As I have mentioned ad nauseam, I learned how to be a mentor to old students from my professor Aaron Nurick, who has been keeping an eye on me for over thirty years, which at this point makes him more of a friend than a mentor.
Bill is one of my old students who invited me to Film Club (you can read about that here), and who as an accomplished violist, invited me to his recent concert in Miami. I would like to think that I am a bit of a mentor to him.
The Sphinx Virtuosi is an orchestra formed by minority Black and Latino musicians. Their concert equally featuring Black and Latino composers was glorious. Granted, I had not been to a live concert since before Covid, over two years ago, but it was still divine.
Driving to Miami is an odious experience, there is always traffic no matter what time you go. And if there is no traffic, there is construction, which inevitably leads to traffic, so there is no avoiding the frustration of sitting in a car at standstill.
But once I parked and I was walking around, all my tension washed away. The concert was at the Frank Gehry designed New World Center in Miami Beach, which, while not as whimsical as say, the Guggenheim in Bilbao, it is still very cool and has a breathtaking rooftop garden.
The concert itself was a refreshing mix of melodic Latin tunes like Alberto Ginastera’s Concerto for Strings and the haunting Andrea Casarrubios’ SEVEN in honor of the fallen first responders during the first Covid outbreak in New York City (SEVEN references the time folks would clap from their windows to celebrate the first responders). This was a mournful concerto for solo cello played beautifully by Tommy Mesa -another old student at Walnut Hill! (See clip below).
After the concert we walked to a great Peruvian restaurant where we had a long chat over excellent food and beers. I cannot wait for my next concert, nor to see more of my old students!
A few months ago I got a request from an old teacher colleague and friend to read his book ahead of the publishing date so I could write a pre-review to get the word out. I got the PDF and had it printed at my friendly neighborhood copy shop – where they accidentally printed it twice and bound it as one, making a hefty tome and an environmental tragedy in one. I did not notice until I started reading it weeks later, by which time it was too late to do anything about it but to work on my biceps.
I posted my review on Goodreads. Amazon, on the other hand, will not let me post it because I have not spent $50 in the last 12 months with them, something I am actually quite proud of. At any rate, here is the review, now go read the book!!
Ring on Deli is a rara avis of the current literary scene. Here is a well-built narrative, with a solid cast of characters that add human depth, texture, and color to a story about complex local -and national- issues such as capitalism, education, local government, even pest control! A story that makes you think, laugh, worry, and cheer. Ring on Deli, although satirical in spirit points to real, current concerns. Eric Giroux has hit the nail on the head with his style: a bit of John Irving to weave the narrative, a bit of Philip Roth for dark humor, and a bit of DBC Pierre for freshness, like cilantro. Using satire to sway opinion is as old as literature itself. From Medieval texts to current opinion journalism, through Voltaire and Swift, all have relied heavily on satire to avoid censorship and inquisition (both real and figurative). Ring on Deli is a brilliant read that I recommend without reservations.
This is the first year in a long time that I am not coaching nor even playing football (soccer for the Philistines on the other side of the pond). Instead I get to see all my nephew’s games from the stands – and it is fun!
For fourteen years I coached soccer. One of the first schools I worked at (Milton Academy) needed an assistant Boys Varsity coach, having played more or less all my life I got the gig! Walnut Hill being an arts school did not have an athletic program, but that did not stop us from playing pickup on Friday afternoons, we had a blast. And we found out that future K Pop star Eddy Kim had a lovely touch! At Buckingham Browne and Nichols they needed a Girls Varsity Assistant coach, that changed my whole perspective on the sport. I had never payed much attention to girls soccer, but I quickly found out that they play as a team much more than the boys do. They pass the ball much more, and big plus, they look like they are listening to the coach!
At UNC I really had the football bug, so I organized the Romance Studies Community Soccer program to play on Friday afternoons. This was a great way of getting the grad students together with some undergrads and different folks that would join. It was good fun and occasionally a bit competitive which gave it a good edge!
