Her fourth university year became especially relevant as the students were given the opportunity to apply for an Erasmus grant that would allow them to spend at least six months studying abroad. It was the academic year 1990-91.
The Cold War was over, the Berlin Wall had recently been demolished and Germany unified. Besides, the city of Leipzig was politically interesting at that time because of its large demonstrations; people were looking for a political and social change that would give them freedom. She had heard in the news that those demonstrations had been totally free of violence, which made the possibility of studying there really attractive. During that academic year of 1990-91 a grant to study English Language and Literature was being offered. She did not think twice and applied for it.
In fact, her university marks were not the best but she had passed all the subjects until then. Maybe she had a chance but no, a list of the selected students was soon hung on a professor’s office door. It was the professor in charge of giving these grants. She was not on the list. She checked it several times and read the names of some students who had failed one or two subjects. What? How could they possibly have been chosen?
She knocked on the professor’s office door and asked to talk to him. He was British and taught literature. He had a pale face, blue eyes and an air of self-importance that made him walk with his head lifted as if ignoring the people around him. She had been attending his classes the previous year but not the current one. She simply said she was not on the list whereas students with one or two failed subjects were. All she wanted was to know the selection criteria. His answer was (she will never forget his original words):
“We have selected those students who we (meaning him and a colleague) thought could do well abroad.”
She immediately replied: “And how do you previously know or estimate who will do well abroad? I suppose marks are relevant, aren’t they?”
They were not and she was clearly facing a corruption case. Those two professors were giving some of the grants to their own students and, what was more, to some who had failed one or two subjects! She said that was completely unfair. Just after having uttered these words she witnessed a transformation in a professor who had exuded indifference, which is typical of the British. Always calm, nothing ever seemed to alter him. But at that moment his usually pale face became red with anger. His blue eyes were fiery. He stood up, raised his finger pointing to the door and said:
“I have already told you the selection criteria and now you should leave the room!”
To this she replied, trying not to lose her temper:
“Fine, I’m leaving the room but I’m also going to take legal action!”
After leaving the professor’s office she had to take a deep breath. She was so furious! Two classmates, Andrea and Jordi, tried to console her. Andrea’s brother worked at the same university but in a different department. She trusted Andrea. She was a good friend; they shared an apartment later on. Andrea was intelligent and humble.
“I am sorry you haven’t been given the grant but there’s really nothing you can do,” Andrea said.
“When you were applying for it you shouldn’t have written that you wanted to study German language and literature as well,” added Jordi.
He was also a nice guy. When you looked at him you thought of a big teddy bear. When he laughed you could hear him even if he was at the other end of the hallway where students had to wait before entering a classroom. His laughter was contagious.
“I’m telling you this because the English and the German departments don’t get along well with each other,” continued Jordi. “So you shouldn’t have written anything related to German on your application. This grant is being controlled by the English department.”
Fine. How was she supposed to know that? It was the most absurd thing she had ever heard in her life. She decided to go to the students’ association office and explain the facts. They said they could not do anything. The exact words in Catalan were:
“Nosaltres no podem fer-hi res. Un professor o professora pot enviar el seu fill o la seva filla amb una beca a una universitat estrangera encara que sigui un patata.” The message was crystal clear: A professor could send his son or daughter with a grant to a foreign university even if that individual was a bad student. The system was corrupt.
She considered the possibility of going straight to the dean. She had almost done it once because of a little problem on her subject schedule that a clerk had refused to change. Sometimes some people do not like to work. She remembered the scared face of the dean’s secretary as she had turned up asking to see the dean and how the secretary had solved her problem in just a few minutes. What was happening now was a far more important issue, a real corruption scandal.
Some time after she locked herself inside one of the student toilets and cried. She cried because she was not being valued as a student while others with worse academic results were. She cried because the university was corrupt. But she cried mostly because she would not do what she said she would, which was to take legal action.
She was at a crossroads. Trying to go further in this case and to do it alone would only bring her more problems and doing nothing meant being a coward. She never took another class offered by that professor, which is what Andrea and Jordi had told her to do. Sadly, she also closed another door, which was not studying Shakespeare, an unthinkable act for someone interested in English Literature.
