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The Heart of the Underworld: Heroes, Villains, or Both?

Here’s a Guest Blog I got to write for Carol Pearson’s site. 

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In a blog I posted on my own site, “Fairy Tales and Disney: Do We Still Believe?,” I discussed ABC’s hit show Once Upon A Time, examining whether or not fairy tales remain relevant in our culture, and specifically pointing out how Once Upon A Time is relevant because it navigates questions of belief and what it means to be a believer, as well as what it means to have a true, honest “heart.”

This show is the creation of Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, the creators of another hit show for ABC, Lost. Once Upon A Time is nonlinear, circular storytelling that often uses parallel narrative and immersive techniques to convey story without the expected kind of structure. Central to the show from its earliest origin in 2011 is the question of what love can do to change our stories and heal the traumas of our past. Questions of belief and heart are fundamental to Disney’s myths, and since ABC’s parent company is Disney, it makes sense that ABC’s fairy tale mash-up would examine these questions. The concept of “heart” has been central to Disney’s myth from the beginning.

From Walt Disney’s famous quip “It’s gotta have heart,” which became a mantra for the studio, to the line “If your heart is in your dream, no request is too extreme,”[1] the image of the heart has been ever-present in Disney’s stories. Optimism of all types, and particularly about the way love has the power to change us is an essential part of Disney’s ethos, but Disney’s stories also have always argued that the connectedness that love brings is a fundamental meaning of life, and that true love/true connection is the most powerful magic of all.

In Once Upon a Time, this belief in the heart as true love’s ultimate magic is tested again and again. When Prince Charming dies, Snow White literally breaks her heart in two and places half of it in his chest. From the unlikely romance between Regina (Snow White’s evil stepmother) and Robin Hood, to the redemption of Captain Hook through his love for “Emma Swan the savior” (the daughter of Snow White and Charming, i.e., the product of true love), the heart’s ability to lay the traumas of the past down and learn to offer forgiveness and trust love proves to be the show’s prescription for transformation from villain to hero. This prescription to give and receive love is not limited to romance. Heart’s love and trust are also shown to be the ingredients necessary for the healing of all relationships in this mythic landscape, which through parallel narrative and back story seems to offer a deeper, more holistic interpretation.

Not that all the characters choose to become heroes. One of the things I’ve always loved about Once Upon A Time is its insistence on telling the stories through fractured, pastiche-like piecing together of the traditional tales. Season five delves more deeply into the shadow of the heart image than any of the previous ones, continuing to press the boundaries of how far a character can go and still be redeemed. It spends much of the season with what it calls “the dark ones”, and then, just when it seems as though this show has covered the bases of all the Disney villains, it throws us the ultimate in challenging mythic locales—the Underworld and Hades, Greek myth’s archetypal image of death or transformation.

A tragic death spurs Emma, her family, and her friends to journey to the Underworld to attempt retrieve the soul of her beloved Captain Hook. This version of the Underworld is a parallel, albeit sepia toned and broken, version of Storybrooke, Maine, the town where the storybook characters have lived for the whole of the show[2]. We see Hades soon after the characters arrive in the underworld, and as expected he is prickly, unwelcoming, and clearly a trickster and not the devil, but still a complex character who holds the souls of the dead in the Underworld hostage, manipulating them so that they cannot find out what their “unfinished business” is and move on to a “better place or a worse one” as befits the penultimate choices they decide to make.

In this case, it is a kaleidoscopic version of Hades and Persephone’s love affair. This Hades is cursed by Zeus to rule the Underworld. The reason Zeus has cursed him remains unclear. In Disney’s 1997 animated film Hercules, Hercules banishes Hades to the river of souls for leading a rebellion against Zeus. In that version of the myth, Hades hates his brother, seeing him as a tyrant. This is a re-visioning of the myth, and certainly harkens to Christian images of Lucifer challenging God and being banished to “hell.” Although the reason for him being banished to the underworld isn’t spelled out in this version, the cursing is present. This Hades has been cursed to have his heart stopped. Consequently, he cannot feel joy or experience anything but a desire for revenge.

