Teaching Spanish at St. Patrick School—or anywhere, for that matter—was never something Victoria Cadavid anticipated in her life. Yet in over a decade of teaching, she has become, as one Chatham Patch reader called her, one who "truly imparts on each child a love of the language, fun learning activities and great Spanish art projects."
Cadavid, a New Providence resident, was born in Colombia. She attended a boarding school in Pennsylvania for high school, married and started a family in Colombia, and moved to Summit with her husband and two children in 1999.
The first year her family lived in New Jersey, Cadavid stayed home and did not work at all. "I was miserable. I said, 'I really have to do something next year,'" she said.
Her children were attending St. Patrick School, and Cadavid spent her time trying to make a new home for her family in New Jersey. "Then one day a letter arrived from the school saying they were going to start teaching Spanish," she said, and the school asked if she would be willing to teach.
Cadavid had never taught Spanish, and never taught in English. "I'm a business major, and I had my own [catering] business in Colombia," she said. "I love to cook and make cakes, and I had a children's cooking school. I used to do summer camps for the children to learn how to cook different kinds of things."
Still, she gave it a shot. During her first year teaching, Cadavid taught part-time at St. James School in Paterson and at St. Patrick. When both schools offered her a full-time position, she chose to stay at St. Patrick because her children, Catalina and Juan, attended the school.
Twelve years later, Cadavid has taught an entire generation of students from St. Patrick School. On a recent excursion in Summit, she recognized a student from her first fifth-grade class. "And I realized, my first fifth-grade class is now graduating from college," she said. "You look in the mirror and think, 'No wonder I have some white hairs!'"
Cadavid taught prekindergarten through eighth grade up until the 2011-12 school year. "I had no time for anything, not even to go to the bathroom or eat," she said. "I said, I am getting old, I am getting tired, I am just going to teach middle school and that's it."
However, the school was unable to find a Spanish teacher for the younger children. Those who applied were interested in teaching fourth through eighth grades, and Cadavid was assigned to prekindergarten through third grade this year.
"At first I was very disappointed," she said, "but actually it has been a wonderful year. I have loved it—loved it, loved it, loved it." When the time came to discuss the 2012-13 school year, she told Dr. Marian Hobbie, the school principal, she couldn't wait to teach the same years again.
Cadavid uses immersion in the classroom, speaking almost exclusively in Spanish with her students. With young children, the amount they pick up "is unbelieveable," she said. With second graders, the students sometimes cannot even get up to learning clothing in the course of the year. Her 3-year-olds, though, "they know every single word."
The invitation to teach at St. Patrick, Cadavid said, "has been a saving moment for me. I had a nice life in Colombia, and moving here wasn't easy."
"La Vida en Colombia"—Life in Colombia
In Colombia, Cadavid and her family lived in Santiago de Cali, more commonly known as Cali. The city, which currently has a population of 2.5 million, is located in a valley, with mountains to the west, the Cauca river to the east, and plains in the north and south.
The greater Cali area is also home to the Cali Cartel, one of the country's largest drug cartels.
"It was very unsafe to live in Colombia," Cadavid said, and in Cali especially. "The guerillas like the mountains, and we were a perfect target for them because we were downhill for them. They get us, and they go."
In 1999, Cadavid's son Juan was in kindergarten and her daughter Catalina was in fifth grade. The two attended a British school located in the Cali suburbs. About 2,000 students from among Cali's upper classes and international families living in Cali matriculated at the school, Cadavid said.
Each day her two children rode the bus for up to an hour to reach the school, which taught from age 3 to the end of high school.
"The British and the American schools are very [attractive] for the guerillas, because they have a lot of international teachers, and that's what they want" Cadavid said. Killing Britons and Americans attracted more international media attention than killing Colombians.
The school her children attended was threatened three times that year, Cadavid said. "The first time," she said, "the school wasn't ready for it. ... They had to put those 2,000 students on the bus, no matter what. My daughter [said], 'Mom, even the teachers would walk over us to get on the buses.'"
Later, when Cadavid's son was drawing pictures at St. Patrick School, he drew one of a school bus with students and teachers packed onboard, with people coming out of the windows.
Another time, guerillas kidnapped about 200 people from a church near the school one Sunday morning. The guerillas loaded the people into trucks and drove them into the mountains.
"That night, they released women over 60 and children under 14. The rest of them, they kept them. There were people that were kidnapped for months," Cadavid said.
Moving to the US—Los Estados Unidos
Cadavid's husband Raul has dual citizenship with the US and Colombia. As violence in Cali increased, the two started asking themselves some difficult questions. "Is it really worth it that we stay here, having the opportunity to go? What are we doing to our kids?" Cadavid said.
Before the violence touched her childrens' lives, Cadavid said it was easier to "go with the flow. ... It happens every day," she said. "But it's different when you have kids."
Cadavid originally planned to open another catering business in New Jersey, but "moving is hard, and economics are difficult," she said. "We needed the money for other things. We were really committed to getting the best education we could for our kids."
Getting the children admitted into St. Patrick was another matter. There was an opening for her son in first grade, but sixth grade was full. Two weeks after admission closed, they received word that a spot had opened up in sixth grade, and her daughter was able to attend.
In Colombia, she had a family support system and generations of income and resources to draw on. The family lived in a "nice house in a nice neighborhood" during the week and spent weekends in a family vacation house that has been in the family for years. A balance between work and life is a cultural priority, and working on the weekends is rare. "Family is important," Cadavid said. "[Families are] very close."
This made the transition to a modest two-bedroom home in Summit difficult. The only family was Cadavid's cousin, who lived in Short Hills. "It was tough," Cadavid said. "Here we are, the four of us in two rooms, where before we had a nice house in Colombia. That was tough."
The children made the move with relative alacrity, Cadavid said. "My daughter was old enough to realize how the transition was hard for the parents, but she kept quiet."
The only time Catalina ever complained, Cadavid said, was after the family visited Colombia in August 2001. "A month after that was September 11," Cadavid said. "My daughter screamed [at] me, ... 'You told me we moved here because it was safer. You lied to me.' She was 13 at that point, and she said, 'You lied to me.'"
Other than that, the two children adjusted fairly well. They made lifelong friends at St. Patrick, friends they still have today. Catalina, now 24, works in a law firm in New York City. Juan just finished his freshman year at Loyola University.
Now as they get older and though she misses her life in Colombia, Cadavid realizes her children will never move back—and in all likelihood, she may not, either.
"It's hard," she said. "I do really want to get old close to my kids, but at the same time I would like to be able to go back and forth."
Cadavid's parents still live in Colombia, and while she finds ways to travel when they are unwell, it would be difficult to move back, away from her children and especially with the recent resurgence in violence in Cali.
"I'm hoping for things to get better there," she said.