It’s true what they say: if you don’t use it, you lose it. Okay. Get that mind out of the gutter. I need to thank someone.
While all my other young friends took French, I waited. With all due respect to said country, I never found the sound of that language romantic. Sadly, whenever someone spoke French, all I could envision was the cartoon character Pepe Lepew. (If you’re not familiar, he’s a romantic skunk who has mistaken a black and white cat for his Juliet). The only other choice was Latin, taught by the oldest teacher in school, a sweet lady who acquired the nickname “Boring Borry”, which denoted her teaching speed. Given the choices, I decided to wait. Sure, my friends chided me for failure to jump in the foreign language pool. My reply was both declaration and answer to the question trembling on their lips, “I’m going to take Spanish. Because one day, Spanish will be the second most spoken language in our country.”
My friends rolled their eyes. It was the 1970s. Grocery shopping today means products featuring English/Spanish labels. I was ahead of my time…or seeing farther ahead than the average 9th grader. But I digress.
I was 15 when it came time for my first Spanish class and I was so excited. The class, however, was awful. The teacher had a perpetual frown of what I hoped was concentration and zero personality. If only she’d taught class with the same zeal she embraced her “Ms.” title, something she constantly pointed out. She talked. We repeated. End of class. Years later I discovered we were her first class, so we’d probably all been equally nervous. The only lesson which stuck was, “the two most important phrases a Spanish student could possess”: 1. Do you speak English? 2. Where is the bathroom?
Heading into Spanish 2, a language I was still convinced sounded like music, I hoped for the best on the theory that La Maestra was someone different.
Boy, was she!
Miss D. was probably in her early 30s, with a Dolly Parton figure, bordering on chubby, stacked atop the tiniest pair of legs I’d ever seen with an exclamation point of fancy high heels. Always. She wasn’t beautiful, but she possessed a playful Betty Boop face, topped by unruly, unnatural blonde curls threatening to go frizzy in the humidity. As we stared at each other for that introductory nanosecond, my classmates and I were on the verge of a collective nervous shudder. What if this was like last year? Like deer caught in headlights we sat mutely. She took one look, then asked calmly,"?Donde esta Susanna?”
Like well trained circus monkeys we replied,"Ella esta en la cocina.” And then we laughed. All of us.
Miss D. had found the ultimate ice breaker. Our very first Spanish lesson was one we’d denounced as stupid. “Where is Susanna? She is in the kitchen. Talking on the telephone.” But now, it was like code among spies. Only those who had suffered Spanish One knew Susanna’s whereabouts. So from literally Day One, we knew Miss D. was in our corner. She came. She saw. She understood. AND she made us laugh.
It was the beginning of the best two years any kid could ever have in a foreign language class. We didn’t just read and repeat like parrots, we LIVED our lessons. On Spanish holidays we ate Spanish food that she prepared. We watched a bullfighting film, trying to figure out how the musically sounding “Picador” could have such a lousy job. I can still sing “Jingle Bells” in Spanish because on Fridays, we SANG in class. (Which is how I discovered that “La Cucaracha” had nothing to do with roaches scurrying away from Raid bug spray). And often, between songs, this woman who was raised in Charleston, S.C. could be cajoled into speaking an old native dialect: Gullah. Everything was a lesson. For everything she told us in Gullah, we would have to try and find the Spanish equivalent. Learning was never so much fun!
Although a stickler for learning things properly, Miss D. embraced many methods. By Spanish Three, once you crossed the threshold of her classroom, English no longer existed. If you needed to borrow a pencil, fine, but you had to ask in Spanish. She gave each of us a Spanish name, which we had to use the entire year in every aspect of class. I’d known the boy sitting next to me since third grade. He was middle-of-the road scholastically but the nicest, funniest guy you’d ever meet. She declared his name of William was Guillermo, and pronounced it for him. He couldn’t wrap his tongue around it. She tried again. He kept pronouncing it, “Gorilla Mo”. She looked him in the eye and replied strictly, “Fine Gorilla Mo. But at least spell it right on your papers.” And she called him that for the rest of the year.
She only shocked us once. Well, if you don’t count the Friday afternoon revelation that she and the Art Teacher were taking Belly Dancing lessons. Oh yeah, we coaxed her into a short demo. Miss D. nurtured us like the children she never had. We naively asked how someone so good with kids was still single and childless.
“Well,” she drawled, something she never did during Spanish lessons, “I did tell y’all about the time I was a Nun, right?”
You could’ve heard a pin drop. Our fun loving, boldly singing and belly dancing teacher with the infectious laugh? A nun?
“Yep,” replied Gorilla Mo sagely. “I can see why you had to change careers.”
Unlike most teachers, she didn’t just scribble her name with a grunt in our Yearbooks. No, she personalized each message, in Spanish. I still have mine. Remarkably, for all the Spanish which has fallen out of my brain, what she wrote, I still understand. Best wishes for a bright future.
Today I found out her future had come to an end. She was only 68. I thought she’d live forever. Or at least until 100. But she’d been ill over the last few years. I hope she truly knew how much we loved her. Because we did.
So here’s wishing that Susanna finally got off the phone and out of the kitchen… and that Miss D. found her wings on the other side.
I just can’t help but think she’s trying to get St. Peter to bellydance while singing Christmas carols in Spanish.