ANTIGUA, Guatemala — “You really took Spanish in high school and college?’’ the teacher asked with a quizzical expression. “Are you sure?’’
I could understand her confusion. On the first morning of Spanish class at the Christian Spanish Academy in Antigua, I wasn’t exactly a star pupil. My instructor sat across from me at a small table and asked me a series of simple questions en español.
“Buenos dias señor. ¿Cómo está usted?’’
“¿Está su familia en Canadá?’’
“¿Tiene usted calor?’’
My responses sounded as if I had a mouthful of peanut butter and chewing gum. I struggled to find the words that I had memorized years ago, all the while wearing an expression that said I’d rather be shot with a tranquilizer gun and stuffed in a barrel filled with rabid squirrels than answer these questions.
We were off to a wonderful start.
Spanish is a language that has not been kind to me. It was my minor in college, but because of consistently low grades, I dropped it the way Taylor Swift drops just about every gentlemen caller who darkens her doorstep.
But now I needed to reconnect with Spanish. I needed to apologize for our break-up and woo it back. My in-laws speak Spanish, not English. I’ve always wanted to chat with my mother-in-law while helping her with the dishes. Is that too much to wish for? It would also make my travels easier.
I thought learning Spanish in Antigua, which is filled with language schools, would make it easier to pick up the language. I signed up for an intensive class. It was six hours a day of one-on-one tutoring. During my first few minutes in the classroom, I could sense that geography was not going to help.
Those initial questions from my teacher, a sweet woman named Ingrid, were a test to determine my abilities. I was given a beginner’s level workbook. This was not a surprise. Spanish is a language that relies on words with rolling R’s. I was born and raised in Massachusetts. I barely use R’s when I speak English. How on earth could I be expected to roll them?
The majority of the students here were learning Spanish for missionary work, hence the name Christian Spanish Academy. I imagined that they all had a divine power helping them. All I had was a can of warm Diet Pepsi and a dictionary with print so small that I wished I had a magnifying glass.
There was no sense dwelling on this. I opened the workbook to get started. It was filled with smiling cartoons of happy folks offering basic greetings. This was the kind of book you might give a toddler with poor vision. Because of my nerves, I flubbed just about everything I tried to say.
Sweet baby Jane, I had really gotten myself into a pickle this time.
When I signed up for this intensive Spanish class I envisioned that the language would come back to me quickly. I’d be conjugating Spanish verbs like Gael García Bernal on a date with Señora Rosetta Stone. Yes, I know that makes no sense, but neither did my Spanish.
Instead of sounding smooth like Bernal, I scrambled verb tenses and spent about an hour trying to pronounce “Cuarenta’’ (45) and “Quinientos’’ (500) between gulps of warm Diet Pepsi.
By the end of the day I was angry with myself and near tears. I walked through the beautiful city square and past the Necco Wafer-colored buildings, pouting the entire way and thinking about quitting the class. Antigua was much more charming than I expected, and I knew I would enjoy exploring the Spanish Baroque architecture more than spending a frustrating week in a classroom. The place is so lovely that I finally understood why every middle-aged American couple on “House Hunters International’’ wanted to live in Antigua.
I was traveling with my spouse and friends. This not-so-supportive group had taken bets on how long I would last in class before I quit. The consensus was that I would last about a day.
I got home from school, went to my room, and for the next three hours I grudgingly did homework while everybody else had a good time. I was determined that I would not quit.
This is how it went every day. My husband and friends went off exploring, while I looked out the window at school and daydreamed. At night they lingered over dinner, while I excused myself early for more homework.
As the week dragged on, my teacher realized that my brain was unable to endure regular lessons, and she began scaling back by attempting Spanglish conversations. By mid-week there was barely any Spanish spoken and my toddler-level basic workbook was collecting dust. While I enjoyed this, my goal here was not to learn my teacher’s favorite items on the Pollo Compero menu. I needed help and I steered her back to the workbook.
During one afternoon break, I sat in the city square studying vocabulary words scrawled on index cards when an elderly gent came and sat next to me. He saw I was struggling, and spoke to me slowly and kindly in Spanish. Our conversation was the first time I felt as if I had made any substantial progress. I was talking with an actual local! I don’t know if he was speaking slowly to be nice, or if he was the Guatemalan Forrest Gump. Either way, I was grateful for the much needed confidence boost.
Back in the classroom I plodded along. My pronunciation was still horrible, but at least my long-forgotten vocabulary was thawing. I couldn’t fully participate in conversations, but I knew what was being said and could answer questions with very broken Spanish. My Spanish was so broken it should have gone in the recycling bin, but I worked with what I had.
On the last day of class my unflappable teacher took out a Scrabble board and I starting picking tiles. I know you won’t believe this, but I somehow beat her in Scrabble. Perhaps Guatemalan Forrest Gump told her the best way to boost my confidence was by letting me win. I prefer to think that I won thanks to skill rather than pity.
At the end of the week I proudly picked up my diploma. OK, it was just a certificate, but it I worked hard for the faux-ploma, which proudly declared I had graduated basic Spanish. It’s likely they gave it to me so I would leave and practice my tortured Spanish somewhere else.
My real reward came a few weeks later when I was finally able to have a brief conversation with my mother-in-law. I tried to help her with the dishes and start up that long overdue talk about family. Perhaps I’d get some good gossip on Aunt Dosinda or Uncle Jesus.
What I hadn’t counted on is that a traditional, proud 82-year-old woman from Spain did not want help with dishes. She stubbornly told me (in Spanish) that when I was in her house, I shouldn’t be working, I should be relaxing. I smiled, and in my best Spanish, I told her that I wanted to help.
She gave a kind smile before she shooed me out of her kitchen.
That smile meant she was either pleased with my progress, or, more likely, wondered why her son-in-law sounded like a Guatemalan Forrest Gump.
Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther. Follow him on Instagram @Chris_Muther.