Me Versus the Spanish Teacher
In July 2015, when Surviving Santiago and my translation of A World in a Second came out, the award-winning website YARN: Young Adult Review Network asked me to write an essay about how a teacher inspired my love for languages. I told the editors that my response would be unexpected, and they ended up publishing my essay “Me Versus the Spanish Teacher,” which went to to a nomination for a SCBWI magazine writing award. Many people over the years appreciated the piece, but, alas, the YARN website no longer exists. I decided to republish the piece here, not only because people did appreciate it but also because my forthcoming novel Torch relates directly to this story.
Me Versus the Spanish Teacher
Stories abound of the influence of great teachers. Many writers have dedicated books to English teachers, or those of other subjects, who instilled in them a love for literature and encouraged them to write their own stories. Perhaps a teacher gave them the confidence to pursue a difficult career path, as writing often is. Or the teacher seemed to be the only one who cared when the future writer was going through tough times at home or at school.
Because I set my novels Gringolandia and Surviving Santiago in Chile and within a Chilean family living in the United States, people often ask if I had a Spanish teacher who inspired me. They look surprised when I say I did not—quite the opposite, in fact. My high school Spanish teacher and I did not get along, and after my junior year, she kicked me out of her class.
Until sixth grade I attended a public school that did not offer classes in languages other than English. When I transferred to a small private school — my younger brother already attended the school, and our parents wanted us in the same place — I was already years behind studying another language. I lost an additional year because the school mistakenly placed me in a remedial reading class, a class I thoroughly enjoyed for two reasons: all the other kids there were boys, and I got to spend a lot of time in my favorite place, the library.
I started Spanish class in seventh grade with Señora V. (random initials have been used to conceal the identity of the teachers), a kind, nurturing teacher whose patience I occasionally tested with my habit of sitting in the front row and chewing my hair. By the end of eighth grade, I had stopped chewing hair and made up five years of elementary-level language. In no small part because of Señora V. and her thoughtful instruction, I was ready for high school Spanish.
As in elementary and middle school at this small private school, all the high school Spanish classes were taught by a single teacher. The high school teacher, Señora B., was Señora V.’s older sister, but the two could not have been more different. Whereas Señora V. was sweet and patient, Señora B. was strict. She wore her dyed red hair in a bun and had a puckered expression, as if someone had forgotten to add sugar to her lemonade. She demanded much of her students and scolded and humiliated those who failed to keep up.
At first, I liked Señora B. Having already covered five years of Spanish in two years gave me the confidence to tackle a more demanding class and teacher. I enjoyed the literature she assigned us, from short stories set in medieval Spain to the romantic poetry of Gustavo Adolfo Becquer. I’ve always been attracted to sensitive romantic writers who died young, and my Becquer obsession followed equally powerful obsessions with Henry David Thoreau and John Keats.
Mostly, though, I liked getting A’s, and Spanish came easily to me. As a language geek who attended school when diagramming sentences was in fashion, I enjoyed identifying parts of speech and where they fit into the sentence. While my classmates struggled to understand verb conjugations, I approached them with the same enthusiasm that my math geek classmates approached mathematical formulas. The subjunctive tenses especially delighted me. When Señora B. told me sophomore year that I was her only student ever who fully understood the usage of the subjunctive, it was a high point of my school career, one that I still remember decades later. Like many of my other experiences of middle and high school, this mastery of the subjunctive made its way into my semi-autobiographical novel, Rogue, as I came to understand how the rules of language helped me to understand emotions and uncertainty.
Despite this early bond with Señora B, our relationship began to come apart sophomore year. From time to time she and her sister talked about how they had grown up on their family’s plantation in Guatemala before being sent to boarding school as teenagers.
“Their family has one of the biggest plantations in the country,” one of my classmates said. She named a popular brand of fruit juice and added, “That’s where it comes from.”
“They’re rich! So why are they teaching us?” I said. My classmate shrugged and went off with her friends, leaving me standing there by myself.
After learning that, Señora B’s comments about “Communists” began to take on new meaning. Unlike her sister, she had no qualms about expressing her political views, and one day she said, “Democracy doesn’t work. It only leads to Communism.”
I raised my hand and said in Spanish, “It’s worked in this country for two hundred years.”
Señora B. hurrumphed. Her look told me I didn’t know anything about the world. “People need a strong man to keep them in line.” She told the class about how some uneducated farm workers tried to take away her family’s plantation and divide the land equally among themselves. “That’s what the Communists do. When someone owns a lot of property, they want to take it away.”
“That’s terrible,” my classmates murmured.
“My family worked hard to own that land. The Communists don’t deserve it.”
My hand went up again. “How did your family get the land instead of these other people?” In social studies, we had learned about Manifest Destiny, so I asked, “Did it belong to the Indians?”
“I knew it,” Señora B. said. “A Communist.”
Some of my classmates giggled. None of them stepped up to defend me. When the bell rang, I found myself alone as always.
As a sophomore in high school, I didn’t know much about Communism, but I didn’t think believing in democracy — whether in my own country or anywhere else — made me a Communist. However, this was 1972, in the middle of the Cold War, and I came to realize that calling me a Communist in a room full of conservative but politically uninformed students was her way of publicly humiliating me and further isolating me from my classmates.
After that, Señora B. made up her mind that I was The Communist. So I started playing the part. Whenever she expressed her political views in class, I challenged her. In junior year, she introduced us to the poetry and plays of the great Spanish poet Federico García Lorca.
Like so many other writers who captured my imagination, he’d died young. But not due to that tragic disease of tuberculosis like so many others, as I found out when I read his biography in the encyclopedia — those multi-volume books we had before Wikipedia. Again, I raised my hand.
