“¡Hola! ¿Cómo fue su fin de semana?” Another Monday morning Spanish class begins. Some students are alert, ready to start. Others straggle in late, excuses tumbling from their mouths. A few students are reticent to engage, even though it’s the sixth week of class. I make a special effort to reach out to them.
“How was your weekend?”
“I had to work,” the standard reply.
But sometimes their eyes meet mine, and I confront a face clouded with grief.
“My grandma died.”
Students attending Umpqua Community College (UCC) aren’t your typical undergrads. They didn’t participate in the local rite of passage, the one-hour drive north to attend the University of Oregon. They are the sons and daughters of the working class of Douglas County, whose median poverty rate rests at 20 percent. They’ve watched the timber industry—the foundation of the region’s economy—be decimated. Their dads, after years in the woods, might sit beside them in class as part of job retraining.
Domestic violence, drug abuse, and teen pregnancy form the fabric of many of these students’ lives. But so does the strength of their faith, the joys of hunting and fishing among the exquisite forests and green-gold waters of the Umpqua, and the multi-generational ties of family, a web that remains resilient against all odds. A student who mourns her grandmother mourns someone who kept her safe, told her she was smart or, without needing words, that she was loved.
Coming from a long line of educators, I believe in the power of teaching to change lives. Upon receiving my master’s from the UO in Romance Languages in 2000, I felt a duty to bring the larger world to students whose exposure was limited. I used the mechanics of Spanish as the first step toward introducing them to a bigger perspective.
It began simply enough: reciting the ABCs or counting to 10. Learning the basic question words to the tune of “Jingle Bells” had students in stitches. Maybe this Spanish stuff wasn’t so bad after all. Through the conjugation of verbs and teaching the difference between “el” and “la,” I communicated to each person that I believed in their innate ability to acquire knowledge.
“I can’t learn a language. I failed Spanish in high school,” they’d wail.
“You learned English. That’s a language. If you couldn’t speak English, then I’d agree. But you’ve already learned a language.”
My method of teaching—acknowledgment of each student’s inherent worth, and their right to be treated with dignity—grew from interacting with the distinctly unique individuals I taught: flawed, wounded, beaten down—yet still hopeful, alive, yearning.
My students taught me that encouragement, authentic caring, and respect are fundamental to the nurturing of a soul. In a classroom environment in which positive feedback—however small the achievement—was the underlying philosophy, students who were afraid to speak raised their hands, older women who had been told they “didn’t have the smarts to go to college” aced their tests, and eighteen-year-olds who hadn’t ever stepped onto a plane began to dream of visiting Paris.
From Mandy who couldn’t find Mexico on a map, to the former drug addict who gained entry into a highly competitive UO program, each student had a story worth telling. My job was to listen for it behind their self-deprecation and lack of confidence. Once I heard even a whisper of what a student wished for and was capable of, I drew out the most powerful tool I possessed and wielded it with fervor.
The subject was Spanish. The teaching tool was love.
On October 1, 2015, a UCC student shot and killed his professor and eight students. This essay is dedicated to the professor, and my colleague, Larry Levine; to the students who lost their lives while educating themselves; and to their families, for whom no words can ever console enough.
—By H. Ní Aódagaín
H. Ní Aódagaín, MA ’00, taught Spanish for 15 years at Umpqua Community College. To read her full essay, visit “Reaching through the Portal” at hnauthor.com.