I was teaching a class of middle school writers last Monday, part of an ongoing workshop, getting the mostly bilingual group of students ready to write an ode. We were going around the circle, each telling about someone or something that had influenced us and made us who were are.
“The mistakes I find myself in,” said one.
“What do you mean?” I asked, smiling at the Spanish syntax of his English sentence. “How have mistakes made you who you are?”
The student struggled to clarify, so I told him we’d talk one on one to narrow down this intriguing idea to some specific examples he could write about. In the meantime, though, I called the students’ attention to that syntax.
“‘The mistakes I find myself in.’ That’s great. Remember when we talked about things that English does better than Spanish and vice versa?” I said. “Well, this is one of those things that Spanish does better than English: It lets us off the hook.”
I pointed out the beautiful ways that Spanish syntax and its reflexive verbs allow us to say things like, “Se me cayó el libro.” That is, “The book fell from me,” rather than, “I dropped the book.” Another common example is forgetting: “Se te olvidaron tus llaves.” “Your keys were forgotten to you.”
What I love about this isn’t really the ability to shirk responsibility for something, but the way the language acknowledges that we aren’t as much in control of the world as we think. Embedded in Spanish language is a healthy fatalism that reminds us not to be so cocky about our own power.
The subjunctive is another good example. Spanish has held onto this grammatical mood, allowing a speaker to indicate a level of uncertainty and conditionality that English long ago decided it had no use for. You use the subjunctive in places where you are unsure, where the actions of fate or another person or an unknowable force might come into play, or where something is patently untrue. English kept only this last sense, in the fading but still understood subjunctive “were,” as in, “If I were a rich man …” (which this writer clearly is not).
Thanks to these structures, I find it’s easier to be gently forgiving in Spanish than in English. You can hear in the language a cultural shoulder shrug, a tender hand on the arm, that says, “Oh, well, dear. These things happen.”
My student who found himself in some mistakes is 13 years old and, like all the students in this writing workshop, a smart, creative, tender-hearted kid. He probably has a lot more mistakes to make that will help inform the adult he’s meant to become.
I walked out of that class discussion to find the attention of everyone on the Walker’s Point streets fixed to their cell phones in a way that clearly signaled trouble, so I checked the news. There had been a series of explosions at the Boston Marathon. Two people were dead and 23 injured. Later, of course, we would find out that a 19-year-old kid was one of the bombers, and the numbers of dead and injured would rise.
My heart was broken by the bombings, but the moment the photos of the alleged bombers were released it got rebroken in a different way.
“He’s just a kid,” I said, on seeing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s goofy boy face topped with a baseball hat turned casually toward the back.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s birthday is one day off from my son’s. My 19-year-old left college this spring and is trying to figure out what he wants to do instead. Right now, he’s in Florida, learning his dad’s business and enjoying life. Although I’m disappointed he didn’t want to finish school, I’m very grateful that the mistakes he’s found himself in have never amounted to more than the minor scrapes of a typical U.S. teenager.
I don’t in any way excuse the actions of the younger Tsarnaev, but I do wonder at the twists of fate that brought this kid to these acts of horrific violence. All of our lives have points that are, to use a grammar term, declarative: moments when we make decisions that are truly ours. But there’s a lot of subjunctive in our lives, too—times when things fall from our hands or get themselves forgotten, times when we find ourselves in mistakes that have terrible consequences. As mom and as a writer, those are the moments in this kid’s life which will hold my attention as we learn more about what he did and why.