least weekly, be taught by a competent teacher, and muy importante – cheap. I called Mary Zell at the Chestnut Hill Center for Enrichment.

“Sorry,” Mary said. “We won’t be offering Spanish in the fall.”

So much for the close-to-home aspect.

Meanwhile, financially speaking, how much was a course in Spanish worth to me? The area’s universities charge between $1,500 (Arcadia U.) and $4,500 (U. of P.) a course a semester. And I’d probably need at least four semesters to learn enough Spanish to do what I’d like to be able to do: read written Spanish and comprehend spoken Spanish. (I have no hopes to ever be able to speak it out loud, or with my head held higher than a pillow.)

Hence, if I took Spanish at the college level, I’d need to spend somewhere between $6,000 and $18,000 over two years. Too much money.

Philadelphia and Montgomery Community Colleges charge a saner rate of about $500 a part-time course (including fees), so that seemed where I was headed. My only hesitations came from not liking the commute and being reluctant as a writer and businessman to commit blocks of daytime that I was sure would eventually conflict with my regular life.

They do offer night courses, I know, but night commutes seem even more daunting. They remind me of how I spent my thirties – pursuing my master’s degree in the dark. A morning course somewhere, probably CCP, seemed just the ticket.

By the way, you might well ask: aren’t there a lot of YouTube clips that offer language instruction? Yes, of course. You wouldn’t believe the range of what I’ve seen – everything from wonderfully helpful to downright wacky, with a lot of weird incompetence in between. And the Free Library of Philadelphia has a wide range of CDs and DVDs one can borrow.

But I wanted to be in a class so I could hear the language spoken directly to my ear, hear people struggling to get their pronunciation correct and have a teacher correct me immediately whenever I began speaking my own private, unshared, language. Being a person who spends a lot of time learning on his own, I also found the idea of a group effort, led by a teacher, very appealing.

That was my dinner research report while my wife, Janet, and I were at Hokka Hokka one August night this summer with our friends Edith and Richard Stetser. Edith is the mainstay of Arcadia University’s French department, in addition to being the world’s number one holder of useful information.

“Cheltenham Township Adult School,” Edith said, “and the classes are usually very good.”

And so, for a measly $78.00, I enrolled for ten Monday evening sessions. The course catalog description said that students should show up for class with their copies of “Spanish Now, Level 1,” by Ruth Silverstein.

Our teacher would be Jonathan Needham, Ph.D., a graduate of Middlebury College, well known for its excellent language programs. I was keenly looking forward to my new experience.

Came the night for the first class, I arrived fifteen minutes early, a bit nervous but eager to learn. I hadn’t been on the students’ side of the desk for any subject since around 1980. What would the teacher be like? Would

I enjoy being in a class? Why were the other people taking this class?

El Profesor said hello in Spanish, ¡Hola!, took roll, closed the door, and then began to instigate the most terrifying hour and a half I’ve spent in years.

(To be continued …)

Hugh Gilmore’s recently released noir crime novel, “Malcolm’s Wine,” is now available through AmazonBooks.com in Kindle format. You can also follow him on enemiesofreading.blogspot.com.

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