I’ve been on Duolingo a lot so far this year.
If you’ve never heard of it, it’s an app that helps you learn language. I have been making an effort in 2020 to grow my understanding of Spanish. I don’t consider myself a great language learner — whatever brain cells it takes to do this easily I seem to lack. In Bible college I had to take Greek (since that is what the New Testament was written in) and in grad school I had to take Hebrew (so I could decipher the Old Testament). I struggled mightily in both and almost flunked out of the latter before dropping it and trying again the next semester.
The beginning of my linguistic struggles occurred at the ripe old age of 14 when, as a new student at Salem High School, I marched into Mr. Swanson’s Spanish 1 class and sat down in front of one of the best teachers to ever grace the halls of SHS. If you think I’m being hyperbolic, ask pretty much any student who sat under him. He was a favorite to many.
In fact, I don’t think it is a stretch to say that Mr. Swanson was somewhat legendary in Salem. Greg (which I most certainly did not call him in those days) taught Spanish at SHS for years. Hundreds of students took his Spanish classes.
I also don’t think it is a stretch to say that Mr. Swanson didn’t fit in Salem, in some ways. He was a pair of Birkenstocks in a sea of cowboy boots. His cultural IQ exceeded my own, obviously, and I marveled at it. I kinda wanted some Birkenstocks, all of a sudden.
Yo quiets tener Birkenstocks.
His teaching style was relaxed, and you sort of got the sense that he’d rather be skiing or something. But at the same time, you were being pushed to excel. He wanted to make you better, but you didn’t feel like you were being talked down to. I think all the great teachers can do that.
The trouble for me was I didn’t want to work hard enough, nor did I find the material easy enough, to really learn anything. I conjugated verbs as best I could, but mostly I just watched the clock for the bell to ring.
Que hora es?
In between checks of the clock I would admire Mr. Swanson’s Hawaiian shirt, flirt with the girls that sat next to me, and wonder for the thousandth time when I would ever use Spanish in my life. That was 25 years ago.
Since then, I’ve gone on to struggle with the Biblical languages, earn degrees in ministry and theology, and settle in Houston, Texas where — as you may know — Spanish can be overheard in every public place. Just yesterday, a friend replied to a text with “de nada, amigo,” and at least two or three people in our small group at church are fluent. I have taught classes at the Seminary of the Americas, a ministry training school based in the Dominican Republic. Needless to say, I could’ve afforded to pay a little closer attention and try a little harder in Mr. Swanson’s class.
Turns out, I could’ve used it a lot.
Instead, I rely on translators and Google to help me muddle through. My plan is to get as much done on Duolingo as I can until August. I have lots of people around me that I can practice with.
And in the fall my daughter, who will be a sophomore, will enroll in Spanish 1 at her school. My plan is to do all the homework with her and try again, 25 years later. Maybe this time it will take.
Maybe her teacher will wear Birkenstocks, too.
Lo siento, Senor Swanson. Gracias, Senor Swanson.
I will wear my sandals today in your honor. Yes, I bought a pair.