Through the Pandemic
I started this story from the living room of a small apartment, on a modest table, with three feeble chairs, five thin books, a portrait with familiar faces, next to a drawing of the earth hanging on my fridge that says, "I promise, I will always take care of you."
Inside of these four fragile walls, where we heard the noisy footsteps from upstairs, or the bark of our neighbor's dog whenever he wanted to go out - by the way, all the time - we were there, surrounded by piles of pizza's boxes, coffee cups, my daughter's notebooks, her iPad, my laptop, face masks of various colors and sizes, a half bottle of hand sanitizer, and our shoes next to the dirty clothes bag in the narrow hall. This was how our room looked.
In the same building, I occasionally met my neighbor, a middle-aged lady who wore a purple uniform, after she finished her shift. She was called an essential worker. She was exhausted and melancholic. I knew it because of her eyes more than her words, a portal that can speak on behalf of thousands of people working harder than ever to keep us breathing.
I started this story from a not-exceptional room but in a remarkable time, accompanied by resilient people facing a dreadful pandemic from their bunkers, the places we have called our homes, and where we still stand up.
This is at least my story in Brooklyn, New York, the city that never sleeps had turned out for a moment, to be the city of the goodbyes, never before, so slow, so calm, the new face of one of the virus’s epicenters. This was how the city looked. This is one of the side effects of living in an interconnected humanity.
However, this story is about something more specific. The cyclical tale of the impulse for a normal life even in the darkest hours. It is about the window in which I kept contact with the external world in the middle of the pandemic. Where I started to learn a new language and took my first steps to reach North America and its people. This notable window was The English Speaking Union of the United States (ESU).
This story started in this apartment because ESU had to move to my home. It is not an exaggeration. Its orange brick facade, red door, white halls with its entire staff, professors, and tutors made room in my four fragile walls due to the prohibitions of personal meetings.
This was the challenge for ESU and its students. This organization had to reinvent itself using the newest technology to continue teaching and gathering people without the traditional lecture hall. Although keeping the essential factor in the formula, their dedicated people were ready to adapt to the new circumstances. I think ESU did it well. We did it together, and I will tell you how we did it.
Once the worldwide pandemic’s alarm started in February 2020, ESU closed its physical doors but opened its new virtual windows to accomplish its primary purpose: teach English.
Once Charlemagne said, "A Second language is a second soul." I have started to believe him. Learning a second language has been rediscovering the same world with a different perspective. Having a second perspective allowed my mind to accept the possibility that I can be wrong in many ways. It gave me the certainty that there are other sides of the world hiding from my native words. Indeed, this process had consequences. The entire world became less static, permanent, and solid, and more dynamic, changing, and flexible. Maybe a little closer to the truth than the illusion. Therefore, my previous opinions got softer, and now it is more difficult to convince myself about immutable truths.
A small example about this could be the several ways you can see in English, such as squint, peer, peep, stare, gape, glance, wink, watch, look, and see. The Spanish language does not have this precision concerning the verb “to see,” so now I can name different ways of seeing that were unknown to me before. Nevertheless, it is an interchangeable experience. We can call in Spanish the day before yesterday in one single word -antier- or we can distinguish the comrade feeling for your friend -te quiero-, to the romantic feeling for your spouse -te amo-.
In summary, if someone can teach you something invaluable, it is a new language that opens the gates to a new world. ESU was my guide on this beautiful journey.
I can recall a couple of anecdotes about how it was. We attended classes and met our tutors through Zoom. Attending virtual classes had its advantages. For instance, I participated in a couple of lessons in my pajamas without anyone noticing. I woke up extremely late and yet I reached my grammar class on time. I ate and learned at the same time, a reason why I added a few extra pounds. I helped my daughter with her homework while I was in the breakout room practicing conjunctions as well. However, it also had its disadvantages. For example, in the middle of a lesson, all my classmates heard the flush of my toilet, or the argument with my wife about who left the drawer open, or they saw my roommate wearing no shirt. Such embarrassing moments. Although, we learned the Zoom’s tool of virtual backgrounds. Now, it is not an issue anymore.
Regarding the signatures in the program, one of my favorites was creative writing with Ms. Karen. On the freezing and hard floor, I wrote:
I will learn all the languages of the world,
to talk to you again,
when cosmic distances separate us,
Because I've thrown a sunflower of light
And it has fallen in your garden,
On that blue-green planet
With a warm climate,
Could be my last chance.
I learned more than just English with Ms. Elaine using the material, “We speak NYC.” No one teaches you how to live in North America, but this material gives you good insights for a smoother begin. We learned about my worker’s rights, Sunset Park, where I live now, 311 services, the food pantries, the career center, and the workforce one. Even though the most meaningful gift that Elaine gave me was an invitation to a reading group. With this group, I immediately hooked on English literature. I have already read five entire books in English. I am still in this group where I made new friends who visit me every Wednesday to drink coffee and share comments about the work of Marcus Samuelsson, James McBride, Colum McCann, Cheryl Strayed, and Celeste Ng.
I improved my pronunciation with Ms. Jane and her peculiar assistants, a mouth toy, a whistle, and rubber bands. If you have been in her classes, you know what I am talking about. She saved us from the embarrassing mistakes of mispronouncing words like focus, crab, or beach. I wish I had met her before my first interview when I said, “I live in Bath Beach, Brooklyn,” with an improper pronunciation. You can imagine how was the expression on my current boss’s face. Also, Jane taught us English boxing. Punch, go back, punch again. In other words, the stress patterns that you must use to master the English language. Quite different from the marathons of Spanish, a machine-gun of the same bursts.
Finally, what makes ESU different from other English programs in the city? The tutoring program. By far, it is never going to be the same experience in results, between a program with only grammar classes and a program with native speakers ready to offer you two hours of real intense conversation. With this program, I met lovely people, Serge, Gigi, Carol, and Dell, no concentration on grammar but a real fluent conversation. There were not the regular sentences that you learned in a boring book like I wake up, I take a shower, I play the guitar. Instead, we discussed the landscapes of Thomas Cole, The NYC rent freeze program, the effects of fifteen dollars minimum wage in the USA. We wondered, is America still a model for the world? What is cheesesteak made of, and where does it come from? In a nutshell, everyday issues that discusses an average New Yorker with an opinion about everything, we did it.
I took a city bike and rode from my home to American Veterans Memorial Pier. There was the end of this story on a sunny day in May, with a view of downtown Manhattan, the tiny Statue of Liberty on the west, the smell of the sea, the breeze against my face. I could almost taste the salt on my lips. I sat wondering how does it feel to be an immigrant in America? The only word possible was welcomed. I felt welcomed. I am still feeling it. Thanks, ESU, for the warmest welcome.