The Big Graduation Post

It doesn’t happen like you think it will, graduation. I suppose the same can be said of all those grand rites of passage of life: like as not, you speculate a great deal about how it’s going to be, until the day itself is over before you know it, and a lot less grand an affair than you thought it was.

Certainly, when I tried to imagine what graduating from Durham would be like four years ago, I didn’t ever imagine that the cathedral tower would be under scaffolding. You win some, you lose some.

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One of the most difficult things about graduating is that it’s so very easy to use it as your last chance to say goodbye. It makes sense; for some, it might be the last time in a while you see the people who have been your friends through thick and thin for three or four years. Regrettably, for others it might even be the last time you see them at all. That’s a humbling thought. If I have any advice to give, it’s to say your farewells before the big day. Of course there is time for the odd one here or there on the day, but with everybody mingling with friends and family alike, it can be nigh-on impossible to track everybody down in time – especially if you end up on a time limit yourself.

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I’ve had a lot of time to think over the past few weeks, and a lot of things to think about. One of the most enlightening conclusions I’ve come to (and late in the realisation, too) is that, for all of my best efforts, I am not first and foremost a linguist. And if it took missing a First Class degree by less than one percent to realise that, it was a lesson well learned. Language tests, and perhaps grammar in general, have never been my forte, not that that’s ever stopped me from trying. Writing is, was and always will be my trump card. If I hadn’t been so pig-headed about not reading fiction back in Year 13, I might well have let my doubts get the better of me and gone for a degree in English Literature instead.

The fact remains that I didn’t. For all the disparity between my English marks and my marks in French and Spanish, I went for a degree in modern foreign languages. Why? Precisely because of that; because languages were not my strongest point. Talking to people was something I really struggled with. I had no opinions of my own, I felt hopelessly outclassed whenever I had to take part in any kind of intellectual discussion and I tended to avoid any unnecessary socialising.

And in my own particularly sadistic way, I threw myself headlong into the one degree that would give me no choice but to talk to people, to face my fears head-on. And when you’re getting yourself into an extra £9000 of debt per year, it makes no sense whatsoever to go on studying what you’re best at.

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My time as an undergraduate at Durham has been, without a shadow of a doubt, the best four years of my life so far. I might have been to some extraordinary places had I gone for my second choice, St. Andrews, but I most likely would not have found myself in a metro station in Münich with a portrait of Admiral Lord Nelson. I might well have had access to researchers in my primary field of interest, al-Andalus and the Maghreb, but I probably wouldn’t have written such a cracking essay on Spanish banditry. And I might have got involved in a musical, or a choir, or maybe even the funk band I longed for since my schooldays, but I almost certainly would not have found myself wrapped up heart and soul in the collegiate a cappella scene.

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Thanks to one last fling with the Northern Lights at the 70th Edinburgh Fringe Festival this summer, graduation was not as final an affair as it otherwise might have been. Knowing that I’d be back in Durham in just over a month took much of the sting out of the farewells, and I left the city dry-eyed and carefree – which is not how I imagined it, but just the way I wanted it. I find that written words often carry meaning a good deal further than the spoken word ever can, and so I made my fondest goodbyes in card form, in case I didn’t get the chance to say so in person. That, too, made the process a lot easier to deal with. In a way, I’d said everything that needed to be said. I could do no more.

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I didn’t have a great deal of say in the matter of coming to Durham. My own mother dropped the name of the place so often as I grew up that by the time UCAS came around, it seemed sacrilegious to even consider anywhere else. And that’s exactly how it panned out, after an initial rejection and a gap year to try again. Bother the prospectuses, there was simply something magical about Durham. I had to go there.

It’s been one long week of thank you’s. To all the friends that supported me, both at home, at university and abroad. To the staff who inspired my interests and discouraged my careless wanderings. To my college principal, who sowed the seed of interest in a PhD in me; to my first Arabic lecturer, who through discipline fashioned a mature love for the language out of nervous enthusiasm; to those who have lived with me these last four years, for putting up with the day-to-day trivial madnesses and misinformed ramblings of yours truly. And of course, to music, for adding so much more to my degree than just books.

The wide world awaits with, at least for now, a smiling, familiar face (and a very strong Villafranqués accent). The far future – the beyond – remains as elusive as ever, but perhaps it doesn’t do to look that far ahead. Three months remain, and then I leave this country for Spain, only this time it will be for a much longer stint than anything I’ve ever attempted before. I can hardly wait.

And you bet I’ll be back to blogging for the whole affair. Just you wait. BB x

Double-Edge

The Christmas holidays have come and gone. I’m back in Durham once again for what is beginning to feel increasingly like the last tilt of sand in the hourglass. Last term went by like a bullet as I found myself thrown headlong into a heavy workload once again, but yours truly must have learned his lesson over the last year or two, because I can’t think of a day when I let it get me down. The troubles and traumas of the first two years of academia and extra-curricular pressures wanted and unwanted were very much absent from last term; if they were there, they were buried deep beneath a veneer of simple satisfaction. Satisfaction with my course, satisfaction with my extra-curricular commitments, satisfaction with the direction my life is taking me.

That’s not to say I’ve got it all figured out. I don’t. I’m still waiting on a crucial reference to secure my post next year – without it I could end up in hot water. I’m surrounded by people who are powering ahead with their dissertations at a remarkable rate, whilst I content myself with reading leisurely around the subject before I even think about the process of putting pen to paper. The Lights are also taking me forward at considerable speed, and it is this last which is eating into my timetable more than anything else at the moment. After three entire days of pitch-punching and choreo workshops, it’s easy to forget that university is a place for the pursuit of knowledge.

