Three important things happened during the past two weeks of Spanish. One, I passed my second progress evaluation. Two, we hit the midpoint of our 24-week program. And three, the Spanish Department shuffled students and instructors to create new classes. The latter two things were painless and turned out great. The first, well, that’s a different story. Buckle up, things are going to get uncomfortable.
Progress evaluation, attempt 1:
Progress evaluations for dozens of students started at the beginning of week 11, and were planned to run all week. They aren’t official, but are an important marker to see if everyone has hit a 2/2 (speaking/reading) before the more official assessments in January (when we need a 2+/2+) and the final end of training test (EOT) in February where we must pass with a 3/3.
Each evaluation takes about 90 minutes including feedback, and consists of an introductory conversation, a presentation, moderating an interview, and then reading both short and long articles and summarizing them in English.
During the first progress evaluation at week five, it was just me and my learning consultant, MA. This time, there were to be two evaluators, and MA wouldn’t be one of them. That’s OK, because it allows the department to have broader oversight over your progress. Also, they record the audio on an iPad so that supervisors can listen to your performance if a dispute arises regarding scoring.
I joked in class that my evaluation would be scheduled first, for Monday at 08:00. Then I checked my email. Sure enough, Monday at 08:00.
I stayed in all weekend studying my connectors and talking points on a variety of topics, such as what consular officers do overseas, terrorism and security, the environment, freedom of the press, refugees and immigration, technology, the particulars of my biography, and more. I could certainly talk for 3-5 minutes about most of the topics and answer questions about them in a follow-up conversation.
Monday morning dawned and I was ready. Exploding with words! I came to FSI 45 minutes early and sat on the fourth floor windowsill of the F building where I used to study Russian, including the lucky morning of my final evaluation, looking out at the desert roof garden. I didn’t really feel nervous, but wanted to do well and was aware how much energy it would take for me to be “on” that whole time.
Inexplicably, a few minutes before I needed to walk over, I got dizzy, dashed into a bathroom and threw up my breakfast. Immediately the dizziness subsided and my mind was clear. I shook it off, and I felt good. I must have ate something that hit me wrong, I thought.
I went to my assigned evaluation room, which happened to be right across the hallway from my classroom, but it was locked. I sat on the steps outside the door. I joked around in the hallway with another student who was testing next door, until his evaluators arrived and they went in. 08:00 passed, then 08:05.
At 08:15, students started appearing in the halls for the normal class start time at 08:30. I saw my classmate J, who offered encouragement and humor.
Finally at 08:25, I went down to the Spanish Department office and notified them that I was supposed to have had my evaluation at 08:00, but no one had arrived. There was a flurry of checking around and then an aide said that it had been cancelled due to one of the evaluators having a sudden death in the family. They asked me if I could do it Friday morning instead.
Gah! Obviously I understood and felt much more sorry for the evaluator than for myself, but was also bummed to have to wait the whole rest of the week to get it over with. I mentally reoriented myself and went to class.
And then, *a half hour into class* one of the Spanish supervisors came and said he had shuffled things around to make up for the evaluator who couldn’t make it. Then he asked me if I wanted to do my evaluation that morning at 09:30! I declined, because at that point I had gone into a different energetic space and my focus had turned away from the evaluation and into the activities expected during the class.
For a split second I thought of saying yes, but then said no. Ideally I should have been able to easily switch gears and get it done, and maybe in retrospect I should have tried. But I didn’t, and that was the end of my first attempt.
Progress evaluation, attempt 2:
Towards the end of that week, I was feeling really poorly. On Wednesday night, I developed such a splitting headache that it felt as though my skull was actually breaking apart. I went to bed very early, at dinner time, and by Thursday morning I was vomiting and having a lot of problems with vertigo.
It ended up that I had to use sick leave on both Thursday and Friday, for a combination of headaches, vertigo, and a severe flare-up of my psoriatic arthritis, so there went my second progress evaluation attempt.
