School was a funny old time. The seven years at secondary were not the happiest years of my life, not by a long shot. My school was very academic, and pushy, which was ok as long as I could keep my head down. I was that child who was into things. Electronics. Astronomy. Woodwork. Punk music. Squash. Girls.
But not languages. Definitely not languages. Foreign languages bought me pain. Oh, and fear.
Pretty soon I was placed into the bottom set for French. We had a teacher who was known as ‘Viv’ – and we called ourselves ‘Viv’s Divs’ – which was a way of recognising our challenged status. On the rare occasions when I spoke French I did it with a thick cockney accent. I soon decided that languages were not for me.
When we did our options I opted for the metal/wood work option. However, the management decided that I was too academic for that, and that I’d be better served by increasing my exposure to yet more languages. It seemed that three periods of utter torture, humiliation and boredom were not enough for young Eldon, so it was off to Spanish I went. It didn’t go well. Although I learnt to say a ‘ham sandwich’, which I admit has been very useful to me, two years later I was booted off Spanish as a hopeless case. I eventually managed to scrape a pass in French.
Don’t take me abroad – please
But the low spots where when we went abroad. Surrounded by French people there was nowhere to hide. I was unlucky enough to go on a French exchange when I was about 13, ten days of indescribable, gut wrenching awfulness.
I stayed with Phillipe (what else could he have been called!!!) They had a huge house in a valley somewhere in the middle of France, really rural, very beautiful. The mum tried to help me… but she knew. One day she asked me to go the baker and buy a baguette. This should have been easy…. It’s the kind of stuff we used to do in lessons. You know. My name is Edward, my hair is brown, can I buy a baguette…
The Baker from Hell
It was only a very short walk to the baker. Of course, there had to be a big queue, and whilst I waited my turn I went over and over and over the one sentence in my head. When my turn came I blurted out my best French only to be met by a completely blank look from the baker. No reaction at all. I wasn’t prepared for this. Anything would have been better. I tried again to make myself understood, and again. I pulled out the ‘if in doubt shout louder’ technique from my bag of tools. Nothing.
Eventually, without warning and with a withering look, the baker disappeared out the door, while the queue behind me looked on amused at the young ‘roast beef’ squirming. Soon the door opened, and the baker walked back to the till, took down a baguette and gave to me. I gave her the money and left. I felt as if I was naked, like everyone was laughing at me because of my insides were showing (well outsides actually – you know what I mean). I couldn’t get out of the shop quick enough.
What I didn’t know was that the baker had legged it up the road to Phillipe’s house, to ask his mum what the stupid, unintelligible English idiot was after. Can you imagine my humiliation? I still shudder when I think about it. Something closed inside me that day. From that point any last chink of light shining through the doorway of speaking a foreign language was firmly shut out. Non. Mais Non.
What I had learnt about foreign languages was that I can’t speak them or understand them. I had the hard, empirical evidence to back this up.
One door closes…
Fast forward some 30 years. A little seed is planted in my head, watching the teachers at my theology course reading the bible in its original languages. I had of course come across this before. I remember watching a friend reading the Greek of the new testament, and from time to time a preacher would mention alternative understandings opened up by looking at the different possible translations of words. It would be really useful to do this ….. learn ancient Greek. Or Hebrew. Yeah right baguette boy. Mais Non.
But the seed was planted. As is the habit of seeds, it died and then came back to life… My little seed took on a distinctly Hebrew flavor. I found I was repeatedly drawn to this tool to interpret the Old Testament. Just how much great stuff would having some understanding of the Hebrew? How great it must be to be able to do that.
The Seed Grows.
Then, out of the blue, I got an opportunity. At first the ‘mais non baguette boy’ was very loud. But gradually I found myself thinking why not? Who says I can’t? Now I am enrolled in a one year course, being taught ‘Beginners’ Hebrew ‘ by a rabbi who tells me that by the 9th lesson we will be reading the book of Ruth in Hebrew!!!!! He’s a good teacher and the class is only around 6 people. He goes round getting us to pronounce words. This scares the pants off me, bringing back memories of French and Spanish lessons. Again, I sound like a cockney speaking Hebrew – my vowels are all over the place. I get so nervous I feel like I am going to be sick. But so far, I have got through. And I am doing my homework, and making some progress. Best of all is that I feel like I am slaying a monster.
My early experiences with languages led me to develop a block – ‘learned helplessness’ to give it a name. Attempting to speak anything other than English led, inevitably, to pain. I have carried that block around for decades. Most of the time it made no difference, but really and truthfully deep in me was a place of failure and helplessness. Oh and fear. We all know that fear is a recurrent theme in the bible. Fear can lead to blockages. But there are no blockages in God’s eyes. I mean seriously? Me? Hebrew?
You just have to open that box
I have found that there is a pattern here. We human easily develop fear-based blockages. God, in his mercy, seems to have a desire that we overcome, or at least learn to limit the damage caused by these blockages. This has happened on several occasions. Things that you have to fight through, help make us what we are. This is where you grow.
With God there are always new horizons to explore. What we hide away in boxes, buried at the bottom of the garden, with ‘do not open’ on them the Divine seems to want us to face up to. I don’t want to be too dogmatic, or black and white about this, because I expect that there are boxes that are best left unopened. But not always. God has new things to teach us about the great dance of participation. If I can be placed into something entirely new, something that was linked to failure and scared the pants of me then surely that says something about our limitless potential.
That huge monster has turned out to be a lot smaller than I thought it. Rather than the terffiying dragon of legend it turns out to be a tiny Newt. Once again the Matix is projecting half hidden shadows of reality. Or to put it another way….
(PS I hope this is right)