That’s something I’ve been thinking about recently: what does a university mean?

Over the last few years I’ve met a lot of people from different walks of life who have very different attitudes to university. There are many for whom it is simply the next stage in their studies, a means to an end, an expensive-but-necessary qualification to hack into the job market. I find it a little heartbreaking that this is what university has become for so many, the semi-obligatory next step in the road and one that we are all too often pushed into without even thinking. University should be open to everybody, of course, but does that necessarily mean that everybody needs to go to university? I’m not so sure.

Then there are those who accept that first notion and proceed to enjoy their time at university with their eventual degree very much subsidiary to their overall experience. They’re the ones who couldn’t care less if they land a 2:2 at the end of three years of lectures and under-prepared seminars, just as long as they had an amazing time and met some life-changing people along the way. Granted, it’s a point of view that suits the wingers and the daddy’s-boys more than most, but it’s not too uncommon. And at the end of the day, you can’t criticise the stance too harshly: it’s a very good example of making the best of a bad situation.

What else can a university degree offer? Networking, for one. It’s a fantastic way to meet new people and, by default, make important contacts in the outside world. It’s a good way to hone the skills you learned at secondary school to perfection, or to stay immersed in a subject you enjoyed. Some just don’t like to leave the school environment behind: the routine, the structure and the linear timetabling make for a familiar existence (and I include myself shamelessly in that bracket).

There is, of course, another important reason people decide to go to university: in pursuit of raw knowledge. That, for me, is the very essence of university. It’s what it’s all about: seeking new truths, dispelling old beliefs and walking into new worlds. What saddens me most is that this is so rarely the primary motivation. I wonder whether it’s more than a little big-headed of me to say such a thing, but I guess I expected to find more people with this kind of attitude when I rocked up a fresh-faced, idealistic fresher a few years back. I wasn’t exactly popular, and with an attitude like that, it’s really not hard to see why. Since then I’ve mellowed a bit, but I still feel a little happier than I should when I encounter somebody else who has nothing but unbridled passion for their degree. Perhaps that’s just the nature of an undergraduate degree; the Masters students all seem to be wholly absorbed in their studies. I guess I’ll just have to return to this world a few years down the line.

Perhaps it’s because I want to be a writer that the simple pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is so important to me. How can you profess to write for people if you don’t read? It’s little banal thoughts like that that kicked me back into reading fiction two years back. The effect that reading fiction has had on my overall enjoyment of academic research is surprising, to say the least. I wonder whether the two were supposed to go hand-in-hand from the very beginning.

More and more these days my degree leads me and my stories into worlds and places I could never have found on my own, and likewise the years of research I have carried out for my books gives me insight into my degree that features nowhere in my course. I have been torn from Spain, from the land that bled life into my tales like veins to a beating heart, but with a little hard work, I have found a survival mechanism in the university effect. Whatever one’s motivation for going to university may be, the result is a hot-pad of intellectuals of all walks of life. It is a place for bringing together great minds for the bettering of the nation, in pursuit of new truths and new ideas. Just the vibe alone of such an environment is reason enough to throw oneself into academia. That, I think, is the real purpose of university.

If only the UK could follow the Scandinavian example and make a university degree a realistic option for all, with no respect for money or background. The way things are going, such an aspiration is little more than a pipe-dream at the moment, but if we might try to take a step in the right direction, I’d implore the powers that be to rethink the idea that everybody in this country should be going for a university degree by necessity. University should be encouraged, of course, but no more than an apprenticeship, an equally admirable path by all respects. Higher education should be for everybody, but’s it’s not. An option, not a necessity.

I may be little more than another one of those liberal, meritocratic millennials, but I’m not alone. I think there’s something very wrong with the way we’re monopolising higher education, when it should be nothing more than that: an education.

To make good on my words and dispel a few old beliefs. A university degree is not meant to be the three best years of your life. It’s not meant to be a government-sponsored ride of wild parties and last-minute essays. And it’s not meant to be a long slug of soulless study either. But it can be immensely worthwhile and should not be abused.

But what do I know? Students are, after all, noisy creatures that are happy to live in hovels and live in close-knit cliques of their own. What do I know about the world? x

Exile: To BBC or Not to Be

Two factors have triggered this post. One, a suggestion from my dissertation supervisor that I misread two months ago. Two, Emily Mortimer in The Sleeping Dictionary.

It’s been about six months since I decided to move to Spain for good once my university degree is over. The number was in my head without even thinking, and I had to count to make sure. Six months exactly (sometimes you just know these things). It wasn’t one of those eureka moments. It was, I suppose, a bit like a journey to find one’s faith: one day I woke up and it just seemed as though I’d known the answer all along. In that sense, there was really little I could do about it. You can’t deny that kind of enlightenment.

Over the last few months, freed at last from work and study, I’ve had a lot of time to think this one over. I’ve come up with something resembling a game plan for the next three years. I find it’s a useful thing to have when you find yourself having to reason your decision to abandon the land where you were born.

The repercussions are, understandably, quite immense. No more Christmas. No more Whole Earth peanut butter. No more Poldark or Have I Got News For You (or British TV at all, for that matter). And no more taking my mother tongue for granted: in a year’s time the only major outlets I’ll have for the English language will be my work and my book. That’s pretty extreme.

