A Tribute to Nuestra Señora
SFS Community creates an endowed chair in honor of Guillermina Medrano de Supervia!
Sidwell Friends alumni, friends, and students of Señora Supervia have come together to create The Señora Guillermina Medrano de Supervia Endowed Chair for Spanish and Latin American Studies, a permanent endowed faculty position to honor the extraordinary life and teaching of Señora Supervia. Alan Bernstein ’59 pledged the original $300,000 and challenged Sidwell Friends alumni and friends to join him. An additional $300,000 was contributed from the Supervia Spanish Program Endowed Fund. Alumni, parents and friends helped to raise the remaining $600,000 needed to establish the chair. “Honoring Señora is honoring the best in secondary school teaching,” said Alan. “My brothers (Daniel Bernstein ’55 and George Bernstein ’64) and I simply wished to create a permanent honor for the very best in high school teaching, in a way that benefits Sidwell Friends School students for years to come.”
Larry Posner ’55, Hon. Chair*
Alan Bernstein ’59, Chair
Antonio Casas Gonzalez ’50
Joan Barbeau de Calvo ’58*
Mary Rosen Salkever ’59
Stephen Arent ’60
Margery Arent Safir
Carol Carpenter Esteban ’61
Leland Dobbs ’61
Michael Gonnerman ’61
Bruce Bush ’66
Deborah Fosberg Nelson ’66
Señora Supervia had a profound effect on a generation of students during her long tenure at the School, from her arrival in 1945 until her retirement in 1978. Recognized as one of the country’s finest teachers, she received Harvard University’s Distinguished Secondary Teaching Award in 1965.
The alumni committee hopes to keep Señora Supervia’s life story alive in a powerful way that benefits future Sidwell Friends students.
“You weren’t just in her classroom. You were in her presence.”
That’s how generations of Sidwell Friends students of Spanish—more than 700 in number—recall Señora Guillermina Medrano de Supervia, the exemplary teacher who blazed many trails in her storied life. Her contributions to the teaching of Spanish had a lasting effect on students not only at Sidwell Friends School but in high schools across America and abroad, from Mexico to the Dominican Republic to Spain.
Señora Supervia taught at Sidwell Friends from 1945 to 1978. “It was not a school to me; it was part of my home. And that is why I stayed many, many years,” she said.
What made Señora Supervia special was her dedication to bringing the entire world of Spanish language and culture to her students. Her rigorous classes provided a daily window into a broader world that extended beyond the classroom.
“Those of us who were privileged to have her as our teacher knew we were in the presence of a woman of strong passions and superior intellect. She offered us a deep understanding for the masterpieces of Spanish literature, the music of the Americas, and the customs, legends, and traditions the entire Hispanic world,” said Deborah Fosberg Nelson ’66.
“Being a student of Señora was more than just conjugating irregular verbs,” added Alan Bernstein ’59. “We spent a lot of time at her house, she hosted parties, had friends in the community. Being a Spanish student was more than just a classroom experience.”
Señora was a demanding teacher. “She was really hard, and nobody got away with anything,” recalled Cathy McCulloch ’68. “She had her rituals and would take no guff. She taught at such a clip you had to pay attention. I adored it.”
Yet Señora combined the rigor with a natural affinity for students that easily translated into becoming a friend and mentor to many. “She was a super teacher and funny, too. She knew everybody, and their lives,” Deborah recalled. “Like a good Spanish mother, she meddled. She wanted to know about our extracurricular activities and who we were taking to the prom. She gave lots of unsolicited advice!”
Señora Supervia stayed in touch with her students across the years, across generations, across geographical distance. She became friends with parents, came to weddings, and insisted on visits years after the classroom days had passed. Her classroom presence became a lifelong connection.
Many students experienced the world outside the United States for the first time with Señora. “It was a more insular, perhaps more innocent time,” Alan noted. “And her life was an international experiment of intrigue,” added Deborah. “So she was very interested in us being informed about events around the world and not just sticking with an American identity.”
