Immediately after graduation, I sought work as an English instructor. I applied at many institutions in central and northern New Mexico: colleges, community colleges, vocational-technical colleges. I was eventually hired as an adjunct instructor at Santa Fe Community College. It was a one-hour drive to the college from Albuquerque, but I didn’t mind the twice-a-week commute: every highway in New Mexico offered a delight to the eye.
Prior to teaching at the college, I had always enjoyed the occasional visit to Santa Fe, that small city at the foot of the darkly-cloaked southern Rockies. I was stirred by the city’s antiquity: at some 400 years, the oldest city in the United States. In the winter and spring, the city perches on a dais of golden earth beneath a parfait of blue sky, white peak, and blue-green forest.
On one side of the city’s famous plaza, sitting beneath the portal of the ancient Palace of the Governors, the mysterious, timeless Indians from the nearby pueblos fascinated me as they offered their handcrafted jewelry and pottery for sale. On the opposite side, Woolworth’s peddled its food―including the sodium bomb known as the “Frito pie”―soft drinks, personal hygiene products, office supplies, decorations, and gewgaws. Elsewhere on the plaza, upscale women’s clothing stores offered long, billowy dresses and multi-colored, elaborately stitched cowgirl boots.
Just off the plaza was the historic La Fonda Hotel with its massive honey-hued vigas (once used, we were told, to hang miscreants), fine artwork, dapper concierge, decent Mexican fare, a gift shop with novels by regional writers alive and dead, and cozy passageways to the guests’ rooms. In the words of Frank Waters: “always . . . the end of the Santa Fe Trail for Anglo visitors.”
I liked the fact that Santa Fe’s lawmakers mandated that the colors of the city’s structures fall within a narrow range of earth tones. I regarded this as a respectful nod to the region’s original inhabitants and the adobe structures in which they once, and perhaps still, dwelled, and an unspoken acknowledgement of the primacy of the earth beneath the city itself. The city also permitted another style that dated from the mid-19th century: Spanish territorial revival.
At the time of my arrival in New Mexico, long-time Santa Feans, especially those of modest means, were complaining of being taxed out of their homes by―surprise!―an invasion of wealthy Californians, queen among them actress and New Age guru Shirley MacLaine. However, I was frankly too fascinated by The City Different to give this much attention.
The community college, at the time pleasantly aloof on the southern edge of Santa Fe, was but a dozen years old when I began teaching there. Its campus had awesome views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the north and east, the Ortiz and Sandia Mountains to the south, and the Jemez Mountains to the west. There was still a dewy freshness to the campus’s attractive classrooms and offices.
As at UNM, the class text was a collection of non-fiction essays that delineated the various rhetorical approaches to composition; the students were required to write some six essays throughout the semester; and the final exam was graded anonymously on a pass/fail basis by a team of instructors. Unlike the university, however, the classes had more “non-traditional” students―working people 30 and older―and, this being northern New Mexico, a greater percentage of Latinos.
As at UNM, my first assignment was a brief writing sample. Upon reading my students’ efforts, I knew I would be facing greater challenges than those at the university. Until my hiring in Santa Fe, I was unfamiliar with the concept of a “community” college. I now understood that this institution was popular not only for its affordability, but also, as I and my fellow instructors delicately put it, its “lower entrance bar.” I was certain many of my students had C’s and D’s on their high school transcripts. Just as I once had. I was certain, as well, that a number of my students faced challenges with English because they grew up in homes in which Spanish is the primary language, Spaniards having been rooted in Santa Fe’s soil since the early 17th century. Indeed, the hallways, walkways, and parking lots of the college were rife with spoken Spanish. However, whether a student was pursuing an education in a trade such as woodworking, plumbing, electricity, or automotive technology, or using the college as an economical stepping stone to a science or humanities degree from a four-year college or university, the primary obstacle was not language, but motivation.
Teaching was often mentally and physically tiring. However, I found rejuvenation, camaraderie, and laughs among my fellow adjunct instructors of all subjects as we gathered before and after classes in a large common area. I shared my love of pasta and The Godfather motion pictures with an instructor of Italian; argued good-naturedly with an oddball veteran English instructor who maintained Across the River and Into the Trees―a critical flop―was Hemingway’s finest novel; and playfully badgered a physics professor for a detailed explanation as to why and how the universe is infinite.
Meanwhile, I discreetly took pleasure in the periodic entrada of a mid-50’s, very dark-complected Latina instructor. Regal, mysterious, frequently dressed all in black―including a tight, mid-calf-length skirt―she’d strut in ankle boots into the common area, looking at and speaking to no one, and prepare for class―Spanish, I was told. She reminded me of the Jo Van Fleet character, a proud and powerful madam, approaching her house of ill-repute in the motion picture East of Eden. A Mexican matriarch out of an unwritten Frank Waters novel. In my imagination, to provide this fascinating woman’s entrance the grand soundtrack it deserved, I drew from my tiny pool of classical music knowledge and chose―naturally, because it was pure Spain―the “Habenera” of Bizet’s Carmen. I never spoke to her.