School Day 1
Maira wakes me up at 7:15 on Tuesday. She says, We’re going to school. You have half an hour to get ready.
Breakfast is four slices of toast with ham on them. I do all the usual morning things: bush my hair, put on a little makeup, brush my teeth. My clothes (which I laid out the previous night) are freezing. I have one notebook and one pen. It feels sort of like getting ready at home but colder.
Once we’re ready, Maira and I wait for a minibus. The sun is still in the process of rising so everything has a quiet, frosty glow to it. When the minibus rolls up we are the only people inside. It stays with way for the next two buses we take.
The school is a large rectangle of a building with a basketball court, bleachers and two soccer fields. There are big glass windows all up and down the front and a small shop that sells sweets ouside. It looks a lot like a school in the states. Maira and I meet a couple of her friends outside the gates. They all ask my name, where I’m from, and why I’m here. I answer as best as I can.
Walking to the door of the school is like walking through a montage. People turn from their conversations and stare shamelessly like I’m a celebrity. Or a murderer. Then they turn back to their friends and speak in hushed, quick voices. I have no doubt they’re talking about me. It’s not self-absorption. I can catch bits of a lot of the conversations. Tall. United States. Exchange student. Blonde. It’s off-putting to say the least.
Out classroom is a small yellow room with 5 lines of desks and a green blackboard (are they always green? We don’t have them at my school. Why are they called blackboards if they’re not? Mysterious and enigmatic.) On the front wall is a calendar with the Virgin Mary in on and, above this, a cross with a hanging golden Jesus. The more I look at it, the surer I am that the calendar is the same one the nuns had but without the glitter. I decide it’s cute both ways.
On the back of the room there are posters that Maira tells me her class brought in and put up. They’re like a flashback to 2004. The posters in right to left order: Avril Lavigne in a tie, Dragon-Ball Z, Dragon-Ball Z, Dragon-Ball Z, System of a Down, Tony Hawk for Playstation, Dragon-Ball Z again, and Blink 182 staring moodily at the back of my head. I couldn’t have designed it any better.
In the classroom, again, I am stared at. I have learned by this point that this class is the Humanities kids so they study less math and more Spanish. They’re certainly not shy. I am swarmed by well-meaning girls in the uniform asking everything about me. I am on the verge of giving them my blood type when the bell rings.
Classes are hellish. I know we’re off to a bad start when the first teacher, a small man in a weird collared shirt, has me repeat my name four times because no one can pronounce it. The next three teachers have my say my name and where I come from in front of the class. The worst is the very kind Spanish teacher. She actually comes to my desk and asks my name while everyone else is working on an assignment. I tell her I only speak a little Spanish and she says if I need help to come to her desk after school anytime. It is a very sweet offer I will never take her up on. Maira has to leave right after school and I cannot make it home alone.
Instead of a lunch break we have a half-hour recess. Maira and I each buy a muffin at the little store cafeteria. There are 7.50 Bolivianos to a dollar as of my writing this. The muffins coast 3 Bolivianos each. It’s not an expensive country.
After recess we have English class. Instead of sitting in I am told to go see the English director. I and two other girls shuffle off to stand in front of a closed door. They explain to me how they just got back from a year on a foreign exchange program- one to the Netherlands and one to Germany. They speak very nice English. We’re in the middle of a discussion of Germany vs. The States vs. Bolivia when four other kids ample up and join us. They’re also back from exchange programs, mostly to the States. A huge boy- probably taller than I am, which is really something in Bolivia- strikes up a conversation with me. He spent a year in Iowa, he tells me. Why Iowa? I don’t know, he says. Iowa is a dump. Bolivia is better. The parties here are siiiiiiick.
I am charmed by his unnecessary slang. We talk for the next 20 minutes while the other kids are called into the office. Finally he is asked in. Germany, who went first, pats my shoulder and says it’s cool I’m here.
A tiny, ancient white woman with eyes the size and color of the moon pokes her head out to call me in. At the exact same moment a man reaches the top of the staircase we’re all clustered around. I realize he’s the headmaster at the same moment he shouts in Spanish “You need to wear a uniform! Welcome to Bolivia!” He vanished back down the stairs as I process what he said. Welcome to Bolivia indeed.
The woman, who I gather is the English director, has me wait in her office while she talks to the exchange kids about their English placement levels. The “office” is a musty floral print chair in front of a desk. There’s a file cabinet and an ancient, wheezing desktop computer. Everything here is a little removed from the present.
After what feels like infinity but is probably 15 minutes, the woman scuttles back in and shuts the door. She introduces herself as the head of the English department and welcomes me to La Paz. She has an antiquated English accent. It is striking. She says, So I hear that you are from Seattle. Do you speak Spanish? I explain my lack of communication ability and she nods. She walks me to the library while explaining in quick, crisp Spanish that Perhaps I should spend my time here while the other students are in English class. I can read simple books to improve my Spanish. Perfect! Fun! I am not as thrilled as she seems to be.
The rest of the school day proceeds similarly. Everyone speaks Spanglish to me and I understand little. The classes are senior level, halfway through the year, in a foreign language. I feel like I’m sinking.
When school ends Maira says that we have to go to a rehearsal. What? A dance rehearsal, she explains. The senior class puts on a carnival at the end of the year and they all dance. So, we have to go practice. They happy every day, sometimes in the morning, sometimes after school. I sign a little. Okay. Dancing.
We take a cab to a basketball court where the rest of her class slowly arrives. A lovely girl friend the science branch of the school has a difficult conversation with me in Spanish. She wears a white sweater covered in little fluff balls, a bow in her hair, and soft cat eye makeup. She looks like someone I would meet at a music festival back home. I like her very much despite forgetting her name on contact.
Then the dancing starts. I have a bad left knee and a tough time with the altitude so I sit on the sidelines and read Grapes of Wrath. The girls dance to Beyonce and Rihanna. The boys have their own numbers, mostly involving fake stripping and hip thrusting. I slowly grow cold as the sun sets behind the mountains. Finally, two hours later, they break it up. Maira and I catch a cab home and eat lunch at 6:30. I shower, read, eat dinner, and collapse into a dreamless sleep.