Tell Me Something, Teresa Wright
When Teresa Wright moved to Montgomery Village in the 1970s, her family was the fifth Latino family in the neighborhood.
Wright asked her realtor for the names of the other four, and then she went and knocked on their doors. She introduced herself and invited them out for coffee. Coffee became a regular occurrence, and as more Latino families moved to the area, her group—and her influence—grew.
More than 40 years later, she’s doing the same thing.
Talking to people. Connecting them. Literally holding their hands and directing them to each other and to resources of all kinds. She has been a stalwart of the Latino community for years, and has dedicated herself to making Montgomery County immigrant-friendly. She believes that every single child has the capacity to learn and should have the opportunity to succeed. And although she has heard some folks call her Saint Teresa, she shakes that off and prefers just one moniker—abuelita.
Education=A Better Life
Born in Mexico City, Mexico, Wright and her younger sister were born to parents who emphasized education. The girls attended private schools, and her mother made sure that from an early age, they would learn English. The three of them attended private classes together—her mother in a class for adults and the girls in a children’s class.
“For me, learning English was fun,” Wright said. “We would come home and mom would say, ‘Let’s cook!’ So we would look at our recipes in English and mom would say, ‘bring me the carrots; bring me the potatoes.’ It was a fun way to learn.”
She inherited the gift of gab and an understanding of the importance of teamwork from her father, who worked in human resources for a beer factory in Mexico. “My father taught me how to talk to people and how to get along with anybody. He would take his propaganda out and visit the restaurants, and he would go right into the kitchens and talk to all the cooks.”
After graduating from high school, Wright attended college at the University of Guadalajara to study education. “I always wanted to be a teacher,” she said. She did her student teaching in public, rural schools, a far departure from the private schools she had attended as a child. “I remember school was in a big tent. The kids were sitting on the lawn; there were no desks. I remember collecting notebooks and pencils and getting a soccer ball to do things with the kids and to try to inspire them.”
After graduation, she saw a flyer offering scholarships to earn a master’s degree at the University of Illinois. “My mother said, ‘Apply!’ My mother was an inspiration because she came from a generation where they didn’t educate women, only men. It was funny how advanced she was.” She worked as a secretary, but always longed for a college degree. Wright applied for the Illinois program, and to her surprise, was accepted. She headed north with a single thought: she would earn her degree but come back to Mexico and teach in those rural schools. But when she arrived in Illinois, she met the man who would become her husband, Richard Wright, who was studying for a Ph.D. in engineering.
After finishing college and marrying, Wright began teaching Spanish at the University of Illinois. Soon after, the newlyweds relocated to the D.C. area when her husband landed a job at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Wright began volunteering at a private school run by St. Martin’s of Tours Catholic Church in Gaithersburg. She eventually started teaching Spanish to middle school students.
When her children enrolled at Watkins Mill Elementary School, Wright attended a PTA meeting. A Spanish family was at the meeting and needed an interpreter. The principal stood up and asked whether anyone in the audience spoke Spanish.
“Two of us spoke up, me and Maria Malagon,” Wright remembered. “It was a diplomat’s family. That was about 40 years ago. Can you imagine in those days, only one family in the school spoke Spanish?” Wright began volunteering at Watkins Mill; Malagon went on to become the director of ESOL/Bilingual Programs at MCPS.
Soon, Wright found herself teaching Spanish part-time at Gaithersburg High School. A year later, she was offered a full-time position at Montgomery Village Middle School.
“I jumped at it,” she said. “We started enrolling many Latino students and ESOL students. At the time, Principal Jack Graham said, ‘We have to do something for the parents.’ Right then and there, we started having meetings for parents in Spanish. When Jack became principal at Magruder High School, he invited me out for a cup of coffee. He showed me a list of students and said, ‘These are the kids who need you. Come to Magruder.’ So I said yes right there.”
As the years passed, the number of Latino students arriving in Montgomery County exploded, especially those coming from war-torn countries in Central America. Between Montgomery Village and Magruder, Graham and Wright worked together for 15 years, working to expand services and resources to Latino students and their families.
No One Can Do It Alone
“In those days, there were not ESOL departments in every school,” Wright said. Graham “was so welcoming to the parents. At the parent meetings, we explained to them how to get what they needed from the school. We held workshops on different topics. Jack wrote grants to get free lunches for the kids, to have other activities there. He created a room called the support center, where kids could come and get help for their studies or other things.
“What I did then and what I do now is the same—partnerships,” Wright says. “We have to work together to get the kids what they need.” Today, her job title is instructional specialist. She travels among five schools—Gaithersburg and Watkins Mill high schools, and Montgomery Village, Neelsville and Gaithersburg middle schools. At the high schools, she has a partnership that goes back 20 years with ESOL counselor Maria Garcia, and she rattles off a list of many others that help her provide resources and information to families: Montgomery College, The Universities of Shady Grove, Identity, the George B. Thomas, Sr. Learning Academy (Saturday School), the Hispanic Alliance for Education, Linkages to Learning, Catholic Charities and the Montgomery County Police Department.
“I went to Catholic schools for middle and high school,” Wright says. “The sisters there were a big influence on me. We were always working for various missions—in China, in Japan, in other countries. We were always collecting money for this or that. After I did my student teaching, I always wanted to go back [to Mexico] to help, but the kids came to me.
“I am very thankful because I am now teaching kids who come from the rural schools in El Salvador, Honduras and other places,” Wright said. “They call me abuelita because they were left in their country with their grandparents and their grandparents raised them. They miss them tremendously. I just hug them and tell them, ‘Think of me as your grandma. Oh, and go to class.’
“I am doing what I always dreamed of doing. I learned that I didn’t have to go around the world to help.”
One of her favorite parts of the job is helping students get to college. “We host a workshop on how going to college is possible and how to focus on launching a technical career. I invite students in who are already in college to come talk about how they did it. I invite parents, too. We do it in Spanish for Latino parents and in English for other parents.
“I have kids now who call me and ask how they can help,” Wright says. “I have one who went to Montgomery College for two years, then transferred to the Universities at Shady Grove. He told the story of his mother, who was a cleaning lady in El Salvador. He said, ‘Because I’m working now, I’m helping her and she’s not cleaning houses anymore. This is what I want for you.’ If he says it, it means more than if I say it. When these kids give their testimony, it’s incredible.”
Wright and her husband have four adult children (who all attended the University of Illinois)—John, a music minister in Kentucky; Carolyn Camacho, director of youth centers for Identity; Elizabeth, a Spanish literature professor at the University of Georgia; and Edward, a professor in Latin American studies at Vanderbilt University.
Now that she’s 80, the thought of retirement crosses her mind now and then, but leaving the students is not an easy thing for her to think about.
“The ones that give me energy are the kids and their families,” she said. “I pray every day and I ask God to take me where I can help a kid today. That never fails. I pray for that guidance every single morning. I don’t do it alone.”
Tell Me More
Hometown: Mexico City, Mexico
Family: Husband Richard Wright, four children, six grandchildren
One thing you couldn’t live without: My family
Best place you’ve ever travelled: Tokyo, Japan, and Spain
If you could learn to do anything, what would it be: The computer
Favorite food: Soups
Three traits that define you: Passionate about education, happy, team player
If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would it be: St. John Bosco, who worked with the Salesians—an order of the Catholic Church. The Salesians had schools for poor children; my father was educated by them. He learned everything from them. When he graduated, he always took my sister and me to help with various things at the school. He never forgot them. He had this pendant of John Bosco that he always wore; he never took it off. When he died, my mother gave it to me.