Holden Hollingsworth: Conversation Assistant

Holden Hollingsworth: Conversation Assistant

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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Diego is on the far left; Becca the far right; Holden the third from the right.

Becca Kantor: Language Assistant

Becca Kantor: Language Assistant

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

R: Yeah!

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.

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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.