The Catalan family lived in a sophisticated flat on Las Ramblas, a place of beautifully painted antique tiles, art nouveau fixtures, and a big picture window spilling in perfect natural light. I only had a few moments to take it all in, however, before the questions began. Beaming my best golden-boy smile, I tried to radiate warmth and intelligence as Patricio began to gabble with the mother of the house. After some chit-chat, he turned to me.
“They want to know what teaching experience you have,” he said, cocking his eyebrow by way of challenge. Was he sabotaging me? Did he want me to lose this coveted position with this perfect family? I wouldn’t let this opportunity escape me without a fight.
Finding myself dependent on someone for the first time since I was an adult, I was anxious. I never expected anyone to take care of me. “I need a job,” I’d told Patricio soon after we settled into our apartment in Barcelona. I was so used to juggling multiple ways of making money, never asking for handouts, never expecting assistance, that I didn’t know what to do with myself the first time someone told me to use my time for something as indulgent as me.
I wasn’t going to let myself get soft now. No, I would figure this out, so I urged him to use his connections to get me a gig teaching English to Spanish speakers. That’s why I agreed to tutor three kids of a rich Catalan family—although I secretly despised children.
My predecessor was a South African taskmaster who spoke in perfect British-ese, a skilled English as a second language teacher, whereas I had never taught a foreign language to anyone. I figured I knew my past participles and my nouns from my verbs—how hard could it be? I’d casually toyed with getting trained in teaching my native tongue to those who were illiterate before leaving the States. I even attended an introductory session, but never followed through with the rigorous training it involved. I’d been instructed on how to diagram sentences and could spot a misplaced modifier, so when Rivka wrote back and said that her family would like to meet me based on her recommendation to teach in her place, I answered without hesitation: “Sure!”
Since I spoke nearly no Spanish, and the family didn’t speak much English, Patricio joined me to translate the job interview. Mainly, he wanted to see how the other half lived. Although we were easing into our semi-affluent lifestyle, this was a family that must have buckets of cash. But Patricio was about to screw it all up if he didn’t know how to fib for me so I could land this gig.
“Um, well, I have never taught English to children before, but you can tell them that I worked as a writer for years at a newspaper in Atlanta,” I began. “I studied English literature at university,” I said, using what I imagined was the proper Britishism from repeat viewings of Merchant Ivory films. “That’s good, no?”
Speaking in rapid-fire Spanish, I picked up: “Inglés…Atlanta…literatura…periodista…”
They nodded and looked my way, to see if I might add anything further, perhaps in Spanish?
The casually elegant mother peered at me, as if she were trying to detect the bullshit I was trying to pass off. Would she entrust her three cherubs to my care? I felt that a woman could automatically be trusted to somehow provide gentle instruction to one’s offspring. But I was no Mary Poppins, just some gay kid who looked younger than my 26 years and couldn’t even say anything in Castellano beyond, “Cómo estás?” She snapped something at Patricio. I imagined she was demanding whether I had proof I wasn’t some imposter who wanted to insinuate myself into their upper-class life and sponge off their largesse, imagining myself in some 21st century version of a Henry James plot.
Silence. Patricio didn’t say anything. A gap in the conversation, and all three heads swiveled to stare at me. Had my con been found out?
“She wants to know how much you charge,” Patricio said, and he didn’t give me that raised eyebrow. He looked as if he was curious that we might actually infiltrate into this family’s world, wondering what it would mean having me as his Trojan horse inside the gates. Uh-oh. We hadn’t figured this out. Wasn’t this a standard thing, and they’d just offer whatever they had been paying the woman before? But Catalans prided themselves on being cheap, on being savvy negotiators. They wanted a deal if they could get it.
“Well, what did Rivka charge?” I asked, referring to the South African ESL tutor who had supposedly given me her glowing recommendation to follow in her footsteps.
Patricio began to ask the delicate question, but he was terrible at tact and rarely polite. I heard them haggling and realized I had no ground to stand on. They were determining my worth, so I broke in. “Let’s start with 50 euros a session,” I said, knowing I had just cheapened myself. But it worked.
