I don’t know why, but I always wanted to learn Spanish. Although Spanish was my first language, I wanted to study Spanish formally in school. I wanted to read and write in Spanish, too, in addition to English. Both my father and mother spoke Spanish, but they grew up in different regions of Mexico so they each spoke a dialect that was different enough from each other to sometimes confuse me. But I knew enough Spanish to communicate with just about anyone. When selecting my classes freshman year at Divine Heart Seminary, I picked Spanish I. The counselor looked at me suspiciously, which I didn’t understand why at the time. It never occurred to me that anyone would think I was trying to get an easy A. After the first Spanish class, Señor Mordini, the Spanish teacher, asked me why I was in Spanish I. I panicked, thinking that he wouldn’t let me take Spanish. I told him that I wanted to learn to read and write Spanish. He told me that I didn’t belong in that Spanish class. He was moving me ahead to Spanish II. I resisted. I told him that I wasn’t ready, but he insisted, and since I would still be in a Spanish class, I agreed. In my sophomore year, I enrolled for Spanish III and French I. No one understood why I wanted to study two foreign languages. I had always wanted to know many languages. I learned a lot of Spanish with Señor Mordini, more than enough to read and write in Spanish. Plus, I was learning French, too.
At Thanksgiving break, my mother finally agreed to let me leave the seminary; I never wanted to attend the seminary in the first place. However, she didn’t let me enroll in a private Catholic high school as I had expected. I attended a Chicago public school in the Canaryville neighborhood called Tilden Technical High School. Since I transferred in the middle of the academic year and from a private school to a public one, the counselors had problems scheduling classes for me. I insisted that I wanted to take Spanish. The counselor told me, “But you know Spanish!” I said, “But I can’t read and write Spanish.” I persisted and the counselor finally put me in Spanish IV. I was very disappointed the first day of Spanish class because the Spanish teacher taught verb conjugations that most high school students learn in the first year. This class was really behind. After the first Spanish class, the Spanish teacher took me down to the counselor’s office and said that I knew too much Spanish to be in her class. She was afraid I would intimidate the rest of the students. I insisted that I wanted to take Spanish. I even offered to go into a higher level class if necessary, but that was the highest level Spanish class, even though they were so far behind. I really wanted to learn to read and write Spanish I told them. They insisted I already knew Spanish. “No, I don’t,” I said. “Why do I have to take English?” I asked. “I already know English.” “You don’t know English!” the counselor told me. “That’s the same reason I want to take Spanish. I don’t know Spanish,” I said. Well, I lost that argument, but the counselor couldn’t figure out how to fill the void left by the Spanish IV that I wasn’t allowed to take. I said I wanted to take French. “But why?” the counselor asked in disbelief. “You don’t have to take a foreign language. This school doesn’t have a foreign language requirement!” “I want to take French,” I insisted. “I took French I this term at my last school.” Finally, the counselor looks for a French class. “You’ll have to take French III,” she said. “It’s the only French class that fits in your schedule.”
I was glad to at least have a chance to learn a foreign language. At first, I was afraid to say I wasn’t ready for French III, but then I remembered how far behind the Spanish IV class was. However, I wasn’t ready for what I was about to experience. The first day of class, I walk in and greet my classmates, “Bon jour!” My classmates stared at me with their mouths hanging open. It was as if I were speaking a foreign language to them. I soon discovered why. Our French teacher Mr. Hansen never actually spoke French in class. Ever! He didn’t actually teach anything, either. He was a rotund, middle-aged man with gray, balding hair who never had very much energy. He showed up to class on time wearing a suit and tie and sat at his desk at the front of the class while the class discussed everything going on their personal lives. If Mr. Hansen found the conversation interesting, he would occasionally join in. The students didn’t mind since he wasn’t a very demanding teacher. I started at Tilden near the end of November and in December, the students were worried about their French III grade because the marking period was rapidly approaching. Mr. Hansen reassured us that we were all passing. Then, he made the big announcement. After Christmas vacation, the teachers were going on strike, so we wouldn’t have classes for about a month or two. After the strike, Mr. Hansen planned to have his annual heart attack and he wouldn’t return to school until after spring break. And he kept his word, too. The succession of substitute teachers taught us French just as competently as Mr. Hansen even though none of them had ever studied French! When Mr. Hansen returned to school in April, he said he would have to test us in order to give us our final French grade. The class panicked. No one wanted to study. Then Mr. Hansen announced that in order to get an A, you had to bring in your French-English dictionary to class. I just happened to have mine with me–I always brought it with me just in case we actually studied French in class by some unexpected miracle–and all the class glared at me in disgust. Well, I had my instant A, but the rest of the class was worried. This was French III and no one had ever bought a French-English dictionary! Silly me! I bought mine immediately after the first day of French I!
Then, my mother bought a house near Marquette Park and I had to transfer to Gage Park High School the next year. When scheduling my classes, I knew better than to ask to study a foreign language. So I didn’t enroll for one. Some time during the end of the year, the Spanish teacher, Señor Martinez from Ecuador, came to one of my classes and asked me to step into the hallway. He was recruiting Spanish-speaking students for a special Spanish class that he himself would teach the next year. I told him about what had happened to me at Tilden and he reassured me that this class would be different. So, against my better judgment, I enroll in his class. The next year, I was actually excited to go my Spanish class because I would finally learn to read and write Spanish fluently. On the first day of class, I see a lot of my friends who are native Spanish speakers. The classroom is filled with Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Ecuadorians, Filipinos, and others. Then, Miss Brewer walks into the classroom and announces that she is our teacher! What? She wasn’t a native speaker of Spanish. The entire class was disappointed. What happened to Señor Martinez? Miss Brewer repeated that she was our Spanish teacher and that was the end of the discussion. That would have been fine except for the fact that most of the class spoke better Spanish than her. But she insisted that she knew Spanish because she had spent a month in Puerto Rico the previous summer. Spanish was our worst class for most of us that year. Apparently, no one in the class knew Spanish, according to Miss Brewer. Hardly anyone got an A for the class and a few native Spanish speakers actually failed!
When I finally arrived at UIC, I was hesitant to take Spanish, but I told myself, “It’s now or never!” I took a Spanish placement test, which is multiple choice. I scored very poorly because I would choose the answer according to what I remembered hearing in Spanish. Apparently, much of what I had heard was improper usage. Then, I had to take another placement exam in the Spanish department. I was told to write in Spanish about why I wanted to study Spanish. It had been years since I had written anything in Spanish. I surprised myself when I wrote. Some things came back to me instinctively. I was placed in the first semester in a class for bilingual speakers. Finally, I would learn to read and write Spanish!