Thanks, Lucho: tribute to a great teacher

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Yesterday I attended the memorial service for Luis “Lucho” Figallo, long-time Spanish teacher at Golden West, the high school where four of my five children attended. All four studied under Mr. Figallo, probably averaging two years apiece. That’s eight Back-to-School Nights, eight Open Houses, and somehow, we always got around to see Mr. Figallo, even when we didn’t have kids in his classes. Oftentimes we stayed late in his classroom. After all the other parents had gone home, Lucho would offer advice to my fledgling-Spanish-teacher wife. He was always ready to give help, switching back-and-forth between beautiful Spanish and his own ebullient brand of English.

For most of the nearly 20 years I knew Lucho, he insisted that he was “going to retire in another two or three years,” but he only left the classroom two years ago. He was a people person. He loved his students. He loved his subject. After teaching high school all day, he taught night school at the local community college, often to classes full of his former students. I saw a post today on the College of Sequoias site, from a former student at both schools who then went back into Mr. Figallo’s Golden West class as a substitute teacher. “. . . even though he wasn't there in person his loving presence was felt. I don't know if it was because of all the kind smiles on the student faces or if it was because of that jolly old piñata with Figi's resemblance.”

I know the history of that piñata. A committee worked on it, but it took its final form in a back bedroom at my house. And it did bear an uncanny resemblance to Figallo. He was wearing a beard in those days, but it was that smile (and if I recall, the Panama hat) that gave it away.

Each of my children who had him has fond memories of Mr. Figallo, but my greatest debt goes back to the year my eldest son entered 9th grade. We were just back from five years in Colombia, but my son was very unsure of his Spanish. Under Mr. Figallo, I saw his confidence grow. Then, just before Easter, Figallo pulled Matthew aside. The youth group from the church where Lucho was an elder needed a translator for their Spring Break trip to Mexico. Would Matthew consider helping out?

Matthew went. He was one of the youngest members of the group and had not been part of any of the team-building exercises or fund-raisers. However, as the translator, Matthew found himself where the action was, in a key position of leadership. He came home secure in his Spanish and suddenly aware of new gifts as a leader. But it did not stop there. Lucho continued to support and encourage Matthew through another decade and a half. The confidence Matthew gained studying under Mr. Figallo has carried him into fluency in German, Russian, and Portuguese and starts in a couple more. Thanks, Lucho.

Lucho grew up in Peru and came by himself to the US as a young man, learned English while working in a grocery store, and earned a masters degree in Spanish Literature. A coworker gave him a Bible. He studied it carefully and decided to base his life on what he found there. At the end of his life, battling cancer, he and his wife prayed that God would give him the strength to make one last trip to Peru, to say goodbye to the family he left behind, and to encourage their Christian walks. Coming back into Los Angeles, when the pilot announced “We are now beginning our descent,” Lucho said only, “I’m not going down. I’m going up.” With that, he stood in the presence of Jesus.

A life well lived.
Thanks, Lucho. I hope Mary has the piñata.


I was just last night telling Elsiene about Sr. Figallo's Spanish class, and the trip to Mexico, and the piñata that my classmate and I made.

Ten years later, I was back in Sr. Figallo's classroom on a three-day subbing assignment, and was pleased to see the piñata still displayed in the classroom. I was at the time preparing to leave on a missions assignment to Uzbekistan. Lucho and Mary numbered themselves among my supporters.

After telling this story last night, Elsiene wondered what might have happened to the piñata. I, too, hope Mary has it.

I consider Lucho Figallo to be one of the most influential men in my life.

Matthew Carroll said...
May 28, 2009 at 7:14 AM  

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