Once I’d been hired, I was introduced to Maria, a shy 11-year-old, and her younger sister, 9-year-old Julia. Finally, the youngest, Xarli, the little boy who had been running from room-to-room in some 7-year-old game of mindless tag, was calmed enough for a greeting. Patricio had explained that in Catalan, the “ch” sound was spelled with an X and that made this tyke seem even cuter. Something about that exotic, rarely used letter in English being in common usage made me happy. I imagined translating things into a pidgin language: Xarli and the Xocolate Factory seemed that much more playful and special.
“Hola! Hello! Hello! Hello!” Xarli hurled at me. I smiled. “Hola, Xarlie. Que tal?” I said, feeling shy around this buoyant boy. He was the golden child, but I wouldn’t be bullied by his good cheer. So I started again: “Hola, Xarlie. Hola, Julia. Nice to meet you, Maria.” I felt my palms sweaty and my heart began to pound. I abruptly realized I was going to be their tutor. And remembered how much I hated looking after young children—and a feeling of panic rose and burned the back of my throat—because I always worried I was somehow going to do or say the wrong thing and they’d be damaged by me forever.
Being the older brother meant I knew how to be a bully. My sister April was two years younger than me and was cudgeled by my tricks as soon as she could walk. I learned to be manipulative first by offering my love. “If you go upstairs and get me the ball, I’ll let you play,” I’d say, proffering inclusion in exchange for her servitude. She’d happily hop up the steps and do my bidding. I understood I had complete power. “Jerry, stop tricking your sister,” my mom would eventually yell after she realized I’d been sending my sister on errands I was too lazy to do for myself. “But she wants to do it,” I’d rebut. Being two years apart, however, we were quickly grouped as a single unit, our names yoked together as April-Jerry or Jerry-April, which I despised, wanting to secure my own identity as separate and supreme. By then, I’d wised up and realized withholding my love or praise was much more effective. “Get away from me; I can’t stand you,” meant she’d redouble her efforts to please me, and I could mastermind some devious chicanery that seemed foolproof to a 6-year-old mind. “Jerry, stop teasing your sister. She doesn’t need to give you her Halloween candy, you have your own.” But it was too late, I’d already won.
Soon enough, my second younger sister was born, and that meant that we were now in her orbit. We were told to be careful of the soft spot on her head and cradle her gently. But we conscripted her into our crew by the time she could crawl, her chubby cheeks no match for me and tried to help by speeding up her language learning, reading books and explaining things as if she could comprehend, needing to be able to communicate to this little enigma who had joined our world. By the time my little brother was born, I was 10 and feeling benevolent. He would be the last of our clan, and therefore was treasured as a perfect creation to right all wrongs and fulfill all our destinies. I was instructed of my responsibility to protect these three—“You’re the big brother, you have to look out for them”—which is when I began to rebel.
By the time I was 12, I was watching them for short periods if my mom needed to run to the store to get something, but I always knew a neighbor would stop by to check on things in case anything went amiss. By 14, my brother and I were sharing a room in our small four-bedroom home, and I was the full-time babysitter, expected to keep the peace and put them to bed if my parents went out for a night together. I hated it. “Mom, they won’t listen to me,” I’d complain. “They don’t respect me. I have no authority. I’m just their brother. Don’t make me watch them. They’re stupid brats.”
“Don’t call your brother and sisters brats,” she’d say. “Don’t call them stupid. You’re all smart, and you know it. Just figure it out.” It was a losing battle. I was the caretaker by default since a legit babysitter was outside our budget, and my parents’ friends were busy. Until the night I no longer could be trusted because I was spreading pagan propaganda that might taint young minds.
I’d been left with my three siblings and another family friend’s daughter, and been trying to get them to go to sleep. “Go to sleep,” I’d command, and they’d ignore me. By now, my powers of persuasion as the eldest brother had been blunted by years of abuse, and they no longer worked on them. “I’ll tell Dad.” Nothing. Finally after a traumatic episode of spilled Kool-Aid and several incidents of name calling, and more weak threats, they’d gone to sleep, but then my brother Matthew woke up, scared of the dark.
