Sonría, en español

This button was a regalito from my first Spanish teacher, Señora B. She was known for being pretty strict. I can’t count how many times I swallowed gum that year upon seeing her fists on her hips, her black cat-eye glasses at the tip of her nose, as she asked, “ReNée, estás masticando chicle en mi clase?”

*gulp* “No, Señora.”

You may be wondering who “ReNée” is – that was me. Some classmates had their names automatically translated to Spanish and assigned by the teacher, having no say in the matter at all, but since there is no real equivalent to “Tracy”, I was allowed to pick from a list hanging up on the chalkboard. I read over the names multiple times but nothing caught my eye until I came to “Renée” … The only problem? I had accidentally drifted over to the “French Names List”.

Señora B informed me that “Renée” when used in Latin America, is for males only, but as a tomboy, that only made me want it more. Señora B relented and let me have it, even turned a blind eye when I insisted on capitalizing the “N” – just because I wanted to. Señora B accepted my need to be different even as she often sighed in exasperation, “Ay, ReNée…”

Other memories from her class: Marching around the perimeter of the room chanting “o! as! a! amos! áis! an!” (The conjugation for “-ar” verbs.) After a few minutes we complained and she told us, “You feel ridiculous, but I promise you’ll never forget it, now keep marching.” … And 20 years later, I haven’t forgotten.

Here is what she wrote in my yearbook, (and at the time I barely understood a word of it):

Señora B was my first Spanish teacher, but she wasn’t my last. The next year, and almost until graduation, I had Señora S, and she liked me just as much as Señora B – she even trusted me to help grade papers and tutor other kids, (though I definitely wasn’t her top student academically speaking.)

In my Junior year of high school, Señora S, petite but with a fierce sparkle in her eyes, is the one who insisted I go on a group trip to Europe, though I was sure I couldn’t afford it. I worked hard at a local restaurant and saved some of the money, but the due date came and I didn’t have enough. As usual, my parents bailed me out. Señora then told me that while in Spain there would be an optional day trip to Toledo that would cost extra. Of course I told Señora S that I was going to have to pass on it – She wouldn’t hear of it and paid my fee for the trip to Toledo because she didn’t want me to miss it.

The trip to Europe included a few cities in Italy, then Vatican City, Monaco, one city in France and then a few cities in Spain, in that order. In Rome, drunk on freedom, I snuck out to a discoteca the first night. While drinking a second Rum & Coke, I chatted with a guy from Mexico.

“¿Tienes una novia?” I asked.
“¿Aquí o en México?” he responded, completely serious. He had no idea why I laughed and found someone else to dance with.

The next day in Florence I got lost and asked a man on the street where my hotel was. It turned out he was quite drunk or crazy, but had an impeccable sense of direction. He escorted me to the hotel but then proceeded to enter the lobby and almost get into a fist fight with the manager. In turn the manager wanted to kick our group out of the hotel. Señora S was not amused. This situation called for much more than a simple “Ay, ReNée.” – I almost got sent home, after only a couple days in Europe. Señora S warned me that I better not step a single toe out of line for the rest of the trip. “And don’t think I don’t know about your fun last night,” she whispered.

I behaved for the rest of the trip, (or at least kept my trouble-making less obvious.) Some of the fun Señora S didn’t find out about, (or pretended not to know of), included, sitting on people’s doorsteps and tricking tourists into thinking I was a local. I bought a scarf at the market and tied it over my head babushka-style. My simple costume paired with pretend broken English, fooled tourists every time. I also got kicked by a palace guard in Monaco for apparently sitting somewhere I wasn’t supposed to sit.

By the time we arrived in Spain, I was out of money and surviving on the stale bread and coffee that was our free continental breakfast, (with the occasional sip of Sangria.) My memories of Spain are mostly memories of hunger.

On the final day of our trip I had the luck to enjoy a cup of thick, rich hot chocolate that a friend bought for me just before we got onto the bus. Unfortunately, this wasn’t instant hot cocoa like we have here at home, made with water and a packet of chocolate-flavored mix. This was real hot chocolate, made with very real milk.

After so many days of not eating much, the Spanish hot chocolate didn’t agree with me. I felt my tummy begin to churn and my cheeks flush. I begged the bus driver to make an unscheduled stop and ran to the restrooms. My moment of relief was fleeting as I entered the actual bathroom and looked at the “toilet”… Here was something even more perplexing than the bidets I had previously encountered – It was a hole in the floor. I was so desperate that I tried to use it, but I had no idea how to do so without making a complete mess. Defeated, I pulled my pants back up, deciding to hold it until we got to our destination and more modern facilities.

Despite all the fun, by the end of our trip, I was definitely ready to go home. All these years later, I reflect back on the impact these teachers had on who I am today, and how profoundly they affected the trajectory of my life, and I smile… en español.


  1. …being another Tracy, I remember the no-translation problem in Japanese class too…

    oh my! What a trip!
    I am lucky I was pre-warned about public restroom facilities before I went to Italy. There were some hole-in-the-floor ones there too. And if there was an actual toilet, NEVER a seat, so it was thighs-of-steel by the end of the 2 weeks.

    That would heve been amazing going as a school group! My family never would have let me go even if I could have saved the money.

    • @ *pol – “thighs of steel” – YES! lol… in the end, I think my thighs were not strong enough to properly use “the hole”.

      I’m surprised my parents let me. (Maybe they shouldn’t have! lol.)

  2. My daughter’s school is offering something similar, only, as a mom who remembers clearly being young and stupid, I’m going along. 11 is too young in my handbook, besides, passing up 8 days in Costa Rica? No way Jose! The four grand it is costing us is quite a burden, but if not now, when? I can’t wait, and I’m infinitely more excited than all the kids combined. Our group of 30 or so only has 2 kids without parents going, so I won’t be “babysitting” much either. Can’t wait!!

  3. Bravo, bravo! You made me literally LOL at the Mexican in Italy. That’s it! We must meet one day in this life & discuss our parallel lives. Then I can make you lol at the adventures from my trips to Spain and Mexico. I’ve never met a stranger with whom I share so many similarities on such an uncoventional life path. :)

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