Susan Middleton Elya
I have wanted to write books ever since I was a little kid. I used to make up poems and songs back then, in the stairwell to our upstairs in Urbandale, Iowa. It was the only quiet place in the whole house!
I didn’t have my own room — ever! — when I was growing up, so I found ways to be “alone” by writing, playing in the corner of the backyard, and hiding from all the noise — in the stairwell. I kept diaries when I was a student in grade school and junior high school. I always felt guilty when I didn’t make an entry for every day. Now I know that a writer can write every other day or every third day and still be good at it. I wish someone would have told me that if I didn’t feel like writing one day, I could skip it. I always did those chain letters, too, because I felt so guilty if I didn’t. I remember getting up early before school so I could hand-copy one chain letter five times and deliver it to five of my friends so that nothing bad would happen to me or my family. Now I don’t do them at all! In college, I kept journals, especially when I was traveling. I went to Venezuela and Spain as part of my Spanish studies. Before I became a published picture-book author, I was a teacher in three different states. I taught in Ashland, Nebraska, Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Ramona, California.
I have also been a U.S. Post Office letter carrier, a bartender, a racetrack ticket seller, a door-to-door salesperson, a telemarketer, and a Sunday school teacher. Somewhere between salesperson and letter carrier, I earned a degree in Spanish. Why would a white girl from Iowa study a foreign language? Because my dad could speak a little, and he and my older sister could carry on a limited conversation at supper. I wanted to know what they were saying. So did everyone else, but they had to wait until they were old enough to take Spanish in ninth grade. My mom never did learn any Spanish. She always wondered if we were talking about her.
The summer after high school I went to Mexico City with my high school Spanish teacher and 30 students. I was amazed by the new culture and the language I had been studying for four years. I went to Iowa State University, planning to major in elementary education, which I did. But I kept taking Spanish classes and eventually had so many credits that it only made sense to get a dual degree with a double major in elementary education and Spanish. I also picked up a minor in secondary education. I must have known that I would end up teaching high school Spanish.
I went to Caracas, Venezuela, to do my student teaching with another ISU student. I taught Spanish to six-year-old first graders in an American school. They were trilingual — speaking English, Spanish, and the language of their native country. They were mostly children of oil company executives who had come there from all over the world. After we left Venezuela, I did my secondary student-teaching (Spanish) in a Catholic high school in Des Moines, Iowa. That was my first experience teaching teenagers. Then I went to Spain to study for two months. My Venezuelan accent was all wrong. I began to realize that Spanish is not the same from country to country.
I came back from Spain and graduated from ISU. I had applied to teach third grade in Nebraska. Instead, they hired me to teach high school Spanish. My Iowa roommate from Caracas got the third grade job so that we could come out to Nebraska together. Two years later, I decided to move to Omaha to get a job in a bigger school. I taught junior high English, reading, and writing across the river in Council Bluffs, Iowa. I asked the principal at Lewis Central Middle School if I could teach Spanish during the lunch hour. Forty kids showed up the first day. By the time I left L.C. six years later, I was teaching Spanish all day long. I’ll never forget a parent who came to teacher conferences and said to me, ‘Why does my son have to learn another language anyway? He’s never going to leave here.’ I often wonder if that boy ever did leave Iowa, even for vacation.
I married and moved to San Diego, California. A town nearby, Ramona, needed a Spanish teacher. Little did I know that the kids had had substitutes for three months. They told me on the first day, “You are our 12th substitute.” I had my work cut out for me there. I taught high school Spanish, middle school Spanish and English as a Second Language. I had to interview for the job in Spanish. I don’t think I could do that today! The middle school ESL class proved to be the most rewarding. Those students could speak little or no English . The bilingual director of curriculum had been teaching the class entirely in Spanish. The 23 Hispanic students were grateful, but they weren’t learning any English that way. I ended that tradition, and two girls dropped out school to clean motel rooms. That broke my heart, but I knew I wasn’t helping anybody learn English by speaking to them for two hours each day in Spanish. No one else dropped out, and they started to learn their second language.
My husband, new daughter, and I moved to northern California a year and a half later. By then, my ESL students had made much progress. I am so proud that I taught them English. I still think about them and use many of their names in my books.
Every now and then I go to bookstores and conferences to talk about my newest books. In a way, I guess I am still teaching, but now I don’t have all those papers to grade!