Light at the End of the Tunnel – a Train?

Last Thursday was a snow day and federal government offices in the Washington DC area were closed. This included the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington where I’m completing my Russian course.

Watching Facebook friends post pictures of their paid snow day frolicking, I felt the urgency of a clock ticking down. According to the calendar, I was in week 26 of a 28-week Russian class.

I sat home alone all day in my slippers cozily drinking coffee in our guest room/office; my husband, also a federal employee, is a designated “emergency employee” and went to work. Typing slowly on my Russian Cyrillic alphabet keyboard for almost ten hours (!), I finally completed the rest of my talking points on diplomacy, terrorism, immigration, ecology, healthcare, and recent world news, among several other topics.

I will also admit to chatting haltingly about these topics in Russian to the orchid, hyacinth and cacti on my windowsill. They were great listeners, and didn’t judge me for my many lapses in grammar and non-native “melodic” speech.

Outside the window, the snow fell all morning, during the afternoon and beyond the darkness, resulting in 6-8 inches of fresh snow on the ground.

The following day, Friday, I drove to work in slippery, icy conditions. Even with snow tires and four wheel drive, approaching a stoplight on a downhill I started to slide. Pumping the brakes gently, my SUV started to fishtail on the ice and I realized I was going to run into the back of the stopped green SUV in front of me. There was a car behind me, and another in the lane to my left.

Quickly assessing my options, I predicted that even if I could stop, I would likely be hit by the large Buick following me once it hit the same patch. I opted to swerve off to the right and use a big snowpile cleared by road crews to stop myself. If that didn’t do it, I acknowledged in a split second that a few slender trees several yards beyond would.

As I plowed my front end into the surprisingly slushy snow, it stopped me abruptly almost alongside the car that had been in front of me. Craning his neck in disbelief, the driver slowly started to clap. Indeed, I thought.

A quick check of my rearview mirror revealed the Buick driver stopped in his tracks 50 feet behind me, probably terrified by the spectacle of me bouncing off the road. I wasn’t sure if they thought I was a moron or a genius, but I’m glad my defensive driving skills are still sharp. And luckily, no damage to my car.

Had there been cars parked along the roadway, or a sidewalk fire hydrant buried in that pile, I would have been bummed. I was completely calm when it happened, and I didn’t cuss or yell. But afterwards my hands were shaking for almost five minutes with adrenaline and relief. 

I really don’t know what I could have done differently. I have the right vehicle, with the right tires properly inflated, and 21 years of driving experience. I grew up in the Sierra Nevada foothills of northern California, and learned to drive at night, in winter, in a two-wheel drive Oldsmobile Calais. So there’s that.

The irony is that now this week, I’ve barely needed a jacket. I ate lunch outside twice. Birds are singing in the trees. Spring is in the air. All of the snow that decorated the FSI campus only days ago has melted, adding to the mud and tentative greenery.

When I started Russian studies on September 2, 2014, fall was in the air. During the colder months that followed, Russian was on my mind. I studied grammar, I did homework, role plays, presentations. I laughed, I cried, I got confused. I listened to music from Russian ballets in the gym. I talked out loud in probably awful Russian to no one. I carried around heavy workbooks, and folders of charts.

I accepted that I WAS really saying something whenever I had the silly urge to repeat myself in English just to make sure I was really communicating. I was mostly encouraged, sometimes worried and a couple of times despairing.

I passed countless lunch periods sitting on the wide, low fourth floor windowsills of the F Building, or in the library, reviewing flashcards, listening to news in Russian on my headphones, letting my eyes fall all over almost indecipherable Cyrillic texts until I zoned out of focus.

I saw and heard myself slowly get better. Then inexplicably, I would enter a period of feeling (and acting) moronic. Two steps forward, one step back. I was by turns triumphant when I could put the pieces together, and alarmed when I would suddenly freeze, refuse to speak, feel rejected and want to close my eyes and somehow become invisible.

I had class days where I was comfortable and outgoing and brassy and silly. And sometimes I was sad or angry and distant and quiet and inhibited. All of these traits are part of me, just as the language learning process is filled with inconsistencies in progress and pattern. And the moments when I did my best were those in which I took more chances, let the joke be on me, and left little pieces of my ego and investment in the classroom.

Over the course of this experience, my classmates and I (never more than 4 at a time, and usually only 3) created a safe little zone in the classroom together where mistakes were okay and learning was fun. We have laughed so much in that room.

From the moment I found out I would be learning Russian I was simply elated. I wanted so much to be a student and engage fully in the learning process. I wanted to appreciate every moment of having something different than my past work, to be positive and to be a source of encouragement for others. I wanted to do this job to the best of my ability and mostly at every step, I think and hope that I did.

In retrospect, I suppose there are some things I wish I would have done better, or differently, within the framework of my own attitude, study strategies and motivation. There were also a few minor administrative irritations from time to time at the department level. But all in all, I have to say that the Russian Department at FSI is so organized, and the level of expertise and professionalism of the instructors is outstanding. I always knew what was expected of me, and when. It has been a great ride, and one I would take again, gladly.

And now, one week from tomorrow, the clock does run out. My last day of class is almost here. On Friday, March 20 at noon I will walk into the Language Testing Unit and undergo a two hour videotaped Russian language assessment called the End of Training Test (EOT). And then I will probably party like it’s 1999.

Ever since I was on the register of cleared candidates hoping for an A-100 invitation, I was avoiding chances to test in Macedonian. I would schedule a telephone test, and then cancel it, knowing I wouldn’t likely get the score required to receive bonus points and improve my candidate rank. But now they have me: 28 weeks of taxpayer-funded Russian classes and I have to show the institute that I’m ready to go to post.

I see this bright light at the end of a long tunnel. The tunnel is warm and safe, but I can’t avoid the light that grows ever bigger. Never one to bury my head in the sand, I’ve been getting ready for weeks, months. Is this the illuminatory glow of long-awaited six weeks of consular training that I begin the next business day after Russian ends??

Or is it a locomotive of Russian grammar and all the tricky questions and forgotten constructions that are going to give me one final ass-kicking during my assessment before I’m through? Either way, I am planning for professionalism and hoping for an extra helping of grace. I don’t need any more daymares to recall later and cringe about.

Let the final week begin…

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Sarah W Gaer

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