Back in June, I was interviewed for the radio station Santa María de Toledo. The host, Teresa Martín Tadeo, apparently enjoyed the interview enough to ask me to do another one. This time we talked about Thanksgiving traditions (the holiday isn’t celebrated here, so Spaniards are always curious), as well as the recent elections. I hope you enjoy!
We were speaking past each other, almost from different universes.
Under normal circumstances, I would not subject myself to a single book about Donald Trump, much less two. But I happened to finish A Very Stable Genius—written by two of Woodward’s fellow reporters at the Washington Post—during one of the most bizarre weeks in Trump’s very bizarre presidency.
The week began ordinarily enough, with the revelation in the New York Times that Trump was using his business failures to avoid taxes. Big surprise. This scandal was quickly eclipsed by Trump’s unhinged performance in the first presidential debate, which even some keen supporters found unpalatable. And then Trump managed to top his own performance, by announcing his coronavirus diagnosis. Somehow, even this potentially solemn event quickly devolved into a carnival of lies, as various reports on the president’s health conflicted. The farce was capped off by Trump’s tweeting “Don’t be afraid of COVID” after leaving the hospital.
I mention all this only to show that, even after four years and four thousand scandals, Trump has retained his ability to completely absorb my attention and, yes, to shock me. Hoping for some more insight or clarity, I reached for this book—yet another in the long list of Trump exposés. And I did find that Rage complemented the story told in A Very Stable Genius quite nicely, covering much of what is left out in that earlier book. Whether I am any the wiser for having read these books is another question.
The basic story is simple: Trump relentlessly wore down his advisors and officials through unreasonable and often contradictory demands, until they either resigned in frustration or were fired (often via a Tweet). As the authors of A Very Stable Genius put it, Trump ground through his human guard rails. This way, advisors willing to oppose or moderate the president were gradually replaced by sycophants who did little to curb his more destructive whims. Thus, when a real crisis hit the country, one requiring a complex and coordinated response, the White House was completely unprepared.
However, it is also apparent that this was not originally the story that Woodward set out to tell. The first half of the book focuses quite steadily on foreign policy, and is clearly the fruit of much careful research. There are the usual stories of Trump snubbing allies and pining after Putin. But the real surprise comes when Woodward reveals that he somehow obtained the letters exchanged between Trump and Kim Jong-un. Though containing little of substance, these letters are quite surprising in their affectionate and even flowery tone. Even so, this is one section of the book where Trump does not come off so badly. Nothing was gained from the meetings and the letters, but nothing was lost, either; and arguably it was worth a try to extend an olive branch.
Like so much of life, the book gets severely derailed in its second half by the arrival of the coronavirus. It was around this time, too, that Woodward gained access to Trump himself. From January to shortly before the book’s publication, Woodward interviewed the president eighteen times, for a total of over nine hours. This meant that Woodward had a direct line to Trump during the greatest test of his presidency. The book thus becomes a kind of character study in a time of crisis, with Woodward pushing and probing, trying to understand why Trump is handling the pandemic so badly.
The closer a look one gets of Trump, the stranger he appears. To use Woodward’s phrase, he is a “living paradox”—or at least bafflingly inconsistent. One obvious example of this is Trump’s decision to do these interviews in the first place. After all, Woodward had already written a book highly critical of Trump, and is an associate editor at the Washington Post, a paper Trump routinely derides as liberal media spouting fake news. Was it simply bad judgment? More likely, in my opinion, Trump thought that by personally speaking with Woodward, he could convince the journalist to change his tone. (Trump hoped to do the same with Mueller, Putin, and Kim Jong-un, after all.) Either that, or he simply found the publicity and prestige offered by a Woodward book irresistible.
Another tension in Trump’s personality is that between authoritarianism and negligence. Trump’s admiration for strong-men around the world has often been noted, as has his demand for loyalty and praise from his subordinates. And his response to the Black Lives Matter protests—threatening to send the military, and using federal troops to illegally detain protesters—is broadly authoritarian. On the other hand, Trump’s response to the coronavirus crisis reveals a man quite averse to real responsibility, as he often left it up to the governors to deal with the problem. An aspiring autocrat could easily have used the emergency to appropriate more power for himself, but Trump did no such thing.
But this apparent paradox is resolved when one realizes that Trump’s conception of authority is very superficial. Being praised by subordinates, being the center of attention, being declared the best, being seen as a tough guy—this is the extent of what Trump demands from the world.
This superficiality is pervasive in Trump’s makeup, and has much to do with his (almost non-existent) relationship with the truth. It is common to call Trump a “liar”—and, of course, the major revelation of this book is that Trump apparently knew how dangerous the coronavirus was in February, and did not take action or warn the public. Yet for me this term is misleading, as it implies that Trump is fully aware of the truth and is carefully concealing it. I am sure he does that sometimes, of course. But more often it is as if he is speaking as a person might when totally overcome with emotion—in extreme rage or ecstatic joy—without even considering the truth.
The reason I say this—and I hope that I am not getting carried away here—is that, when Trump speaks, the words do not seem to come from some deep place inside himself, as happens during a thoughtful conversation. Rather, the words seem to pop out of thin air, determined only be the immediate needs of the present. To put it slightly differently, Trump never seems to be searching inside himself as he speaks—turning an issue over mentally or finding the appropriate phrase—but instead his mouth goes off by itself, like a machine gun, in its predictably staccato rhythm. The following excerpt captures this quite well:
“I’ve talked to lots of your predecessors,” [Woodward] said. “I never talked to Nixon, but I talked to many, many of them. They get philosophical when I ask the question, what have you learned about yourself? And that’s the question on you: What have you learned about yourself?”
Trump sighed audibly. “I can handle more than other people can handle. Because, and I’ll tell you what, whether I learned about it myself—more people come up to me and say—and I mean very strong people, people that are successful, even. A lot of people. They say, I swear to you, I don’t know how it’s possible for you to handle what you handle. How you’ve done this, with the kind of opposition, the kind of shenanigans, the kind of illegal witch hunts.”
I find this response so telling, because we can safely ignore the truth or falsity of Trump’s words. Indeed, I am inclined to think that questions of this kind usually elicit bullshit. But if I were asked this, I know that I would have to pause and search within myself for something that at least appeared to be self-knowledge. I would have to at least simulate speaking from the heart. And it takes a certain amount of self-awareness to do this. Trump’s answer, meanwhile (which essentially amounts to “I am better than other people”), pivots almost immediately from self-knowledge to what anonymous “very strong people” are telling him. In other words, it does not even betray the modicum of self-knowledge necessary to plausibly bullshit.
I am writing this to fully express these thoughts for myself, even though I am painfully aware that I am falling into the tar-pit of Trump’s personality. But enough. Let us move on from Trump to the secondary question of whether Woodward is guilty of journalistic malpractice for sitting on the information about the coronavirus. And I think he is. Woodward has given multiple reasons why he did not go public with the Trump tape, such as that he needed to give the story more context, or that he thought Trump was just talking about China. Neither of these make much sense to me. And I do think it could have made a difference if the recording of Trump had been released in, say, March.
Be that as it may, this book is still a valuable and alarming look into Trump’s White House and character. After such a steady inspection, it is difficult to disagree with Woodward’ conclusion: “Trump is the wrong man for the job.”
The title image is of my brother (left) with Greg in Marseille.
Greg Valdespino is one of my oldest and best friends. But this doesn’t mean we were always friendly. We began our friendship competing for the best grades in class. For a while I was on top (I’m good at exams), and I wasn’t afraid to brag. But in high school, Greg shot forward, and it was his turn to rub it in. Greg quite dramatically won our long competition by graduating third in our class and going off to become a true scholar. (I wasn’t either 1st or 2nd.)
Now that we’re adults—or trying to be—Greg has become an even better friend than before, in part for his rare ability to be simultaneously serious and silly. It is difficult to combine a strong sense of what is right with an ability to laugh at oneself, but Greg somehow manages it. He also manages to make me feel like I don’t know the first thing about history. Here’s our conversation:
ROY LOTZ: Can you give me some description of your education? Do any professors or classes stand out for special mention?
GREG VALDESPINO: I went to public school in Sleepy Hollow, from Kindergarten to twelfth grade. And I do remember most of my history teachers from this time. There are phrases and quotes of individuals I remember about why history is important to them.
But the big influence was Ms. Heskestad, who was my eighth and tenth grade teacher, who was a foundational, educational figure in my life. She really kind of let me deeply geek out and engage in history, as something you can really get obsessed with, making history the big thing I pursued. (And of course she’s French, and I’m a sucker for France.) I would even go to her office every day before school—or once or twice a week at least—and just talk about the readings that we had for AP European History. And I don’t know why she let me do this, but I did. She had better things to do with her time.
Then, after Sleepy Hollow, I went to Stanford for four years. At first I was hesitant to do history, since I didn’t just want to do the thing that I was really good at in high school. And I took a history class on medieval Europe and I hated it. Or I loved it, but I was really bad at it. It was at 9 a.m. and I kept falling asleep. And the professor slapped the table pretty frequently to wake me up. (It was a twelve-person class, so it wasn’t like I could be hiding in the back.) And since I was always the last person to arrive to class, I would have to sit right next to the professor, so he’d be in the perfect position to slap the table. It was not a great introduction to higher learning.
But then I took a class while I was studying abroad, with professor Caroline Winterer, who is a historian of American intellectual and cultural history in the eighteenth century. She did a class on French-American connections since the colonial period. And it was just spectacular. She had this marvelous, beautiful way of using history to reveal the complexity of the past, and the impossibility of pigeonholing past actors, and the astoundingly complex ways that they thought about their world, and that the ways that they thought evolved over time and produced the way we think… And she gave these beautiful lectures about construction of forms of knowledge and ways of approaching the world. I didn’t think it would be so moving, but it was.
Then I got the chance to do my own research in France, where after studying 18th-century intellectual history, I was in this village, talking to people about memories of World War II. To go from an intellectual approach of history to people’s actual relationships with the past—two different ways of looking at history—was a kind of master-class in the subject. So after that I was totally committed to being a historian. Within a year, I went from “Do I want to major in this?” to being like “I want this to be my life.” Even though Caroline Winterer kept telling me that it was a bad idea.
