Maestro

Something drew you into teaching. Perhaps it was the desire to work with young people, or maybe one or both of your parents were teachers and you wanted to continue the family tradition. You might have been inspired by one or more of your own teachers to follow in their footsteps. Some people are also attracted to the ten month schedule with its regular holiday breaks. Whatever your reasons were, you felt called to this job (see my blog entry on “Teaching as Vocation”). Remembering the origins of your career as an educator is an important part of maintaining and nurturing that path.

In my case, it all started with a trip to Mexico in December of 1981. I was 20 years old. One of my college housemates and I were looking for a new adventure during winter break of our junior year at UC Santa Cruz. We had already been backpacking in Yosemite and Mount San Jacinto and I had just returned from a hitchhiking journey to Mount Shasta. Someone told me the Mexican peso was inexpensive and that traveling south of the border was relatively easy. All we would need is a birth certificate, bottled water, a backpack filled with casual clothing and some personal effects, a few hundred dollars in travelers checks, and a rudimentary understanding of Spanish.

This last part I had. In fact, my two years of high school Spanish had been bolstered by four quarters at the university level. Peruvian, Andalusian, and Mexican American professors immersed me in a Spanish-only language environment that produced enough fluency to converse comfortably in class and write short stories as well as a term paper on the murals of Mexican artist Diego Rivera (1886-1957). I had spent the previous July and August working with Latin American students in the summer language institute on campus. I felt confident that my linguistic skills were enough to get us through any situation we might encounter.

Accordingly, we packed our things and took off south on Highway 101 in my housemate’s old Volkswagen bug as soon as our last fall finals were finished. When we reached Los Angeles we merged onto Interstate 5 to take us the rest of the way to the border. We left the car in Chula Vista at the home of another housemate’s parents and made our way across the international border at San Ysidro, boarding a bus for La Paz at the southern end of Baja California. My first taste of Mexico was stimulating and exciting. The sun was warm, the skies were clear, the food was good, and everyone we met seemed friendly.

The bus ride down the Baja Peninsula, however, posed new challenges. After dropping off and taking on a succession of passengers, including several chickens and dogs, we reached the settlement of El Rosario, where I played soccer with some local kids while we waited for the next bus to arrive at the town’s tienda or general store. Arrival time was supposed to be around 2 pm (every query I directed at the tienda proprietor was answered by the reply “A las dos”), but the bus did not show up until after 4. Shortly after boarding, some Mexican police asked to see our birth certificates. My Spanish fluency seemed to provide satisfactory answers to their questions, and we were soon on our way again.

Hours of driving through vast deserts and legions of tall cacti at last ended with our arrival in the coastal city of La Paz. From here we took another bus to the resort town of Cabo San Lucas, at that time a small beach hamlet with a few restaurants and a discotheque. We camped on the beach with the other gringos, who included tourists from France, Germany, Sweden, Australia, the Netherlands, and a Canadian traveling with his Barbadian girlfriend. I interacted with the locals as much as I could, asking about snorkeling spots and the best places to eat.

One of these places nearly proved my undoing. I had been careful about drinking only bottled water during the entire trip, but after eating a plate of huevos rancheros in which the iceberg lettuce had been washed with local tap water, I became violently ill. The devastating effects of amoebic dysentery abated only after staggering to the local pharmacy to purchase the proper medication. This all happened on our last day in Cabo as we were about to embark on the ferry across the Gulf of California for Puerto Vallarta. I did what I could to keep myself together and showed up on time to board the ship.

More trouble followed on the crossing. Some local kids rifled through the bags of the tourists after a night of revelry, and my backpack was among those opened, despite the fact that I had gone to sleep early rather than stay up with the others. I lost my camera, some plastic shampoo containers, and my remaining $190 in travelers checks. With the assistance of some Mexican marines on board, I was able to find my backpack and recover my remaining belongings. When we arrived in port, I went immediately to the local Thomas Cook offices and was reissued $90 of my money. The thieves had managed to cash the rest within an hour of disembarking.

My knowledge of Spanish helped me navigate all these challenges, and by the time we left Puerto Vallarta, I was enjoying myself and noticed a greater fluency in my conversational skills. I was able to secure us excellent hotel deals and find the best restaurants in town (carefully avoiding local fresh produce). The journey back to the United States was filled with exciting and memorable experiences, including a train ride in a first class Pullman car from Mazatlan to Mexicali and an intense philosophical discourse in the Tepic bus terminal with a local woman who bore a remarkably uncanny resemblance in both her thinking and appearance to Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954).

Back in Santa Cruz, I reflected on the impact of those two weeks in Mexico. I felt I had undergone some kind of spiritual transformation. My first hand encounters with the language, the art, the culture, the poverty, the customs, and especially the people there had somehow changed me. The illusion of the “ivory tower” had been shattered. I found myself wanting to learn more about Latin America and was even drawn to the religious roots of my European ancestors. I enrolled in Confirmation classes and became involved in worship and educational activities at my local parish, including services in Spanish.