Her exploits were legendary. Señora Supervia worked directly with the president of the Spanish Republic, Manuel Azaña, fighting against Franco and the forces of fascism. Exiled to Paris, she raised funds for Republican fighters and worked to rescue her husband, Rafael, from a prison camp in North Africa. They reunited in France and escaped on one of the last boats from Marseilles, bound for the Dominican Republic, where she promptly founded what became the leading school in Santo Domingo. She and Rafael immigrated to the United States when she received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to study at Columbia University in New York. She was friends with a dazzling array of international intellectuals, including those in the Spanish diaspora, from Federico Garcia Lorca to Marta Casals. Some say she was friends with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. She studied directly with Maria Montessori and Anna Freud.
In 1957, Señora Supervia created a Sidwell Friends summer study program in, which she led until 1970. The program was a transformational experience for students. Immersed in language and culture and living with host families, the students studied Spanish each day and traveled in and around Mexico City. “My host family spoke nada inglés, so if we wanted to talk, we had to learn to speak Spanish,” said Jon McBride ’60. “It was quite an immersion. I can still say what I want to say in Spanish to this very day.”
The experience deepened students’ appreciation of Spanish language and culture. “When I came back from Mexico, we had an active Spanish Club. We had dinners and performances for the whole School, and she was the advisor,” said Bruce Bush ’66. Some of Señora’s students went on to teach Spanish and work in Latin America.
Señora Supervia applied her talents as an educator beyond the halls of Sidwell Friends. She wrote Spanish textbooks that were used throughout the United States. She served on the Princeton University AP Spanish Committee and chaired the Spanish Committee of the National Association of independent Schools. In 1965, Harvard University recognized her with the Distinguished Secondary Teaching Award. In recognition of her lifetime of accomplishments as a cultural force, the King and Queen of Spain awarded her the country’s highest national honor, the Lazo de Dama de Isabel la Católica, in 1986.
At her retirement, Señora mused, “I loved my teaching career. Knowing that by learning another language my students could improve in other subjects, that was my satisfaction. You ask yourself, what could you have done with your life? The important things in life are self-respect and love. I have loved a lot, and in material things, I have lost a lot too; but I never regret having been a teacher.”
Señora Supervia passed away in 2005 at the age of 93.
- Alan Bernstein '59
- Bruce Bush '66
- Antonio Casas '50
- Tony Farrell '67
- Jeff Fletcher '62
- Rick Jasperson '57
- Peggy Kane
- Andrew Lazarus '74
- Peggy Luthringer '55
- John Luykx '63
- Orlando A. Mastrapa
- Cathryn Ritzenberg McCulloch ‘68
- Larry Posner '55*
- Sandy Robertson '63
- Angella Tardy-Barnes '72
It is axiomatic that if schools like Sidwell Friends are to maintain their high standing, they must have great teachers. Whatever our alma mater lacked in terms of facilities and resources during the 1950s when I attended was more than compensated by the presence of a few masters like Señora Supervia.
Señora indeed was special. Her mission: nothing less than to make Sidwell's Spanish program the best ...the best in the World. Her approach: to bring unlimited amounts of energy, unbounded imagination and a little patience to stimulate, prod, and where required, bludgeon her teenage students into gaining an appreciation and understanding of Spanish language and culture. This is no mean feat as many of us former students with teenagers of our own can now more fully comprehend. Señora stitched together a rich panoply of activities to supplement her classroom operation, including field trips, guest speakers, the annual piñata Christmas party at her home ...the list goes on and on. Recognizing that Spanish to be truly learned and appreciated has to be lived, she simply moved the classroom to Mexico. The effectiveness of the Supervia Mexican Program that spanned a 13-year period from 1957 to 1970 is attested by the lasting impact it had on her students—in some cases affecting professional career choices and even marriage!
All of us sensed that the Spanish Civil War was a defining experience in Señora's life. It was common knowledge that she and her late husband and mother had to flee Spain in the wake of Franco's victory. Of course, Señora made no secret of her position on that outcome, but the details of her involvement in the War were always sketchy. Now much is revealed in a remarkably adventurous narrative that comprises one chapter in a recently published book she conceived and edited, Nuevas Raíces: Testimonios de Mujeres Españolas en el Exílio. Nuevas Raíces consists of the personal accounts of nine Spanish women who went through the Spanish Civil War and subsequently into exile.