There’s a thing Rabbis do with converts, where they have to push them away three times to find out if they’re really committed. And the first three times I told Professor Winterer I wanted to go to grad school, she admonished me about how terrible an idea that was, and how awful grad school is, and how I’ll never get a job. Then, only by senior year, the fourth time I did it, she started making a game-plan.
I finished Stanford with a history degree, knowing that I wanted to be a historian. After two years off, I started a Ph.D. in history as the University of Chicago, where I work under Leora Auslander, who is a historian of modern Europe, and Emily Osborn, who studies social history and history in West Africa. And they are glorious, and they are very different, and very wonderful.
RL: Why did you choose history as opposed to any other discipline?
GV: I think I started studying history because I was interested in stories. And I found real stories more interesting than fiction. I thought that looking at past events was an interesting way of understanding humanity, and “the human condition” (except that the longer I studied it I realized I don’t believe in anything called “the human condition,” or if I do it’s very qualified).
As I go through my Ph.D. I think less and less that the reason to study history is stories—even though I love stories—and instead I think that we study history to understand the formation of ways of being and thinking, and how they emerged and evolved and changed over time, and how they’re always doing it.
One of my advisors says that “history is the study of change over time.” And we’re always within that. We are the inheritors and the products of change over time, but at the same time we are also producing and participating in that flow of new changes. So it’s a way of viewing the world that’s in constant flux. And there’s a humility to that which I appreciate. It gives me the ability to think beyond the moment. Or at least try to.
RL: What are some of the books—both academic and non-academic—that inspire you the most?
GV: In high school, one summer, I read both King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild—about the Belgium Congo (spoiler alert: it was bad)—and Things Fall Apart by the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe. So it’s two very different—not complementary—perspectives on how to think about colonialism in Africa. I think that was the first time I ever thought about the history of Africa in any serious way.
In college, the most important book I read was probably The Wretched of the Earth, by Franz Fanon. As far as my intellectual trajectory goes, this book was foundational.
RL: That’s about colonialism right?
GV: Yeah, he’s a psychoanalyst thinking about the consequences of colonialism for black men—and it’s very much about black men, not at all about black women, very misogynistic. It’s a classic psychoanalytical, existentialist approach, like “the black man is created by the white gaze”—these things that have become very common knowledge now. But he was one of these pioneering thinkers. He was one of the main intellectuals of decolonization. So reading that was like a bolt of lightning. And I remember in my class of 90 people only one other person liked it (who now studies black radical thought) because Fanon advocates violence as a form of self-affirmation. It’s a very controversial book. And I bought into it, immediately.
There’s a wonderful book called Affective Communities, by Leela Gandhi, where she talks about the relationships between South Asian and British radicals in turn-of-the-century London. And she looks as vegetarians, spiritualists, anti-colonialists, homosexuals, and how they were imagining different kinds of political relationships that weren’t about similarity. Where the basis of political community isn’t forming bonds with people who are like you. And she has a wonderful theory of political action, rejecting identity politics in the sense of communities formed to include people like us and exclude others.
Then there’s this awesome book by James H. Sweet, called Domingos Álvarez, and it’s a micro-history, a history of one person. It’s based on these inquisition files for this guy who is from what is now Benin. He’s kind of magical healer who gets enslaved and sent to Brazil. But he eventually gets freed, and he becomes a healer in a community in what is now Rio de Janeiro. Then he gets accused of witchcraft, captured by the Inquisition, and sent to Lisbon in the 1760s. There he’s interviewed, producing hundreds of pages about his life. Sweet’s book is an astounding intellectual biography of him, and his efforts to use his medicinal practices to form a community and resist the social death of slavery. It’s a beautiful resurrection of a man’s life, but it also opens up a way for us to understand African intellectual traditions in the creation of the modern world.
RL: What qualities do you think a good historian should have?
GV: A good historian definitely needs patience and the persistence to get through archival work, which is often extremely boring. They need to be simultaneously self-critical and confident. Self-critical, in order to not just use their own biases to explain the past. But confident, to believe that they are saying something worth discussing. And they need to be endearingly excited about things. Without irony, and without a need for an audience.
RL: Is there one worst intellectual sin that a historian can commit?
GV: I mean the classic answer is an anachronism, of course. That means using a term or a logic or a conceptual framework of the present to explain the past. It’s a sin because it doesn’t do service to actually explaining the past or its relationship to the present. But of course some people, including myself, believe that we shouldn’t separate the present from the past, because we really can’t escape the present or put it aside. But the anachronism is the classic great sin of historians.
But I think the real great sin is looking for documents and evidence that feed your pre-existing theory as opposed to letting your theory emerge from the evidence. That you don’t go into an archive knowing what your argument is going to be. Your argument emerges from the research. Otherwise, you just do bad work. You won’t move knowledge forward in any meaningful way. Of course, it’s the same problem in any kind of research, and it’s extremely difficult not to do this, at least a little bit.
RL: How do you think history should be taught at the university level?
GV: I think that it’s important to assign a combination of secondary and primary sources. People need to get excited about engaging with the objects of the past. And you need to give them direct access to the words of people who came before us. But if you just give them those words, images, or objects without any framework, then people will have no ability to understand how exciting they are, beyond just “This is cool!”
You get them in with the coolness, with the story, but they become historians by learning how to analyze it. The most important thing is to teach people that history is a debate, and an analysis, and they have the right to do that analysis, to be historians, to debate it. As opposed to a high school style, which is “Here is the narrative.” People need to be given permission to make the narrative. And in order to do that they need to have access to both the data points and the broader debates.
RL: But do you think there’s a danger to this, in a sense that it gives people the license to write history to reinforce their own preferred narratives?
GV: I’ve gone past my postmodern crisis in college. Obviously all positions are personal and subjective. But that doesn’t mean that some positions aren’t more accurate than others. You need to ground historical study in evidence. Everyone has a right to be a historian. But in order to be a historian, you have to work with the sources, you have to do the analytical work. And if I can prove you didn’t do the work, or I have contrary evidence, I can disprove you. That’s what makes it different from story-telling.
RL: Can you describe some of your doctoral research?
GV: The basic question of my dissertation is: When, where, and why did West Africans’ ability to feel at home become a political and social issue in France and Senegal in the 20th century. So essentially what I’m asking is: When did individuals’ ability to feel physical senses of comfort and social senses of belonging within certain spaces become central to certain people’s understandings of broader social and political debates. What role did these debates play in colonialism? And how does studying this allow us to rethink our understandings of colonial cultures and ideas of segregation, separation, unity, and multiculturalism in the 20th century?
RL: Can you tell us something about how you went about researching it?
GV: I’ve done archival work in France and Senegal. I did a year in France and about three months in Senegal, and I’ve spent the past year writing. The archives were mostly government archives: the National Archives of Senegal, the National Archives of France, the Colonial Archives of France, various regional archives in France, a few archives of housing agencies, or police archives. I’ve done some oral history, I’ve spoken with some nuns and missionaries. So I’ve gone all over looking at textual sources, a lot of photographs, films, novels.
RL: What kind of textual sources were they, exactly?
GV: It can be anything from a police file, to a census record, to shipping inventories. A problem is a lot of my actors aren’t literate. So even though I would love to have more letters—and I have a good amount—they mostly aren’t there. And they didn’t end up in government archives all the time, for obvious reasons. But I do have a lot of soldiers’ letters that were intercepted by censors. I have letters that individuals wrote to state officials when they were either trying to get support after their homes were destroyed by the state, trying to get support for community centers, trying to get interventions in insalubrious housing. But I don’t have a ton of interpersonal letters, unfortunately.
Each chapter in my dissertation is oriented around a specific kind of space that was seen as a solution to, or the cause of, the problem of how to make West Africans feel at home. And a big source-base for pretty much every chapter are inspections or plans of those spaces. Those can be textual inspections but also drawings, blueprints, photographs, audiovisual records, interviews with residents… it runs the whole gamut.
RL: How do you approach writing up your research? What are you trying to accomplish?
GV: I’ll answer the second part of the question first, because I think it’s harder. Basically, I’m trying to make an argument—that’s the core. An argument that allows us to view something in a new way. The structure of my dissertation is it moves chronologically from 1914 to 1974, and each chapter is about a different time and place. So I’m trying to use home as a lens to reinterpret a certain period that people have been studying. I want to make an argument that allows us to see something in a new way. And which allows us to see West Africans and their sense of belonging as essential to this time period.
On the whole, I’m trying to produce a new understanding of empire. People say that empire is always predicated on distance and separation, and that’s true in many ways. But closeness is also a central part of empire. The paradox of empire is that it’s an entity that is predicated simultaneously on unity and division, which is very counterintuitive to our understanding of politics. So the reason empire’s didn’t work is that they’re based on the politics of differentiation when politics is supposed to be based on similarity.
But for so many people this wasn’t a paradox, and so many West Africans and French people were trying to think of make this distance and closeness work politically. So I’m trying to produce a new understanding of empire that acknowledges that, for many people, the distance did not preclude it from also being intimate. And I don’t mean “intimate” in the sense of sex, I mean that you can bring these political structures close into your life. That’s my overall argument—changing our ideas of empire and why it worked or didn’t work in certain moments.
As far as when I’m writing—a totally different question, I suppose—it’s about getting all of those little arguments in each chapter that will get me to the big argument. And in the process, the first phase is what I call “word vomiting”: just write, write, write. Get all the quotes from all the sources I think are relevant and then I just kind of stream-of-consciousness analyze them. I kind of arrange them roughly into a sequence I think might be interesting, but I don’t really know what I’m going to say about them when I start writing. I write about them, and write around each of these quotes, until I get to an end.
And that’s the first draft. It’s usually about sixty pages of absolute gobbledygook. And then I ask: What’s the argument here? And then I spend weeks trying to craft an argument out of that word vomit. So I imagine vomiting onto my computer and then scrubbing it away, until I get to the argument that was underneath the vomit.
RL: Just like Michelangelo. You remove every part of the stone that doesn’t look like a beautiful sculpture. Just like you remove every part of the vomit that doesn’t look like a dissertation.
GV: Beautifully put. I even have a separate word document that’s just called “Scraps,” because I find it much easier to delete things if I know they’re going somewhere and not just being deleted.
So, basically, the writing is the thinking. You can’t think without writing—or at least I can’t. That means that you’re going to do a lot of crumpling up paper and throwing it away. But you have to write down those thoughts first
I try to get a good chapter draft done in 4-6 weeks. When I’m in the writing phase, I write about 4 hours a day. So with that pace, by the end of a few weeks, I should have a pretty solid chapter draft that has gone through 2 or 3 revisions. My goal is to have six substantive chapters and an introduction and a conclusion. Each chapter is about 40 pages. So, pretty thick.
