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Venezuela RPCV James K. Gavin shares love of Spanish words
Venezuela RPCV James K. Gavin shares love of Spanish words
Teacher shares love of Spanish words
MICHELLE PENTZ GLAVE | For the New Mexican
June 13, 2004
A typical Spanish class with James K. Gavin goes like this:
Students sit around a small round table in the New Mexico Office of Archaeological Studies. There is relaxed banter, laughter and an impressive 10-minute anecdote by Daisy Levine about her hike through the Grand Canyon while Gavin and H. Wolcott “Wolky” Toll ask questions. Using complex vocabulary, Toll tells about an excavation of skeletons on Kearny Street. Gavin listens contemplatively, then interjects, “En el semana pasada?” (Last week?)
Toll pauses, then smiles sheepishly. “!Ay! ... A semana pasada.”
Another conversation detour involves mixing up caminadores (a support walker such as the elderly often use) with caminantes (walkers). “Good try,” says Gavin with a wink. Both students scribble a note in their spiral notebooks.
As any foreign-language speaker knows, there’s that magic moment when suddenly a mind-cramping phrase slips out like liquid velvet. And then there are the months (or years) preceding when every day stammering out sentences like, “I’ll take the green one behind the counter,” is a struggle.
Whatever the linguistic logjam en español, James Gavin has been there. Known affectionately by his students as Jaime, Gavin has been smoothing Spanish struggles for 40 years. But Spanish hasn’t always been second nature to this native New New Englander, who puts students at ease with his gentle manner, easy humor and palpable enthusiasm.
After growing up in Longmeadow, Mass., Gavin, a painter, studied art history at Connecticut’s Trinity College, then hitchhiked across the country. He joined the Peace Corps in 1962. For his first assignment, he shipped off to Venezuela. His command of the Spanish language amounted to zilch. Even so, from his post in Puerto Cabello, Gavin was assigned the task of establishing YMCA recreation centers for children throughout the country. Under duress, he learned the local lingo on the job.
“It was five years ‘til I felt like, ‘I’ve got a hold on this language, I can really use it,’ ” recalls Gavin, 65, dressed in casual professor garb. “Language is like a constellation. You have to build it. But once you have it, you can go there.”
Because of the necessity to communicate immediately, the Peace Corps method amounted to a cross between Berlitz immersion and drill-sergeant badgering. At first Gavin adopted this approach, but later he developed his own intuitive, conversation-based techniques sprinkled with large doses of patience and humor.
“He’s rigorous without being pedantic,” said Santa Fe architect Beverley Spears, who practiced her Spanish with Gavin for about four years. “He does correct mistakes, but doesn’t dwell on them and doesn’t interrupt the flow of conversation. It’s really fun and social to get together with these people and gossip or hear about their week. It’s a natural way to learn a foreign language.”
The key to speaking another tongue, Gavin says, is an attitude adjustment — to lighten up. A 1963 vacation to the island of Curaçao off Venezuela’s coast, where the natives slip in and out of four languages fluently, convinced Gavin there was a better way.
“We think of a foreign language as some obstacle that has to be overcome,” Gavin said. “But in polyglot countries, you don’t think anything of it. Language opens up so many worlds to you — of people and places, art and poetry.”
When he’s speaking Spanish, Gavin says he’s in some way a different person. His East Coast reserve melts. He even overcame initial paralysis to accept the Venezuelan art of the man-to-man abrazo (hug). “I used to make all my male students take abrazo lessons,” he said. “Now it’s the most natural thing in the world to me when I’m speaking Spanish.”
Always polishing his Spanish, Gavin went on to earn an MFA in art at the University of Massachusetts and travel through Spain. He rotated periods of painting with earning money through teaching jobs (in Puerto Rico and Costa Rica). In 1975, he landed in New Mexico to run the intensive Spanish summer program at Ghost Ranch near Abiquiú. Here, he taught at the College of Santa Fe and Santa Fe Preparatory School, while raising his two girls, Emma and Molly, with wife Robin, curator at the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art.
“I thought I was going to paint and rock the cradle a few times,” said Gavin with a laugh. “That arrangement lasted a few weeks. One or the other had to go.”
So Gavin exchanged his paintbrush for his other passion — Spanish. He began offering private classes in 1988 and has been doing so ever since. Classes are small (at most, seven people with students anywhere from four to 80 years old) and the agenda is low-key. His approach de-emphasizes details such as el and la (“the” in masculine and feminine) and instead addresses stumbling blocks that Gavin encountered as an Anglo learning to speak Spanish. For example, the two verbs for “to be”: ser and estar. The two past tenses, preterit and imperfect, also derail English speakers.
“Grammar gives you a look into a culture that uses the subjunctive,” he said. “It’s full of doubt and uncertainties. We say, ‘Of course I’ll return from my trip’ with fatuous optimism. The Latin culture is more fatalistic. It deals with death more realistically, and that’s built into the language.”
Because classes are for regular folks devoting their free time — most to enhance Latin American travel experiences or to better integrate with New Mexican Hispanic culture — there’s no homework and nothing written. For beginners, Gavin provides conjugation and tense charts. But the emphasis is on speaking.
“We’ve all been to school for 100 years, we’ve got jobs and we’re busy, so I’m not in the frame of mind, ‘Oh, I’ve got to do homework ‘cause there’s going to be a test,’ ” said Toll, an archaeologist for the Museum of New Mexico and a Gavin student for eight years.
Levine, state highway department archaeologist and a Gavin student who started from scratch nearly 12 years ago, said, “Jim is listening very carefully the whole time, picking up every mistake and the chance to point out something new. But he’s not critical, so you never feel like you’re stupid. He’ll explain something over and over again until we get it.”
Last year, Gavin published a workbook for his students, Gramática Apasionada — Reminiscences of a Love Affair with the Spanish Language. Seven years in the making, it is the culmination of his years of experience. Filled with engaging anecdotes, Gramática Apasionada is a grammar book that’s actually fun to read.
“Jim is imminently personable — he’s becoming an institution,” Toll said. “He obviously loves it. You can tell he’s thinking, ‘Isn’t this cool?’ ”
A good time is key, Gavin said.
A successful class, he said, is one with many laughs. Gavin recalls a favorite: “A student described my class to a potential student as ‘valle de la pena’ (valley of pain). I hope she meant, ‘vale la pena’ (it’s worth it). But who knows?”