The Spanish Department sent me a new date: Monday afternoon at 13:30. By this time it would be week 12; I’d gone from first out of the gate to likely dead last.
I spent a lot of the weekend alternating between watching The Crown and sleeping because I was too dizzy to watch The Crown. I also spent several hours preparing again for my evaluation, feeling like I really just wanted to get it over with.
Progress evaluation, attempt 3: Success!
On Monday morning of week 12, I felt really good and happy to be back. It was also the first day of being in a new classroom, with a new instructor and three different students.
Since the beginning of September when Spanish started, I had been in the same classroom. Our class started with instructor G, but after a few weeks she went on a long trip and we got a new instructor, C, with whom we stayed until now. We started with four students, and then over time two transferred out and a new one transferred in, so we ended up being the same three together for most of the last several weeks.
I was a little concerned about how being in a new room with a new instructor and students might affect my energy on the day of my evaluation. We have had substitute teachers before, and that whole “getting to know new people” in my fourth language can be awkward and tiring, but it turned out to be fun and encouraging, and I felt more ready than ever.
Over the lunch and independent study break, I spent almost two more hours in an empty room talking out loud, only checking my points occasionally to see if I was forgetting or mispronouncing anything. For preventative reasons only, I popped a Dramamine pill for motion sickness and put on my Sea Band bracelets. I wanted to make sure that nothing interfered with my evaluation performance!
My 13:30 slot was fast approaching. I walked to my assigned evaluation room, went out of my way to be friendly and introduce myself, listened to the instructions, and things got underway. I was confident, professional, and engaging. I took charge of the conversation, and I saw both evaluators smiling and nodding as they took their notes.
And it was towards the end of our initial conversation, maybe 15 or 20 minutes in, that things started to go sideways.
In the space of a very short time, I developed a splitting headache and started to get really hot. I tried to ignore it, but while they were giving me the options for my presentation topics, I started to feel woozy. I selected one, and they left the room for five minutes so I could prepare. I wrote out an outline, but had a little trouble organizing my thoughts. It felt like the temperature in the room had increased from 70 to about 80 in less than five minutes, and the room had started gently tilting.
This isn’t happening, I told myself. I pressed my feet into the floor and willed the room to hold still. When I gave my presentation, I was unable to elaborate much on my bullet points and mostly read them like a text. I think I talked for enough time to meet the range, but my disorientation was progressing quickly and I was having an increasingly hard time thinking on the fly.
I also had difficulty responding to the follow-up questions, partially because the room had started to really spin and partially because I couldn’t concentrate enough to pull out more words, or pivot away from one idea and turn the conversation to related topics, from which I could have drawn on to give more examples.
At a certain point, I realized that I was imminently going to throw up. Whatever chances I’d had to stop this vertigo attack were long gone, and now I just had to survive it. When I came back, I offered to redo the presentation, but they said I could either continue from where I was, or stop and then have to repeat the whole evaluation from the beginning. I didn’t want to do that, so I stubbornly persisted.
The interview was disorienting. My first question wasn’t very good, but I made up for it with subsequent questions. I struggled to follow and summarize what she was saying, asking for clarification when needed. As I wrote my notes, they were shifting on the page. I tried to not look too closely and focused on enunciation and trying to catch as many details as possible.
The reading was the most harrowing; the difference between what I was experiencing physically and how I was trying to behave was stark. I am pretty certain that someone who hadn’t experienced vertigo before would have immediately ended the evaluation and gone to lay down. I wonder honestly how I managed to continue. I wanted to stop a few times, but I just didn’t say it, didn’t make it real. I was at the very edge of not being able to hang on.
Trying to speak coherently to someone, or read, when you know you’re being recorded, while you’re experiencing violent sensations that the room or other people are moving, is horrible. It’s like reading in the back of a hot car on a windy road. It’s like the moment when you realize – too late – you have had too much to drink and the room starts to spin. Except with the added joy of not knowing where you yourself are in time and space. At different points, I had the sensation that I was rotating into an upside-down position. I tried to hide it, to mitigate it, but I could barely sit in my chair.
