Monday, August 22, 2011

School days across the border...

     Public school in Mexico has been an experience that both of my American children, and myself included, will appreciate in a comparative aspect to our beloved USA. Our first moments in Mexico were that of shock to the culture and separation issues to just about everything that we were familiar with including foods, sounds in the street outside, customs, attitudes, home comforts, driving, cooking, daily events, and the biggest and most noticeable one being language. The kids and I did not know Spanish at all. We arrived in Mexico as a newborn would, not knowing how to communicate, however having to assume the same responsibilities as we did while we lived in the USA. My husband was gone most of the first year working in a job that he, thank goodness, no longer has... so we were basically thrown into the pack of wolves on our own. The school system in Mexico was a large fraction of our adjustment to life in a strange world.
     We searched for a private school. Our decision was to made rather sudden as the beginning of the school year starts without warning to someone who does not understand the language, in the middle of August as opposed to the comparative USA. I took it for granted that we would just basically receive some type of paper in the mail stating the children's bus number and classroom with assigned teacher a few weeks before school was to start... that was not the case of course. School busses are unheard of in Mexico. Paid for public bus or taxi can remedy the child who lives too far from the school to walk. This factor is also a huge downfall to those children who are from the poverish and underprivilaged for that travel money is on a scale of importance in the balance with something more important - food. When someone from the USA ponders upon the lack of education in the country of Mexico, one point that they do not possibly factor is the basic transportation costs that somehow swallow many children's futures in a hungry gulp of statistics that were never meant to be counted due to lack of concern.
      The whole thing was never meant to be thought out. We were on a whim of sorts driving into Mexico to be with our beloved. We did not have a suggestion manual, not one friend to ask, as we knew absolutly no one who was as crazy as we were to go into the life of Mexico with wide eyes and concentrated concern on our face as we tried our best to read the faces and body language on a daily basis of what we were expected of, as we blasted our American English music from the safety of our own home. Many store owners that we purchased our necessary food to survive from spoke enough English to at least entertain the situation, or at least themselves, in times of exchange at the counter..."seven-teen" in a heavily accented total of how many pesos we would owe. Eventually we caught on to the actual names of the cheese that was under the glass and the proper process to purchase what we needed. Cheese, for example, otherwise in Spanish translation called queso, was easy to order from the store owner as in "vente pesos de queso de Oaxaca, por favor..." In other words, tell them how much you are willing to pay and you will get a weighed out handful in a bag to take back to the house. Once we discovered how to shop for food, we then had to figure out what to do with it. We ate a lot of home-made spaghetti that first year to say the least, as that was one of the only things that I could figure out that was edible... that and tortillas with cheese in the middle folded in half and melted in a pan, topped with a little crema. We stayed nourished and alive... and grew stronger in our new world.
      The birth of the days in Mexico's school system were filled with those first days in private school. Our choice would be with a woman who ran a school called Moderno Americano that was a block away from my sister in law's candy store on the main street of Acatlipa. I figured if anything came up, the kids could at least depend on the fact that the store was in close proximity of the school, even if I was far away. My days were scheduled with driving the kids to school, taking them in, going home, washing the clothes by hand in our washboard sink, napping, snacking on whatever I could find, changing my clothes into street clothes, venturing back to the school... all while my belly was growing with my son's pregnancy. The private school was run by a woman that knew perfect English who grew up in Tijuana with only a certificate on her wall that she had completion of an associates degree in Early Childhood education, nothing more. Her daughter came to visit and we really got along. The only problem was that I was fragile. I was a shakey little animal in the middle of a very loud environment, scared and alone... trying my best at the accomplishment of staying afloat, pregnant with my sixth sense in full awareness that my surroundings were not familiar. This woman took advantage of that fact, knew I was from American with a connection to my father who was sending small amounts of money, and tried her best to charge me more than the other students. My sister in law got involved and took her out. I mean that she destroyed her school by weapon of gossip within a month of my childrens' withdraw in November, her school folded and she left town by Christmas. Something to be said for the talk on the street here, with special emphasis on the power of my sister in law and into the family she was married to. The power of who you are, and the lack of patience for excuses with the constant awareness that every peso matters, especially if you plan to be a con artist in a small town and survive.