RL: More broadly, why do you think it’s important for society to have good historians?
GV: I was thinking about this, because we had a round-table for the history department, examining COVID-19 from a historical perspective. And I think what a historian can contribute is narration. Not storytelling, but an analytic narration. Because the way we narrate the past determines the lessons that we draw from it.
So, for example, if the narration of the coronavirus crisis is: “There was a problem in 2020 and science solved it,” then this will overlook the months of social and economic dislocation that occurred before a vaccine was (hopefully) found. Rather, we need to emphasize that long-term changes in our economy and social structure made us vulnerable so that, when there was a disruption that required time to develop a technical response, we weren’t able to handle it. The lesson we draw then isn’t “Make a technical fix,” but “Make a technical fix, and design the economic and social infrastructure that can handle the time in-between the appearance of the problem and the solution.”
That’s just the COVID example. The way that you narrate the way that something happened completely structures how you move forward into the future.
RL: So do you think that history is about learning from our mistakes?
GV: To some extent it is learning from our mistakes. But what does that really mean? We can say “We know slavery is bad,” but the bigger question is “Why did slavery emerge?” In fact, slavery is the rule, historically. It’s only the last two hundred years where it’s been banished from certain parts of the world.
So I do think learning from our mistakes is important. I don’t think that history is bound to repeat itself. That’s not how the world works. History echoes, maybe, but it never repeats. So we learn from our mistakes, but we need to understand why those mistakes occurred. Because many of the structures that created those mistakes in the past are still with us.
But to make another point, we should also learn that there were roads not taken in history that maybe we should try to take. That’s a big part of what I do. Part of the reason I study empire and the way people tried to make empire work at home is because now we have the narrative of the failure of multiculturalism in Europe. But I’m part of a group of historians who say that there were people who tried to make empire work by trying to imagine a society that wasn’t premised on similarity, but difference, and that difference wouldn’t be an obstacle to solidarity and unity. Why did that vision fail? And how could we resurrect that vision?
The historian E.P. Thomson said that we must save the past “from the enormous condescension of posterity.” The people in the past were not worse or more foolish than we are, and we aren’t smarter than them because we came after them. We can learn a lot from them. And we can be better by trying to be more like them in certain ways. That’s what I dislike about a lot of liberalism and a lot of progressive politics is that there’s always a move “forward.” But some things might have been better in the past.
A great example is that living in multi-generational housing might actually be better. And that used to be the norm. I think we’ve lost a lot. History is not progress and it’s not loss. It’s loss and gain. We need to understand what we’ve lost and try to resurrect it, or at least get it back in some way.
And the last thing I like about history is that historians don’t panic as much. Because we know that human beings have survived horrible things. Not individuals, of course, but humanity. Historians have the benefit and advantage of seeing things in the long term. Horrible things happen, but I think historians are less crisis-prone. Or maybe just I am. Even in wars and holocausts, people survive—and I mean people with a capital “P.”
So there’s analytic narration, there’s learning from the past, and there’s the ability to avoid crisis-thinking. Because we don’t think well when we think in terms of crises.
After completing several interviews with my coworkers, they suggested that somebody interview me. Initially I resisted the idea. But when the wonderful Rebeca López offered to do the interview in Spanish (and then edit it so that I don’t sound like a complete dunce) I said vamos. Here it is:
Pregunta: Bueno, Roy, ¿has sido entrevistado antes?
Respuesta: Tres veces. Una vez, en la universidad, acerca de la música que hacía; otra vez, por Skype, sobre libros; y la última vez fue para el blog de una amiga, sobre mi vida en España.
P: ¿Te gusta que te entrevisten?
R: Sí, me gusta mucho hablar de mí. (risas)
P: Cuéntanos un poco sobre ti: de dónde vienes, qué estudiaste, tus hobbies…
R: Soy de Sleepy Hollow, un pueblo bastante pequeño en el norte de Nueva York, más o menos a hora en tren hasta Manhattan. Es un pueblo famoso por la leyenda del jinete sin cabeza, escrita por Washington Irving, que está enterrado en el famoso cementerio de Sleepy Hollow, a diez minutos de mi casa. Es interesante porque este hombre vivió también en España y visitó y escribió sobre la Alhambra. Para mí es interesante porque es como mi guía, ¿sabes? porque soy de su pueblo y ahora estoy en España y no puedo escapar de él.
P: Claro, porque ahora vives en España, ¿verdad?
R: Sí. Vivo en Madrid. Viví en Sleepy Hollow toda mi juventud, estudié en Stony Brook University antropología, aunque mi plan original era estudiar química. Sin embargo, aunque creo que la química es muy interesante, es algo muy abstracto y para mí era mucho más interesante aprender cómo vivía la gente en otras partes del mundo porque no sabía nada de esto. Crecí en Nueva York, fui a una universidad en Nueva York, estaba muy en mi mundo. Era como una revelación saber que había gente viviendo en la selva de Brasil, por ejemplo, o conocer tantas diferencias entre las costumbres de la cultura. Estudié antropología y fui de viaje académico a Kenia a estudiar la evolución humana a Turkana Basin, que es una escuela dirigida por la familia Leakey, una familia muy famosa dentro del mundo de la antropología, porque descubrieron muchos fósiles importantes.
P: ¿Cuánto tiempo estuviste en Kenia?
R: Tres meses. Y luego fui a Tanzania, que está también en el este de África, al sur de Kenia, y fui para estudiar la cultura, aprender un poco de Swahili, que es un idioma muy bonito, y ver a los animales. Al final hice una tesis sobre la música del este de África, leí un montón de artículos y libros, escribí un trabajo, hice una presentación, y… ya está.
P: ¿Cuáles son tus hobbies?
R: Me gusta mucho leer y escribir. Toco la guitarra, canto también, tengo un blog, obviamente (risas)… me gusta mucho andar… Me gusta mucho, sobre todo, aprender.
P: ¿Y por qué decidiste venir a España?
R: Estaba trabajando en Nueva York, en Manhattan, y para mí era algo muy aburrido, porque después de graduarme en la universidad fui a estudiar un doctorado, pero no estaba preparado para hacer algo tan duro, algo tan serio… tampoco había mucho trabajo, pero empecé a trabajar en el primero que pude encontrar. Era solo por hacer algo, no por interés. No estaba mal, pero no me interesaba, no era algo especial para mí. Al año y poco estaba harto de trabajar, no le vi el sentido de seguir haciendo esto. Quise escapar y hacer algo diferente, como romper mi rutina. Descubrir lo que quería hacer de verdad en mi vida. Mi plan inicial era ir a Alemania, porque había estudiado alemán en la universidad y me interesaba mucho la cultura, pero es bastante difícil ir a Alemania por el visado. Mi exnovia quiso ir a España, y entonces descubrí que era mucho más fácil ir a este país que a Alemania, por lo que decidí ir con ella. También, hay mucha gente en Nueva York que habla español y quería aprender este idioma.
P: ¿A qué te dedicas? ¿Es este el trabajo de tus sueños?
R: Ahora soy asistente en un instituto en Rivas-Vaciamadrid. Aunque me gusta mucho enseñar, este no es el trabajo de mis sueños. Primero preferiría tener más poder en mis clases y no ser asistente, pero tengo que admitir que no sé muy bien cómo controlar las clases. Idealmente yo sería escritor. ¿Escritor de qué? No sé, pero me gusta mucho escribir. Puedo escribir todos los días y, no sé… para mí es mi vocación.
P: ¿Qué diferencias hay entre el sistema educativo español y el americano?
R: Hay muchísimas. Por ejemplo, en mi páis llamamos a los profes “mister” o “miss” y sus apellidos, no sus nombres. Yo creo que hay más respeto por eso, es desigual el status de los profes y de los alumnos. Lo peor es que en mi país no aprendemos muy bien idiomas extranjeros normalmente. No tenemos un programa bilingüe muy fuerte y somos muy monolingües.
P: ¿Y las universidades?
R: Las universidades son muy diferentes, porque son mucho más caras y vivimos ahí normalmente. Es un poco raro vivir con los padres cuando estás en la universidad. Ir a la universidad para nosotros es un paso muy importante, porque es cuando te descubres a ti mismo, bebes con tus amigos, haces cosas locas, no tienes responsabilidades, descubres tus intereses…
P: ¿Qué es lo más complicado de vivir en un país extranjero?
R: Tienes que hacer muchas cosas sobre el visado, y si no lo haces bien estás jodido, básicamente. Tienes que tener mucho cuidado con estas cosas: los documentos, las renovaciones, las citas… es muy fácil no hacerlo bien.
P: ¿Tuviste problemas con el idioma?
R: Sí, al principio era difícil encontrar un piso y hacer amigos y esas cosas, porque no hablaba español, pero me motivaba mucho esto porque es como descubrir un lado nuevo de mí dentro del idioma. Puedo ser un niño otra vez y descubrir el mundo otra vez, dentro del español. Para mí era algo muy interesante aprender este idioma… es algo difícil pero hay que verlo como un reto y una oportunidad y no como un obstáculo. Sí es un obstáculo, pero aprender otro idioma abre muchas puertas y es como si pudieras ser una persona nueva y conocer otro mundo que no pudiste antes. El idioma no fue algo muy duro para mí, aunque me costó aprenderlo, lo vi como una oportunidad. También, cuando estás en un país extranjero es como que vives ahí pero no vives ahí… haces amigos, pero ¿amigos de cuánto tiempo? Y echas de menos a tu familia y es difícil invertir en la vida, porque es una vida semipermanente.
P: ¿Qué es lo que más echas de menos de EEUU?
R: A mi familia, a mis amigos… también lo que echo de menos es el sentimiento de estar absolutamente cómodo y entendido. Ser tú mismo sin ser forzado.
P: Bueno, como has mencionado antes, te gusta mucho leer. ¿Cómo comenzó esa inquietud?
