“Caminante no hay camino; se hace el camino al andar.” We both loved those verses from Antonio Machado. We have traveled and invented so many paths together. I am grateful to have had Carmen in my life for so many years. We called each other sisters from different mothers. I actually don’t know myself as a “grown-up” without Carmen. We have shared “buildings” or schools together. We have, in fact, created them. Fenway. Boston Arts Academy. We have shared and “raised up” students, both youth and adults. We have loved each other’s biological families and children. Whenever I seemed down, Carmen reminded me to go to my family. Nothing was more important to her than family. Nothing. We have found joy in the banal, like getting lost every year going to CVS Pharmacies in Woonsocket as part of Fenway’s pre-pharmacy program that Carmen founded. Carmen always insisted she knew the way to get there. Even later with GPS we got lost together. We found joy dancing at BAA holiday parties. We found joy in the antics of the many teenagers in our midst. In fact, Carmen always talked about joy as a form of resistance and love as the only emotion that could actually change people. I loved watching Carmen each year at graduation gather the words and phrases to describe a graduating class. She did it with the precision of a scientist and the creativeness of an artist. Almost every good idea I have ever had was because of Carmen. I am working on a memoir, and shared many of the pieces with Carmen. This is a piece I hadn’t yet shared with her:
Labor Day, 1979. I was at my parents’ house for Sunday lunch, sharing lesson plans and ideas for opening day at my new school—my first day as a bilingual teacher in the Boston Public Schools. As a recently certified bilingual teacher in elementary education and social studies, I had hoped to land a job in a Spanish bilingual program, but I had been hired to teach high school science in a Cape Verdean Bilingual program. Somehow the Boston Public Schools Human Resources department saw the word bilingual and assumed I could teach in Portuguese as well as in Spanish. (I had studied Portuguese for a semester). Although I’d taken no science in college, I knew how difficult it was to land a job in BPS, so all summer I prepared, poring over children’s science books and an old general science high school textbook.
The phone rang just as I finished sharing ideas to teach cell division. I picked it up and heard an accent that would become familiar in years to come. “Is Linder there please? This is Jim Bruno calling from the Boston Public Schools.”
“Yes, this is Linda,” I said, careful not to imitate his heavy Boston accent.
“Welcome aboard,” Mr. Bruno went on. “I’m the principal of the E Middle School and I’m pleased you’ll be joining us as the newest Math teacher in our Spanish bilingual program.”
“Excuse me?” I squeaked. “I thought I was teaching science at Madison Park.”
“A mistake,” Mr. Bruno interrupted abruptly. “You’ll be joining my faculty. Teachers report Tuesday 7:00 am. Students come Thursday. Homeroom is 7:20. We have two days of prep. You’ll get your schedule Tuesday. Look forward to meeting you. Welcome aboard.”
Click. And that was that. I didn’t know what to think. I had a job. But it certainly wasn’t what I’d prepared for.
Tuesday was a blur of people talking at the faculty. Do this. Don’t forget that. Here are class lists. Ms. DiMato has the key to the book room, but she’s out sick. Make sure your bulletin board has something about Reading, our school wide initiative. Talk to Mrs. McCullen if you need help. I was dizzy with directives. But when I finally found my classroom, I was delighted. The wooden floors had been waxed to sparkling sheen and rays of sunlight danced on the floorboards. Tall windows lined one entire wall. I hadn’t yet noticed that most of the shades were broken. A glassed wooden cabinet was in one corner and glass encased bookshelves in another. The desk sat on a raised pedestal. Thirty desks with chairs were divided into three straight rows.
The next day, Wednesday, I parked in the large lot and entered the school through the cafeteria, as we had been instructed. I smelled the coffee before I noticed a long line of teachers. That’s where I met Ms. Torres, Carmen. Not in line, but ‘on-line’ as she said, her New York accent in stark contrast to the many Boston accents in the school. “You have to get here early, or the coffee runs out,” she told me. “Sometimes there’s toast.” She was from Brooklyn, to be exact. Her family was from Puerto Rico. She had joined the school as a bilingual science teacher the previous year. “You’re the new bilingual math teacher?” I nodded. “I saw you in faculty meeting yesterday.” I nodded again. “Rough first day. Too much information flying at us. Not a lot of purpose.” I smiled and liked her immediately. “They think if they just tell us things it’ll happen. Hmmm…” Her eyes twinkled mischievously. We were the same age and both Cancers. “I’m right down the hall from you. Just let me know how I can help.”
