Thursday, February 26, 2009

The joys of Engrish

I am helping produce an ESL newsletter for our school. Every Wednesday I teach a study club for an hour and a half, where I perch on tables in our fifth-floor lunch room with a cluster of would-be journalists to talk about writing. Each month we produce one issue for the following month.

The longer I work with international students, the bigger kick I get out of the way we all (not just ESL learners) communicate. Here's a sampling of our current headlines and stories:

(an "in-depth" interview with a teacher about March Mustache Madness, with a reference to a Dating Game play we performed a few weeks ago, in which a fellow male coworker dressed in drag as a girl named 'Juicy')
(this is our version of "Dear Abby," as written by a Chinese kid who wants to be a psychologist, and his sarcastic Brazilian friend)

and, one of my personal favorites, a student comic which depicts a group of pigeons trying to speak English.

I forgot how much of a better human being I am when I get to do creative things. Our newsletter has been a big success, and I have learned so much by the sheer force of student enthusiasm. Not only that, but in between registering students in classes, grading level tests, organizing orientation materials, and answering the phone, I can also devote a healthy amount of time to a group project that actually students together, in English.

Writing has always been my indoor bird, the fierce and forgotten passion that keeps banging itself against the window. Maybe one day it will open. I want to write and be inspired and offer creative ideas. It's taken me a little while to realize that banging my head against my own windows--comparing myself to others, worrying about the rent, failing to find the time to write and read--is the act of creative expression itself. I'm so grateful to recognize that there's a window there in the first place.

In the meantime, I inadvertently pick up ESL grammatical mistakes, and get to show students exactly how expressive they are, and can be.

Monday, February 9, 2009


Every year it's a bit different.

The first year, it was tragic. Every detail of February 10 was etched so clearly in my mind: the hard calluses on my palms from rowing competitions, the uncanny thirst in the back of my throat, that sinking feeling that I'd be doomed to adolescence forever. There were details that I'd attributed as somehow significant: the tulip painting on the hospital wall, the blue lights of the Tower Theatre mirroring the scene from the Sacramento River, the haunting chords of a Dave Matthews song. Everything is epic at 16 years old. What boys think is important. What teachers say could influence career choices. And what a body feels like--there are few things that dictate puberty more than the clash of control and instinct.

The second year, the memory was no less vivid. The illusion of control followed me to a more adult life--my freshman year of college. I circled the Lagoon that day, watching the gulls hem the coastline, realizing with a sudden finality that growing up meant taking ownership over imperfect organs.

Every year it changes. Those first three years, February seemed so mournful. I wrote poems to cells. I was still angry. I explained everything all the time to anyone who so much as blinked in my direction.

The fourth year I was abroad. That was the year I decided an anniversary didn't have to be sad. We landed on Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, at midnight, and the minute it was February 10, I felt something new: defiance, in the form of optimism. And then I got dressed for Carnaval and learned how to relax in Spanish.

This eighth year, February 10 means something entirely different. February 10 is pancreas day, Julia day, adulthood day. I feel extraordinarily lucky. Not everyone can pinpoint the loss of idealism to one specific day. There are so few moments of perfect drama in our lives--of actual, novel-worthy frustration, unembellished, random crises of faith. For so many people, personal tragedy is not something so easily calculated: how does one quantify depression? Or the injustice of homophobia? Of lost opportunity to some invisible, imperfect law of human nature?

Mine is an unfairness I can chart, plot, and review. Mine is a plague of minimal pain. Mine is never a solitary journey. Mine is the confusion that actual life plots for all of us--the rearrangement of meals, the reminder that nobody is invincible, that there are consequences to every decision. Diabetes has always been a lesson in opportunity cost and effect, and while I never really appreciated my high school economics class, these things are more easily understood when one measures them in the form of a finger prick.

Eight years later, I no longer wonder who I'd be without diabetes. I'd be someone else, with some other Trojan horse, accomplishing other things. It doesn't matter. I am who I am just as a tree is just a tree, and a dog is just a dog. There is comfort to be found in identifying as something or someone. I am a diabetic, but I am also a woman, and a professional, a friend, a daughter, a sister, a person with opinions and aspirations. And, at times, catapulting blood sugar.

February 10. I look forward to the year that there are even more important anniversaries than this one.