R: No me gustaba leer en el insti, pero mi primer año en la universidad tuve unas clases en las que tuve que leer muchos libros y me gustó mucho, porque sentí que estaba aprendiendo muy rápidamente y mi mente y mi perspectiva estaban creciendo. Descubrí que los libros son un mundo sin límites, porque hay de antropología, literatura, filosofía, geografía, viajes… sobre cada tema que puedas imaginar hay un libro, y para mí está relacionado con el deseo de viajar, es el deseo que me permite expandir los límites de mi mundo, porque cada libro es como una ventana a un mundo nuevo.
P: ¿Cuál es tu definición de “libro bueno”?
R: Para mí un libro bueno es un libro que te hace pensar en una forma en la que nunca habías pensado antes. Por ejemplo, los libros de Platón o de Spinoza o Shakespeare. Hay libros ricos, tienen mucha capacidad de hacerte pensar… quizás no tienen razón, pero para decidir si tienen razón o no tienes que pensar sobre una pregunta en la que nunca habías reflexionado antes. Para mí, es sobre las preguntas. Los libros buenos intentan responder a preguntas importantes y que siempre tendrán esta importancia.
P: ¿Qué libro me recomendaría si quisiera iniciarme en el mundo de la filosofía?
R: La Republica, de Platón. Platón es muy fácil de leer. Este libro está relacionado con todo y cada libro de filosofía escrito posteriormente es una respuesta a Platón. Tiene epistemología, lógica, justicia, ética, estética… es un libro muy completo.
P: Por último, ¿cómo te imaginas tu vida dentro de diez años?
R: No tengo ni idea. Me gustaría ser un escritor famosísimo y tener millones de dólares (risas) y haber viajado a Rusia, China, América Latina… tener un perro, criados en una mansión… no sé
When I first saw Holden Hollingworth’s name, I thought “This guy is going to be interesting.” Then he told me that everyone born into the Hollingsworth family has a name beginning with H, and I thought “This guy doesn’t disappoint.” A man capable of an extended poker face, I wondered if I ought to trust such an outlandish assertion, until I met the Hollingsworths and was quickly lost in a blur of H’s. Luckily there is more to Holden than his double consonants: a smooth-talking Texan with an endless supply of anecdotes and a continually open mind, he has been a pleasure to work alongside. Here is his story:
ROY: So have you ever been interviewed before?
HOLDEN: I have been interviewed before. I guess mostly for jobs, but also I had to do this interview where the students in a school where I used to work asked me for college advice. And so I gave them advice for going away to school the next year.
R: You were interviewed for their benefit?
H: Yes, I was asked what advice I had for the students as they went to college and I advised them to go to an out of state school. Basically, I told them that going to school in a new area of the country would be beneficial for giving them a better understanding a place/people that they did not grow up with, and that that was one of the main points of the university experience. I gave them a few other bits of advice as well. They played the interview at graduation.
R: Alright, so tell me about your background—your family, your education, your hobbies, and so on.
H: I grew up in Texas. Pretty close-knit family. There were three kids who were born pretty close together, two years apart. So I have an older brother, Harrison, I’m the second, and a sister, Hadley, and we were all born in Dallas.
R: And then two more siblings, right?
H: Well, two more but they came much later. So we were born in Dallas and then we moved to Kingwood, which is in northeast Houston. When I was 11, my younger brother Heath was born. And when I was 16, my youngest brother Hudson was born. So throughout the whole time when we were growing up there was a baby in the house. We spent a lot of time together as a family… playing games, eating family dinners, and traveling quite a bit. Especially in Texas the first couple of years, because my dad was still trying to pay off med school debt.
R: What’s his job?
H: He’s an OBGYN. He’s now in the United Arab Emirates. So anyway, that’s my family.
R: What about your university education?
H: I went to TCU in Fort Worth, Texas. It was a good experience, and it was nice because my mother had grown up nearby and a lot of her family was still living in the area. I went in and I thought I was going to be a dentist. So I took the pre-dental course-load and I finished that but I really hated it. I thought that it was a bunch of hoops that you had to jump through in order to go to dental school.
For instance, Organic Chemistry is something that is not needed if you are going to be a dentist, and yet, it is used as the main weed-out course. Our professors suggested that we spend fifteen hours a week studying for O-chem, as it was affectionately called, if we wanted to get an A. It seemed arbitrary, and like such a large time investment and that was only the start. After dental school you have to jump through more hoops to become a dentist, and then you would buy into a practice, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, and then you’re paying it off, and that’s the type of lifestyle that does not allow for much freedom to do anything except follow the track that’s been set up for you. I ended up making a course change and majored in history. And then after I graduated I went into teaching.
My hobbies? I really enjoy running. I ran cross country and track-and-field throughout high school and college. I enjoy playing guitar and reading. Earlier it was mostly fiction and now it’s mostly nonfiction… Old movies, new movies… I like watching movies.
R: What did you do when you graduated college?
H: When I graduated from college I moved home and I became a substitute teacher. Then I became a full-time teacher at the same school. It was a pre-K-12 school and they focused on Classical education, which breaks education into three phases: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Your primary school is grammar, logic is middle school, and rhetoric is high school. I mostly taught high school and middle school: English, history of the middle ages, US history, and my last year they had me co-teaching the capstone rhetoric class. In this class, the students came up with a topic, usually a contentious issue, for example physician-assisted suicide. Then, they researched it all year, and they wrote a 20-page thesis. At the end of the course, the students had to defend their thesis before a panel of judges.
I was there for three years. And I was also coaching cross-country and swimming. At the end of that time, I was feeling a little burnt-out, I felt pulled in a lot of different directions. So I decided to leave.
R: Alright so, is this when you started traveling?
H: That’s when I started traveling.
R: Why did you decide to go?
H: My family had already moved to Indonesia (they lived there for several years before moving to the United Arab Emirates). So I didn’t feel any familial obligations or a strong connection to the place where I was living. I had taken this long road-trip with a buddy of mine named Tom. We drove from Houston to the Grand Canyon. And on the trip I had a revelation, which was “I can keep doing this.”
R: You mean, in terms of what you wanted or in terms of your resources?
H: I think that resources were probably an important part of it. I had a college degree, some teaching experience, and had saved a little money. But mostly it was the revelation that I was happy on the road. I enjoyed moving around. And part of it was my background. My mom really likes traveling. She prioritized that quite a bit growing up. That was one of her interests. And as I said, I was feeling a little burnt out teaching high school, and I was looking for a lifestyle changer. So when I was going to the Grand Canyon I thought that I could do something that I wanted to do, I was still quite young, I was only 25, and I could enjoy myself. So I decided to take a year off and travel.
R: Where did you go?
H: I spent about eight weeks in Turkey, Greece, and Croatia. And as I was traveling other trips were coming together. I traveled primarily with my family, a little bit alone, and also a good friend of mine named Grant. It was really nice, especially the solo travel. I had never really done that before and I was surprised by the kindness of strangers. People wanted to show you their country, their home, the things that they liked about it. So I had a lot of what I like to call “single-serving friends.” For example, I was in Greece for a little while and I kept going to this restaurant, and the waitress/owner/cook gave me a nice breakfast and a packed lunch free of charge, saying “Hey, take this, you need food.”
I did some solo travel in the States as well. I did a big West Coast trip, where I started in Eugene, Oregon, and ended in Anchorage, Alaska, and then I flew back to Texas. I was busing some, I was hitchhiking some, and then I flew from Vancouver up to Anchorage. That was a nice trip. I hadn’t spent much time in the Pacific Northwest before that. It was cool to see the people there and the culture there. I’d spent a lot of time in Texas, where people are very friendly, and I spent quite a bit of time on the East Coast (where my brother went to school), where the people are more interested in what they are doing. And on the West Coast I felt like people were very interested in the things that they were pursuing but also very interested in having relational experiences.
After that I went to East Coast of the US, Europe, the Czech Republic, Germany… I went to Bali… The rest of my time was spent in the Rockies (training for a marathon) and the western U.S. ranging from Montana to California.
R: This was all in one year?
H: Yeah. So it was my year on the road. It was a really good year. I learned a lot. I became quite self-reliant, which was good. And then I got to spend some time doing some things I wanted to do, which I hadn’t done much of when I was teaching back in Texas.
R: What did you do next?
H: I finished my time traveling and I came back to Houston for a little while, and I was working as a swim coach at a gym. Then I applied for a teaching job in Chile and I got offered the job, and I moved to Chile to be a teaching assistant, to a small town northwest of Santiago called Los Andes. I wanted to work a little bit and to go to a place where I could learn some Spanish. I picked Chile mostly because of its natural beauty. I knew that the Atacama Desert was in the north and I wanted to see that. Patagonia is in the south. Also they pay their teachers fairly well.
R: What did you do there?
H: I was a language assistant. Again I was working at this pre-K-12 school. It was kind of strange. I was with seniors in high school and then I’d go straight to kids who were pre-school age. I’d be trying to speak in somewhat elevated English and then I would be dancing and singing with four-year olds. It was fun, it was difficult, just because I was working 30 hours a week in four days. Quite a bit different from the gig we’re doing here. I traveled a lot, which was nice. Chile has a lot to offer as far as travel is concerned.
R: How did you decide to come to Spain?
H: When I was in Chile I met some people who had done the auxiliar program and they suggested it highly. They were like, “Look, instead of 30 hours a week you work 16. It’s a pretty laid-back schedule. You also have a chance to travel within Europe.” Which was exciting to me, the chance to see more of Europe, especially Spain. I’d never been there before. As soon as I got back to the States I applied to the auxiliar program. And as you know the process takes several months to hear back, apply for the visa, you’ve got to dot all your “i’s” and cross all your “t’s”—blah blah blah, yadda yadda yadda.
R: What were some of the challenges of moving here?
H: Oh, mostly wading through the, you know, bureaucratic things. You have to do the paperwork, you have to figure out where you’re gonna live, you have to set things up. Every time you move to a new place there are certain difficulties. But I had already experienced that in Chile so I felt somewhat prepared. But there are always these little things, like, you have to find an apartment. Is it a good apartment? Is it the right location? Are your roommates okay? Besides that, moving here was not super challenging because I have spent the last few years traveling around and moving quite a bit.
R: What are some of your duties as an auxiliar?
H: Essentially, assisting in the classroom. Sometimes leading the class. I teach, or co-teach, help teach… biology, English, and history. Biology is the thing I know the least about, since I haven’t studied it since college. That gave me some pause initially, trying to come up with lectures and activities for that, but the teacher that I work with has been very helpful. In history I’ll usually teach a short lecture on whatever subject they’re talking about. And for English, sometimes I take students out in small groups and really work on their speaking and grammar. Those are the primary duties of being an auxiliar for me.
