A year of inspired insights #2: Conversations change everything

January 13, 2012

So there I was, in Spain for the summer, about to take part in my first ever study abroad, language immersion experience. The Spanish embassy gave away a limited number of scholarships each year to different countries. There were a few hundred students in the program, from all over the world. I was one of two Canadians selected that year. I thought I was prepared for the immersion experience. I was wrong.

A lesson in humility

On the first day, all the students took a placement test. I had just graduated with an honours degree. I had good grades, despite having been hit by a car a few months before graduation. I was confident that I had done well on the placement test.

There were 18 different levels of classes. When I saw that my placement test determined that I would be in level 17, I thought, “It isn’t the highest level, but I guess I can live with the second highest level. Some of these Europeans seem to speak the language pretty well, so there are some people here who are better than me.”

As it turned out, level 17 was the second lowest level. Level 1 was the highest.

I was starting to realize that there were many things I did not know.

Living in an international student residence

Students were divided by nationality, gender and faith in the residences. While my classmates were from Europe and the Middle East, I was in an all-female residence with other young women from North America, Europe and Christian and Jewish areas of the Middle East.

The only language we had in common was Spanish. We found that if we wanted to make friends we had a choice: only associate with other people who spoke our first language (in my case, English) or try to make friends in Spanish.

The result was a linguistic hodgepodge – people ended up communicating however they could, in whatever language they could. We communicated what we could in Spanish and helped translate for each other in whatever language we could… English, Danish, French, Arabic or whatever we had to help each other understand and bridge our linguistic and cultural gaps.

Friendships with foreigners

I quickly developed friendships with English girl, a couple of Danish girls who lived in the same residence and two fellows from Jordan. Having grown up mostly in Canada, I had been immersed in multiculturalism since birth. I thought nothing of chatting with people from other cultures. I had an open mind.

Salim and Imad were the two Jordanians in our circle of friends. Salim was in my class and Imad was in the class of one of my Danish friends who was much more fluent in Spanish. We toured the city, went for coffee and helped one another with our studies and mostly, tried to practice our Spanish language skills together.

Struggling together, bridging the gulf

It was July of 1992. In the scope of world events, the Gulf War was still fresh in everyone’s mind. I remember the day earlier that year when they announced the war. As I watched TV, I thought, “But, there wasn’t supposed to be a war in my lifetime. World War II was supposed to be the war to end all wars. Isn’t that what our parents fought for?” But the Gulf War happened and I was pinned to CNN through most of it, just like everybody else.

In Spain that summer, I had developed friendships with people from “that part of the world”. These were good people. We had shared experiences. We struggled together to learn Spanish and cope in a culture we were not familiar with. The bond that develops when you struggle side-by-side with someone, through an experience that is both your own and shared is unlike any other bond. You can not explain it because to do so would mean explaining the depths of your vulnerability, your fears, your hopes, your dreams and the very process of living. It is hard to explain the process of living, which, if it is done right, includes some struggle.

Near the end of our program, after a few weeks of gaining language skills and solidifying friendships with the people who had come together in our social circle, I summoned the courage to ask Salim about the button he wore every day on his lapel. It was a photo button showing Saddam Hussein’s face.

I was curious about why anybody would wear a button of Saddam Hussein, especially someone who I’d come to call “amigo”. It was strange, really.

After all, Saddam Hussein was a maniac. But Salim wasn’t a maniac…. I just didn’t get it. When I asked him about it, he said, “Mi heroe. Ayuda a mi gente,” he said. We both had horrible Spanish. It took a few tries before I could wrap my head around what he was saying: “He’s my hero. He helped our people.”

From there, the conversation took off, in broken Spanish. We discovered each other’s point of view, the perceptions we had gained from the media, and our stereotypes about each other’s part of the world. It was an amazing conversation that I have never, ever forgotten. It shattered my stereotypes, challenged my world view and got me deeply engaged in a discussion I never dreamt I would ever have.