Now I’ll admit, it’s not as painful a decision as I’m making it sound. The peanut butter I can live without. British television will be a major loss though, I’ll give you that. You don’t appreciate just how good the Beeb is until you move abroad (Spanish comedy is entertaining, but it’s just not as brilliant as British humour – or maybe I’m just not fluent enough?). As for Christmas, while I’ve never been particularly excited about it since growing up, I was a little sad that December came and went and… nothing happened. Christmas is something that Spain simply doesn’t do. Even Lisbon seemed to do Christmas better in the twenty-four hours I spent there last year. On the other hand, they do have Semana Santa and that is a hundred times more impressive, so it’s a sacrifice I am willing to make.

There is at least one snag I’ve been almost too quick to ignore in this whole chasing-my-destiny thing and that is the obvious one: who and where is She? Is she Spanish, or is she English? Or something else entirely?

I’ve read a lot of articles on this subject. I feel like I had to; earlier this year it was compulsory reading, when I thought I’d found her and I needed to think things through. I hadn’t, obviously, but it did me good to read about others who had been down the same road. The general consensus seems to be that, unless you are both determined to stay together, and that there is something akin to a balance between the languages, these cross-cultural relationships are fraught with difficulties. And whilst I’ve heard a lot of people talk about how much they’d love bilingual children, from those few dual-nationality parents I’ve met, it sounds like a serious uphill slog to achieve that, as the language of their immediate environment will always take the prime position.

Never mind the bilingual children for now. I have more pressing things to worry about, namely my dissertation, which may or may not be on the subject of exile (a suitable topic for this year, I think). It is possible to look too far ahead. But as the prospect of exile looms closer, I think it likely that there may well be a few more reflective posts of this nature. It’s easy to say that you’re never coming back, but quite another to hold to that.

Perhaps it’s best to think of it not as exile, but going back to my roots. Even so, I was born in England and am, by all accounts, an Englishman. I never said it would be easy, and it won’t. But some things in life are greater. This, I believe, is one of those things. BB x

A New Beginning

Hello blog. It’s been a while. In case the absence of posts over the last few weeks wasn’t proof enough of my self-imposed isolation, the cramp in my left shoulder is what has really kicked me back into gear. I’ve been slaving away over the megadrawing for almost a solid month now and it shows: at seven metres and twenty centimetres in length, I’m very almost at the end. Only two sections remain.

Even so, I feel I need a break. And with the gorgeous weather we’re having at the moment, I think my drawing arm could do with a break.

There are still another couple of weeks to go before I’m needed back in Durham (in truth, another month – but I’m quite ready to get going long before term begins in October). With my target language research project out of the way, I have very little to worry about for now. And that, I should point out, is pure bliss after all of the administrative missions of the past year. How long it will be until the spell is broken is debatable. It simply depends on whether I’m ready to tackle the workload that final year has to offer.

I can. There’s no doubt about it. Mindset is the key and I believe I can. Truly.

It’s unseasonably warm and sunny for September here in Sussex. I missed out on autumn last year in Spain; it came in a couple of days in the middle of winter, and was gone in the blink of an eye. Autumn is my second favourite time of year after spring, so I was a little sad to see none of it last year. There’s something wonderful about the falling of the first leaves, the coming of the conkers and that first chill in the air that tells you that winter, far off, is on its way. Perhaps that’s something England does better than Spain. Or perhaps I simply haven’t been in the right part of Spain in autumn.

I don’t have much news to tell for now. Doubtless that will change when I get to Durham. I sent off my job application for next year and am waiting patiently for a response. If I should succeed in that, I will follow it up with a second, in the hope of snagging the two-job rota that kept me so well afloat last year. In the meantime, I have my sights set wide, and if it comes to it, I’m more than prepared to bite the bullet and freelance for a time. All I need for now is enough money to survive and as much experience as I can get my hands on. The main reason I’m planning to return to my former post is simple logic: I’ll be teaching many of the same kids, so I won’t be able to fall back on my old lessons. I’ll just have to draw up a whole year’s worth of new ones. And once I’ve been a year at that, I’ll have two years’ worth of ideas under my belt and will be truly ready to go mobile.

That, at least, is the game plan.

A lot can happen in a year. I can be rather spontaneous when I choose to be, but it’d take nothing short of a miracle to turn me from my road now. Spain is in my heart and it’s Spain for which I’m bound. I don’t think even Helen of Troy could dissuade me at this hour.

Unless, of course, she was Spanish. BB x

Go with Peace

Jimminy. One more week and it’s all over. This year abroad, at times both the fastest and slowest year of my life, is drawing to a close. The old tablecloth analogy is back in force: somebody gave the table a tilt back in April (or was it September?) and now everything’s sliding towards the edge at an increasing rate (which is a real shame, because Tetouan was beginning to feel like home). As has been the case throughout the rest of the year, I’ve a fair few goodbyes to make, though as any frequent traveler will know, these get easier every time. So I’ve one last farewell to make before the end.

Or not. Because it’s not just goodbye to the team at Dar Loughat. It’s a bigger step by far.

It’s goodbye to Arabic studies.

Hey, now, don’t give me that look. If you’ve been reading carefully throughout the year, you’ll have seen this coming a long way off. You might even have cottoned on sooner, since I didn’t really make up my mind until the last days of June.