At Seacrest Country Day in Naples Florida, I was honored to be the Head Girls Varsity coach. These girls worked super hard and we had a great two seasons, building a team. Since Seacrest is a small school, the sense of community is very big and I really felt embraced by the team. Occasionally I would step in to help out the boys’ team. One such time was the District final game which we won for the first time in history. What a thrill to have been on the sideline of that game!
Now back in the old country I miss coaching, but every Saturday with my sister and sometimes my nieces I enjoy just watching my nephew play! It is all the fun, without the responsibilities, and, of course, I get to critique the coaches – and the players!! Vamos Chamar!!
Playing hooky with Victoria (she had an eye infection)
Back to Alfredo’s Barbacoa with friends
It might not be New England, but it’s still beautiful
Taking my girls to the Nutcracker
In Madrid even the trash has art
My favorite tapa in Madrid (secret location)
Back with my buddy Don Miguel (de Cervantes) buried here
Decent tapas bars
Hanging out with my niece (in front of Muji)
And so, fourteen years after leaving Spain, I return home to my beloved Madrid. My exile is over. There are two main reasons to explain my homecoming: a personal and a professional:
The first is family. My mom is 85 years old and not getting any younger, health issues start popping up with more and more frequency, her hearing is diminishing. So I decided to be with her. She lives in a big old apartment downtown and it is wonderful to have breakfast with her, help her with the cleaning and maintenance of the apartment and hang out with her throughout the day. My sister lives nearby with her three great kids who are growing up so fast (13, 11 and 7). Last week I went to my nephew’s soccer game and it was marvelous to see him score two goals. My oldest niece and god-daughter is just starting her teenage years and I am happy to be here to support her. As for the little one, the other day she was dropped off at home with an eye infection that kept her away from school, so I took her with me for my coffee and errands and we had a blast!
Just like family there are friends, old friends, real friends, friends that I have missed, friends that listen, that help you, that make you laugh, friends that are not afraid to call you out. And last, but not least, as the great late Robin Williams as psychologist Sean says to Will (Matt Damon) in the awesome Good Will Hunting: “I gotta see about a girl.”
The second and also important reason is a professional one, a pedagogical one. Over the years I have gotten tired of the narrow American definition of success, and of teaching in schools that thrive and endorse this way of life implicitly and explicitly. I have been fortunate to teach at schools like Seacrest and Walnut Hill, where the emphasis was much more on the humanistic development of the child. Even “pressure cooker” schools like Buckingham Browne and Nichols in Boston had a solid notion of a quality of life not necessarily related to money or the rat race. I believe that everybody in a school, (and in any community for that matter) students and teachers, benefit from playing, from hanging out, from conversation. Maybe as I get older I value quiet, and time, I believe in the beauty of conversation, of enjoying a chat and a coffee. We have the scientific evidence that happiness is not based on your SAT scores.
School athletics are, or should be, an extension of the classroom. Any other approach: the hyper competitive, the path to college or pro sports, or the “keep them busy”, is misguided and possibly more harmful than beneficial to an adolescent. Having said that, it is of course healthy and necessary to be competitive, to have a keen eye for exceptional talent and, of course, to have sports be fun and entertaining.
In my case, I was lucky to start coaching and teaching at the same time allowing me to learn the important and symbiotic relationship between the classroom and the sports field. What is more, I often find the classroom a sterile place where students turn on the “auto-pilot” when they walk in and just focus on the day’s lesson. Sports require a different mind-set. First, you cannot sit there and wait to have the lesson delivered, if you do, then sitting –on the bench– is what you will get, come game day. Second, research has proven how activity wakes up your brain cells, making you more receptive to learning, and finally, of course, sports are fun, more so than say, the imperfect subjunctive in Spanish.
My first coaching gig was Assistant Boys Varsity Soccer at Milton Academy, followed by Head Boys JV Tennis. Since then I have coached girls varsity soccer, boys tennis, even co-ed fencing at Buckingham Brown and Nichols! (I had a brief introduction to foil in my college days). I was even the Ski Club advisor at Walnut Hill. Each season has been a great learning journey and a lot of fun. What I enjoy the most are the life lessons that can be taught on the field and on the endless bus and van rides to and from games. Seacrest does not have vans, let alone a bus, so students have to provide their own transport to local games, something that other than dangerous, takes away a big part of being in a team, which is the camaraderie. Few things are as bonding as that ride.
