Spanish Homework

A few weeks ago R and I decided to experiment by slowing down our journey, settling in one spot, and sending Coconut and J to school to immerse them in Spanish in hopes that they will learn the language. For R and me this arrangement has been great, and it is with mixed emotions that we contemplate our departure from San Felipe this weekend. We are excited to ramble on to new places for sure, but the stability of knowing where we are when we wake up each morning has been nice. Despite the shades of the life we left, a washing machine, for example, so I generally only wear a shirt two consecutive days before I put it in the wash, whether it needs it or not, we mostly have our time free to spend as we please. Someone asked recently when was the last time we had all this time to do nothing, and it was a hard question to answer - we had to think back over about three decades to high school. That’s a long time to do something that someone else wants you to do - not that we were living for someone else, necessarily, but our time wasn’t always our own like it mostly is here. But what about the kids? Someone suggested that I give their perspective on this experiment, and, through interviews done during the course of several dinners, I can now relate their thoughts, and my analysis of the lab results. In short - success! - though, it’s hard to see that at first.

School starts at 7:50. That means the whining and protests start about twelve hours earlier, when Coconut and J are getting ready for bed. This is routine for J, no matter in what country the school is located or in which language the lessons are taught. After his first day of kindergarten in Alexandria, he bemoaned the fact that he had 12 more years before graduation. The kid is forward thinking, “When can I retire?” he asked then, and I think he is still looking forward to that day - he will probably want me to organize a game of football with his friends to celebrate.

Coconut has always been a good and responsible student. Whether that discipline is derived from a  resignation that she has no choice but to go to school, or from a genuine enjoyment of learning and structure, she won't say, but we haven’t needed to resort to the same bribes with her to get her up in the morning that we use with J. She just does what she has to.

It takes us about twenty minutes to walk to the school, but for whatever reason, lately J has been dilly-dallying in the morning, so R and Coconut will leave as scheduled and J and I will have to jog/walk to make it before the bell rings. Despite our reputation, we do believe timeliness is an admirable thing and are trying to encourage Coconut and J in that direction. It is especially relevant in this case as the school charges 60 pesos each time a student arrives late, and a bit more if a parent is not there on-time for after school pick-up. We have heard other schools charge for these infractions as well, so this might be one way Mexican schools teach the important life-skill of being on time for your appointments. We’ve all been trying hard to be on time - money, especially saving money, motivates all of us - and we have yet to incur a fine. Go, us!

The school building is a two-story cement rectangle inside a larger walled compound with four or five classrooms on each floor. In front of the classrooms is a basketball court where the students gather for calisthenics first thing in the morning after the bell rings. It’s interesting because when we were in Zihua on Mexican Independence day, the celebratory parade down main street (main street is usually called Calle Hidalgo in Mexico, after Miguel Hidalgo, the Mexican priest who called the peasants to arms against the Spanish in 1810) consisted mainly of students from the various local schools marching along in military formation. Morning calisthenics seems right in line with that discipline, but J says about this routine that the teachers take okay songs and ruin them with their dance moves.

When the kids get back to the classroom after warm-ups, there is ten minutes of individual reading. I think Coconut and J often extend this time unilaterally because they have both read a lot of books while we have been in San Felipe and I never see them reading when we are at home. Coconut says she can't tell when there is a subject change because everything is in Spanish so she doesn’t know what they do all day - and I don’t think the teacher stops her if she chooses to keep her nose in her novel. There are a couple of English speakers in the class (which has mostly ninth graders in it), but Coconut hasn’t really connected with them as far as R and I can tell. She’s rather introverted and it must be exhausting to be the new kid and try to understand what the heck is going on when you don’t get the language, never mind trying to make friends.

Coconut studied Mandarin in Alexandria last year, and one of the things R and I were hopeful for was that she could keep those studies up this year because she really seemed to enjoy it. However, we don’t speak Mandarin, I barely speak English after 8 p.m., and Coconut hasn’t been self-motivated enough to take advantage of the online opportunities we could set her up with. It’s tough, and maybe someday she can get back to it, but right now it’s a great opportunity for her to learn Spanish. We think she has picked up some of the language, reinforcing the individual lessons she had in Puerto Escondido in October, but she can also be stubborn and not forthcoming with what she has learned, so we don’t know exactly where she is.

J’s Spanish has improved. When we are out I often look to him to translate what people are telling me and he is getting less shy about talking to people. He even ordered dinner for us the other night at our favorite taco stand. He made a friend at school named Diego, who is a really nice kid, and ridiculously smart, and it justified our planting a flag here when they were playing together - sword fighting with bamboo poles apparently being a universal language - but Diego’s newborn brother has been having heart issues so Diego has been out of school a lot, and may even have enrolled in a school in Mexico City for the rest of the year because the family is spending so much time up there with doctors.

Anyway, back to the school day. Lunch is at 9:50am. I pack a bagged lunch for them, but they like to buy the popcorn with chili powder at the cafeteria - what popcorn is doing on a lunch menu served before 10 a.m., I don't know - but this is something they both agree on, and sometimes I think they even share with each other, so we will give them money to buy it. I think it is ten pesos a bag - cheap.

Both Coconut and J like English class - there is a teacher with a guitar who makes up songs and one of them is about the days of the week and includes the chorus scooby-do-bee-do-bee-do-bee-do-bee-do, which you have to admit is pretty catchy. On some days, J has French class so he has learned to count to ten (though, he doesn’t know how to say ‘eight’) and say a few other words. His favorite subject is physical education - gym class. He’s been named the best “mini-goalie” during recess soccer games by the ninth-graders. One day Coconut played volleyball for almost four hours with a basketball. Her forearms were really sore the next day, but R and I are hoping that it is things like that they are going to remember, and fondly, even if they can’t remember when to use the verb “ser” and when to use “estar”.