In all, I had to leave my evaluation not once, not twice, but FOUR times to throw up. A couple of times when I walked into the bathroom, other people were there, and I did something I have almost never done – asked people to leave. This of course was more to spare them from the exorcism which was about to happen and less about my own sense of embarrassment; I was so ill at that point that I was nearly impervious to humiliation.
I could tell the evaluators felt sorry for me, and more concerningly, that they thought I had gone into some kind of anxious fit. Far from the truth, I did not feel anxious at all. Uncomfortable at times, but – as any of my instructors or classmates or MA could attest – I don’t shut down. I don’t get intimidated when I am pushed to my language ceiling. I don’t refuse to participate or answer questions. If I get in a situation where I can’t figure out what to say, I pause, I search for different words or constructions, and then I start over in a different direction. I do the best I can with whatever I have, whether it’s “good enough” or not. I have proved this time and time and time again.
But these two ladies didn’t know me, and had never talked to me. So I can only imagine how weird it was to be evaluating a student who started off relaxed, friendly, chatting about various topics who rather suddenly then was sweating, with impaired equilibrium, apologizing and saying she had nothing else to say, and reading the texts while leaning on an elbow and looking through only one eye. It’s almost like watching someone go from sober to drunk in a minute flat, or worse, have some kind of neurological event.
Vertigo can be the bane of my existence. I have written about it, most profoundly during ConGen courses in 2015, when I was on R&R in 2017, and earlier this year when I sailed to Tasmania. Most of the time I have it under control, and I usually have more warning with the gradual headache, the gradual feeling of needing to cool down, and slow, low-grade dizziness. But sometimes it is very sudden, and when it really gets spinning, it can be completely incapacitating. It is surely the closest thing to zero gravity I could ever experience.
So why did I say attempt 3 was a “success?” Because to my surprise, when I talked with MA and my supervisor, I learned that I had actually still come in above expectations with a 2/2+. That means a 2 in speaking (on track) and a 2+ in reading (ahead).
I know I am capable of earning a 2+/2+, but they can only evaluate what students demonstrate, and maybe they thought I didn’t manage the easier topic well enough for them to throw out harder ones. Not because I couldn’t, but because I didn’t. Ironically, I had prepared much more for the harder topics and they were fresher in my mind because I was shooting for the 2+, and even though I obviously felt really sick I still think it would have been easier for me to trot out all the things I had spent hours preparing than something from several weeks ago.
I did relay to my supervisor that I didn’t think it was fair that the evaluators stuck to topics from the era of the first progress evaluation, rather than the more advanced topics of the last few weeks, and she acknowledged it. Who knows – maybe it would not have mattered, given how disoriented I was.
I was offered an opportunity to repeat the evaluation to try for the 2+/2+, but ultimately I decided not to. I would have wanted to if the score was official, or if I had any doubts about how I respond to testing under pressure, or if I had tested in below expectations, or if my immersion trip to Ecuador (which is already booked and paid for!) would have been in jeopardy. But none of those things were the case, so I decided to let it go.
Good to know that even when I’m puking sick, I’m still above average!?!?!
I came home that day and went to bed at 17:00. I have been experiencing very mild vertigo off and on most days since then. And we are moving on. I feel positive and hopeful. I know what I need to work on, and what I need to do to move forward. I go into these uncomfortable situations every day with courage, but also humility, trusting myself while also asking for the help and guidance I need to make it out the other side.
This too shall pass – and tomorrow begins Phase 3: where the majority of our classroom time begins to focus on not only presentation of news and ideas, but connecting topics and ideas together, expressing opinions, and debating issues with one another. I have to present tomorrow on an article about U.S. and Mexico immigration issues – it should be interesting!