Tributes

A Tribute to Erika Berry
by Natalia Matta Jara

Her friends used to say that Erika went to study abroad and she never came back. That first trip to Spain changed her life. In four months, she learned to speak Spanish and fell in love with both Spain and its culture. After a semester in Madrid, while she was boarding the plane that would take her back to the United States, she thought that leaving Spain did not make sense. She soon asked to return one more semester to the same school in Madrid. Erika had just started another journey. One that would take her to meet other people, other cultures, other languages. Fortunately for her students and colleagues at Sidwell, Erika brought that journey to the heart of her teaching. As a teacher and a colleague, she always followed that light of brave exploration, radiating and awakening curiosity, simplicity, and a sense of community among us.

Erika’s fascination with Spanish led her to pursue a Master of Arts in Spanish at George Washington University, where Erika discovered her love for teaching.  Thanks to that combination, she began teaching Spanish in the Upper School at Sidwell Friends.  With a foundation grant from Sidwell, Erika obtained a Master’s in Liberal Studies at St. John’s College.  Soon after, she started teaching in the English Department. The most memorable class from her time at Sidwell comes from those years. It was her Seminar on Classical Greek Texts. Inspired by the teaching philosophy she learned at St. John's College, Erika designed the class as a conversation led by both the text of the day and the students. Everyone sat in a circle. No hands were raised.   Erika would ask the first question but oftentimes she even did not speak. The discussion just flowed. It was a different model for a class, in which students did not answer to the teacher. They engaged in a genuine dialogue, seeking and encountering each other’s views. It was a true treasure for Erika. 

For almost 25 years, Erika taught in both departments, Modern Languages and English. One day, one of her students, Phil Weitzman (class of ’99), asked her why Sidwell did not offer a course that included community service with the Spanish-speaking community in Washington DC. The school was missing the obvious. She realized that her student was right. Erika knew she had to do something about it. And she did. She created a Spanish summer course for Sidwell students. For a month, three times a week, the students did community service with children and the elderly at the Senior Center (formerly Eofula Spanish Senior Center), the Spanish Educational Development Center, and Casa del Pueblo. The other two days of the week, Erika taught a four-hour class where students with different levels of Spanish learned together. Following her student’s suggestion, Erika presented the students with the unique opportunity to get involved and experience the Spanish language and culture.

Erika has touched the Sidwell community in many different ways. Auysha Muhayya, a dear colleague of Erika, says, “Partnering with Erika to design lessons was so satisfying. I remember planning our Spanish II unit on clothing: Erika inspired students to describe the hues and textures of each item with the greatest precision, often taking them to the website for El Corte Inglés or Zara to get the latest lingo for “jumpsuit,” “fringe,” or “platform heels”. Her eye for aesthetics and functionality is exemplary in her attire, her redesigning of the faculty room, her elegant curricular vision, and her search for the ideal home for her retirement in Spain. She inspires students and colleagues to appreciate the beauty in the details.”

Erika was guided by a deep passion for motivating and challenging her students. Last year, in her last class of Spanish IV, she challenged her students to explore a new grammar topic: the conditional mode. It was her last class at Sidwell. It had been a long year, and everyone was looking forward to the long-awaited vacation. But the opportunity to continue strengthening the learning of Spanish was not over. Suddenly, it was the perfect time to continue sowing intellectual curiosity with a new verb mode which, by the way, demanded a new conjugation pattern. And as usual in the last four years in which I had the privilege of working with Erika, we engaged in a rich conversation planning the class. We considered the progress made by our students, we laughed exchanging anecdotes, and we even recalled some poems. Her attentive, committed, and friendly listening made any conversation a discovery.

During her time at Sidwell, Erika was also a School Year Abroad (SYA) teacher in Spain and Italy. On her sabbatical in 2005, she made the Camino de Santiago, followed by work at an archeological site in Greece. Today, that student who went abroad for a semester and never came back is in Spain again starting a new adventure. We can find her in Andalusia with her husband, fascinating everyone with her conversation, joy, and affection.

¡Gracias por tanto, querida Erika! Te extrañaremos.