Señora's own account says a great deal about an extraordinary lady. In 1936, she was named the first woman to the City Council of Valencia ...at the age of 23. A graduate of a special teaching program established by the Republican Government known as the "Plan Profesional", Señora was appointed in 1937 director of a school with over 400 students. Shortly afterwards, she had to deal with such "normal" pedagogical issues as the relocation of the school to the countryside to escape the shelling of Valencia by the Franco forces. In late 1938, Señora was appointed a Paris representative of the Republican youth organization. Traveling to and from Spain in those days was not easy. Her accounts of flying through northern Spain at tree-top to avoid enemy fighters and on another occasion landing in Valencia amidst shelling and strafing are harrowing. When the cause was finally lost, she fled her beloved Spain in a small boat, evading the Falangist patrol boats only to arrive in Barcelona already under siege by enemy bombers.
Reading this narrative one understands the importance of Señora's moral and ethical underpinnings, the roots of which lie in Spanish Republicanism. As she fought for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, in exile she waged battle for her educational causes. Those who know Señora, particularly her former faculty colleagues, appreciate her combative style, her willingness to speak out forcibly and to fight for what she considered right and just. I never attended a Sidwell faculty meeting in Señora's day for obvious reasons ...but I understand that anyone who proposed a measure that might compromise teaching excellence at Sidwell was bound to feel the full fury of our Señora. Not just students of Spanish, but the whole Sidwell Friends community was the beneficiary of her values and standards.
Guillermina Supervia became a very a key person in my life from the time that I first met her, when I was thirteen years old. My father was then Minister Counselor at the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington and was looking for a good private school for the eldest of his three children. By chance, my parents met Dr. and Mrs. Supervia at a diplomatic reception and through them first heard of Friends School. That fall I entered Friends as a secondary school sophomore.
From that moment on, Señora became my "guardian angel" and intellectual tutor. She was always vigilant to make sure that I did well in my studies and that I chose the right electives. She was also concerned that the few Latin Americans at Friends should not lose their Hispanic roots and began a special course in Spanish and Latin American culture for only four or five of us. But her concern did not end with my graduation in 1950. A year later I came back to Washington to begin my B.A. and, later, my M.A. studies at George Washington University. The Supervias, together with Mrs. Agnes Crosby, the mother of Friends School students, Skippy, Barbara, Joan, and Carol, became my family in Washington. My parents had left a year before to represent Venezuela in other countries.
During those years, I was in constant contact with the Supervias. When I met my future wife, Carmen, who was boarding at Holy Cross Academy, I wanted her to meet them. Señora's first reaction was: "This is the first time you have brought a girlfriend," and her second: "This is the girl for you ... . " Two years later, when I was already working in Venezuela, we were married in El Salvador and ran into Señora when we went to Mexico on our honeymoon. It was truly a happy occasion for the three of us. A year later my wife and I went back to Washington where we stayed for two years on an assignment at the Venezuelan Embassy and later on returned for a period of seven years at the InterAmerican Development Bank. Señora was always interested in our growing family.
Every time we came to Washington, after going back home, we would visit the Supervias. Señora came to stay with us in Caracas after losing her beloved Rafael. When she returned to Spain, we visited her twice in Valencia. The last time was a year ago. She had deteriorated quite a bit, but was still able to give me some a sound advice, as always, and insisted on going out for a typical "paella valenciana." We shall always remember her with love.
To Be a Teacher is the Greatest of Professions
I attended Sidwell for my final two years of high school, and took Spanish from Sra. Supervia my junior year. After graduation, I joined with her and Rafael in Mexico City to stay with a family for the summer and take Spanish lessons at their apartment.
As she neared retirement, I wrote for her tribute book; in turn, she wrote me a letter of thanks, in Spanish, dated June 29, 1998. Here is a partial translation:
Tony, you always have been a student for whom I had great affection and who, as the years have passed, I have never forgotten. That I was able to contribute to your education is the best tribute I could possibly have. I have always thought of myself, not as a teacher of Spanish, but as an educator and a friend. To have such said about me would be the greatest tribute; and that is what you wrote, so fully, in your beautiful letter....There is a time to be born and a time to be "un-born," so said Unamuno. This has come and it is natural; I just want to finish by saying that your letter, along with many other expressions of affection that I received from others, was a great help to me in my final years. It confirmed my belief that to be a teacher is the greatest of professions, if it means that one can receive such vital expressions of love as I found in those letters
A Generosity of Spirit
I took a wonderful high school trip to Mexico, and the excellent teaching by Señora led to a lifetime of interest in Latin America, including two years in the Peace Corps in Bolivia, an American Friends Service Committee visit to Mexico, and a summer spent in Colombia. It all began with Señora's generous spirit and fabulous instruction.
