School has started. The first day of school, not just for our visiting family but for all the Tico kids since they’re just coming off break and starting the new year. We’ve been (read: I’ve been) nervous for this first day, feeling like I’m throwing my homeschoolers under the bus. We’re teaching at home—you’re going to school—we’re homeschoolers—not we’re school kids—you can wear your bunny slippers—wait, wear this uniform. I was convinced I was confusing them and guiding them haphazardly on a crooked line and being about as clear as a mountain misted over in fog.
But, at the end of the day (literally, at the end of THIS day), the whole story turned into a fairy tale with a happy ending.
Meltdown (Mine, Not the Chica’s)
Friday was the first day of preschool for our little nina, Addy, so the whole family walked her the 20 minutes to the jardin de ninos. When we got there, we waited in a group of parents and kids at the gate. When it was our turn, la directora (the principal) saw us and said, “Hola, Addy!” and another woman took our 4-year-old’s hand and led her in. And that was that. I only got a chance for a hurried goodbye before it was time to reluctantly step aside and let the next nino through the gate.
Whoooosh. That was the sound of the wind coming out of my sails.
As the family walked away from the school, I hung back, glancing over my shoulder at the gate, just to make sure Addy didn’t bust through, arms waving wildly, calling me to come back and take her home. But she didn’t come out. All I could think was how she’d said to me the night before, with a note of awe in her voice, “I can’t believe I’m going to preschool! In a FOREIGN country!” At the time, she’d been plucky and courageous, excited to start a new adventure. But now I pictured her bright face, subdued a bit as she was swept along in the tide of well-intentioned nursery workers whisking her in to the fun and frolicking inside the gate. As I walked away, hot tears stabbed at the back of my eyes. How could I do it? How could I let her go to preschool IN A FOREIGN COUNTRY?
The rest of the family noticed mommy was lagging and stopped to check on me. “It’s okay. They have our phone numbers, right? She’ll be okay. She’ll be okay, right?” I was clearly babbling, wanting someone to tell me I was doing the right thing, that I was setting her up for life by giving her this experience at age 4. I wanted the solidness of my husband’s hug and the reassurance of his words. I needed to remember the reason we are here: to immerse in the culture and learn as much of the Spanish language as we can. To make friends with the locals. To understand, as well as we’re able, another culture different from our own. And I also needed to remember that this is a lesson—a tough love lesson—in how magical a life can be when, at least occasionally, you live outside of your comfort zone. Addy herself, dauntless little lady that she is, had pretty much begged us to let her go to school. She wanted to make friends. She wanted to make artwork. And she wanted to play on the awesome play equipment the school featured. She was young, yes. Too young to worry.
As the five of us walked back toward downtown, I began to feel a little better. I’m sure Addy was already having a blast and here I was, licking imagined wounds, missing my girl. Laura and I left the boys downtown to shop for jeans (pronounced “yeens”) for school and then walked up the hill to our house. When they got back, they tried their jeans on for me and were immediately transformed into handsome, young Ticos, albeit blonde ones. At 12 and 13, they looked slender, healthy, and amazingly happy in their yeens. And mature. I wondered if the Ticas in school would swoon.
Lessons in Life, Learned at a Tender Age
The morning flew by and soon it was time to pick Addy up. Kevin and I took the journey once again to the school. When we arrived, the other parents were huddled under the only tree on the block. (Mental note: get there early if you don’t want to melt.) Nobody was outwardly friendly toward us but no one was curiously staring, either. As it approached the dismissal time, everyone grouped around the gate once again and the teachers brought the kids out one by one. When the crowd died back a bit, la directora saw us and called to Addy, who was out of sight. She called three or four times but… no Addy. Finally, we saw an older woman walking with her, holding Addy’s backpack. When they got close, the woman helped Addy put her backpack on and then leaned down to Addy’s eye level and pointed us out with a smile. Addy took one look at us and got choked up. She started walking toward us, and then began to run, looking weepier as she got closer. I got a picture of her as she came running and every time I look at it, I get all choked up once again.
