By George A. Watson
You can teach a student a lesson for a day; but if you can teach him to learn by creating curiosity, he will continue the learning process as long as he lives.
~Clay P. Bedford
I have taught Spanish to thousands of students over my thirty-six years at Walpole High School in Walpole, Massachusetts. My students have ranged from the most academically gifted to the academically at-risk. There is one young man, however, who in the course of his high school career surpassed expectations of everyone in his life: his parents, his former teachers, his peers and himself. His name is Vincent Lee.
Vinnie entered my classroom as a nervous freshman on his first day of high school in September, 2005. He was enrolled in our Spanish IA course, a transition course between Spanish I and Spanish II for students who under-performed in Spanish I. In fact, Vinnie had not had a lot of success in Spanish in the middle school. His eighth grade teacher had described him as that "sad, introverted boy in the last row who always kept his head down." Vinnie often went to class unprepared and could not see the point to learning another language. And yet there were other reasons to explain this lack of motivation. Vinnie was dealing with a lot of turmoil in his life: the recent divorce of his parents, a move from a house to an apartment, and much greater responsibility at home for taking care of his younger twin brothers as his mother, now a single parent, was going to night school to earn her bachelor's degree and better her own life and that of her family.
From the very start of my course I sensed an attitude that separated Vinnie from his peers. He entered class each day, took his seat quietly and took out what he needed for the lesson. At first he was somewhat shy about answering questions in Spanish, but as the course progressed, I was able to engage him in conversations about his family, his interests and his passions. These included football, baseball and track. With time Vinnie became more willing to volunteer and even ask me questions. He seemed fascinated by the fact that my parents were from Costa Rica and that I was fluent in both English and Spanish. When he once asked how long it takes to become fluent in another language, I explained that it takes many years and that the first sign that a person has adopted the language as his own is when one dreams in that language. Contrary to what we had seen in middle school, Vinnie rarely missed a homework assignment because this meant the dreaded "red snake" stamp on his homework calendar. On those rare occasions that this happened, Vinnie would become very frustrated with himself and I had to reassure him that he still had a very good chance at getting an A- on homework for that month.
Clearly, Vinnie was beginning to view himself as a student. Furthermore, I was beginning to view him as a positive role model for the other students. He was my "go-to guy" when no one could answer a question or when I needed to pair up a struggling student with someone who was more proficient. Once spring came I recommended that he participate in the National Spanish Exam contest. Much to my surprise he decided to do so and later we found out that he had won acertificado de mérito. One of my proudest moments as his teacher was to call Vinnie to the stage at our annual Foreign Language Awards Night to honor him for his outstanding performance.
By the end of the year Vinnie had achieved such a high level of proficiency that I recommended him for the honors program in Spanish, quite a remarkable achievement for a student who was in "transition." In fact, this had never happened before at our high school. I remember often wondering what it was about this class that had brought out the best in this young man.
Although I never had Vinnie again in class I followed him until his graduation this past year, watching him play cornerback in the Super Bowl state football championship at Gillette Stadium, marveling at his amazing accomplishments in track (coming in 4th in the New England meet in the 100-meter race) and hearing subsequent Spanish teachers sing his praises. During his senior year Vinnie and I had several opportunities to speak about his college pursuits and future goals. In those conversations he shared with me a couple of observations that touched me deeply. First of all, he said that my class was the first class in high school where he had tasted success. He said that my enthusiasm for the Spanish language and culture had motivated him to continue with Spanish for the next three years. In his words, my class was not just a Spanish lesson, it was a Spanish experience and this had "flipped" his view of learning a language. Secondly, he confessed to me that he had recently dreamt in Spanish. He said that when he woke up that morning he thought about what I had said in class when he was a freshman and that this had made him very proud of how far he had come in his foreign language study.
Having taught Vinnie four years ago has made me reflect on the importance of connecting with kids in class and the importance of igniting that spark which will propel them down the road to academic success. It has also reminded me how success begets success and what an amazing engine this can be for anyone who makes the effort.
Like all good stories, this one has a happy ending. Vinnie graduated in the top ten percent of his class and went on to Tufts University, the first male in his family to go to college. His dream is to attend medical school, to become a doctor, and to find a cure for Crohn's disease, an ailment which has plagued him all his life. I have no doubt that "Vicente" will be successful in whatever profession he chooses and that, perhaps, someday he may even dream in Spanish once again.