Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Death of English

September 9, 2007 – October 5, 2007

This is the last entry covering the time before I started writing in my journal. I’ll talk more about new experiences and daily life in the MTC, but it’s likely to be more disjointed, since I don’t have anything to really jog my memory.

When you spend your whole day in a classroom struggling to learn a foreign language and prepare to talk to strangers about your religion for two years, you start to cherish those couple of times each day that you get to be outside that classroom. Three of those times come in the form of meals, which makes them even better. The MTC has a huge cafeteria (the website says there are actually three, but I never saw more than one; maybe it’s changed since) designed to feed what must be several hundred missionaries at once. You wait in a long line to get some not-great-but-not-terrible-either food that changes with the day. After a couple of weeks you see the menu start to repeat itself. Some missionaries complained about the food. Others gained a lot of weight in only a few weeks there. I didn’t think it was that bad; it was identical to the food served at the old BYU Cannon Center, where I ate most meals my freshman year. It was a little bland for my taste, but I dealt with it, knowing that wouldn’t be the case when I got to Mexico.

The blandness of the food was one of the things that made it into my first emails home. Missionaries in the MTC are only allowed to use the computers for half an hour a week, and only on P-days. The worst part, though, is the large timer in red font counting down from 30:00 on the screen while you use it. When your time’s up, it logs you out. The idea is to get missionaries accustomed to the idea that they don’t get to use computers or communicate with friends and family the way they used to back home. Out in the field, we were allowed a full hour, and obviously there was no big red timer on the internet cafes we used, but it was still very restricted.

Unfortunately I don’t have copies of the emails I sent home during my mission. But I remember my first email talked about the other missionaries in my district, trying to get used to having a companion all the time, and all the work we were doing in our classes. In one of my first emails, I also asked my mom to send me some hot sauce to use in the cafeteria. Out in the field, missionaries can go shopping on their own on P-day, but in the MTC you can’t go anywhere outside it. There’s a small store there with certain missionary-type supplies and snacks, but it doesn’t have much selection, so the only way to get more specific items is to have them sent to you. The MTC operates a large mailroom with a box for each missionary. Walking over to check the mail is another one of those cherished opportunities to get out of the classroom. Since email is so restricted, old-fashioned letters are the most common way for missionaries to keep in contact with the outside world.

Elder Newman sorting through a sizable pile of fan mail.

I remember some missionaries got a lot of mail. My companion had a girlfriend that wrote him long letters almost every day. Elder Newman also got a lot of mail, I think. I got a letter every now and then. My family and Breanne were the most consistent writers, but I did hear from other friends as well. One of the first emails I got from home mentioned that I’d forgotten to pack my tennis shoes (for P-days) and my camera, among other things. My mom was kind enough to send those along with two bottles of hot sauce in my first package. During my time there, my aunt Jen also sent a couple of care packages stuffed with baked goods and other treats, and Breanne sent a package with homemade oreos. All of these were great pick-me-ups when life got monotonous.

Some of the time in our classroom was left open for us to study on our own. We spent a lot of this time reading through Preach My Gospel, the missionary guidebook. It explains the concepts missionaries teach to investigators (people interested in learning about the church), but it also teaches missionaries how to find people to teach, how to study the scriptures effectively, how to help investigators overcome the challenges they face, how to use their time wisely, and how to work with local church leaders. It’s an interesting book that mixes religious doctrine with pragmatic good advice. Missionaries use it every day.

My well-loved Spanish copy of Preach My Gospel. The cover is completely separated from the rest of the book.

We used the rest of our open study time practicing Spanish. The MTC provides missionaries with a set of scriptures and a workbook in their mission language. It covers all the basic vocabulary and phrases that missionaries are likely to need on a regular basis, which also include religious terminology. I’d already learned a lot of the general vocab, but most of the church terms were new to me. I remember being surprised when I opened my new scriptures to find that they all used the vosotros form for the plural “you” (in Latin America, the only form of the plural “you” is the formal ustedes). I never expected to use vosotros in Mexico, but it makes sense when you think about how archaic the language in the scriptures is in English, too.

Another way to get out of the classroom was to walk over to another classroom on our floor with a district of fluent Spanish speakers and chat with them to practice the language. Elder Stojic and I did this pretty regularly. There was another district in our zone that arrived there the same day we did, so we talked to them a lot. A lot of the vocab we learned from the book (or from classes in school) isn’t actually used in common speech, but they were able to tell us what people actually said. This problem was especially common in Mexico, where it seemed like every general-use vocab word I’d learned in school was wrong.

