On yesterday, I taught my third Adult Mental Health First Aid course in Spanish for an agency of home health care workers in el Bronx on behalf of the enrichment and education arm of the 1199 National Health Care Workers’ Union, the 1199SEIU Training and Employment Fund.
I’ve been teaching these classes, in English, for adults and those working/living/interacting with adolescents across NYC (and a few hospitals, offices, and schools elsewhere) since the spring of 2017. But since December, I’ve been zooming back and forth recharging with and supporting my family in Virginia and teaching in various 1199 sites around New York City, getting my body and my life back together, and not relaxing enough.
I appreciate and enjoy teaching the Mental Health First Aid course because it offers an approachable, non-clinical way to dive into the mental and emotional health and substance abuse challenges that affect every one of us in some way. Though we follow a comprehensive curriculum, every class is different because each participant brings a unique perspective, es una clase súper interactiva, and cathartic tangents rain from the sky.
And I learn just as much as the participants.
This is the most Spanish I have spoken since teaching CardioDance and hip-hop dance classes and workshops in Panama between 2011 and 2014.
While teaching private English classes a domicilio to executives, lawyers, pilots, engineers, teachers, and other businessfolk in Panama City who wanted to feel comfortable conducting business, teaching, leading meetings, nailing job interviews, and conquering the world in English, I learned to speak “professional Spanish” to talk to potential students and people from the Land of Human Resources responding to my ads, build a website, manage contracts and payments, and apologize that awful morning when the porn I had watched the night before broadcasted on the conference room projector when I opened my laptop. ¡Qué horror!
My dance and exercise classes were usually an hour at the most and mainly required mastery of body parts and giving instructions (with the command forms of verbs). Until recently, I mostly used my Spanish ordering empanadas or glorious rice-based lunch specials in el Bronx and Harlem. But standing up and slinging conjugations around a complex topic like mental wellness for eight hours?
This has been a humbling experience.
Last fall, just after I wrote in my journal that I wanted to teach more Mental Health First Aid classes, a wonderful lady named Natasha from 1199 hit me on my two-pager in hopes of making magic together after she googled NYC MENTAL HEALTH FIRST AID MOFOS or something thereabouts and came across this thing. Though the city of New York offers MHFA trainings as part of their Thrive NYC Thrive programs, I’ve pretty much become their in-house trainer for most of this particular site’s courses and usually work alongside a trainer from the Department of Health and Human Services.
Among my goals for the year, in addition to getting life insurance, seeing Anderson .Paak and Solange live, taking lots of ballet, and not killing myself, was becoming comfortable sharing my story and facilitating conversations and classes around mental and emotional wellness in Spanish. I’d just included GET YOUR DAMN SPANISH TOGETHER SO YOU CAN DO MENTAL HEALTH SHIT IN SPANISH in a list in my journal days before the folks at 1199 asked me to harness my espanyole powers to cover a class for the agency’s many Spanish-speaking home care workers.
Saint Damita Jo be listening.
In the first class a few weeks ago, armed with Spanish Mental Health First Aid manuals for the participants, the agency-provided co-facilitator/translator and I translated the English presentation and materials and made it work. Misconjugations aplenty and all. I explained beforehand that my Spanish was a work in progress, to excuse any grammatical fuckups and inventions, and that I was passionate about engaging around mental health and improving my Spanish.
I can read and write Spanish better than I speak and understand it. Succeeding in a room of mainly domicanas and puertorriqueñas who speak 192.4 miles per hour was an adventure for all involved. Pero we survived.
The night before my second class, I learned that my intended co-facilitator was sick, and that I’d be running the show by myself. Though the National Council for Behavioral Health suggests teaching in pairs, rocking the party solo In English isn’t too much of a struggle. Pero en Spanish? It is only by the power of Saint Damita Jo that I made it through.
I want to get to a point where my rolled r’s don’t sound rehearsed. Now, I spot them ahead in my mind, and, in those few seconds, dig deep en mi espiritu, furrow my eyebrows, y summon every scrap of thug motivation I can find to leap over that hurdle without stumbling too much. I feel like a star-spangled Gringo Numero Uno each time my tongue doesn’t cooperate.
Since I love words as much as I love food, it burns me up to know I’m speaking incorrectly. Each grammatical stumble feels like an affront to Janet Jackson and a failure as a Panamanian grandchild.
But unlike yesteryear’s knees and waistline, it’s coming back to me.
I listen to episodes of NPR’s Radio Ambulante podcast, Salud Mental el Podcast (Mental Health: The Podcast) by Gus Novelo, and Hablemos de la Salud Mental (Let’s Talk About Mental Health) as much as I can. I’ve been going through verb conjugation lessons online for the tenses that have me all fucked up in the game. I have flashcards pon flashcards with new words and phrases I like (and have been quizzing myself). And I’m about to finish Celia.
Though I feel accomplished and a smidge less terrible afterwards, each of the classes has been mentally and physically exhausting. But rewarding. Each class underscores the importance of preparation. Whether coordinating activities, making copies, or reviewing vocab and phrases I want to master, each day, I appreciate the time I spend on trains reading, highlighting, and absorbing teaching materials and adding to this ever-growing vocabulary list in my phone. Each successful conjugation, head nod, and raised hand makes me thankful to be alive to serve as the Rhythm Nation’s grits advocate and Ricist-in-Chief.
Each student helps me heeltoe out of this ho-ass depression that’s swallowed me the fuck up and made me spiritually ashy.
After an anxious morning, I uncorked with my co-facilitator, Raquel, over a glorious rice-based lunch special. I mentioned feeling like my brain farts and blunders with noun genders and various past tenses make me feel unprepared. Raquel assured me that she and the class appreciate the effort and understand me just fine. And she told me that I shouldn’t be hard on myself because learning a language is a lifelong journey.
Raquel is right. I’m still learning to have my way with English. And I look forward to using Spanish to spread the gospel of gravy and teach the babies about the wonders of Saint Damita Jo Jackson of Gary, Indiana.
Additional mental health writing:
When Depression Lurks In the Shadow Of Success by Tonja Renée Stidhum
We can’t let depression and anxiety silently take our joy and the lives of those we love by Andre Kimo Stone Guess
Have Your Heaven Now: What Lupus Taught Me About Life by Alexander Hardy