When I enrolled in classes at Orland High School in October of 1962, shortly after the beginning of my freshman year, I met Miss Gurrola, the Spanish teacher. She was very polite, and she welcomed me into her class. I had great interest in learning Spanish, and before long I felt comfortable in her class. The other students were already used to her, although she had just come to Orland at the beginning of that school year.
Miss Gurrola was a neat, tidy person, not very tall, with a trim figure, often set off in a jacket and skirt of one solid color, and heels. She sat at her desk a good part of the time, but when she stood in front of the class, she had a prim appearance, often with her hands together and sometimes holding her white cane that went with her dark glasses.
There were a couple of sophomore girls in the class who used to tiptoe out of the classroom and come back in, and sometimes students who were not in the class would stand outside the doorway and talk in gestures to students in the class. I did not think this was polite behavior, but no one told on them. I just did my work and participated in class.
At the end of October, I went on a six-week trip with my father to Mexico. When I came back, my proficiency in Spanish had grown a great deal, so now I was a star student in Miss Gurrola’s class. My brother Sandy, who was a sophomore, did well in the Spanish II class as well. As time went on, my father took my stepmother, a recent arrival from Mexico, to a night class, and they met Miss Gurrola as well.
I was doing well enough with the language that I was skipped into Spanish III for my sophomore year. In that class, we read from literary works in addition to studying grammar and vocabulary. This course had fewer students than the first-year course, perhaps six or eight, and we took turns reading out loud. One day we were reading parts from a nineteenth-century comedy, and we were not getting into the spirit of it. It seemed a little corny to me, and we were reading the lines in flat voices. Miss Gurrola, who did not conduct class in a comic or dramatic way, told us, in a cheerful voice as she sat behind her desk, “This is supposed to be hilarious.” So we took encouragement and tried to find the hilarity in it.
When I came back for my third year of high school, Miss Gurrola was gone, replaced by another language teacher. As I think back, I imagine we had taken Miss Gurrola for granted, did not miss her very much when she was gone, and took the new teacher for granted as well. I continued to study Spanish, took a couple of years of German as well, and graduated with an award in foreign languages. But I remembered Miss Gurrola, her reserved presence, and her name as it was signed with a stamp on our report cards: Vera Gurrola, in neat, dark letters.
In the fall of 1968, after a stint at Chico State, I transferred to UCLA. Now in a big city, some five hundred miles from my home town, I was unhappy with the crowded feeling and with the impersonal, unfriendly ways of people on the street. I hung on, though, thanks in great part to a financial aids counselor who chatted with me in Spanish and convinced me to stick it out. In addition to my courses in English literature, I took a course in Spanish, a course in Greek literature in translation, and a series of courses in French.
One sunny afternoon, as I was walking along Westwood Boulevard, I sat on a bench to wait for a bus to take me to the part of West L.A. where I lived. As I sat there, I saw a woman approaching. Time seemed to stand still in the quiet way of dreams or déjà vu as I noticed the dark glasses, the white cane, the dark jacket and skirt, and the proper posture of a person with her head lifted and her mouth set. I was quite sure it was Miss Gurrola, though I had never had an idea that she had anything to do with Los Angeles. Still, I was reluctant to speak, reserved in my own way. I watched her as she stood nearby, opened her purse, and reached inside, perhaps for her bus pass. I saw her checkbook with her name stamped on the cover: Vera Gurrola.
Now that I was sure, I introduced myself. To my great delight, she remembered me, my brother Sandy, my father, my stepmother, and some of the faculty at Orland High. She said she was doing well, had been teaching for the L.A. city schools, and sometimes took classes at UCLA herself. Then in a moment my bus arrived, I said goodbye, and our meeting ended. L.A. was a big city, and I did not see her again.
But I remembered her and our chance meeting, on the streets of Los Angeles that I always found so unfriendly. I have told the story a few times since then, mostly to classmates from Orland.
As I was preparing to write this reminiscence, I had the good fortune of finding a paragraph in my journal on Friday, May 2, 1969. (I kept a journal through most of my undergraduate and graduate years.) There I express my pleasure at having seen Miss Gurrola. I also corrected my own memory, for in the intervening years I had thought that it had been she, not I, who got on the bus and left.
As I looked up a few other details, in what I hope was a non-intrusive way, I found out that at that time, Miss Gurrola lived not too far away from where I saw her that day. I discovered that she had gone to high school in the L.A. area, in Sun Valley, which is in the San Fernando Valley, not far from Hollywood. She graduated from John H. Francis Polytechnic High School with the class of 1949, she attended UCLA on a scholarship, and she graduated in 1953 with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish. It occurs to me that I might have sat in some of the same classrooms.
Also in my research, I found a photograph of two students in a beauty class in Hollywood in 1946. One is sitting in a chair, touching a mannequin head. The other is standing, working on the hair of the student sitting. The one standing has dark glasses and long, dark hair, and she is smiling. Her name is Vera Gurrola. The caption tells that the other student is Miss Helen Lopez, and both students have been blind for two and a half years.
I did not find much other biographical information about Miss Gurrola, and as I say, I have tried not to be intrusive. I did see that she was born in October of 1930 and that she is now deceased.
On the brighter side, it gives me great happiness to see the 1946 photo of Miss Gurrola, along with the photo in the Orland High School yearbook of 1964. I also appreciate being able to read the paragraph in my journal about that sunny afternoon in May when our paths crossed.