Earlier plans to pursue a career in academia were gradually replaced by a new interest in pastoral ministry, perhaps as a missionary in Latin America. I went on to complete a Master’s degree in my college major of American Studies, but chose a religious conscientious objector as my thesis topic (see my blog on “Discovering New Stories”). Nine weeks working as a bilingual counselor at a summer camp for disadvantaged children strengthened my resolve to devote my life to a Spanish-speaking mission. By the time the final draft of the thesis was written, I had applied and been accepted to one of the nine seminaries at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California.

Three years after returning from Mexico, I spent nine weeks working as a bilingual counselor in a summer camp for disadvantaged youth in Sonoma County, California. My experiences there inspired me to pursue a career in education, first in the church and later in public schools. Photo Copyright (c) 1984 Torin Finney.

During my time as a seminarian, I led an inner-city youth group in Berkeley and spent an internship year in Hawai’i. As it turned out, I did not have too many opportunities to use my Spanish in these settings. In the Bay Area I was working with mostly African American kids and in the islands all my parishioners were native English speakers of European, Asian, or Polynesian heritage. I did take the Berkeley youth group over the border to help build new housing for homeless families in the destitute Mexican colonias (shantytowns), and I preached sermons and led classes on the war in Central America when I was in Honolulu. But my Spanish went largely unspoken over the course of those six years.

Then a new ray of hope appeared. When I returned to the mainland to complete my senior year at the seminary, the church authorities initially assigned me to their Caribbean Synod. Spanish-speaking ministerial candidates were rare in my denomination and the bishop in San Juan, Puerto Rico had an opening. He called me on the telephone and floated the possibility of taking me there for my first independent assignment. I expressed my enthusiasm for the idea and began brushing up on my Spanish. I listened regularly to Spanish radio and began seeking out pastors who had served in Spanish-speaking parishes.

A few weeks later, I was extremely disappointed when the idea of Puerto Rico was replaced at the last minute by an assignment to central Kansas. The bishop in Kansas City had read my Ben Salmon book and thought I would be a good fit for one of his two-point congregations. I dutifully accepted the post and went through graduation and ordination, but my heart was not in it. Over the course of my fifteen months on the prairie, I realized that my interest in working with Spanish-speaking children was not going to be satisfied in the context of parish work. In the fall of 1992 I resigned my position and returned to California in search of a new direction.

I soon went to work for Sprint as a bilingual operator in the California Relay Service, a state telephone service for the hearing impaired. For four years, I relayed calls between voice callers and TTY (text telephone devices for the deaf) users in both English and Spanish and honed my language skills. By 1998 I began to look at teaching as a possible path for those skills. I found myself reading history and other subjects in the social sciences in my spare time and missed the intellectual stimulation of an academic environment. With a seminary degree and nearly a decade of experience in religious education, I was able to get a job teaching theology and U.S. history at a private high school in Kern County.

While I enjoyed the experience of learning the teaching trade, most of the students at that first school came from well-to-do families who did not speak Spanish. During my two years there I obtained my state teaching credential and began interviewing for positions in the local public school districts. The principal from the middle school where I completed my student teaching in the summer of 2000 learned that I was bilingual and offered me a 6th grade social studies classroom there. He told me that four out of five of his 700 students came from Spanish-speaking households. I leapt at the opportunity and heartily accepted the job.

That first year was a hard one, filled with struggle and anguish as I learned how to manage a class of 35 rambunctious 11-year-olds. By the end of the second semester, I was assigned a mentor who helped me begin to develop my own leadership style. My Spanish definitely came in handy, particularly in parent conferences and when I walked the neighborhood to meet families and recruit their support for my burgeoning after-school drama program. Ironically, this role seemed much closer to my original conception of the ministry than most of what I had done during my years in church work. I felt I had finally found my calling.

Over the course of my eighteen years in public schools, I made good use of my Spanish language skills with both students and their families. I steadily increased my academic vocabulary and incorporated Spanish language terms into my lectures and other activities in history and economics. By the time I retired in July 2018, I calculated that I had taught more than five thousand students of all ages in five different schools. The great majority of that number came from Spanish-speaking families. To many them I became more than just another teacher. I was Maestro, a concept that goes beyond mere instruction in state-mandated curriculum.

Find the inspiration in your own story. You were called to teach for a reason. It is easy to forget this in times of stress and exhaustion when the demanding duties of teaching take their toll. Remember what attracted you to the profession in the first place. Your calling is unique to your gifts and personality. Believe in that calling as your pursue your career. That faith in yourself will sustain you in times of trial. Get the support you need and take care of your health. Utilize your breaks to rejuvenate and renew your motivation. For every step you take in following your own path, the way will be opened more for you.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

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