Jael Hernández-Vasquez, our new Latin and Spanish teacher, brings a unique perspective to campus. Mr. Hernández-Vasquez grew up in the Dominican Republic and immigrated to New York City at the age of 11. Passionate about education, languages, and social equality, a few of his reflections and experiences follow.
What was it like immigrating to New York?
“From the rural Dominican Republic where we didn’t have a library, going to New York was kind of crazy. One of the little moments was when my father took me to the local New York Public Library, which was about 4 blocks away from where we lived.It was amazing seeing books all over the place. I knew that I immigrated because I needed to have access to a better education. I spent a lot of time after school in that library, and it was one of my favorite places growing up.”
At 13, he applied to and was accepted at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire based on the influence of a Teach for America teacher at his school.
How did New York compare to St. Paul’s?
“The middle school that I went to was a low performing school..Not everyone was interested in achieving or learning books or reading anything. St. Paul’s was a huge difference. Kids were competitive—they wanted to read, they wanted to do things, they wanted to achieve. Everyone was affluent. I’d never been around that culture before, growing up very poor in the Dominican Republic as a farmer. I felt very alienated and isolated.
“At Thacher, I see something that is reminiscent of what made me uncomfortable at St. Paul’s. I see formal dinner…I remember going to St. Paul’s and thinking, ‘This, I’d never do this. This is not part of my culture. This is not part of my socioeconomic class, dressing up in a particular way and having to eat in a particular way in a particular social setting that is not part of my social class.’ It made me feel uncomfortable at St. Paul’s, and interestingly enough, made me feel uncomfortable here. The whole thing is a tradition that the school has, and holds deeply, and I value that too, but the way that it’s conducted, the ways the rules are set up, devalue it for me. The problem with saying that this is the way things have always been done is that there’s no progress there, there’s no rethinking of how this is affecting someone.”
What did you do for fun in high school?
“I did club tennis, club hockey, and I learned how to skate…But I was involved mainly with the Classics society, I started Latin and then Ancient Greek, I was also involved with the Chinese society, and all the international clubs. I loved traveling, cultures, languages.”
What was life like after St. Paul’s?
“I went to Columbia University in New York. I first studied classics there as a German literature and philosophy major, and after that I traveled to Miami, where I lived for two years doing Teach for America. I thought that I should give back to the organization that really changed my life. That’s when I became interested in teaching— I’d wanted to be a lawyer, to go to law school, and that’s what I wanted to do even through Columbia. But after doing Teach for America, I realized that’s where my passion lies— being around students who want to learn and who really treasure that. My passion is education. My passion is learning. I chose a career where I can learn everyday.”
How did you find Thacher?
“Thacher found me. Jeff Hooper reached out to me about this boarding school in CA, and I said, ‘What? There are boarding schools in CA? I didn’t know that.’ I was really struck by the students here. They had students interview me during my interview process and I was floored by how down-to-earth the students were, how articulate, how funny, and how caring they were about their community.”
Has there been anything that’s surprised you about Thacher?
“I remember leaving a Spanish class that I taught [during the interview process] and before we left, I asked [the students], ‘What do you think I should take away from Thacher?’ One of the students said, ‘I hope that you find out what honor, fairness, kindness, and truth is all about.’ You really live it, it’s palpable here, you students really live by that.”