Friday, January 19, 2007

A Surprise Solution

Another morning off to a bad start as Allison cries and pleads not to be sent to school. She's really quite heartbreaking, but I am determined to be firm and make her go. After all, how bad can it be? She made it through a semester here last year though she was only six and not fully aware of herself. After six months back home, including a partial semester at a well-appointed American elementary school, I imagine she sees Colegio Calafia as draconian in comparison. At seven she is better developed in reasoning and all week long I have been made the victim of it. "How could a mother be so cruel?" she cried. "You don't know how terrible it is. You don't have to sit there all day. Please don't make me go"

So today I tried sitting there for at least an hour. I deposited her to her seat up front and looked for a place for myself in back. Good news for me that one or two of the thirty students were absent leaving me a vacant desk to squeeze into. The teacher was late to arrive. A young assistant stood up front doing nothing more than waiting while the children hollered and jumped about. Many of them had long sticks (I assumed brought for some craft project) that they were flaying about poised to take an eye out. The assistant seemed not to notice. Finally, the teacher appeared and instantly the children stood at attention to recite a greeting to her before resuming their rambunctious activities. She called for no order for several minutes while she prepared herself. Then she went to the dry erase board (a recent improvement from last year's chalkboard) and began writing today's date. Next, she was directing the children to recite aloud the day, the month, the year, which they did with gusto, especially two rather large boys who barely fit into their aluminum desks. These two boys, I soon discovered, held command over the others through the power of volume. Their outbursts were so loud as to be painful to the ears--at least to mine. "Mom the kids are really noisy and you can't hear the teacher."

After everyone was sure about the day/month/year I waited for what came next. Many minutes passed in which I had ample time to study the room's features, something I'd not done before; I'd never taken the opportunity to really examine it. As I am taking inventory of the class resources I am constantly checking my judgment, trying to put things in the best light. Except for Allison and her refined sensibilities, this second grade class is happy and content regardless of the material lack. They appear delighted in their continuous uproar. The teacher and her assistant don't seem troubled. Scream away, kiddies. Nothing like last year's teacher who yelled and swatted her way through first grade reigning terror down on her little subjects. Even the Director is new and of a more mild disposition, (I don't think tardiness carries the same shame and terror as it did under the previous Director) though I do remember her checking all the kids' fingernails for cleanliness the other morning so I have some hope that she can hold the standard I so admired in her predecessor. I remind myself we came (again) to experience something different, to learn Spanish, to gain an appreciation for the things we take for granted at home. Allison will be better for it. And see how Carly and the other American kids are faring so well? In time that will be Allison. Oh please, God, sooner than later.

There are no reference books or world map to consult, no multi-media stations, no cubbies stocked with construction paper, no reading nooks. Backpacks (mochillas) clog the aisles between the desks as there are no individual cubbies marked with a student's name to stash them. A deteriorated plastic trash can sits near the door opposite a water cooler bearing an empty jug. "Mom, I had to go to the bathroom today, but I forgot my toilet paper." I think, "They could use a little help." I'd be happy to provide Dixie cups and fresh water and toilet paper. Would that be well received or would it be insulting coming from a foreigner? Was I in such a fog that I didn't notice last year?

Now, finally, the maestro is back to the board. She divides it down the middle with a marker.One one side she write Zonas Culturales, on the other, Zonas Naturales. She cues the children to throw out examples of both. The screaming begins again. Allison keeps her head bowed. Museo, Teatre, Parque, go into the left column. So far only El Mar is offered for the right. Carly's contribution. How easily it rolls off her tongue. See, Allie? You too, will get there. Fifteen minutes pass on this exercise. I grow impatient. For fun, the teacher draws the tragic/comic masks associated with the theater. This takes three minutes. A mother walks in to pull the teacher aside in conference. A student leaves for the bathroom, a desk tumbles, the volume increases. Allie sits there lifeless. I stare at her ponytail and feel anguish again as I feel forced to make up my mind. I really am immobilized as if two separate entities were at debate in my head. If I reject this school as inferior then we are on our own, nothing gained, maybe so much unknown to be lost. It feels like defeat on several levels as well as rude and snobbish behavior. But I ask myself, if we were in America and I was sitting in a school of this caliber observing if it were worthy of my young daughter, would it pass? How many minutes would it take me to reach a decision?

