My early day teaching cock-ups within the Cordovan classroom (part 1)

My early (and memorable!) days of teaching in Cordovan schools (On the RHS, a stork, common feature here; below, a typical Andalusian courtyard; and at the bottom, the richly gilded mihrab of the Great Mosque / cathedral)

Hi folks! I’m back again, but this time with something a little different (and longer, be warned!).

I was lying in bed last night, and as the hands of the clock reached three a.m. I was still struggling with sleep. Thoughts and ideas were whizzing about my brain — designs for my next painting projects, creative ideas, poems I was going to write, books I was going to publish, murals I would paint, online shops I would set up, antiques I would buy, vintage I would sell, furniture I would upcycle etc., etc., etc. So this morning, after my near-sleepless night and with a large mug of Tetley’s in hand (the tea, not the beer) I decided that first, I would like to share with you some of my early embarrassing experiences that I suffered when I first moved out here to Cordova.

(As you might already know, I was born in London then moved over to this part of Andalusia some thirty years ago. It was extremely difficult for me for quite a long time! A lot of my experiences are recounted in my illustrated book An English Lady in Cordova — the ‘Alternative’ Guide’.)

The Great Mosque / Cathedral of Cordova

I used to work as a geologist but once I came over here, had to retrain as an English teacher. I was employed by an academy and generally I had a trying time, not even having mastered the Spanish language as yet. I now teach privately as well as work as a translator and artisan. So if you’d like to share some of my embarrassing experiences, then please read on!

Blunders within a classroom in the Judería (Jewish Quarters) of Cordova — Part 1

Speaking Spanish and Andalus correctly took its time. During that time there were huge bungle-ups that lead to misinterpretations which were commonly taken as suggestive innuendos. This was often the case when giving private classes from home. But these verbal shortcomings were not only confined to my sitting room in the rickety old house in the Jewish Quarters, nor to the shops, bars, exchange students or the professional adults who perched uncomfortably on nursery chairs, but also extended to and positively flourished within the classrooms of primary and secondary schools. My experiences as a comprehensive school teacher (a profession definitely not destined for me!) were, to say the least—harrowing!

My teaching work in these unforgiving learning centres was arranged by Thomas, a youngish English teacher who had come over to Cordova, fallen in love with an attractive, charming Cordovan lass, married her and then stayed. They took up residence in his mother-in-law’s flat, and she in turn looked after the newly-weds and then later, the two children they had. Thomas was very dedicated to his profession, and by hiring on native English speakers (through advertising in reputable papers like The Times and The Guardian), set up his own team of teachers who he would train before then dispatching them off to various learning centres in Cordova. And I formed part of such a team.

We were a motley lot really, a pleasant enough bunch—an interesting array of innocents who ranged from me (a former geologist with previous work experience with a petroleum company) to a very posh, graphic art graduate with a pronounced lisp. Needless to say, she was assigned all the arty tasks, which when transferred to the classroom blackboard had all the children enraptured, eating out of her hand, and therefore learning quickly even though they pronounced the English words in lisping Andalus.

There was also an Australian lad who was fresh over from that far-away isle and who had come to Andalusia with the purpose of furthering his expertise in the Flamenco guitar. Like most artists he was very short of funds, and being unable to afford to pay for any lodgings, set up his home in one of the disused and dilapidated Moorish watermills that peppers the banks of the Guadalquivir. (I think it was the Albolafia Watermill—the one which The Catholic Queen Isabella in the 16th century ordered to be partially dismantled because the sound of its turning disturbed her sleep.) There Georgie would doze, upon tufts of dried weeds and clumps of hay, rubbing shoulders with water rats, lizards, snakes and pigeons that cooed from rickety, wooden rafters.

The Mosque / Cathedral in the background and the Guadalquivir River in the foreground, declared a Site of Community Interest and ecological niche

Not only did he arrive with insufficient funds, but also with just the clothes that he had on his back and the flip-flops that shod his feet. This look didn’t help him much in the classroom, compounded by the fact that he had longish, gypsy-style hair faithful to the Flamenco that he practised; and he was as skinny as a rake, with upper torso bent over like a reed blown by the sirocco wind. Neither was he very convincing in front of the Spanish teachers who particularly liked decking up to the nines (something that caused me enormous stress when I taught, as I also had a limited repertoire, and being a sporty, earthy Sagittarian, preferred the more casual look like my Top Shop navy blue plimsolls. But that said, the kids loved my less-rigid, non-creaky look).

However, Thomas our employer, having two young children of his own and being a good-natured soul supplied Georgie with a few of his own suits and some pairs of shoes, and invited him to join them for lunch every day (prepared by his over-maternal mother-in-law). He often came to eat with us too, but refused to stay in our hostel for free, preferring to shun charity, maintain his pride, and live freely in the watermill tower alongside the Guadalquivir fauna.