In an episode titled “Our Decay,” Once Upon A Time gives its fractured version of Hades falling in love with Persephone. This time, Hades finds his “lost daughter” love in the form of Zelena, the wicked witch of the west. In this version of the story, Zelena is the child of the miller’s daughter from Rumpelstiltskin and the sister of Snow White’s evil stepmother. She was banished to Oz by her mother as a child, and it’s clear that her wickedness stems from the abandonment she feels from that. In this way, she clearly is a shadow version of Persephone—the Persephone that would be if Demeter abandoned her to the Underworld instead of challenging Zeus in order to find her.

In a past version of Oz, as Zelena struggles with her plans to destroy Dorothy, she encounters Hades in the woods. Hades confides in Zelena that he has been cursed and that if he found someone to love, his heart would begin to beat again and the curse would be broken. The two spend time together and begin to develop romantic feelings for each other, but Zelena, unable to trust anyone, betrays Hades, winning her battle against Dorothy but sending Hades back to the Underworld in the process.

The series then flashes forward to “where we are now.” In the town of Storybrooke, Zelena fights Belle and The Blue Fairy to try to gain access to the daughter she had with Robin Hood. In an interesting twist, this version casts Zelena as Demeter at this moment, refusing to give up on her daughter and literally going anywhere to be with her. Hades opens a portal between worlds and Zelena grabs her daughter and goes into the Underworld with the child. Belle follows after her, steals the child back, and returns her to Robin Hood and Regina, who at this point has made the choice to trust, love, and become a hero herself.

Hades tells Zelena that he has made the Underworld look like Storybrooke just for her and her child. He wants to create a home for them, to make them feel comfortable. For a couple of episodes he tries to convince her that his intentions toward her are honest. At first, she doesn’t believe him, but then something happens that changes everything. Zelena encounters her mother Cora and her sister Regina together. Their mother is dead, but Zelena and Regina are not. After spending so much time in the Underworld, Cora has come to peace with her past mistakes. She wants to make peace with her daughters so that she can move on to a “better place,” so she returns a memory to them that she had removed by magic when they were children. She reminds them of a time when they were friends and trusted each other. This seemingly small action seems to erase all of the hatred between the women, and suddenly Zelena becomes convinced that she can “redeem” Hades. But can she and will she?

Hades is faced with a choice of whether to tear up a contract he holds in revenge against other characters or to choose Zelena. He chooses her, and when he does so, his heart begins to beat again. His “seemingly” selfless actions have broken the curse that has kept him bound to the Underworld. This is not the end of the story, however. Because Hades is a trickster, it is not clear whether his intentions are honest. His choices have led Zelena to trust him, and it is clear that they do love each other, but how far will that love take them?

Shortly after Hades’ curse is broken, he opens another portal between worlds. They head back to Storybrooke, but trailers for the finale suggest that all will not end easily or happily there. In this version of the myth, Hades and Persephone, while unified, still carry their darkness with them, and like an addiction, this darkness will always be present, something to access if they want to be villains, or choose to change if they want to be heroes.

Once Upon A Time’s heroes are selfless. They choose to love without personal gain and without fear of loss. This is the paradox of this rendering of Hades and Persephone. Will they change from villain to hero? Once Upon A Time suggests that facing our shadow is not irrevocable. It shows us that, as Jung suggests, individuation—coming to consciousness of our own shadows—is the process of a lifetime. While we are alive, while our hearts still beat, our choices are too complex to be categorized simply, but with our connection to our hearts come the freedom to choose.

[1] Written for Pinocchio (1940) by Leigh Harline and Ned Washington.

[2] This version of Underworld is reminiscent of the video game Epic Mickey that was created for Nintendo’s WII in partnership with Disney, where Mickey fights his way through Underland, a dystopian version of Disneyland. The buildings are in ruins, and nothing is quite what it appears.

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The Goddess of Spring and the Origin of the Disney Maiden

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Between 1929 and 1939, the Walt Disney Animation Studio rode high on the success of its animated short cartoons. While many animation studios suffered a downturn due to the Great Depression, Walt Disney enjoyed his very own Midas touch. Of particular significance during this period are the Silly Symphonies cartoons. These shorts, which include such classics as The Skeleton Dance (1929) and Flowers and Trees (1932), are visionary achievements specifically intended to give Walt’s animators the time and space necessary to push the industry forward. Over their ten-year run, the Silly Symphonies won seven Academy Awards for the studio and spawned several imitators, most notably Warner Bros.’ Merrie Melodies series. One might argue, however, that none of these imitators have the visionary quality and mythic grit that Disney’s Silly Symphonies possess.

