TAOS — He didn’t realize it was his last day to teach a class until the room cleared out, leaving him in silence.
Larry Torres, a longtime educator, linguist and columnist, retired from the University of New Mexico-Taos, where he had been teaching since 2000. He wrapped up a 43-year career of teaching generations of students — in high school and college — at the close of the semester May 17.
“It really does feel incredible,” said Torres, thinking back on his journey from the days when teaching was “chalk and talk” to where he is now — a beloved figure in the community. “Every single day of my teaching career was a treasure.”
Torres, a native of Arroyo Seco, a community north of Taos, and a 1972 graduate of Taos High School, taught several languages at the high school and college levels. Greek, Latin and Hebrew, French and Italian were among the languages Torres could spit out by the time he graduated from Taos High School in 1972. He later taught there and at a high school in Las Cruces before joining the faculty at UNM-Taos.
Torres attended New Mexico State University before enrolling in Leningrad University in the Soviet Union, where he picked up Russian.
“One of the reasons I became a linguist,” Torres told The Taos News in an interview in 2017, “is to show people how to get over their impediments.”
He won numerous state and national awards as an educator and for radio programs he produced that were centered on culture. He is also well-known for “Growing up Spanglish,” a bilingual column that publishes weekly in The Taos News and the Santa Fe New Mexican. The column features the childhood adventures and ordeals of a young boy growing up in Northern New Mexico and his grandparents.
But it is the little things that remind him of his long teaching tenure.
His students and colleagues have fond memories of his sometimes edgy, unforgettable teaching style.
Valerie Montoya took classes from Torres at UNM-Taos from 2007-13. “He has a million stories to tell, a lifetime of experiences all over the world, but the best part I like about him is his compassion for others and his passion to share all he can with the world,” Montoya said. “He knows all our traditions, several languages, a zillion stories, and he is a rare legend of Taos.”
Montoya recalls one time when Torres invited his class over for dinner at his home on his family’s land in Arroyo Seco, not far from the base of El Salto Mountain. When students arrived and asked what was for dinner, Torres replied “roasted peacock.”
“The expression everyone had every time we told them was priceless, and finally we gave in and told the truth — it was chicken,” Montoya said. “One or two students didn’t quite know whether to believe us or not.”
Anne MacNaughton, a former colleague at Taos High School, said she remembers Torres painting in the teacher’s lounge during prep times. He would hang the sometimes controversial paintings around the classroom as points of discussion. “Gutsy and out there,” MacNaughton said.
As he cleaned out his office at UNM-Taos recently, Torres came across things he had long since forgotten about — remnants of a career steeped in both a worldly curiosity and intense loyalty to the community of Arroyo Seco, Taos and Northern New Mexico.
One rediscovery was a box of jars filled with herbs, twigs and powders. They are the leftovers of a class he taught only once or twice a decade about the folk remedies of the area. In the class, he introduced students to the art of “sacred harvesting,” he said, “going up to the plant, talking to the plant, telling it what you wanted to use it for and finding the best way to preserve it.”
Though it was a fairly rare class, it was emblematic of his style in the classroom.
“Most of my classes have incorporated an element of healing, of self-healing. I think that we leave that element out of education so much as professors. There’s so many broken people out there. If you can heal them, help them move forward to the next level, it helps you move forward a little bit, too,” he said.
“It’s all been worth my while, but it’s time to rest a little,” he said.
That might be easier said than done, especially since Torres readily admits he is “not much of a sitter.”
What comes next? He’s working on three books — one meant to help for the canonization of Maria of Agreda, a mystic who is said to have projected herself into the Americas before European colonization — and plans to visit the Taj Mahal and Great Pyramids of Giza. “I need to see that also,” he said.
But at the same time, he knows it’s time to slow down and learn to be OK with the silence.
“We’re so afraid of what we call sacred silence, so that when someone pauses for three seconds we wonder what’s going on,” he said. “Silence is so full of so many things.”
He recently spent some time at a Benedictine monastery on a retreat. One person he’d known for a long time assigned him to the hermitage at the top of the hill. “We have to teach you how to learn to slow it down,” his friend said.
“Part of my retirement is learning how to slow down the Larry machine,” he said.
The master educator is again the novice.
“I am called to be the student once again. I kind of like it,” he said.
Then he paused for a moment.
“No. I really, really like it.”
This story first appeared in The Taos News, a sister publication of the Santa Fe New Mexican.