     The kids were left without a school so we travelled to the USA for a month to give birth to the baby. We came back to enter them into the public school that was up the road from our house, on top of the mountain, only after we visited a few others. This one however was within walking distance, and the start of a lifestyle in the daily hike up the hill, making friends with the neighborhood, being recongnized as the American family as we walked with our umbrella stroller with our new born that everyone was anxious to hold. I was anxious to please, and knew that the custom was to be as friendly (about  babies) as possible with the women in front of the school every morning, but every time someone wanted to hold my new baby I was ready... ready for the chase if they would happen to run off with him. What a lifestyle.
      The director was a older man who spoke English, quite comforting to me. He asked me while registering, if I was going to sew the uniforms myself or buy them. I laughed at first thinking he was trying to joke with me, but he was not, his face was not joking... a new concept for me and acknowledgement of one of the learned natures of the displacement of the feminism that I grew accustomed to being non-existant in this country. We finished up the paperwork without any of the proper documents that were needed, filling in the blanks with the excuse that low and behold - we were American, perhaps figuring it could have potentials to their school without our understanding, to have our mere presence in this tiny little block building with one classroom each grade. The director quit a couple months after and was replaced by a woman.
     Our elementary school has endured the complete turn over of every grade's teacher a few times and perhaps 4 or 5 different directors all within the past five years. Each classroom filled to the maximum amount of students, around 40-45, with no air conditioning. The teacher would stand impatiently in the front of the class, sweat beading on her forehead, and some of them would use a stick to bang on the desk to obtain the attention of the constant chattering of children. Their books were hauled around in their backpacks. If your child was unaware and left his fancy pencil or new erasers on his desk, they would be gone when he turned his head. Papers were tossed on the floor as were pop and water bottles and wrappers from whatever the kids ate in their lunches. The use of the garbage can was not an enforced rule obviously.
       My daughter took the neighbor's kitten in her backpack to school one day, making the children laugh and play... She stuffed it in there in the morning and let it meow throughout the day in class, unnoticed by the maestra, which tells you something if not only describing the constant noise volume during class, but the teacher's disregard for details. The kitten escaped the backpack midday and hid under the bookself. All of the students in the desks surrounding my daughter were having fun with the kitten, but to Leah's downfall, when the neighbor began to search for her lost kitten, many of the children pointed the finger to Leah as the culprit, labelled kitten thief. She tried to lie and say that she found it, as she gave it away to one of her friends from school. In the end she had to retrieve the kitten from its new home and give it back to the rightful owner. The theme of "Mary had a Little Lamb" rings true.
     The past July we paid visit to the school and watched the production of entertainment for the parents as the students of each grade learned and performed a dance complete with costume. The kids only attended the beginning of the last year's grade here, completing the rest of this past school year in America. These were now our familiar faces, the people that we have memories of our daily life of greetings and acknowledgement, watching each other grow and change throughout the years... despite the language differences... they were our people. We cheered from the audience as our "babies" were now graduating from the class that my son should have been attending, watching most of them in their actual graduation as to never attend school any further than elementary, wondering if we would stay in contact, but knowing otherwise.
           I have made three very close friends, mothers of other students, friends enough in that we have visited each other's homes, and accompanied each other to different events. One friend has two daughters that are in the same grades as my two. She was Christian, attended church on days other than Sunday and became my rock in times of fear. We had a hard time in communication, but we understood each other beyond the words, as women. Her place with the Lord that she was so close with served a bigger position in being my friend. We attended a parade in the neighboring town of Zapata that was some type of student day that all of the schools' students were to march. I stayed with my friend and another woman, holding my son, pregnant with another, in the heat, cheering as our children passed by. We went to her mother's house where my friend grew up, after the parade for some food and gossip along with all of the invited teachers and directora of the school. Her place was not only tight with the Lord but also that of a respected amiga of the school's faculty.
