Editors note: Those of us who faced the first day of school with butterflies in our stomach can appreciate the courage of 6-year-old Churpa Rosa when she stepped into the classroom of a small rural Mexican school.
I have been to six different schools in my life, and the common link I find in reminiscing about these experiences, is that I was always the kid who didnt get to wear a uniform. I know, being an American, and raised in the counter culture, I should at least pretend to denounce the idea of conformity, but being the weird hippie kid in the heart of white-bread-land, tends to demolish youthful idealism at an early age (try kindergarten).
My parents (the funky guy with the weird beard, and the condom lady) were enough to live down, without being lost in a sea of K-Mart, while wearing patchwork skirts, flip flops with purple socks and hand me down tie-dye. By the time first grade rolled around I was lobbying for Wonder bread sandwiches, changing my name to Samantha and painting our house (which was on stilts, made of scrap lumber, and infested with embarrassing art work) white.
This didnt begin to prepare me for 1st grade in Rebalcitos. Actually Rebalcitos, Jalisco, might just be Mexicos equivalent of Mapleton, Oregon. It was small, low income, located within a quick drive of the coast, barely literate and boasted an outdated underfunded school. And I still had a lot to live down. Only this time, everyone really did wear uniforms (I didnt have one). I barely spoke the language. Instead of being the poor kid, I was the rich kid (possibly even a worse stigma), and the Spanish pronunciation of my name, Churpa, literally meant sucker. Plus after the first day, and some naiveté (stemming from spending the better part of the winter running around naked on the beach) I had the reputation of being the gringa who didnt wear underwear.
Somehow this experience didnt turn out as bad as one might expect. The school, sprawled on a hill top, with its missing windows and bare cement floors, had the look (typical to Mexico) of a long forgotten government project. I think I would probably have rather continued my stint as a nudist, but my memories of those days are as fond as possible (I am talking about a school, after all). The teacher was a pretty young woman who I couldnt hear at all over the sound of about 70 kids packed into a cement echo chamber. I did, however, pick up a lot of Spanish on the playground and in the street (which explains my proficiency with slang and my horrible grammar).
I also figured out that instead of buying tacos for lunch, I could spend my 5 pesos on a Fanta or Squirt, and no one would be the wiser. Occupied with such high espionage, I managed to keep myself entertained during the two months I spent in Rebalcitos. I also managed to run into a palm tree when my Dad let me steer the van on the way to school, but thats another story....
During my familys years of traveling in Mexico (wed spend the winters on the road, and Id go to Mapleton in the spring and fall), I also attended two other schools in San Miguel de Allende. Both of these schools, unlike the one in Rebalcitos, were bilingual. Actually I remember more about Rebalcitos, than I do either of the others, which is surprising since I was older, in second and third grades at that time.
The first one, the reputable Jose Vasconcelos school, has since expanded to new facilities on the outskirts of town. When I went there it was in an ancient colonial building with a large courtyard and stone arches. Educationally, it was certainty a step up from Rebalcitos, but my most prominent memories are of the nasty smelling bathrooms, my lack of uniform and the interminable flag ceremonies - which consisted of marching around in the blazing heat, singing unintelligible patriotic songs and carrying the Mexican flag.
The other school I went to doesnt exist anymore, and I cant remember what it was called. It was bi-lingual in name only, since all of the students were American. I didnt like it at all.
To me it is interesting to note, that the school I enjoyed the most was the funkiest and also the most typically Mexican. But actually my favorite school was the thousand of miles of road between Deadwood, Oregon and Guatemala. You can interpret this literally as well as on broader, cheerier terms. I spent most of my traveling years doing home schooling memorizing my times tables (or attempting to) as our van labored up la Barranca de los Muertos, stuck behind some exhaust belching semi, looking queasily at the numerous wrecks in the canyon thousands of feet below. Or reading my homework as we went barreling down some dusty road, listening to loud Ranchera music.
I was also required to keep travel journals of our adventures, and I wrote some lengthy reports on the local environments, wild life and political situations. The only thing that really suffered was my handwriting (and me when forced to do math homework on a white sand beach). I always returned home in stride with, or often ahead of the rest of my class. And quite tan in comparison to my peers who spent their winters developing green complexions beneath the fluorescent glow of public lighting.