Suzanne Furstner Foundation Scholarship 2011: Shortlisted Entry Number 2

Six Weeks in Barcelona

The year:1935. The place: Barcelona, Spain.  I am one of a handful of newly recruited English teachers who have come to work with a group of Spanish immigrants before they are scheduled to ship off for work in the United States.  I have experience working with immigrants in England, mostly in the job centers, but this is an entirely new experience for me.  Love to the family. Wish me luck!

I turned over the page of the handwritten letter, still barely legible all these years later.  It was signed, Elaine Frances Miller, August, 18, 1935.  It looked like it had been torn out from a book of some kind, maybe a diary?  There had to be more information about this somewhere in all these boxes Mom had kept up in the attic.  Grandma Miller had died ten years ago in an elderly care facility, deteriorating daily from a long and difficult battle with Alzheimer’s disease. 

Unfortunately I had never known her before the disease struck, and so my relationship with her had always been one of connecting pieces here and there, rare moments of illumination as she recognized her now fully grown granddaughter, but then just as quickly slipped back into a darkness that had become all too familiar to the both of us. 

After some more digging in the box I finally I found it – a small, dusty but still clearly purple diary.  Purple had been her favorite color.  There was a clasp in the middle that had long since been broken, and immediately upon opening I recognized the page I had just read had in fact come from here.  The title page read, “Barcelona Travel Diary:  August 18 – September29, 1935”.  What could this be?  The only Grandma Miller I knew had spent the better part of her life raising nine kids in the rural backwoods of eastern Michigan.  After that, there was the Alzheimer’s, and a lot of mystery in between.  I began flipping through the pages, all in the same, perfectly neat handwriting.  It seemed there was an entry for every day of those six weeks.  Grandma Miller had been an English teacher in Europe before immigrating to the U.S. in 1939?  Why had no one ever mentioned this to me, given I was also an English teacher? 


The first time I ever taught an English class, I honestly didn’t know what I was doing.  My director for some reason assumed that I already knew what a worker center was, what a day laborer was, and what the realities of life as an undocumented immigrant were in Chicago.  I didn’t have a clue, I just nodded my head and agreed to check out the local worker center and see what would happen next.  I was shocked when they asked me if I would like to start an English language program.  I wasn’t even sure if I’d heard them right, did I mention I had never taught a class before, in anything? 

Two years later I left Chicago, and sadly left that worker center and the people who I had come to know as my students, when they were at the center waiting for work, trying to figure out how to improve their English while their attendance was inevitably inconsistent.  I mean let’s face it; the worker center was a place to go for work, not for an English class!  Yet some did come just for the class, and over time, a community was built. Many students became more than students to me, and became the first friends who told me of their experiences crossing desert to reach the United States, or of how many times it took them to finally get into the country, or even the ones who would bring people across the border in the middle of night’s darkness and somehow ended up in Chicago on the often frozen, early morning streets waiting for work.  This was a community of friends learning English, sharing struggles, and striving to live better lives. 

Now years later I live in Mexico City, working maybe to try and erase some of these inequalities that force people into such conditions in the first place.  Working with public high school students and migrants in local shelters, I use English as a means to erase some of the invisible barriers between us, to offer people a different choice that will empower and better their lives.  If I can play even a small part in such a thing, I have done my service to the world.


I decided to open up the diary once more, and for some reason flipped to the last entry, dated Saturday, September 29, 1935:

So sadly this whirlwind of a trip has come to an end.  We are returning to England tomorrow and the students are about to be shipped out to New York.  This teaching experience has changed me forever, made me realize the gift that teaching anybody anything truly is.  It can also never be taken for granted, because I was not the only one teaching in that classroom.  I believe that in the exchange between a teacher and her students, a synthesis happens that leads to the ability to really learn something.  If there is respect, there is exchange, and then anything can be learned, and no one will leave that classroom the same person they were when they first walked in.  When I think about the question my students asked me on our last day yesterday, about why I became an English teacher in the first place, I suppose the only answer I have had and will ever have is that at this point I simply don’t know how not to be.  And even if they considered me to be their teacher, they taught me so much more than I ever realized that I needed to learn.  May I keep what they have taught me in my heart forever.

Well said, Grandma Miller, my sentiments exactly. 

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