School Notes, Then and Now

University of Indiana at Bloomington, where the literary translator conference will be this fall

In the winter of 2003, I was teaching Spanish. It was first-year Spanish so mainly ninth graders, who must have been the right age for the event to matter. I think of it now because the documentary’s been in the theaters. There was a moment of tribute and I paused the class until it ended. A student announced: Mr. Rogers died. On cue, someone began and the rest joined in to sing, quietly, “It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood.”

When I retired, I subbed for a while, very different from teaching.

Sub notes, 2012. Drums bleed through the backstage door. Horns below the balcony unite in a tune, but only for a moment. First floor drama voices spike through brass scales. In the paper lantern room, students sit in small groups, working in a lackadaisical way on their projects. I am their superfluous sub. Some discuss who will do what, google information. Others sidetrack into that girl you used to be friends with and then in 10thgrade she ignored you, remember? Everyone in the group has a corroborating anecdote to add, so the sidetrack becomes a street, a boulevard, a highway. Our project, one girl nudges, but hey, look at this program that lets me build a house, says a boy. Another girl asks, who wants to go roller blading after school? The horns stop. Drums beat a bit longer. Someone says, Oh, shit, is class over? I haven’t done my math.

In 2016, I designed a literary translation course for DU’s University College and have since taught it twice. Some take it to complete elective requirements for their program. One student was after something inchoate he may not even have known he needed.

Coming to the U.S. from Greece as a teenager, he naturally became completely American and while he kept Greek connections and language, they became secondary. An accomplished and literary writer already, Pavlos Stavropoulos found a fine young Greek writer to translate for the class project. He performed that research in the optimal manner, by going to Greece and browsing bookstores.

Ursula Foskolou’s flash fictions and Pavlos’ translations of them were excellent. “Send these out,” I said. He’s now published several, was selected to attend the Princeton Hellenic Translation Workshop this year, discusses the art of translation at Lighthouse and is hosting a translator reading, all within a year of the class. I predict he’ll have a publisher for Foskolou’s book soon. Pavlos came to my class equipped to be a literary translator already, needed only a gentle nudge to become one. Either that, or my class has magical powers.

Get a taste of Stavropoulos translations of Foskolou, here.

Sub notes, 2013. In Thornton’s class, because we’re reading the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, race has arisen, and as we read, I see this beautiful black kid with a big ‘fro and his Asian buddy counting. “You’re counting the black kids in the room?” I ask incredulously. A dark girl gets interested, glances around. “There’s six,” she concludes. Big Fro wants to know how she got that, because he sees eight. “No,” she says, “he’s only half and she’s only half, and T. doesn’t count.” The halves don’t protest, but T. gets indignant. Looking at her, I see the point. T.’s gorgeous, but she’s gonna have to prove she’s black.

1997 – 2010, at Denver School of the Arts I kept a “Things My Famous Students Have Said” list of quotations on a bulletin board. High school students say memorable things, bits of wit and wisdom I found delightful and wanted to keep. I often told them one of their responsibilities was to keep me entertained. Then I discovered that they loved the quote wall, stopped to read it before and after class. One of my responsibilities was to keep them entertained. This quote business was nicely reciprocal.

I’ve been retired from public school teaching over eight years now. On Facebook the other day I saw Shelby, a former student, who has done things I think my former students should not have had time to do yet: become a teacher, become a wife and mother, completed a master’s degree. I saw Shelby online because she tagged me and she tagged me because she was announcing that for this new school year she was starting a student quote wall.

Ladies and Gentlemen, my work here is done.

For a sampling of student quotations I saved over the years, go here.

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3 Responses to School Notes, Then and Now

  1. Bob Jaeger says:

    Great piece. Great ending. For me, those teaching days seem like memories from another life.

  2. mssarafd says:

    What a lovely piece! This line especially resonated, “a former student, who has done things I think my former students should not have had time to do yet”.

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