A letter to my high school Spanish teacher

Dear Sra McCarthy,

¿Como está usted?  ¿Dónde está la biblioteca?
Although it has been nearly 20 years (!?!!) since I graduated from Somers High School something tells me you might remember me. I could be wrong though. I am guessing I was one of the worst Spanish 5 students you ever had. I have fond memories of myself, Michael March and Dennis O’Brien messing around in that class. Even if you don’t remember me I’d like to share some memories and thoughts with you. Believe it or not, I am a teacher! I am an English teacher and I am currently teaching in Seoul, South Korea. Spanish played a big role in all of this but I will get to that a bit later on. I wanted to share some long-lasting memories from your class. Some things that are much more memorable than how to conjugate “boot verbs.” But I think you already know that.

I guess the school year must be ending soon back home in the US. Just last week I was telling a friend about a project I did in your class. We interviewed our classmates (maybe in a mix of Spanish and English?) and created a biography of them up to that time, which was spring of our senior year. I still have mine! Actually, my mom treasures it (because of the old pictures it has). Bravo to Scott Jamroz for the excellent work he did on this! Bravo to you for the idea. What a nice idea and what  a nice keepsake from class.

Another activity I remember vividly is when we did a performance of the Spanish version of “There once was an old woman who swallowed a fly.” I remember going around to different language classes (in session!) and performing this. It was fun but also a bit stressful. Maybe it was just the right amount of stress. I remember feeling a bit silly but also exhilarated. I think we spent a good deal of time preparing this and it remains a fond memory.

One thing you said in class that stuck with me for years was how “It’s possible you don’t even know your favorite food and you might never even try it.” This blew my mind at the time, as a high school student in the rural and lily white Somers, CT. The idea  my favorite food might be something I hadn’t even tried yet and might not have occasion to try if I didn’t expand my horizons was a powerful one for me. Perhaps I still have yet to find my favorite food but at least I am making a valiant effort.

Something else I will always remember is your answer about how long a certain assignment should be. I think you were not so interested in simple word counts and this is something I have taken to heart as a teacher myself. Your quote (politically incorrect as it may be) was, “The assignment length is like a woman’s dress. It should be short enough to be interesting but long enough to cover what needs to be covered.” Or something like that. Very memorable and quite a useful concept!

Another useful concept which was readily applicable to my undergraduate studies was your thoughts on how to prepare for and answer essay and interview exams. If I recall correctly you said something along the lines of how students can and should  tailor their answers to include what they know, even if it is not an exact match for the question asked. You gave an example of knowing a few sentences in Spanish and how they might be used in different but related contexts. I found this idea of focusing on showing what we know to be  very useful. It helped to keep in mind the people doing the scoring on such tests are human as well. Such a good life lesson that I managed to learn late in high school!

Since the last course I took with you was Advanced Placement Spanish, as you surely remember, we had the option of taking a test (from the good people at The College Board)  in order to receive college credit. As you might not remember, you told me to save my parents’ money by not taking the test. I appreciated your honesty on this. I recall thinking it was a decent thing to do. I hadn’t really experienced such honesty before from teachers so found it quite refreshing. My folks probably also appreciated me not blowing 60 bucks on nothing. However, while we are on the subject, I think I must mention that I actually decided to take the  CLEP (College Level Examination Program also from the good people at the College Board) test for Spanish while in college and I tested out of all the 100 level Spanish classes. I guess must have learned something in those years of Spanish! I remember the day I took the test in my first year of college. They asked me if I wanted to take the test for credit or for placement. Placement was free and credit cost about 60 bucks. I was feeling lucky and figured why not try for credit? It was a good choice that saved me a lot of money and in some ways changed my life.

I wrote above that Spanish played a role in my life choices. This is very true. I studied in Seville (which I didn’t see a moment of in the 1995  school trip with Sra. Thomas because I was too exhausted/hungover/sick) in 1999 and while there I took a trip to Morocco. It was during this trip that I realized I absolutely needed to travel and see the world and I immediately started making plans for a different sort of life after graduating university. So, in a round about way my experiences with Spanish at Somers High affected my career choices. Thanks for that.

A memorable moment in your class was you reading aloud a letter you’d received from a former student. (It might have been one of the Devlin boys). The student wrote about how having some Spanish ability opened things up for him in his career and helped him get promoted and helped him get a great job with the government. He wrote a touching letter about how Spanish changed his life for the better and how he appreciated the opportunities granted to him. This was a memorable moment and a bit of motivation for a student who severely lacked motivation at the time. I can’t thank you enough for that.

Thanks for all the great advice, ideas, teaching strategies
Also, a big gracias for being a good role model and for providing a range of experiences to reflect on as a language teacher.
And a final thanks for the reminder that we can teach so much more than language.

Saludos desde Seúl Corea,
Miguelito

ps- I am thinking that I graduated high school without knowing much Spanish but that I had a nice base from which to learn more and more. I should also thank you for you that, especially for the motivation and confidence to actually use the language  for communication.

pps- Today I mentioned to students another thing I originally heard from you. The general idea is that the longer the sentence the more polite it is. I remember you saying where you grew up (Florida?) it was a bit rude to give one word answers and that the more words in an answer the more polite it is. It had never occurred to me.

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7 comments

  1. Meredith MacAulay

    I love this! That’s so great that you sent her that letter-(did you really send it?) I taught high school Spanish right after college for three years and loved it. Maybe some of my students, too, remember how cool it was to sing Shakira and Ricky Martin before they sang in English? Maybe.. 🙂 Cheers to good teachers! Salud!

  2. Tamas Lorincz

    This is absolutely beautiful. Having just one teacher like this changes everything. I also love the fact that you were not one of the best students. Thanks for sharing this and I do hope she gets to read this.

  3. Eugenia Loras

    Good for you for recognizing and appreciating your teacher! I really liked the idea of you writing her this letter. Thank you for this very pleasant post. It was a beautiful way to end a nice day! My warmest regards, Eugenia

  4. thesecretdos

    I’m going to second all of the comments above. I hope you do send this – I can imagine how letters like this make a teacher’s life worthwhile. I have to imagine it unfortunately!

    Another thing that would be really interesting would be to see how Sra McCarthy remembers events. Studies of the memory (quoted in The Invisible Gorilla) suggest that it is really unreliable and it would be fascinating to see if she comes back to you and tells you that she never once made a politically incorrect comment about women’s dresses! This in itself would be worth hearing from her – I’m fascinated by the possibility that things we could swear blind to may never have happened.

    A really enjoyable read. What I needed this morning!

    • geoffjordan

      A very enjoyable read.

      Sra McCarthy sounds like a fine teacher. Strange, ain’t it, that even the very best oportunities for learning are sometimes missed. I particularly like the suggestion that It’s “possible you don’t even know your favorite food and you might never even try it.” I hope you send the letter, and that we get to hear about any reply she might send.you.

  5. Alan Davis (@TeacherAlan1)

    “It’s possible you don’t even know your favorite food and you might never even try it.” How true! I love it. I can almost imagine still living in Jonesboro, GA and never eating hummus or mutabbal, or smelling a durian.

    You’re lucky to have had such an inspiring Spanish teacher. For me it was my 6th grade social studies teacher Miss Shoenstein who inspired me and undoubtedly had an influence on my life’s course.

  6. Pingback: A look back at 2013 on this blog | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections

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