2/20/20 - Good Morning!
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I thought I was demolishing the language barrier. Turns out I was just banging my head against the wall.
Hi! This is Coach Sarah, and this is the Morning Mantra!
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Hi, my name is Sarah Axelrod. I'm a run coach and a lover of poetry, and I’m here to put the fun back in profundity. You don't have to be an athlete to be #coachedandloved, and if you need an anchor to hold onto as you move through a tough situation, you've come to the right place.
Today’s mantra is: “Good Morning!”
I used to teach Italian high school kids English, one of the most mind-bendingly difficult jobs I have ever had. English is a hard language, yo. We don’t conjugate, except when we do, our past participles are mostly FUBAR, and don’t even get me started on the vowels. Pronouncing English vowels is TRULY maddening, unless you were born doing it and you have no idea how you ever learned.
I’ve taught English to adults and college kids who really wanted to learn so that they could pass certification exams and work in the U.S., but the Italian teenagers were a different story. I was 22 years old, and many of my students were my age or older, having been held back a time or two as they cruised through high school. Plus, the Italian method of English instruction involved speaking almost no English. My students understood what phrasal verbs were far better than I did, and they could discuss them at length, but only in Italian. Plus there was the fact that they didn’t give a fuck. Because when all the adults already assume you’re dumb and you don’t try, WHY WOULD YOU?
The other thing about my students in Italy was that their teachers plainly thought they were idiots. I’d been warned by lots of people I’d met before even beginning to teach that the high school to which I’d been assigned was agreed to be the worst in the city. GOOD LUCK with that, they said. When I asked what I should teach, they said that the girl who’d been the English assistant the previous year had done lessons on American holidays like Halloween and Thanksgiving. They liked that, you can just do it again. But...I said...if they learned all that last year, won’t it be boring to repeat it? Nah, the teachers said, they don’t remember shit.
It would be cute if I were the one to see that the students I taught were way smarter than their teachers gave them credit for and if by respecting them I were somehow able to get through to them. I desperately wanted my life as a high school teacher to resemble the movie Stand and Deliver, but it much more closely resembled the South Park parody of Stand and Deliver (think Cartman with a combover saying “how do I reach these kiiiids?). I had a LOT of expectations, they had none, and their teachers had even fewer.
My first class was an afternoon class with a group of very eager 3rd-year students, the equivalent of high-school sophomores. It was their last hour of the day around 2:00 pm, and I walked in mildly trembling (the teacher had told me to pretend I didn’t speak Italian, because if the students found out, she said, they’d never attempt to speak to me in English again). The students scrambled to their feet: “GOOD MORNING!” they roared enthusiastically. Their teacher sighed: “No no NO, come on, you know this! You have to say GOOD AFTERNOON!” “Good AFternoon!” they repeated.
Good morning, you see, was how I was always greeted, no matter what time of day. “Buongiorno,” in Italian, translates to “good morning” in English, but of course the direct translation doesn’t really work because Italians can say “buongiorno” pretty much any time of day until it’s decidedly evening (at which point they roll over to the equally common “buonasera”). “Good afternoon” in English would translate to “buon pomeriggio” in Italian, and I have only ever heard an automated train ticket sales machine say “buon pomeriggio” to me. Also, really, who says “good afternoon”? If you were in Italy, you’d absolutely stick with buongiorno.
At the teachers’ urging, I tried to teach my students what you are supposed to say when. I drew diagrams with clocks and stick figures to designate when “good morning” begins to be the correct greeting and when it is no longer the correct greeting. As we got to know each other better and as they got used to my presence in their school, as I started to learn their names and faces (12 different classes, sometimes with as many as 29 kids each) we began greeting each other in the halls. I got used to hearing a thunderous “GOOD MORNING!” from a whole gaggle of them as we crossed paths at 3 PM heading out to the bus stop, and though the teachers told me that I must ALWAYS correct them, I hated responding to their enthusiasm by reminding them that they were wrong.
One winter afternoon, my then-boyfriend, now husband and I were out having a “passeggiata,” which is kind of a classic Italian ritual on the weekends before aperitivo hour: you go out and you just kind of stroll the loop of the city center, window-shop, get a coffee, run into people. We lived in a large city and knew almost no one, and we had so little money coming in that we allowed ourselves very little in the way of dispensable entertainment. Borrowing burned DVDs from the library was free, though, and so was the passeggiata. In December, it would be getting dark already by 3:40 or 4:00, but the city was lit with Christmas lights that brightened our moods just a little bit. As we were walking the Corso amid a throng of people, I heard an exuberant “GOOD MORNING PROF!!” And I turned around and saw a group of my kids waving gaily at me. I smiled and said “Good morning” right back. Turns out, I didn’t really give a fuck either. I’d rather feel connected, I decided, than keep running into a Good-Morning-sized wall.
I think back to that year and remember how sorely difficult it was sometimes. But I also give myself a lot more credit than I could then for what I did do rather than dwelling on what I couldn’t accomplish. And when no one around you is going to reward you for trying, for going the extra mile, then why should you? I bent over backwards trying to come up with interesting and original lesson plans, involving Stevie Wonder song lyrics, Calvin and Hobbes comic strips, and some of them worked and others landed with a thud. The days that worked best were the days where I did what made me happy, because the students saw what made me excited and what I thought was boring. And as far as they were concerned, no one was giving them any extra points for effort. In retrospect, I give them credit for being kind to me (when they were) and for letting their enthusiasm precede their perfection. And sometimes I wonder whether they were trolling us all in their refusal to abandon Good Morning.
Sometimes there is literally nothing to be gained by overachieving, and I think the kids understood that better than I did. Even if they mastered Good afternoon, good evening, and goodnight, their teachers at the end of the day were still going to treat them like dummies.
So when no one is going to give you credit for going the extra mile, either do it for you, or say “fuck it”. And the Italian phrase for fuck it, as it turns out, is “Good morning.”
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