“There’s nothing to be scared of,” I began, as millions before me have counseled over millennia. “I’t just the dark, there are no monsters. Go to sleep.”
“But I see something. I’m scared,” he continued.
I started to repeat the phrase, but decided I was smarter than that. I could quell his 4-year-old fears better with a bit of spiritual mumbo-jumbo. I had recently entered into a sort of New Age phase and been avidly reading books on world religions, had devoured all of Shirley Maclaine’s memoirs about her past lives, and even dipped into several paperbacks on Wicca that seemed to combat my doubts about most organized religion. I’ll just explain to him that he’s surrounded by goodness, I thought. That’ll work.
“You have nothing to be scared of, Matthew. God is all around you,” I began. “So don’t worry, god is everywhere.”
“God is everywhere?” he asked, and now I could tell he was fully awake and sounded more scared, the idea that there was some invisible thing surrounding him and ready to pounce.
“Yes, god is in the sheets, and god is in the pillow, and god is—”
“God is in the trash?”
“Yes, sure, god is in the trash. God is everywhere. And so you don’t have to be scared.”
It became a sort of game, and he’d name something and I’d confirm, “Yes, god was in the football,” until he finally tired of it and he fell asleep. I had triumphed.
Then I arrived home from school the next day to my mom’s fury. “Did you tell your brother that God was trash?” she began.
“What? No. What are you are talking about?”
“He said you told him God was trash,” she spit out at me, and I could tell she wasn’t backing down. “How dare you say something like that to your little brother? Are you stupid? What makes you say something disgusting like that?”
“No, no, that’s not what I said. I was telling him that god was everywhere, cuz he was scared of the dark.”
“Well, God isn’t trash,” she said, still fuming. “You need to get that through your skull.”
Soon after my brother and sister were sharing a room, and I’d graduated to having my own room. I’d wanted the privacy and space, but it came with a clear message: You’re dangerous, and I don’t want you to corrupt my child’s mind.
But I’d forgotten that lesson when I arrived back at the beautiful apartment of the rich family a week later to teach my first English exercise to my young pupils. I began with Maria, the eldest. At 11, she was shy and smart, and I could tell she was not the problem. She gave me that timid sweetness that I expected from little girls who would act shy around me. I had grown used to little girls having crushes on me long ago, the cute boy that they blushed at and tried to hold my hand. Whenever I was asked to babysit, little girls were easily enamored and, thus, controlled. I felt sort of sorry for Maria. She explained that this was yet another additional after-school obligation for her. When she wasn’t swimming, practicing ballet, or getting math tutoring, she was forced to sit with me and improve her English for some unknown, unseeable future life for which she was assured she needed to be fluent.
After 30 minutes, Maria was excused, and I was left with little Julia and Xarli. Although I planned lessons that would help with vocabulary and improve their pronunciation, it quickly devolved into glorified babysitting. I tried to distract them by explaining over, under, on top of the table, I would send Julia and Xarli on the prowl for vocabulary words. “Show me the cat, Xarli,” and he’d fly through the house looking for the animal. It was a sly ploy to tire them both out, but these kids never got exhausted. Lesson learned? Children don’t care about learning a foreign language. But if I could make it fun, a game, we could muddle through.
“Where is the trash can, Julia?” She looked at me quizzically. Her mother, who had been listening through the kitchen door, entered the room.
“What is trash can?” she asked, as if I’d made a mistake. It was the first time she’d spoken English to me, and I then realized that she did indeed understand, but wasn’t confident in using her skills to communicate.
“The object where you put the garbage,” I explained, my eyes bright and trying to be cheerful, although I felt judged and was concerned I’d committed some sort of faux pas.
“This?” she said, pointing to the trash can. “This is waste paper basket, no?”
