Every couple of years in the last decade, I would call my friend and former Spanish professor Marie James to meet for lunch. We’d catch up on details of our daily lives and she would tell me stories of her latest cruises or trips abroad. I was always in amazement of her zest for travel and she complimented me on my skill in Spanish conversation and encouraged me in my journalistic and writing pursuits.
When several months ago I began thinking we needed to reconnect, I emailed her. A couple of months went by, then it was Christmas and New Year’s and I emailed her again. No answer. Finally, I called and left a message at her phone number. Still no reply after about a week. It bothered me because Mrs. James, as I always called her, was never that late in responding to me.
Then one evening three weeks ago, I did the dreaded research: I Googled her full name and as I did so, the obituary came up. I felt the life drain out of me.
This lady, la señora, literally changed my life. I will always be grateful for the graciousness she extended me and for including me in her life.
Below is something I had written several years ago, which I believe tells the story very well of the way she was and who she was to me. She had been my mentor, my teacher, mi maestra in every sense of the word. And I would never be the same again after being her student.
My heart goes out to her family and friends who knew this most extraordinary lady. She is dearly missed, but I am thankful for the time I had with her and for what I learned from her.
How to Learn a New Language
Learning Spanish was the most magnificent, terrifying experience I ever had on my academic journey. Like falling in love, the deliriousness of diving headlong into a second language does wonders for the heart. It helps to get a crush on the teacher. I sure did. Not a tall, dark, and mysterious hombre – my teacher was a copper-haired, petite señora in her 50’s: Marie James. I would always regard her as la señora.
The first day of my Spanish class at Grossmont College, I sat in the very front row. Tension hovered like buzzing bees in the air until finally la señora walked into the classroom. My heart flip-flopped the instant I saw her. Her brown eyes were big as saucers, like my mother’s eyes.
A powerful struggle for my own identity began even while I idolized her. Every detail about her I soaked up as if it were food, food for the soul of my new persona. Everything she was I wanted to become. What she did I would do.
Someday, I, too, would see Machu Picchu in Peru. Friends, I, too would have from all over the world: Brazil, Austria, Italy. The perfume she wore made me think of high, clear piano music, mesmerizing me.
Like a little baby chick, there I went after la señora, watching and waiting for her. Imitating very carefully the sounds of this new language made by her lovely, lilting voice, my life’s goal at the time was to make her notice me. But I made a fool of myself from the very first day of class. She asked everyone what the word for house was in Spanish because we all lived in California, and she was sure we would all know. As perky as a funny little chick, I puffed up, proud that my mother had taught me a few Spanish words, and I blurted “hacienda” in a chorus of “casa.” The last syllables of my word hung in the air and I wanted to crawl into a mole hole. I thanked the stars in heaven that she ignored my reply. I vowed to keep my mouth shut until spoken to.
Yet that proved to be a problem. When she did speak to me, I shrank to the size of an ant because all those vowels and consonants in Spanish strung together senselessly. I never knew how to answer her questions. So I just looked into her eyes peering down into mine and said, “No se.” “I don’t know” works just fine in English, so I used its Spanish equivalent all the time in the classroom. As much as I craved her attention on me, I dreaded it, too.
Because I had never been required to learn a foreign language when I was in high school, I was now swimming in a sea of sharks. Sometimes I received such scathing looks of impatience from fellow classmates that I slunk down in my seat and hid behind my hair. But I fought back. Every night I studied, averaging fifteen hours a week. I often wondered why my parakeet did not imitate the constant phrase I practiced.
The spine of my Spanish textbook broke apart from throwing it against the wall, fed up with trying to memorize the past, preterit and perfect tenses of verbs. I conjugated verbs in my dreams, though agonizingly slow just as in real life. Eventually wearing the crown as grammar queen, reciting all those verbs in their tenses, I gained more of her approval.
While she was gentle with me in an off-handed way that first semester of Spanish, the next semester entailed extra hard work to merit any attention from her. In the chapter all about body parts, car accidents and indirect pronouns, I’d been sulking because she rarely gave me more than a glance. It annoyed me tremendously that I still paled in her presence.
One day, she drilled everyone in class on the vocabulary about hospitals. Anxiety gripped me when she saw my typed homework with the same font as the note I had written. Feeling faint, I clenched my fists when she told us to talk with our classmates using the vocabulary about blood and accidents. The woman in front of me turned and asked in Spanish when I had my last accident and if I bled a lot, and I said, “I don’t feel so good, tell her I’ll be back,” and I bolted out the door. All the breath in my body had evaporated. I sat hyperventilating on a concrete bench, sure I was going to pass out. I’ve always hated losing control, but I half-ran, half-walked, panting, to the nurse’s office where they took one look at me and told me to lie down. I did, then burst into tears.
Next semester, I went on to Spanish III, this time with a different teacher, and same with Spanish IV and Conversational Spanish. After class, I would linger around the breezeway waiting to see la señora, but scampering away if I saw her approaching my way. Still trapped I was in the fear of sounding stupid if she spoke Spanish to me. It had been my life’s pattern—what I most wanted, at first, I danced around until I was good enough to perform. So, I pined away just to see her. Oh, I had other things in life: my friends and family, two part-time jobs, other classes. But it was as if a shroud of monotony eclipse those things. What did it all matter if she did not think I was peach pie? In a tailspin over such a see-saw of feelings, trying to understand them, I spent hours in a cavernous bookstore where I could hide, reading for hours, unwatched. I poured a river of words into journals. Learning a new language can be therapy excelentisimo.
And then one day I woke up with a new courage. Sometimes certain songs inspire me to get out of myself. At the time, Mariah Carey’s popular song, “Make It Happen,” gave me the push I needed. One day, boldly approaching la señora and walking side by side with her, I told her that she was my role model, had always been since the first day of class with her. And l said it all in Spanish. I knew everything would be all right when she turned to me with a smile that seemed to bring all the light from every corner of the world and she said, “Me alegro mucho.”
The very next semester I worked alongside her after I’d sent her a Christmas card written in painstakingly perfect Spanish asking her if I could be her Teacher’s Assistant. There went I carrying books and papers to grade, following in her footsteps.
As the years went by, sometimes I would still get an ache the size of the Grand Canyon in my heart for lack of being able to articulate the maze of feelings I’d had for her. But some things are best left unsaid. She was my teacher, mi maestra, and I had copied her way until I found my own. In the meantime, I’d walloped my old willy-nilly way of dressing in jeans and t-shirts, changing to skirts and blouses and heels and wearing lipstick. And I did catch her eye. Her smile, too.
I went on to get my BA in Spanish. Speaking the language became less of a struggle, although I hesitated to ever call myself fully fluent, especially when native speakers started talking to me, trilling all those vowels together so that I barely understood. Still, I’ve been complimented by many native speakers of Spanish; they always tell me, “Hablas muy bien.” I was able to read and write Spanish quite well from the start, and for nearly ten years I tutored college students in everything from Reading and Composition to Literature and even Spanish History.
I will always treasure her, mi primera maestra de español. The crush I had eventually tamed down so I could breathe and act normally in her presence. We went out many times for lunch, with both of us speaking Spanish. She laughed when I told her how much my parakeet spoke in Spanish.
One year I asked her to be my guest for my birthday lunch at the Casa de Bandini. We dined and talked and laughed and she taught me new words and phrases in Spanish. Over the years, she helped me grow up, putting wings on me so that I could go wherever se habla español.
Y siempre su corazón estará en mi.
Source: East County Californian