A life long lesson in Spanish

Published 9:45 am Thursday, November 5, 2009

On Monday (November 2), the country of Mexico celebrated El Dia de los Muertos, a holiday that honors the dead.

Each time November rolls around, I can not help but think of experiences in my high school Spanish class. It was one of my favorite classes and our teacher always made it a point to recognize the holiday with a celebration for our class.

Though it may seem morbid to many of those who don’t understand, the true meaning of Dia de los Muertos is the celebration of life and honoring those who have passed on.

On that day in Mexico, children are given sugar candy in the shape of skulls, families prepare and enjoy large feasts and take a trip to the cemetery to light candles on the graves of loved ones.

Thinking of the holiday this year reminded me of the following column I wrote that was publish in the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald in 2007:

Every time I ask my mom to sit down and watch a movie with me she always rolls her eyes. She may not do it straight to my face, but I know she’s thinking, “Here we go.”

She knows what she is about to view is not the typical movie she likes to watch. Heck, there’s a good chance it’s not even in English.

Mom is used to my love of foreign films, particularly ones in Spanish.

It’s not that she doesn’t like those kinds of films; it’s just that she doesn’t like reading the subtitles.

I’m not sure where my obsession concerning foreign films came from. Perhaps it was from my high school Spanish teacher Mrs. Barnes.

It was one subject that I always excelled at in high school. I even took a course in my senior year for college credit. For the most part, Spanish was the ultimate goal for me.

I wanted to know everything about the language, the countries that spoke it and their cultures.

I was also interested in the histories of the Aztecs, the Mayans, the Incas and the rest of the indigenous civilizations that existed in the continent of Latin America.

For most students in my classroom, Spanish class was dreaded. They would shuffle through the door groaning all the way to their desks about how they never saw why they have to take a foreign language.

In fact most of the students knew a lot of the language already. Growing up on farms they would help with the work along side Latin American migrants who came to work, collecting the produce out of fields and orchards.

Before Mrs. Barnes, each of my Spanish teachers had a fun way of teaching their classes through games and projects. But with Mrs. Barnes, it was a little different.

When school began we had to choose our Spanish names we would be known as for the rest of the year. And so be became a class of Julias, Javiers, Enriques, Sonias and even a La Cucaracha, which translates to The Cockroach.

From the time the bell rang signaling the beginning of a class period till it rang again at the end, Mrs. Barnes insisted we speak in Spanish.

If she didn’t hear us using the language she simply say, “En Español por favor” or in Spanish please.

If we had to go to the bathroom: “Yo necessito usar el baño.”

“No se” would be the phrase if we didn’t know the answer. Usually, that phrase would make our teacher utter a frustrated, “¡Aye, dios mio!”

Like the rest of the Spanish teachers in the past she had the typical activities along with some unusual activities.

Each Friday we’d watch a Spanish telenovela (soap opera). Most of the class would laugh at the overacting that seems to plague each telenovela out there. The plot was so forgettable I can’t even remember what the show was about. But for some reason it kept us engaged, whether it was for humor or if we really wanted to see if a little chubby boy name Jamie could find his lost dog.

It was Mrs. Barnes’ way of showing us how the language is used among native speakers, but of course we all looked as it as “hey, we get to watch T.V. in school.”

In the beginning of November, the class always celebrated the Mexican holiday El Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). The two to three day event is traditionally celebrated by making trips to loved ones’ graves to clean around the area and leave gifts. Elaborate alters are created as well with photographs of those that have passed on. We Americanized our celebration to just a party with food and drink we brought in and watching video projects we had created explaining the celebration.

Though I haven’t taken a Spanish class in around five years, my ears still perk up when I hear someone roll an “r” or hear a word in a conversation I recognized.

Spanish films are in some way a lesson each time I sit down to watch a DVD, whether it’s a lesson in the language or even the social, economic and political problems those countries face today.

With each film I watch, it’s a different point of view on life. The films also remind me how teachers are able to inspire their students to continue to learn for a lifetime.

Muchas gracias por su tiempo, Señora Susana Barnes.

Amanda VanDerBroek is a staff writer for the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald. For comments and column suggestions email: amanda.vanderbroek@r-cnews.com or call (252) 332-7209.