The conversation took place on the steps of the Muslim students’ residence. The Muslim students were segregated to accommodate their dietary needs and to provide for quiet at regulated prayer times. The males lived on one side and the females on the other.

Foreign students were not allowed in the residence, so if we wanted to visit, we did so on the steps of the building. Some nights there would be students out there with guitars, singing. Other times, there were groups of students chatting and studying. That night, a small group of us talked about war, terrorism, our heroes and our opinions, stereotypes and attitudes.

By the end of the night, none of us had actually changed our opinions, but we did learn a lot about each other and about ourselves, as we gained perspective, listened and shared.

Despicable me

Through the course of that conversation that night, I got another surprise. I had been puzzled about why none of the Jordanian girls would speak to me. They’d speak to my European friends, but not to me. When we went to visit with our friends on the steps of their residence and sit outside talking, the girls would move away from me. I had no idea why.

That night, armed with the courage fueled by an open conversation, I asked Salim and Imad what was going on. They looked away sheepishly.

In the same way I had stereotyped people from a certain part of the world, based on information that I had learned from other sources, so too, had my Jordanian female counterparts. But in their eyes, I was the reprehensible one. It finally came out that they thought I was promiscuous.

Me? Promiscuous? Excuse me?! Where in the heck did they get that idea? I was raised to be proper and respectful, not some tramp.

I was, however, a Canadian first. That summer there was a drought in Spain and the thermometer hit 40 degrees Centigrade. I was melting.

I wore Bermuda shorts and sleeveless T-shirts and sandals to class. My shirts did not have “skinny straps”, they were just sleeveless. My shorts were not “hot pants”, they came to just above the knee.

In the opinion of my Jordanian female classmates, I showed too much skin. I was shameless. They were comfortable in their head-to-toe covering and did not want to associate with someone who “dressed like a prostitute”.

Needless to say, none of them had experienced the harsh, cold climate I was used to. Nor did they seem to understand that I was struggling in the heat.

It was 40 degrees. That’s almost half way to boiling. Humans aren’t meant to be boiled. We are not even meant to be half boiled.

To be honest, I expect that most of those girls had never actually seen a prostitute, either.

The power of conversation

Unlike the boys, the girls we met were unwilling to engage in conversation. The question that started our dialogue about the Gulf War, our values and ultimately, our stereotypes of one another, was “Why?” I took a leap and asked “Why do you wear that button on your lapel?”

There was a willingness to ask, a willingness to answer and a willingness to listen. I learned a lot that night… about the Gulf War and what it meant to these people who had become my friends, about how other people perceived me and the culture that I come from and about what it means to be human.

The Jordanian girls were not willing to ask me why I wore shorts or had sleeveless shirts. I guess I can’t blame them, really. Who wants to have any kind of deep conversation with a prostitute?

As it turned out, I would end up doing just that a number of years later, but that is a story to be saved for another day.

A life transformed

After returning home, I decided to return to university to study Spanish, which my family didn’t really understand, to say the least. I was the first person in my family to graduate from high school. Graduating from university was an even bigger deal. That I had been accepted into a Master’s program in English was off the charts.

So when I came home from Spain and said, “Actually, I’m not going to grad school, at least not just yet. I’m going to spend a year doing nothing but learning more Spanish,” that did not go over very well.

Suddenly I went from being the big family success story to a “flop about” who had no proper job. A university graduate is someone to be proud of. A “professional student” is a drain on society. My family all but wrote me off that year.

What I couldn’t explain was… why. Like the Jordanian girls, members of my own family were not open to having a conversation.

Immersed in change

My life had changed. I had changed. The immersion language learning experience in Spain had changed me. My head had been blown open. I don’t mean that in the sense of someone whose head is literally blown open by a bomb or something, but intellectually, everything I thought I knew had been shattered.

I had not just been immersed in a new language. I had been immersed in change and in challenge.

That is what is hard to explain to people who have never immersed themselves in another culture or another language… That it isn’t really about the language at all. What changes us is not the verbs or vocabulary that we learn. It was not the grammar that we cram into our brains so we can pass a final exam.

