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Sharon Rybak Portugal

December 10, 2009

            In 1991, I turned 18 years old, held in my had a freshly minted high school diploma, and carried in my heart a tremendous longing for change.  I had spent the better part of the previous decade working less towards learning than I had towards self-preservation.  I used to describe the sense of being on my guard all the time as a brick wall that I had built around myself so as to keep the hurt away from me.  In those years of being the smart kid that seemingly everyone liked to pick on, I had learned many valuable lessons about keeping myself busy to avoid confronting people who sought to kick my spirit in the teeth, lessons which I was only too desirous to abandon.  I actively sought in applying early-decision to a challenging private college the opportunity for a fresh start.  I looked forward to being a college freshman more than any one else I had ever met.  I, of course, always told people that I was excited to be able to go to such a beautiful school in the mountains of Vermont.  To myself, though, I meditated a daily recitation:  here is my chance to break free from it all.

            I count among my teachers and professors a small number of true mentors.  These are people who may have long since forgotten my face, or even whether I was a good student or not.  They are people who, should I ever have the chance to meet again, I would enjoy sitting and talking with, even if only briefly, to be able to say thank you.  They are people I wish could know how much their friendship had meant to me, and still does.  More importantly, they are the ones I try to model myself after as I contemplate the relationships I form with my own students, now that I too teach.

            Sharon Rybak Portugal is one of those professors about whom I think when I see a student before me in my classroom who reminds me a little too much of myself a half of a lifetime ago.  She represents for me–in this day of discourse on college campuses where, whether achieved or not, our purpose is to create a “student-centered” learning environment–what a good teacher should be.  A good teacher is someone who isn’t there to assure ‘good grades’, but someone who is there to be a true guide in the learning process.  Work hard, show interest, and a good teacher like Sharon will meet you more than half way with a set of keys to open even more seemingly impossible-to-open doors.

            Sharon was my first Spanish professor.  My experience with Spanish prior to her class had been a very limited self-guided study of Nuestros Amigos, a 1979 textbook published by Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.  Mrs. Deal, an affluent Tex-Mex woman who taught as a way to keep herself busy as her husband ran an airline company or some other important business, had been my French teacher four years earlier.  She had agreed to loan me a copy of textbook and allowed me to copy all of the accompanying cassette tapes that summer of my junior year when I was looking for ‘something to do’.  Upon arriving in Middlebury, I had little idea what Spanish actually sounded like, outside of those tapes, but managed to do relatively well on a written placement exam.  With that, I signed up for Sharon’s intermediate grammar class during my second semester of college.

            Sharon’s class was the last of the grammar classes offered to undergraduates at Middlebury.  Among other materials, we had a blue paperback textbook which had a long series of rote exercises to help us hone our verb conjugations, forcing us to practice the verb forms with all the various subjects possible, not just the yo and tú forms as casual conversation would often lead us.  The exercises started with a sentence and we were asked to manipulate the same sentence six different times, changing the verb forms along the way.  It wasn’t my favorite text, but it was useful enough for me to still make photocopies from it for those students struggling in my classes today.  Class was held in mid-morning in some windowless classroom in a building whose name I have since managed to forget.

Sharon was a captivating professor, with a charming accent that didn’t sound like the others that I heard at the Spanish table when I would eat at Le Château.  She had a certain energy that seemed to surround her, a sense of caring that her colleagues (who often thought more of themselves than perhaps was warranted) lacked.  Despite the fact that her husband, Alberto, was also on the teaching faculty, she didn’t share in her colleagues’ pretension, and it was quite refreshing to meet someone who behaved so “naturally”.  By the time I was in her class, I was all but convinced that the only way people interacted with their professors was at department sponsored hob-nobbing wine and cheese parties.  (I never learned to abide those events very well.)