The blog, however, speaks for itself. It tells a tale of depression and despair in Amman and the golden friends I found there; and perhaps, the beginning of the end. It tells the story of how I fell in love with my grandfather’s country all over again; how Spanish became more than just a language, but the key to happiness itself; how I found in Extremadura the paradise I’ve been searching for for so long. Of the One-that-could-have-been and the opening of my eyes to the rest of Iberia. And in amongst all the musing posts in between, it reveals a slow but steady swing towards the heart of the matter, a realignment with the most important thing of all: finding where I belong. In retrospect, it’s obvious. It was always going to happen. It was simply a question of when. And in one of life’s great paradoxes, that realization came when I was more confident with my Arabic than I’ve ever been in my life.

Happiness was the key. I had to be truly happy to see the truth.


I reckon I still have a fair amount of explaining to do. I built up a bit of a reputation for myself in first and second year as the keenest Arabic nut alive (though I outright refuse the term BNOC). Granted, all of that time spent juggling societies, subjects and a social life in second year wore me down a bit, but at heart I was still a bloody keen bean. Always on time, always ahead of the game… Almost always optimistic. (Seriously, I was insufferable in first year, just ask any of my classmates). As a result, this is probably still a shock move for those of you who know me. Well, I’ll do my best to explain my decision.

  1. Spain happened. Specifically, the British Council assistant placement. We were warned; I didn’t listen; I fell in love. Because if you seriously want to push ahead with two languages, it’s absolutely essential to balance them, especially when it comes to…
  2. …the Year Abroad. Ya3ni, at least half of the class will have spent a minimum of six months in an Arabic-speaking country by October. That’s two more than me, and considering the speed at which I advanced in Tetouan, I’d be tempted even to discount any and all ‘progress’ I might have made in…
  3. …Amman. And in all honesty, I don’t really want to use Amman as an excuse, but it is. My time in Jordan was certainly eye-opening, full of highs, lows and plenty of laughs, but I don’t think I’ve ever been more drained in my life. This is honestly the least of reasons, but because of the effect it had on my attitude towards Arabic, it’s a reason nonetheless.
  4. Career paths. My companions have such noble ambitions with Arabic. Not me. I’ve mapped out the next five or six years of my life and they don’t stray very far from a homely little village somewhere in Spain. In light of this, improving my Arabic further seemed a little pointless.
  5. Priorities. A lot of people learn languages to travel, to communicate, for work, for business etc. the list goes on. But I don’t want to learn Spanish. I want to master it. As in, not just to speak it like a native, but to be able to write it as though it were my mother tongue. That’s going to take commitment, drive and serious levels of focus, the kind you can’t share with an Arabic degree.
  6. Simple credit-crunching. With 80 credits from Arabic last year, the language is already going on my degree title, so I’d be gaining nothing by moving on. If anything, I’d be risking…
  7. …a shot at a potential First. Arabic 2B, brilliant though it was, cost me dear last year and brought me crashing down to an overall 67. A First-class degree at Durham is something even my own mother never managed, so to achieve that… It’d be nothing short of legendary.
  8. The book. I started learning Arabic, amongst other reasons, because I needed it for my book. How could I ever hope to write convincingly about the Arabs if I couldn’t understand their language? Well, I’ve got to the stage where I can speak, read and write Arabic with respectable fluency. I’ve even learned calligraphy along the way. My work here is done. Which reminds me…
  9. …I never actually intended to take Arabic beyond the first year of university. Looking at my plans from school and the gap year that followed, I apparently meant to go on with French. It looks like Arabic simply took French’s place in my heart. And that’s completely, wholly and unashamedly down to…
  10. …the group vibe. Durham’s Arabic class of ’17 is no more and no less than the most wonderful, capable and hilarious bunch of people I’ve ever known, and they have been the lifeblood of my degree thus far. But in perfect, mercenary honesty, that’s not the best reason to jeopardize a First. I applied to Durham partly because of the fantastic college system, but to be honest, I never really fitted in at Aidan’s. I made a few unforgettable friends there, but it was in my degree that I met the people most important to me. And isn’t that how it’s supposed to be?

It wasn’t an easy decision to make. In fact, it took all of three weeks to fully sort out, in the end. But I worked my way this far and I succeeded. I can speak Arabic with almost the same confidence as Spanish, even though my vocabulary is only half the size. I can discuss Barbary corsairs, Tuareg mythology and Andalusian heritage with my teachers at speed. Gone are the days of Assad drinks milk, fathers that work in the United Nations and being fa3lan wahiid all the time. I’m walking out with my head held high.

I’m really going to miss sharing class with these wonderful folks!


Next year isn’t going to be drastically easier. Far from it. What with a short-fat module, the dissertation and the inevitable music commitments, the first term alone is going to be a serious uphill climb. But Spanish is my weapon, my Tizona, and I am determined to make this work. I know, at last, where I belong. BB x

Lose Some, Winsome

I’ll pick up from right where we left off two posts ago with the dissertation.

I didn’t get it.

I should have seen it coming, I suppose. 2016 has been a bit like my last Maths exam: full of wrong answers. It’s been an odd year. A very odd year. A year where Donald Trump actually became first a viable and then the only Republican candidate for the US presidency. A year that saw 51% of Britain actually give in to race hate and fear-mongering and leave the EU. A year that brought us a Pokémon-inspired traffic jam, Boris Johnson elected as Foreign Minister, and the deaths of Prince, David Bowie and Alan Rickman. And now, just to top it all off, I’ve been thrown back onto my second choice dissertation.

In perspective, mine is a very minor problem. It still smarts, though.

