Remembering Edra Staffieri

I learned last week that my old Spanish teacher, Edra Staffieri, passed away. I found out about this on social media, as the news was shared and commented on by several high school friends on Facebook.

I left my comments as well, but they seemed… insufficient. The more I thought about it, I wanted my thoughts and comments to be a little more permanent than something added to a status update somewhere.

While this blog isn’t a terribly popular one, it serves as a place for me to record things. And I wanted to share my memories of Ms. Staffieri, and to have those memories last a little longer. Because she was pretty darn awesome.

I studied a lot of Spanish when I was younger. I was fortunate in that I attended a middle school (Go Wildcats) that supported foreign languages.

I think I began learning around 7th or 8th grade, under Mrs. de Gortari. As silly as it is, when I was given the choice of languages (we had to pick either French or Spanish), my middle school self determined that I had a higher likelihood of waking up drunk/hungover in Mexico, as opposed to Canada.

Now that I’m significantly older, and having spent the majority of my time living in the Midwest… I think it’s clear that Canada would have been the likelier scenario. But that silly decision led me away from French and towards Spanish.

In high school (Go Panthers), I was fortunate again to be able to take foreign languages. By the time I arrived in Ms. Staffieri’s class, I had a few years of Spanish under my belt. I can’t recall exactly when I studied with her, but I’m fairly confident it was either Sophomore or Junior year.

Ms. Staffieri was short in stature, but she absolutely commanded the room. I was surprised to learn that she was 94 when she passed… which means that she was in her 70’s when she was my teacher. Despite her age, there was no question that it was her classroom.

Ms. Staffieri’s Spanish classes were advanced. I remember there being a rule that no English could be spoken. During our time in her classes, it was 100% Spanish.

I remember her sharing with us all manner of things, in addition to learning the language. I remember slides of artwork, and lectures on art history (specifically, I remember learning about El Greco and that weird thing he did with hands).

We read a great deal of literature as well, all of it in Spanish. I remember reading poems by Lorca and Neruda, short stories by Márquez and Borges.

And not only did we read these stories in Spanish, we discussed them in Spanish – the same way one would discuss works in a literature class. When I look back on her classes, it seems like such advanced stuff. I feel so very fortunate to have had this while in high school.

My friend Audra reminded me of a saying that Ms. Staffieri used to say. I remember it usually happened when she was taking attendance and someone would walk into her classroom late.

If she was wondering where a student might be, and that person walked in… she would say: “Habla de Roma y el Papa se asoma.” Which roughly translates to: “Speak of Rome, and the Pope appears.”

I think that, for those of us who were perpetually late for everything in high school, we got to hear this one a lot. I haven’t thought of this phrase in many, many years… and it still brings a smile to my face. It was the way she said it to you, in a “Oh, there you are, your highness” kind of way.

Ms. Staffieri was also one of those old school teachers that threw chalk at students, particularly those that fell asleep in her class. Do teachers still do that? Can they still get away with that?

I don’t have a specific memory of having chalk thrown at me, but I’m guessing it must have happened at least once. I used to fall asleep often in classes, so I’m sure it wasn’t for a lack of trying on my part.

Back in high school, I used to smoke cigarettes. On more than one occasion I would walk into her classroom just reeking of cigarette smoke. I think this was due to me having her class first thing in the morning, or just after lunch.

When she would catch a whiff of the smoke as I walked by, she would chide me for it. She threatened to take me to visit some of her friends in the cancer ward, at the hospital. She told me she wanted to take me there to see them, to see what I had in store.

I can’t recall whether she said this to me in English or Spanish, but I remember it. And it happened more than once.

At the time, I was young – barely eighteen. Although Ms. Staffieri said all of this to me in a threatening way, as an adult looking back… I understand now that her words came from a place of concern, from a place of love.

When I eventually went off to college (Go Hoosiers), I remember having to register for classes in some kind of large room. Yes, this was slightly before things became automated at universities… and I remember being in some kind of gymnasium filled with people sitting at tables.

I had been assigned to a fairly low-level, introductory Spanish course and I wanted to take a more advanced one. I arrived at a table for my Spanish course, and started to tell them that I wanted to get into the next level up.

Before I knew it, one of the people at the booth took me to one side… and started to quiz me in Spanish. They asked me about my classes in high school, and also about what I did over the summer. It slowly dawned on me that I was being asked to prove my knowledge (and that this person was specifically testing me for my command of the past tense).

I was never quiet as strong at Spanish as my friends Audra and Sandra, but I’m happy to say that I held my own. I specifically remember name-dropping authors that I had studied in Ms. Staffieri’s class, and I’m pretty sure that helped.

In thinking more, this interaction may have happened during my first semester at college – after attending my first Spanish class, and realizing it was too remedial for me.

I remember walking away from this impromptu quiz/interview feeling really good, really proud of myself. I wasn’t giving a speech, it wasn’t anything prepared… I was just called to demonstrate my knowledge of Spanish, and it came out almost reflexively.

Thinking back, I see now that I had Ms. Staffieri to thank for that moment in the gymnasium. I am sad to hear of her passing, and I really wish I could have shared this story with her.

During her long and storied career, Edra Staffieri spent 36 years teaching advanced Spanish at North Central High School. I count myself lucky to have had her as an instructor for several years, and fortunate to call myself one of her students.

Gracias, Señora Staffieri. Por todo.

Memorial for David Citino

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