A Skilled Teacher
Señora was an incredible person and a tremendously skilled teacher. We all loved her because we felt that she truly cared about each one of us - we were HER students.
Her fingerprints are all over my post-Sidwell professional life as well. Almost all of my professional life was spent using the Spanish Señora had introduced me to. I opted to work in Latin America when I was in the Peace Corps. I taught Economics in Latin America and spent 3 years working in L.A. when I worked with the Harvard International Tax Advisory program and 80% of my 28 years at the World Bank were spent working on Latin American countries. After that, 100% of my 12 years at the IIF were focused on L. A. as Director of the Latin America Department. That great 5 days of partying in Saltillo that took place when our 1941 Ford broke down would have never taken place had it not been for Señora!
My sister Lucy, participated in Señora's summer in Mexico program and has used Spanish in all of her professional life. Currently she is teaching Spanish and working as an interpreter in California.
This was written for the Sidwell Friends website in December 2005 with the combined assistance of Alan Bernstein, '59; Elena Marra-Lopez, friend of Señora; Lori Hardenbergh, archivist; and Señora's own writings
This story begins before the advent of World War I, spans the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, and the tremendous political, social, and technological changes of the latter part of the 20th century, until it quietly ends in 2005. It moves from Europe to the Caribbean to Washington, D.C. and finally back to Valencia. Guillermina Medrano Supervia was born in Albacete, Spain, a city not too far from Valencia, in 1912. Her education prepared her to be a teacher. But the times into which she was born, her family background, and her own temperament led her to politics and, ironically, back to education. Her passion for both was obvious throughout her remarkable life.
In 1936, just as the Spanish Civil War was beginning, Señora was named the first woman to serve on the City Council of Valencia at the age of 23, designated by the Izquierda Republicana party which opposed Franco and his followers. Such a position for a woman in this time and place was extraordinary, as the political sphere was largely a man's world. One of Señora's main concerns was schooling for the young. With the persecution of the religious orders that had run the schools, many educational institutions were without leadership. Señora took charge of the San Eugenio Asylum, later renamed by her the Giner de las Rios Children's Home, a school where more than 400 boys and girls lived and studied. In addition to learning how to run a school, she had to deal with its relocation to the countryside to escape the shelling of Valencia by the Franco forces. In 1938 Señora traveled to Paris to become the representative of the Republican Youth at the Antifascist Youth Alliance. After a year she went back to Spain to give an account of her mission in Paris and to prepare for exile, as Franco's forces were gaining the ascendancy. The only way to return to Valencia was by plane, flying at treetop to avoid enemy fighters and then enduring still-frequent bombings near her home. As Franco's forces advanced toward the city, Señora bade farewell to her family and sailed to Barcelona in waters controlled in part by the Falangists. By the time she arrived in Barcelona, Franco's forces were almost at the gates of the city. Miraculously, a car with four members of the Izquierda Republicana passed by, picked her up and took her to Gerona; from there a high-ranking military official drove her to the French border and safety.
One of the officials that Señora had met while on the City Council was Rafael Supervia, then First Lieutenant-Mayor of the City Council and a representative to the provincial Senate. The two fell in love and eventually married. Rafael was sent to a concentration camp in North Africa but was eventually released and managed to join Señora and her mother in Paris. When France declared war on Hitler, they began making arrangements to leave Europe as soon as possible. Their hope was mixed with the sorrow of knowing that their compatriots remained in France, many in concentration camps and inhumane refuges, some running the risk of being returned to Spain. So it happened that those who did return were shot or condemned to prison on being handed over by the government of Marshal Petain to Franco.
The Supervias' voyage to the Caribbean via a French ship was harrowing, due to hounding by German submarines and lack of food and hygiene. Intending a brief stopover in Santa Domingo, they extended their stay in the Dominican Republic for six years. With the help of some Dominican families who because of the Second World War were unable to send their children to the United States and of members of the diplomatic corps who had school-age children, Señora and her husband were able to found the Instituto-Escuela, which she directed until they left the country in 1945. Although she started with barely thirty students, after four years she had more than 300, with a small number of scholarship students whose parents were also refugees.
