Story and photo by Lori Gottula
When most of us seek adventure from our normal, boring lives, that means we change our hair styles, or maybe even jump out of an airplane. Not so for Maria Lopez de Merlo, the new Spanish teacher at Falls City High School.
Adventure for Maria, who is from Alicante, Spain, means applying for a visiting teacher position in the U.S., accepting an offer in small-town Nebraska, then leaving a beautiful city on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea to travel 4600 miles around the world to teach.
The hardest part was saying goodbye to her inner circle. Her husband, Javier, had to stay behind because of his job as an insurance adjuster. Maria also left her parents, friends, and a classroom full of students. However, her two daughters—Beatriz, 13, and Estela, 11—decided to join their mom on her adventure.
“My girls really like it here,” Maria said, during a recent interview in her classroom on the third floor of Falls City High School. “They’ve made friends at Falls City Middle School, and have gotten involved in activities.”
So, how did Maria choose Falls City?
The application process began in November, 2017. Maria was feeling the itch of adventure, so she checked a website that pairs visiting teachers with interested schools. She decided to apply to the U.S. just to see if anyone would hire her.
“The positions are only open to people who have been teaching for at least two years, and are currently working,” Maria said. “New teachers aren’t eligible, and neither are retired teachers.”
In January, she received a message that she’d been chosen for an April interview in Madrid, Spain—for schools in Nebraska. All of a sudden, the dream of an adventure looked more like a reality. She started waffling about her decision.
“One day, I said to myself that, yes I would go,” she said. “The next day, the answer was no.” Unable to make up her mind, she decided to weigh the pros and cons. At home, she lived in a lively city of 300,000 people. The streets downtown were filled with activity every night. She and her family biked across town to beautiful beaches, or drove four hours to the mountains anytime they wanted to. In addition, the winters were beautiful, with temperatures that hovered around 65 degrees.
Nebraska, Maria learned, was mostly made up of rural communities, and the economy centered around agriculture. There were no beaches nearby, and no mountains. The winters were unbearably cold, and snow sometimes accumulated in feet rather than inches.
Nebraska was 180 degrees different than Alicante. And that was exactly what Maria was looking for! But still, she couldn’t decide if she could leave her family for ten months or not. Then Beatriz stepped forward.
“I’ll go to Nebraska with you, mum,” the teenager said. Maria was shocked. Beatriz loved her school, and she had a lot of friends. But she was so willing to join her mom in the adventure that Maria decided to go through with the interview process.
She went to Madrid in April, and met with a recruiter from Nebraska. The recruiter seemed excited about her potential, so Maria went home and nervously waited for a call. She continued to waffle.
One month later, she received notice that the administrators of two Nebraska schools wanted to interview her. Falls City was one of them.“Mr. Heckenlively and Mr. Dunkhas were both so lively and smiley,” Maria said. “I felt
very wanted and supported.”
When they made an offer, she immediately said, “Yes!”
She and Beatriz arrived in Falls City in late July. Estela decided to join them after her mom and sister had been in the U.S. for two weeks.
“Now, Estela is the one who loves it most,” Maria said. Maybe so, but her mom isn’t far behind. Sure, Maria misses her hometown, husband, and extended family. She misses the activity in the streets at night, and the festivals in the villages that surround Alicante. She misses going to the beach or cinema whenever she wants to. And she misses having dinner with friends.
“I haven’t made a lot of friends here yet,” Maria said. “In my country, people invite others to drinks or dinner at least once a week. But here, everyone is so busy with family, school, and church activities. So I do miss going out with my friends.”
She also misses having access to stores of all kinds.
“The stores here are very nice,” she said, “But the shopping is limited.”
However, she is quick to point out that the pros of Falls City—and America—far outweigh the cons.
“I have enjoyed the cold weather just as much as I thought I would,” she said. “It never gets this cold in Alicante.”
And, she has really enjoyed her students.
“The children are so well-behaved here!” Maria said, excitedly. “Sure, I have a few problem students, just as all teachers do, no matter the city or town. But problem students are the exception here, not the rule.”
To emphasize her point, she walked over to a desk by her classroom door, and pointed at four plastic bins, each of which held stacks of colored pencils.
“Just look at this!” she said, pointing at the bins. “These pencils have been here since my first day. One-hundred-twenty students come through my door every day, but none of these pencils have ever gone missing. Plus, the students return them to the right bins at the end of their classes! I want to take pictures of these pencils, and my clean classroom, to send to my friends back home! They won’t believe it.”
In addition to the well-behaved students, she appreciates the support of the administration.
“If I need something, like a cable moved for my computer, it is done that day,” she said. “If a student behaves poorly and is sent to the office, the principal backs me. That doesn’t happen very often at home. The student’s word is generally believed over the teacher’s.”
She shook her head in awe, and grinned broadly.
“I really like the administrators here,” she said. The feeling is apparently mutual. Gale Dunkhas, principal at FCHS, had this to say—“Maria has really done a nice job of transitioning to Falls City High School. Her career experience teaching English to Spanish speakers in Spain is what set her apart from other applicants. She is excited to teach Spanish in Nebraska and at FCHS. She not only is teaching Spanish, but is sharing the Spanish culture with our students, daily. This cultural exchange and collaboration enhances our regular Spanish curriculum.” For Maria, she is simply sharing her way of life, with students she has come to love. But this opportunity to teach has also given her the chance to learn—about Americans, and our country.
“I’ll be honest,” she said. “The people in Spain think that all Americans are like the ones in Hollywood movies, or on the news. Some of my students at home thought I would be killed in a mass shooting because they think every school here is unsafe. They wanted to buy me a bullet-proof vest.”
Now that she has lived here for four months, she chuckles at the thought. “Our perceptions can be so wrong,” she said. “I have never felt unsafe at school. There are just so many things that I love about America now.”
“I love the sense of community,” she said. “I am overwhelmed by the way that Americans take care of their poor, and the way everything revolves around school and church activities. In my country, we go to church on Sunday mornings and listen to the priest for half an hour. Then, church is over for the week. That’s not the case in America. Americans are very deep and God-centered.”
“I love the sense of independence in your young adults,” she said. “At home, our high school graduates go to college, then live at home until they are married, which usually happens around 28 or 29. I know a doctor who still lives with her parents, and she is expected to live with them until she’s married. In America, some children live with their parents after college, but most are on their own right after high school. That sense of independence is freeing.”
“I love the way that you feel your country,” she said. “Not feel about your country, but feel your country. It’s the pride that you have. Your children learn that pride by saying the pledge of allegiance and by placing their hands over their hearts to sing the national anthem. It’s all so unifying.”
As our interview wound down, Maria thought about the day that she will leave America. She and her girls will go home next summer, but if her contract is extended, Maria has the option of returning to her classroom for a maximum of five years.
“Whether I come back after this school year or not, I know that I will never be the same after this experience,” she said. “Whenever a person travels, she never again belongs to one place. She feels homesick for any country she leaves behind. And I know, when I do go home for good, I will be homesick for Falls City.”
Now, that is the true mark of one great adventure.