The auxiliares de conversaciones program is a massive initiative by the Spanish state to get native English speakers into the classroom. In Madrid alone there are well over one thousand of us—seven alone in my high school.
Becca is one of these seven. She was the first coworker I met in my current high school. We came in on the first day, disoriented and a little overwhelmed, to explore the plain yellow building that was to become the center of our working lives. This was last year, when we were both simple language assistants. But this year Becca took on the additional responsibility of Global Classrooms (see below), which switched her from an assisting to a leading role. She rose to the challenge—becoming notably less diffident, more assertive, both in and out of the classroom—and meanwhile became the unofficial leader of our group of friends, organizing and planning all our outings. She recently sat down to talk with me about her experience in Spain:
ROY: Is this your first interview?
BECCA: I guess it’s my first, other than a job interview…
R: Hopefully not your last interview, then.
B: Hopefully, fingers crossed, we’ll see how this first one goes.
R: Tell me about your background—your family, your hometown, what you studied in university.
B: I’m one of four siblings, I have three older brothers. My dad was born in Germany but raised in Arizona, my mom is from El Salvador, they met in Mexico but that’s a different story. We moved around a lot growing up. I was born in Connecticut, but I lived near Boston, then two hours from Chicago, and ended up in Plano, Texas, and we’ve lived there ever since. So it’s easier to say I’m from Plano, even though I don’t really feel like I’m from a place. I went to the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, and I majored in Creative Writing and I double minored in psychology and film (they have a famous film school, so I figured I should).
R: Why did you decide to come to Spain?
B: After graduation I had moved back with my parents, and had gotten a part-time job as a tutor, at a company that specializes mostly in SAT tutoring, but they also do school tutoring. And I worked there for about two and a half years. I loved working with the kids, but after so long I felt like I didn’t want to move up in the company.
So I decided to apply for a MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) programs in creative writing. I applied to five schools, but I’m the kind of person who always needs to have a backup plan. I had come to Spain about seven months before, and I really loved Spain, and I felt like I could live here. So when I saw the language assistant program, I decided to apply for that, since it was teaching English to high school kids, and I knew I liked kids and I knew I liked Spain. This was just a backup plan. Then I heard back from the grad schools, and I had gotten into one, Indiana University. It’s a great school, but I did not want to live in Indiana, just too much corn for me. So I guess the dreamer in me said, “Wow, I can live in Europe.” It made the choice easier for me.
R: What were some of the biggest challenges of moving here?
B: The language is definitely the hardest one. I had some experience of Spanish, and I had known since April that I was going to come, so I was on the app Duolingo and speaking Spanish with my mom. But when you get here it’s a whole different game. Being away from my family was also a challenge because we’re a very close family, and to suddenly be an ocean away is difficult. Thankfully, there’s technology, and also my brother was already living in Germany. And finding an apartment, that was tough. It’s crazy in August, since everybody is trying to find an apartment, and you’re also trying to figure out your Spanish.
And it was incredible to realize how language made simple acts so much more difficult. My first few months in Madrid, I remember I would go grocery shopping and it would take me so long to shop for food. The supermarkets here were organized a bit differently than in the United States, so I didn’t know where to find all the food on my list. Asking for help from one of the workers at the supermarket would have made everything easy, but I was so worried that I wouldn’t know how to ask my question in Spanish, or, worse, I wouldn’t understand the worker’s response. So instead of asking for help, I would just wander around the supermarket, hoping to eventually find the food that I needed. I felt like such a lost child.
R: What do you think are some of the biggest takeaways from living abroad?
B: The first thing I thought of when you showed me this question is that you really come to appreciate people who are patient with you when you’re trying to speak another language. Because some people are annoyed that you’re not particularly fluent, and some people laugh at your accent, and even if they aren’t being mean it’s discouraging. So I came to appreciate the people, whose job it wasn’t to deal with my Spanish, to take the time to listen to me, even if it takes me 10 minutes to say something.
R: What did you do doing your first year here as an language assistant?
B: My first year I worked here at Antares. As a language assistant, our job is exactly that. We are there to assist. A lot of people think we’re teachers but we’re teacher assistants. We work four days a week, sixteen hours a week, and typically you have different classes you work with. So I was assigned to 1st of ESO (American 7th grade), and 2nd of ESO (American 8th grade), and I taught English, Geography & History, Biology, Art, and Music.
Each teacher was different. Some would give me something to do in the book, and I would lead the class the day that I was in there. Sometimes I would take groups of kids outside the class and play games, in groups of four, to give the students more practice speaking. In history I would give presentations about whatever we were learning or do games for review. More or less the same for Art and Biology, and Music…
R: What are some of the challenges of being a language assistant?
B: The biggest challenge is discipline. We’re in this weird limbo where we’re the teacher, but we’re also not the teacher. The kids are really fascinated when an assistant comes in. We tend to be younger, too, so that makes the students like us really quickly. They like us because we’re different. And I’m the kind of person who really likes to relate to my kids one-on-one. Like I’ll talk about Marvel Movies or Star Wars with them, because I’m a little bit of a kid myself, I like the same things that they like.