By 1934, Walt Disney and his team were beginning to dream the possibility of a feature length animated film into being. Walt knew that he wanted his forthcoming feature film’s narrative to be drawn from the well of classical European myth and fairy tale—stories he expected to be largely in the public domain. These were the stories he was raised on and with which he knew his audience would be most familiar. Two of his favorite choices were the Brothers Grimm’s Snow White and the myth of Persephone’s abduction by Hades. For reasons unknown to those of us outside the archives, Walt chose to use the Persephone myth as the practice project for his animators. Disney’s version of the myth, titled The Goddess of Spring, was released on November 3, 1934.

The cartoon itself is charming. Like most cartoons of its time, it caricaturizes live action film, utilizing motifs that were common during the 1930s. Persephone, who is never called by name, resembles a young Mary Pickford—no surprise, since in the 1930s Mary Pickford was known as America’s Sweetheart. Pickford and Disney were friendly acquaintances, working together through the production company United Artists, of which Pickford was a partner and Walt Disney Productions a client.

Also in the Disney short, Hades is presented as the name of the underworld itself, rather than the name of Persephone’s paramour. Disney’s version of Hades borrows its imagery from medieval conceptions of Hell, and the god in charge, called by the Hellenized name Pluto, is presented as a cross between the Satan of medieval/renaissance European Christianity and Bella Lugosi’s Dracula. Like all the Silly Symphonies, it uses music as the narrative conduit for the story, is melodramatic and theatrical, and comes across very much as a piece created in the heritage of silent film.

For me, the two most notable details about this short are that Walt Disney intended it to be a forum through which his animators could work on the human form and that for this experimental work on the human form he chose this particular myth. This might suggest an understanding of the vitality of the Eleusinian Mysteries, but Walt Disney likely had no personal knowledge of them. What he did understand, however intuitively, is the mythic potency of Persephone’s journey.

Below is a link to the cartoon available on youtube.com.

Even at this early point in Disney history, the journey of the archetypal maiden was not new to the studio. Some of Walt’s earliest short cartoons, known as the Alice Comedies, feature a live action girl drawn into a cartoon world where she encounters all manner of cartoon craziness. Girlish inquisitive young women have been central characters in the Disney mythos since the beginning. The Goddess of Spring, however, paves the way for Disney’s version of one of humanity’s central archetypal experiences: the maiden coming into a mature knowledge of self through trials, trauma, tenacity, and resurrection.

I find it incredibly significant that as the Disney artists begin to explore a naturalistic style of the human figure, they choose to do so through a myth that speaks so profoundly to the natural cycles of death and resurrection, perhaps the most universal of all human experiences. One might even argue that this universality is what makes life cycles so difficult to access with vulnerability. We fear them, but we cannot escape them. And in choosing Persephone to be the first animated heroic humanoid maiden, Disney opens the audience’s imagination to what Jungians might call the anima complex, but what I would call a profound heart-based experience of the feminine divine.

Walt Disney often quipped that “It’s gotta have heart.” He always challenged the depth to which a cartoon could make his audience feel. And Disney’s genius is that in opening an avenue to emotion, he also offers safe passage for the trip—a sense that like Persephone the audience will always rise. Disney’s Princesses continue this lineage, living Persephone’s story as aspects of the ever-evolving face of the feminine divine.

Unfortunately, the Disney Princesses have been largely controversial in the last thirty years or so. They are often seen as anti-feminist, passive, weak, and over-interested in beauty and romance. I would submit that while some of these criticisms are valid and should be critiques of society at large, we often underappreciate that the strength of these characters comes from their kindness and goodness. They evolve into strong women through their unique stories of abduction into unexpected circumstances. And they rise, assisted by both their own strength of will and the transformative power of love. These mythic elements are fundamental to the Disney tradition.

So the next time you see a Disney Princess, perhaps you also will see an echo of Persephone’s story and remember that, in the animated world, at least, she is the first Disney Princess—the archetypal maiden, the lost daughter, the bringer of spring, the one who conquers mighty Hades, and its queen.