After three weeks, though, the district of native speakers finished their time at the MTC and were ready to leave for the field. Each Sunday, the night before missionaries would leave for the field, we held a brief zone testimony meeting in the dorm hallway. A testimony meeting is when people get together and take turns sharing their feelings and personal beliefs about the truthfulness of the Gospel and the church. Each person who wants to share their testimony will stand up and say whatever they want. Unlike other meetings, people bearing their testimony don’t prepare any material beforehand; it’s just whatever they’re feeling at the time.

Elder Valdez sharing his testimony before leaving the MTC.

The Sunday zone testimony meetings were always nice because we got to hear from all the missionaries about to leave. They’d share a little bit about their experience in the MTC and their excitement to start their mission in the real world. You could tell that the missionaries had a strong conviction that they were doing the right thing and that they knew what they were about to start teaching was true. Sharing an experience as difficult as the MTC was at the time was enough to make friends out of everyone. After the meeting, we’d usually take a lot of photos. It would be the last time many of us would ever see each other again.

Most of the district of native Spanish speakers that started at the MTC at the same time as us. They were done after just three weeks. We still had six more to go.

Sometimes, when a district of missionaries leaves, it changes the leadership structure in the zone. In the MTC as well as the field, missionaries are organized into groups with a leader appointed to instruct each group and be responsible for their success. Not all missions are exactly the same, but in my mission, a district leader was in charge of a few pairs of missionaries, and a zone leader was in charge of a few districts. District leaders were paired with a missionary that was not a leader, while zone leaders were paired together with another zone leader.

This was the case in the MTC, as well. Elder Stojic was the district leader, so he was in charge of a district meeting we had on Sundays. He was district leader the entire time we were there. When we arrived, the zone leaders were Elder Wesley and Elder Allison. I never found out everything the zone leaders did in the MTC, but I do know that they helped orient the new missionaries when they arrived each week. They were helpful and knowledgeable whenever we had questions about MTC life. It seems so funny now; they were only five weeks ahead of us in the mission, but those five weeks in the MTC made them seem so much older and wiser; I couldn’t help but look at them the same way I looked at the seniors when I was a freshman in high school.

That all changed when Elder Wesley and Elder Allison left for the mission field. Elder Newman and Elder Shearman, the other elders in our district, were assigned to be the new zone leaders for the rest of their time there. Suddenly we felt like we were the old ones. Newer missionaries came to our classroom looking to ask them questions.

Elders Allison and Wesley imparting their wisdom to new zone leaders Elders Shearman and Newman.

The last tip the departing zone leaders gave us was about the existence of a secret pillow room. This mattered because the MTC pillows were paper thin and very uncomfortable by themselves. That, combined with the stress of studying and practicing teaching every day and very little physical exercise caused me some pretty frustrating insomnia. It was not uncommon in the first half of my time at the MTC for me to lie awake in bed for an hour or two before finally falling asleep. That wouldn’t be such a big deal if we weren’t required to be out of bed at 6:30 every morning, but such is the life of a missionary.

After the old zone leaders left, we found the pillow room; it was an unlocked storage closet for surplus linens. Each of the elders in our district grabbed a couple of pillows and slept on a stack of three or four at a time from then on.

Church members will often unknowingly invite missionaries to break their mission rules, either by having them over for a meal when they should be working, or by asking them what channel they want the TV changed to. But it’s not very often that a missionary gets invited to break churchwide standard by his own mother.

“Ooh, I love dark choco—wait. Dangit.”

I got this big bar of fancy chocolate in a care package from my mom. Among other things, Mormons believe God has commanded us not to drink coffee. My mom knew I liked dark chocolate and just must have missed the fact that this bar had espresso beans in it. I didn’t really know what to do with it, so I had to just throw it out.

About one month into your time at the MTC, your district is put onto the “Speak Your Language” program. This means that you’re expected to use your mission language at all times when it’s reasonably possible. If you don’t know the word for something, you try to describe what you mean in Spanish until the other person can understand what you’re getting at. The point is to help you develop fluency and break any lingering shyness in speaking a language you still don’t dominate. In reality, not everyone always speaks their language; it’s difficult and frustrating most of the time, so foreign-language missionaries will sometimes swap back and forth to get their point across. The more you try to speak your language, though, the better off you’ll be when you arrive in the field.

To kick off our starting the Speak Your Language program, we held a funeral for English. We all dressed in black (I had to borrow a black tie from Elder Stojic since I didn’t own one), walked over to a shady spot of grass on the MTC campus, and paid our respects to our now-dead native tongue.

Bro. McDaniel initiating the funeral service.

It was very sad, of course. Somehow we managed to pull it together and move on, though.

Solemn faces following poor English’s funeral. He was so young. From left to right: Elder Shearman, Elder Newman, Sis. Gordon, Bro. McDaniel, Elder Stojic, yours truly.

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