She was nobody’s favorite teacher – unless you’re talking about their favorite to mock. Mrs. Aleu came from Cuba and her dialect had a Castilian flavor. She wore hopelessly old-fashioned clothing and earrings that looked like ice cubes.
She had a temper that burned at the slightest infraction of the class rules. Once she said “Empezamos” (we begin) no one was allowed to use English in class – and woe unto anyone who didn’t conjugate or enunciate properly.
She surrounded us with Spanish culture. She played Spanish records and hung the album covers on the walls. I’ll never forget Sarita Montiel’s album cover. Sarita didn’t sing modern songs, but the guys enjoyed her picture – since Sarita’s cleavage was on prominent display.
Mrs. Aleu realized this. Before each day’s lessons, she pointed to that album cover. “Now boys,” she began. “Joo need to behave. Eef joo don’t, I take away sexy peek-choor.”
The boys thus did their best to be good – in the classroom. But they mocked her the minute they stepped into the halls.
Fortunately for me - and my report card - I learned Spanish quickly. Also fortunately, I was a good mimic of accents - so I found it easier than some other classmates to win her favor.
I was her favorite student. She told me so. To my chagrin, she also told the rest of the class.
“Clase,” she addressed them. “Joo must listen to Susana. She speaks Es-Spanish the way it is meant to be es-spoken.”
Although I was glad I got A’s, I was teased because of this. It wasn’t like I’d been popular to begin with – but that speech destroyed any future chance of popularity.
She didn’t stop with just teaching me. She also commented on many other aspects of my life. For example, she chastised me because I held hands with my boyfriend.
“Susana,” she told me. “I see joo holding hands weeth jore boyfriend. When hands touch together: ees fire game. The fire burns. He may even want to keess you! And… joo know what hoppens then. Nine months later: nino!”
I might have rolled my eyes at her hyperbole, but I knew if I wanted to maintain her favor, I’d keep my handholding out of her view. After all, I liked getting those A’s.
At the end of my senior year, I paid the ultimate price for her favoritism. For the graduation assembly, Mrs. Aleu asked me to do a presentation. But I didn’t just have to read some Spanish speech or do a report in Spanish. It was much worse than that.
I had to sing a song, in Spanish. A Sarita Montiel song.
The song Mrs. Aleu wanted me to sing was “Besame” (Kiss Me). How could I stand in front of the entire school and beg someone to kiss me? Many students in the school had been in her classes; too many would know what “besame” means.
I feared I’d be humiliated in front of the entire school. I told Mrs. Aleu “it’s impossible.”
She answered me with one of her favorite Spanish proverbs: “Imposible solo existe en el mundo de los incapaces” (Impossible only exists in the world of the incapable). Well, I felt pretty incapable – but it didn’t look like I had a choice.
As I faced the assembled students, I wished the stage would swallow me. But it didn’t, of course and soon, I was singing:
“Besame, besame mucho
Como si fuera esta noche
La ultima vez
Besame, besame mucho
Que tengo miedo perderte; perderte despues” *
Afterward, I bolted from the stage and tried to avoid everyone. To my horror, I was greeted by Henry Graham. Henry was the leader of the guys who mocked Mrs. Aleu. He was also a major hottie.
“Hey, Susana, that was OK.”
“Um, thanks,” I mumbled.
If this was an Afternoon Special, I’d end up tutoring Henry, helping him pass Spanish, dating him and probably living happily ever after.
But this was real life, and that’s all he said. Then he and his jock friends slouched down the hall; laughing and poking each other with their elbows.
Were they making fun of Mrs. Aleu – or me? Probably both. But I’d done the thing I’d feared was impossible – and survived. And although I’d probably have to hide from my classmates for the rest of the school year, I felt like that survival made me feel pretty “capable.”
*Besame – written by Consuelo Velasquez
”Kiss me, kiss me a lot.
As if tonight was the last time
Kiss me, kiss me a lot.
I am afraid I’ll lose you after tonight.”
Author’s note: This is a true story. I took Spanish 40 years ago, but because of this teacher’s vigilance, I learned it well enough to still be able to speak it passably.
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