Going away to college often symbolizes a journey towards independence. When I returned to my hometown, San Antonio, after two years at the big university in Austin, I imagine some people thought I had a taken a big step backwards.
English was my major, but there were still six hours in history that I needed to fulfill general requirements. I enrolled in a Texas History course only because it fit into my schedule. I knew nothing about the professor, and had a casual interest in the subject.
The class met in one of the larger buildings on the new campus, and when I walked in, there were about one hundred students scattered in the auditorium. From my experiences at the big university, I figured the professor would call roll quickly and efficiently, and we would hear nothing but impersonal lectures for the rest of the semester.
When the professor entered, briefcase in hand, I was surprised by his brown skin and shiny black hair. Ironically, I lived in a Mexican-rich city, but had only one Hispanic female teacher in fifth grade. The dignified teacher, walked purposefully to the podium, and opened his leather briefcase on the table beside it. He pulled out a sheet of paper, glanced up at the clock, and began to savor every syllable of what he read.
Slowly he called the names on the roster -- the entire given name. He paused after each one and asked the student a question. If the student mentioned a hometown other than San Antonio, he or she would be quizzed about the Texas landmarks there. He asked some students about their majors and for those he had taught in other classes, he made a particular note to ask each one something they might remember from the last course.
Finally, he reached the middle of the alphabet and called my name. In my entire life no one had ever said my whole name with Spanish accents. He made my name sound so regal that I felt honored to be a Mexican-American. That first day he called my name, he also added, "And what does a person named Diana Teresa Gonzalez plan to do with her life?"
At the time, I could only shrug and say, "I'm not sure yet."
He looked straight at me, hidden as I was in the tenth row from the front, eight seats from the aisle, between an older man who told us, "I'm from Abilene," and a young blonde woman who had been in one of his courses before.
"You need to make a plan, Miss Gonzalez. Start today."
When he finished identifying each student, he gave a little bow and told us his full given name. "You are in my Texas empire now," he said, and began his first lecture.
I had never met a man who commanded a classroom like he did. He made Texas History fascinating with factual events, but it was his anecdotes during those minutes he called "commercial breaks," that made history a piece of our lives. He told us about men and women from different creeds, cultures, and ethnic groups who contributed to creating the state of Texas. He told us about heroic events that made us Texans proud. He gave detailed accounts of actions ambitious men took against Indians or Mexicans that made us realize our own human failings. Because the professor took the time to call roll twice a week in his caring way, the students came to know each other as individuals, and outside of class, we exchanged greetings and talked about college life and history too.
It amazed me how he remembered his students from the lecture halls. I would quietly knock at his office door, ready to identify myself, when he would smile and say, "It is Diana Teresa Gonzalez who has come to visit me. Come in, Diana Teresa Gonzalez."
Every time he said my name like that, I was a new person. Diane Theresa Gonzales, the girl who wrote English papers and struggled in Spanish class, seemed like such a nobody compared to the young woman who wanted to earn the respect (and an A) from this fascinating man.
Despite the number of students, this professor did essay tests. And when the first tests didn't meet his expectations, he stopped lecturing about Texas and gave out a handout called Five Important Steps to Answering an Essay Test. He spent the next twenty minutes talking about sketching out an outline, writing essential introductions and conclusions, and ways to circle key words to be certain we answered the question he asked. No other college teacher had ever taken the time to help his students succeed like he did.
I took the second required history course from him, and when he asked me to take the summer seminar he was teaching, I enrolled in it too. By the end of the summer, I became a double major in English and History, and had decided to be a teacher. I knew it was his example and not a burning desire to diagram sentences that had led me towards this career.
In my last semester, I was invited by my speech instructor to represent the university and compete in a contest sponsored by a city women's society. Since the theme of the contest was "The Spirit of Texas," it seemed natural for me to ask this professor's assistance in finding a topic. I had in mind the usual list of Alamo heroes, but he made me feel a deep pride in being Mexican-American all over again when he suggested that I deliver a speech about Jose Antonio Navarro, one of two Mexican men who signed the Texas Declaration of Independence. Because his story was unfamiliar to many Texans, I brought a new "spirit" of my own into the contest. And when I won the contest, and was asked to deliver the speech at the Society's luncheon, my Texas History professor sat beside my parents to listen and congratulate my efforts when it was over.
When I was researching Jose Antonio Narvarro's life, I came across words that became the theme of my speech. He said, "El tiempo hablará por todo," which is translated, "Time will speak for everything."
Time has shown me that independence doesn't come from a change in geographic location. Independence is born with a change in attitude. My favorite Texas history professor inspired me to claim my education and do something significant with it. That's why I make time to write stories for young Mexican-American readers, so they will feel pride in themselves. They feel significant when their traditions are reflected in literature, just as I felt important when my professor placed the Spanish accents on my Mexican names.
This Texas history professor also gave me crucial lessons in being an educator. He emphasized the importance of written communication, the value of seeing each student as an individual despite a crowded classroom, and the necessity to invite students to be part of something bigger than they are: human history.
Sometimes it takes a step backwards to
discover a new path. When Dr. Felix D. Almaraz, Jr. called me by name, I
moved one step forward in claiming my own place in Texas history.