Thoughts? What about this surprises you? Do you have a particular reaction to any of Disney’s Maidens? Which of the Disney Princesses do you think have been the most popular with little girls? Why do you think they attract the audience they have? We’d love to hear about it. Comment below and Tweet to us @carolspearson/@mythscholar with #IAmPersephone.

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I Survived Fifty Shades of Grey

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Greetings Readers!

Well, y’all, I finally bit the bullet and watched/read Fifty Shades. In fact, for you dear readers, I actually read the entire trilogy. Lest you think I’m the slowest reader on the round earth, I didn’t actually receive the books until after the 1st of April. Originally, I wanted to borrow them, not buy them, but alas that wasn’t meant to be. Now that I’m done, I’d like to share some of the thoughts I had while I read them. Expect an op ed piece below:

My Kingdom for a Better Editor!

For the love of Pete, could this poor woman have had a better editor? Please? Someone needed to tell her that it isn’t wise to write the exact same scene over and over across three books.  I feel that much of the well deserved technical criticism of these books could have been avoided if they had only had a better editor. There are some moments here that are actually well written…even some moments that are actually authentically arousing. If only…if only…

Mythiness

I stand by some of my original assessment of the story. There is a deep and dark presence of the imagery connected to Hades and Persephone in these books. We know that this was Twilight fan fiction originally, which means that Hades and Persephone were always destined to be there. Note* if you don’t remember Hades and Persephone, google or read my other blog about Fifty Shades.

The images are everywhere: Seattle as a place–the rain, the grey…so much of the time. The solitude of Christian’s apartment. The lack of color in the decor. The way Christian whisks her away there without really telling her what is going on. The thresholding of the entrance to his apartment in the depths of his garage. His broody-ness. His despair. His loneliness. His self-loathing. His unexpected outbursts. His attempt to control his environment. The fact that he, in essence, takes Anastasia (thought I’ll not argue she is raped in the traditional sense…although one could argue whether or not our contemporary definition of rape is really what the myth points to either). Anastasia is an archetypal image of innocence, virginity, and purity who willingly steps deep into the dark. What Anastasia is NOT, however is Bella Swan. She is NOT the archetype of submission. That is the point of the entire story. Every. Single. Time. Christian tries to drag her down to his underworld of pain. And Every. Single. Time. she remerges. Christian loves her for that. He is drawn to her for it. And frankly, she is just as drawn to him. She chooses to work through his pain with him. That’s Hades and Persephone. The dark descent into the underworld–transformation–and the reemergence into the renewal of spring.

Now, where I was WRONG in my original assessment is where I suggested that this is ONLY a Hades and Persephone story. I actually began to doubt my thoughts on that score almost immediately sitting in the movie theater. Now having seen and read it I must admit that there is plenty of the authentically erotic in it. Archetypes of love (Aphrodite/Eros) and the soul (Psyche) run rampant over the entire series. Despite the darkness in this story, there is much of color, lightness, sweetness, and joy. Keep in mind though, that a lot of it is what Jungians call shadow aspects of these things. So much of this series is about the pain of becoming. Everything in this series is about beginning to learn about the unknown and the kind of mess that comes from that. It’s about the healing that comes through delving into the ickiness. Yeah, it ain’t pretty, but life ain’t always pretty. No relationship is pretty all the time–which leads into my next point.

Christian Grey: Millennial Man

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After chewing and chewing on this for a long time, it finally occurred to me that the archetypal energy behind the piece…that archetype that has so many people riled up, is of the masculine, not the feminine. Anastasia may be girlish, kind of naive, and insecure, but she knows who she is. She is strong and stubborn, as well as loving and determined. Christian, on the other hand, is broken. And he has been broken by a system that preys on the disenfranchised–sexually, financially, and socially. As the child of a drug addicted prostitute with no father figure in his early life other than his mother’s violent pimps and as a teen who is sexually abused by his mother’s friend, he is essentially a traumatized man-child. He IS the archetypal masculine that has been damaged by the patriarchy. He represents the messiness that happens when a man–a character seen as a tool of the patriarchy–who has been victimized tries to balance compensatory measures against the need for love without shame or guilt.

