English Teacher’s Interesting Past and Her Optimistic Future

English and film teacher Susana Herrera is a former member of the Peace Corps, a mother of two children and an aspiring screenwriter. Despite a multitude of obstacles, Herrera has gone through life with vigor and optimism.

Herrera started her life in New York, but when she was seven her parents got divorced. Most of her early childhood years were spent with her younger brother and mother in Fremont, California. During her freshman year of high school, Herrera moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, to live with her father. Growing up, Herrera had a very spiritual lifestyle; her mother was Catholic while her father was a Buddhist, Carthusian and Trappist monk.

“I never really was a kid,” Herrera said. “At four years old, I was doing meditation and being quiet in monasteries.”
However, she faced many difficulties at home. Herrera’s Native American grandparents and her mother were alcoholics while her dad was severely bipolar.

“My dad was able to function for a large period of time,” Herrera said. “When he was dysfunctional, he was very emotionally challenging.”

Herrera went on a spiritual journey at age 14 when she shaved her head and decided to join a Soto-Zen Buddhist monastery while also doubling as a Catholic school girl. The public school system in New Orleans was subpar at the time, and most students attended Catholic private schools if they had the means to.

“I noticed that the Catholics did not appreciate my shaved head,” Herrera said. “They didn’t appreciate my questioning anything the New Testament said.”

Herrera’s stay at the monastery was cut short when her stepfather passed away. She moved back with her mother, who had relocated to Santa Cruz, California. Six months later, her dad took his own life on Herrera’s 16th birthday.

“My dad’s death makes me really think about my birthday in a different way,” Herrera said. “It’s a celebration of my birth, but it’s also understanding that life is this crazy circle. Like the Buddhists believe, we’re born, we die; we’re born, we die. It’s not something to be taken for granted. Everyday is a gift.”

During high school, Herrera became depressed and contemplated suicide. But with the compassion of her high school teachers, Herrera began healing over her dad’s death. Herrera now tries to live optimistically.

“I think my childhood was the best experience I could have had as a child because… it really made me become very much a helper, and very focused on understanding human emotion,” Herrera said.

Although Herrera can find the silver lining in her childhood now, as a young woman, she struggled to cope with the situation. To take her thoughts away from her family life, after graduating from U.C. Santa Cruz majoring in American and English Literature, Herrera embarked on a two year and three month adventure in Africa. There, she joined the Peace Corps in Northern Cameroon and taught students English as a second language.

“Africa seemed like the most exotic place in the world at that time for me,” Herrera said. “I wanted to be a volunteer in the world…a teacher and I really wanted to get as far away from home as possible.”

After her trip to Africa, Herrera started seriously pursuing her teaching career. Herrera had a temporary teaching credential from the Peace Corps, and using that credential, she taught middle school while taking classes in the evenings to get her official credentials. Her first teaching post was at Santa Clara High School; in 1999, she started teaching here.

In addition to a new teaching career, Herrera also created a family. Herrera married at the age of 18, but she divorced five years later. Her marriage with her current husband, however, has been going strong for 17 and a half years.

“I was lucky enough to find Prince Charming,” Herrera said. “He was not royalty… I was just lucky enough to find one of the kindest, funniest, handsomest human beings in the world, and he’s got the biggest heart.”

Herrera has two kids; Nathaniel is eight and Emma is three. Nathaniel became very sick with Myoclonic-Astatic Epilepsy when he was four, and he had uncontrollable seizures for six months. Nathaniel was in and out of the hospital and was at times on five different seizure medicines. Doctors feared that he would either die young or be mentally disabled.

“Nathaniel’s illness was…the worst experience of my life,” Herrera said. “It was heartbreaking to see my son have seizure after seizure, back-to-back for 24 hours, he didn’t have any consciousness.”

While Nathaniel’s sickness progressed, Herrera was losing hope for a recovery for her son, but her husband helped her through this time.

“My husband and I decided to make the most of the time that we had, and just to love him as much as we can, because falling into despair and depression was not going to help him get better,” Herrera said.

As the family prayed that Nathaniel would outgrow his epilepsy, Herrera realized an important life philosophy one day, when she distracted herself from Nathaniel’s situation and watched television. One of her favorite movies, “Lord of the Rings,” was playing that day.

“[Gandalf] is such a powerful force of positive thinking in that whole movie,” Herrera said. “When Frodo says ‘I wish this ring never happened,’ Gandalf says, ‘So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for us to decide. What is to decide is what to do with the time that’s been given to us.’ That really is the bumper sticker for my life. That really was the big game changer for me.”

Herrera’s prayers were answered when Nathaniel’s condition improved. He has been seizure free for a little more than three years now.

“The difficult experiences in life make us who we are,” Herrera said. “The happy moments are great, but really, when you find out who you are and what you’re made of, it’s when horrible things happen.”

Herrera also attributes her success to her mentors, including teachers that helped her during her depression after her father died.

“Honestly, the teachers saved my life,” Herrera said. “Now I’m a teacher, so it’s like I’m paying it back in a lot of ways. I’m about the long-term relationship. Just because someone leaves your classroom doesn’t mean that [he or she is] not my student anymore. It’s an open door.”

At a young age, Herrera knew she wanted to be an author and a playwright. In 1999, she published her first book, “Mango, Elephants in the Sun,” which talks about her time in Africa. Currently, Herrera is writing another book about overcoming her rough childhood that has been in the works for the last 14 years.

“Writing my second book has been like a 14-year birthing experience where you’re in pain and contractions, yet there’s the flutters and the kicks of the baby, and there’s a lot of joy but it’s been probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to write,” Herrera said.

Herrera’s life today is the result of her past, as she has undergone a 45 year metamorphosis into the person that students know today.

“Whatever it is that we’re going through, what we really want is just to feel love for ourselves and for other people, and to feel love back,” Herrera said. “It’s really very simple.”