He continued teaching, which he found an increasingly uphill task as he never quite came to terms with the Spanish language, except for words such as ‘ritmo, son, compás, Bulerias, Solerias,’ and ‘¡Callaros! ¡Hijos de bastardos!’—the first five being musical terms, but the last expression translating as ‘Shut up you sons of bast***ds!’.

Needless to say, Georgie-boy didn’t last too long in this newly-adopted teaching profession. His mother soon came to visit, and when after giving him the once-over, whisked him back to Australia where she could shower upon him all the love and care that her over-sensitive son (now suffering from a fully-fledged bronchitis that was ripening into pneumonia) needed. When I had lunch with them I could see how attached to his mother he really was. She reassured him that she had already arranged private classes back at home with a true Andalusian flamenco teacher. It was sad to see him go—we had all grown fond and protective of him, despite his particular way of addressing his more bothersome students. He was allowed to take the suits back with him, but he refused the shoes as he had never quite got used to the rigid things, and when going to school to teach, instead of wearing those unorthodox flip-flops of his, he just went barefoot instead!

I must admit that teaching in schools was for me, quite a trying experience. I am, or rather was (at the tender age of twenty-six) a fairly shy and reserved creature, not at all the sort who relishes being in the limelight. Nor am I commanding or authoritative. Even when I sternly reprimand Solomon my mastiff, he just falls over onto his back, zigzags this way then that, forelegs pulled up to his triple chin, paws slanting forward, tongue lolling from the side of his gummy jaws and eyes swivelling in playful delight. So you can imagine what I am like with kids!

Solomon — our soppy mastiff

But returning to the classroom: my first encounter at the start of that inauspicious September was horrific! We were given one of the most important pieces of advice and teaching tools by Thomas which was: ‘Do not smile at the students before Christmas!’

So off we went, suitably armed with the indispensable tool that was supposed to ensure the safeguard of one’s self, one’s dignity and one’s pride, while also serving as a buffer against the humiliation, mortification and general abasement of the recently-imported, noviciate-teacher. Thus girded, I prepared myself for battle. Inhaling deeply I bravely entered the Year Eight Class of Espinar Primary Comprehensive School, down by the Corredera (which used to be the site of bullfights and executions!).

Now this area was at the time a marginal area, and accommodated the most ‘hardiest’ of children—those with strong and robust personalities (at least, stronger and more robust than mine!); and regular bullying had only intensified this ‘hardy’ nature of theirs, making some of the brutes even more brutish.

The minute I walked into that classroom and pronounced the words, ‘Good morning! I am your new English teacher!’ there was a nudging, tittering, giggling and sniggering all around. I tried to keep steady and not allow myself to break out into one of my nervously-English, wavering smiles. So I continued: ‘My name is Gillian!’

I announced this bravely, while over-exaggeratedly gesticulating towards myself in an attempt to clarify the meaning.

By this time some of the bolder lads had already started imitating me, producing a rapid succession of strange noises that sounded like ‘cha cha cha cha cha…’ (ad nauseam).

I cleared my throat awkwardly and just pretended that I hadn’t heard these obstreperous creatures. Some of the other more serious students were telling them to ‘¡Calláros de una puta vez!’ (meaning something like ‘Shut the f*** up!’). And so it was on these more serious and willing students that I focused.

After having gone round them one by one, getting them to tell me their names—some of which I made the mistake of translating into English, which proved to be another source of either ridicule or joy, depending on the name: for example, ‘Mary of the Sorrows’ or ‘Immaculate Conception’, or even ‘Hyacinth’ for one devilish-looking lad—we then set to, making name badges (for I was never very good at remembering foreign names and usually resorted to the true Spanish way of calling all females either María or ‘niña’ and all males, José or ‘niño’).

When it came to my turn to write my name, I was surprised that once again there was hearty sniggering and jeering all around as they pointed to my name badge. I didn’t appreciate at the time what was so funny, and it was only later when I had acquired a deeper understanding of Spanish phonetics that the reason came down on me like a clanger. It was the first few letters ‘Gilli…’ that had triggered the snorts and chortles, because in Spanish the soft ‘Gi’ doesn’t exist and is pronounced instead as ‘He’; and ‘ll’ as ‘ri’ so, that in all its entirety, ‘Gilli’ is pronounced ‘Hiri’—which in Spanish is short for ‘¡gillipollas!’, meaning ‘idiot!’. So for them, my name was ‘IDIOT’!

When I eventually came to understand this, I immediately changed my name from Gillian (which is generally unpronounceable for Spaniards), to the more or less Spanish equivalent, ‘Julia’ (pronounced ‘Hulia’).

So as you can see, I didn’t really get off on the right footing. However, I must have had some charisma because those that took to me, really did like me: they worked ever so hard, achieving good results, drawing me pictures and bringing me presents—an affectionate bunch as Spanish tend to be. But the rotten apples continued rotting on the back benches…

BUT to keep this long blog not so long, I will stop here for now and then continue relating my teaching experiences in a future blog.

Thank you for reading — I hope this finds you in good health and spirits.

(As usual, comments and questions are always welcome.)