“Didn’t your side kill him?” I said in my much-improved Spanish. “Age 38. Shot by the Nationalist — I mean, Fascist — forces of Generalísssimo Francisco Franco at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War.”
“He was a Communist.”
“Then why are you assigning him for us to read?”
“He was one of Spain’s greatest writers.”
“And how much more could he have written had the Fascists not killed him?”
I smiled, pleased at my perfect use of the past subjunctive tense. Señora B. did not praise me for my grammatical correctness.
“Class, that is what a Communist would say.”
At this point, I did not expect anyone to defend me. But I also did not expect my ideas, expressed in the freedom of a high school classroom in the United States, to put me in danger. But in the winter semester of my junior year, members of our class and the senior Advanced Placement class traveled to Spain for a study abroad program. This was in 1973, and Franco’s fascist regime remained in power.
Señora B. took me aside in the airport, before we boarded the plane. “I expect you to keep your mouth shut about politics. I know a lot of people here, and I don’t want to be embarrassed.”
I nodded quickly. A government that shot one of the country’s greatest poets would think nothing of hurting me. And if I did get into trouble, I doubted I could count on Señora B. to help me.
In the final years of the Franco dictatorship, Spain was a grim place where the young people we met drank and danced all night but dared not criticize those in power. They struck me as lifeless, submissive teenagers who’d been raised to do as they were told without question. I, too, behaved myself, saying as little as possible to avoid saying the wrong thing in a country where people did not have the freedoms that I enjoyed. I stuck close to my roommate, a shy senior who had the best grades in the AP Spanish class and who told me about the literature they were reading, including writers from Latin America I’d never heard of before.
My own classmates sneaked out to party with our Spanish guides while Señora B. went to bed early. As five of us crowded into a taxi one afternoon, a boy named Craig said in English, “You’re not going to tell Señora B. on us.”
“No. Why would I?”
“Because you’re the Communist.”
Craig said the words in English, but the taxi driver whirled around. I trembled in fear and squeezed my eyes shut to keep the tears from spilling out. Surely, the driver would turn me over to the police. Besides, Craig wanted to get me in trouble. My teacher had turned my classmates against me.
Nothing happened on the trip, but I never did feel safe there — or in my classroom when we got home. I stopped arguing with Señora B., but I researched on my own how the military dictatorship in Guatemala terrorized the people of that country, with the support of the U.S. government.
At the end of the year, Señora B. encouraged me to take my college language placement test a year early because, she said, I was so far ahead of the other students. I felt honored, and figured that I could retake it in AP Spanish if I scored below the cutoff. I was still looking forward to AP Spanish, especially since Craig and some of my other tormentors had decided not to take that class.
After I passed the college placement test, the guidance counselor called me into her office and told me I would not be taking AP Spanish senior year. She said that Señora B. was proud of my high score and didn’t think I needed AP Spanish. The counselor assigned me to an economics class instead.
For a long time afterward, every time I thought about Spanish, I thought about Señora B., who humiliated her students and allowed them to put me in danger because she believed I was a Communist. Five years later, when I started graduate school and had to take a semester of foreign language, I chose Italian. In my youthful mind, I identified Spanish with Señora B. and with authoritarian rule: her beloved dictators killed poets, and she killed the beauty and joy of studying poetry.
Teaching social studies in a New York City high school with a predominantly Puerto Rican student body, and sharing a classroom with the bilingual social studies teacher, rekindled my love for Spanish. This teacher introduced me to Latin American protest music and to those writers from Latin America whom I’d never gotten to read in the AP class. And, yes, this teacher really was a Communist, inspired by a mentor who convinced him to return to school after he had dropped out as a young teenager. Take that, Señora B.!
When I moved from New York City to Madison, Wisconsin because of my husband’s job, I enrolled in Spanish classes again—advanced classes at the university level. I rediscovered the intellectual challenges and joys of learning that language, of reading literature in the original version, and of making friends I would have never met had I not spoken their language. More recently, I followed my husband to Lisbon, Portugal, where he had received a Fulbright teaching grant. I studied Portuguese in and outside of classes, for the best way of learning any language is immersion, also known as “sink or swim.”
I now consider myself fluent in both Spanish and Portuguese. I read literature in both languages and translate children’s books from Portuguese to English. But I’ve never forgotten those early conflicts with Señora B. and the terror I felt in Spain, accused of being a Communist in a place where Communists ended up in prison or worse. Surviving Santiago portrays a 16-year-old girl in a country where the same thing happened — to her own father. For Gringolandia and Surviving Santiago, both set in Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship, I interviewed human rights activists and former political prisoners and used testimonials, human rights reports, and other sources in Spanish.
While many people, including my Puerto Rican friend, were inspired by teachers, my love for the Spanish language exists despite a teacher. Even so, she taught me some important lessons. As a demanding teacher who assigned readings beyond our comprehension level, she encouraged me to take on challenges rather than staying with what I’d already mastered. By expressing extreme political views, she motivated me to respond even though I didn’t have the vocabulary or the best Spanish accent. She pushed me to learn more, to do more research, so I could argue with her. By being so cruel in her opinions and actions, she strengthened my commitment to freedom of expression and human rights. By bullying her students and encouraging us to bully each other, she gave me insight into what real life is like for people living in repressive regimes like Franco’s Spain or Chile under Pinochet. Through her, I came to understand that bullying doesn’t just happen on an individual or school level. Bullies with wealth and power can terrorize entire societies.
At the same time, my experience with Señora B. taught me not to back down, not to give up something I love because of a less-than-encouraging teacher. It took me many years to find new and better mentors, but I learned that if one person stands in the way, there are always other paths and other people to serve as guides along those paths.