The Mind Wobbles

So many things to absorb, think about, deal with and put up with - it simply makes the mind wobble...

Thursday, September 21, 2006

A Mentor Has Died


The principal and founder of my elementary school died yesterday and I want to write about her and what she meant to me.

Between first and eighth grade I attended a very small private school here in Miami. Although all the core subject classes were taught in English, it was very *Cuban*. All the students were - like me - children of Cuban exiles, and it was early enough in exile that there was still a real possibility that we would eventually "return" to Cuba. This meant for example, that the food served in the cafeteria was home-style Cuban food, and that because music was taught in Spanish we learned Cuban children's songs rather than the traditional American songs - hell I didn't learn "Itsy Bitsy Spider" properly till I was in my 20s!

Anyway, the school was named Conchita Espinosa Academy (CEA), after the founder and principal of the school. While I was a student there I respected and feared Conchita (as we all called her), but now I realize what an important influence she and her school were in my life.

She was an amzing woman. At the age of 14 she graduated as a certified professional piano instructor from the Conservatorio Internacional de La Habana (International Conservatory of Havana). When she was only 19 years old she founded her own conservatory in Havana. She got married when she was 23. By 1959, at the age of 39, she was widowed with two small children and her country crumbling around her.

She was spirited out of Cuba in 1960 without her children because the escape was too dangerous. Arriving in the US all alone, barely speaking English and with $5 to her name - she was able to get both her children out of Cuba via Operation Pedro Pan.

In 1963, she opened a school in a renovated house in what would become Little Havana. Through the years the school moved a couple of times to existing buildings in the Cuban neighborhoods in which the students lived. In 1984 (long after I had graduated) they were finally able to build a beautiful state-of-the-art school which now houses more than 700 students ranging from Kindergarten to 8th grade.

I loved going to CEA. At the time I started, you were able to "skip" Kindergarten, so I started in the first grade in 1969. I was 6 years old and knew a little English which I had learned on TV and from my parents, but I didn't know how to read or write anything other than my name. My class had about 20 students - all the same as me - not really knowng how to speak English. From what my parents told me, within a month, I was reading and writing in English - and by Christmas I was reading at a 2nd-3rd grade level.

The school was - pardon the redundance - very *old-school*. We would stand up when an adult walked into the room, lots of "Yes Ma'am/No Ma'am", we actually had a *Good Manners* class! And the fact that there were so few of us gave it a family atmosphere. I remember once when I was in like the 4th grade, Conchita called my mother to see if everything was OK because I wasn't "acting like myself". I hadn't gotten in trouble or acted out or anything, I was just quieter than usual or something - can you imagine that in today's overcrowded schools?

I have a milion wonderful memories from those years - and none of them would have been possible if not for this woman. As the school's web site says on the memorial page:


"Her perseverance, passion, and joy for life changed the lives of students, faculty and families and will continue to enhance the lives of all of us who are a part of this special community. "

Adios Conchita...muchas gracias.



2 Comments:

Blogger sari said...

Conchita sounds marvelous, what a wonderful tribute to her, I enjoyed reading it!

8:52 PM  
Blogger Dixie said...

What a beautiful tribute. Conchita would be so proud of you and so touched that you remember her with such fondness.

I sure wish I'd gone to a school like that!

5:26 PM  

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