    There is a common ground of the saying it is not what you know it is who you know that seems to thrive in Mexico. We have never had the correct documentation to attend their school, nor have we followed the basic rules of attendance. One year my kids missed a full six weeks, only to return to continue as if the interruption never happened. Another year they missed four months of the school year, and again, still retained their B average despite it all. The fact that they were bilingual surpassed most of the teachers capabilities causing their opinion of my children to be that of truly gifted children, despite their lack of memorized multiplication tables. They all did us a favor by passing my children every year, or did they.
    At the end of each year the children are given an exam to check if they learned what was expected of them. My kids usually did well enough to get an eight or nine in most of the sections' scores. The grading is number system, ten being the highest. Ending the first year however, Leah was on her third day of finishing her exam. The rest of the class finished either the first day, or some of them the second... but her lack of Spanish skills caught her during the testing. Examples of skipping the correct procedure are throughout our experience as proven and this one was no exception to that. Because of the fact that the teachers were growing impatient with Leah's delay in completion of the yearly exam, they had her big brother, a grade higher, come into the mix and finish it up for her within a couple hours. This was sign, sealed, and delivered education at its best.
     Remarkably upon readmitance into the public education system in America, with the only accomplishment being kinder and first grades, the children performed their best and shocked me for sure. I asked for them to be place in the grades previous, however the school would not allow it, using the excuse that it would hinder their self confidence, yea, sure it would... Leah continually received perfect scores on her spelling tests and surpassed the book reading quota week after week. She amazed me. Julian had always been the smart one in the life in Mexico and suddenly he was receiving E grades in things like math that previously he surpassed the other students in his knowledge. His teacher complained of his confused stares when she spoke as we dealt with not only severe culture shock, but language issues for the kids. The entire switch not only boggled them, but I as well. They were not given any special treatment or assistance as you would presume in the USA school system, however I was labelled as a bad mother with constant notes from teachers saying that it was my responsibilty to find a solution to the children's faults. I wrote back with notes such as you are getting paid to teach so teach. I found it to be inexcusable to place blame on me and escape what they were hired to do. My feelings on the whole matter boiled down to what they felt as their privilage of the fact that they should be paid for their extra effort, and were not according to the news of cutbacks, or to the fact that they banded together in the faculty lounge to form an alliance to my labelling their school as being uncooperative in the no student left behind motto, turning the finger to be the fault of the parent for not teaching them at home, protecting their own butts. Remembering back to my own childhood, I found that to be absurd and lazy and voiced that to them. The fact that I am putting myself through school myself to obtain a degree to teach enhances that opinion. Never would I project some of the attitudes that I have witnessed from their holier than thou stance at their employment. If there is a child in need, as in missing every single answer on a science quiz, instead of writing in red ink that there should be help at home that it is ridiculous that she missed the whole point of starches including a classroom demonstration with pasta and rice... I would, as a teacher, not write in red ink pointing out how lazy a teacher could get away with being in their own self proclaimed privilage of being an educated individual, but I would take my teaching job seriously and say to the child, do you understand... because is seems as though you do not... how about during recess we will go over this subject so that I am sure that you do understand what I am teaching to you. Hello. That is teaching.
     With our Mexico public school we have experienced the power of another culture along with the appreciation not just of our own people, but that of a different, taking from the both of them our favored moments and opinions of. The kids would most certainly be A students if had never left the USA school system, as that is what they were averaging previously, and comparing to their two older siblings, in honors - gifted programs, and myself when I was their age, I am sure that the two of them would have maintained the same level of achievements. The exchange for the mixture of education, academically, for a wider range of open-mindedness in the world, to me is to far exceed that of the rest of their classmates and is unique and encompasses the realness of life. I am sure with their individually abundant unique capabilities in learning they will catch up with the rest, and in the end be better people from what they have experienced as children. They truly are aware of the fact that there is more to the typical labels of poor and/or privilaged. They comprehend the basic balance of nuturing the social standing to obtain necessities as well as how wonderful it can be to have bathrooms and lunchrooms and books provided in USA schools when most have no appreciation of. Personally I love the fact that I do not have to pay the daily cost of upkeep for the school grounds of two pesos each kid per day or that "my turn" to clean the classroom for a whole week will not cross my schedule in the USA ever ever ever.


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