I sit across from the doctor, a desk separating me from the slight, brown-eyed, middle-aged OBGYN who, moments ago, was examining me. From the Spanish I can comprehend, she had just informed me the prescription I was hoping to get refilled isn’t available in Spain.
Now, she is writing something down and simultaneously giving me oral instructions on how to return for a blood test, in the hopes I can obtain a similar prescription.
I nod along, giving the impression I understand.
Internally, my mind churns. I am both attempting to process the torrent of Spanish flying at me and subdue the anxiety I can feel rising in my chest.
I leave utterly unsettled. My unasked questions echoing in my head: My prescription isn’t available? What’s the closest alternative? What are the potential side effects?
And, I need to get a blood test, in the morning, after fasting? How am I supposed to schedule that with my teaching-hours?
The feeling of disorientation is a mixture of confusion in interpreting details, defeat in communicating my needs, and inadequacy in advocating for myself.
And the worst part is, this feeling is no longer foreign.
It’s been a couple of weeks since I last wrote, so let’s take a moment to check-in. Over the past three weeks, Catalonia and Spain have been at odds. On Friday, Catalonia declared independence, and Spain imposed direct rule.
For those of you interested in a slightly more detailed version of events, here’s a brief overview:
- Carles Puigdemont, the (now former) President of Catalonia, declared our region independent, then suspended independence in order to negotiate with Spain.
- Spain, did not engage in negotiations, but did arrest Jordi Sanchez and Jordi Cuixart, two Catalan independence leaders. Crowds poured out in Barcelona to demand liberation for the “two Jordis.”
- Then, Spain moved to suspend Catalan autonomy, and threatened direct rule if Catalonia formally declared independence.
- Rather than making an individual decision, Puigdemont turned the independence decision over to the Catalan Parliament.
- The next day, which was this past Friday, the Catalan Parliament declared Independence.
- Later that same day, Spain, decided to impose direct rule, removed Puigdemont from office, and called a snap election.
- Today, at least 300,000 people gathered in Barcelona for a Spanish-Unit Rally.
As you can imagine, it’s been a bit crazy here. Almost every weekend there are protests or some form of organizing in the streets. In fact, as I write this, I hear the drone of helicopters outside. This noise, which I’ve come to associate with demonstrations, media and the police, has been a common occurrence over the past three weeks.
While my region is declaring independence and attempting to establish nationhood, I’ve been studying Spanish (I’m hoping it will still be useful in Catalonia), and attempting to figure out basic life-tasks, like how to best negotiate with my landlord, how to communicate with the bank, and how to navigate the private and public healthcare system (I’m also hoping these will continue to be stable).
These endeavors, which I remember as being time-consuming and confusing in the U.S., sometimes feel near-impossible here in Spain. Not only am I decision-fatigued from attempting to navigate a new job, a new city, and new roommates, but I am often inundated with information in a foreign language, that I don’t understand well yet. I rely on translations (verbal or electronic) in order to comprehend content. This often leaves me feeling overwhelmed and dependent on the translator.
Luckily, our school has an amazing Head of Human Resources who is willing to help with almost-anything, and I have awesome friends who are patient enough to help me with Spanish. Unluckily, no matter how awesome my resources, there are many things I need to do myself.
Which brings me back to my opening anecdote.
I spend the night tossing and turning. My mind is preoccupied with planning.
Which day can I miss? We have a six-day rotating schedule at school, and I didn’t know how to arrange coverage for myself yet. How do I set up sub plans?
What transportation can I take from the bloodwork appointment to the school? I normally take the school bus with the kids, and public transportation takes at least an hour.
If I am getting coverage, will I have enough time? What time does the clinic open? I can’t find the information online.
Do I have to call? Attempting a conversation in Spanish is hard! I feel so stupid because I can’t say what I want.
Finally, morning comes. I get out of bed, unrested but sure of one thing: I need help.
Cue our amazing HR Head, Ana. After checking Google calendar, and coordinating both of ridiculously complex six-day schedules, I make an appointment.
Ana, as always, is patient, gracious, and helpful. She listens to me, sympathizes, and helps me problem-solve
“Why don’t we just get you an English-speaking OBGYN?” Ana says.
I want to cry and give her a hug all at the same time.
“That would be perfect.”
In both this situation and many of the other institution/life negotiation interactions I mentioned, I am noticing a common theme:
My lack of agency comes from feeling like I have a lack options. However, I am realizing there is often a gap between my perceived options and my actual options. It just takes someone who knows the what the actual options are to show me my real choices.
In this situation, Ana served as my resource to the list of real choices. She provided me with the name of a medical group that specializes in delivering services in English; she called and talked with them, asking about the doctors available, and then she passed the phone over to me so I could make an appointment. Afterward, we discussed public transportation options, and whom to talk to in order to arrange sub coverage.
What all of this leaves me thinking about is the populations of people who experience the same phenomenon: a lack of agency derived from the gap between perceived and actual options.
For me, both my students and immigrants in the U.S. who don’t speak English well are on my mind.
For my students, I wonder, how often do they feel limited by their options? How often do they not know how to navigate the school system, and therefore, are unsure of how to advocate for themselves?
For immigrants in the U.S., especially those who do not speak English fluently, I wonder the same. How often do they feel limited by their options? How frequently do they miss out making the choice that is best for them, because they do not even know that choice is available?
In Choice Words, education professor Peter H. Johnston discusses the importance of educators providing students with a range of options. Johnston introduces his own ideas, and then makes a connection to the counseling profession, citing Stanton Wortham’s article, “Narratives in Action: A Strategy for Research and Analysis.” Johnston writes, “In school, we try to help children open possibilities by restructuring the narratives they have available. This is also part of a counseling practice (Wortham 2001).”¹
As teachers, we have the power to introduce new and different narratives, new and different opportunities and choices, for our students. We also have the power to teach students how to advocate for themselves, how to identify when they need to advocate for themselves, and who to talk to in order to figure out their options.
Right now, I am in the process of identifying this for myself. Over here, I’m figuring out who I can ask for help, and when I need to ask for help.
I am continually aware of my privilege in this: Not only do I have my school, with Ana–who speaks English, Spanish, and Catalan, and helps me navigate everything from banks to my landlord– but I also have Spanish-Speaking colleagues and friends, who understand the systems and are more than happy to help me navigate them.
For a person without a school or company like this, or without a readily-available network of people helping them, or for undocumented people, I am reflecting on how incredibly difficult this process would be. Setting up a bank account, getting a phone plan, registering my address- all of this would be overwhelming challenging if I didn’t have my school helping me.
Tomorrow, I have my new OBGYN appointment. While I am not looking forward to another physical exam, I am looking forward to being able to communicate my needs and advocate for myself with my doctor.
In this crazy world of uncertainty and newness, that’s about the most control I can have right now. And I have to say, I feel okay about that.
- Worth S. 2001. “Narratives in Action: A Strategy for Research and Analysis.” In A. Ivey, ed., Counseling and Development Series. New York: Teachers College Press. Cited in Johnston, P. 2004. “Appendix A.” Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning, pp. 89–90. Portland, Maine: Stenhouse Publishers.