Ms. Snyder recounts the difficulties and triumphs of her year in Spain.
Monday morning’s All-School Assembly launches with whatever the Teacher On Active Duty (TOAD) wishes to share—a reflection, a story or song, a demonstration of some sort, or a simple poem. In this way, every week of the school year, the community gets to know one of our own a little better. Theana Snyder, whose TOADTalk is featured below, teaches math, advises, coaches, and camps. Ms. Snyder has worked at the School since 2001.
Last year, my family and I were away from Thacher on our sabbatical. I was teaching at School Year Abroad in Zaragoza, Spain. As many of you know, SYA is a study abroad program for junior and senior high school students. Math and English classes are taught in English and all other classes are taught in Spanish. This worked out well for me because I don’t speak Spanish. Therefore, SYA gave me a fantastic opportunity to be able to teach in a non-English-speaking country.
Besides the fact that I was with my family and was teaching math, in most other respects, my life in Spain was completely different from my life at Thacher. We were living in a city (population 700,000), as opposed to Ojai (population: 8,000). Within a five minute walk of our 4th-floor apartment were two parks, multiple grocery stores, the stadium for the local professional soccer team (Real Zaragoza), a mall, a movie theater, two public swimming pools, and multiple cafes and restaurants. Here at Thacher, within a five-minute walk of our apartment, we can find...Thacher. In Spain, we didn’t own a car and got around mostly by walking or taking the bus. Mr. Snyder walked Gavin, Zoey, and Luke to and from school about three-quarters of a mile away from our apartment. Here, though we could theoretically walk the kids to school at Monica Ros, we don’t have the time and thus drive the three minutes down the hill.
Moving to Spain and not knowing Spanish has helped me to have enormous empathy for someone moving to a foreign country and not knowing the language. There is no way that I would have survived last year without help and lots of it. We arrived in Zaragoza in August, which is vacation time in Spain. Really, just about everybody goes away somewhere for the month of August; Zaragoza was a ghost town when we arrived. All of my Spanish colleagues were on vacation, and thus, we were left to fend for ourselves. Mr. Snyder, with his two years of Spanish studying (and his rating of 57 percent fluency on Duolingo) helped us through those first few weeks. He was able to get us connected to cell phones, bus passes, etc. and we slowly explored our neighborhood, finding the best grocery stores and parks.
Once SYA started up, I had access to many more people who could help me. This was vitally important, as very few people in Zaragoza speak any English, and thus I had a really hard time functioning as soon as I stepped outside. My first few months there, I was petrified to say anything. I would quickly announce “No hablo Espanol” whenever someone tried to start a conversation with me. It was so bad that I was scared to even try to order a coffee. “Cafe con leche, por favor” would have worked fine, but I was too scared to even try that! Instead, I relied on Dr. Invernizzi and my fellow SYA colleagues to order for me. The longer I was there, the more comfortable I became, and eventually, I was able to pick up a bit of Spanish, gaining the ability to catch some words and phrases here and there.
But, there were many times in which I was reminded that I indeed did not know the language of the place where I was living, reminders that were challenging because they made it hard for me to feel very independent. Mr. Snyder only went away two times while we were in Spain, but I think the following two stories stand out to me because I knew that I didn’t have him to back me up. His Spanish got our family through most of the important interactions that we had in Spain—ordering food, talking to the plumber, making travel arrangements (because for some reason, in Spain, you still have to use a travel agent?), and doctor’s visits. Many, many doctor’s visits. For some reason, the Snyder family couldn’t stay healthy for five minutes during our year abroad. Zoey alone caught bronchitis, pneumonia, roseola, the flu, and a few other ailments. Gavin had strep throat, Luke needed stitches in his forehead, and I contracted a case of food poisoning so bad I had to go to the hospital. Mr. Snyder himself caught the two worst cases of the flu of his life and had to take himself to the hospital twice, not to mention a football injury or two. Our health insurance required a complicated process to get approval for care at the emergency room, and so every time anybody got sick, Mr. Snyder had to go through that whole process in his broken Spanish—and then do his best to try to figure out the plan of care that the doctor was explaining.