In Florida, football (the one where they carry something that is not a ball with their hands) is a religion, so schools do not book many sports that might interfere with football. Fall sports other than football are limited to swimming and cross-country. So soccer is played in the winter, which is fine when you consider that Florida does not have a winter per se.
At Seacrest I coached the Girls Varsity Soccer team. Our season had a massive learning curve with 11 losses and 2 wins, but we had a great time! By the end of the season we had figured out how the back four are supposed to work. Next season we shall figure out how the front end should work. The girls put in a great effort and it was very rewarding to see them improve and learn how to move on the field.
In the Spring I coached the Girls Varsity Tennis. Although an individual sport, tennis in the US is played as a team sport in High School and University. Each game consists of five singles games and two doubles games, with a point won per game. Our team has some very high level players that train with a coach every day and some less so, including a total beginner, which made for a very diverse and “human” team. We even had 8th grade girls move up for games when we had injuries or absences. This was a great experience for the little ones that offered them a chance to play with the “big girls” and gain valuable experience for next year. On Wednesdays, when some players where practicing with their coaches and we did not have access to the courts because the boys or the middle school where playing a game, we would hit the gym, or practice yoga on one of the lawns. Yes, our record was much better than at soccer, our Third Singles player was nominated Prep of the week by the local paper and she even won the District title for her category!
The main problem with coaching is how time-consuming it is. There is practice every day after school from 4:30 to 6, and then there are games, some are an hour away in Fort Myers which means getting back to school as late as 11 which is bad enough for the coach, but the poor players! The local paper must be informed of game scores so they can publish the results, practice drills must be prepared, etc. Basically I had no life from mid-October to mid-April.
If we do not take time to appreciate beauty, how are we spending our time? This year has been another remarkable year for art, culture and beauty in Chapel Hill. It is a town with an exquisite taste for that which is beautiful. I have been lucky to enjoy that, even when in the stress of finishing my dissertation I had to miss some great performances.
The season started for me with Juliette Binoche, of whom I have been a big fan since the 80s, playing Sophokles’ Antigone in the T.S. Eliot translation, what a presence! I love strong women (now you know my vote for November 8).
Two days later Shaham played Verdi and Tchaikovsky with the UNC Symphony.
As I become older, I have become more and more selective in my taste, but being a lover of the Portuguese Fado, I went to see Mariza, It was very nice, although I miss the tavernas in Alfama.
Another highlight of the year was listening to Riccardo Muti, directing the Chicago Symphony’s Beethoven’s Fifth and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth. Of course as an encore he regaled us with some Verdi!
In November I saw The Ensemble Intercontemporain play some modern pieces. Pierre Boulez’s sur Incises for three pianos, three harps and three percussion blew my mind. Rock and Rollers talk about Phil Spector’s “Wall of sound”, I have also heard it mentioned about Brian Eno and U2, but this piece is more like a tactile wall of sound, like a curtain of sound. Watch for yourself and tell me what you think in the comments section!
Before the Christmas break, I saw the great Carolina Ballet’s Nutcracker. Don’t mess with tradition.
Gil Shaham performed again in February, playing Prokofiev and Beethoven and I got to go with my composer friend, James.
After defending and delivering my dissertation I managed to catch a few more great events. The evening my dissertation was accepted by the Graduate School, I rode old Rocinante to a nice opera recital in Durham, Talya Lieberman sang a fantastic mix of Handel, Ravel, and Kurt Weill. Brava!
Back at UNC’s Memorial Hall I saw Les Arts Florissants perform a repertoire of Baroque Serious Airs and Drinking Songs. What a brilliant way to say farewell to four great years of jaw dropping concerts at Carolina Performing Arts.
