Guest column: Wonderful experience at Lake Tahoe Community College Spanish institute |

Guest column: Wonderful experience at Lake Tahoe Community College Spanish institute

Pat Reilly Harbo
Guest Column

My husband Doug has always wanted to have more command of the Spanish language. He goes on bouts of studying on his own, pouring over textbooks, dictionaries, and listening to CDs while he mutters his responses to himself. He used to communicate with people working in his store, and now his main reason is to be able to speak fluently to our son-in-law, who is from Honduras.

When he found out about Lake Tahoe Community College’s Intensive Spanish Summer Institute (ISSI) I knew he was going to sign up for it. What I didn’t expect was that I would join him.

We went in to chat with the program’s director, Susan O’Connor, to help Doug decide what level he should sign up for. She boosted him right into Intermediate Level II. After listening to her explain the classes and the events that happened during the program, I thought it sounded like fun and considered signing up myself.

I boasted about the Spanish I had learned in the “clinica de los ojos” at Kaiser. I knew all the letters on the eye chart in Spanish, and I could communicate pretty well with the patients ‘til the interpreter arrived for their appointment with the doctor. The most beginner-level class is called “Low Beginning,” and I thought that I could skip that. We both enrolled and became college students again! We walked out to our car making up a silly fight song for the school’s team, the Coyotes.

It was a month ‘til the class started, and my decision of skipping the basic course started to worry me. I realized that having studied French in high school, there would no doubt be verbs and tenses to memorize. Doug was madly studying night and day, and I had an aversion to even trying. I admitted to myself that I should change my class to Low Beginning, and I immediately felt better. Yet another reason not to study before class …

On the first day, we showed up for school at 7:30, like good little boys and girls, and were happy to see that there were several other “lifetime learners” at the introductory assembly, many of whom had attended before and were already speaking Spanish with each other. There was no shortage of younger students too, some wanting to get a jump on their Spanish in their first year of college, and lots of educators wanting to be able to communicate better with their ESL students. So there we all were … students on our first day of school, perhaps with a little bit of anxiety of the unknown.

Doug and I each went our separate ways to our grammar and vocabulary classes. My teacher, Profesora Carol, had a nice smile and was happy to be there. The other students were friendly as we introduced ourselves to each other, already using our new language. “Como se llama usted?” “Me llamo Patricia,” I answered, rolling my R.

Mi Profesora threw us into the deep end (gently) in the afternoon. To our surprise, we were catching on, working from our workbook in pairs. Doug had a little bit of review in his class, but I’m sure he was way ahead of us newbies.

When it came to “breakout sessions” Doug and I had different tastes. He preferred to push himself with lots of conversation classes, and I chose to learn about the art of Frida Kahlo, or how to make chiles rellenos, or Spanish paella. (Next time he swears he will take the food classes, since you get samples).

We did agree on the “Sing the Songs of Cuba and Latin America” class, where Marco Pereda sang and played his guitar while we sang along. There were too many classes to choose from; from Spanish Swear Words and Street Slang, to an Environmental Series about Baja California.

When the evening was said and done, we both must have thought our car was in a different spot, since I was going right and I saw Doug veering left. Then I saw something move behind him. “Bear!!”, I called in a loud whisper.

It was dusk, and a bear had gotten into a dumpster. Doug moved quickly toward me and the car.

It was the first bear we had seen this season.

“We’re in a Prius,” he said, “It doesn’t make much noise. Keep the lights off and go past him and we can see him up close!”

I had second thoughts, but did it anyway. Thank God the bear, rather large, darted away from his foraging long enough for us to pass, and then went back to his business.

The next day, the last day of classes, I told my conversation teacher, Maria, about Doug’s antics.

Later that day, Doug and I met for lunch, and on our way we met “mi profesora.” I winked at her and presented “mi esposa.”

She said, “You! He causes me problems all the time!” It turns out that professora Maria was Doug’s “homeroom” teacher.

Well, the good ending to all this, is that we decided that we would make plans to go to Spain to really be immersed in the Spanish language.

Our hope is to include part of the Camino Santiago de Compostela, the 500-mile pilgrimage that folks make that ends in North Western Spain with the cathedral that houses the tomb of St. James. Our plan is to hop on and hop off (not on a Red Bus but from our rental car), taking in a few miles at a time, and ending, God willing, with a grand finale of a few miles at the end.

Folks might look at us strangely with our light packs, and going the opposite direction back to the car … but from what I hear, this is called, “the Harbo Way.”

Pat Reilly Harbo is part-time South Lake Tahoe resident and writer. You can find her blog at

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