In October of last year, Mr. Snyder spent four days away in London for a project related to his Master’s program. During those four days, I had to drop the kids off early at school in order to get to SYA for my first-period class. One morning, when we arrived early, there were a bunch of other parents and kids milling around outside of the gate, as the daycare teacher had not yet arrived. There seemed to be an animated discussion happening between the other parents. When I started to try to understand what was happening, I saw one of those parents point to a sign taped to the front of the school. The word HUELGA was written in large letters on the sign. I quickly pulled out my phone and typed the word “huelga” into Google Translate. My heart sank as the translation came up on the screen. “Strike!” What was I going to do with the kids that day? I had to go to work! Nobody there spoke English. As a non-Spanish speaker, I had no ability to figure out what was going on, except for that one scary word. I had no babysitter, no backup plan. So I gathered the kids and walked away from the school, not knowing what to do. I was on my way up the street with the kids when the daycare teacher came running down the street apologizing. Apparently, she had overslept. It turned out that the poster about the strike had nothing to do with a strike at my children’s school. For a few minutes there, I was in a panic, all because I didn’t know what was happening and thought I had nowhere to bring my kids while I went to work. Thankfully, everything turned out ok—after a great deal of anxiety!
Later in the year, Mr. Snyder had to fly to New York City for his graduation from his Master’s program. While he was away, I got a phone call from Luke’s teacher. She knew that I didn’t speak Spanish, and thus she spoke very slowly for me. Here’s what I remember from the conversation. “Soy Silvia….Luke…..dedo…..entiendes?” (Which translates to, “This is Silvia. Luke, finger...do you understand?”). I understood that much, but nothing more. Silvia then said, “Espera,” which I knew meant, “Wait,” and a few minutes later, a new voice appeared on the phone—somebody who could translate for us. Apparently, Luke had slammed his finger in the door. They demanded that I come to the school. I went to pick up a very sad and teary Luke and his teacher insisted that I take him to the doctor. This caused me to panic a bit because, again, there was no way I could get through a doctor’s visit without Mr. Snyder to translate. So, I took him to SYA instead to ask my colleagues for advice. I brought him to all of the moms there and asked for their opinion (everyone agreed that it did not require a visit to the doctor). Instead, we took him to the pharmacy down the street and did a patch-up job of our own. I took him to lunch at Burger King, which turned his day around, and then I dropped him off back at school.
The truth is, it’s pretty amazing how smoothly the year went. The stories I just told you were some of the most stressful moments of our entire sabbatical, so I’d say that we were doing pretty well. Even the language barrier was usually just kind of funny. (Just as one example, early in the year I saw a homeless woman with a sign that said, “Tengo hambre,” and I turned to Mr. Snyder and said, “Why is she saying she needs a man?”) And when I really had a problem, I had lots of people willing to help me. I made friends that were happy to practice their English with me and I tried to pick up words and phrases of Spanish from them, as well. My colleagues at SYA were fantastic, as were the other parents at our kids’ school. I was really, really lucky to have the opportunity to feel just a little bit unsettled and stimulated while still feeling secure and safe and comfortable and happy.
I am not a person who embraces change. Living in a different country where I didn’t speak the language was a challenge, to be sure, but I learned a tremendous amount, not just about Spanish, but about living somewhere else as a fish out of water. Honestly, I had an amazing year. I made good friends (such as Dr. Invernizzi who has joined us here), we traveled, we ate well, I enjoyed the students that I taught and I shared another culture with my children. A friend of ours said it best in an email that she sent us while we were away: “This incredible experience will definitely teach you so much. These are the everyday struggles that some in our community go through to give their kids better lives here in the states. They leave their homes and move to a place where they don't understand or speak the language, and/or agree with everything culture-wise, but they do it for their kids in the hopes that they have a better life. This will definitely help you understand people in those communities better. I truly admire what you guys are doing and teaching the kids.”
Freshmen, you are all doing this right now. You are new to a place and don’t know the customs. Seniors, after getting very comfortable at Thacher, you will be adapting to a new community shortly. And I challenge you all to continue to do this in the moments in between. Make yourself a little uncomfortable. Try something new. Risk looking a little silly or clueless in order to learn something. Go after those “carefully calibrated challenges” that Mr. Mulligan always talks about. Because, after my year in Spain, I can tell you, first-hand, that it pays off.