By Mia Miller
Mrs. Wagar, also known as Señora Wagar, is often thought of as a teacher who builds connections with her students and is incredibly active in the school’s community. She’s been a part of the Williamsville school district for several decades now, starting at Transit Middle School and now teaching here at Williamsville East.
Mrs. Wagar is known for being one of East’s Spanish teachers, teaching five classes this year. She is also the advisor for several clubs and groups. “I teach Spanish 4A, and then I teach Spanish 3A and Comprehensive Spanish. I have three junior classes and two sophomore classes. I am the advisor for the class of 2021, I do SIAC, I do Italian club, and then I am the Make-A-Wish committee co-chair with Mrs. DeSantis.” She noted that she probably advises more groups that she may be forgetting.
Mrs. Wagar has several qualities that make her unique compared to other teachers at East. “Her voice and her cooking are a couple of the things that make her stand out from her contemporaries,” Mr. Hurley said, who has been working alongside Mrs. Wagar for several years now advising the class of 2021.
If you have had a class with Mrs. Wagar, or have spent any time with her, you will quickly learn that she is of Italian origin. She is a first generation American, meaning her parents were immigrants from Italy and she was born here in the USA. Mrs. Wagar took some time to describe what her childhood was like as a first generation American. “My mother was at home with me and she spoke no English, so I spoke no English. I went to kindergarten and I didn’t speak any English. I didn’t start speaking English until I was in first or second grade. All of our family friends were also Italian immigrants. And even the kids I played with on the streets, it was a lot of first generation Americans, so we were all speaking our own language but communicating without a language we all understood.”
For Mrs. Wagar, being a first generation American could be isolating. “What I found difficult when I was younger was when I went to school and kids would be more americanized than me. I would be bringing Italian lunches, we didn’t have peanut butter and jelly, and we didn’t have the cold cuts a lot of kids would eat.”
Mrs Wagar’s first language is Italian, yet she teaches Spanish. Italian and Spanish are very similar languages as they are both part of the same language group (the romance languages) and have similar origins. I asked her if being familiar with Italian made learning and teaching Spanish easier, and she didn’t hesitate at all to answer. “Oh yeah, absolutely,” she answered with confidence, “if I don’t know a word in Spanish I will just remember the word in Italian, and most of the time it will be the same word or very similar in Spanish.”
Her Italian origin is strongly connected to her becoming a LOTE teacher. “I am incredibly proud of my heritage and my culture. It’s the reason I even went into language. Growing up bilingual helped me choose what profession I wanted to go into.” Even from a young age, Mrs. Wagar was familiar with the Spanish language along with knowing Italian and English. “My grandfather fought in World War II, when World War II was over he worked in Venezuela for a while, so he would speak a little spanish at home. I thought it was so cool that he could speak Italian and then a little Spanish, and there was just that excitement of being able to communicate with different people. It’s always been a part of my life and I wanna pass that down to my students.”
Many of us personally have things we enjoy about East and things we would like to change about it. Teachers have this desire as well. I asked Mrs. Wagar if there was anything she would like to change about Williamsville East. “I would love to be able to offer just a comprehensive language class where you are just communicating in it. There’s no grammar, you’re not doing all the packets, you’re really just practicing some speaking. Maybe after three years you could take a class like that as an elective.” Mrs. Wagar also added she would love to create an Italian class, and that she wished students in Williamsville started languages earlier than middle school.
On the other hand, there are things she loves about East just the way it is. “I love the interactions I have with the kids. I loved teaching middle school, I love Transit, sometimes I miss it, but here I feel I can make more of a difference in the kids’ lives.”
Mrs. Wagar has spent a lot of time traveling, particularly to various places in Europe. I asked her how many countries she has been to. “I think it’s like 12 now. Of course I love Italy, but my favorite is Croatia. It was so beautiful, I loved it there.” Mrs. Wagar smiled as she remembered the time she spent in Croatia. I then asked if there were any countries she would like to visit once Covid ends. “We were supposed to go with some students last year to Turkey, I would like to do that. I did a DNA test and I’m 96% Italian and 4% Turkish, so I would like to go connect with my people.”
I was curious to know about the generational differences Mrs. Wagar has experienced. I asked if she had noticed any differences between her very first students and her current students. “I think that students now are more out-spoken and they advocate for themselves more, and that’s a good thing. They are sharing more things and are more vocal.”
Since Mrs. Wagar has spent decades teaching the Spanish language, over time it is likely that she would develop a favorite word or phrase in Spanish. I asked her what her favorite was. Her absolute favorite was ‘absolutamente no’, a cognate of the phrase ‘absolutely not’, which she used a lot while teaching middle schoolers at Transit. She added, “I also like cacahuetes, which means peanuts. And bufanda, which is scarf.”
Her favorite phrase in spanish may be ‘absolutely no’, but Mrs Wagar is a person who says ‘absolutely yes’. She is always open to new ideas and concepts, and is incredibly accepting of her students. “She is one of the most caring compassionate people that I know! She is always looking out for students, even those that are not in her class. She is the den mother of East High,” Mr. Hurley said. She goes out of her way to try make a positive impact on each and every student she interacts with.