Many have suggested that Christian is an abuser. I don’t believe that it is helpful to classify him in that way. Abusers are generally narcissistic, often sociopathic characters. Christian is not. It is the depth of his empathy that causes him to shut down in the first place. He feels too much. And he has no way to process what he feels. Much like his archetypal precursors–Mr. Darcy, the Beast, Edward Lewis–his bad behavior is connected to childhood wounding, not to the essential nature of his character. I’m not excusing his bad behavior (believe me, I am exceedingly supportive of abuse victims. Not only are my mother and my sister survivors of abuse, but I myself have been in two relationships that stepped over the line of abuse. On the flip side, my brother-in-law was also the victim of horrific abuse from his first wife. I have dear friends that I love deeply who have been empowered to escape abusive situations. There is no excuse for it, nor should there be. Everyone has a right to freedom, love, and safety, and we must fight to support them all.), but what I am suggesting is my feminist friends-in-arms might consider for a second that our archetypal images of masculinity might just be that darn broken. What should we do with these broken images? Should we throw them all out? How are we to heal if we give up on them? How can we expect them to be something other than what they are, because these images speak to the reality of what we are truly feeling and experiencing.

We don’t need to tolerate abusive behavior, but if we truly love and accept others we should certainly seek to understand how the behavior originates. In my opinion, Anastasia shows us that our images of the maiden are doing just fine. Childlike though she may be, this maiden has grit. She will grow to be a powerful woman. But the masculine, the hero, he is the one in peril. Beyond the fact that he doesn’t even know who he is and how much privilege he has, he is disconnected emotionally, so out of touch with his heart that he doesn’t even have the ability to access his pain. Of course, that is, until Anastasia leaves him. It is at that point that he recognizes that if he should be lucky enough to see her return to him, he has to learn to open up to his wounds, even if he is terrified that the pain has the potential to unravel him.

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Over and over again in the series, Christian steps forward to receive love from Ana. And each time he comes forward, eyes wide, head down awaiting the blow of rejection. I see this all around me; men who are starving for love, no sense of how to be and how to love. I am convinced that this makes Christian Grey an archetypal image of a millennial age male. These are the guys who came of age in the era of Fight Club, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and Columbine at the tail end of gen x and the beginning of gen y (the generation often first associated as millennials, as they reached legal voting/drinking age at the cusp of the millennium). Look around at the 30-ish year old men you know. How are they doing? Christian is frozen, transfixed and trapped in the realm of the dead, ruling a quasi-patriarchal emotional underworld that they neither understand, nor feel a connection to.

The most interesting thing about Christian Grey is that he senses his need for the healing that a union with the feminine can provide. And he is driven to seek it out, but when he manages to find it, he is terrified by even the slightest possibility that he might lose it. So he does what the mythic masculine has often have done to compensate this fear, both in myth and in life. He attempts to control everything. And as we are still in the messiness of the shadow of patriarchy, he seems to pull it off. His wealth, his lifestyle, and his privilege make it seem from the outside as though he is in control. A close read, however, reveals the opposite. Underneath all the opulence, Christian is still the scared little boy left orphaned and clinging to his mother’s lifeless body. That is what is unconscious in our archetypal masculine. In a culture often dominated by Don Draper-esque the anti-hero and the literal Donald Trump false leader, I look around and ask the question: who is building positive images of men? Where do they go for healing? Where are the positive heroes? As singer Paula Cole once crooned, “where have all the cowboys gone?” Perhaps that is the point. Perhaps men are asking themselves a similar question. I do see some work happening out there, particularly with groups like my myth colleague Kwame Scruggs’ organization Alchemy, Inc. There is some great work being done to rebuild images of the archetypal masculine, but the mytho-cultural impact of Fifty Shades proves to me that so much more needs to be done.

Ultimately, I’m not suggesting that we feminist women should step down and baby these broken men. What I am suggesting is that we stand up even higher and offer them a hand up with us, as only the divine feminine can–in compassion, kindness, and with a swift kick in the ass.