It the connections we are able to make with other human beings because we can communicate with them. We reach out. They reach back. We meet somewhere in the middle. When we retreat back into ourselves again, we have seen a bit of the world differently. Then we re different. Forever. Changed.

Just like our communicative abilities when we are learning a new language, our thoughts and assumptions are jumbled and are not very fluent. As we understand the world more deeply, so we understand ourselves more deeply. We begin to know what we do not know.

Related posts:

A year of inspired insights #1: There’s a silver lining in every ambulance

My 2012 resolution project: A year of inspired insights

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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


A year of inspired insights #1: There’s a silver lining in every ambulance

January 5, 2012

Sarah Eaton - blog imageI was in the fourth and final year of my bachelor’s degree. I’d been accepted to several Master’s degree programs. I had a boyfriend. A job. Life was grand.

Then, the night before final semester classes were scheduled to start in January, I was hit by a car.

My boyfriend of a year-and-a-half was with me at the time of the accident. Actually, he had been holding my hand until seconds before the accident. We were in a cross-walk. He saw the car coming. I did not. He let go of my hand and stepped back to avoid the car, which ended up hitting me.

For a while, I didn’t move. An ambulance came. I remember looking around the inside of the ambulance and thinking, “It’s grey inside here. Or maybe it is silver. A silver lining to an ambulance, that’s good.”

My train of thought was broken by the paramedic asking, “Can you feel that?”

“Feel what?” I asked.

He was palpating my leg. I couldn’t feel it. I couldn’t feel either leg, actually.

It turned out to be shock and nerve damage. By the time we got to the hospital, sensation in my legs had returned. They gave me the full work up anyway. No broken bones, but extensive soft tissue damage. Probably some nerve damage.

Sarah Eaton - blog image - www.drsaraheaton.wordpress.comBones: OK, but… Heart: broken

I was sent home, with instructions to rest, take Tylenol 3 and start moving again as soon as possible. There was no physical therapy, no follow up, no further instructions.

The next day, everything was swollen and bruised beyond recognition. Even lying in bed hurt. I took Tylenol 3’s like they were candy, but doing so with as little water as possible, since going to the bathroom meant getting out of bed. It took about 30 minutes to get from the bed to the bathroom, which was seven feet down the hall.

There was a niggle somewhere in the back of my mind. The accident did not make any sense to me. Why had my beloved let go of my hand and stepped back when he saw the car approaching? I mean, isn’t it more normal to try to get someone you love out of harm’s way?

Three weeks later I could walk well enough to make it to the university and start going to class. I had missed a quarter of the semester already. Some professors were compassionate, others ambivalent. My grades were sliding. Graduating that year was no longer a sure thing.

I was depressed. To make matters worse, I just couldn’t get that niggle out of the back of my mind. The whole sequence of events didn’t make any sense to me. I mean, you hear these stories about complete strangers running out into the road when there’s a car coming to whisk someone to safety. In my case, someone who supposedly loved me, made no attempt to even warn me of oncoming danger, let alone offer protection.

A week after I returned to classes, my boyfriend broke up with me. He said, “When I saw you get hit by that car, I really couldn’t have cared if you lived or died.”

He moved out the next day.

A life unwinding

The next day, I was fired from my job in a retail gift store. I had missed three weeks of work while the soft tissue injuries were healing. I went into the store to pick up the pay cheque from the last two weeks of December.

The boss said, “If you can’t stand on your own two feet, then you’re fired. You haven’t been in for three weeks.”

“I called you the day after it happened, to say I had been hit by a car,” I replied. “I couldn’t walk properly until all the swelling went down and some of the bruising healed.”

She replied, “I don’t see any crutches. Take your cheque and get out. You’re done.”

I wondered how I was going to pay the rent and buy food. Panic washed over me.

I felt like my life was unwinding before my eyes.

And now for something completely different

It had been a month since I had been hit by a car. My boyfriend had dumped me and my boss had fired me. All I had left was school. I buried my head in my books and tried to catch up on three weeks of missed classes.

