The Tribeca Open Artist Studio Tour (TOAST) was behind me. In other words, the artwork was hung, the email blurb written and sent. A cocktail party and the olive oil tasting awaited.
The grades were turned in for the professional writing students who had struggled to understand the difference between a problem and a benefit. And Week 1 of a new 8-week teaching session begun. The hundreds of online asynchronous discussion posts and assignments to read and grade had yet to overwhelm me. I was breathing in the promise of a fresh start.
My mother had sent me a check, but included with her letter was the obituary for Corina Daniel, my junior high Spanish teacher.
“Aren’t you Mexican?” Someone asked after Mrs. Daniel in a fit of pique said she hated Mexican food.
We were a bunch of provincial kids in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Our Bolivian teacher gave us a glimpse of the world beyond.
“Huh?” We asked when we saw the slide of the palace where Mrs. Daniel said she spent “many happy hours.”
“My grandfather was president of Bolivia twice.”
“Qué más?” We should have said.
According to the obit, she was born in the City of Cochabamba and moved to Tulsa in 1949. It mentions her children and grandchildren, nothing about her grandfather. I wonder what brought her to Tulsa. A dip into Wikipedia reveals Bolivia’s “brief but bloody civil war in 1949.” Was her family on the “wrong” side?
All we knew then was that she got angry with us for slacking off. “I stayed up late every night to study,” she said. Now I know her first degree was in meteorology. She earned her education degree from the University of Tulsa in 1968. This meant she’d only been teaching for a couple of years by the time I sat in her classroom. But she continued for twenty more, so she must have also taught my brothers.
I didn’t think about Mrs. Daniel much during the time I was showing art in my New York City loft. Now I know she was a docent at the Philbrook Museum of Art and must have been cultured.
I don’t remember thinking about her while I was teaching. But she was the only teacher to ever send me to the office - for doing math homework in her class. The only teacher to want to put me on TV, the only one who asked me to come into school early for several weeks of supplemental instruction. I was one of the best students in the weaker of her two classes.
I didn’t know that upon retirement she taught English as a Second Language, which is something I did also.
She was active. She founded the YMCA Foreign Women’s Club, participated in Tulsa University International Students’ Association, the Pan American Round Table, and the Hispanic American Foundation.
But all I knew was that she was my Spanish teacher. There were others, the seventh grade teacher, Señor Johnson in tenth grade, a couple of professors in college, and an instructor at the Cervantes Institute in New York. But when I find myself telling how I learned to speak Spanish, I say, “My Spanish teacher was from Bolivia.”
When I learned about a series of protests that took place in response to the privatization of the municipal water supply in a city in Bolivia, I paid attention. Only now do I realize the protests are called the Cochabamba Water War.
My question in Trivial Pursuit: “What’s the largest lake in South America?”
“I have no idea, but I’ll guess Lake Titicaca,” I said.
“How did you know that?”
She died on May 12th, 2010 from cancer, and I found out on May 20th. I would not have foreseen that my life in New York City, filled with art and theater and culture, would transition into the life of vagabond writer or that I would spend most of my winters in southern Mexico.
My Spanish is still very mas o menos, but it’s getting better. “I had a teacher from Bolivia,” I say.
Karen J. Cantrell’s work has appeared in various publications, including the blog for the Living Lutheran, The Palo Alto Review, and an anthology from Red Hen Press. She gave up her full-time teaching job in 2014 to pursue writing full-time. She is currently waiting out the pandemic on the Mexican Riviera Maya.
She encourages you to check out Poet's House.