“Oh yes, that’s true. But that is what English people call it. It is correct, but in American English we say trash can.” I kept my brow up, optimistic, perky. She nodded. “Oh,” and went back to the kitchen (where I hoped she remained).
I returned home from these 90-minute sessions exhausted. I had never taught a class of any sort before, other than leading lively college Freshman discussions on literature analysis. It might not be menial labor, but this was hard work.
“Why are you doing it if you don’t like it?” Patricio asked.
“Because I need a job,” I said.
“No, you don’t, not this sort of stupid job. Why tire yourself out for 50 bucks? You could be doing something better with your time.”
“I’m not going to give up,” I said. “I can figure this out.” My ego was stinging, I had never failed at anything before. No, I could stick this out. “It’s not like I’m digging ditches,” I retorted. “I can handle these kids.” But on the fourth lesson day, everything changed because, as I learned, it’s really difficult to explain to an 11-year-old Spanish girl the subtleties of when you say “I need to pee.”
After I began the lesson I’d prepared, Maria, embarrassed as all hell, asked me what “pee” meant and when to use it. OK. I could do this, I’m an adult, I thought. I showed her how to use it in the past tense (the actual lesson I’d intended to teach today) and explained that she can say it to her friends, but she’s not really gonna go up to some stranger and tell him, “Oh, I need to pee.” Then I started to explain that you would say either I need to use the: restroom, the bathroom, the toilet, etc. If I’d known more Spanish, I’d have realized Maria was trying to literally translate “Hacer pee-pee.” Something a kid wouldn’t find strange. But I realized we had so many ways to talk about relieving ourselves without ever actually addressing the pressing bladder concern. Then she threw me for a loop.
“Does it mean the same as caca?” she asks.
Oh. How do I get out of this one? So I broke out the English-Spanish dictionary to see how the dictionary tackled this conundrum. Caca: poo, also poop. Also: Crap (“I need to take a crap,” the dictionary so nicely gives as an example). Shit. Thanks.
I go for poo, also poop. But I explain this is really a “cute” way of saying this, maybe the “diminutivo,” I say, resorting to Spanish. You can say it with your mom or to a baby, I explained, but don’t go up to an old lady and say, “Did you poop? Understand, Maria?”
But then I realized I also don’t want her to tell someone innocently, “I need to crap,” either. I always hated that word, it felt dirty, crass. I remember once as child whispering to my dad that I’d had to go in the house of my parents’ friend but was having problems getting rid of the proof. “Jerry just took a crap in your toilet and it won’t flush,” he told them nonchalantly. And I blanched. That word… I didn’t crap! No, not me!
I was a frustrated with my language ignorance and how to handle this “private” matter that seemed so important to Maria and something she’d have to get correct someday, somehow. (Even more frustrating: It was fortunately easier to deal with the vocabulary for voiding one’s bowels than to try and explain why we simply add an “ed” to most words to transform it into the past tense. And why when someone used the word tidy, we dropped the “y” and add “ied.” It just IS. I learned that in second grade and somehow never questioned it any further. But that explanation doesn’t seem to make any student very happy for long.)
But her brother and sister really went for the gonads, and I realized I was definitely working for my 50 euros today. We began by going over the vocabulary for the body parts. “Where is your arm, Xarli?” And he’d point to his arm, and then Julia would grab it and try to squeeze it. It was all going well, so I give them pens and paper and drew a stick figure and told them to start filling in the parts.
After one arm and two hands later, cute little Xarli drew a penis between his stick guy’s legs. “Polla! Look, Jerry, polla!”
I knew that word. Horrified that my little just-turned-8-year-old with a little teddy bear is screaming dick at the top of his lungs and pointing to the little appendage he’d created out of three ovals between the stickman’s legs.
Not to be outdone, Julia drew hers in pink (complete with little wavy lines for scrotal folds!) and then had it peeing into a blue pot below its legs. Then she wrote my name on the page. I felt panicky. The last thing a gay man wanted was two little children drawing genitalia, pointing at it, screaming it at the top of their lungs.