But then it would create this problem where they felt like I was their friend, but I was also trying to be their teacher. Also, it’s not clearly defined if we can discipline the kids, or how we can. Can we give them negative marks? Can we write up a parte (incident report)? And sometimes, even though I don’t like yelling, I did have to raise my voice. Thankfully, we’re not allowed to be alone with the kids, the teacher has to be there. But sometimes I don’t like that I have to rely on the teacher so much for discipline. I want to figure it out on my own. So I don’t know how to relate to them and to maintain discipline, a weird limbo.
R: Can you explain what the Global Classrooms (GC) program is and what was your role in the program?
B: The Global Classrooms program has been going on for about ten years, and it’s a program that the Comunidad de Madrid does with Fulbright and also the British Council. It’s basically Model United Nations. Only bilingual schools get to participate. Typically, a Fulbright assistant (language assistants who won a Fulbright award) will work with third year (American ninth grade) at a bilingual school. And they teach GC to the entire third year. For some people, that’s 40 kids. For me, this year, it was 145 kids.
For the first part of the year, from October to December, I was teaching them skills they need for Model UN: how to debate, how to write a research paper—and a lot of these kids have never done that in Spanish, much less English—how to find sources, cite sources, how to build an argument, how to write a speech and deliver it, and really, more importantly, just how to engage with the world and think critically.
In GC you get a specific topic for the year, and this year ours was income inequality. So I was trying to teach these kids about this problem in Spain, but also in a lot of different countries around the world. Again, typically this is what the Fulbright assistants do, but now GC has grown so much that they don’t get enough Fulbrights for it. I’m not Fulbright, but I volunteered for it, because I wanted the challenge. So that was October to December.
After that, there are two conferences, a preliminary conference and a final conference. Every school that participates in GC goes to the preliminary conference. Obviously, we can’t send 145 students, unfortunately, so the teachers and I picked a group of 10, which was really difficult. These formed five teams of two. Each of these teams was assigned a country for the preliminary conference. Of all the bilingual schools at the preliminary conference, 28 are chosen to participate in the final conference. After this conference there are interviews.
Of the students who participate in this final conference, each school is allowed to send a single student to be interviewed. That means 28 kids are interviewed in all, and of those, 10 are chosen to participate in a final, final conference that happens in New York, along with teams from all over the world—Mexico, Germany, the United States.
R: And this year one of your students won, right?
B: Yes, this year it was great. The past two years we had always made it to the final conference but our students weren’t picked at the interviews. But this year, our student María Romero was picked to go to New York, which was really exciting. I had her last year and she really deserves it, she’s brilliant, confident, and works hard. She’s right now in the process of working with her partner, who goes to a different school, and she’s writing her research paper. And in three weeks, she’s going to New York City for the first time.
R: What are your plans when you finish your school year?
B: Again, last fall, I applied for grad schools, MFA programs. And I got into Vanderbilt University. So when I finish this school year I’ll be moving back to the United States, to Nashville Tennessee, to complete a two-year Masters of Fine Arts in the Creative Writing program. Which I’m really, really stoked for.
R: What originally drew you to writing?
B: That’s a good question, but I’ve always loved writing, so it’s hard to know what drew me to it. I think it was just reading. My mom really instilled in me this love of reading. I remember when I was learning how to read I was so scared that I’d have problems. Do you remember Hooked on Phonics?
B: So I remember watching those commercials, and I remember they were for the kids who were struggling with reading. And I had so much anxiety as a five-year-old that I wouldn’t be able to learn to read. I thought I would need Hooked on Phonics and would tell my mom, you need to call that number in the commercial and order it. But I didn’t end up needing it. From the minute I started learning how to read, I loved it. And I think what originally drew me to writing was reading stories—I would read these stories and put the book down, and the stories would live on in my mind, and I would wonder what I would do in this situation, or come up with my own characters in my mind and play them out in my head. So it was like an extension of make-believe, which I always loved doing with my friends.
I remember one time I put on a show for my family, God bless them, with my Beanie Babies. I think it was like a Zorro story, because I really liked Zorro at the time, I was in love with Antonio Banderas. And they watched, and told me “That was really good, Becca,” even though it was probably terrible.
R: What do you hope to be doing in ten years?
B: Well, I hope that in ten years I’ve published something. A novel, a short story collection, or even just a short story. It would be nice to have published something, to still be finding the time to write the stories I want to write. But I also hope I’ll be teaching, because the two years in Spain have really taught me that I love teaching. I knew I liked kids from my tutoring job, but I wasn’t sure I would like teaching in a classroom, but the Auxiliar program taught me that I really love that.
I hope I’ll find myself back in Europe, maybe not forever, but to live again. Hopefully in Spain, since it’s going to be really hard to say goodbye to Spain. Hopefully, I guess, married, with kids, we’ll see… Have a dog, a German shepherd.
R: And how you think you will look back on this experience?
B: I think I will look back on this experience as extremely formative, not just career-wise, but just as a person. I’ve made friendships here that I hope will be long-term. It’s always a little scary when you move to another country, and think “I don’t know how I’m gonna cope,” but I learned that, yeah, I can be independent. If I can take care of myself in another country, where I struggle with the language, it gives me confidence to do other things. I think living here has taught me to be more empathetic, to other cultures, to other people. It’s certainly helped my writing, just with all the new experiences.
When I approached it, I thought “Oh, this will be a fun year or two in Spain.” But looking back I realize that it wasn’t just a break from life, it was actually a really big stepping stone. It was necessary to get me to where I needed to go. It wasn’t a pause, it wasn’t a breather, it was an important part of my life.