I am a teaching assistant at a secondary school in Getafe, a large working-class suburb south of Madrid. Today, the head teacher and I sit in the back of the classroom scribbling down English errors during student presentations on the artist Joaquín Sorolla. The bluntness of the post-presentation feedback session shocks me. “You didn’t seem to care at all. If you don’t want to do the presentation, just leave,” the teacher begins. “What grade would you all give her?” he prompts the room. Without pause, the group shouts out only slightly inflated numbers. Here, criticism isn’t fed through a filter, coated in sugar, and put between a two pieces of positivity—it’s dropped at your feet without any packaging.
So when a 17-year-old student stands alone and cries in front of the class because her teacher and her peers publicly critiqued her presentation, I cheer for her. “We are giving you feedback because we want you to be better. We know you can be better,” I say with my fisted hands in the air, like my team just scored a touchdown. From the back of the classroom, I hear “Americana…” in a loud whisper. My hands fall and I force a laugh to appear unfazed. In this moment, I feel like a stranger. I can see myself from a distance, a place where the things I mean to say sound like mistakes.
II: Helena, mi compañera
In this semi-nomadic life where I say “home” rarely, my roots always feel shallow, easily disturbed. Good habits my parents taught me—smart ones like getting eight hours of sleep or eating a salad—are scoffed at in Spanish society. When I say “buenas noches” to Helena at 10:30 p.m., she chuckles. I roll my eyes, shake my head, and switch off the light.
This Sunday morning I made two breakfast tacos and a sweet potato while Helena ate cookie sandwiches smeared with butter and apricot mermelada. Eight hours of sleep and a solid breakfast meant an adult beginning to my day. If I cooked this breakfast for my parents at home, they would hug me. Carrying my plato pesado (heavy plate), I pass Helena in the living room with her café and cigarrillo in one hand. Helena laughs at the sight of my plate, ejecting the smoke resting on her tongue. “Has cocinado para un ejército (You have cooked for an army),” she says as grey breath drifts from her lips. The night before I had washed, soaked, and cooked the black beans rolling out of the ends of my tacos. I expected praise.
III: Myself, yo misma
My younger group of students voted the word “ambition” into the negative column after I had already begun writing it in the positive one. In my class of 14-year-old niños, ambition means competition, losing friends, and working too hard. From where I stand at the front of the classroom, I start to see myself through their eyes, peering up from behind their desks, and I seem weirder than before. This discomfort leads me to check if my fly’s unzipped and then search for other points of vulnerability—positivity, determination, eating bacon for breakfast. Awareness doesn’t always bring satisfaction, just more things to unpack.
Zoë Calhoun, Hendrix College class of 2014, was raised in the desert of Tucson, Arizona. She chose Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas because she wanted to challenge herself—educationally and culturally. After graduating with a major in Spanish and Digital Writing & Photography, she moved to Madrid to teach English.