My Spanish instructor had been supportive and encouraging through the ordeal. She said, “You will get through this. I’ll do what I can to help you. Don’t worry about the grades. Just work hard.”

Not long after that, she arrived to class one day with a sheaf of forms in her had. asked,  “Who would like a chance to study Spanish in Spain this summer?”

My ears perked up. A chance to get out of town for the summer? That sounded good to me. With her help, I filled out the form to apply for a beca or grant, compliments of the Spanish Embassy. It was a lottery, so the chances of actually getting the bursary were slim, but at that point, a chance was better than nothing. Really, what did I have to lose?

I spent the rest of the semester trying to put my life back together and at least pass my classes so that I could graduate.

It turns out that not having a job or a boyfriend can seriously help improve your grades. (Who knew?) I passed all my courses with straight A’s.

My future in an envelope

One day in May, just before graduation, I got a letter from the Spanish embassy. Of course, I couldn’t read very much of it, but I guessed that it wasn’t a rejection letter, because it wasn’t just one sheet of paper. (Ever notice how letters telling you that you didn’t get something are only ever one page long?) There was a whole bunch of stuff in the envelope. So, I took it to school the next day and asked my Spanish professor to tell me what it said. “You got it!” She said. “You’re going to Spain!”

The bursary covered tuition, books, residence and food. I didn’t have the money for the plane ticket, so I sold everything I had and gathered the money to go. A week after graduation, I was in Madrid.

I had lived in England as a child and had travelled through Europe, but I had never really travelled on my own before. It’s a life-changing experience, to travel alone to a country where you don’t speak the language or know any one. It is terrifying. I highly recommend it.

Being in the moment is over-rated

There were so many times that semester that I wanted to give up that I lost count. There were a few people who were sources of endless encouragement and support. I listened to them, mostly because I had no one else to listen to by then.

At the time I could not see that my life path was not to work in a shop. I only saw that I had been fired from a job – and I was humiliated. I could not see that a man whose break up line is “I could not have cared if you lived or died” was not worth my time. I only saw that I was rejected and alone. There are so many things that we can not see when we are living through them.

Spiritual gurus tell us to “be in the moment”. Sometimes, when that moment stinks you would really rather be anywhere else.

Forgive me if I sound sacrilegious, but I think sometimes that “being in the moment” is over-rated. Getting through the moment, is sometimes more important. “Keep on keeping on” is a better mantra, I think, for it is only when we look back at certain moments that we see the value in moving ahead even when you are not quite certain that there is any reason to do so.

Be demanding, gently

One of my anchors of sanity that semester was my Spanish teacher. I have never forgotten the support that she offered me. Other professors were skeptical. Some were even jaded. One even said, “If I had nickel for every time a student said they were hit by a car, I’d be rich by now. Teachers hear so many excuses, it is easy to become hardened and lack compassion when students face real crises.

My Spanish teacher said to me, “Don’t worry about the grades. Just work hard.” She helped me focus my attention back on my studies. That helped to keep my mind off the break up, the lost job and the pain from the contusions. Those words were enough to get me back on track and re-focus.

As a teacher, you may not know who is telling the truth and who is whining. It’s not our job to figure that out. I do believe that it is part of our job though, to ensure that they keep up with their studies to the best of their abilities. The point is not to let them off the hook, but to help them help themselves. As teachers, we can be compassionate and strict at the same time. Learning to do both at simultaneously is the mark of an exceptional teacher.

Gracias, Profesora Santos, for being exceptional. You were a beacon of hope, leading to a wonderful silver lining.

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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


How learning Spanish changed my life: A personal story

April 26, 2010

A few days ago I was sorting through some old documents. I came across this piece that I wrote for the students of a Spanish class I was teaching at Mount Royal University a few years ago. It explains the positive effect learning a second language had on me, acting as an anchor and source of inspiration at one of the most stressful points in my early adulthood. Here’s the story I shared with my students:

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As I look around our classroom, I see tired faces, drained by too many exams, work schedules that are too hectic and lives that may not give enough time for fun, rest and relaxation. As we draw closer to the end of the semester, the crunch is on to cover material, plow through assignments, and study for finals. The focus shifts from the process of learning and discovering, to the need to reach the finish line in whatever way spells success for each of us.