Granted, radically changing my modules at the last minute may not have helped matters. But after all of the hard work I put into chiseling out a wholly original dissertation topic (not so easy, when Google contains the abstracts of almost every dissertation imaginable), I’ve been thrown back on my second. Small mercies, then, that I put just as much time and effort into making my fallback as enjoyable and challenging as the first.

Oh wait, hold the phone. I’ve done a real Benjamín here. It turns out I played an old hand this time around, one that’s never failed me before: that is, I deliberately made my second module broader, a little less original and closely linked to my TLRP, so that my university would be forced into giving me my first choice. The old ‘Second-best’ maneuver.

It’s a good trick, and it’s worked before. Only, this time I was outmaneuvered. And now I’ve been put into such a position that, if I stick to my original title, it would be almost impossible not to plagiarize myself. That’s without mentioning that the dissertation I intended to write (my first choice: memories of al-Andalus in Spanish literature) was the one I’d been planning on writing since I was in Year 10 in secondary school (I was an odd kid). It’s essentially research for my novel, the best there could have been. Gone. So that’s a six-year dream squashed underfoot. And no room for maneuver either, since they’re fixed now, and also as somebody else got the al-Andalus dissertation this year. Not so winsome now.

What a diss-aster. Thanks a lot Durham. Thanks.

On the bright side, my dissertation supervisor is possibly my favourite lecturer, so I can’t really complain. I’ll just have to swallow my six-year pride and do the best with what I’ve got. And what I’ve got is still good. Very good. Only, it looks to be a little bit harder to spin twelve thousand words of this one. Without plagiarizing myself, preferably. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

To commiserate, we went to the Med this afternoon to soak it all off in the sun. Katie has plenty to say about her equally unfair diss-missal, but the sun and the sea saw to our anger, and a couple of rounds of Psychiatrist killed any bad feeling remaining. I’ve come to love my Dar Loughat droogs as much as I did my Ali Baba babes if not more, which is a tough task. Balancing the time between them and the host family remains a tightrope walk, and one of these days I’ll have a bad fall if I’m not careful, but for now, the peace lasts.

But that’s it for today. I’m back in bed, I’m recharged on data (5€ for 5GB is a stupidly good deal) and I’m ready and waiting for the rest of the misadventures 2016 has in store for me. Global financial meltdown? World War Three? Another friend-zoning-of-the-century? All equally possible.

Here’s to another hike this weekend. The way things are going, hiking is probably the most hassle-free activity left to me.

But then again, this is me we’re talking about. Who knows what madness I’ll get up to next? BB x

Don Quijote soup – when the rim is larger than the meal itself

Headcase

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Predictably, my first session in Dar Loughat was a bit of a shock to the system. Perhaps even more so than my attempts at conversation with my hosts. That would be because striking up a conversation doesn’t tend to require case-marking every single letter.

As lessons go, it was superbly taught. The whole asking-you-for-the-word-in-your-own-language thing is new and a serious improvement; it put a stop to me nodding my way into ignorant oblivion from the get-go. I’m not sure why other teachers haven’t tried that in the past, I needed it bad. I guess it’s the sign of a truly capable linguist, if he’s able to field three languages at once on top of his own.

Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel I was trailing. The placement test landed me with a Parisian postgraduate who had taught herself Arabic alongside Farsi, Urdu and Russian. As if that wasn’t enough, she case-marked everything she said or read almost perfectly, tanwiin fatHas and mansūb endings all over the shop. Like an Archie 2.0. I pretty much gave up on cases in Year Two… and boy, does it show. Some find hardworking people like that inspiring. I just feel cowed. I spent most of that class with a weak smile on my face, like some kind of vestigial ape expression of fear. I brought this on myself, I suppose. I wanted to meet new people, to have a non-Durham class. I got what I asked for.

At the end, the teacher asked us how the lesson went. My classmate said it was very basic. I personally felt like I’d just finished the first assault course in boot camp. He laughed and said that Arabic is a bit like sports.

Great. Exactly what I wanted to hear.

I never said it was going to be easy. To make matters worse, we’re starting from Al-Kitaab 3 again. Not that that’s a bad thing – it’s pretty clear now that I’ve forgotten almost everything I learned out there, except possibly all the bird names I taught myself (escapism – because it was in my interest) – but the first topic is politics. Anybody who knows me knows how pigheaded and closed-minded I am about politics… That is to say, I hate it. I don’t like talking about things I don’t know and I know grand zilch about politics. Again, my classmate proved the yin to my yang: she loves it, takes a passionate interest in the subject and wants to pursue it through journalism.

So just as conversations at home tend to err towards the one-sided field, so too may classes here. All I have to offer is that I study books… A firm background of literature, art and music doesn’t make for an easy playing field when the subject is politics; specifically, the political ramifications of the Iranian Revolution in Islamic nations around the world. Give me the sleazy wine poetry of Abu Nuwās any day.

There’s an orientation at half three. Lessons last from nine to twelve and it sounds as though students spend the afternoon involved in projects. Which projects exactly I’m hoping I’ll find out today. That might be the key to staying alive. There’s little use in heading back to the flat… I have everything I need here, and it’s a tad too far to walk (dammit). So just for today I’ll stick around and take advantage of the speedy WiFi.

