What’s it like to teach at ESEPA, in San José, Costa Rica? Let’s drop in on a Tuesday. It’s my busiest day, since I have one class in the morning, then another in the evening. There are “office hours” in between, where I work with the staff or talk with students.
All teaching and meetings are in Spanish, so I have to push myself physically and mentally. I leave home at 7am. Part of my routine is a morning walk, so the 40 minutes between home and ESEPA accomplishes several things: my exercise for Tuesday; getting the heart and lungs and brain moving; and it’s my time to pray. I pray for all the things that Christians pray for, and especially for my morning class. Today I’ll teach the Epistle to the Hebrews for three hours. See here for a quick video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0nLSvFtfVKc&feature=youtube_gdata
I get a coffee and enter the classroom with cheerful greetings and then with an “¡Ay no!” as I break out the quiz. Hebrews is a new course for me. We use F. F. Bruce’s sturdy commentary as our text. This coming week we will study chapter 3, where the author uses Psalm 95 to warn against apostasy. We’ll work as one group. Then they will break into small groups to discuss some aspects of sin in the Old Covenant and how it applies to Christians. In this class they also have to do a Field Project: one man, for example, will visit the local synagogue to interview the rabbi about Jewish worship in the 21st century.
In the middle of Hebrews we gather together for 15 minutes, for a short Bible study and prayer led by a professor or one of the students. The students pray for issues that all of us face, but in this country that might include violent crime, poverty and serious family problems.
Then we go for our coffee break in ESEPA’s “soda”, which is the word for a lunch counter. The manager Dámaris whips up plenty of coffee, plus gallo pinto (rice and beans) and fried eggs, tortillas and cheese and meat turnovers.
Ah, have I mentioned coffee? Costa Rican beans are world-class, and they brew it up strong! It’s not as powerful as Turkish or Cuban coffee, but it comes out quite black. It’s the other thing besides exercise that keeps my blood moving during a long day. Two cups to get me going during Hebrews, another couple before my late class and then another one half-way through the evening.
After the break, it’s another hour or so of Hebrews.
Throughout the day, the principal enemy is fatigue. I don’t want my students to have a drowsy professor. We had a history teacher in high school; if his former students remember anything about him, it was his unfortunate nickname “Sleepy Pete”. For a person working in another language, there is a much worse problem: with fatigue it is more and more doubtful that I’ll be able to speak in proper Spanish. I prayed in the morning specifically about this, and pray during the day too. Usually if I’ve gotten to bed properly the night before, aided with lots of coffee and physical motion and prayer, three hours in the morning and I come out still speaking español.
Teaching in a second language is like running in knee-deep mud.
It’s Round Two where I’ll face the bigger challenger: my evening class. I eat a light lunch and delay supper until I get home; I can’t afford to fill up and get dopey. In the afternoon I might take another walk to try to perk up, or if it’s possible, squeeze in a nap somewhere.
When you teach at ESEPA in the afternoon or evening during rainy season, you have to be ready for an electrical storm and a power outage. Sure, PowerPoint is great, but you might end up teaching by flashlight, so always have a Plan B! On top of that, earthquakes happen every day, usually tremors you can’t feel, but every so often there is one that will get a shriek from the ladies in class.
Gary near the Soda at ESEPA
Tuesday evenings we up the ante, going from bilingual to trilingual. Direct your attention to the center ring, where Gary, an English-speaker, will teach Greek, in Spanish, without a net. I’ve been assigned to Greek I for the first time and have a record ten students in my group. The difficulty here is not just the Spanish. It’s that, to leap from Spanish to Greek one takes a different mental route than when one goes from English to Greek. I have to keep a short list of words that might trip me up: desinencia was one last week, a word I knew (it means “word ending”); but the first time out I mispronounced it. It came out sounding like the Spanish for “dysentery.”
Anyway, it’s closing in on 5pm and time to get ready. Again, much coffee, much splashing of cold water in the face and I enter the class with a cheery “kalespera!” (Greek for “good evening!”). They take their quiz. They ask Don Gary (yes, just like in that movie) or “Profe” (PROH-fay) questions about the homework. Then it’s on to: Tonight we study the genitive and dative cases of the Greek substantive. Two hours, then it’s time for devotions, given by one of the students. Over to Dámaris’ once again for coffee (for me) and food (for them), and back for another hour or so.
Fours hours of Greek: my students have had a long day at work and a commute, and it’s beginning to show. Every once in a while I’ll tell a joke or show them something so they can Amuse and amaze your amigos! I don’t just ask if they understand today’s lesson; I also ask, “How are you feeling? Are we holding it together here?” During the week I’ll also send them an email to encourage them.
We wind up at 9pm. One of the students happens to be going in my direction, so he drops me off at home; it would be dangerous for me to walk to the bus stop this late in the evening. At this point it’s hard to speak English. And, what’s this wonderful thing? Karen has left out a nice supper for me: homemade buffalo chicken sandwiches.
“Gracias, Señor Jesús. This is what I’ve always wanted to do, and by your grace, here I am doing it.” Now let’s eat something, finally, and watch the news before dropping into bed.