I wanted to take a few minutes to share a story with you. I know you are busy people with busy lives, so if  this isn’t a good time, set this story aside and come back to it later.

The story takes place in 1992 in Madrid, Spain, where I was studying in a summer immersion program for international students. I had taken one year of Spanish in 1991-92 at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, where I graduated that May with my B.A. in English. The winter semester had been hell on wheels.

I was hit by a car the night before classes were scheduled to start in January.

My boyfriend of a year and a half, who was with me at the time of the accident, broke up with me a month later, saying that when he saw me get hit he really couldn’t have cared if I lived or died. He moved out the next day. I lost a job because I couldn’t get to work while I was recovering and I wondered how the heck I was going to pay the rent and buy food. I missed a few weeks of classes. My grades were sliding and I was panicking.

When I made it back to classes in February, I was sitting in Spanish class one day and the instructor brought some forms to class. If anyone wanted the chance to go and study Spanish language and culture, we could fill out a form to apply for a beca or grant, compliments of the Spanish Embassy. I thought, “Yeah, man, anything to get the heck out of here for a while!” I filled out the form.

I more or less forgot about it, as I was trying to put my life back together through the rest of the semester. One day in May, just before graduation, I got a letter from the Spanish embassy. Of course, I couldn’t read very much of it, but I guessed that it wasn’t a rejection letter, because it wasn’t just one sheet of paper. (Ever notice how letters telling you that you didn’t get something are only ever one page long?) There was a whole bunch of stuff in the envelope. So, I took it to school the next day and asked my Spanish professor to tell me what it said. “You got it!” She said. “You’re going to Spain!”

The beca covered tuition, books, residence and food. I didn’t have the money for the plane ticket, so I sold everything I had, worked some extra hours at one of the jobs I still had and gathered the money to go. A week after graduation, I was in Madrid.

There were a few hundred students in the program, from all over the world. The Spanish embassy gave away a limited number of scholarships each year to different countries. I later found out that I was one of two Canadians selected that year. We were placed in classes according to level. After studying Spanish for one full year, and making it out with a decent grade, despite the challenges of the second semester, I was not prepared for the experience. There were 18 different levels of classes. My placement test determined that I would be in level 17 – the second lowest of all the classes.

My classmates were from Europe and the Middle East. The other girls in my residence were from all over the world. The only language we had in common was Spanish. We found that if we wanted to make friends we had a choice: only associate with other people who spoke our first language (in my case, English) or try to make friends in Spanish. The result was a linguistic hodgepodge – people ended up communicating however they could, in whatever language they could. We communicated what we could in Spanish and helped translate for each other in whatever language we could… English, some Danish, some French, some Arabic… whatever we had as a group to help each other understand and bridge our linguistic and cultural gaps.

Two of the people who ended up in our circle of friends were Salim and Imad, both from Jordan. Salim was in my class and Imad was in the class of one of my Danish friends who was much more fluent in Spanish. We toured the city, went for coffees, studies and did all the normal social things that students do.

It was July of 1992. In the scope of world events, the Gulf War was still fresh in everyone’s mind. I remember the day that they announced the war. As I watched TV, I thought, “But… there wasn’t supposed to be a war in my lifetime…. World War II was supposed to be the war to end all wars. Isn’t that what our parents fought for?” But the Gulf War happened and I was pinned to CNN through most of it, just like everybody else.

One day near the end of our program, after a few weeks of gaining language skills and solidifying friendships with the people who had come together in our social circle, I summoned the courage to ask Salim about the button he wore every day on his lapel. It was a photo button of Saddam Hussein’s face.

I was curious about why anybody would wear a button of Saddam Hussein. After all, the guy was a maniac! But Salim wasn’t a maniac…. I just didn’t get it. When I asked him about it, he said, “He’s my hero. He helped our people.”

