Joco Diversions

A good Spanish teacher will help kids lean into a rich culture

A street scene in Mexico reveals a rich culture.
A street scene in Mexico reveals a rich culture. Special to The Star

“My Spanish class is ... different.” My children have announced this about three Spanish classes, all taught by different teachers, and it brings me joy.

“They all are,” I tell them. “This is why we love Spanish so much.”

I have some experience with the unconventional nature of Spanish teachers myself, after taking Spanish all through high school and college. In fact, I graduated with a degree in Spanish, because for a while I thought I might become a Spanish teacher.

Spanish class was a voyage in the middle of each school day when I became a visitor to another land. My language was secondary, and my teachers’ chatter filled the air, immersing the class in a quick-paced language with rapid, bouncing consonants and rolled R’s.

My other classes were shades of brown and gray, but Spanish class was brilliant. The teachers were animated, providing visual cues to help us understand. Their voices were large and their gestures loud, and I watched and listened intently, picking words I knew from the performance, piecing together some sense of understanding.

I rarely felt like I fully comprehended all that was happening in Spanish class. The lessons stayed a few steps ahead of my mastery, a daily lesson in what it feels like to not completely understand what’s happening around me. I leaned into my confusion, and continued to learn.

It wasn’t the language itself, but the allure of the culture that hooked me. We learned of cultures rich in indigenous history, intertwined with the influence of Spanish settlers, resulting in a religion similar to mine, yet more mystical and curious. Ancient civilizations were not so ancient there; their influence is still felt. The music was bright and the art was vibrant.

My high school Spanish teacher, born in Guatemala, loved her country. Many of her stories, told in English, were about growing up in Guatemala. She looked pained, but did not offer details, when she spoke sometimes. Her beloved country was experiencing the darkest part of its history as she taught us in the mid-’80s.

It wasn’t until college that I learned about the violence and fear that ruled the country during its brutal civil war between classes of people. The clash of culture, politics and economic class was riddled with human rights atrocities, and was first shunned, and later aided, by the U.S. government.

It would have been harder to absorb that lesson had I not already admired Latin American cultures and loved the people who lived there. The same lesson in an American government class would be about economics and political loyalties. In Spanish class, it was a lesson of widespread murder and oppression. I learned not just about history, but about the framing of history, and the different stories that can be shaped when the people involved are forgotten.

“Different” is not the best word for Spanish teachers, but it is the word that suburban American children seem to arrive upon when they first step into the classrooms. It’s their introduction into lands and cultures that their teachers find fascinating and beautiful. It’s learning that when we are with people we don’t understand, who may not look or sound like us, we can choose to stand back, or we can lean in to learn.

Hopefully my kids will learn to lean in, and find the people first before standing back and listening to narratives. If they do that, they’ll reach a more human conclusions about humans, not political narrative-driven blanket conclusions about countries.

A lesson taught by those who teach from their souls.

Emily Parnell lives in Overland Park and can be reached at