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Elan Vitae


  • Shena Driscoll Salvato


It happened the way the grass brightens from trampled brown to vibrant green after winter’s slow, soggy thaw. Unless it is being closely watched, day-by-day as the sun shines higher in the brightening sky, the change is barely noticeable. Some days, it feels like it will never reach its peak, then one day there it is, shockingly brilliant under the contrast of the blue sky.

So it was with my journey. I really never believed, or even dared to dream, that it could happen. Not even maybe…, or possibly…, or one day.… No. But once it began, once the conditions were right, like those which cause the the greening of the grass in a late spring in New York, it happened. It was almost as if it had taken on a life of its own, a purpose of its own. While I was certainly an integral participant in the process, it was almost as if it was blossoming of its own accord, coming into being without me, although I was the one it was coming through, the one who made it possible. For that, now, finally, I am able to give myself credit.

That first phrase I spoke to her seemed to come from some place, some being, beyond me. I don’t remember trying. It just came out of my mouth. It was received. It was understood. Me gusta el árbol. The papier-mâché tree rising from the center of the barn-turned-preschool-classroom was too striking not to mention. I liked it, its dull, tempera-painted reddish-brown bark, its dusty paper leaves, its branches arching into the casita, the little play house where the children would don their imaginary characters, only to doff them when they stepped through the doorway into the rest of the classroom to move on to something else. That one phrase, those four words, Me gusta el árbol, somehow forced me out of my trepidation, like someone pushing the reluctant performer from behind the velvety curtain into the blinding spotlight on stage. Once you’re there, you might as well go on.

When I was studying formally, I tried, I really did. Being a high performer, a serious student, wasn’t enough to make it click for me. After five years, I just really didn’t believe I had it. I just wasn’t a language person. I didn’t have the aptitude. I never would be able to do it. At twenty-six, like dog years in the world of language learning, the odds were stacked against me. Good thing I didn’t know then what I know now, from my work in academia about the research on the critical period hypothesis, since I was well over a decade beyond that. Had I known that then, I might not have allowed it to happen. I was breaking the rules and didn’t even know it.

So when I was ready, it wasn’t the studying, the workbooks, the cassette recordings, that I really needed. It was those who could stand on the top floor of the casita and still stretch their arms to the ceiling. It was those who wore crowns on their heads, who camouflaged themselves in the branches of the guayaba tree, who called me, Maestra, Maestra! They were the ones I really needed. I was not their teacher, they were mine. The ones who shouted, Empujame hasta el cielo when I gave them an underduck on the swing, as they wanted to be pushed to the sky. And Esperanza. My hope for getting out of my own way, for not trying so hard, for just letting the process unfold. Of course that was the translation of my co-teacher’s name. That was certainly no simple coincidence.

For three months, my head spun. I remember the dull ache of being lost in incomprehension. I remember those first days of listening so intently, the strings of words flying by me more like music than like language. I remember the thrill of identifying and understanding one solitary word, just one, in a sea of unknowns. Day after day, I persisted without even realizing it. It was their joy, their energy, their playfulness that kept me engaged. It was the needing to understand. Maestra, tengo que irme al baño. This was probably one of the first phrases I learned, the urgent needs of preschoolers cannot be postponed due to the listener’s lack of comprehension. I couldn’t not understand.

I remember the feeling of ineptitude. Never before had I felt so empty in the presence of another, so unable to express to a parent what I KNEW about her child. It was shortly after that feeling of intense frustration that the dream came. Why the setting was where it was I may never know, why the scenario played out the way it did in that fleeting but never-to-be-forgotten moment, I may never understand. But there I was, in my high school’s gymnasium, thousands of miles north, in a crowd of nameless, faceless others on the bleachers on the home side of the court, the announcer seated below me to my left. There was a microphone. It was a basketball game. The announcer spoke…in Spanish. And then it was over. Just like that. When I awoke, I knew that I had turned a corner, I had somehow moved into a different realm. I didn’t know how, or why, but I knew, somehow, that I would never be going back to where I had been before, when I only dreamt in one language.

The first real test after that was stepping away. I remember the uncertainly I felt. If I leave for a month, will it leave me? The utter relief I felt when I climbed in the taxi through the balmy air outside the airport upon my return and was able to seamlessly tell the driver where I needed to go was one of the most gratifying tests I had ever passed, and no one was keeping score. I was not just myself any more. The people with whom I could communicate in this world had just grown exponentially, and that was the most exciting possibility of it all, the lifting of a limitation I didn’t even realize I had had. Knowing that I could leave and return, that this was something that was now an integral part of me, was something refreshingly new. Yes, even after a long, cold winter, the green grass will return.


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