I didn’t want to tell her that only two days ago, I was a high school science teacher, not a middle school math teacher. But, like everything about Carmen, she seemed to intuit my fear before I said anything. “You have a great assistant teacher. He’ll help you get settled. He knows the curriculum well.” She smiled a broad warm smile, and I could feel my confidence emerging. “I’ll introduce you.” Together we went up the flights of stairs to the bilingual wing hoping to find my aide. I trailed behind Carmen watching her dark black hair sway elegantly.
I thought, “I’ve got a friend. I can do this job. Even if I’m not ready.”
Later that afternoon, Carmen stopped by my room while I was still wiping down shelves, arranging books and hanging posters that I had brought back from where I had previously taught in Puerto Rico. “I love Roy Brown’s music. La Nueva Cancion.” Carmen grinned at my poster. “Mi novio es musico. Trumpetista. He’s playing this weekend at 1369. You could go with me.” I loved that idea! “But, hey, it’s getting really late in the day. Debes irte. Ya es tarde.”
“I just want to finish cleaning these last shelves,” I told her.
When Carmen realized that I only lived a few blocks away from her in Jamaica Plain, she quickly said, “I’ll pick you up at 6:30am.” And that began our friendship.
My first weeks were hell. In my classroom, Damaris, a very tall 7th grader, tore up every math worksheet, broke pencils and threw them across the room hoping to stab one of the 7th grade boys. A scuffle would erupt in class that usually ended up with someone being sent to the office. Gerardo ran a gambling ring during 8th grade math, taking bets and using all his math skills for something other than the problems I was teaching. Everyone teased Maritza, who was a very large girl from a mountain village in Puerto Rico. They would moo loudly at her and hiss “la vaca,” or ‘the cow.” Of course, I berated them about the cruelty of their behavior.
During a few moments of downtime before lunch, Yolanda, one of my “good girls,” took me aside, “Missy, quizás debe ir al salon de Ms. Torres.” She urged me to see what Ms. Torres did in her classroom. Couldn’t I teach them the way she did? was the suggestion. “And look at her blusa. And the belt over the blouse.” Was Yolanda really commenting on my clothes?
Ms. Torres, dressed in a bright colored shirt with a perfectly cinched belt, had full command of her classroom. I observed how her kids paid attention. If anyone began to get out of line, Ms. Torres would give them an “eye” that instantly froze bad behavior. Everyone got their work done, loved science, and talked knowledgeably about the Krebs cycle—in Spanish or English. I was impressed.
Slowly, with mandates from my principal to post “before class work” problems on the board so that students immediately got busy upon entering, and a command to sell pencils so there were no excuses about not having a writing implement, and coaching visits to and from Ms. Torres, I began to learn how to teach. And even how to dress.
I adjusted my voice so I wasn’t always yelling; I found my peripheral vision so I caught aberrant behavior and could redirect a student before he or she acted out; I changed students’ seats whenever necessary. “Before class work” occupied students while I collected and quickly reviewed homework. “Get to know the kids,” Carmen told me. “Then, they will respect you.” I developed math word problems that were stories about my students. They loved discovering themselves on my mimeo sheets. Gerardo even wanted to help write some of the problems and, in that way, he became an assistant teacher to me instead of running the gambling ring. Slowly, I began to know my students, and I could anticipate what would set them off. Ms. Torres showed me how to vary the lesson, sometimes putting direct instruction in the middle of class instead of always the first thing. “Let them know that you assign groups Monday-Thursday, but on Fridays they can pick their own groups.” My students loved that idea. “Give everyone a job,” Ms. Torres suggested. Students rotated between pencil distributor, homework collector, bulletin board display maker, attendance taker, and notebook checker. The classroom was calmer. Most days it worked. I began to breathe easier.
Over a 3-year period, Carmen and I visited all of our 150 families. Just for a cafeito and a chat. Carmen taught me that parents were essential partners. “You can’t work well with young people if you don’t know where they come from: their families.” Those early visits sustained us for decades to come. We were known as “the Missys” who came for café.
It was just the beginning of a 40+-year friendship and a lifetime of teaching and making creative trouble together.
In loving memory of Carmen M. Torres 1955- 2022