Jack Whitten: Whittens Have a Little Bit of Outlaw in ‘Em

My name is Amanda Whitten. I’m from a small-to-medium town found in northeastern Oklahoma in the USA. I currently live in Madrid, Spain. I don’t meet many people from Oklahoma, or even from the midwest, around here, and I couldn’t tell you why that is. Maybe it’s resources that many Oklahomans lack, or maybe it’s a matter of mindset, but I don’t think that many of us feel like we will ever get to leave unless it’s via the military. Some of us don’t even have the desire to ever do so. Sometimes, I wish I felt that way. Being far from family and friends is not easy, and the part of Oklahoma that my family and I call home is gorgeous. 

I think what allows me to be an exception is that I have a little thing called a Travel Bug (having an emotionally supportive family and a safety net helps, too, of course). It’s a condition that I believe I caught from my paternal grandfather. His name was Jack Whitten. My papa was an exceptional man. I recognize that I say this looking through the lens of familial love and adoration. I really think it’s the truth, though. 

Jack Whitten Origins

Jack whitten and hit wifeWhen he was young, before he met my grandmother, he had an experience that left an impression on him. He upped and left with his family to Oregon to become a logger for the summer. His family left early to go back to Oklahoma, but he stayed on the condition that he would come back when school started. When his dad, my Grandpapa, wrote him a letter telling him come home and finish school, he totally ignored it. Being a young teen, he became accustomed to making money and having freedom. It took a second letter that probably included some strong language and a few threats to get him to return home. He might have hitchhiked all the way back. I’m not sure. The specifics may be fuzzy, but his stories live on inside of me.

Humble Beginnings

His dream was that when he retired, he and my grandmother would take their camper and travel through Canada and Alaska, stopping to fish here and there. It didn’t happen for various reasons. He wanted to go out in style. He wanted to die fighting a grizzly bear. My grandfather died in a nursing home. 

He called me “kid” and “squirt”. He had a very specific dry sense of humor that coincided with mine very well. It was strange, though. I rarely understand other people’s dry senses of humor, but I got his perfectly. He was the wisest person I’ve ever known. He pulled himself and my grandmother out of terrible poverty, and together, they made a comfortable life for themselves. Papa told me that in one of the first places he and Mama lived, the lack of heating and insulation was so terrible that during the winter, a diaper actually froze to the floor.  He was smart financially and had a knack for making the right investments at the right time. 

Jack Whitten

Who He Was

Jack Whitten was honest. When I asked difficult questions, he didn’t shy away from the truth. I asked him about segregation. He told me that at the time he thought it was the natural order of things and that he didn’t want change. I asked him what he had thought about Martin Luther King. He told me that at the time he had thought he was making trouble. My Papa wasn’t a perfect man. In fact, sometimes, he could be downright difficult. He couldn’t be swayed, let alone manipulated. He was a man’s man which came with most of the wonderful pros and cons thereof.

Despite all that, during a time when the majority of people, specifically older people, conservatives and even a lot of progressives, were actively against gay rights, he wasn’t. When I asked him what he thought about gay rights, he said that he didn’t care what people did and that it was their business. I can’t say that he was an ally, but he wasn’t an enemy. Not like the others. He had no poison or vitriol. He was open-minded about the universe and the possibilities concerning religion. I asked him once if he thought that it was possible that humans could have “extra” abilities like clairvoyance. He told me about the time that he had shot his bow and lost an arrow. He had no idea where it went so he closed his eyes and just followed his instinct, and walked right up to his lost arrow.

His Quest for Gathering and Sharing Knowledge

great depressionWhen I had questions, he had advice. He knew the real history and was always wanting to learn. He told me what the Great Depression was like since his dad lived through it. Papa grew up during its after-effects. I remember a story he told about a young boy who stole a handful of flour. I asked if he the child got into trouble for it and thankfully he hadn’t because everyone knew his family was starving. 

When the internet became available, most older folks shied away from computer technology. Papa dived in. He learned all he could. He saw it for what it was: a miracle and a gold mine. Later, when he got Netflix at home and saw all the available documentaries, I’m told that his eyes lit up. I didn’t feel surprised in the least. 