R: And the challenges of being an auxiliar?
H: The main thing here has been that the behavior is very different from what I’m used to in the States. Spain is similar to Chile, where the students are more familiar with the teachers, they call them by their first name. And because of that familiarity, and maybe that lack of distance, there’s a little bit less respect. They’re talkative and you really have to get on them, like “Hey, be quiet.” And part of it is, I think, that I’m an assistant teacher, and that position is afforded less respect than the primary teacher.
R: How would you compare the education system here with Chile and with the States?
H: Both in Chile and in the States I was working in private schools. The private school where I worked in the States was quite small, 15 kids to a class. So really easy to manage the classroom. The kids were quite bright, there was an admissions test to get in. There were very few behavioral problems. And I felt like I was teaching content, not teaching students how to be what I would call “a good citizen.” And I really enjoyed that quite a bit.
In Chile, it was very different. Much larger classroom. Maybe 30-35 kids. The kids in the back would always be talking, so you would have to shout over them. They did not respect the primary teachers. And I was even less respected. Even though the kids are mostly nice one-on-one, it’s just when you got them in that group they wanted to talk with their friends and not do very much. Most students, there are some exceptions, they all fall to the lowest common denominator. They’ll do what they want to do as long as you allow them to do that thing.
Here in Spain I would say it’s in-between Chile and the US. The kids, mostly nice, mostly respectful, there are a few problems with talking. It’s not horrible like it was in Chile, but it’s not as good as it was in the States. I think the kids are quite smart here. One of the things that’s different is the culture and the grading system. I’m not used to a 5 being a pass, 50%. In the States it was 70 or above. In Chile it was more than 50% as well.
I feel like students are the same everywhere. They want to get away with as much as they can. So if you’re teaching 15-16 year old kids, there are some similarities.
R: What do you plan on doing when you leave Spain?
H: I’m hoping to get my feet wet in the National Parks job arena this summer. I’ve been offered a summer position at the historic site in Hyde Park where FDR grew up. What I would like to do is to work for a government agency, either the State Department or the National Park Service.
R: How do you think you’ll look back on this experience?
H: For me, this is a continuation of the last few years of my life. I’ve been traveling quite a bit. And I feel like, as my twenties end, so does that time in my life. At least for a little while.
R: You mean the traveling time?
H: The traveling time. And the twenties time. Anyway, I think I’ll think of it as the time when I was really trying to experience different cultures, meet different people, and learn different things, but not through book-learning. When I look back I’ll think, “This is the time when I was ready to experience new things.”
I have been working alongside Diego for two years now. When I first met him he was straight out of college—a frat boy without his frat, living all the way out in Arganda del Rey, a quiet town far from the center of Madrid. It was obviously a new experience for him. And he adapted admirably: growing more confident, more independent, and more empathetic to others in the process. Far more than two years seem to have elapsed between the Diego I first met and the Diego I know now. He recently took some time to sit down with me and share some of his story:
R: How are you feeling?
D: Feeling pretty good, kinda nervous. It’s weird, you know, having your friend interview you.
R: Have you been interviewed before?
D: Only professional interviews.
R: Tell me about your background—your family, your education, your hobbies, and so on.
D: Okey dokey. My dad is Mexican, born in Mexico. He moved to Los Angeles in the late seventies. My mom was born in America but she’s of Armenian-Spanish descent. And she grew up in Spain, in orphanages. I identify myself as a chicano. I grew up with a bunch of latinos in my community. So I always thought I was Mexican. I was born in East LA but I lived my whole life in South Gate, California.
I went to university to UC Santa Barbara, and I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. I came to Spain right after that. My hobbies? I like to go to the gym, I like to play soccer, I like to be with my friends. Sometimes write, sometimes read, you know.
R: How did you decide to come to Spain?
D: Alright, so my brother forced me to come to Spain. My brother Rafael was like, “Hey fool you got really bad grades in university so you gotta do something spectacular.” So he was like, “You should do this program.” So for a year and a half or so I was thinking about going to Spain. And then the time came to apply and I barely made it on the deadline and I was told in August that I got in.
R: In August? [The program begins in October.]
D: Yeah, so I had to do everything super fast before I came mid-September.
R: What were some of the challenges of moving to Spain?
D: So the challenges were raising the money, saving up the money to buy the tickets and for rent, security deposit, food. Then eventually it was just saying goodbye to your family and friends. Some friends don’t understand that it’s something you have to do for yourself. Some friends just forget about you. But my family is there for me, so that’s what matters the most.
R: How did you raise money?
D: I worked, I was working as a referee, I was washing dishes. And my mom hooked me up with some money, too, so I was really lucky with my mom.
R: And what about the visa process?
D: That shit was wack. Everything was new to me. You know, my dad came to the States and he got his citizenship. So I thought, “If this fool can get a citizenship then I can get my visa.” So the paperwork took me like three or four weeks. I did some of the things wrong so I had to redo it several times. And so I wasted like 300 bucks.
R: Tell me about your job as an auxiliar—your schedule, your duties, your role in the classroom.
D: Well, I work 16 hours a week, but I’m here for like twenty-something. [We have breaks between classes that adds to the time at high school.] My role is to assist the teacher. But as a second-year now, I’m leading the class and I’m lecturing. I’d say about half of the time I’m lecturing and the other half I’m with the students, with groups of four, talking. I feel we have a specific role in the classroom, because we’re obviously younger than the teachers, so we become this bridge with the students and the teachers. And sometimes the teachers come down on the students hard, so you kinda have to go to the student and tell them what’s good. You’re like, “Hey, the teacher is being a little harsh, but you gotta understand that these are the rules.” So you just try to help them figure it out. That’s how I see myself.
R: What are some of the challenges of being an auxiliar?
D: Upholding the expectations, meeting the expectations of the teachers. Because last year some of the expectations weren’t that clear, you know. So you don’t know if you’re doing a good job or not. But this year I’m doing a lot better, I have better communication with my teachers. So the challenges might be that the students just wanna keep talking to you, and you gotta be like “Hey, now it’s time to do classwork.” Last year it was a struggle to keep them attentive, but this year I’ve been doing a good job of keeping them focused in class, helping them out with their work.
R: How would you compare the education system here to ours in the States?
D: So here I think it’s a little bit too lenient. A five [out of ten] is still passing. And to me that’s failure, you know. You did half of the work wrong. So I don’t see how that’s considered passing. And I also think the students repeat too much. [As in, students are held back because they failed.] You have twenty-year-olds graduating from high school. I think it’s too easy to repeat, it’s done too frequently. But I think the issue is because they have too many subjects, they have eleven subjects in the semester. Back in the States we only had to take six or seven. They’re focusing too much on too many. So it’s too much for the kids and that’s when they start messing up in school, they start not caring in class, they start missing school.
Classroom management is too lenient, too. Some of the teachers are really strict but some other teachers just let the kids talk, and the kids are talking and talking and chit chatting. I think they send out the kids too much. [As in, send the kids out in the hallway when they’re misbehaving.] I don’t know if they should be disciplined or what, but they don’t know respect and a lot of them don’t have that respect towards the teachers. I’m pretty well respected but even if I tell them to be quiet they will just keep talking and chit chatting.
R: What do you plan on doing when you leave Spain?
D: I wanna start getting my coaching license. I want to work with professional soccer teams or college soccer teams. If I fail in doing something with soccer I’ll do something with any type of sport. And if I fail at that, I’ll become a gym teacher. But I’ll be a good gym teacher, I’ll try hard, do my thing. But I definitely want to to something with sports after Spain.
R: How do you think you’ll look back on this experience in 10 years?
D: I think 10 years from now Diego will be really happy with this Diego. I tell this to my friends, in university I was a cool guy and people liked me, but I felt like I was a loser. I wasn’t responsible, I didn’t handle my scandal, you know. I was just a loser, you know. Yeah I had friends and I know people loved me but the way I was, that was some loser stuff. And I’m really proud that when I’ve been here, I’ve been more responsible and I’ve managed to change, to live a healthier lifestyle, to be more optimistic about life. It’s just given me a brand new type of identity. Or it’s reinforced my identity and I’ve become stronger. So I feel that ten years from now I’ll be really proud of that, that I was able to leave everything back home and come to Spain, give it my all, and be the person I would eventually become. I’ll be really happy, I’ll be really content with this Diego.
R: So you think it’s important in your development?
D: Oh yeah, I already know it’s super important. For the person who I wish to become, who I want to become, who I will become.
R: Well that’s all my question. Anything else?
D: Well I want to say that, at first I thought Roy was wack, but then he’s a great guy.
The auxiliares de conversaciones program is a massive initiative by the Spanish state to get native English speakers into the classroom. In Madrid alone there are well over one thousand of us—seven alone in my high school.
Becca is one of these seven. She was the first coworker I met in my current high school. We came in on the first day, disoriented and a little overwhelmed, to explore the plain yellow building that was to become the center of our working lives. This was last year, when we were both simple language assistants. But this year Becca took on the additional responsibility of Global Classrooms (see below), which switched her from an assisting to a leading role. She rose to the challenge—becoming notably less diffident, more assertive, both in and out of the classroom—and meanwhile became the unofficial leader of our group of friends, organizing and planning all our outings. She recently sat down to talk with me about her experience in Spain:
ROY: Is this your first interview?
BECCA: I guess it’s my first, other than a job interview…
R: Hopefully not your last interview, then.
B: Hopefully, fingers crossed, we’ll see how this first one goes.
R: Tell me about your background—your family, your hometown, what you studied in university.
B: I’m one of four siblings, I have three older brothers. My dad was born in Germany but raised in Arizona, my mom is from El Salvador, they met in Mexico but that’s a different story. We moved around a lot growing up. I was born in Connecticut, but I lived near Boston, then two hours from Chicago, and ended up in Plano, Texas, and we’ve lived there ever since. So it’s easier to say I’m from Plano, even though I don’t really feel like I’m from a place. I went to the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, and I majored in Creative Writing and I double minored in psychology and film (they have a famous film school, so I figured I should).
R: Why did you decide to come to Spain?
B: After graduation I had moved back with my parents, and had gotten a part-time job as a tutor, at a company that specializes mostly in SAT tutoring, but they also do school tutoring. And I worked there for about two and a half years. I loved working with the kids, but after so long I felt like I didn’t want to move up in the company.
