Teacher Appreciation Week: The Magical Realism of Alice Price
Posted by: Elena Ontiveros
You do so much more than teach—you give students lessons that last a lifetime. In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, we’re sharing personal stories of teachers from our past; stories to show you that everything you do leaves a lasting impression years (sometimes decades) later.
I never gave my education much consideration; my mother did enough of that for me, which is how I ended up in an International Baccalaureate program. Although I applied to two other Chicago high schools and IB was personally my last choice, my obedience surpassed my intelligence.
Both skills served me well when I was suddenly required to read The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka the summer before senior year, in preparation for Mrs. Price’s literature class. As any teacher or student can tell you, assigning homework before school even gets started is not the best way to win over a classroom of soon-to-be-graduating teenagers. But as I soon discovered, that was the least of Mrs. Price’s concerns.
With short, grey hair that cascaded in loose curls from front to back, and a near daily uniform of billowy shirts framed with a loosely tied scarf, ankle-length pleated skirts made of denim, and (if memory serves) tan shoes with short heels, Mrs. Price was the picture of prim formality. While we stared listlessly into the world outside, counting down the days to graduation and dreaming of the college acceptance letters that would carry us away to freedom, she busied herself by introducing us to Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez—books met with disdain because they demonstrated that the only breeze that was going to blow through senior year was the one making its way through the treetops outside our third-floor classroom windows.
To add to our horror, Mrs. Price required us to keep a journal to write about it all. Not only were we to record our thoughts; we were also supposed to share our feelings. With our teacher.
Perhaps it was because I fell behind in my reading, or simply because I wanted to rebel, but one day I decided I was going to write about my life instead. In between entries about magical realism and the prolific residents of Macondo, I wrote about things that can (and should) only occupy the mind of a high school teenager; things like how my junior prom date with one of the handsomest guys in school resulted in unexpected drama with a now former friend. How her hatred of me was so intense, that she carried it through the summer into senior year, trying to sully my name to anyone who would listen, sometimes literally behind my back so I could hear.
I always imagined Mrs. Price skipping over those entries in exasperation, until the day she sidled up to me and whispered, “Adam is quite a nice young man.” I immediately looked back at my reading, unsure of how to react, and unable to concentrate. Even though I wrote the words, it never actually occurred to me that someone was reading them. That someone—a teacher—might actually care about what I had to say outside of a homework assignment.
So I returned the favor and met Mrs. Price on her terms. I completed her reading assignments and participated in class discussions. I wrote essays on Colonel Aureliano and how members of the Buendía family returned to childhood upon death by curling up in a fetal position. I paid attention to what she had to say and in doing so, discovered a love of Latin American literature.
My imagination and curiosity was piqued, and I wanted more. Since education was always a priority for my mother, she didn’t bat an eye when I asked to take an evening seminar at the Chicago Newberry Library to feed my newfound passion for the genre. Located only a few blocks from the buzz of Michigan Avenue and its modern shops, the Newberry was far enough away that at nighttime, the surrounding streets became deserted and its granite architectural style took on a somewhat foreboding look.
Established solely for research, it was even quieter inside. So much so, that I questioned whether I had the right day and time as I made my way up the stairs on the first night of class. I walked slowly, excited for all the new authors that would soon line my shelves, yet nervous because I was walking into a continuing education class for adults. At 17 years old, I worried about fitting in and wondered if I’d be able to keep up; a concern that fell away when I walked into the room, took a seat, and saw Mrs. Price sitting across the table.
Although she was my teacher within the four walls of her classroom, we were both students on those nights at the Newberry. People with similar interests, who shed our daytime labels to learn about Carlos Fuentes, Jose Maria Arguedas, and more, side-by-side. Almost friends.
Whenever I questioned my social or intellectual choices that year, Mrs. Price was my confidant. She became my senior project advisor, and soon our evening classes turned into afternoon pow-wows, where we discussed what books would be best in my quest to compare and contrast how a black author and a white author addressed slavery in their novels. Once the titles were selected, there was research and writing to be done; as a result, a large part of my senior year was spent with Mrs. Price—a teacher that many of my classmates still regarded with skepticism, if not indifference.
But to me, Mrs. Price was an escape. All the high school doubt I carried around those halls melted away when I walked into her classroom; in her presence, my ideas were encouraged and my voice heard. I found comfort and safety in the pages she gave me, the questions she asked, and in the way she helped me find the answers. Mrs. Price was someone other than my parents who saw and supported my potential.
Although I haven’t seen or talked to Mrs. Price since graduation, she’s never been far from my mind. Because of Mrs. Price, I told a friend in college to read the first page of One Hundred Years of Solitude, challenging her to stop there without wanting to continue. (My friend obliged and shortly went to the register, book in hand.) Because of Mrs. Price, I considered Life in the Time of Cholera “beach” reading on a Hawaiian vacation. So when the world lost a true artist after Marquez’s passing last month, I couldn’t help but remember the woman who introduced me to him in the first place.
Thank you, Mrs. Price. Because of you, I loved learning. And still do.