Xarli started drawing his simple penises all over the page, and I started crossing out the dozens of crude images with black magic marker. I could feel my face was red, and I wanted to put my hand over Xarli’s mouth to get him to stop yelling in that sing-songy way. But touching him while he yelled the slang word for penis would only make me more culpable I feared. It was like my brother all over again: I had somehow corrupted these young children’s minds and I would surely be punished.
That’s when Xarli, refusing to be outdone as I thwarted his drawing antics, jumped up on the table and dropped his shorts. “Polla! Polla! Polla!” he said, jumping, his little penis jiggling up and down inches from my forehead. I saw my future: Not only would my second week on the job being my last, but I’d be going to jail. I was now some sort of child molester, a dirty monster. A bad man.
Then their mother entered the room. She took one look at cute Xarli, who was doing his pee-pee dance without flinching, and I stared back at her, showing my confusion. I waited for her wrath. She’d call her husband, the Barcelona authorities would be summoned and I’d be spending the night in some cold Catalan jail. Instead, she just shook her head: “Xarli, sientate! Pare, Xarli!” Yes, Xarli, stop it, sit down! Why hadn’t I thought of that? Xarli was just a silly, innocent boy. Flashing his penis was something he had no shame in doing. But I’d felt powerless, regressing back to those days when my younger siblings had circumvented my authority and showed me how weak I really was.
Mom’s instructions worked and that was it. She left the room, not saying anything. No judgment, no problems. Xarli pulled up his shorts and sat back down at the table and began to draw a sun with a big smile, no more penises.
I realized I was out of my league and I didn’t know what to do. Should I have corrected them and taught them that polla is dick, but we say “penis” in polite company, to a stranger on the street (unless he really is a dick) and here, this is how you would draw my dick correctly little ones? I realized how ingrained in me that fear that I’d be labeled a child molester had become. As an American gay man, I was worried I’d be tarred and feathered, never given a trial, banished from the city limits just because a boy was being silly and a pest. But it seemed that fear or stereotype wasn’t as persistent here in Spain, didn’t have the decades of indoctrination that homosexual equalled irredeemable pervert.
When I got home after the lesson, I was exhausted and still had to get ready for dinner with a friend visiting from the States. I showed the pages I’d confiscated from little Julia and little Xarli to Patricio. I told him the story and we laughed.
“I never want to go back there,” I admitted. “I thought I was a goner.”
“Well you don’t have to if you don’t want to,” Paricio reminded me.
But I was adamant. “I’m not going to let these little assholes get the best of me.
Two days later, however, their mother called and spoke to Patricio. He listened for several minutes without speaking. “Si, si,” he said. “Si, claro que si.”
“What’s she saying?” I asked.
“She says you’re fired.”
The relief I felt was sudden. I’d failed, been fired for the first time in my life. But it was the happiest I’d felt since moving to Barcelona.
It turns out it had nothing to do with that Xarli and his penis; I was fired because Maria ratted me out. She’d complained to her madre that she felt she wasn’t learning enough from her tutor. She wanted to whiz through her English homework, not have to see me labor through another tortured thirty minutes of subject-verb agreement with that stupid American. I figured her mother also wanted someone who would teach them proper British elocution rather than my American lingo. I vowed to never teach children again. But when a gig turned up months later, I was tempted by the prospect of proving that maybe I wasn’t a complete dud when it came to this.
This time, it was to tutor the twin daughters of a blue-blood Boston matriarch who was married to her Catalan doctor husband, the whole clan living in another posh flat in Barcelona’s Eixample, blocks from the Sagrada Familia. “They really enjoy watching Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen videos,” the mother of the house advised. “You’d need to help them with understanding the English in those.” I felt myself begin to sweat, my throat closing up in panic as I sat in her plush sofa in her gorgeous living room. After being asked when I could start, I took a breath and replied: “No, I can’t do it. I can’t teach your kids. I’m sorry, but no: I’m not your man.”
Maybe I had learned something after all. Children just weren’t worth it.