In 1943, Señora received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to study at Columbia University in New York. Her interest was in gathering materials to establish a psycho-pedagogical laboratory at the Instituto-Escuela. Before her return from the United States, she accepted an invitation to visit such a laboratory in Havana, Cuba. Meanwhile, the dictator of the Dominican Republic, Trujillo, who had received the Supervias with such apparent generosity when they first arrived, began to obstruct their freedom of association and work. These circumstances were aggravated by the fact that they were publicly accused of belonging to the Communist Party, a weapon used by Trujillo to attack some exiles. Señora and her husband decided to leave the country. With the help of the American ambassador whose daughter had been a student at the Instituto-Escuela, they obtained work contracts in Washington and permits necessary to go into the United States. Since Rafael Supervia was wellknown as an anti-communist and an antifascist, Trujillo's accusation was not an impediment to their entry.
By 1945 both Señora and her husband were working, she at Sidwell Friends School, and he at George Washington University. Many years would pass before the political change produced by the death of Franco would make possible the return of the Supervias to their homeland. In the meantime Sidwell Friends was the beneficiary of Señora's love of the Spanish language and culture. She brought the same force of character and the same passion to teaching that she had shown during the civil war. A formidable presence, she became head of the Spanish Department and a legendary teacher of the Spanish language. Her students remember extraordinary teaching and her authorship of several Spanish textbooks. But, not content with classroom instruction, she wanted them to experience Spanish culture directly.
From 1957 to 1970, Señora Supervia and her husband conducted summer sessions in Mexico City for Sidwell Friends students, where they were introduced to the social and cultural life of Mexico, in addition to their study of the language. Life-long friendships were formed with her students. In the 1980's, former Sidwell students established the Supervia Fund in her honor to further the study of the Spanish language and culture. Upon her retirement in 1978, Bob Smith headmaster, remarked, “As a teacher she is among the very few in our history about whom generations of Sidwell students say: "She has had a greater effect on me than anyone I have ever known.”
Señora's contacts ranged far beyond Sidwell Friends. In the summer of 1946 she was named a visiting professor at George Washington University. From 1946 until 1959 she was a part-time teacher in the Graduate School of the Department of Agriculture, and for many years, she was a member of the Spanish Committee of the College Entrance Examination. In addition, Señora served as the Chairperson of the Spanish Committee of the National Association of Independent Schools. After her retirement from Sidwell Friends in 1978, she became a professor at American University.
During the years of their exile, the Supervias turned their home into an "anti-Franco embassy," advocating that democracy be installed anew in Spain. They particularly appreciated the freedom that the United States afforded them to speak openly and without fear of the reasons they were forced to leave Spain. Among other organizations, they participated in Americans for Democratic Action, a group created shortly after their arrival, one of whose members Eleanor Roosevelt actively took part. In 1993, Señora conceived and edited Nuevas Raices: Testimonios de Mujeres Espanolas en el Exilio, personal accounts in Spanish of nine women who had gone through the Spanish Civil War and subsequently into exile.
Señora's achievements have been recognized here and in Spain. In 1967, Harvard University conferred on her its Distinguished Teaching Award. In 1986 the Spanish government awarded her the Lazo de Dama de Isabel la Catolica for her work in promoting Spanish values and culture in the United States. Señora passed away on September 28, 2005 at age 93 in Valencia, surroundec by her extended family and remembered far beyond that circle.
When I ran this piece by Alan Bernstein he responded with a series of queries that seem a fitting way to end this reflection: “Why was Señora a great master teacher?” That question has been on my mind. Is it because she had a larger-than-life cause that she fought for - not just liberating Spain from Franco, but championing freedom and democracy in general? Those values, the role of America, and the sorrow of Spain were discussed in her classes. Or was it because she was a consummate professional? Her language instruction was superb; she published textbooks that were widely used; she was recognized by her peers (e.g., the College Board committee for Spanish) and ... by major educational institutions like Harvard. Or was her greatness as a teacher and human being related to the vast army of Sidwell alumni who feel she touched their souls and profoundly influenced their lives? How many of us ... will ever achieve what she accomplished in her lifetime? Her passing is a deep personal loss for so many of us."
