As this new year begins, I’m reminded of a brief, unique teaching experience that began some 42 years ago this month. Though temporary and lasting only five months, the course I created and taught that semester at a community college has made an indelible mark in my memory for reasons that will be described here.
In the summer of 1979, I moved to Worcester, Massachusetts, and for the first time in years I found myself unemployed. In December, scanning the local paper, I spotted an intriguing advertisement. The English department at the local community college had received a grant designed to accommodate Spanish-speaking students, and sought an instructor to create and teach a new course in Hispanic literature. By that time, I’d been teaching Spanish at the high school level for only four years. However, confident in my skills, I aced the interview.
I wondered whether, without formal training as a teacher of Spanish speakers, my classroom experience would be sufficient. I had no idea about my students’ language skills–in Spanish or English. By the time I was hired in January, a textbook had already been selected and purchased for each student, many of whom were adult learners. Reviewing the literature anthology before the semester began, it concerned me that while the prose and poetry were written in Spanish, the analysis and commentary were in English.
Within the first fifteen minutes of the first class, my worries melted away. When I introduced myself as “Profesora Estefanía,” a chorus of ¡Hola, Profesora! filled the room. I proceeded to explain the oral exercise I’d planned: a round robin of greetings to each other, with each student adding a new question. Addressing an adult student in the front row, I asked, ¿Cómo te llamas? “Marisol.” Turning to her neighbor, Marisol inquired, ¿Cómo te llamas? I reminded her to add a second question. ¿Dónde vives? she added. She beamed when she learned her classmate was a compadre, from the same country. Then a spattering of whispered yo también filled the room. Perhaps for the first time in an American classroom, they were proud to announce their native heritage. Here, they no longer stood out as different from their classmates in language or skin color. Making a spontaneous adjustment to my lesson plan, I asked students to pair up and get acquainted. After ten minutes we would reconvene and the pairs would introduce each other to the class. I gave the go-ahead, and the classroom buzzed; the music of Spanish filled my ears.
Week by week, I shaped my lesson plans and expectations to the particular needs of these non-traditional students. Some had never learned to write in Spanish; others had never been introduced to literature, either from their own countries or elsewhere. As we set about creating a community of learners and teachers, their national pride became palpable, and they participated in classroom activities with enthusiasm.
At the end of the semester, my students pleaded with me to teach the course again in the fall. Unfortunately, despite its resounding success, I couldn’t. Reduced grant support and an ill-advised departmental decision to use funds elsewhere eliminated this course after only one semester; to the best of my knowledge, it was never repeated. I was so proud of my students. During the last class, we celebrated their accomplishments with tributes and homemade refreshments. They presented me with a bouquet of flowers as a token of their appreciation. As I wished each student buena suerte, I held back tears. They flowed freely as I drove home, satisfied with a job well done.