It’s not a surprise that I don’t remember much of what my high school teachers tried to teach me. Perhaps that’s just as well, given what I do remember: the never-ending reminder coming from an unsmiling English teacher, a character straight out of the nineteenth century, always to use “forbad” instead of “forbade,” though I’m not sure any of us ever needed to use either form; an assignment to team up with a friend in my twelfth-grade health class to research and report on syphilis and gonorrhea; and a U.S. history class taught by the Vice-Principal whose job duties including paddling misbehaving boys, whom he then assigned to his history class so he could keep an eye on them. (I always wondered why I ended up in his class.)
What is surprising is how much I remember of one subject: eleventh-grade Spanish. Yesterday, as we wandered through the former Jewish Quarter of Córdoba, Spain, we touched the sculptured bronze feet of the scholar Maimonides polished by the hands of so many pilgrims told they would gain wisdom (still waiting), and saw a statue of Lucio Anneo Seneca, aka Lucius Seneca the Younger, both of whom appeared in early chapters of my Spanish textbook. Later, I saw a road sign to Ávila and thought of Santa Teresa de Ávila, which then triggered the memory of San Juan de La Cruz, two more characters in the book. Along with these historical figures, artists Velázquez, Goya, and El Greco also appeared in our reading. And their names are still with me.
Why do these figures from fifty-plus years ago still come to mind? It had to be the teacher. I can’t recall his name, but I can remember his enthusiasm for his subject. Every day he demonstrated his love for Spanish. Now I wish I had let his excitement push me toward more study, but at the end of the school year I decided I’d had enough Spanish. In college, I didn’t have to take any more language, because I had completed the obligatory two years in high school. How many of us took the route of choosing to stop language study, just when it could have made an indelible difference? Nearly everyone I know. We told ourselves we weren’t going to use a second language, so why bother.
Since retirement, my husband and I have been traveling to Europe regularly, where we have met so many talented Dutch, French, Scandinavians, Belgians and others who spoke three or more languages. Yesterday’s guide, Enrique, led a tour through Córdoba while telling the history of Andalusia in Spanish, Italian and English…for a group of six. Of course tour guides represent a high bar that the average person might not reach. Still, I think about what it would have meant for the size of my world today, if I hadn’t waited so many years to absorb my teacher’s enthusiasm.