Whenever I think of Señora Supervia, I picture her in her stocking feet, bustling around in someone's kitchen, making a delicious paella for us Spanish Club members! She taught us as much about Spanish culture as she did about grammar and vocabulary, and she was truly one of the best teachers I have ever encountered. She spoke to us in Spanish from the first day in class, and she nurtured in us a love for Spanish literature of a very high quality. Although I have taken many other courses in Spanish and have lived in Guatemala and visited many Spanish-speaking countries, I realize when I start “thinking in Spanish,” it is to Señora’s “español” that I always return. I treasure my four wonderful years with this great teacher.
Memoirs of Senora Guillermina Medrano de Supervia
Whenever I receive news from Sidwell Friends, I read them with great interest. As I was perusing the latest SFS Your Impact I was delighted to find a photo of Senora Guillermina Supervia. She was my boss and my mentor whom I looked upon with admiration and fondness.
When I arrived in this country as a refugee in 1967, I had already been a teacher in my country of Cuba, and in Puerto Rico. Therefore I wanted to continue teaching Spanish in the USA. I found an employment agency·for teachers, which shortly after I applied sent me a notice that Sidwell Friends was interested in interviewing me.
When I arrived at the Upper School, I was directed to Sra. Supervia's classroom. She greeted me with great courtesy and finesse. We talked at length and she showed me the textbooks she had authored: Primera Vista for Spanish I, and Segunda Vista for Spanish II. Finally she asked me if I'd be willing to teach Spanish I and II that morning. I realized she was a highly intelligent and strong leader, and I felt honored to be asked to teach her classes.
After I finished teaching, she picked up the phone and called the Headmaster, Mr. Smith. She informed him that she had offered the vacant position of Spanish teacher to Mr. Orlando Mastrapa. I profited from her scholastic brilliance for the next 8 years, not only as my mentor but also as my friend. After she retired, she recommended me as the Director of the Spanish Program, where I served for one year, before moving on to a University teaching position in Michigan.
I consider my experience at Sidwell Friends School as the highlight of my 43 years of teaching. There I had the rewarding experience of the support of the administration, the friendship of my colleagues, and the respect of the student body. I applaud the effort of Alan Bernstein and SFS for establishing this Endowed Chair for Spanish and Latin American Studies.
Interview with Señora Guillermina de Medrano Supervia
“I Never Regret Having Been a Teacher”
By Cathryn Ritzenberg McCulloch ‘68
Between 1945 and 1978, more than 700 students took their seats in Spanish classes after saying “Buenos Dias Señora Supervia.” During those years, Señora Guillermina de Medrano Supervia published seven books, received a distinguished teaching award form Harvard University, and represented The Sidwell Friends School at many educational conferences. In 1980, The Supervia Endowment Fund was established by a group of her former students to honor her and to enrich the teaching of Spanish at the School. Since her retirement, Señora has traveled extensively. The following are excerpts from an interview with a former student from 1980.
Q: What path brought you to Friends School?
I left Franco’s Spain as a political refugee and went to France in 1939. Then we left France when it was taken by the Germans. My husband was in a concentration camp, but fortunately he was able to get out. I was going to Mexico, but I was so seasick that I just stopped, like Columbus, in the Dominican Republic and said, “Can I stay here?” I started what was considered the most modern and advanced school in the Dominion Republic, the Instituto Escuela.
I came to Friends School because the wife of the American Ambassador to the Dominion Republic was a cousin of Mrs. Frank Barger’s, and they recommended me to Headmaster Edwin Zavitz, who sent me a contract. I fell in love with this country in 1943 when I came to Columbia University to study psychology. Even though I was director and founder of the best school in the Dominican Republic, I wanted to be here, and that is why I came to Friends School.
What was the School like when you first arrived?
The School at that time was very small and like a family. I remember the times Mr. Zavitz invited the faculty for dinner; we used to have meetings in the home of Jeff Forsythe and we got together to cook and tell jokes and have a good time. The School helped me to settle in America with my family, and my family helped the School. My mother used to go to the School on Saturdays to teach the students dancing and my husband, Raphael, who was a professor at George Washington University, was part of the soccer camp. Soccer was just starting at that time.
