Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

As I've continued to think about my teaching style and academic life, I keep thinking about some of the great teachers I’ve had in the past, and I want to show gratitude and share the people (and their actions) that changed who I am, academically and as a person.

Last time, I wrote an open letter to Mr. Morrow, a Math teacher who helped shape my style as a teacher. Today, an open letter to Kim Hinchey, who was one of the first people to encourage my passion for language.

Dear Sra. Hinchey,

You were my Spanish teacher for the last few years of Middle School. You weren’t my first Spanish teacher, and you weren’t my last. But you gave me a gift, and it stuck with me.

You probably remember that I was a little nerd. The kid always asking questions. Always wanting new words. Always wanting next week’s lesson today. And always frustrated that there was more to learn before I could actually talk in Spanish. That never really changed, and that’s probably why I kept in school forever.

Most of my language teachers didn’t handle that well. If I wanted to know how to say something different, maybe say that I might go to the park, or that I would, but I can’t, I’d go ask after class. But the answer was always “You’ll learn that next year” or “Oh, they’ll cover that in High School” or “Don’t worry about that yet.”.

This was really frustrating, because damnit, I wanted to speak Spanish, not repeat dialogues. I didn’t see why they’d teach us how to say “Pablo went to the park yesterday”, but not “Pablo will go to the park tomorrow”. I didn’t understand why they’d teach me to say “You stop.”, but not “Hey, You, Stop!”. But most of all, I resented the wall. Not just “Sorry, we’re not covering that until next month, look at Chapter 5 if you want to jump ahead”, but “No, I won’t teach you that. Focus on the dialogs from the chapter.”1

20 years later, I don’t remember much of Middle School. But I have moments that are clear as day.

One of these moments was after class, right before recess, standing by a bookshelf in the classroom. We’d just covered the compound future (“Voy a comprar un coche.”, ‘I’m going to buy a car’). But I’d heard there was another way to do the future (the ‘simple future’). And I went up to ask you about it. You explained that we’ll cover it next year, as all the other teachers did. But you went on. “Since you’re interested, though, I’ll make you a copy from the textbook for next year.”

A few minutes later (when I could have been at recess and you could have been eating), you handed me a piece of paper with a verb paradigm, showing the future tense forms for each person and class of verb. I may have been trying to act cool and not show it, but I was thrilled.

I had inside information! I could say something nobody else in class could. I could learn material on my own, and learn more about actually talking in Spanish. I went out on the playground, leaned against the building, and read over that sheet of paper like it had the solution to life, the universe, and everything on it. And I used that future tense, after class with you. At home. At work, a few years later. To this day, the simple future is my favorite Spanish verb tense2.

But the fact remains that I showed what a little language nerd I was, and you didn’t just dismiss it, or tell me to keep pace with the class, but instead, you encouraged me, and tossed fuel into the fire. And you kept encouraging me. Kept feeding me little bits of information based on questions. Kept filling in blanks, and letting me in on “secrets” we hadn’t learned yet. You even organized a school trip to Mexico, so I could actually try my Spanish with people who spoke Spanish every day.

I can’t blame you for my future life in language, as I probably would have ended up a linguist anyways, but you definitely got me going. You were one of few people to encourage me to push. And learn. And embrace my inner nerd. And for that, and for the Simple Future tense, I will be forever grateful.

Gracias, Sra. Hinchey

  1. This wasn’t just a rash of bad teachers in Middle School. It’s the same reason I dropped my Russian major in College. I wanted grammar and paradigms, but the instructors (and terrible textbooks) gave me dialog memorization a “non grammatical approach” to teaching grammar. This approach is about as effective for me as a non-swimming approach to teaching swimming.

  2. What, you don’t have a favorite Spanish verb tense?

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