Book Baby has The Foreign Language of Friends! In a few days I should have some cover proofs to look over. In the meantime, here’s chapter three where the four main characters meet for the first time.
CHAPTER 3 – JUNE 20
Rita Martin stood at the front of her classroom, a broad smile on her face, waiting for her new students to arrive. Despite having taught for twenty years, she always felt butterflies of excitement whenever a new session started. The material in Spanish I was always the same, but each new group of students gave the lessons a fresh perspective. Short and plump, with porcelain skin and warm brown eyes that misted easily, she dressed simply in tan slacks and a black sweater that would keep her comfortable in the air conditioning, which tended to be excessive. A hundred degrees outside, she thought, but in here they could hang meat. She rubbed her chilled hands together and hoped for a good turnout to warm the room. Plenty of students had enrolled, but she never knew who would actually show up. Learning a new language scared people, although their usual excuse for quitting was something like a more polished version of “my dog ate my homework.”
Students started to filter in at the last minute. Continuing education classes attracted a wide range of ages, backgrounds, and reasons for taking the course. She greeted each student with a hearty, “¡Hola!” which brought nods and nervous giggles in response.
She had just opened her book to begin when Julia rushed in, her face flushed from hurrying. “I’m so sorry I’m late,” she said. Glancing around at the group, she smiled brightly and said, “Hi, everyone! I’m Julia Lafferty. Won’t this be fun?”
The class chuckled collectively as Julia took a seat in the front row.
“We were just getting started,” Rita said. “Let’s get to know each other a little bit first. We’ll spend the first bit of class speaking in English, so everyone can relax.” She saw bodies unclenching and smiles that were more genuine. If she had learned nothing over the past few decades, she had at least learned how to put students at ease. “Julia, would you like to tell us a little something about yourself?”
“Great, sure,” Julia said. Swiveling around to face the class, she said, “My husband and I travel a lot, and I thought learning a language would help me communicate with the locals. Plus, I just like to meet new people.” She opened her mouth to say more, and then seemed to think better of it. “That’s all. I’m glad to be here.”
Rita laughed with the rest of the class at Julia’s infectious warmth. “Perfect,” Rita said. “Whenever you’re visiting Central or South America, people will appreciate your efforts. Some pronunciation and grammar varies if you go to Spain, but we will cover that as we go. Who’s next?”
A woman to Julia’s right cleared her throat with a “let’s get on with this” tone. “I’m Claire Malone, and I’m a corporate attorney,” she said. “My company plans to do more work in Central America, so I need to learn the language for business. I’m ready to get done with these introductions and actually learn something.” She flashed a smile that looked more like bared teeth. Rita had watched Claire enter the room like a Category 3 hurricane, commanding the attention of everyone present. Each move deliberate and forceful, she had brought out multiple notebooks, pens, and highlighters, and had already marked several pages of text with sticky notes.
“Don’t worry,” Rita said. “By the end of this class you will be surprised at what you have learned. We have many professionals who do well by taking this class. Who else?”
“I’m Ellen Foster,” said a soft, timid voice from the back of the room. She came across as a mass of brown: mousy brown hair, brown eyes, brown clothes, an ordinary-looking woman who people would pass on the street. “I’m a freelance technical writer. I’m just curious about whether I can learn a language. I think it would be good for me. You know, I’m not getting any younger, and I hear that studying a language prevents Alzheimer’s.”
The group laughed, with the exception of Claire, who had her eye on her BlackBerry, and Julia, who studied Ellen thoughtfully.
Noticing Ellen’s blush, Rita responded gently. “This may be true. Although some doctors say we can’t do anything to prevent dementia, exercise for the brain is just as important as exercising the body. And, as we get older, learning a language, while certainly possible, becomes more difficult. As we exercise the parts of our brains that we haven’t used since childhood, we may notice a sharpening of our minds in other areas. It’s a great reason to be here. Welcome.”
Ellen’s skin returned to its natural, bland color, and she smiled, though she still seemed uncertain.
“I’m Mikhela, Mickey for short, Watson — er, no, Thomas, it’s Thomas now,” said Mickey, her dark eyes darting as she clicked her pen, nerves bouncing out of her skin. “I like to run. I work in a medical office, but I might be going to grad school soon. I just got back from a volunteer trip to Costa Rica, and it was awful. I mean, the trip was cool, but I didn’t know any Spanish, so I couldn’t talk to anyone. No one spoke English at my placement. No one! Oh, and I just got married.” She carelessly flashed a modest wedding band, showing a curious lack of enthusiasm. “I’m not really good with languages, but my mom thought it would be a good class for me to take.” She dropped her eyes, still fidgeting in her seat.
“Well, congratulations!” Rita said. “A newlywed in our midst. We would love to hear more about your trip as we go on. Volunteering is a great way to get to know a place more intimately, and the language lessons will certainly help.”
Others introduced themselves, all earnest, inquiring, and nervous in their own ways. Rita offered a comment in response to each, and then explained how the class would work. She held up the textbook. “This is the book you’ll be using. I know most of you have it already, but those who don’t, make friends with a neighbor who does. Oh, by the way, I find that class works better when we’re in a circle so we can see and speak to one another. So, if you don’t mind, please move your desks into a circle.” She could see doubt and fear arising again, especially from the students who had grabbed seats along the back wall. Inside, she chuckled that adults still managed to hold on to old grade-school behaviors. She clapped her hands lightly and, in a teasing voice, said, “Ahora, por favor. That means ‘now, please.’”
Julia jumped up and moved her chair first, then went back to Ellen. “Sit next to me,” she said. “Here, I’ll help.”
The rest of the class followed reluctantly after Julia led the way.
“Great,” Rita said. “Now, we’re going to learn how to introduce ourselves, only this time in Spanish.”
By the end of the evening, everyone had learned the basics, though some fumbled more than others. Rita had passed around a sign-up sheet and noticed that Julia had copied down several e-mail addresses as the sheet came her way. Every class had its organizers, and she suspected that Julia planned to form a study group.
As she drove home from class, reflecting, she thought about past classes she had taught. Each person came to class for a particular reason, but they often left gaining something unexpected. People’s lives changed in class if they stayed with the study long enough. Those who made it to the advanced classes often traveled together, or ate at local Tex-Mex restaurants where they could practice with one another. Romances blossomed, people found new and better jobs, the list was endless. She wondered what life had in store for this class.