Se habla español: a tribute to the Swat Spanish department

I think I’ve always done best with a plan.

Despite lauding the liberal arts to anyone who inquired about my obscure college selection (most high achieving seniors at my public high school went to the state flagship university), and appreciating the unique options presented to me upon registration, I was a little overwhelmed with the task of crafting the perfect first semester. I needed a plan, and I needed to fulfill the language requirement, so I registered for Spanish 2B, an accelerated intro course that (theoretically) matched my skill level upon matriculation.

I’m pretty sure I cried after the first class.

Mafalda, an Argentine comic strip and personal favorite of Profesora Buiza. We often analyzed the cartoons in Spanish 3.

In high school, I had taken my first-ever semester of Spanish with a creative and dynamic teacher, but followed it with one semester of online Spanish, the only option that would allow me to maximize AP classes in my schedule. (Before you judge me, I’m not sure I know anyone who hasn’t at some point prioritized GPA over interests). Needless to say, I didn’t speak much Spanish in either of those classes, and I guess I didn’t realize that that would be different at Swat. I allowed the placement test to lull me into complacency.

“Uhh… me llamo Kenzie… y… estoy de Carolina de Norte. Crap, I mean soy. Soy de Carolina del Norte.”

Mi compañera on the very first day was sympathetic to my floundering, but it wasn’t reassuring that she dropped the class within the week. I was alone, incapable of expressing myself, and facing the reality that for the first time in my life, I was worst student in the room, and everyone knew it.

So first, I came up with a plan to quit. They could move me back to intro, right? No harm, no foul. But after a couple teary conversations con mi madre, and with my SAM and teammates and everyone else who fondly reflects on the carefree days of pass/fail, I came up with a plan to stick it out. I may have been the girl who didn’t know ser from estar, but I wasn’t going to be the girl who gave up.

Kohlberg, the primary building for modern languages, and where I had class every day for the past year.

At the end of last semester, the conclusion of my freshmen year at Swarthmore, I sent all four of my Spanish professors the same email – a story not too different from this one. I began by lamenting the fact that it was in English, as it was not in itself demonstrative of the progress I had made. But nonetheless I expressed gratitude to Profesora Vargas for helping me find my voice, and to Profesor Adrian for facilitating the most humor I have ever encountered in an academic setting. I praised Profesora Buiza for encouraging my questions, and Profesora Julia for never letting me settle for less than my best.  

I’m not sure who gets credit for ser y estar.

In return, I received what meant more to me than the ‘A,’ and more to me than any other accomplishment at Swarthmore:

“Querido McKenzie,

Eras unos de los mejores estudiantes en Español 3, y sé que lo serás en Español 4.”

Don’t get me wrong, I still love plans. But I’ve come so far from when my plan was to fulfill the language requirement and get out, to switch to an easier class because it was too hard to speak poorly in front of my peers, or to sit in the back of the room and hope I was never called on.

My Spanish 2B class,  taught by Adrian, having class outside on a beautiful fall day.

So I made a new plan.

I decided to take Español 4. I decided to prioritize learning a second language as much as I would a lab science, or a major requirement, if not more. I decided to study abroad in a Spanish-speaking country someday, and I decided to aim for the Spanish minor, even though starting at such a basic level means I will have to put in a lot more work.

Most important, however, I decided to never be afraid of making mistakes. I decided to never let the first day of class dictate how successful I will be later on. And I decided that being the worst wasn’t actually the worst. Y por eso, the Swarthmore Spanish department has taught me a lot more than what I need to be successful in class.

Me enseñó algo que usaré por todo mi vida.

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