From there, the conversation took off, in broken Spanish, as we discovered each other’s point of view, the perceptions we had gained from the media, and our stereotypes about each other’s part of the world. The conversation took place on the steps of the Muslim students’ residence. The Muslim students were segregated to accommodate their dietary needs and to provide for quiet at regulated prayer times. The males lived on one side and the females on the other. Foreign students were not allowed in the residence, so if we wanted to visit, we did so on the steps of the building. Some nights there would be students out there with guitars, singing. Other times, there were groups of students chatting and studying. That night, a small group of us talked about war, terrorism, our heroes and our opinions, stereotypes and attitudes.

Through the course of that conversation I found out that the reason none of the Jordanian girls had made friends with me was because they thought I was promiscuous. That summer, there was a drought in Spain and the thermometer hit 40 degrees Centigrade. I was melting. I wore Bermuda shorts and sleeveless T-shirts and sandals to class (not even “skinny straps”, just sleeveless.) In their minds, I showed too much skin and I was shameless. They were comfortable in their head-to-toe covering and did not want to associate with someone who “dressed like a prostitute”. Needless to say, few of them had experienced the harsh, cold climate I was used to, and nor did they seem to understand that I was struggling in the heat.

I learned a lot that night… about the Gulf War and what it meant to these people who had become my friends, about how other people perceived me and the culture that I come from and about what it means to be human. By the end of the night, none of us had actually changed our opinions, but we did learn a lot about each other and about ourselves, as we gained perspective, listened and shared.

I tell people that trip changed my life. After returning home, I decided to return to university to study Spanish, which my family didn’t really “get”, to say the least. But what changed my life wasn’t the verbs that I learned to conjugate (even though I do love verbs!). It wasn’t the grammar that I crammed into my brain so I could pass my final. It was the connection I was able to make with other human beings because I was able to communicate with them, even if was broken and jumbled and not very fluent.

I’ve lost touch with most of the people from that course, but I’m still in touch with a few of them. Last year, Lene, one of the Danish girls, came to Calgary to visit me. It was great to re-connect. All of us send and receive holiday cards, letters, e-mails and even the occasional phone calls with friends all over the world.

Since September 11, those that us who have remained in touch have re-affirmed our friendships with each other on a more regular basis. E-mail has certainly made it easier to stay in touch. Over the past few weeks, we have shared our thoughts on the new War that has erupted. Like the Gulf War, it seems to be the Middle East and North America that are the two big players. We watch what goes on and chat over the net about it.

But the e-mails are not just about the war. We talk about our lives, our jobs, our friends and family and other regular, everyday things. We talk about the ordinary stuff that makes up our lives. And the only thing that brought us together was a language course in Spain. My Arabic friends still don’t speak any English and I still don’t speak any Arabic. I suspect that’s the way it will always be. Spanish is still the only language that we all have in common. Our friendships have evolved and strengthened over the years. We wonder if we will ever meet in person again. Nobody knows the answer.  In the meantime, we enjoy the friendships that we have come to mean a great deal to us despite – or maybe because of  – language barriers, cultural and religious differences and half a globe separating us.

In the long run, it’s not about the verbs, the grammar or the vocabulary. Those are just the things you have to learn to pass the tests. The tests are little milestones you have to pass along the journey of this course. And within the context of the course, they are both your challenges and your markers of success. Your job is to rise to the challenge each time, even though you’re tired and getting burnt out. In the bigger picture though, the course is just a little milestone along your course of study. Your studies extend beyond the classroom, to the world and the individuals you meet along the way who are studying, just like you and me.

It is unlikely that any of you will have a story just like this to tell. Perhaps this course is the end of your Spanish language journey. But I know that you will have your own stories to tell, about things that would not have had the opportunity to experience, if you hadn’t made the decision to be a student. As our finish line looms ahead, let’s remember that in the bigger picture, this course is just one more milestone on the big journey.

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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


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