A fairly tall woman possessing a very classic sort of beauty, Sharon had brown hair, not quite shoulder length, which she neatly kept.  She had clear, yet lightly freckled skin that must burn easily in the summer sun.  And her expressive eyes always seemed well framed by her high arching eyebrows and shapely cheek bones.  What I remember most, though, were her long graceful fingers.  I had grown up in Maine where people know how to weave a good yarn and tend to “talk with their hands” a lot.  The other kids in my class, hailing from their private schools in Massachusetts and New York, didn’t share in my culture of story-telling and hand gesturing.  Talking with them at times was rather like being deaf and trying to lip-read in London where having a “stiff upper lip” is revered.  There was always something missing.  Sharon’s fingers always seemed to fill in those parts of the Spanish conversation I was missing aurally.  They appeared to tell their own story, one you couldn’t help but follow.

A little restaurant café had just opened at Otter Creek in Middlebury.  It was, at least from the outside, a quaint little place in the lower level of the old mill there.  Everyone talked about it glowingly, and with that sense of familiarity that comes from being able to go there whenever one desired.  Located within striking distance of a foot bridge that linked the two sides of the business district in town, I used to go walking there sometimes just to get away from people, listen to the water tumble over the falls and to watch the nighttime “city lights”, which were new to me.  Sharon invited me to join her there for lunch one afternoon.

At the café, they offered many things on their menu that I had never tasted before from scones to avocados on salad greens with names like arugula and radicchio.  I was almost embarrassed, not knowing where to begin my order when the lip-pierced gal taking my order asked me what I wanted to eat.  Since I was a student on full financial aid, I rarely ate outside of the cafeteria at Proctor Hall.  I chose something simple from the menu, mostly because I didn’t want to cause any real expense.  Being invited out was a real treat.  I hoped that it wouldn’t be a singular occurrence, this generosity.  Indeed, I was very happy for Sharon’s invitation to lunch.  Not only was it a chance to reawaken taste buds under constant assault of blandness at the cafeteria, but it was nice to think that one of my professors saw something in unique in me.  Sharon expressed a sincere interest in me, both as a student and as a person, perhaps because I was genuinely interested in learning and growing.  Maybe she felt I had trouble fitting in among my peers and somehow she too had known what that was like.  Or, it is possible that she just enjoyed spritely conversation as much as I always have.  Who is to say?

What I do know, however, is that Sharon took the time to get to know me, and that meant the world to me.  Having participated in countless activities in middle school and high school where I had been the only one from my school, I had gotten used to ‘making friends’ quickly.  Living in Hepburn, a dormitory generally reserved for upper classmen, that year, I had made many new friends, but they, like me, were often consumed in their own worlds.  Middlebury could have been, had it not been for all the work that kept me from thinking about it too much, a very lonely place.  If Sharon didn’t particularly care about what it was like to grow up in a rural Maine town, she never showed it.  She sat and listened to me, shared bits and fragments of her own life story, and enjoyed a more-than-decent lunch with me.  It was a real gift.

Over the years that I was a student at Middlebury College, Sharon and I went out to lunch several times.  She always encouraged me to reach for goals that seemed unattainable.  In turn, I tried to encourage her novel-writing aspirations (convinced she’d write one as good as those I was reading in my classes).  She is the kind of person who I wish I had met a bit later in life so as to be able to maintain a closer friendship.  The world needs good listeners.

I count among my teachers and professors a small number of true mentors.  While Sharon was essential to me in my early days of learning Spanish, helping me to understand the rules of grammar and see through some of the cultural baggage that comes with the language, I don’t count that as her finest contribution to my education.  I rather think that she helped me to see how important it is not only to share the tale of the path that I have taken in life, but also to listen to the story of the paths others are on.  Sometimes being a good teacher means that you make room to understand what is motivating a student to be in your class so that your lessons lead to other possibilities.  These mentors of mine, like Sharon, are people who, should I ever have the chance to meet them again, I would enjoy sitting and talking with, even if only briefly, to be able to say thank you.

One Comment leave one →
  1. dickieleopold permalink
    January 28, 2017 8:41 pm

    Thank you. COusin Sharon has had a fascinating, charmed life. CHeers, Dickie Leopold

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