So I did something I am very out of the practice of doing--I pleaded for help from above; not directly to God, but addressed to any spirit that might care or take an interest in me. I resolved to feel calm and assured. I sat a few moments more and when nothing spoke to me or no bolt of inspirational thought came to me I made my decision. I called for Allison to get her things.

She followed me solemnly towards the school entrance where I looked for the Director to make my apologies and say we were not returning. I found her but had no luck in communicating since she spoke no English. I felt some distress and wished that there were someone near who could help us. And at that exact moment she and I together caught glimpse of Manuel, the part-time English teacher, coming through the gate. She grasped his arm and we went to her office. I explained to him my decision to withdraw Allison. I told him to inform the Director that we are grateful for the welcome given, but we see no solution to this unfortunate fit. Allison does not have enough understanding of Spanish to manage in the classroom, and there is no help whatsoever for her. She is a bright girl who wants to learn and is painfully frustrated in the current situation (which I put her in). It is no fault of the school; I would not expect them to accommodate her special need. But it would have been so nice is help were available. If only her teacher knew some English. "If only you, Manuel, were her teacher

Manuel replied, "Oh, but I will be, then." Here my eyes grew wide. "What?"
"Yes, I will keep her at my side and she will learn the Spanish while I teach English. It will be no problem to do so." He repeats this to the Director in Spanish and she begins nodding. "She can follow me to the different grades as I teach." The Director keeps nodding obviously happy we've landed on a solution.
"We will be working only on learning your Spanish. Would you like that, Allison?" She whispers to me that she thought we were going home. She must see in my face a stunned expression and goes silent. We both listen intently to the Director and Manuel discuss this new possibility. I urge her on with a grateful smile and it's apparent to me that she is comprehensive of the kindness being worked for her.

Manuel, she knows and likes, no doubt, as the one authority in school who can communicate with her. I have observed before that when you are a confused foreigner the level of gratitude you feel for anyone who can speak for you is immense. The Director all the while is caressing Allie and bending to smile in her face and Manuel is giving me his schedule which amounts to three hours daily which I see Allison is agreeable to and the whole morning has turned from hopeless to promising. The sudden turn has me overwhelmed and I want to hurry away so I can sort my thoughts privately. Already the questions: Had I left the classroom a moment earlier, I would have missed Manuel and his solution. Would Allison and I be heading home then?

Manuel and Director Franny and my own daughter can't suspect that the amazement I'm showing over this simple resolution is not owed to the parties involved, but to a higher power that at this moment I am rapidly becoming aware of. And as moments pass in the discussion of this new improvements, I am feeling myself rapidly detaching--dissolving into a floating observer whose eye is looking desperately around for the spirit that is surely hovering over us. Allison and I leave both in a confusedly happy state. It's obvious she is lifted by the immense concern finally bestowed on her state of suffering (and in her mind, she's suffered) and I feel for the first time in ages that somebody up there finds my troubles worth hearing. I feel cared about. We both do. And that is food for the soul.

The rest of the day Allison is in a happy state. She practices along to a Spanish CD on her laptop. She plays with her dog. Workers come and go all afternoon making repairs to our house. At dusk, we take Betsy for a walk on the rain-soaked golf course. We meet a lone golfer who talks to us awhile. We snap some fragrant branches off a eucalyptus tree to carry home. On our return we are stopped by Rene Olono driving home. He welcomes us back to Loreto and inquires about Robert, his buddy. He will watch over us ladies. Robert need not worry. We must be on foot, he wonders, but I tell him I have rented a car. Oh no, that won't do. We must take his other vehicle; It just sits there. We put Betsy in the back of the truck, her first, and she rides like a Baja dog down the highway as we go to fetch the car.

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