PHOTO CAPTION: Mrs. Perez, a Spanish teacher, passes out classwork to her students. She has worked at AHS for more than seven years.

By Jennie Wang

HAVING LIVED IN BOTH THE UNITED STATES AND THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC, MRS. PEREZ-LUCAFO TEACHES STUDENTS ABOUT SPANISH AND LATIN AMERICAN CULTURE.

What prompted you to become a teacher?

Well, I actually didn’t plan to become a teacher at first. I’m what they call a career-changer teacher. My undergrad was in international business studies and then my master’S was in international marketing. So I worked for a number of years in for-profit business and I also did work a number of years in non-profits. But they were programs focused on youth, working with youth. And then, you know, I loved the language and I had a friend who was a teacher and she kind of encouraged me and I tried it out. I was, again, a career-changer teacher, so I started doing substitute teaching in Lawrence, and then I learned that I liked working with kids and liked to teach the language and the culture. And, so here I am. So, that was about, I would say ten years ago. I also did a year of teaching in the Dominican Republic.

So is your first language English or Spanish?

I would probably say both, because I was born here and I lived here in Lawrence, Massachusetts, until I was about 10. My parents are immigrants from the Dominican Republic, so then when I was 10, we went back to the Dominican Republic. And then I lived there for probably, like, nine years. And then, the rest of my schooling was there. So, I graduated from high school in Santo Domingo, in the capital, and then I came back to the U.S., to Massachusetts, because I still had family here.

So you moved around a lot then?

A little bit. [She laughs].

Okay, how did you end up at this school?

I’ve been, you could say, a life-long resident in Lawrence and I was looking for an opportunity to teach Spanish because after I’d done some substitute teaching, I was mostly working with ELL students–recently arrived, didn’t speak English. And even though I liked it, it wasn’t really my area of training. I hadn’t really been trained to do that, and there really weren’t Spanish language opportunities as a teacher in a city like Lawrence, so I looked at surrounding communities, and there was an opportunity here in Andover High School, and I’ve enjoyed being here. I’ve been here about eight years. At first I was thinking that there might not be a lot of diversity, but actually, that’s kind of surprised me through the years. I feel that there’s actually a lot more diversity than I initially thought, and I think it’s increased.

Do you try to teach culture as well as the language?

Yes, I myself love culture and I think that Latin America is a place where there’s a lot of rich history and then I talk about my own experience with my parents being from the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean and what it was like to grow up there, living in two different worlds. Some people are just familiar with Spain or Mexico and they don’t realize that, let’s say a country like the Dominican Republic, has a lot of similarities with a country like Mexico, but we’re not exactly the same, because we might have had other influences. So sometimes people think we’re all the same. [Laughs]

Did you yourself kind of experience trying to assimilate into different cultures?

I think that someone like me, because I was born here and also lived here at such a young age, I grew up fully bilingual. My parents only spoke Spanish and then at school it was English, and I had what they call code-switching. It’s like if you’re brain is a computer, and if I’m among Latinos, or if I’m in Lawrence, I’m a different way. Or I’m speaking to my family and then all of sudden, boom, I’m in Andover. It’s kind of a way of life, especially if you continue to stay here in the US, it really is like a way of life.

Do you ever experience code-switching when you speak to the other Spanish teachers?

Well, it depends. I was actually considered the first native speaker teacher here in the world language department. Everyone else had learned the language later. Sometimes I think that when you do come from a country, the experience might be a little different in the sense that you’ll be a little bit more immersed in the culture. So, some of the other teachers we have here, we have from Puerto Rico, from Venezuela, and our background experiences are very similar in the sense that all of us lived a chunk of our lives in Latin America and then we came here.

Do you think you’ve learned about a lot of different experiences because of all the different places you lived?

Yeah, for instance, when my parents first left when I was 10 and went back to the Dominican Republic, I loved that experience because it gave me the experience to learn the language better. If you grow up here all through your school experience, many Americanized Latinos don’t necessarily learn how to speak Spanish very well. I got to appreciate and learn about my culture and it does give you a different perspective. I would say, as far as a certain type of self-awareness, because everyone looks the same there, you don’t have the same limitations that other Latinos may have had growing up here. Unlike here, sometimes in my generation, young Hispanic students may have found it difficult to continue in higher education or college, or have felt, “Oh, there’s nobody in my family that’s college-educated. I can never do that.” Whereas when you’re there….

You feel equal to everyone?

Exactly! My parents were working-class background, so when they immigrated here in the early ’60s, they worked in factories. But then when we went there, we were able to live more of a middle-class life. I didn’t feel like I was limited in deciding in what I wanted to do or be when I grew up. So, I think that was one good aspect of it.

Moving back to now, do you have a really interesting teaching story?

Oh gosh, I don’t think I can think of anything on the spot. Well, like I said, I was a career-changer, so I was new to the profession, so I would say the first couple of years, I struggled a lot, because sometimes as a teacher, it’s not just knowing the subject. You can know the subject, but that’s almost secondary to, let’s say, classroom management. When you’re starting out, you don’t realize how important that is. The teacher has to be organized, you have to come prepared to class and deal with different discipline issues. In my case, I’m coming from an inner-city, mostly minority community, where the students have other issues; they’re different issues. So, you come to a place like Andover, and you think, “Oh no, this is a different type of place,” but some kids have some behavioral issues that were kind of challenging for me to deal with. And then as time goes by, you kind of develop the craft because teaching is kind of like a craft. It’s not really a science, so you just kind of practice and get better at it.

Do you think there was any activity that was different or worked very well?

Yes, I like the experience of the Lawrence field trip. And a few years before, the course had a community service component. So, we did it for four years. Students learned about Latinos in the USA and culture and immigration,  but they would also do community service in Lawrence. It’s a place that has a lot of cultural learning opportunities. It’s a neighboring city that’s different that I think we should take more advantage of instead of being so insulated. You know, sometimes it’s not just global. Even here, in the U.S., there are different cultural influences and there’s always room to learn. I think young people need to see more of that.

What is your biggest fear in teaching?

[Laughs.] Oh, gosh. I guess if I feel that students perhaps aren’t learning, don’t feel like they’re learning. When you feel like you’re not getting the material across. Sometimes there are situations where you try to make a connection with a student but for whatever reason, it just doesn’t work, and it happens. Sometimes it’s not necessarily them and it’s not necessarily me. It’s just life in general, the way it works out. So those are the situations I usually hope don’t happen. Or an angry parent or something. [Laughs.]

Do parents often…?

I mean in the beginning you probably see a little bit more. Believe it or not, I try to incorporate a lot of what I’ve learned in business in managing my teaching and my classroom.  I try to be very transparent.

What would you be doing if you weren’t teaching?

I would probably be working for a non-profit within the Latino community. That’s kind of like some of the work I did before. Working with youth, but more in that urban setting where kids have different types of challenges. Probably more low-income, or what they call students that are first-generation; no one else in their family went to college.

So you like working with kids a lot?

Yeah. It can be challenging, but I think it’s fun at the same time.

One last thing: what’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

To have faith in myself and sometimes the harsh times you go through…don’t dwell on that and don’t let that define you. You just keep moving and learn from those experiences and think in the positive. I try to always remember the positive things. I think that’s a philosophy that’s helped me.