An icebreaker frequently employed with Dependent School educators was to ask the question, How did you manage to get overseas?” The answers usually provided a fascinating tale. Most came by chance, and I was no exception.
I was teaching sixth grade in Los Angeles while my wife, Beverly, was teaching in Redondo Beach. With our combined salaries in 1955, we were relatively prosperous and content with our lot in life. Going overseas was the furthest thing from my mind. One Sunday Beverly spotted an article in the Los Angeles Times that provided the information that both the Army and the Air Force were recruiting teachers for overseas positions. I was not interested and even if I was interested, I didn’t relish completing the necessary forms. Beverly was not eligible as kindergartens were not part of the Dependent Schools program in those days. Only after much cajoling, Beverly convinced me to at least try for a position as long as she would complete the paperwork and set up the necessary appointments.
During the early years, all of the Services were operating their own schools, and interviews were conducted by personnel recruiters who were recruiting for a variety of positions. On the day I interviewed with the Army, interviews were being conducted for the teachers as well as fry cooks, heavy equipment operators, and welders. My interview with the Army recruiters was swift. Yes, I was qualified, but having a dependent was a factor not in my favor. When asked if I was interested in being a Principal in a small school in France, I readily agreed. The position was mine I was told if I could pass the security check.
With this informal offer, I didn’t see any reason for making the trek to the California State Department of Employment once again to interview with the Air Force. Since the paperwork was completed and I was given an interview time on a Saturday, I reluctantly decided to make the effort. The interview was swift as I was promptly informed that the Air Force was not interested in hiring teachers with dependents. However, since I was a veteran and entitled to five points preference in hiring, the recruiter begrudgingly took my application and carelessly tossed it in what appeared to be the inactive file.
Not long after I settled back into my teaching routine with overseas the furthest thing from my mind, a telegram arrived offering me a teaching position in Spain with the Strategic Air Command (SAC), as the schools were not then operated by the Wiesbaden Headquarters. Spain conjured up all sorts of images in my mind, and for once I was excited by the prospect of going to a country that was still a bit of an enigma. Even though Beverly was not given concurrent travel, her excitement exceeded mine and the decision to go was taken. Friends and colleagues expressed bewilderment that we would pull up stakes and go to Spain where a dictator still ruled. I called the Army that I had accepted another position, and apparently this word never filtered down as I was offered a position in France two weeks before leaving for Spain.
To get from Los Angeles to Madrid in 1955 was an adventure in itself. I flew American Airlines to Philadelphia, took a limousine to McGuire Air Force Base, and a military cargo plane to Madrid. The flight was unique to me as passengers flew in bucket seats that were placed along the sides of the airplane. There were stops in a flight that took twenty hours. First stop was Newfoundland, then the Azores, and finally the flight arrived at the Spanish Air Base of Getafe located to the south of Madrid. Beverly had to wait two months to get orders to come to Spain, but it was probably well worth the wait as the Air Force brought her to Spain as a first class passenger on the S.S. Constitution.
My future Principal and soon to be my mentor and good friend, Stan Willis, was there to meet six newly arrived teachers along with the ever present Bluebird bus. The ride into Madrid was a wonder to us all as the highway was choked with horse drawn carts, bicycles, motor scooters, buses, and only a rare automobile. As we were assigned rooms in a hotel just off the beautiful Avenida de Castellana, we fully realized that our adventure was to be different from anything we had previously experienced. It turned out to be more exciting than anything that any of us could have possibly imagined.
Spain was still ravished from the Civil War in those days, and evidence of this conflict could be seen throughout Madrid. Both the elementary and high schools were housed in a huge apartment complex with the nickname of the Generalissimo Building after the ruling dictator of Spain, Francisco Franco. Despite Spain being a dictatorship, we never felt threatened, and people could walk the streets at night with the full knowledge that there was little danger. Though these were difficult times for Spaniards, many of them remark forty years later that, “Things were better when they were worse.” Though Beverly would not be working when she arrived and my salary was over two thousand dollars less than I was earning in Los Angeles, our standard of living was incredibly high. A meal in a top flight restaurant for two with wine was under three dollars, a liter of wine was fifteen cents, taxi-cab rides to any place in Madrid were always under a dollar with a healthy tip, industrious and honest maids could be hired for the same dollar a day, and just about everything else was comparable in price. Most of us regretted the grinding poverty, and though we had guilt, we still could not believe our good fortune in receiving an assignment to this enchanted country.
It may sound as if these years in Spain were all full of fun and games, but this impression would be far from accurate. The classroom facilities in both the high school and elementary schools were appalling. Rooms were small, and to make matters worse, each classroom had at least four supporting pillars which made it all but impossible to see a full class at one time. My sixth grade classroom was about the size of an average bedroom which was in full view for all to see. The misery of teaching thirty-six pupils in such an environment was compounded by the smells of the cooking from the apartments located in the floors above the school, the noises of the streets, and the traffic created by the many brothels located in the Generalissimo complex. The playground was little more than a muddy field that doubled as a parking lot which was frequently shared with grazing sheep. We all took these conditions for granted and complaints were rare.
The quality of education we provided in those years was as high as any I have experienced in my forty plus years in education. Why this was so becomes clear as one looks back. The quality of the teachers was exceptional, and all were willing to share their experiences with each other. What developed was a curriculum that blended the best teaching practices from school systems throughout the United States. The camaraderie of the staff was extraordinary. All teachers were willing to help each other without asking, and each weekend most of the staff took advantage of the travel opportunities Spain afforded which they shared with others.
As restaurant meals were ridiculously inexpensive, Friday night dinners with numerous members of the faculty were a frequent happening. Cooperation with the military was taken as a matter of course, and as the school facilities served as a community center, contacts between parents and educators were frequent. No small share of the success of the schools in those days rests with the administrators who utilized the strengths of the staff and treated them as equals in providing a quality educational experience. Lastly, the success of the schools was enhanced by the adversity of the conditions as it gave us all a common cause to provide the best for students regardless of an environment that seemed at first hopeless.
Nothing has ever surpassed the experience of those early times, and as I talk to others who were in the Dependent Schools in those beginning days, they share my enthusiasm. Those interested in school improvement could do well to study the success of the dependents schools in their beginnings. No small part of the message to be learned would be that money, technology, and directives from the central office all too often have little to do with success in the classroom. Quality teachers who share directly with the formation of the curriculum, supportive principals and mutual respect between the school and the community seem to me to contribute more to a quality educational program. These are concepts that seem to have been lost in the shuffle as the overseas schools grew in size and complexity.
Copyright 2004 American Overseas Schools Historical Society