A Vacation

In the summer before my 10th grade, he and Mama took my cousin and me with them on vacation for two weeks. We went to Maine and a few surrounding states. That trip gave me a big taste of travel. I was surprised to see that the countryside in Pennsylvania, New York, Tennessee, and the Virginias was so beautiful. 

The first thing that I remember when I stepped out of the camper in Maine was the smell of pine trees. We got to see Niagara Falls and ride in the Maiden of the Mist boat. We stopped on the way and spent the night in a park in Salisbury, Massachusetts. I made a point of remembering the name because I liked the place so much. The sound of the wind and the smell of the sea at night made an impact on young-me for sure. 

Shaping Who I Became

My grandmother and I got up at 5:00 AM many times to look for seashells when the tide went out at a few of the beaches we visited. One time, my Mama, my cousin and I tried to catch the little crabs, but they kept pinching us so we tossed them back and forth between us, trying to catch them in the folds of our clothes. I feel a little bad for them now, but I also remember our peals of laughter and shrieks of joy. 

Jack Whitten and family

There was no real plan. Papa just drove and where we ended up is where we ended up. It was one of the best times of my life. During this trip, I feel Papa made a definitive impact on my personality. When Mama asked me to cut a cantaloupe, I must have been feeling a little lazy, selfish, or even afraid of using a large knife. I told them that I’d do it when I was twenty. I don’t know what kind of logic that was. Papa said, “If you won’t do it now, you won’t do it when you’re twenty.” I felt unbelievably embarrassed and, of course, I cut it up for everyone. He didn’t slap me or get angry. He just used his logic and words to make an impact. 

Dealing With the Loss of Jack Whitten

Papa died about three months after I arrived in Spain. After that, I imagined him with me in spirit. I wondered if he would get to experience my travels through me. I think he would have made the perfect traveling companion. There is a part of me, perhaps a selfish, egocentric part, that believes that he died because I left. I don’t mean that my leaving had an overwhelmingly negative effect on him. Quite the opposite. 

I told him something that we aren’t supposed to tell people. I told him that I wasn’t ready for him to die — that I needed him in my life. This was when his cancer was starting to get a little more serious. There’s this part of me that believes that he let go because he knew that I was finally going to accomplish my dreams and carry on for him in a way. It’s more likely that the timing was a coincidence. He was a survivor until the end, and he fought tooth and nail for every scrap of life that he had. There were times at my lowest that I wished that I could have gifted him the remaining years of my life. He wanted to live so badly.

Jack Whitten Lives On

a big fish

His love of travel and adventure lives on through me and many others in the family. Also inside of me is a quality that I’m not quite sure how to name. I have, in my opinion, the ability to see any avenue, no matter how minuscule, that may lead to any given goal of mine. I have the urge and wherewithal to follow it, full steam ahead (with the exception of giving up chocolate and cheese. Luckily, I got that from him, too. Thanks, Papa! Haha!). And one time, he told me that what he liked about me was my curiosity and my desire to learn about history, for example. I definitely think that we shared that trait. 

Jack Whitten left his intelligence and knack for survival instincts to my uncle. My sister joined the Navy when she was seventeen. I think he gave her boldness and inner strength that I may never quite possess. He left his talent for good advice and honesty in my father. I see him everywhere I go. When I see tobacco pipes in the Madrid shops, I remember the smell and I feel a twinge of regret for not having bought him one when I had the chance.

When the sun rises and I feel the cool morning air, I think of when I was a little girl. After staying the night at my grandparents’ house, I would get up to sit in his lap and we would watch the sunrise together. When someone tells a dry joke that I don’t get, I can’t help but think that he was funnier and would have delivered it better. When I’m traveling to a new place, I know that even though it may not have been his preferred destination, I still think he would approve. Jack Whitten wasn’t a perfect person, but he was a perfect grandfather.

by Amanda Whitten

Teaching English in Madrid and Extremadura

by Tyler Black

tyler black travelerTeaching English in Spain can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life. It certainly was for me. However, there are a lot of factors to consider to ensure you don’t leave Spain with a bad taste in your mouth (school type, age level, English level, etc). One important thing to keep in mind, though, is the location. I’m not talking about north versus south, east versus west, or island versus mainland. I’m referring to big city versus small town or pueblo. 