The first class was always going to be tough. Nevertheless I’m determined not to give up, not this time. If Arabic were only vocabulary, it’d be a dream… But we must be realistic. Besides, I guess it’s like maths – another thing that floors me. It’s simply a matter of knuckling down and mastering the technique. I gave up on maths too early. As a result, I can’t do division. I never could. I won’t make the same mistake with Arabic. BB x

Counting Sheep and Blessings

February is over at last and the long, languid days of glorious sunshine are here.

Who am I kidding? This is Spain. We’ve had glorious sunshine on and off since September, and more on than off.

My private school whisked away the entire student body to Guadalupe today, yet another trip which I could have attended had I not a second job to balance. That gave me the afternoon off, which I sorely needed, having come down with a head-cold of some description since Monday morning. Frankly I’m surprised I got through almost the entire winter without a single incident, as I’m usually down with something or other in the first two months of the year. Not that I’d ever let it stop me from working, naturally, but it’s not all that easy to lead a conversation class when talking is just about the very last thing you want to be doing. Nevertheless, the stubborn endurance (or rather, total and deliberate ignorance of my condition) I inherited from my mother won out and I made a decent morning of it. Being ill, in a way, is just like being bored or heartbroken; the very best cure is to keep too busy to give it any thought.

On second thoughts, don’t take my word for that.

I took a detour through the park on the way home and, it being such a warm, sunny day, I sat by the water feature and tried meditating for a bit. I haven’t actually done any in months and boy, does it show. I’m out of practice, so I decided instead to simply soak up the sun, listen to a BBC Radio In Our Time podcast on the Spanish Inquisition and watch the goldfinches bathing in the water. I think I was there for an hour, or two… It could easily have been longer. For some reason when I’m ill I tend to lose track of time.

Something that occurred to me this week is how lucky I am to be where I am. I’ve been searching for a way of putting this that doesn’t come across as boastful, though I’d rather use the term proud; it refers to my ego, and it might just mark the final stepping stone in a healing process that’s taken all of seven years to complete.

I’ll explain. Since the day I moved to a junior private school at the age of eight, I’ve been surrounded by people vastly more capable than me. I was always something of a second-class citizen at that school: I didn’t have the brains to keep up with the best, and I didn’t have the money to keep up with the rest. I was swiftly filtered into the middle set, which is something of a no-man’s-land, from which it’s very hard to escape. I left that establishment after three years for other reasons, mostly financial, but also because (in one of the most pig-ignorant decisions of my life to date) my classmates were beginning to use ‘bad words’ and I’d got it into my head that a boys’ grammar school would be a more civilized environment.

I’ll be brief. It wasn’t. But as far as my surroundings were concerned, the wealth was removed but the feeling of being overshadowed trebled, not least of all because I actually failed the entrance test and got in purely on the merit of my writing. So I came in pretty much at the bottom of the pile, in a school where the average student was scoring eight or nine A*s at GCSE level. Add to that the number of kids on the ‘Gifted and Talented’ list, or on MENSA, with national-level CAT test grades; and the large proportion of students playing various sports at county level; and the musicians with Grade 8 on two or three instruments – most of these, I should add, heavily concentrated in the super-bright ones…

It was very hard to stand out at all in such a school. I guess that’s one of the reasons I’ve thrown myself at so many fields over the years: music, literature, history, dance, art, horse-riding, photography, ornithology… For want of an example, I led my school’s Funk Band, but I was a long way off from being the best singer. I simply did it because I was reasonably good at it and because I enjoyed it. The same with Art; there were some genuine Picassos in my art class. I was not one of them. So I was and always have been kind of a Jack of all trades and master of none, if we ignore a paltry average of 26% in my mock Maths exams.

Durham is not much better. Being the stomping ground of private and grammar alike, it’s just as much of a melting pot for the über-talented as either of my previous schools. That’s a great thing – really – as it brings great minds together. The result is some stellar orchestras, sports teams and research groups… at the cost of being ‘normal’ (which, I hasten to add, is not necessarily a bad thing, but then, nobody in my family has ever been or ever will be normal).

Coming to Villafranca, however, I’ve had my eyes opened for the first time in over a decade to what I can do. It’s not that I’m in a town of country bumpkins – there are some seriously bright stars amongst my students – but for the first time in my life I’m not surrounded by people who are leagues ahead of me in all fields. And for somebody who’s more than used to settling for second-best, it’s a wonderful feeling. Don’t get me wrong, I’m chomping at the bit to get back to a place where music for its own sake actually exists, but I intend to make the most of not being outshone this year. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I love travel so much. Getting away from it all.

That said, I’ve spent most of today in bed, drifting in and out of sleep. My dreams have been vivid and memorable of late, as tends to happen when I’m down with a headache. I can’t remember all the details, but I remember consoling Liam Neeson last night over the death of a family member, and then feeling slightly miffed that I didn’t get a photo with him.

If that’s the kind of thing that my brain does in its spare time, there’s probably a reason I’ve always been second best. But that’s ok. It’s a role that suits me just fine. B, after all, comes right after A. BB x

Diamond in the Rough

This week started just about the same way as every week begins, with me waking up to the sound of my seven o’clock alarm, with the morning’s first class just an hour and a quarter away, and finding myself struck with the weekly conundrum that is ‘now, what am I going to teach today?’.