So I decided to apply for a MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) programs in creative writing. I applied to five schools, but I’m the kind of person who always needs to have a backup plan. I had come to Spain about seven months before, and I really loved Spain, and I felt like I could live here. So when I saw the language assistant program, I decided to apply for that, since it was teaching English to high school kids, and I knew I liked kids and I knew I liked Spain. This was just a backup plan. Then I heard back from the grad schools, and I had gotten into one, Indiana University. It’s a great school, but I did not want to live in Indiana, just too much corn for me. So I guess the dreamer in me said, “Wow, I can live in Europe.” It made the choice easier for me.
R: What were some of the biggest challenges of moving here?
B: The language is definitely the hardest one. I had some experience of Spanish, and I had known since April that I was going to come, so I was on the app Duolingo and speaking Spanish with my mom. But when you get here it’s a whole different game. Being away from my family was also a challenge because we’re a very close family, and to suddenly be an ocean away is difficult. Thankfully, there’s technology, and also my brother was already living in Germany. And finding an apartment, that was tough. It’s crazy in August, since everybody is trying to find an apartment, and you’re also trying to figure out your Spanish.
And it was incredible to realize how language made simple acts so much more difficult. My first few months in Madrid, I remember I would go grocery shopping and it would take me so long to shop for food. The supermarkets here were organized a bit differently than in the United States, so I didn’t know where to find all the food on my list. Asking for help from one of the workers at the supermarket would have made everything easy, but I was so worried that I wouldn’t know how to ask my question in Spanish, or, worse, I wouldn’t understand the worker’s response. So instead of asking for help, I would just wander around the supermarket, hoping to eventually find the food that I needed. I felt like such a lost child.
R: What do you think are some of the biggest takeaways from living abroad?
B: The first thing I thought of when you showed me this question is that you really come to appreciate people who are patient with you when you’re trying to speak another language. Because some people are annoyed that you’re not particularly fluent, and some people laugh at your accent, and even if they aren’t being mean it’s discouraging. So I came to appreciate the people, whose job it wasn’t to deal with my Spanish, to take the time to listen to me, even if it takes me 10 minutes to say something.
R: What did you do doing your first year here as an language assistant?
B: My first year I worked here at Antares. As a language assistant, our job is exactly that. We are there to assist. A lot of people think we’re teachers but we’re teacher assistants. We work four days a week, sixteen hours a week, and typically you have different classes you work with. So I was assigned to 1st of ESO (American 7th grade), and 2nd of ESO (American 8th grade), and I taught English, Geography & History, Biology, Art, and Music.
Each teacher was different. Some would give me something to do in the book, and I would lead the class the day that I was in there. Sometimes I would take groups of kids outside the class and play games, in groups of four, to give the students more practice speaking. In history I would give presentations about whatever we were learning or do games for review. More or less the same for Art and Biology, and Music…
R: What are some of the challenges of being a language assistant?
B: The biggest challenge is discipline. We’re in this weird limbo where we’re the teacher, but we’re also not the teacher. The kids are really fascinated when an assistant comes in. We tend to be younger, too, so that makes the students like us really quickly. They like us because we’re different. And I’m the kind of person who really likes to relate to my kids one-on-one. Like I’ll talk about Marvel Movies or Star Wars with them, because I’m a little bit of a kid myself, I like the same things that they like.
But then it would create this problem where they felt like I was their friend, but I was also trying to be their teacher. Also, it’s not clearly defined if we can discipline the kids, or how we can. Can we give them negative marks? Can we write up a parte (incident report)? And sometimes, even though I don’t like yelling, I did have to raise my voice. Thankfully, we’re not allowed to be alone with the kids, the teacher has to be there. But sometimes I don’t like that I have to rely on the teacher so much for discipline. I want to figure it out on my own. So I don’t know how to relate to them and to maintain discipline, a weird limbo.
R: Can you explain what the Global Classrooms (GC) program is and what was your role in the program?
B: The Global Classrooms program has been going on for about ten years, and it’s a program that the Comunidad de Madrid does with Fulbright and also the British Council. It’s basically Model United Nations. Only bilingual schools get to participate. Typically, a Fulbright assistant (language assistants who won a Fulbright award) will work with third year (American ninth grade) at a bilingual school. And they teach GC to the entire third year. For some people, that’s 40 kids. For me, this year, it was 145 kids.
For the first part of the year, from October to December, I was teaching them skills they need for Model UN: how to debate, how to write a research paper—and a lot of these kids have never done that in Spanish, much less English—how to find sources, cite sources, how to build an argument, how to write a speech and deliver it, and really, more importantly, just how to engage with the world and think critically.
In GC you get a specific topic for the year, and this year ours was income inequality. So I was trying to teach these kids about this problem in Spain, but also in a lot of different countries around the world. Again, typically this is what the Fulbright assistants do, but now GC has grown so much that they don’t get enough Fulbrights for it. I’m not Fulbright, but I volunteered for it, because I wanted the challenge. So that was October to December.
After that, there are two conferences, a preliminary conference and a final conference. Every school that participates in GC goes to the preliminary conference. Obviously, we can’t send 145 students, unfortunately, so the teachers and I picked a group of 10, which was really difficult. These formed five teams of two. Each of these teams was assigned a country for the preliminary conference. Of all the bilingual schools at the preliminary conference, 28 are chosen to participate in the final conference. After this conference there are interviews.
Of the students who participate in this final conference, each school is allowed to send a single student to be interviewed. That means 28 kids are interviewed in all, and of those, 10 are chosen to participate in a final, final conference that happens in New York, along with teams from all over the world—Mexico, Germany, the United States.
R: And this year one of your students won, right?
B: Yes, this year it was great. The past two years we had always made it to the final conference but our students weren’t picked at the interviews. But this year, our student María Romero was picked to go to New York, which was really exciting. I had her last year and she really deserves it, she’s brilliant, confident, and works hard. She’s right now in the process of working with her partner, who goes to a different school, and she’s writing her research paper. And in three weeks, she’s going to New York City for the first time.
R: What are your plans when you finish your school year?
B: Again, last fall, I applied for grad schools, MFA programs. And I got into Vanderbilt University. So when I finish this school year I’ll be moving back to the United States, to Nashville Tennessee, to complete a two-year Masters of Fine Arts in the Creative Writing program. Which I’m really, really stoked for.
R: What originally drew you to writing?
B: That’s a good question, but I’ve always loved writing, so it’s hard to know what drew me to it. I think it was just reading. My mom really instilled in me this love of reading. I remember when I was learning how to read I was so scared that I’d have problems. Do you remember Hooked on Phonics?
B: So I remember watching those commercials, and I remember they were for the kids who were struggling with reading. And I had so much anxiety as a five-year-old that I wouldn’t be able to learn to read. I thought I would need Hooked on Phonics and would tell my mom, you need to call that number in the commercial and order it. But I didn’t end up needing it. From the minute I started learning how to read, I loved it. And I think what originally drew me to writing was reading stories—I would read these stories and put the book down, and the stories would live on in my mind, and I would wonder what I would do in this situation, or come up with my own characters in my mind and play them out in my head. So it was like an extension of make-believe, which I always loved doing with my friends.
I remember one time I put on a show for my family, God bless them, with my Beanie Babies. I think it was like a Zorro story, because I really liked Zorro at the time, I was in love with Antonio Banderas. And they watched, and told me “That was really good, Becca,” even though it was probably terrible.
R: What do you hope to be doing in ten years?
B: Well, I hope that in ten years I’ve published something. A novel, a short story collection, or even just a short story. It would be nice to have published something, to still be finding the time to write the stories I want to write. But I also hope I’ll be teaching, because the two years in Spain have really taught me that I love teaching. I knew I liked kids from my tutoring job, but I wasn’t sure I would like teaching in a classroom, but the Auxiliar program taught me that I really love that.
I hope I’ll find myself back in Europe, maybe not forever, but to live again. Hopefully in Spain, since it’s going to be really hard to say goodbye to Spain. Hopefully, I guess, married, with kids, we’ll see… Have a dog, a German shepherd.
R: And how you think you will look back on this experience?
B: I think I will look back on this experience as extremely formative, not just career-wise, but just as a person. I’ve made friendships here that I hope will be long-term. It’s always a little scary when you move to another country, and think “I don’t know how I’m gonna cope,” but I learned that, yeah, I can be independent. If I can take care of myself in another country, where I struggle with the language, it gives me confidence to do other things. I think living here has taught me to be more empathetic, to other cultures, to other people. It’s certainly helped my writing, just with all the new experiences.
When I approached it, I thought “Oh, this will be a fun year or two in Spain.” But looking back I realize that it wasn’t just a break from life, it was actually a really big stepping stone. It was necessary to get me to where I needed to go. It wasn’t a pause, it wasn’t a breather, it was an important part of my life.
I have been teaching music classes with José Ramón since October. As a teacher, he really takes advantage of the available time: dividing the class between performance and theory. In the performance section we accompany the kids on guitar as they play songs on Glockenspiels, such as Gary Jules’s “Mad World.” In the theory section we learn about how music works—key signatures, meters, dynamics, instruments, and so on. Last week JoseRa (as people call him) sat down with me to tell me more about music education in Spain.
ROY: Tell me about your background. What did you study in university?
JOSERA: I got a bachelor’s degree in the history of music (musicology) and in the philology of Romance languages. I also got a professional degree from a conservatory, in classical guitar and music theory, harmony, counterpoint, and so on. And I have a masters in comparative literature.
R: So you have four degrees, in musicology, philology, guitar performance, and comparative literature?
JR: That’s right.
R: What kind of literature?
JR: The masters was focused on Mediterranean literature, specifically in the Iberian Peninsula—Catalan, Basque, Gallego—and their connections with the wider Mediterranean culture. I did this degree because I wanted to diversify my CV. I’m very interested in the humanities in general. For example I studied quite a bit of philosophy, too.
R: How did you get interested in music originally?
JR: It was because of my neighborhood. I came from a working-class area, and in my neighborhood there were a lot of young boys and girls who played guitar. And we were very interested in underground music. I started to play guitar, and I tried to play Lou Reed, the Velvet Underground, David Bowie. That was very hard here. We didn’t have any video recordings available. In those days Spain was a very closed country. It was the last years of Franco. We couldn’t see the musicians, we could only listen to the music and try to imitate how it sounded.
