On the Threshold

At Spanish school, people come, and people go.

Pre-COVID, young people on their semester abroad might show up with grand optimistic visions of spending their next 4 months going to class. Within a few weeks they always succumbed to the siren song of going out to bars instead. The other American cohort, the newly-retired tourists earnestly combining a vacation of a few weeks with a blitzkrieg of language-learning, usually fared better, although, since they foreswore the bars, they probably had less fun.

Both sorts of Americans are gone now, of course. Gone also, the Australian who dreamed of being a diplomat, the Iranian woman who only lasted a week and during the break offered me sweet scalding tea from her thermos, and the young Chinese man who told us that when the bureaucrats at a certain office saw him in line (he’d been there every day for over a week), they shook their heads.

What endures: an overarching mood of dumb inadequacy. I’ve seen tears once or twice, and on one exciting day, a guy from Tunisia stormed out, never to return. For the most part, though, we come back, paying good money to be humbled again and again and again.

In intensive classes, one is force-fed grammar the way they force feed geese (it’s not pretty), and the goal is to cover a unit a week. The larger goal is to move from one level to the next in three months. With a schedule that tight, there’s little time for extraneous conversation.

The final exams for each level take place on Wednesdays. The Thursday and Friday after that introduce grammar from the next level — but by that point we’ve either failed the exam and don’t care or have passed and are giddy.

Last Wednesday, 3 of 4 of us passed the B1 exam. After that the teacher wanted to teach us how to use the subjunctive in sentences of consequences but we were having none of it. What I learned instead: one of my companions in class had worked in a hotel in Singapore frequented by the famous. Obama “was nice.” Trump “is tall and and looks like this — straight ahead. He goes through the kitchen so no one will see him.”

Theoretically, we’re now capable of describing circumstances and events, dreams, hopes, and ambitions. In reality, we keep things simple. Our dream, hope, and ambition?

Back in the dim recesses of level A2, a teacher told us that by some point in B2 it would all start to click. The click happened for every single person, she promised, it was unavoidable.

Our goal? That click. We’re at the threshold.