For the first three weeks I had some stellar lesson plans, but we’re filing into my fifth working week here now (I told you before, my observation week became my first teaching week) and my tried-and-true classes have come and gone. Four down, twenty-seven to go. Since in school I teach across the age-groups, from six to twenty-two, I have to split my material in half depending on their ability, which requires two new lesson plans each week. Not exactly a challenge, per se, especially when several of those are shared between groups, meaning it’s possible (and highly recommended) to recycle material; but it’s a weekly problem, after a weekend spent traveling, partying or what have you, that on Sunday night the question is always there on the tip of my tongue as I bed down for the night. What am I going to teach them today?

Today I thought I’d brave it and try literature on the kids. Foolhardy, I know, especially after my last attempt at sparking some creativity amongst the would-be dullards, but I’m not about to give up on them yet. To spark their interest – and since I’ve just spent most of the weekend reading the tale – I kicked things off by drawing a blackboard-sized Moby Dick on the board, complete with scars, harpoons and rigging. Most of them had heard of it, but understandably, none of them had actually read it.

Well, not quite. One of them had.

I did a little double-take at this and made him explain the plot to the class. The way he put it, in English, a language that is not his own, told the tale better than Herman Manville (personally, I found the text hard-going, turgid even, though the story itself was impeccable). Better yet, he beat me to it and cited Manville as the author. I thought I’d let him sit on his laurels for a while and ask the others for any books they’d read recently, but they just stared blankly at me, as though I’d asked them if they’d like to spend the rest of the day doing quadratics. Moby – the pseudonym I shall forthwith use for this very literate kid – had his hand up the whole time and went on to tell me about Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart. That he had read them in translation is beside the point. This is a boy of fifteen who’s busy working his way through the classics.

As I was struggling to elicit some kind of interest from the rest of the class – who, as you might expect, were getting visibly bothered by Moby’s contributions – my colleague spent the hour taking notes of other writers that he might enjoy, amongst them Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens. One of Moby’s companions lost it and complained loudly that it was unfair that only Moby was talking. My colleague and I soundly brought him down a size by repeating that all I was asking for was a story any of them had read, and that as Moby was the only one who was willing to talk, they only had themselves to blame for their silence. I opened the floodgates a little by allowing them to tell me about a film or television series they might have seen, but on that inch they took a mile and missed the point completely; three accounts down the line I had to remind them that match reports, game shows and reality TV are not stories, and consequently didn’t count.

Pushed into a corner, one kid looked very chuffed to say he thought his favourite TV show, a Spanish version of Match of the Day, was far better entertainment than any book he’d ever read. Granted, he probably hasn’t read very widely – I hadn’t at his age – but for good measure I told him that a show where two obnoxious early retirees discuss what happened, what might have happened, what should have happened and what might happen next time in a football match for an entire hour could hardly be as entertaining as a decent read. I could have done worse, of course, but I held back. Most of it went over his head anyway, as it was supposed to. I’m not foolhardy enough to let my personal prejudices against the tedium that is the world of football discussion ruin my relationship with my students, who already know I’m none too keen on it.

As you might have guessed, I was getting pretty frustrated by this point. I’ve learned to mask it after a month of teaching these kids, but it’s still pretty galling when you ask a simple question and all you get in return is twenty-three gormless expressions. But Moby came back with the goods, stating that he hadn’t read any books in English yet, but that over Christmas he was going to try with Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings. You’ve got to hand it to the kid; starting to read in a foreign language with Tolkein…? That takes guts. My parents are prolific readers and they can’t stand his writing, and sadly they’re not alone (though I, for one, can’t get enough of the stuff).

In the other establishment I work at there are several kids like Moby in every class; students who are well-read, well-cultured and whose English is streets ahead of their companions. It’s the norm in a private school. And teaching in both private and state has its merits. But kids like Moby make the state school experience so much more worthwhile, for all the challenges. Here is a boy who, despite everything, is working his way through the literary greats for the pure pleasure of it, with his mind bent on attending university in Toronto of all places. It’s kids like Moby who remind me just why it is that I love teaching. Because for all the sour looks, disinterest and gossipping that goes on, when there’s at least one kid who’s shining with promise there’s a reason to go on. Obviously you can’t cater to that one child alone – if it were that simple, everyone would want to be a teacher, I think – but as long as you know that what you’re dealing is going towards somebody’s personal development, that’s reward enough for all your travails.

As for me, I’ve got a fair amount of catching up to do. Moby Dick was this weekend’s read; The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Robinson Crusoe await, along with Allan Quatermain (after a two-month hiatus). Maybe I’ll recommend King Solomon’s Mines to Moby when I next get the chance. It’s certainly one of my favourites. BB x

Creativity in the Classroom: A Step Too Far?

I´m falling into something of a routine out here, now. Three hours with the state school, two hours with the Catholic school, one hour´s private English lesson, one hour´s Spanish conversation with my flatmate, a couple of hour´s reading and then bed. That´s good. I like a routine. It lets me know what I´m doing. I tend to go a bit spare without exact orders.

As I guessed all along, the term ´language assistant´ is a very loose one, interpreted by different schools in different ways. Some of my companions are working as ´classic´ language assistants, taking individuals or small groups for short periods for conversation. Others attend class with an English teacher as a human dictionary, there to lend a hand whenever a native speaker´s touch is needed. In Spanish, the term ´language assistant´ gets shortened down to just one word – auxiliar – which leaves even more room for interpretation. And just as happened in the last two ´language assistant´ jobs I´ve had, I seem to be working a real teacher rota.

Granted, I had prior warning this time. The first time I was promoted, so to speak, I had no idea that I was supposed to be taking full classes on my own until I was told that the diminutive head of the French department had decided to benefit from my presence by taking a month´s holiday at short notice. This time I was given a couple of lessons´ observation to get the feel of it, and even though they mostly left me leading the events – a harbinger, I guess – it was good to know what I was getting myself in for in advance.

