No Place for Plastic Saints

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This is an excerpt from Margaret Register’s book No Place for Plastic Saints: Earthquakes, Chicken Feet and Candid Confessions of a Missionary Wife.  A longer excerpt is posted on Tortilla Press.  When I first read this, I laughed till I cried!  I need the “Been there, done that” T-shirt.

Our first day of language school, Guadalajara, Mexico. April 1968:

“!@##$%%^&**()())_,” said the teacher. Ten of us scared white Americans, with one brown, confident Mexican, were crowded around a table in a small narrow room. Nothing adorned the long, side walls except the plaster, painted white, over adobe bricks. At one end of the room, a window opened to a courtyard. At the other end, a door opened to the patio. The climate was perfect year-round. But our room smelled like sweat. And glistened with tears.

“!@##$%%^&**()())_,” the teacher uttered again as she passed out workbooks.

“!@##$%%^&**()())_,” she said as she opened a workbook and motioned to the drawings of two men walking toward each other, shaking hands, then walking away from each other.

“!@##$%%^&**()())_ ,” she said as she pointed to her mouth and then to our mouths.

She turned to the student on her right, “!@##$%%^&**()())_.”

She gestured to him, “!@##$%%^&**()())_.” He repeated it, haltingly, “..#..#..**)…)_.”  She nodded brusquely.

Next student, “!@##$%%^&**()())_.” He stuttered, “## … $$$ …%%%.”

All the way around the table. “!@##$%%^&**()())_.” Each of us tried and failed miserably to repeat the gibberish.

“!@##$%%^&**()())_ mañana,” she said as she handed each family unit a reel-to-reel tape.

Finally, lunchtime came. Joe went to get Christy from her first grade class; I went upstairs to get Timmy from the nursery. By the time I was back downstairs, Joe had spread our quilt on the grass in front of the main building. All around us the other twenty families were doing the same thing in the open-air cafeteria.

A stubby, stocky toddler named Ralphie went running past, diaper so soaked that it dragged the ground. From our left, I overheard, “I can’t do it.” A deeper voice said, “Yes, you can, Honey, you can learn it.”

We opened our lunch basket: a can of tuna, crackers, and pork ’n beans, again, along with our thermos with purified water, and some bananas.

An hour later, we were all back in our classrooms. Another lady came and motioned to a student to follow her. We learned that she was the accent coach and grammar dragon imported from Costa Rica. Each of us had half an hour a day with her. Repeating, incorrectly, whatever she said. She would hold our jaw, all scrunchy, and make us repeat the word again. She would point to a word with a d in the middle and make us say it like a th. She would roll her r’s and try to get us to do it. Then she would roll her eyes and sigh.

By 5:00 we were exhausted. My jaw hurt from trying to hold it differently. Why didn’t they explain in English what we were “repeating”? We felt so silly mouthing meaningless babble. We felt like children. Worse than children. A three-year-old Mexican knew more Spanish than we did.

We struggled through the second day, the second week. Grown men cried silently, red-eyed, wiping tears with a fist. Grown women cried openly, sobbing as they jumped up and ran out into the patio. We could not learn this. It was impossible.

An upperclassman told us, “Just as a baby repeats what he hears, with no concept of what it means, you have to do the same. You’ll see, it’ll come together.”

Little by little by little we began to recognize one word. Then another. Then one more.

One evening when we arrived home, Joe wanted to show off his Spanish by telling the maid (whose services were included in the rent of the apartment) that he was hungry. But in Spanish you say, “I have hunger.” Hunger is hambre, man is hombre. Joe told her, “I am hombre.” She looked startled, so he just repeated it, louder, “Yo soy hombre.” “I am a man!”

I was proud of my new Spanish, too, as I hurried down our driveway in my housecoat just as a vendor arrived selling jugs of purified water. In Spanish, he asked, “Do you want water?” “No, I want a son,” I replied in Spanish. His eyes flew open and he hurried away, thinking he was being solicited by a crazy gringa, one who didn’t know how to say she was searching for her son.

April 24, 1969, the day of our graduation banquet, we dressed in our finest: Joe in his suit from his Southeastern College quartet days, me in a blue satin sheath dress, a hand-me-down from the rich family in the Beckley church. Joe was class president and graduated at the head of our class. I was close behind him, and we were proud that we could communicate now in Spanish.

Of course, I needed to have my hair and nails done, so that morning I went for my $2.00 do. As my hair was being “teased,” a stylish lady breezed in, talking ninety to nothing. I did not understand one word. She stayed briefly, and when she left, I asked my beautician, “Was she speaking Spanish?” “Oh, , she is from Chile.”

We were leaving for Chile the next day.

(Excerpt from Margaret Register’s book No Place for Plastic Saints: Earthquakes, Chicken Feet and Candid Confessions of a Missionary Wife)

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