She ran into Kevin’s arms, snuggled her face into his neck, and that’s when the tears really started. The middle-aged woman who had helped her, and who spoke very good English, walked up to us and said that Addy was such a sweet girl and she was so glad to spend time with her today. She gave Addy a hug and a kiss and said she’d see her Monday. It was an emotional family moment and we very much appreciated her compassion and kindness. The funny thing about the woman was she looked exactly like a kind soul named Ginny we’d known in Belize so it was as though we already knew her.
Addy’s second day was today and she must have listened to Bob Marley when he crooned, “No woman, no cry. She “shed no tears.” Just like that—yep, I’m good mom. School in a foreign country? Check. She even got a Valentine from a secret admirer. Apparently some kid named Lucciano wants to be my future son-in-law.
Welcome to the New Millennium
Today was Addy’s second day at preschool but also the first day of school for our older kids. Andy, who is in 8th grade in (shall I say?) ‘real life’ was put into the 7th grade. Brenny is a 7th grader but was put into 5th grade (I think they made a mistake there, but oh well, the kids seem to be his age). And Laura is a 4th grader but was put in 3rd grade. I think la directora of the school thought to make it easier for them since everything (except English class) is taught in Spanish and our kids have only a little Spanish at this point.
We got up today at 5:30 and left the house at 6:40. School starts at 7, early but isn’t a shocker since the roosters are crowing at 3:30 a.m. and the whole town is completely alive and bustling by 6 a.m. every single day. Someone told me your internal clock shifts here because we are so close to the equator. I’m not sure if there’s anything to that theory, but people definitely get up early and quiet down relatively early, too.
When we dropped the kids off today, parents and school kids moved around with purpose. Everyone seemed to know where to go. It was obvious that the lists of kids’ names were posted outside each classroom. But it seemed like a silly idea to walk around and read every list, looking for our names, so we just went to the office to report. But, when we got there, they said (in Spanish) to just go out and wait. Apparently, they meant someone would see us and help us, which is what happened. Pura Vida. The high school chemistry teacher, Eduardo, ended up asking us if we needed help and then walked around with each of our kids and helped them find their classroom. After that, all the classes met in what I guess you would call the auditorium, although it was open-air, for the beginning assembly.
Eduardo said good-bye to Kevin and me and gave us his phone number, in case we had any questions at all about the school. That was a nice touch and helped us feel very comfortable. We also bumped into our friend, Geovanny, one of the English teachers at the school and the guy who originally suggested we send the kids there.
As we waited for la directora to come forward to speak, Kevin ran Addy over to the preschool since she starts at 7:15. He came back from doing that and the assembly was just starting. As the principal gave the talk that probably every principal in the world gives on the first day of school, my mind drifted and my eyes wandered around the huge covered space. The parents, especially the ladies, were all dressed to the hilt. I, in my rugged Merrill sneakers, capris, tank, and wet-hair pony tail had nothing on these Central American hotties who were all hair, nails, tight yeens, make-up, and stiletto heels. I don’t know how they do it. It was 88 here today, so yeens would make me overheat in about three minutes and I’d throw up on the sidewalk while walking the two miles to wherever I need to be. Maybe I’m just a sweaty, overheating kind of person, I don’t know. And the stilettos on these often broken-up, straight-uphill sidewalks? Again, I don’t know how they do it.
Seriously, so many Ticos are truly beautiful people. But it’s more about how sweet and friendly they are than the clothes they wear. But that’s a story for another day.
I snapped my attention back to la directora to see if her spiel sounded any more interesting at this point. No. Just then, though, she motioned to the music teacher, who put on the national anthem at typical eardrum-melting, Central American volume, and everyone sang along with gusto! I got shivers. It’s not even my country! Plus, I didn’t know what they were singing!