So I´m a sub-teacher. That´s not a problem. In fact, it´s exactly what I wanted. It´s just… well, it´s reassuring to know that it doesn´t matter where you go in the world, ´language assistant´ is always a very flexible term.

In one school I take entire classes on my own, from bawling primary level to studious upper sixth. In the other I also prepare an hour´s class for whichever groups of the twelve I have that day – equally widely-spread, but fortunately without the weekly terrors of the primaria – and these are almost always under the supervision and occasional assistance of one of the English staff. The irony there is that they´re probably doing what comes under my job description. The system in place is the one used by bilingual schools nationwide: one class where the language of conversation can only be English, to compliment the others which are spent on writing and grammar. Nobody likes grammar. So that means it´s my class that everyone looks forward to by default, which is something to smile about.

Taking a full class obviously means you need an hour´s worth of material, and with teenagers thrown into the mix, you need to be prepared for all eventualities. I´m learning what to do when they´re tired, and how to calm them down when they´re exciteable, without letting them know there´s a system to it all. I´m learning what ideas students wants to discuss and which ones turn them off, and which games work well, and which ones don´t. And though I should have seen it coming a mile off, I tried this week once again with what is and always has been the greatest stumbling block of all: tapping into the students´ creativity.

Now this is something I feel very strongly about, and I´ve already written one behemoth of a text this week, so I´ll tackle it as lightly as I can. The simple fact of the matter is that there isn´t enough emphasis placed on creativity in schools these days. To tell the truth, I´m not entirely sure there ever has been. One of my English teachers once announced at a parents´ evening that she was ´paid to teach, not to inspire´. I disagree entirely. Inspiration should be right at the front of teaching, if we´re not all to become mindless robots.

Ah, but this is beginning to smack of yesterday´s post. It´s vaguely related, primarily because the game I´ve been ending my technology lessons with – a simplified variation on the British radio show I´m Sorry I Haven´t A Clue´s “Good News, Bad News” – has, time and again, come up dead in the water. The reason? Because nobody´s able to tap into their own creativity. I don´t know whether it got stamped out of the education system in favour of textual comprehension or the study of presentational devices – the kind of stuff that actually comes up in an exam – but the art of coming up with stories seems to disappear once you hit secondary school level.

For a budding author, I find this nothing short of horrifying. I spent most of my school career writing stories, and yes, it probably did affect my grades, but I left with an impressive English mark, and it´s my English that has always saved my neck. I´d have been flat-out rejected from grammar school if it hadn´t been for my English, since my mathematical capability is comparable to that of a wet flannel. The only excuse I can think of is that I´ve never stopped writing: from short stories to novels, diaries to blogs, love letters to newspaper articles. It keeps me alive. More importantly, it keeps my brain alive.

The higher up the education system you go, the less you´re encouraged to think for yourself. At some point you have to start quoting other writers. Then you have to start referencing other texts you´ve read and basing your arguments on the standpoints of extinct luminaries. The result, of course, is that by the time you get to university and you´re suddenly encouraged to come up with your own argument, a lot of people are quite understandably left high and dry, because they haven´t been taught how to think that way.

Here´s the difficulty. Creativity cannot be taught. It can be encouraged, it can be inspired, but it cannot be taught. For starters, how do you mark creativity? This is a regular feature of the arts world, of course, but outside the tripartite kingdom of Art, Music and Drama, creativity doesn´t get all that much of a look-in. In a world where everybody is mark-centric, from pupils to parents to headmasters and the governors to whom they bow, that kind of question gets thrown out early on, and the baby with the bathwater. So me going headlong into a class of fifteen year-olds and expecting them to come up with a story in fifteen minutes of “Good News, Bad News” was the very height of foolishness, especially for somebody with two jobs´ worth of teaching experience under his belt. A different English teacher – one who certainly did know how to inspire – once told us that the truth of the matter is that there are those who can, and those who can´t. I´m still not entirely sure where I stand on that, since I´m none too keen to cut anybody off, but I acknowledge that there´s more than a kernel of truth in that statement.

Creativity, I believe, is something that we´re all born with. We all loved to listen to stories when we were children, and most of us will have tried our hand at making one or two, intentionally or no. Heck, it´s fuelled language growth, all the arts and technology for all human existence. The trouble is that so much of it disappears when we grow up, when we´re told we have to put fiction behind us and focus on the real world. Unless you´re a stubborn little bastard like me, and you decide early on to defy that and to hold on to your creativity and remain a child forever. Like a twenty-first century Peter Pan.

In short, it´s perhaps too much to expect every student to be able to create stories of their own, especially at secondary level. There are a few rogue elements – it´s not difficult to recognise your own characteristics in others – but on the whole it strays much too far into the awkward silence minefield. Well, I´ve learned my lesson (no pun intended). But I´m not about to concede defeat. Never. I doubt I´ll make story-tellers out of the lot of them, but if I can sow the seeds of a budding Cervantes or Lope amongst the drowsy horde, I´ll consider my job accomplished. At the end of the day, we´re all story-tellers in one way or another. All it takes is the courage to leave behind what is real and to dabble with what is not. I said right at the start that I like exact orders. True. But there´s enough of an anarchist in me to want to break free sometimes. I hope there´s a little anarchy in everybody. BB x