Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Into the Wolf´s Mouth

The Duomo and Baptistry, Florence
I remember traveling in the mid-90’s, even before I learned Spanish, hearing the announcements over the loudspeaker during a layover in the Rome airport. They were probably just telling people not to park in the loading zone, but I was absolutely enraptured by the rhythm and musicality of the Italian language. And now here I am twenty years hence, preparing to travel to Italy to study Italian for six weeks, one of those fabulous things academics get to do a few times in a career. Six weeks in Florence (Margaret with me for the first month)? Are you kidding? Due cappuccini, per favore! It will be awesome. But (maybe as proof that I´m incapable of just enjoying something) I’ve put some pressure on myself in this endeavor by committing to come back and teach Elementary Italian in the fall.

At least two people inspired me to attempt to navigate this “learn to teach” process. One is Johnny Wink, my brilliant friend and colleague, polyglot, and locally world famous autodidact. Johnny never met a language he didn’t like, and routinely studies about six languages. He taught himself Latin and is now a great Latin teacher, treasured by generations of students.  

The other guy is Robert Anthony Siegel, the leader of my week-long writer’s workshop in Iowa City a few years ago. In addition to our main sessions in the mornings and afternoons, we’d have a lunch hour presentation on one theme or another. One of those presentations featured Robert, who started his talk by saying, “I wanted to do this presentation on flash fiction because I didn’t know much about it.” I thought, “That’s a bold man right there.” Normally we only want to teach subjects on which we consider ourselves to be experts, not what we want to learn about.

And I’m motivated by the omnipresent doubters, like Bob Neller, my boss at Camp Lejeune (now a 4-star general and Commandant of the Marine Corps) who told me in 1997 that I’d never get further in Spanish than possibly being able to order a meal, and another friend of mine who told me I´m too old to do this.

So I’m cramming as much elementary Italian in my brain as I can, the same way I learned Spanish, starting with phrases of greeting and introduction, making flashcards with regular verbs ending in -are, then -ere, then -ire. Then studying the irregular present verbs, numbers, vocabulary and pronunciation. Knowing what syllable to emphasize in Italian seems to be much more complicated than in Spanish, and I’ve been very slow to pick up on the pronunciation differences between cchi vs. ci / ce.   

As I face all I should learn between now and when I leave in a month, many doubts assail me: will our kids do a good job of taking care of themselves and the house while we´re gone? Will I be able to learn Italian well enough to be an effective teacher? Will my brain full of Spanish and dormant rudimentary Brazilian Portuguese help or hinder my learning?  Is my increasingly less plastic brain still flexible enough to learn something as complex as a new language? I’ll be essentially another student in the classroom with college students. That is certain to be awkward. Nobody goes on study abroad hoping to hang out with some old grey haired dude on the back nine of life.

I´m determined to force myself to think more about what will be great about this trip than what will be difficult: to have Margaret, the greatest travel partner ever, there with me the first month and to roam around Florence and Tuscany with her; to get where I´m conversational, and then, maybe, comfortable in basic Italian, to see other language teachers in action and pick up tips for how to be a more effective teacher of language; to unplug totally from the familiar and routine . . . it will all be great.

 . . . but not pressure free. Several agencies and departments around my University helped me fund this trip with the reasonable expectation of a payoff: that I come back here ready to teach what I´ve learned. Pressure is not bad, though. No pressure, no diamonds.

The Italian phrase to wish someone good luck on a challenging endeavor is “in bocca al lupo” or “in the wolf´s mouth” somewhat similar to the equally odd “break a leg” to mean good luck to performers about to take the stage. The proper response is supposed to be “Crepi” (May the wolf die).  

So here goes . . . it´s the wolf or me.