First week back at school, 1964.
Eighth grade at Catonsville Junior High School was already a little weird. We weren’t the youngest kids in the school, so that was good news. But we weren’t the oldest kids in the school, so that still seemed a little dangerous.
I have had a lifelong conflict with change, so anything new was unsettling at best.
What happened next, still amazes me 57 years later.
One sunny morning in September I walked through the door of my Spanish II class for the first time and was immediately struck by the décor. The walls were festooned with oversized bullfighting posters, splashes of impressionist's colors with large print announcing the matadors and dates of engagement. As I slowly surveyed the room, I realized that one name was repeated on every poster, whether the venue was España, México, Colombia, or Panama. The name was Matador Mario Carrion.
After the normal confusion and buzz that accompanied each new class...who’s here, who’s not, wow your hair looks weird, how was summer, I heard you broke up, a silence fell over the room as a short, Hispanic-looking dude, all of 140 pounds with short-cropped black hair, strode in, stood at the front of the room, and announced:
“Buenos dias. Me llamo Señor Mario Carrion.”
It took a minute for that to sink in. Bullfighting posters announcing the career of a world-famous matador. This little guy standing at the front of our class. No way. This is a joke. There must be some mistake.
On that first day, I don’t honestly remember how he conveyed that yes, our new Spanish II teacher was in fact a former matador. But as the days and weeks wore on, the unlikely truth would sink in.
Mario Carrion was born in Seville, Spain in 1933, three years before the Spanish Civil War. The son of a ‘military man” in Franco’s army, his family knew hard times as he was growing up. Inspired and taught by an uncle and two older cousins, his dream was to enter the ring and perfect the art of torero. He entered as a novitiate or novillero in Tangiers in 1952 and eventually rose to the full rank of alternativo in 1955. He went on to become a world-renowned matador.
Love led him to the States when he met and married a woman from Catonsville, MD and agreed to retire and take up a career in education. He learned the English language in community college and received a four-year degree in education from the University of Maryland. His first teaching job was at Catonsville Junior High and on his first day of teaching, this world-famous hero was standing at the front of my Spanish II classroom.
Maryland had taught him education theory. We taught him the facts. I remember it being a rough ride. His English language skills and accent immediately became the source of humor and middle school ridicule. In the language lab, he would ask us to remember to put our chairs under our “boots” (aka booths) before we left, and he never did get the hang of putting the headset microphone in front of his mouth before speaking to us (it stuck straight over his head in the air as he shouted “attenciòn, attenciòn”).
I don’t know how much Spanish we learned that year, but we learned a lot about bull fighting. Señor Carrion brought in his capote de brega (the cape used in the early phase of the fight), his muleta (the red cloth that conceals the sword), and his traje de luces or “suit of lights” (suit of gold, silver, and silk worn by the matador in the ring.) These elaborate costumes take months to fabricate and cost thousands of dollars. The expression “dressed to kill” traces its roots to these clothes.
The day that Señor Carrion brought in his traje de luces, we all lined up to lift it and some tried on the jacket. We were amazed by the weight. They average 15 to 20 pounds. The heat. The summer dust. The charging bull. It was hard to place ourselves in that arena. It was hard to imagine the courage that this little man carried with him into the artistry of the sport.
Ernest Hemingway, an afficionado of torero wrote, “Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter’s honor.”
Señor Carrion never brought his swords to school. When he showed black and white films of his career, we never saw the kill. I don’t remember any discussions about the controversial parts of the sport. I do remember trying to reconcile his courage with his kindness. He was gentle and caring and that always came through.
I smile when I think of the day that I returned to my Junior High School before venturing off to college. There were just a handful of teachers who I sought out on that afternoon visit in 1968. Mario Carrion was one of those people.
I knocked on the door of his classroom and he immediately jumped up and welcomed me in. As we started to talk, he began rustling around in his desk, clearly searching for something. A book? A paper? A souvenir perhaps? No, he finally located in the back of his top drawer a crumpled box of Luden’s.
“Like a cough drop?” he asked. Ever the most socially awkward man I had met, he was consistent to the end. Kind, but consistent.
Mario Carrion has retired from teaching and lives with his wife in Charlestown Retirement Village in Catonsville MD. He has been discovered as a local celebrity and has been featured in the Baltimore Sun and other publications. He is 88 years old.