Again with my dear friend James, we saw the North Carolina Symphony perform Handel, Haydn and Stravinsky’s modernist masterpiece The Firebird (1919).
On the theater front I saw not one, but two, Chekhov plays: Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard, which the last time I saw performed was by my students at the Walnut Hill School for the Arts! I also snuck in one musical: Sweeney Todd, lovely Gore!!!
Of course I always support students’ productions and concerts which included two operas, the UNC Baroque Ensemble, the UNC Symphony Orchestra, and the University Chamber Players.
All in all, an extremely rewarding season, the likes of which I do not foresee enjoying in the near future.
Obligatory pre concert drink with the one and only music guru Mr. James
Preparing for Pierre Boulez’s sur incises (in good post structuralist form there are no caps)
Memorial Hall will stay in my memory
The Baroque Ensemble in Person Hall, UNC’s first chapel!
That is Riccardo Muti, you can tell by his great hair!
Ah yes, that time again when one has to start thinking of finding a job. Since this will be (Insha’Allah) my last (academic) year at UNC. I have to start thinking of what I will be doing come September of 2016…
One of the few things I am certain of is that I am passionate about teaching, especially my language, my culture, my literature. I am hopeful that someone somewhere will need a Spanish teacher with over ten years teaching experience and a PhD in Spanish Literature for next year.
Narrowing down my job options, I would love to be the coordinator of an American university’s study abroad program in Spain – ideally in Spain, near my family. But I know I will thrive teaching at a small liberal arts college or at a secondary school where I can also be a “dorm parent” and coach, what they call in the business a “triple threat”.
Where? You ask. Well I must confess I have fallen in love with the South – who wouldn’t? and I do love the East coast, its history, culture, and relative proximity to Europe. But I would love to explore new grounds: Asia, Korea or Japan, the Middle East, Africa, Oceania, and of course old Europe, make me an offer!!
Experience? In my first job I was in charge of training / coaching / herding? the summer interns that came to Grantham Mayo and Van Otterloo in Boston. From then on in the late 80s I have always enjoyed the training and mentoring part of my jobs. During my stint as a stockbroker in Madrid since I was not doing much in the teaching/coaching/mentoring realm I volunteered to teach English at the Colegio de Huerfanos de la Guardia Civil in Madrid As a sales manager I was in charge of team training and later as consultant I would do the same around Latin America. Once I had my own company from ´94 to ´04 I loved all the training that happened for new employees. We even organized yearly retreats with a coach to help us improve. In 2005 I started my professional teaching career teaching at public schools, private schools and at UNC for the last three years.
They say in Spain “el movimiento se demuestra andando” (something like movement is proven by walking) so here are a couple of videos of me trying to teach. One at Walnut Hill, the oldest private arts school in the US and my first semester at UNC. In case you are really interested I have also included my abridged CV, feel free to ask for any more info!!
This month marks the tenth anniversary of my moving back to the US. I do not really know if it has flown by or inched along, I have little concept of time, and more so of ten years, and ten years where so much has happened.
Ten years ago I closed my company in Madrid, my baby that I created from scratch, Inter Tape. I had no clue what to do. It was my then wife, Tracy – and I will forever be indebted to her – who proposed that we move back to the US and encouraged me to get into teaching, how right she was!
Our first destination, where Tracy got a job at was the quaint village of Newburyport on the North Shore of Boston. It was a tough winter: I was jobless – other than subbing at the local schools, we were whacked with a snow storm every week for two months, Tracy disliked her job and we were starting a new life from zilch. But the town was very cute and we enjoyed that.
That summer we moved to a prestigious private school outside of Boston. I got a break teaching Spanish at the local High School where one of the teachers had left for the year on maternity leave. It was a baptism of fire as I have said before, but I earned my wings before starting at the oldest private arts prep school in the country, Walnut Hill. For four years I thrived there, growing into myself as a teacher and loving it, loving my department, my colleagues and the dedicated and talented students!