R: Why weren’t there videos? Was it censored?
JR: No, it wasn’t illegal. There just weren’t a lot available and it was too expensive for us. For example we commonly listened to pirated versions of cassettes. In my high school, when I was around fourteen years old, if one student had a record everyone else in class had a copy too. We also used to listen to the radio station. But if you tried to imitate the music by just listening, it was very hard. I would go to concerts and try to stand in front of the guitarist, look at their hands, and try to do the same. But when I got home I didn’t know. It was hard.
R: Were there any bands or musicians that really caught your attention?
JR: Oh yes. For example, The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, and some Spanish bands, like Leño, La Banda Trapera del Río, which is a punk band from Cataluña. And Sex Pistols, Bowie, and new bands like Chameleon. Psychedelic music, punk rock.
R: How old were you when you started playing guitar?
JR: I was twelve, more or less. But I started playing seriously when I was fourteen. My first guitar was my brother’s guitar, a Spanish guitar (with nylon strings). To buy my first electric guitar I had to save money for four years. It was very expensive to buy a guitar here. Very difficult.
R: Now that you’re a teacher, do you still play and perform?
JR: Yes, nowadays I play with a band. But I can’t play classical music because I don’t have enough time. It’s very depressing. Because you know how to play but you don’t have enough time to play it how you want to. In my rock band we play covers of Spanish, English, and American bands, like the Strokes, Sex Pistols, Thin Lizzy, the Rolling Stones, and a song by Judas Priest. There are five of us in the band. We’re called “Disorder” (Desorden in Spanish).
R: Can you give me some idea of music classes in Spain. What is the curriculum like?
JR: We have a problem because, in Spain, there isn’t a tradition of learning music in public schools. And it’s very difficult, because the students don’t think that music is important. In primary school there are only 45 minutes per week, and the teacher can’t do a lot of things in that time. Here in high school, in the second year [American eighth grade], we try to explain musical terminology, and play recorders and xylophones. In third year we study the history of music and listen to some pieces of classical music. In the fourth year music is not compulsory, it’s an elective. For me it’s more attractive for them; we learn about rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, musicals—modern music.
R: In the United States, schools often have many performing groups. For example, in my high school we had at least five separate performance groups (band, orchestra, chorus, etc.). Why isn’t this the case in Spain?
JR: It’s impossible here, because we don’t have this kind of tradition. If you want your children to do an activity like this, you need to pay a private academy to do it after school. Instruments and other resources are very expensive. And our national policy is not in favor of such programs. Of course, it would be a good thing to have these performance groups, but here it’s impossible. It’s strange because Spain is a country that has exported great musicians. But people here don’t think that music is an important skill.
R: Why do you think we have music classes in high school? Is it really necessary?
JR: I think it’s an important subject, and not just because it’s my subject. Music helps you to concentrate, work together… It is holistic knowledge. So on the one hand it teaches general skills. On the other hand music itself is very important. Everyone listens to a lot of music. But many people don’t want to learn it. They think that music is just for entertainment. This is a mistake.
R: In my case I think that music classes helped me to become a more dedicated and focused person. Music requires a lot of practice.
JR: Yes, music has a lot of benefits.
R: What are some of the challenges of teaching music to adolescents?
JR: Oh, to maintain their attention. Nowadays they are very narrow-minded. They don’t know a lot of things about modern pop music, and they don’t want to learn more about it. You play punk rock and they think it’s very strange. Another challenge is to convince them that music is important in itself. Music has the magic touch, so to speak, that allows you to discover more things. It is a sentimental education, important in the development of your emotions. Music can take you out of your comfort zone. Arts in general do this. And many people don’t like to study music and the arts for this reason. Art changes your life; and people don’t want their lives changed.
R: Some people insist that they have “no talent” for music. Do you think that’s true?
JR: I don’t agree with this idea. I think you can discover your place in music. We have this idea from the Romantic age of the musical genius. If you are going to do law, medicine, economics, you don’t think you need to be a genius in these fields. But people that start studying music think they have to be geniuses. This is wrong. Amateurs are the base of any artform. All people can play some instrument. They just need to discover which one. Maybe not everyone can be Mozart, Beethoven, or Miles Davis, but they can do it.
R: Do you think music classes benefit society in general?
JR: Yes. The upper classes always try to keep music for themselves. And this is because music helps us to develop our skills, our emotions, our culture, and this can be dangerous.
R: Would you recommend any Spanish musicians, styles, or bands that Americans might not know of?
JR: Nowadays Spanish pop has a good level. There are some bands that I think are quite good, with well-written lyrics. People can be very demanding with the meaning and poetry of lyrics in Spain. Bands like El Columpio Asesino, León Benavente, Mucho, Perro, Leño, Radio Futura… In classical music one of the best musicians of the twentieth century is Andreś Segovia, the famous guitarist, or Jośe Luis Turina, who composes atonal music. A philosophy teacher here sings in a good indie band, Ornamento y Delito. Check it out.
Helena Massó is the Bilingual Coordinator in my high school—which basically makes her my boss. She was there on my first day of school, welcoming us into our new workplace, doing her best to make us comfortable, giving us our schedules and explaining how everything worked. She handles every administrative task for us, from renewal to vacation to scheduling, in addition to her many other duties. Not only that, but she is a working teacher. (In Spain administrators commonly double as teachers.)
She took some time from her busy schedule for an interview about her career. Here is the edited transcript.
Roy: Have you ever been interviewed before?
Helena: Yes, a couple times. Once was to become a certified Advanced English teacher . The interview was about why my name starts with an “H.” [In Spanish the “H” is silent; and so the sonically equivalent name is commonly spelled “Elena”.] I was annoyed that this topic was the main criterium to decide whether I was prepared to teach Advanced English, after passing my official tests in English to become a teacher, after getting the Proficiency certificate by Cambridge University, and after getting the Official School of Languages certificate of English. What about my professional development and career?
R: So… why is your name spelled with an “H”?
H: Well, because the Greeks are so weird. Really the explanation is too long. (See below for the story.)
R. How did you learn English so well?
H: I started learning English when I was 8 years old. My school didn’t have English as a foreign language. At the time it was more fashionable to have French. But my school introduced extracurricular English classes. And from the very beginning I became very interested in the language. So I went through my primary school taking English this way, as an extracurricular, and then took regular classes in secondary school. Then, when I had to decide to study something in university, for me it was clear that I wanted to study English. I studied English philology. I really liked the language and the culture. I studied some history, geography and literature of England and the United States. I forgot to mention that music was also a strong reason to enjoy learning English. I love traditional Irish music and rock, so I would enjoy listening to music and translating lyrics.
R: And have you ever lived abroad?
H: No, no I haven’t. Just short stays for courses abroad or holidays, no longer than a month or so. I am a product of public education. My family wasn’t poor but we couldn’t afford any extra resources. So if I hadn’t studied in a public school I couldn’t have become an English teacher.
R: So what brought you to teaching?
H: One thing leads to the other. The career possibilities out of English philology were very restricted. My first thought was that I wasn’t good enough to be a teacher, I didn’t feel prepared for that. Eventually I became a tutor for private lessons. And I liked to see how students improve with your help, and I liked helping them develop their learning skills. So one thing led to another. But my first thought was to become a translator.
R: What are some of the challenges of teaching a second language?
H: Teaching is very challenging in general, and teaching a foreign language… Well, it depends on the context. Before I began teaching in a bilingual program, the challenge was getting the students to express themselves in English. I remember I would start my lessons every year speaking English, and the students’ reactions were, in most cases, “We are in Spain, so you have to speak Spanish.” And my answer was “But we are learning English. We have thirty students, fifty minutes, three times a week.” My students had focused a lot on reading and writing, but not on speaking and listening. So it was a challenge to get them to react in a different way, not being so reluctant to speak.
And this changed totally when we started the bilingual program. Because those students who have studied primary in a bilingual program feel that it’s more natural to have classes in English. So you don’t have to fight against them to speak English in class. This is a very big improvement I’ve noticed.
R: So how do you overcome the challenge of students who are reluctant to speak English?
H: In our school, it’s easier, since it is a bilingual school. When they are being lazy and don’t want to speak English, I pretend that I don’t understand Spanish. So it’s just being consistent, insisting on English every day, so that it’s natural. It doesn’t matter if they make mistakes but they have to keep on trying.
R: Why do you think so many people take a foreign language for years and years, and yet hardly retain anything? I ask this because I’ve met many Spaniards who took English throughout primary and secondary school, and yet their level is absolutely basic. The same thing happens in my country, too.
H: That was one of the reasons for the bilingual program, just to shock the whole situation. And I agree with the initiative. Probably I don’t agree with the way that it was put into practice, the implementation. But why weren’t people learning? In my generation, this happened. The focus was much more on reading and writing a good paragraph, than on keeping the balance between the four skills (reading, writing, speaking, listening) and creating someone proficient in English, not perfect in grammar. Nowadays I think it’s different. But I hear a lot of adults complain about how their English courses were boring. Having lots of grammar exercises, focused on accuracy, rather than anything related to their interests.
R: Can you explain some of what you do as the Bilingual coordinator?
H. One of my responsibilities is to try to help teaching assistants feel good and comfortable at school, and empathize with you, because if you are happy working here your impact is huge. And I’m a mediator between teaching assistants and teachers. Another thing I do is keep track of which students might be struggling in the bilingual program, using feedback from teachers and assistants; and if English is their primary difficulty I may formally suggest that a student switches to the non-bilingual track. There are other responsibilities, such as fostering collaboration between CLIL (teachers who teach content in English, but aren’t themselves English teachers, such as Carlos of the history department) and English teachers in the bilingual team; leading the bilingual team; and promoting consistency in approaches and methodologies within the bilingual program, which is quite challenging because this tasks relies on collaboration.
R: Can you explain your approach in the classroom? For example, what sorts of activities and exercises to you find the most helpful?
H: It depends on the level, and it depends on the group. I try to analyze the groups’ needs. Some years ago I had a very good group of year-one students [equivalent to American seventh grade]. (And, by the way, one of those students is the one who won the global classrooms competition.*) I had a great situation and an enthusiastic, creative assistant, and a motivated group of students. That year, I managed to work on To Kill a Mockingbird, which is incredible for that level. This isn’t always the case. This year we need to work on basic stuff, grammar and vocabulary, to get them ready for next year. And my priority is to get them to change their mindset from primary to secondary.
