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Academics

La Caballera

Elizabeth Rivera, April 13, 2009
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Most people do not fulfill the career goals that they had when they were eight years old, but Charo Caballero-Chambers is not most people. She is a Peruvian transplant about five feet tall with a gift for finding joy in any situation. Charo says, "I believe I was born to be a teacher. I have always felt that this was my mission in life; even in the third grade I thought that." But how did this Peruvian beauty find herself lecturing in the green hills of Angwin? Well, now that's a real story.

Peru, year nineteen-seventy-something. Charo has just graduated from Universidad Pedro Ruiz Gallo with a B.A. and M.A. in Spanish and literature. She wants to learn more. She applies for a government scholarship to pursue a Ph.D. She gets it. She boards a plane to Madrid, Spain. There she completes a year of academic studies, prepares to begin her thesis. An epiphany: She does not want to go back to Peru. The world beckons. The United States calls in its clear, American English. She wants to learn how to speak English. She decides not to return to Peru and she loses her scholarship, but she is free.

She meets Cindy Nelson, a PUC student on vacation for two months in Madrid and suffering through a poor living arrangement. Charo has a delightful two-bedroom apartment, Cindy moves in. They become closer friends. Charo gives private Spanish lessons and pays off her grad school costs. There is not enough money to finish the thesis. She keeps working. She dreams of going to the United States. The two months are up, it is time for Cindy to go back to Angwin. Charo goes with her. They live in Cindy's delightful apartment. Charo works as a nursing assistant at Pine Breeze and practices her English. She is required to take a course at Pine Breeze. It is very hard. All the words are new and everyone talks too fast. At night she cries for a moment, opens her dictionary and painstakingly translates the lesson. She passes the course and receives an award for best student in the class.

She keeps working, keeps learning English, but always there is the tug of her calling, pulling her to teach. She leaves Angwin, says goodbye to Cindy who has just married, goes to Montemorelos, an Adventist University in Mexico. She teaches for two years, then hears about a language institute in Hidalgo, Texas. She wants to be a missionary in another country. The United States beckons again. She goes to Texas and meets with the director of the institute. Their Spanish teacher has just left. Charo takes the job and begins the happiest two years of her life. She rides her bike to work, arrives dusty and a little wind-blown. She laughs. She is teaching and making friends. She and a friend decide to start a Sabbath afternoon worship. They knock on doors, invite people, smile. They meet at a friend's house each Sabbath. The group grows. Charo takes care of the visitors' children. She keeps teaching, riding her bike. A student gives her a little red car. The bicycle is put away and she drives all over Texas picking up people to go to the Sabbath afternoon worship.

Two years later it is time to go. This time to Canada. She says goodbye to her many friends, the worship group has grown now. The Texas conference is making them an official church; there are plans to start building a church. No more meeting in someone's living room. She boards another plane and lands in Edmond, Canada. Marries, teaches, has a baby, gets a divorce. Things are hard, but she still laughs and prays. She dreams of leaving, of starting a new life. She bows her head and asks God to take her to PUC or Antillion College in Puerto Rico. She waits. Months later a friend calls who teaches at Segundo in Spain. She has been offered a job at PUC. She does not want it. She gives Charo the name of the chair of the department of Modern Languages at PUC. Charo calls and they talk for two hours. PUC offers her the job. She boards a plane. 6 1/2-year-old Kerry sits with her.

At PUC she teaches, laughs, explains how to conjugate verbs, challenges her students to get a class average of 95 and promises to let them cut her hair as a fun incentive. They do. She sits smiling in a chair as they snip away. She tells stories. Puts on puppet shows. At home she sits down with a big pile of papers to grade and smiles. The only teacher ever known to say, "I love to grade because I see the results of my work." She makes friends, she smiles. She prays for her students. Goes on walks, has her daily worships. She bakes brownies for her class, brings tea to students with colds, tells jokes. She is happy in her work. She lectures in leopard print pumps with great enthusiasm. She pushes her students, believes in them and tells them they have powerful, beautiful imaginations and that they can triumph. She dreams of retiring early, moving to Peru, and buying a house in front of the beach. She dreams of walking each day on the beach and eating fish. She will do it, someday, but now she is home. "I'll be here until I retire or God shows me another path." She says this cheerfully, a broad smile on her face after retelling her story. She has shared the ups and downs of her life, told of living in four different countries the way some people talk about grocery shopping. When our interview hour is up she sends me off the way she does everyone who visits her office, with a hug, unaware of how extraordinary she really is.