Then she turned the mike over to the music teacher, who sang a song of his own, karaoke-style, looking at his laptop. I’m not sure what the song was about but it was quite clear, even though I couldn’t understand what he was singing, that he was feeling awkward. Human emotion is universal and nerves were rising off him in waves. Still, he valiantly finished the Latin American rock opera and took a little bow as the assembly clapped. He muttered, “Gracias,” and that was that.
Back to la directora. Next, she began the laborious process of introducing each and every one of the 20 or so maestros or maestras (teachers) who all wear a uniform—a white, button-down shirt and skin-tight black pants. Most of the women teachers wore stilettos, although the practical ones settled on 3-inch platforms. The teachers seemed like a nice bunch and, although very professional, they joked around with each other as la directora kept going on about… well, whatever she was going on about.
One thing came up that made all the kids groan. Something about papas. I’m not sure what she could have said about potatoes that would make them groan. Maybe she was warning them not to BE potatoes? Maybe she was telling them there was a potato shortage and not everyone could HAVE potatoes? I might never know.
After that, she began the slow and laborious process of dismissing every grade, one by one. As Laura’s grade walked by, I snapped a photo. She didn’t even see me. Then Brenny walked by, taller than his class and looking extremely nervous. He didn’t see me snap his photo, either, like the obsessive mother that I am. Andy didn’t walk past because he went the other direction.
Once my kids were on the way to their respective classrooms, their own days, their lives completely separate from mine (WAAAAAA), I turned to Kevin with more tears in my eyes. “Let’s go get some coffee, kid,” he said. And so we went.
The Gringo Rock Stars
Kevin went to get the little one at noon and I took my turn tromping down the hill to get the older kids at 2:20. I stood in a mass of parents, scanning the kids coming out. I knew I’d see mine right away. And, sure enough, Laura appeared, like a glowing golden angel, her hair and eyes shining and a big smile on her face. She ran to me and started bubbling about what a great day she had and all the friends she made and what she had for lunch, etc. She told me she saw the boys at recess and they seemed to be doing well and Brenny told her he had five girlfriends already. Laura had witnessed one girl looking at Brenny and fanning herself, giggling with her girlfriends.
After a few minutes, the boys sauntered up with I’m-too-cool-for-school smiles on their faces. I sensed I wasn’t supposed to talk to them in public so I kept my comments brief. “Are you ready to go?” “Do you want to stop for school supplies?” After we got away from the crowd, however, all three kids talked over each other in their excitement about their day. Everybody had ten stories they wanted to share with me. Besides feeling redeemed in my role as Mama Bear, it was amazing for their own sakes. They were Gringo Rock Stars. The Tico kids were extremely kind to them, even to the point of Laura dropping her back pack on the ground, spilling some papers, and a girl diving across the floor to pick them up for her. And a girl swooned at Brenny, saying, “I like your eyes,” and her friend echoed, “Me, too.” Brenny was coolly nonchalant. All that was missing was the pair of mirrored sunglasses. He chuckled in the telling of this story, saying, “I don’t have great eyes. It’s just that they’re not brown.” A lesson in how being different can be very cool. The funny part is the maestra de inglaise told her classes that they should “take advantage of Andy and Brenny,” meaning, of course, that the students should practice their English with our boys, but…
So, even though the mama bear was muy nervioso, apparently she had no reason to be. The kids seem to have been accepted into Nuevo Milenio eagerly and warmly. Andy even asked if we could extend our trip. They didn’t understand everything in Spanish, but I’m not concerned about the particulars. If all they do is learn to respect this lovely culture and its lovely people, as well as learn a good foundation of Spanish, I think the two months at this school will have been well worth it. It’s a new age, a new millennium, for sure. And during this new age, I want my kids to know that they haven’t just read about other people in other cultures—they’ve met them. And they’re not just handed random facts about the world—they have been given the world.