I don’t really like to stick to the books. The books do give the students a sense of order and progress. But I like to do extra things related to the subject. The most challenging issue is to keep the balance between meeting content official content requirements and having enough time to make learning affordable and enjoyable by introducing some creativity in the lessons. Now we’re working on comparatives (better, stronger, faster, etc.), and we are collaborating with visual arts to do comparisons between pictures. So I like to do more creative activities. And I love working on literature. As a whole, I like students to change their mindset from “I can’t do that” to “I can’t do that yet.”
R: Do you think you need natural talent to learn a foreign language?
H: Not really. I think learning a foreign language is a matter of degree. It depends on what your expectations are. If you want to speak a foreign language perfectly of course you need some talent. But there are many ways to be able to express yourself in a foreign language. So I think that’s a mistake in our case in Spain because we want to be perfect, and when we are not perfect we quit. To me learning a language is like doing music or sports: you can enjoy music or sport even if you are the worst singer in the world or if you are not really fit.
R: I ask this because I hear a lot of Americans saying “I don’t have the language gene” or “I just can’t learn a foreign language.” So they don’t try.
H: I think that this is wrong, I think that it is a matter of degree. You need to ask: What do you need the foreign language for? To get access to a new culture? To new ideas? In that case you don’t really need to be perfect. I think it’s much better to think, “Okay, I can get to this level, so now let’s try the next level. If I can, great. If I can’t, no worries.”
R: Do you think that engaging with English media, like TV shows and movies, can make a big different for students?
H: Yeah, for sure. I think so. I’m really surprised when students say “I can’t read this, it’s too hard.” And I say, “Imagine you are working out the instructions for a game console, and they are written in English. You’d probably work it out.” So this is the way. If you are connected with the topic, you will find your way to make sense of that. If you enjoy watching something in a foreign language, one way or another you’ll learn things.
R: I find that my best students are the ones who watch movies and shows in English.
H: I think it’s kind of a loop, a virtuous cycle. The higher your level, the more you can make of what you watch, and so you learn more, and you have more motivation, and so on.
R: What are some of the challenges of a bilingual school, as opposed to a monolingual school?
H: It is difficult to summarize quickly. We could spend our whole lives discussing this. It involves politics, in involves educational views, it involves school and classroom management… And every school is different. So I heard of bilingual schools selecting the students that they want to include in the program. And this is not my view of how bilingual programs should work. The challenge is being fair. A bilingual school should be a social escalator. If we have a bilingual school, we are giving our students, regardless of their background, the opportunity to—who knows?—maybe in the future get a grant, go abroad for studies, and have further opportunities. But I know that in other cases bilingual studies aren’t implemented this way. So the challenge is to be fair, keeping the balance between being a special program and providing equal opportunities to all the students. We are a public school. We have a social role.
Bilingual programs are often criticised when they are implemented in public schools but I’ve neved heard criticism about bilingual programs implemented in private schools. This is looking down on teachers and students of public education. We are giving a particular type of students the option to meet someone like you, someone from a foreign country telling them about their experience with hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, for instance. Widening their horizons.
R: Do you think that learning a foreign language is important for society in general? And I ask this because, in my country, we are very monolingual.
H: I think that we should all get a taste of as many languages as we can. That doesn’t mean we have to be fluent in five languages. It means that we should be exposed to as many languages as we can. In Spain I think that it is a big mistake not to have some exposure for kids to all the languages spoken in Spain.** Some basic knowledge. And hopefully somebody decides that they like the way it sounds and they want to learn more. Because it’s our country, it’s part of our culture, our heritage. This way we wouldn’t have these political problems and controversy we have at the moment.***
The more you know about languages, the wider are your views about how the world works.
I have been working with Carlos Lázaro for two years now, as an assistant in his history lessons. His class is inevitably enjoyable. Students who, in other classes, are noisy and disruptive act respectfully and dutifully in Carlos’s classroom. Indeed, the students are so assiduous about taking notes that it can be hard to get them to stop.
The high school in which I work is “bilingual,” which means that some subjects, such as history, are taught in English. Carlos is the head of the school’s history department. Together we work with students in 2º ESO, which is equivalent to America’s eighth grade. The curriculum we follow is, in many ways, strikingly different from the sorts of stuff we learned in my high school in New York. Most notably (for me at least) are the lengthy units on art history—architecture, sculpture, painting. Our textbooks in the states mainly focused on social, economic, and political history.
In addition to his job as a teacher, Carlos is an accomplished academic and author, having written several books. I sat down with him one day to ask him about his work and life.
ROY: Have you ever done an interview before?
C: No, no, not in English. Though I was interviewed on Spanish television, TVE1.
R: Tell me about your education. What subjects did you study?
C: I grew up in a working class neighborhood in the southwest of Madrid. A very violent neighborhood with a lot of drugs. Carabanchel Alto, it’s called. It had one of the biggest prisons in Spain. I went to a religious school for my whole primary and secondary education. But as early as middle school I was interested in history. When I was a kid I learned to read and write through history books that I got from my older schoolmates. Yes, I love history and this is the reason I was interested.
Originally, I was more interested in ancient history—Rome, Greece, Ancient Egypt. But when I got to university I changed my interest to Native American anthropology. In fact I got a PhD in this subject. My thesis was related to the tribes that refused or expelled the Spanish conquerors. I was specialized in the Chilean Mapuche. But my final book in anthropology was related with the treaties that the Spanish Crown signed with Native American tribes, covering about 200 signed agreements. I saw the original documents in the archives, both here in Spain and in the Americas.
R: How did you get interested in aviation history?
C: In the university I met former Republican fighter pilots, and it was an overwhelming experience for me. But I had been interested in aviation long before that. For 24 years I had lived near a military airfield, watching the planes take off and land. So when I met these pilots I got so excited about the histories of their lives. They had fought in the Spanish Civil War and they explained what they did afterwards. For example, some of them fled to the Soviet Union after the war. Some went to the United States or to Mexico, and also, in some cases, were in prison. It was, as I said, overwhelming for me, so from this moment onwards I began to do research about them.
R: Tell me about some of your books. What are they about? Why did you choose those topics?
C: The book I’m working on now is a collection of memoirs of pilots—foreign and Spanish—who fought in the Civil War. But with one main goal. Our main problem in teaching history, not only aviation history but in general, is that we don’t have titles like “A Brief History of the Spanish Civil War” or “A Brief History of Aerial Warfare in the Spanish Civil War.” So I’m trying to provide people with these memoirs in order to be able to hook the public’s interest. This is the same thing I do with my teaching, to try to hook my students on history.
I have written 10 books. Three of them were about anthropology and the rest are about aviation history. My most beloved book is a biography of Emilio Herrera, a Spanish engineer who designed, in 1934, the first space suit in history, designed for a high altitude balloon flight. He was both a pilot and a scientist, and was in contact with Einstein and von Braun. I also wrote a book about a pilot, a Republican pilot. My personal goal, as I said, is to popularize aviation history and also to make it available in both Spanish and English, a bilingual version, for the many English and Americans who are interested in this history. As you know we are sitting near the battleground of the Battle of Jarama (a battle in the Spanish Civil War), and not every American knows that there were American pilots fighting in this battle.
R: What brought you to teaching?
C: Well, I like explaining and summarizing historical events—and I like history, of course—so, this is the reason that I got my PhD and also took the oposiciones (the required state exam that all public servants must take) in order to get my teaching position. My teaching definitely helps my writing, and vice versa. Every day I try to improve what I’m doing, reviewing my classes in order see what works and what doesn’t. Presenting information accessibly in my books helps me do the same in class; and my students’ reactions help me decide how to present information in my books.
R: What are some challenges of teaching history? How do you deal with them?
C: I think the most difficult challenge of teaching history is providing students with accessible information. Making it accessible. I think that history couldn’t be “unverbal,” and thus couldn’t be, in a sense, boring. You need to be patient, giving them tips, clearly organized topics. Summarize as much as possible: don’t try to fill their brains with data because they are going to erase everything when they leave the classroom. I’m trying to get my students to love something about their past.
R: What are some tips you have for history teachers?
C: Define your goals. Strive towards these goals. Provide your students with accessible information—and most of all, information that is useful in their daily lives. Old pupils have gotten in contact with me, and say they love history because it has been so useful for them—reading books, traveling, visiting museums, something like that. When I was teaching in a village in Toledo we made a trip to an old airfield that was nearby, and I explained how it was used during the war. It was an extraordinary experience for them. They had no idea it was there.
Besides giving lectures, it’s great to have the students do research and give presentations. Also different media are useful. For example today I showed them a short documentary about the Renaissance. Jokes, anecdotes, and open-ended questions are good for engaging their attention. Try not to be monotonous.
R: How do you get your students to work so well?
C: It’s a mixture of mastering them, being tough in some cases, and in other cases giving them self-confidence. Some students are not self-confident, and you need to show them that they have a lot of interesting things to work with. In the beginning of the year it’s important to go over classroom rules—sitting properly, raising your hand, taking notes. Establish very clear rules from the very beginning.
R: How is teaching history important for society in general?
C: Someone* once said, “People who forget their past are condemned to repeat it.” It’s a good way to learn about our mistakes, to think about what happened in the past, to try to avoid the same problems and avoid risks in the future.
R: Why do you think many people find history boring?
C: I think because, for them, history is repeating facts and not thinking. And of course in some cases you need to learn the names of battles and so on. But history is, fundamentally, a way of thinking, a way of organizing your brain, so that you can understand what happened in the past.
But for many students history is just a pile of dates, names, battles, events, nothing useful for their lives. I’m trying to provide them with another face of history. How could history help them? What does history teach us? Why did our ancestors face these problems? And what solutions did they find? What lessons do these have for the new problems we will face in the future?
To hook their interest it helps to explain something to do with their behavior or their language that they use in their daily lives. For example there is a Spanish word “flipado” that is like “dizzy,” which comes from the English word “flip.” This was a drink that buccaneers drank, a kind of alcoholic mixture. So this common Spanish words has this English origin, and most of my students have no idea. This is a small example of how history can explain our daily reality.
*George Santayana is the originator of the English quote, “Those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat it.” The nearly identical Spanish phrase “Los pueblos que olvidan su historia están condenado a repetirla,” is attributed to Nicholás Avellaneda, who is said to have taken it from Cicero.