During my first year in Spain, I taught at two schools in a town called Badajoz in the autonomous community of Extremadura. After a very eye-opening year, I decided I needed a bit of change. I spent the following year teaching English at a school in Madrid. I knew there would be some differences between a town and a big city, but what I experienced superseded all expectations. Thankfully, I didn’t mind the changes too much because I consider myself a very open-minded person. Nonetheless, it’s important to know the differences in order to find something that best suits your preferences. I can’t speak for every region’s towns and villages, but I imagine they’re all relatively similar.

Number of Schools

In Badajoz, there were a good amount of schools in the town and surrounding villages, but only a handful of teachers assigned to the area. Because of this, it was very common for teachers to have multiple schools. One of my schools was a private institution in the heart of the town’s historic quarter, only a few blocks from where I lived. The other was a public primary school in a village just outside Badajoz called Gévora.

I enjoyed teaching at different schools a lot because each day I got a refreshing change of environment. On one day, I would walk through town and enjoy the old architecture with an occasional stop for coffee. On another, I would wait for one of my Spanish coworkers to pick me up and drive me to the village outside of town. It was very common for a fellow teacher to take me to those farther-out schools so I didn’t have to rely on public transportation. 


Public Transportation While Teaching English in Madrid

In Madrid, things are a bit different. Although there are a lot of schools, there are also a ton of teachers assigned to the city. Chances are that your school will be very far away from where you choose to reside. But that’s okay! Madrid’s (and most of Spain’s larger cities’) public transportation is one of the best in the world. My school was located in Alcalá de Henares, about forty minutes outside the city. At first, I dreaded the thought of making that commute everyday. Fortunately, I very quickly began to enjoy waking up with the city as I took the city bus into Alcalá. Instead of rolling out of bed and groggily walking three blocks to my school in Badajoz, I could now let the commute give me a chance to physically and mentally prepare myself by the time classes started.

Curriculum and Responsibilities for Cambridge English Exams

Cambridge English examsBeing the capital of Spain, Madrid’s schools focus very heavily on preparing their students for the Cambridge English exams at the request of the government. I imagine the other major cities in the country do the same. For those who don’t know what the Cambridge Exams are, Cambridge University administers an annual test at schools so that students can earn a certificate proving a certain English level. There are six levels ranging from the lowest skill level to the most advanced: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, and C2.

When teaching English in Madrid, you’ll be responsible for preparing your students for the exam that correlates with the age group or grade. Although the exam at the end of the year was very stressful for me as I prayed I had instructed my students well enough to pass, it was very comforting to know throughout the year what each day would look like: just get the students ready for their certifications.

My first year in Badajoz was vastly different. Although there were one or two higher end schools in town that participated in the Cambridge Exam, the large majority did not have the funds to do so. Therefore my role in day-to-day class was very variable. In the private school in Badajoz’s historic district, I was in charge of creating an activity pertaining to that week’s lesson. One example was when the class was learning about cities like London and New York City. I stood in front of the class and called on students to read a paragraph in their textbook. Afterwards, I asked them questions about what they had read in order to garner discussion. Lastly, to make things more fun, I let the students choose five vocabulary words and draw them in their notebooks. 

students in madrid

No Teaching Background, No Problem

I won’t lie, it was very stressful at first, especially since I didn’t have any teaching background or any idea how to lead a group of children. To say it was daunting is an understatement. But after a couple of months, I discovered many online resources that greatly aided me. I figured out what worked and what didn’t. Don’t let challenges like this dissuade you. You’ll learn very valuable skills along the way.

