Spanish Lessons by Peter Leyland

Peter Leyland

- Conjugate the verb hablar for the class

I drew my gaze down from the ceiling to find myself the centre of silent attention. Mr Richards was addressing me, yes me, and a finger was pointing accusingly. Blushing I stood and, holding my orange text book awkwardly, began:

- Hablo' -  habla's - habla' - habla'mos - habla'is - habla'n  

There was a murmur of amusement from the class as I began to sit down.

- No, you simpleton! What have I just been telling you!

The Hurley stick flashed against the desk, beating a rhythm in time with the correct stress:

- Ha'blo - ha'blas - ha'bla - habla'mos - hablai's - ha'blan! Say it again

Now standing I repeated the conjugation, nervously placing the stress where the master required. As he spoke the Hurley stick rose and fell. 

This is a remembered sequence from my first ever Spanish lesson, recalled during an international conference on adult education that I attended recently. The conference was taking place online and Emilio, one of the speakers, had told us that he was researching how people tried to rebuild their history after The Spanish Civil War when, following Franco’s death, democracy was restored in Spain. 

From that rather violent beginning with Mr Richards at the age of 11, I had gone on to study Spanish at O’ and A’ level. This had taken place at The Liverpool Institute during the 1960s, yet never once had my teachers mentioned the civil war that had taken place in Spain. Nor, when we were 6th Formers and more aware, despite our entreaties had they ever mentioned that Franco, the architect of a war which included the infamous bombing of Guernica and which featured atrocities on both the Republican and Falangist sides, was still in power. After all, everyone was at this time going on wonderfully cheap holidays in sunny Spain. Those teachers with their Oxbridge degrees in Spanish Language and Literature couldn’t rock that boat for a group of recalcitrant Liverpudlian schoolboys. 

Surprisingly perhaps, I retained a love of Spanish founded in such an unlovely setting at The ‘Inny’ as we called it. An early girlfriend gave me a book of Lorca’s poetry; I watched interpretations of Lorca’s plays like Blood Wedding and The House of Benarda Alba. I read Cervante’s Don Quijote and felt a deep identification with the knight who tilted at windmills, who had a faithful servant called Sancho Panza and who loved the impossible Ducinea del Toboso.

And later on, when I was very much older and lived in a cottage in Cranfield, with a main  room which had a coal fire and a chimney that had to be swept annually, I watched the Granada TV/Channel 4 series The Spanish Civil War. Spaniards had begun to speak of the savage repression and political struggle that had taken place during Franco’s illegal overthrow of the Republican government in Spain. Beside the fire I read Arturo Barea’s three volume autobiography, The Forging of a Rebel, first published in English in 1941, which is a passionate memorial to his love for and experience of his country. In Pittsburg, part way through a Greyhound bus trip, I saw Picasso’s masterpiece, Guernica (now in Madrid), about the deliberate bombing of civilians in that town in 1937, and I stood transfixed. I had begun to see how the power of art and literature could transform our understanding of human suffering.

But to return to Emilio. We were sitting in our online rooms and our conference was coming from Wroclaw in Poland. When it was Emilio’s turn to present, he spoke of how Spaniards lived, and still live, in a culture of silence about that time of war, because they have neither the means nor the ability to express their feelings about their own history. He described in halting but good English how he had collected histories of the civil war, by carrying out ten interviews, seven women and three men, all adult learners who had lived through it.

One story that he recounted struck me forcibly. Maria, one of the female interviewees, had been recorded speaking of how her father was taken away by The Santiago el Tejero (the cross eyed) and never returned:

It was August 10 [1936], my father was at the farmhouse with the goats, and he came to bring the milk. My mother went to take it to the shopkeeper, and my father remained at the door [of the house] with one of my sisters who had not still walking and my three year old brother playing with. Three men, two policemen and a Falangist got out and told him to go with them for asking some questions. My father gave me the girl and he sit me on the chair. When my mother arrived and asked about him people told her that some men had taken him away. My mother ran to see what went on, and she met a neighbour [who told her]: “Your husband was taken by Santiago, el Tejero, the cross eyed” My father never returned. 28 were shouted in the gate of the cemetery. It was August 12,1936. My mother had five children and she was also six months pregnant. The baby was born and he never met his father and died after 6 months (Maria A. Taller para la recuperacion de la memoria historica, 2007 p. 144)

The memory sequence as I said came into my mind as I was participating in the online conference. As I write this now a week later, news of the war in Ukraine grows louder, and the plight of the people caught up in the atrocity of Putin’s invasion increases. During a conference break I had stepped out of the breakout room to write a haiku:

Mothers and children
Crushed against carriage windows
Fathers wave goodbye

Were our teachers in the 60s trying to protect us from the awfulness that men (and it is mostly men) are capable of? Was Emilio with his uncovering of painful memory providing some comfort to those who had lost loved ones in a long-ago conflict; and can we ever stop this recourse to war as the solution to seemingly intractable differences? Let me know what you think.

This text was first published on Authors Electric

  • Notes:
  • Don Quixote Parts I and 2 (1605-13) by Miguel de Cervantes
  • The Forging of a Rebel (1943 trans. Ilsa Barea) (1951 – First Edition in Spanish) by Arturo Barea
  • The Spanish Civil War (1982) by David Mitchell, based on the television series
  • Selected Poems (1961) by Federico Garcia Lorca
  • The Age of Reason by Jean Paul Sartre (1961 Penguin translation cover)
  • Encountering the Other (2022): Activity Booklet designed by Dorota Kostowska

1 thought on “Spanish Lessons by Peter Leyland”

  1. Inger Helen Midtgård

    I think it is experiences like this, that you have had that make you a good adult teacher that you are Peter. Doing the opposite of Mr Richards, make your adult students feel that they belong in the Class Room.

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