That was professionally, my private life, unbeknown to me was slowly eroding. I did not make friends, missed the city life and its stimulation, things did not seem to move forward as planned, we lived as dorm parents in a dorm, which takes away quite a bit of privacy, etc. Not to bore you with details, but I lost it five years ago. I imploded my life, my family, my job. Starting from scratch again meant going back to college, this time for my PhD, moving away from Boston, to the South that fascinates me, and being the gypsy I am, setting up camp here.
So that is my tenth anniversary story of my moving to the US! (the abbreviated and concise edition)
This has been a very difficult semester from a teaching standpoint. I feel that my teaching capacity, ability and integrity has been questioned. So looking over stuff that I have written about teaching, I found these thoughts that I wrote last year to apply for a teaching conference (I later found out it is basically only available to All But Dissertation candidates, so I have to wait). At any rate, here it is:
It took a mid-life crisis for me to realize that my true calling in life was teaching. That was nine years ago, and I have not looked back since. Teaching, I discovered, is my passion, my raison d’être. Although I recognized my enthusiasm for literature when I read Hemingway and Borges in high school, it took me twenty-two years to learn what I wanted to do for the rest of my life: To return to the classroom as a teacher and to devote myself to work in a field about which I feel so strongly.
Sharing is what motivates me. Sharing my knowledge, my culture, my language. My first full-time teaching experience was in a budget challenged district, where I confronted underperformance and violence. I had to press charges against one of my students for assault and battery (one of my dad’s journalist friends even wrote an article about the event – somewhat distorted, as journalists do), one of my best students was stabbed to death by her brother, who was then shot by the police instants before he tried to kill his other sister, dining room fights were de rigueur. Although I did not realize it at the time, these challenges, made me grow and mature. It was a baptism of fire of sorts and I was happy to pay my dues and earn my stripes. It also taught me what is really important as a teacher. From there I went to Walnut Hill, an independent upper school in suburban Boston (and the oldest independent arts high school in the US) where for five years I honed my craft and eventually led the Spanish Department. Before coming to UNC, seeking a challenge, I moved to Buckingham, Browne and Nichols, in Cambridge, an elite independent school with a rigorous curriculum. There I had the privilege of coaching soccer, fencing and tennis, of getting involved in Community Service, and even teaching a Senior Seminar on Spanish film.
In my first semester at UNC I found that teaching at the college level requires a more intense and in-depth approach. Due to their higher maturity and experience level, the students are more demanding academically. This calls for more preparation and sharp execution and delivery from the instructor. The students have a clear idea of what they want, they have been in school for over twelve years and our duty as educators is to deliver.
Hand in hand with good teaching, goes meaningful, practical, applied professional development. Ever since Walnut Hill sent me on a new teachers retreat organized by the Association of Independent Schools of New England (AISNE), I have been a strong supporter of learning and improving the craft. In this respect, my twenty years corporate and business experience came in handy, applying motivational techniques, mentoring and fostering teamwork. Another byproduct of my business experience is my devotion to Kaizen, the Japanese technique of continuous measurable improvement. In this vein, as a department in Walnut Hill, we mapped the full Modern Language curriculum, involved the students in year-end course improvement meetings, even held a Modern Language “Summit” inviting other academic and arts department heads as well as teachers from other schools to define and improve our department.
What little I know about being a good teacher I learnt from being a bad student. I was never a good student, so good teachers were very important in my schooldays. They marked my life, they made a difference. Going back to school as an adult for my Master’s and my PhD renewed my interest in teaching technique, what works and what does not.
Real learning happens from a place of wanting to learn, so a place of openness, of certain vulnerability. Getting the students to that place requires a relationship of trust, understanding and fairness, and that is what I build from day one in the classroom. First day of class I stand by the door – having memorized all students’ names from the roster photos – and greet by name and shake hands with every student. Then we go over the expectations for the class with a fine tooth comb, in English so there are no misunderstandings later. This avoids misunderstandings later on and sets the tone. From there comes a fine balance of fun and hard work. Showing up early to the classroom to chat with the students and set up a music video in Spanish for them as they walk into the room and settle down. At the end of the year when I informally ask them what they liked and disliked about the course, so many of them mention the Spanish music videos! Then there is the grammar. I always go over the grammar, which they should know by now, but just so I know that I have gone over it with them and they do not have the “oh I never learned that” line. And talking, everybody talks about what they are going to do over the weekends, and on Mondays everybody talks about what they did over the weekend. We talk and talk, about food, restaurants, sports, culture, whatever. Once we spent a whole class period talking about bullfighting, something that I am passionate about.
