¡Que Viva La Vida! The life of Señor Cruz


By Emma Talkoff

IN THE STREETS: Cruz leads a group of Tam students through Barcelona while on last year’s Spain trip. Photo by: McCall HoytAlmost half a century ago, a young man and his family received a massive stroke of luck: despite limited English, they were granted visas into the United States. On the edge of one of the biggest transitions in his life, the Bogotá, Colombia native sought financial stability, a chance at a higher education, and, he said, “like every other human being—to look for adventure.”

Now, after several turbulent and auspicious decades in the United States, Señor Fernando Cruz faces another shift in perspective. Having spent twenty years at Tam as a Spanish teacher imparting wisdom and cultivating respect from students, Cruz is now preparing for what he considers to be the most difficult moment of his teaching career: retirement.

Cruz’s passion for teaching emerged long before his arrival at Tam, and in fact before his own education commenced. “I was three years old, perhaps four, and my grandmother took care of me, so in order to amuse her I used to pick up papers and read to her,” said Cruz. “Of course, I was not reading, I was making things up; in fact, the newspapers half of the time were upside down. But she paid attention to me, and I didn’t know why.” As Cruz began attending primary school in a one-room schoolhouse where a single teacher instructed the entire student body, he continued to share his love of reading with his grandmother and aunts—and soon, he wasn’t just pretending. “Everything that I learned, I passed along to my grandmother. I became their favorite grandson against my brothers and sisters, who didn’t realize how come I was the chosen one,” said Cruz. Eventually, Cruz came to a life-changing realization: “Unknown to me, all those years, I was teaching my grandmother how to read. I was able to read and they didn’t. So I could navigate with them and was given preferential treatment.”

GRADUATE: Cruz’s high school graduation photo taken when he was 18 years old. Photo courtesy of: Fernando CruzThe idea that teaching others could lead to a better life for himself and his family has stayed with him to this day. “The idea is still there, that I was the chosen one. Not because I was better; because I simply taught my grandmother. And that’s how the teaching passion began,” he said.

Although the seeds of his teaching zeal were planted early, it would not be for several decades and following a variety of careers before Cruz was able to realize his passion. After attending primary school in Bogotá, Cruz was accepted into an exclusive, nationally ranked high school. But financial difficulties forced him to transfer to a military school, which he attended for three years. Cruz, then the equivalent of a college freshman, was forced to temporarily abandon his education in favor of getting a job at a bank. Entering the bank as a runner, Cruz delivered mail, carried messages, and carried out small errands— “really the lowest possible job I was able to get.” From there, he worked his way up through the ranks and eventually became a teller supervisor. While working, Cruz took out a loan from the bank in order to finish building a house that his father had started, but when the family was unable to pay back the loan, the family decided to emigrate.

Although he was not able to immediately pursue the life that he hoped for in America, Cruz experienced improvements directly after the move. Working in Connecticut as a turret lathe operator for a metalworking company, Cruz made $1.25 an hour— “the equivalent of three days of work in my former country.”

In 1973, Cruz enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. Although he never served in Vietnam, he “was in the midst of” the conflict, and is considered a Vietnam veteran. In the Air Force, Cruz was finally able to take the first steps towards what would eventually become his true calling—teaching. Cruz became an education specialist and continued his own education on government scholarship at East Carolina University, where he designed his own major. “The translation from the lingo that the university chose is ‘how to teach,’” said Cruz. “Not teaching Spanish, but how to teach anything.”

In his 20 years at Tam, Cruz has observed many changes, from extensive modernization and renovation of a once “dilapidated, bandaged” campus, to a major expansion in girls sports. Cruz himself is a former Tam girls soccer coach, and in 1998 led the team to then unprecedented victory at North Coast Sectionals. But by far his favorite experience through two decades of teaching at Tam has been just that—teaching. He’s held a wide variety of careers and traveled the world, but Cruz’s passion for teaching has remained the central aspect of his life. “I’ve taught at the university level; I’ve taught at the high school level; I’ve taught at the community college level,” said Cruz, “so to me it has been the greatest job ever. Really, teaching was never my profession. Teaching was, and is, my vocation.”

Through strict policies and a rigid classroom routine, Señor Cruz has built a distinct reputation at Tam. As sophomore Markita Schulman put it, “Initially, Señor Cruz is really scary. It takes a little getting used to, to figure out what he expects.” But although some students complain about having to line up in the hallway before each class and participating in daily “Qué pasó en la última clase?” exercises, in which students are randomly selected by his computer “Paco” to come to the front of the classroom and retell what happened in the previous class, Cruz maintains that these routines are essential to his teaching philosophy. “I can see the level of speaking ability, comprehension, as well as the students being able to be in front of an audience,” said Cruz of the “Qué pasó?” exercise. “That is a trademark of my teaching style.”