In my primary school in the village of Gévora, things were a tad bit simpler. The professor led the class the majority of the time, and I was only there to correct grammar and pronunciation mistakes. As you can see, each school can bring a different experience in smaller towns since they don’t have the government breathing down their necks. They have more freedom with directing your role as an auxiliar in the classroom. Depending on your past experiences or preferences, the challenge of a small town might intrigue you rather than teaching English in Madrid where things are more structured and concrete.

teaching in Madrid

Expectations and Relationships of Teaching English in Madrid

Your relationship with the staff and their expectations of you will be a complete 180 between larger cities like Madrid and smaller towns. In Badajoz and Gévora, I found the staff to be very laid-back. Obviously I was expected to arrive on time and perform the tasks that I was assigned. However, if I was ever feeling under the weather, I could shoot a text to one of the teachers letting them know I wouldn’t be in, and that was that. Filming your students on your phone and taking selfies with them was not uncommon, either. It made things more personable. 

In Madrid, if I called off, I was expected to bring a valid doctor’s excuse the following day or risk not being paid. Luckily, I’m not one to get sick very often, but it would have been nice to take a mental health day now and then. At this particular school, cell phone use was a big no-no. No videos or pictures of the students were allowed unless under special circumstances.

Towns and Villages Throughout Spain

In towns and villages throughout Spain, there’s a good chance that you’ll be the only English assistant at your school. I found the teachers to be very accommodating and willing to integrate me with the rest of the staff. I was invited to school events, holiday dinners, and even the occasional night out for drinks. One teacher even took me into Portugal for the day with her husband. It was great for me because I really wanted to improve my Spanish and be integrated into the Spanish lifestyle. I still keep in touch with a couple of my fellow teachers from Badajoz to this day.

teachers abroad

On the other hand, when teaching English in Madrid, you’ll most likely work with a few other English assistants. At my school, we had five assistants. Because of this, we tended to congregate near each other in the breakroom instead of interacting with the other teachers. Furthermore, because we were in a big city, many of the other teachers all lived in different areas of the community. Depending on the school, there may not be any holiday dinners, nights out, or friendly excursions with the Spanish teachers. Although it was relieving to vent in English to the other assistants about my day, I truly did miss the authentic Spanish relationships I made in Badajoz.

Private Classes


Private classes, or “clases particulares,” are a very common way to earn a little extra cash on the side. But like everything else I’ve mentioned, you’ll notice some stark differences between large cities and small towns. In towns like Badajoz, you’ll find that most families will likely pay you €10 for an hour of class. That doesn’t seem like much (and it really isn’t), but the thing to remember is that word travels fast. You may only have one class a week, but eventually that family will tell their friends about you. And that next family will tell their friends. And the cycle will continue. At one point I had about nine private classes a week. Just be careful. Money is great, but don’t burn yourself out. Free time is important. After all, you’re in a foreign country. Take advantage of that.

When you offer private English classes in Madrid, your starting rate will be around €20 an hour. I can already feel your eyes getting wide. As they should! You can make a pretty penny if you plan your classes right. Here’s the downside though: classes are hard to come by in the big cities. I had to rely on websites like tusclasesparticulares.com and milanuncios.com to get in touch with families. Word of mouth did not exist. Furthermore, your travel time between classes will be greater than in a small town. It’s difficult to accept many offers if they don’t fit both parties’ schedules. However, like I said earlier, if you’re able to strategically plan your schedule, you can walk away each week with a nice supplemental income on top of the government stipend you receive.

Teaching English in Madrid is Worth It

Feliz navidadNo matter which type of location you choose, there’s going to be pros and cons. In order to make the best of your experience teaching English in Spain, you must align your preferences with those pros and cons. There’s a lot more that goes into it than just your monthly salary (for those that are curious, teaching English in Madrid pays €1,000/month and everywhere else pays €600). This will be a once in a lifetime opportunity for you. Make sure you do your due diligence. I was fortunate enough to have an amazing experience in a small town and in a large city. However, I do know people who didn’t enjoy their time in Spain because they were unaware of what each location offered. Be smart and resourceful, and you’ll walk away with a life-changing and unforgettable adventure.

These experiences are based on the schools and locations I taught at. There are always going to be different situations anywhere you go. There could be small towns where only English teachers congregate in the breakroom, and there might be schools in Madrid where Spanish teachers integrate you into the Spanish lifestyle. Perhaps there may be a school in a small town with multiple English assistants, and only a couple in Madrid. Just know that whatever situation you find yourself in, it will be well worth it!