So basically, as much as we want to implement scientific approaches to language learning and teaching, and to a certain extent we can, the basis of teaching has to come from an organic need/want/desire to learn. Our jobs as teachers revolve around making that need happen. The motivated student must be kept motivated while the unmotivated student has to be inspired to want to learn. That is best done through building a relationship, it will rarely come from a book, or from a lecture, it will happen from a relationship.
Putting my money where my mouth (pen/keyboard) is, here is a video of me teaching Spanish 203 an intermediate level in the Fall of 2012, my first semester at UNC. (Yes, I do have a FERPA release form signed by every student.)
Besides the enriching experience of teaching, the other benefit of being a teacher is the holidays it comes with. No, we don’t make bank, but not even French government employees get our kind of time off. So after unwinding in Chapel Hill and going on a nice ride with Rocinante (see previous posts) I jumped “the pond” to visit my family in Madrid.
I know I am not original when I say that cities are like people, at least my relationship with them is similar. My relationship with Madrid is that of an old friend and lover. We know each other’s dirty little secrets, but we respect each other like the old friends we are. So coming to Madrid is always special.
One of the first visits I do is to Patxi Navarro. A dear, dear friend from my financial services days. We share a twenty three year friendship. Together we founded the Asociacion A. de Amantes del Escorial since we are both passionate about that monastery/palace/school/village. It is always great to catch up and hear about his life. Another obligatory meeting is with Andrea, another dear college friend who has been there through thick and thin, we had a nice lunch at a neighbourhood “menu” restaurant. A third key friend and one that deserves extra credit when I see him is Felipe Pérez de Madrid, “Pipe”, “The Pipe”, as he is from Valencia. We had a quick coffee in between trains for him, just enough to make sure everything is ok and have a quick laugh. Gracias amigo.
After a few days in town, I was blessed with the visit of Mark Miller and Matthieu, two of my dearest, closest and best friends. We went to university together, Matthieu was a groomsman in my first wedding and Best Man at my second wedding, where Mark was the usher. I had not seen Matthieu since celebrating New Year’s ’08 in NY when Mark, the most gracious and generous host, arranged a spectacular party. Since he is in NY I have had the chance to see Mark more regularly, but not since moving to Chapel Hill.
We spent three days together, eating, walking around the city, drinking, smoking cigars, eating, walking around the city, drinking and smoking cigars. We had paella, roast lamb, jamón, tortilla, garlic shrimp, lots of tapas, wine and coffee. We went to my favorite places, including Del Diego where we met comedian Leo Harlem! It was fantastic to catch up, to share some of the secrets of my old friend Madrid with some of my other old friends, to have a good laugh, good discussions, reminisce and talk about our futures.
Besides the enriching experience of teaching, another benefit of being a teacher is meeting students that eventually become friends. Two days after Mark and Matthieu left, I reunited with Jenny whom I had not seen in a year and a half. Since she graduated from Walnut Hill and I went to see her dance at Mount Holyoke. She is spending the summer in Valencia and came to Madrid for the weekend. We had burgers at my favorite restaurant in Madrid, Alfredos Barbacoa and it was great to catch up, have a good laugh, a good discussion, reminisce and talk about our futures.
My visits to Madrid are few, far between and shorter than I would like them to be, so I never get to see all my friends and family. But one morning coffee I always have is with my godmother Isabel, “Isita”, she is brilliant, funny and wonderful and her advice is always spot on, prejudice free and caring. I love her.
So in one week in Madrid: I reunited with the city, the oldest of friends, I reunited with old, university friends and with new friends – and with my godmother.