Sophomore and Spanish 5/6 student Bryce Killingsworth agreed that Cruz’s methods are “very structured,” and can be difficult, but said that his guidelines help him learn. “The format of his class makes it easier to remember topics,” said Killingsworth. “At first it seems like it wouldn’t be, but actually being more strict makes it easier to learn.”

KING OF THE WORLD: Cruz at a border marker between Kenya and Tanzania in 2004. Photo courtesy of: Fernando CruzSophomore and AP Spanish Literature student August Kiles had similar feelings about Cruz’s class. “It’s really good for learning,” said Kiles of Cruz’s teaching style, adding that Cruz “gets down to business.”

Cruz said that his beliefs about teaching can be boiled down to three words: “respect, trust, and communication.” With these aims in mind, he strives to create an engaging and rigorous learning environment for all students. Cruz views his students as if they were “my own sons or daughters,” he said. “Then, in turn, the students must do the same: respect me. Standards are given the very first day. They are explained to all the students regardless of their age or grade, and they have to follow them.”

Students like Kiles have certainly noticed the high levels of respect that Cruz requires from, and gives to, his students. “He does demand respect from students, which I think more teachers should do,” said Kiles. He went on to say that Spanish with Señor Cruz was “challenging,” but that, by working hard and honoring classroom expectations, “you always come out of it ok.”

Schulman agreed. “In other classes the standards aren’t as high,” she said. But the payoff can make a more structured class worth the effort. “I think I learned more in Spanish this year than in my three previous years of Spanish combined,” said Schulman. “I’m very ready for [Spanish] 7/8.”

Although Cruz is known as a strict teacher, because of the policies he institutes and the respect that he fosters in his classroom, he said that disorder is rarely a problem. “Once [classroom policy] is established, and I treat the students the same way, I never have any discipline problems,” he said. “When we have fun, we have fun, when we talk, we talk, when we need to be silent, we need to be silent.” Schulman agreed. “With Señor it’s like we’re learning and being all intense, and then he’s like, ‘let’s dance!’” she said.

Now, facing the end of his career at Tam, Cruz is reluctant to give up what sees as the job of a lifetime. But he also has some ambitious plans for the future, and is looking forward to the next chapter in his life. “To me, teaching has been my life ever since I can remember, and now that I’m approaching retirement, I feel very sad that I have to let go of that part of my life, because I am at the top of my game,” he said. “But I would like to do something else.”

Really, teaching was never my profession. Teaching was, and is, my vocation.

So what does the future hold for one of Tam’s most well-known and respected teachers? Cruz says that his list of plans for years to come “is very long,” and includes a variety of creative careers that will play on his strengths as a teacher and Spanish speaker. Cruz would like to establish a travel company aimed at students studying a foreign language abroad, or offer his services as a tour guide to Spanish-speaking visitors to the Bay Area. He’s also considering learning how to do basic income taxes for local Spanish-speaking residents, and may even “throw my hat into politics” and run for the Tamalpais Union High School Board so that he “could offer my input as far as how to improve the well-being and success, both academically and socially, of the student population.”

Perhaps most interestingly, Cruz hopes to hire an agent in Los Angeles and eventually become “the official announcer of all the movie trailers in Spanish in the whole world.” Previously, Cruz created a radio program in which he taught beginning Spanish to thousands of students live over the air, and hopes to parlay his success in that field to future voiceover work. He also will be managing properties owned by his family in Texas and Florida.

Despite a future seemingly full of possibilities, Cruz said that he will very much miss Tam and his life here. “I will miss everything,” said Cruz of Tam. But he will miss “interactions with students” the most.

Spanish students at Tam have long been aware of Cruz’s passion for teaching, and experienced it in their classes. Kiles reported hearing once that Cruz would be willing to teach for free, and he believes it. “He’s not only a great teacher, but an amazing person,” said Kiles.

Schulman also noted Cruz’s dedication to his job. “He cares so much that you have to put all of yourself into his class,” she said.

Cruz leaves behind a 20-year legacy of zealous teaching, love of language, and unique classroom management at Tam, but said that his advice to future students is simple—and it’s something that most already know, even if they don’t practice it. “My advice to students is patience. Patience happens to be the mother of all virtues.” And, as Cruz frequently likes to tell his students: “Patience is like the roots of a tree with very sour roots but very sweet fruits.”