Recently, while catching a connecting flight in Atlanta’s airport, I saw two women standing still, obstructing the terminal walkway, clearly unsure about how to navigate America’s busiest airport.
I walked up and asked if I could help. Realizing that they were speaking Spanish, my high school Spanish studies immediately kicked in.
“¿Dónde tiene que ir el próximo?”
I asked them where they needed to go. Then I showed them how to find their gate and escorted them to the connecting train.
Was it perfect? Probably not. Could they understand me? For the most part. Were they relieved? Yes!
This is just one of many ways I have been able to use the world-class Spanish instruction I received in high school, thanks to the string of high-quality Spanish teachers that taught me. Even though more than ten years has come and gone since I was actively studying Spanish, knowing how to speak it continually puts me in the position to serve others in need.
The Spanish teacher who, hands down, left the most indelible impact on me was Sra. Martha Laurent, a Cuban-born American who moved to Florida in her early teens.
After 36 years of teaching, 30 of which were at my alma mater, Bartow Sr. High School, she is retiring today, June 6. I’m not sure if my high school will ever be the same without her.
Over the holidays, my former classmates and I reflected on who stood out as an outstanding teacher. The overwhelming consensus was Sra. Laurent. And that’s no small feat at our International Baccalaureate high school, a top performer in state and national high school rankings.
Her dedication to our campus was invaluable. She chaired our annual holiday ball, Noel. She organized trips to Europe (one of which I was fortunate enough to take) for students to experience other cultures first-hand. She sponsored foreign language clubs and took the members to competitions, where they would often place among the best in the state.
She set her expectations exceedingly high, and I would beat myself up if I disappointed her or arrived to class unprepared.
Her sense of humor and unique English accent, sprinkled with both Hispanic and southern colloquialisms, made her class fun.
I will never forget the way she handled the tragedy of 9/11. We were in her class that morning, and the first time we saw the towers in flames was on Univision Spanish-language news. So we could understand the reporting in full, she changed the channel to national network television, then reassured and comforted us as we began to learn the gravity of what was unfolding.
Her pride in America is unmatched. I’ll never forget the stories she would tell us about life in Fidel Castro’s Cuba, and she would routinely remind us how blessed we all were to live in the United States.
When I last spoke with Sra. Laurent, she told me that when she retires this year, there won’t be a fancy party or big celebration. She doesn’t want one. But my goodness, does she deserve it — the kind of exit Mr. Holland got from his opus.
Sra. Laurent, my classmates and I can never thank you enough for the lasting impact on us. Thanks for giving me the confidence and skills to assist others who are battling language barriers. And thank you for your lifetime of service to the students and families of Bartow, Fla.
I will continue to speak Spanish, practice and serve others with it in your honor.
About the author
Kate Wallace @kstreetfla
Kate serves as the Director of Community Engagement (North Florida) for the Foundation for Florida's Future (AFloridaPromise). Prior to joining AFloridaPromise, Kate served as Legislative Coordinator for The Fiorentino Group, a Florida government affairs firm based in Jacksonville. Previously, Kate served as government affairs assistant for the Washington office of Triadvocates, an Arizona government relations firm, and as staff assistant for the Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., federal government relations office. As a college student, Kate interned for the White House in Vice President Dick Cheney’s Office of Domestic Policy and for former Florida Congressman Adam Putnam’s Capitol Hill office. A central Florida native, Kate graduated from University of Florida in 2007 with a B.S. in Public Relations. Contact Kate at Kate@aFloridaPromise.org.