It's been a long, hard year for Juli, and today the wait finally ended.
Juli (pronounced "HOOlee") lives with her parents and sister in Moratinos. She's one of the "youngsters" in town, and a great ally to all of us whose Spanish is less-than-useful: She speaks English. She is willing to translate when the builder/lawyer/government form/mailman gets incomprehensible. She is 28 years old, a college graduate, trained to teach English to primary-age kids. But she spent the first three years post-grad working at a 24-hour service station out on the Autopista. She spent the past year, literally, cramming.
Getting a decent job is a long, hard haul around here. Juli's one of thousands of educated Spaniards who'd like to occupy one of only hundreds of state teaching jobs. In order to put their education to use in public schools, they have to take The Exams.
The Exams are offered every other year. Grads with good grades pay a fee for the privilege of cramming about 400 pages worth of "themes" posted annually on a state web site. We're talking massive, rote memorization, parrot-style, of excruciatingly dull material. On the first exam date, a few hundred candidates converge from all over the province and crowd into classrooms. They're given blank notebooks, bottle of drinking water, and an hour and a half. The examiner puts four of the "themes" on the board. The candidates then regurgitate everything they know about those four themes into the notebook.
Some leave the testing site soon as they see the themes are posted. Others get partway through and break under the pressure. Some of them don't remember enough, and fail the test. The lucky few who pass can then, after a couple weeks, come back for the next phase: an Oral Presentation. They choose one of the themes they wrote about in their test notebook, and give a presentation on the subject to a panel of four Primary English teachers. In English. With no notes.
Two years ago, the last time Juli tried the Exams, she couldn't face even Part 1. The morning of the test, she didn't go -- and she spent the ensuing months re-thinking her future. That's why she resigned her cashier job last fall, and took up studying full-time.
I have never seen someone study so hard for so long. She had all four native English-speakers of Moratinos record the themes on her MP3, and she listened to our voices, over and over, droning on about learning outcomes, curricula, evaluations, pronunciations, equal-access laws... Two London men, the gentle brogue of an Irish lady, and my hard-R Pittsburgh voice.
When I took long paseos with Juli's mom and the other village ladies, Juli often as not stayed home to study, curled up on the warm spot over the under-floor woodstove with her notebooks in hand. She didn't attend village gatherings or dinners or parties. Her skin grew pale. Whenever I stopped after Sunday church to say hello, the dining-room table was always covered in lesson plans and outlines. It was worrying, really. She had no life any more, and worried incessantly about passing or failing.
I can't say I helped her much -- just told her she had time to think about failure AFTER The Exams; and right now was time to fill her mind only with positive, positive thoughts. "You're the best. You're the best. You know you are," I told her and told her. "Nobody out there is studying like you. You're using your English all the time to Do Good. How can you lose?"
I wondered if the rote approach was right, if a recited spiel was really what these professors looked for, if a relaxed, easy interview was what they were really after. But Juli knew what she was about. Juli crammed like a fiend. Her mom prayed the rosary, and lit a line of candles in the church.
Two weeks ago, when she went to Zamora for Exam 1, Juli nailed those written themes.
Yesterday evening I went with Juli back to Zamora for the big interview exam. She was scheduled for 8 a.m. today, the very first on the list. We agreed to speak only in English. We shopped a little, people-watched, and strolled the beautiful old town in the long dusk. Before she went to bed Juli read over her outline just once. We re-wrote a sentence in her presentation, to eliminate a repetition. She fell asleep with the MP3 headphones on, a voice in her ear intoning something about The Decree of May 2006.
We didn't sleep so well. We were up at 6:30. She came out of the bathroom looking like she'd wept just a little, but she strode to the examination with an easy, bright air. We chattered in English right up to the last moment... I think we intimidated the other waiting candidates. We greeted everyone, but only two of them would join our conversation in English. When the examiner came click-clacking down the hall in killer heels and signaled to Juli, she wished her a cheery good morning in a lovely Irish accent.
Two and a half hours later Juli emerged, her face wreathed in smiles. She'd nailed this, too, she said: Her English didn't falter. She'd answered all their questions, presented her carefully illustrated teaching materials, all within the alloted time frame. We hugged and giggled and hopped around like little girls.
We spent the rest of the morning in the shops, as everything in Zamora is on sale. Juli bought a lovely garlic-keeper for her mom, and a box of cookies for the family. But nothing for herself.
Her gift to herself, she said, was a peaceful mind. No matter what the outcome, she really did give this her best shot.
She really is the best, you know.