The school year 2011-2012 was a very important one for me. Besides applying for a residence permit in Sweden, and having a mini version of “settling my affairs”, it was also the year I worked as a literature teacher (I hope not for the last time) at a private high school.
Literature is one of the constants in my life, and although the job was challenging it was no less enjoyable. My students were the sweetest group of teenagers one could imagine. Yes, you read right. Even with their hormone-filled bodies and must-try-all-the-boundaries attitude, I always looked forward to teaching them. I walked in on my first day terrified from all the stories I had heard about working with teenagers, but until my last day of work, my worst complaint was the attempt of a few of them to cheat on a project. They were almost too good to be true.
It was very sad to leave them, and on my first visit to Mexico after moving to Sweden, I went back to the school to check-in on them and say hi. They had grown so much! Even in less than a year, they were taller and their faces a little more serious. Some of them were struggling with writing applications and taking admission tests, and others were fantasizing about traveling for a while before going to university.
Because the age difference between us wasn’t that big (8 or 9 years, their older siblings were my age), I had made it very clear that while I was their teacher I wanted them to call me Teacher Pamela. Never by my name alone. But that day, as we sat outside and they told me about their plans and asked about “my adventures in Switzerland”*, it was as if they wanted to show that we were a little closer to being peers, not because I was young, but because they were older.
Of course, with their natural curiosity and a love for languages that the school had planted in them (the school was completely bilingual in addition to them taking advanced German), they had all kinds of questions. What language do they speak? Is it difficult to learn? How does it sound? What is it similar to? Then I said it was actually similar to German, and they couldn’t wait to put the answer to the test.
“Say something in Swedish” they asked.
“What should I say? Should I tell you how to introduce yourselves?”
“No, say ‘I am a dog’”. It was a completely serious request, so I obliged. “You’re right, it sounds like German. I could recognize the word ‘hund’”. And they continued to talk about which German teacher they had liked best so far, and how they were counting on the extra languages to help them get where they wanted.
Meanwhile, I was going around in my head thinking these sweet and innocent kids sort of wasted a question on a phrase that would never really come in handy. “I am a dog”? In what language does that not sound pejorative? They should have asked for “how do I find the hospital” or “which way to the station”.
Some time after that, I finally felt confident enough with my Swedish skills that I decided to try for more advanced reading, and picked the Swedish translation of Orhan Pamuk’s “My Name is Red”. And lo, there it was, not only as part of the novel but the title of an actual chapter: “Jag är en hund”.
“I am a dog”.
*Saying “Switzerland” when meaning “Sweden” is a very common mistake in Mexico (and I suppose in most Spanish speaking countries). “Suiza” and “Suecia” are phonetically very close.