It was not a school to me, it was part of my home. I remember an anecdote about “Zarty,” Helen Zartman, who was one of the pillars of the School. She came one day to my classroom in the old high school building and saw I had doilies on the tables, with flowers. She said “This is not a school; this is a home,” and I replied, “This is what I want my students to feel.” I always felt that the School had done very much for me and I should return the kindness. And that is why I stayed many, many years.
Walking into your classroom was like entering another country and your students were left with a strong flavor and impression of it. Was that the home environment you were trying to create?
Of course, because that was me. What I wanted my students to remember was the Spanish culture, not just the language. Because I know that it is important not just to say “mesa” and “libro” but for students to compare their own Anglo-Saxon culture with Spanish culture.
How did you happen to start the summer study program in Mexico that you directed from 1957 to 1970?
After Franco, most of the Spanish refugees went to Mexico. And so, in Mexico I had many friends who were professional people who had left Spain for the same reasons. I wanted my students to be with my friends. I had two couples who married through my program. They were Joan Barbeau ’58 who married a lawyer in Mexico and Carol Carpenter ’61 who also married a Mexican.
How would you describe your method of teaching?
My method consists of teaching the love for the language and the differences between the feelings of the Americans and the South American and Spanish peoples, and also the structure of the language. I think it is the most important to teach the human values of the language, and that is what I emphasize. One of the first students I had was Morton Miller ’49. He learned Spanish very quickly. I asked him, “Morton, how come you learn Spanish so well?” and he answered me, “Señora, since your English is so poor and I want to understand you, I had to!”
In the advanced classes I used to give “pills” of history to the students understand what was happening in a 19th century novel. I remember students saying, “What is the pill today, Señora?” I know I was very imposing to the ninth graders. At first I wanted to establish that I was the teacher; I didn’t want popularity. I recall overhearing one of them ask one of my AP students, “How is Señora’s temper today?” My AP class students were not my students, they were my friends. I am still in touch with many of them.
Did you find emphasis on teaching the “human values” of the language was in harmony with the Quaker values of the School”
Yes, it was. I never became a Quaker, but I value its moral standards. I was a part of that philosophy in life. The respect they have for the individual and the inner discipline, is something that I value and something I hope Sidwell Friends keeps always.
When you left Friends School, did you think you would be as busy are you have been?
When I retired, I had planned to go to Spain, but unfortunately my husband and my mother died nineteen days apart just two months after I retired. At that time, I found the love of my students very helpful. I went to Spain, and I wanted to stay there, but after a few months I realized that this is my home. I came back and started working at American University. I taught there part-time for five years. In those years, I took time between semesters to do some traveling. I visited Columbia and Argentina and was in Venezuela with Antonio (Tony) Casas, Jr. ’50, one of my former students whom I love very much, and there we met Prince Charles when he was still not married!
My big trip was to China in 1982. I took my stepdaughter with me. I still have a pen pal in China. It was a funny thing. This young boy came up and introduced himself to me with a little flag of friendship for America. He was a teacher. His English was very poor but, of course, mine was too! He wanted to learn English. I sent him a tape recorder and cassettes and books. He writes to me and now his English is very good.
From China I went to Hong Kong, Japan, Hawaii, and Russia. It was not the Russia of Gorbachev in 1983. The Korean airplane was shot down two days before I went there and when we arrived at customs there were people looking at us to see if we had books or newspapers because they didn’t want us to bring in anything. Russia is a country I would like to go back to if things keep going the way they are now.
Recently I have visited good friends in France. This summer was the first time I have been there with my family.
How do you look back on your career?
I loved my teaching career. Knowing that by learning another language my students could improve in other subjects, that was my satisfaction. You ask yourself, what could you have done with your life? The important things in life are self-respect and love. I have loved a lot, and in material things, I have lost a lot, too; but I never regret having been a teacher.
This tribute was written when Señora passed away in 2005. Larry passed away in 2012.
Guillermina Medrano de Supervia was a wonderful woman, a wonderful teacher, and a wonderful friend. She was known universally at Sidwell in the 1950's as "Señora," since the name Guillermina was too exotic and too challenging for our parochial environment. The ultimate testimony to her uniqueness was the fact that she once received a postcard from Spain from a former student addressed: "Señora, Sidwell Friends School, Washington, D.C."