Maybe she was being dramatic? Could it be that she was somehow experiencing a similar kind of sadness and loneliness to the one that appears in Mario Savioni’s book Blue Emptiness? On the one hand she was really sad because she obviously wanted that grant for herself but, on the other, she felt terribly lonely and abandoned by the small society, that is, the university, which had failed at instilling proper human values.
After this experience she told herself she would finish her studies and then, with her degree in-hand, she would go to Germany to study. She did it for a little longer than she would have done otherwise with an Erasmus grant. It was one of the best years of her life. She found different jobs teaching Spanish, Catalan and English to Germans. She even taught Spanish cooking without having any idea of how to cook.
“Come on, do it! It’s a well-paid job!”, said one of the German girls she was sharing an apartment with.
“But I can’t even make a decent Spanish omelette!”, she replied thinking about her mother, an artist no one knew, who painted beautiful nude drawings and paintings.
Her mother was an excellent cook. As a child, she thought she would never be able to reach her mother’s high standards, so she gave up drawing and painting and did not learn to cook. Now she had to cook because she was living abroad and sharing an apartment. She also had to do it as a means to survive. The idea of this new job made her change her mind.
Luckily Germans found everything coming from Spain so exotic that it didn’t matter if the cooking was delicious or not. Besides, they were the ones who had to cook the dishes in a large kitchen, so buying a book of Spanish cuisine in German was the immediate solution. She would first try out the recipes on her apartment-mates. They miraculously found everything tasty and delicious. After that she would photocopy and give some selected recipes to her students who had to buy the ingredients before coming to class. Then they would start to prepare the food in small groups. She always pretended to sound very convincing and proficient in her job, though she really had no idea.
“Good, the potatoes need to be sliced. Yes, thin slices, well done!” she told her students. “And please, some more oil should be added to this beautiful Spanish omelette.”
Too late. The student in charge of the pan wanted to flip the omelette and it got stuck. Well, it was still edible and telling her students what part of Spain the recipes came from was also essential. She always emphasized the fact that Galicia (half of her blood is Galician, from her father’s side), the Basque country and Catalonia were nations inside Spain with their own languages and cultures. This is the kind of Spain many of us would have liked but it seems not to be possible anymore. All the doors had been closed by the central government in Madrid, even the possibility to hold a referendum on independence, which was something that had already taken place in Quebec and in Scotland.
The student who had got the omelette stuck to the frying pan offered her a lift home.
“I’m driving in the same direction.”
She accepted. He was tall and had a nice smile.
“Aren’t you afraid of me? You know I could rape you,” he said.
“No, you won’t,” she replied. “I have a strong intuition with people and I know I can trust you.”
From that moment on she always had that lift home. It was almost a year living in Germany.
Back in Barcelona it was easy to find different teaching jobs in private language schools. Becoming a foreign language teacher allowed her to reach what she thinks is the most suitable profession for her; she needs to be able to help people and use her creativity in doing so. This profession also includes all she was interested in when she decided to study Filologia Anglo-Germànica. She loves her job. It has everything she wants because a teacher is someone adaptable and versatile. You are doing many jobs at the same time: Educator, caregiver, community leader, artist, psychologist … And above all you are fighting for a better society when you are educating. You make your students think. You do not want robots.
Besides, in a foreign language class almost everything is possible: Learning through art like interpreting a painting and making your students create a story or a poem about it, having them sing songs and make music, engage in dramatic activities, role play, games and many other activities. Your students are working with both analog and digital tools. You are employing textbooks and modern digital apps with computers, tablets and smartphones.
It also involves making your students aware of how to use digital media properly without overusing them or losing the content of the subject they are studying.
I completely agree with her views on foreign language teaching. After all, I am also an English and German language teacher. She told me she is currently doing a small research on how digital media influence foreign language learning.
Kyrta clearly sees she belongs to a generation acting as a bridge between analog people and digital natives. The latter are our students, young people in our modern world.