In May 1991, Iberia Airlines of Spain went on strike. Though it lasted only 24 hours, that strike and the frustration it caused in the Madrid airport set in motion a friendship that has rippled through Spanish classrooms in the United States.
Kori Kros VanderKooi '93 had spent the spring of 1991 on Calvin's semester in Spain. She was waiting to board her flight home when the announcement came that all flights had been indefinitely canceled. The Spanish woman sitting next to her was having none of it. She marched to the ticket counter intent on getting a flight to the United States. Desperate to get home, VanderKooi tagged along.
After they parted in Chicago, Ill., the two women continued to correspond. The following summer VanderKooi and her fiancé, Glen '92, visited Pilar García Márquez in Spain and were introduced to her father, the poet José Luis García Suárez. He invited them to stay in his home, and when they left he gave the VanderKoois a book of his poems.
A year later, as a new Spanish teacher at Brookfield Academy in Brookfield, Wis., VanderKooi wanted her students to read poems to hear the musicality of the language. But she was having trouble finding the right poetry. She remembered the book García Suárez had given her.
"Mention 'poetry' in an assignment and you can see students cringe," VanderKooi said. "But José's is poetry students understand in both Spanish and English."
More important, though, to VanderKooi than the poetry's accessibility was its worldview: "It's very hard as a Christian teacher to come by poetry that's both good and has a Christian perspective. Sometimes it's explicit, sometimes it's subtle, but always José's faith saturates his poems."
From their conversations over the four days she and Glen had stayed in the poet's home, VanderKooi knew not only the quality of García Suárez's faith, but also his warmth for children and students. She thought he might extend that warmth to her high schoolers.
"I told them, 'Look, you guys, this is a real, living Spanish poet we're reading. We could write to him about his poems.'"
They did. And García Suárez replied-not generalized, but pointed, individual replies: "OK Pedro, you asked me about ."
"It lit students up to have a Spanish poet speaking to them as individuals," VanderKooi said.
Twice she took her Brookfield students to Spain. García Suárez arranged host families for the students and opened his own home to chaperones Bruce '80 and Elaine Griwac Rottman '81.
He has been just as welcoming to Calvin students. By 1998, VanderKooi had moved to Grand Rapids and was teaching Spanish-including García Suárez's poetry-at Calvin. She encouraged students who studied in Spain to travel to Morón de la Frontera and meet him in person.
"He invited us to his home for coffee," recalled one of those students, Susann Baas '02. "When I told him I liked his poem about the kite, he recited it for us right there. It was amazing!"
Now Baas uses that same poem, and 33 others, in her own Spanish classroom at Calvin Christian High School in Grandville, Mich. Until this year only VanderKooi had García Suárez's poems in book form-the copy the poet gave her 15 years ago. De Azul y Blanco (Of Blue and White) has long been out of print in Spain.
Catalyzed by two alumni association grants, VanderKooi and Calvin Spanish Professor Ed Miller have reissued the volume. The new edition includes English translations of the poems, watercolor illustrations and a CD of García Suárez reading his work.
VanderKooi and Miller were initially reluctant to take on the special kind of translation required to render poems in another language. García Suárez had suggested it, so that English classes at schools in Morón de la Frontera could use the book. And VanderKooi and Miller realized a bilingual volume could reach a larger readership.
"Our desire has been to get José's work out there, because we believe it will enrich people, even if they read it only in English," VanderKooi said. "That belief, and our friendship with José, has given us the energy to see this project through."
Though alumni association grants helped them initiate the project, VanderKooi and Miller labored on the translation without compensation for over three years. When the 77-year-old poet's fragile health deteriorated last year, they speeded up work on the book, and the VanderKoois took it upon themselves to self-publish 1,000 copies so that García Suárez could see its completion. He is very happy with the result.
Every dollar and every hour spent have been worth it, VanderKooi said. "Of course it would be very rewarding to see teachers using this book. Beyond that, though, Ed's life and my life have been deeply enriched by José's friendship. More than half the reason for publishing the book was to honor him. But God's hand has been in this since that day Iberia went on strike. So we believe this is God-honoring, too."
— Gayle Boss is a freelance writer living in Grand Rapids
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