Our friendship started 55 years ago in September of 1950 when I started 9th grade Spanish at Sidwell Friends School. Guillermina motivated me to continue through four years of Spanish in high school and to take a summer school course at the University of Valencia in Spain and a few courses at Amherst College. The Spanish has served me well throughout my career working in Latin America and the world of economic development.
Señora was beloved for her warm and energetic approach to life. She was the friend and counselor at SFS for the students who needed it and welcomed it. She took my sister Elisabeth to Mexico and advised her about handling the ardent Mexican young men. Señora once contrasted the challenges for her as a teacher at Sidwell Friends and for her colleague teaching at the nearby Woodrow Wilson High School, a fine public school, "At Wilson, the Spanish teacher focuses attention on a few outstanding students to help them excel, but at Sidwell we must focus attention on the students who would fail without the extra tutoring and study halls."
Señora was the gypsy fortune-teller one year at the Sidwell bazaar. She "read my palm" in the gypsy style and told my fortune; then she confessed that she knew me so well that she did not need to see my palm at all to predict a wonderful future.
Señora and her husband, Don Rafael Supervia, and Guillermina's mother, Mrs. Medrano, became family friends for the entire Posner clan. My parents were sponsors for them when they applied for US citizenship. What fine examples they were of people who, unwelcome or persecuted in their countries of origin, found in America opportunities to blossom and be productive and make enormous contributions.
When I met Corinna, my wife of 40 years, in Madrid and enticed her to Washington as my fiancee, she had to pass muster with Guillermina; needless to say, Guillermina charmed Corinna and vice versa.
After Guillermina's retirement from Sidwell following many years of teaching, she resented what she regarded as unworthy pensions in retirement from SFS for herself and for other long-time Sidwell teachers (a situation long since addressed, undoubtedly in part due to people like Señora). While she did not wish to be the subject of fund raising, she did welcome her former students soliciting donations for a Guillermina Supervia Fund to enrich the teaching of Spanish at Sidwell Friends School. Subsequently, Guillermina was proud to have her former students honor her again with a dedicated Spanish language teaching area in the new Upper School building, named for her, with memorabilia related to her years at SFS, and with an adjoining room to be reserved for the Spanish teaching staff.
We all cried when Guillermina moved to Valencia for her declining years. She had relatives who would care for her in the place where she had made her mark in the 1930's as a pioneering female political leader during the period of the Spanish Republic. Guillermina was failing when Corinna and I visited her in Valencia in 2004. Low on energy and inconsistent intellectually, she still radiated warmth and inspired love from those around her.
Goodbye, Guillermina. Your friends and former students miss you! Goodbye.
Inolvidable Señora Supervía
I spent two years at Sidwell and one summer in Mexico City with Señora. She was a strict and demanding teacher; I was rebellious and troubled teenager. I entered into a private war with her. To this day I don't know how aware she was of my battle. I wanted to score 100 on her tests, so I would stay up until two in the morning preparing for it, only to get a 98, or, once in a while, a 99.
My senior year, I finally did it. A perfect score. Señora smiled as she handed the test back to me.
Years later I wrote her a letter of gratitude. I told her that her expectations for me allowed me to jump quickly into Spanish literature classes at Harvard (taught also by fellow Republicans in exile), to declare a major in Spanish, and to pursue a doctorate and a teaching career that afforded me months and years in Spain, where I participated in the most intellectually stimulating and culturally engaging work of my life. All this I owe to Señora Supervía, who taught me to strive for the best in myself, always, to never be satisfied with less.
She answered my letter, and in her answer I saw she remembered me. I will never forget her, la estimada e inolvidable Señora.
Muchas Gracias, Sra. Supervia
No hay mal que dure cien años. Nothing bad lasts 100 years. This was the saying that gave hope to Señora Supervia that one day she would be able to return home to Spain. Until then, she seemed content to teach in Washington, DC at Sidwell Friends School. I remember the twinkle in her eye and the smile that a teacher gets, when she sees that her students have grasped the lesson. Occasionally, I find that I can help in assisting someone of Hispanic heritage with a language barrier. For this, I am grateful. Muchas Gracias, Señora Supervia.