Mónica Klien, a beloved member of the Cambridge Public Library’s English as a Second Language (ESL) family, passed away in January 2020. A professor of languages and Latin American literature who taught at Georgetown University, MIT, and Wellesley College, Mónica started teaching ESL at the Library in 2015 and described it as the most rewarding experience of her career. Mónica was born and raised in Peru and so, like her students, discovered English as a secondary language.
Mónica taught at the Library until weeks before her death and many of her friends and family honored her life with a gift to the Library Foundation. A bright light gone too soon, we are honored to remember Mónica by sharing this touching short essay she wrote about her life and her experience teaching at the Library.
Mónica Klien Samanez
I am standing in front of eighteen students in the basement of the library. This is not the glass palace of the main library, but one of the other branches in a grittier part of town. It is a bunker-style structure, surrounded by piles of snow left by the monster 2015 New England Winter. We are doing a vocabulary exercise where I show them a written word or phrase, and they have to describe it with words in English. I show them “MAKE UP”, and different people scream different things: What ladies put on to look pretty! When you kiss after a fight with your husband! To invent a story!
For more than twenty years, I have taught Latin American Literature and Culture and Spanish in beautiful universities and colleges with brick towers surrounded by green lawns and flowers. Places with implicit rules of conduct, where mostly –with few exceptions- the children of privilege attend. After 10 years of teaching at Georgetown University in Washington DC, restlessness started setting in. I often thought of other possibilities: growing my own vegetables in a farm (I had only planted tomatoes and parsley in pots); starting a shelter for old and abused horses (I was 12 the last time I was near a horse); making different kinds of empanadas with the hope of creating an empanada empire a la Georgetown Cupcakes (until one afternoon, while driving in Dupont Circle, I noticed a new shining place called House of Empanadas). I thought of many other possibilities, to which my husband would skeptically comment, “Ahhh, that really would be a successful enterprise!”
In 2009, I was diagnosed with cancer. I had chemo, and then resumed teaching. A couple of years later, life brought us to Cambridge, and I took the road well traveled simply, oh well, Robert Frost, because it was easier. I landed a job in a prestigious women’s college, where I received, for the first time in my teaching career, a negative evaluation from the students: not nurturing enough, too cold. A colleague suggested I take food to class. I was appalled by the demands of the spoiled few and the obsession with grades, appalled by a system of over-empowered students and professors eager to please no matter what, appalled by the constant departmental bickering which ultimately leads to bad choices and a demeaning of the whole process of transferring knowledge to a new generation. I taught a couple more semesters there, but I was basically done, finished, finito.
This decision more or less coincided with my health going south. And I don’t mean going south to the Rio Grande, but south to the South Pole. I did not teach in 2014. It was an extremely challenging year. I had a recurrence, a surgery and then landed in the emergency room twice. One of those times I had to stay in the hospital for nine days. At the end of the year, I visited my patient portal and scrolled down and down and down to the tens, the hundreds, of appointments for MRIs, CT scans, doctor of this, doctor of that. I wept when I saw that screen.
It is a mixed crowd today there in the library basement. We have a small United Nations: Chinese, Russians, Iranians, Mexicans, Nepalese, Ukrainians, Chileans, Syrians, French, Haitians. Nobody is younger than late twenties. I’m worried we are making too much noise because Maria’s office has a window to the classroom. Maria is the coordinator who gracefully and efficiently leads students and volunteers of multiple ESL classes in all the libraries of Cambridge.
The students are on fire, after we finish with the multiple meanings of “MAKE UP.” One woman screams: Teacher! Did you wear make up today?? I am a little taken aback but say, maybe a little. Another yells: Teacher! Do you have a husband?? Well… yes, yes, I do. Yet, another, Teacher! Do you like your husband?? Yes, I like him!! There is a lot of laughter. I feel alive, connected to these people who give thanks after every class without knowing I am a volunteer, who probe into my personal life in surprising ways. I feel connected to them by the purest form of transmission, without all the constraints that many American higher education institutions have fallen into. Yes, yes, I give these students a little. I wonder if they know how much they give me.