November 20, 2018

Demographics And
Five years of Spanish Class

I started taking Spanish in junior high School. That was back in 1971. My teacher was Mr. Schermerhorn. He was a tall man who walked with a limp and a cane. When he wasn't leaning on the cane, he was pointing with it. No, I don't know why he limped.

I was a serious student in junior high School. My plan was to be a doctor, and I knew that I needed good grades for that. I told my parents that if I had a tape recorder it would help me to learn Spanish better. 

So, they bought me a tape recorder. It was a small reel-to-reel recorder. I used it for school, and I used it for fun. Being able to record my own voice was kind of a big deal in 1971.

Looking back, I remember only two things from Mr. Schermerhorn's Spanish class. 

First, I remember he once told a girl in the class that she was vivacious. I had never heard that word before, and neither had she. Mr. Schemerhorn defined the word for the class. In case you don't know, it means "lively and animated, or full of life." The word fit her personality perfectly. English words and their meanings interested me a lot back then.

The other thing I remember is Mr. Schermerhorn explaining to our class that  "the demographics" were telling us that America was going to become much more Hispanic in the coming years. 

Demographics was another new word for me. It means: 'statistical data relating to the population and particular groups within it.' Mr. Schermerhorn told us that there are people who study "the demographics," and they can sort of "see the future."

When Mr. Schermerhorn told us this 47 years ago there was not a single Hispanic student in the school, and it was a suburban school with hundreds of students in each graduating class. There were no popular Mexican restaurants back then (like Taco Bell). Mexican food was not part of our American diet. If there were immigration problems on America's southern border, I don't remember (and I watched the news on television almost every night). But Mr. Schermorhorn and his demographics proved to be amazingly prescient.

That being the case, I'm always interested in learning about demographic trends, especially as they apply to business and the economy. I take demographics seriously.

After two years of junior high Spanish class with Mr. Schermerhorn, I took three more years in high school with Mrs. Fountain. 

Mrs. Fountain was the most vivacious school teacher I have ever known. She was a vivaciousness dynamo. Her vivaciousness was powerful. You could not be in her class without being affected by it. I liked Mrs. Fountain a lot.

When I became a senior in high school, I stopped taking Spanish. Mrs. Fountain had moved to another school district. The new Spanish teacher was not vivacious. Mrs. Fountain was a hard act to follow. Besides that, I was much less interested in school. I no longer wanted to be a doctor. I just wanted to get out of that place! 

Now, after 5 years of Spanish class, I recall almost no Spanish at all. If you don't use it, you lose it, and I lost it. I remember a few assorted words but not many. 

I do, however, remember one single sentence of conversational Spanish from Spanish class. I don't know why I remember this one sentence. I just do. And one day, many years after Spanish class, I spoke the sentence to a Hispanic person. 

I'm sure I won't do that again. Let me explain...

In the beginning of 2000, I started a job working at a state prison here in New York. I worked there for 13 years. There was a large factory inside the prison walls, and my job was to supervise inmates in the production of office furniture. 

Every different shop in the factory had one or more civilian supervisors, a number of inmate employees, at least one guard, and an inmate clerk. The clerk was a position of big responsibility. He helped to manage the flow of work, keep track of inventory and, to some degree, manage the inmate employees.

My most memorable clerk was a young man from South America. He went by the name of Chino (it wasn't his actual name). My understanding was that Chino had one body outside of prison, and one body inside prison. That's a nice way of putting it.

Chino was good natured and always respectful towards me. He spoke English perfectly, and he spoke Spanish fluently. We had a good working relationship for the years that he was my clerk.

One day I was standing in my shop near Chino's desk and he was talking fast and loud in Spanish to another inmate across the shop. When he was finished I casually mentioned to him: "You know, I took five years of Spanish in high school." He seemed surprised to hear it.

Then I confessed that I forgot almost all of it, but I remembered one single sentence. He said, "What's the sentence?"

With my very best Spanish enunciation I said, "Pues date prisa que vas a llegar tarde."

Chino looked at me blankly for a second (he was thinking), then furrowed his brow and, with a big smile spreading across his face, said, "I have no idea what you just said."

I laughed, and he laughed. 

So, after taking five years of Spanish in school, I got laughed at the first time I tried to speak it to a Hispanic person. But I also got this blog story out of it. So it wasn't a total loss.


  1. About your Spanish sentence... if you 'google translate' it, you will see that it means: Well, hurry up, you're going to be late. I knew the first and last words, but not the middle. So I googled, (who doesn't google). So there was nothing wrong with the sentence. Now how you pronounced it may be in question.

    1. Yes, I Googled it too. I knew the meaning, but wanted to make sure of the correct spelling. I'm sure it was my pronunciation that made it unclear.

  2. Funny thing... just today I was thinking about your prison job/time. Then you mention it in this post. I remember the first time I read about it in your other blog and cried uncontrollably. The only other person whose prison job/time I read and think a lot of is Joseph. By the way, Joseph was in prison for 13 years too.

    1. Dorothy,
      Your empathy surprises me! Thank you. Fortunately, I was not an inmate in prison. I did not directly experience the worst of that world. I was able to go home every day. And I had a couple of fellow employee friends who made the whole situation more bearable. It never occurred to me that Joseph was "in prison" the same length of time. That is a long time. I find the parallel VERY interesting. Thank you again, Dorothy. I truly appreciate that you are such a sensitive and thoughtful person.

  3. You know what? It makes me sad that after going through the public school machine, you no longer wanted to be a student or doctor. How many other kids have felt the same way? We homeschool so hopefully I have kept the joy of learning alive in my kids. Time will tell...

    1. My father and grandfather were doctors. But my doctor phase lasted only as long as I was in a suburban school system. When my family moved to the country, my whole outlook on life changed. By 10th grade, the doctor dream had vaporized.

      But I've always been a curious person, pursuing various interests apart from school, usually through reading first. So my joy of learning never died. It was just bored with most of the subject matter and expectations in high school. Besides that, the whole Institutional herding aspect has never set well with me. Thus, the government job was harder for me than for a lot of others. There are some real parallels between prisons and government schools.

      My personality and learning style was (and is) best suited to homeschooling. But it was unheard of when I was a kid. You are doing a good thing by homeschooling your children. I am always encouraged when I hear a family is homeschooling. Thank you!

  4. Herrick, I had a friend who used to say that he was a demographer. That was someone who studied people broken down by sex and age. It still strikes my funny bone. I remember only one tiny phrase from my years in French class: "Mon petit chou" which I've always remembered to mean "My little cabbage." It hasn't been something I've had opportunity to use in my lifetime... I'm enjoying your blog so much. It's nice to have you back and writing!

    1. Hi Lorraine,
      He was a demographer with a sense of humor.
      "mi pequeño repollo" is "my little cabbage" in Spanish (I looked it up).
      Thanks for the comment, and the positive feedback.

  5. Have you thought of taking a refresher on My oldest daughter does her Spanish on there. I took a year of German in high school & thought I'd forgotten it all but that one year really helped me w/ verb conjugations now. I can understand every 3rd to 5th word from German youtubers. I'm trying my hand at Russian for fun too, it's pretty easy once you figure out the Cyrillic alphabet. They don't use articles, (a, an, the). It's interesting to hear the propaganda being fed to the other side as well.:)

    1. Mrs. V,

      I've never heard of duolingo. Just went to the site... "Learn a language for free. Forever." Wow. That's another amazing example of creative destruction by the internet.

      I'll have Marlene check it out. She and her sister are going to Costa Rica next spring. A little Espanol refresher might be a good idea. Marlene took Spanish in high school too.

      Thanks for the comment.