Lima, Peru — It was April 1962. She lived across the road from the teacher-training college run by the Convent of the Sacred Heart at the request of the Peruvian government.
She had no phone, but the school did, and she needed to make a call.
The school director overheard her speaking English.
Soon after she got back to her house, a truck drove into her yard and a messenger asked: "Do you speak English? Have you a college degree? Were you ever a teacher?"
She answered in the affirmative and was directed to get in the truck.
Back to the school and a meeting with the director. The Instituto Pedagogico Nacional was to begin teaching its students to teach English as a second language and how could they do it without her?
This April, after 19 years of continuous service, Sabra Nichols de Chavez retired, after 35 years away, it return to the US to live.
Mrs. Chavez is from Marblehead, Mass., received a degree and teaching certificate from Boston University, and met her husband in 1946 in Chicago, returning with him to Lima where they raised three children.
She's enormously proud of her institute of pedagogy, and the day I visited was working with her staff to complete the English examinations to be given to candidates for admission.
First, all those who wish to enter take a general examination, and more than half are often asked not to return for the second battery of tests. The second group of tests are in subject areas; again, many do not pass, and hence will not need to take the English examination.
The few who are selected to study at the institute will spend five years there, practice teaching in both the pilot school on the institute grounds and at nearby public schools serving the lower-income population.
There are no electives as in US colleges, but students may specialize in the areas they expect to teach.
Mrs. Chavez has been able, over the years, to build an English-language library primarily with the help of the Briish consul.
I told her I would be writing of her work and the school and asked what books she needed more of.
She did not hesitate: "We badly need texts and works on phonetics and linguistics. Our collection is very poor in this area."
She also needs and uses multiple copies of english-language texts (as well as novels) for classes of 15 to 20 students.
The school grounds are beautiful -- the main buildings forming an ellipse and flowers everywhere. She took me to a third-floor balcony to look down on a clock made of plants designating the day and date.
Dormitory space is provided for girls who come from outside Lima, but they are expected to go home on weekends or to visit relatives. Religion is a compulsory subject, and the chapel is a beautiful light area with a parquet floor of varied colored Peruvian wood, and the front wall made of Peruvian marble.
I had the day before asked two officials from the Ministry of Education whether Peruvian secondary school students had a choice of a second language for study. They smiled as they said, "Yes, and their choice is English." And for this, I was told by many, a big thanks to Sabra Nichols who made a phone call 19 years ago.