I love my French class. I really do, and I highly recommend The Seattle Language Academy to anyone interested in learning another language. I will admit that it is an absolute GIVEN that at 2:30 on each and every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon I think about how much I don’t want to go to class, and how maybe if I skipped it just this once I could finally get around to cleaning out that cabinet under my kitchen sink or Hey! Maybe I could even just do some studying on my own, with wine, and also some wine! In spite of that fact though, as soon as I get to class every day I realize that Wait! This is kind of fun! I totally LIKE this!
Last night’s class was no exception. Or, the first hour and twenty minutes of it were no exception. Fifteen adults spoke what I can only assume to sub-kindergarten level French. Fifteen adults tried not to giggle too obviously when they learned that the word douche means shower. All was going swimmingly until about ten minutes before the end of class when I suddenly had this FEELING. This feeling of absolute frustration that GOD DAMMIT I’M NEVER GOING TO LEARN THIS LANGUAGE AND I JUST WANT TO GO HOME NOW! Which worked out just fine, because in fact, ten minutes later I did go home, stopping along the way for a very large bottle of beer. I went home, and used that most glorious of inventions—the microwave—to heat up some food, and was watching The Gilmore Girls less than half an hour later, perfectly content with my tortellini from the PCC and my lovely beer from Belgium.
But during that ten minutes of frustration, all I could think about was how a couple of months from now, when I’m sitting in a classroom in the middle of God know’s where, I will be studying French if I’m lucky—but more likey French AND AN ADDITIONAL, LOCAL LANGUAGE—for something like 5 hours a day, 6 days a week. I’ll spend another three hours a day studying a whole bunch of other stuff, like how not to die, and hopefully how to keep other people from dieing quite so much as well. I won’t be going home to The Gilmore Girls, or tortellini, or even beer. Mostly I feel pretty accepting of this fact, ready and able to take on this immense (for me) challenge of NOT KNOWING ANYTHING ABOUT ANYTHING, INCLUDING EVEN HOW TO TALK ABOUT NOT KNOWING ANYTHING ABOUT ANYTHING, for roughly 6 months of my life. (Please God let me be somewhat acclimated to my new surroundings after 6 months.) But last night…last night I felt that FEELING.
I have a very specific memory of being probably 8 years old and righteously pissed off because my mom had most likely laid down the LAW about my room. Clean it! And don’t just shove stuff under your bed or into your closet, because believe it or not I’m on that scheme! So I was angry and sort of shoving things around and I remember picking up my coat and trying to hang it from my doorknob, only it just kept falling off. I would hang it there and try to pull and stretch the fabric around the knob, but it was sort of a poofy coat and it just wasn’t staying. But I had DECIDED that this was where this coat needed to hang and I just kept trying and getting more and more mad and finally with tears in my eyes I BIT that coat! As hard as I could! Eighteen years later I can still remember the frustration of that moment—it’s one of the few times that I can recall that I actually lost my temper. It was just such an intense feeling of helplessness, of complete and utter lack of control over that coat.
I’m afraid that I’m going to become very familiar with frustration in the coming months. I mean, obviously I will. And I’m trying, as much as possible, to prepare for that. I’m just not sure that you really can. Now that I am removed from the coat, and my absurdly messy room, I can see that it was a silly situation. If I had just given in and say, hung that coat in my closet, I could have avoided any feelings of frustration altogether. But for me the point was that all I wanted to do was hang that coat from my doorknob—such a simple thing—and I just couldn’t. I can imagine a similar scenario taking place a couple months from now, where all I want to do is explain to someone how it is exactly that I came to be sitting in their living room, or ask for directions, or any number of very simple things.
I should probably explain here that most of this anxiety stems from the fact that I LOVE WORDS. I think I know a fair amount of them, in English anyway. I like using precisely the right word, and I like using weird words, and using normal words in weird ways, and I like changing them to make them much funnier and better than they were originally because I am just that good. Words and language are a big part of my life, of how I express ME to the world, and I’m used to having a good amount of control over them. In a couple of months that’s all going to change.
I know that another huge part of this experience will be dealing with death on a very large scale. I will witness things that I cannot imagine, and in my attempts to offer whatever skills I have to the people I come to know, I will experience many kinds of pain. For whatever reason—and the most likely, I’m sure, is my own naivete—I feel ready to take on that challenge. I’m ready to use the optimism and luck and education and countless other quintessentially American qualities that I have been graced with in an effort to do some good in this world.
What I don’t know is if I’m ready to do all that without being able to express myself adequately. I’m afraid that all of my best qualities, everything that I have to offer the Peace Corps and the people I will be working with, are tied up with my ability to speak and communicate effectively. Where will I be without the confidence that words give me?
I know that eventually I will be able to speak French well enough that it won’t require a supreme effort. That it will become more and more natural the more I use it, and that the learning curve will most likely sharply increase the second I am actually surrounded by the language. I know also that I will not be expected to make radical and sweeping improvements to my post the second I step off the plane. The Peace Corps has been doing this for forty-five years—they surely have reasonable expectations when it comes to timeframes for progress. I know that I have to take this whole process step by step and count on myself in ways that I’ve never had to before and I know, I KNOW, that I can do this.
What scares me more than almost anything though, is that I also know that this experience, this amazing endeavor I am about to embark upon, is guaranteed to make me feel like that 8 year old again. Like a little girl with a coat in her hand and absolutely no control over her life.