Oh, and one more thing: if you want to read an amazing dissertation on this topic, keep your eyes peeled for work by my friend Art Deilbert–Toward New Masculine Identities. His work analyzes Arthurian tradition, suggesting that men can find healing in the character of Perceval as what he calls a lunar hero (in contrast to the common solar hero)–a lunar hero being a man in touch with the messy, emotional underworld of nighttime consciousness. Just read it, if you can. It is genius…and he is so right.

http://www.pacifica.edu/about-pacifica/pacifica-graduate-institute-student-services/dissertation-oral-defenses/entry/toward-new-masculine-identities

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Beauty and the Beast

So, next we are talking about Beauty and the Beast. and we watched Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version. It it a lovely film, but another one I haven’t seen. I read the fairytale as a child, but my connection with the story really comes from Disney’s version which is so obviously inspired by the French film.  The most poignant difference for me between the Beasts and the Beauties is twofold; Beast’s rage, and Beauty’s thirst for story. In the Disney version, Beauty longs for transformation, and searches (rightly so) for that tranformation in story, through her obsession with stories. Belle has her “nose in a book” throughout the whole film. Beast also longs for transformation, but unlike the sweet feminine yearning of Belle, he is full of rage. Disney films are, to my mind, the single most clear reflection of what has been called our collective dream.

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2001: Space Odyssey

Today in this workshop with Phil Cousineau, the first clip he shared was the Kubrick classic 2001: Space Odyssey. Oddly enough, as much of a film lover as I am, I have never seen this one. Kubrick doesn’t generally do it for me, so with the exception of a The Shining, I have never seen most of his movies. My first association with it is Mel Brook’s classic History of the World Part I, which i must admit that I now understand much better than ever. I was always aware of the satire there, but having never seen it before, didn’t quite get the depth of it. Furthermore, Phil brought in Alan Dundes’ definition of myth as a story that ponders the unanswerable and  tries to attempt an explanation for it. Where have we come from and where are we going?

First of all: the mythic moment/connection with Campbell is clear. It virtually shouts at the death of the evolutionary theory. We evolve, yet the archetypal remains eternal and ellusive. This seems Kubrick’s response to the modernist, progressivist world view that dominates Campbell’s thinking and premeatesd so much of scientific thought. Yet, remarkably, this effort has an air of self-importance to it that I find oh so frustrating in the great masters of film from the 60s-80s.

My second threat of thought is in relation to Dundes’ definition of myth. I think he is quite correct. Myth does seek to answer the questions we have about where we have/come from and where we are going. Myth provide image, symbol and story in response to the story of us. Of course, I relate that to Disney, as per usual regarding my obsession these days. This is exactly what Disneyland seeks to do. The park is shaped like like a compass, with Frontierland leading across the way to Tomorrowland with Main Street USA bridging the gap between the two.

More later!

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coffee-ing dear friends

So, this morning I bounced out the the Coffee Cat shop to meet with a dear friend on mine from grad school. Let me just say, if anyone ever reads this and finds themself in Santa Barbara, that the Coffee Cat is all kinds of fabulous! Cozy, comfy, good coffee and free wi-fi. What more could a dissertating grad student ask from life? I find it eternally fascinating the kinds of people who gather at coffee shops. Yesterday I took the amtrak down to Camarillo for a day with mah kitty-other. As per usual, we spent a good portion of the day at UBER-Fabulous element coffee in old town Camarillo. Good stuff. Write more in a moment…

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Today’s class/Today’s philosopher

So this morning I got up and the first thing I did was attack Gadamer as though he was an enemy against whom I intended to march and seize. This was also how I approached Heidegger yesterday (reading Being and Time), and I discovered that although Heidegger may be read that way, Gadamer must not be. His discussion of aesthetics moves slowly and engagingly like a dance. I actually enjoyed reading him; a complete shock, I know! He writes about the importance of art. He  questions whether or not art needs justifiation. He quotes Hegel’s assertion that “art is a thing of the past” by which Hegel means that at the end of the age of antiquity art no longer existed simply for its own sake. Isn’t that just a sad state of affairs?

This afternoon I met with Rogelio and his friend, Sylvia. She is preparing to take the US citizenship test but sadly, she speaks very limited English. So the challenge becomes how to help her learn to speak English when the sounds, the very units of the language, don’t really make sense to her as she tries to form them with her mouth. She seems to know quite a bit about government itself, but she is having such issues with the language. I’m trying to figure out what would be the best way to handle helping her better her language. I really dont do ESL. Since I am not fluent in Spanish, it makes it difficult. I think Gloria would be a much better choice. Will have to think about it more.

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