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From student to colleague: Daniels and Castellanos speak of relationship, Spanish exchanges

When planting a tree, the best part is never the final result. Laboring and enjoying the time it takes for the tree to sprout through fallen foliage and punctuate an appointed skyline proves more fruitful. In the same way that humans plant seeds to grow trees, teachers ingrain their lessons into students in the hopes of their personal and academic maturation.


Seldom do teachers witness the fruition of their efforts after graduation. It may be found in news articles or by luck, but teachers, for the most part, are unable to see clearly where their past students are presently. However, for US Spanish teacher Rolando Castellanos, this is far from the truth.


In fact, Castellanos taught current US Spanish teacher Peter Daniels when Daniels attended St. Paul Academy and Summit School. Not only was Daniels the student of Castellanos, they both served as trip leaders on the recent US Spanish exchange to Madrid. And the tip of the iceberg: Daniels attended a school trip to Cuba in 2001.


“To do the complete flip around, and then see him [Daniels] in charge of making sure kids were going in the right direction, that kids were present, following and paying attention, and that they were safe, it was transformative for me. This is kind of the circle of life. I’m almost at the end of my career, and here is my former student. You plant a seed and see the tree grow, and then there are fruits off the tree,” Castellanos said.


Daniels affirms that, although he did go to Cuba when he was a student at SPA, he was unaware of the depth of background work that went into trips and exchanges.


“As a student, you don’t realize how much work goes behind the scenes. As a student, you sit there and Rolando, for example, will say ‘Everybody, listen.’ From the teacher’s perspective, it’s like, ‘We need to get on this bus, we need to make sure we’re all here. And we’re not all here.’ Some of those little things that you can tell he’s kind of annoyed, but then you see behind it and realize there are all these things he has to check off in order to make things run smoothly or as smooth as possible,” Daniels said.


When Daniels flew to Cuba with his peers in 2001, the trip was vastly different from that of SPA’s exchanges to Spain, or current trips to Cuba. The touring was heavily controlled by government officials, which limited the capacity to roam freely through Havana and Matanzas, where the students visited. Government employees were monitoring the students and teachers extensively.


“Like everyone else on the trip, [Daniels] was blown away by the experience, yet we didn’t have chances to engage like we did just recently [in Spain]. It was cultural, it was historical, and very eye-opening while visiting a Communist country with a totalitarian regime, but it was not a free flow trip that we were able to adjust itineraries and activities,” Castellanos said.


When Daniels flew with peers to Cuba in his junior year at SPA, he brought only the Spanish he learned from Castellanos’ classroom.


“We stayed at the university and we really got connected with the university students, and we brought them out to the beach. I remember it starting to rain on us and thinking that I would get really cold because Minnesota rain is so cold. But because we were on an island, it was this beautiful warm rain with a slight breeze and hanging out with Cubans that were older than us and super fun,” Daniels said.


Despite Daniels’ cultural experiences, his infatuation with the language did not develop until long after high school.  As a student, Castellanos recalls Daniels’ occasional shyness and lack of confidence in Spanish speaking skills. 


“You don’t assume a person’s talent, ability and how far the person will get by the first impression, or when you see them as a student. He turned out to be a great speaker of Spanish with confidence, and not only that, but passion to inspire others’ continual learning. He surprised many of us. From his interactions in class and his record as a student, he was not your outstanding Spanish student that you would predict,” Castellanos said.


Daniels’ aptitude in Spanish flourished when he traveled to Spain for a semester in college, and later when he lived in Ecuador to teach English lessons. Feeling trapped in an academic bubble was the reason behind his pursuit to combine a newfound interest in teaching with his knowledge of Spanish. He taught English in Ecuador for a year and then began working for WorldTeach, an organization that brings volunteer teachers to developing countries to train teachers.


“It was a blast because teaching really allows you to get into the community fast. You get your students from there and then they want to get to know you, you want to get to know them, and it’s so much more than just the subject matter,” Daniels said.


Castellanos recollects Daniels’ learning spirit from when he was a high school student as being rich with cultural receptiveness. This open engagement with others shone not only when in Cuba 17 years ago, but also in the Spanish exchange.


“Even to this day, when we went to places where we would just drive around, he would say something like ‘this is so pretty’ and ‘these people are so beautiful.’ [He is] always appreciative of what he was seeing and experiencing,” Castellanos said.


Just as Castellanos remembers Daniels personality when in high school, Daniels recognizes how Castellanos has come to evolve his quirky sayings.


“His [Castellanos’] phrase back then was ‘Que falta de respecto’ [what lack of disrespect], whereas now he calls people ‘brujo and bruja’ a lot. That’s a new thing. He’s kind of the same old guy, where he’s making fun of students and students love that and he’s telling his long-winded stories that allows him to get really deep into the history he wants to tell. He’s still up to the same old tricks,” Daniels said.


Representing the culmination and commencements of Spanish teaching careers, this past exchange trip to Madrid bore sentimentality for both Daniels and Castellanos. Delving deeper into these memories ultimately fostered an appreciation for each other’s legacies.


“He really struck me on this trip, because he has a calming effect. In the face of ‘Oh my gosh, somebody forgot their passport on the plane,’ I panic. When I looked at him dealing with that situation he was calm and composed, and did what he had to do and went with the kid. It was a great balance. I tend to be overhyped about things, and he helped me tone down this [habit],” Castellanos said.


What Daniels truly admires about Castellanos, among other characteristics, is his dedication to show his students culture. From stopping by a seemingly miniscule sculpture in Madrid to basking in the beauty of a historic cathedral, Castellanos always stops to enjoy a city’s history.

“It’s just his background knowledge. He knows the sites he wants to go about. He’ll get hooked on series where he can learn about all the kings of Spain as they’ve gone along, while I’m kind of falling asleep hearing about it. When you’re on a road trip for hours and hours you kind of just get to hear about it,” Daniels said.

From an unlikely student to a fluent Spanish educator, Daniels proved a love of language does not necessarily develop in high school. It can be developed in any part of one’s academic career, and Daniels is a true testament to this sentiment. To the student that is not the star of their language class, Castellanos urges persistence.

“Absolutely don’t give up, don’t quit, and keep trying. Those are the ingredients that will take you far. You don’t have to be the most tactile, for the person whom language comes easy and they seem to be an effortless learner, that’s great but it’s not the necessary ingredient to be able to reach a level where you are confident and a fluent speaker. He’s a perfect example. You’ll get far if you stay focused and disciplined,” Castellanos said.

Castellanos is leaving a legacy with the assurance that the seeds of Spanish culture and language he plants in his classrooms have stuck with Daniels. The devotion to a language is a process, and Daniels has metaphorically sowed the seeds that Castellanos has given him. And in the future, Daniels will have the same opportunity.

This story was selected for Best of SNO





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