What do you do when confronted with a horde of screaming five year-olds? In a perfect world, perhaps a scentless gas would be pumped into the room, sedating them without their ever realizing they were going under. The tiny school where I tagged along with my friend Dara, who I had previously hung out with in Vigo after finishing my Camino de Santiago last October, didn’t offer the possibility of rapid tranquilization. So instead, I assumed the fetal position and prayed for the bell to ring and the kids to leave.
That’s actually completely false: Following Dara along to the school she volunteers at was a blast, and the kids–though boisterous and loud–were respectful, (usually) attentive, and incredibly bright. I had a couple days to kill in Vigo before taking the train to Madrid, and decided that for the first time in many months I would actually put in a day of work and join Dara at school.
Not since the Camino had I woken up before first light, so it was a bit of struggle getting off the couch and putting myself together before 8 AM. The fatigue was outweighed by the excitement I felt at going back to school, and by the time Dara’s colleague Esperanza had driven us the thirty minutes or so out of town and halfway up a mountain overlooking the bay, I was ready for class.
The 5th graders trooped into the first class, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Dara, a native of North Carolina, was more or less the only American these kids had ever met; I was the second. This first period set the tone for the duration of my visit to the school, and most of the questions asked–guided by Dara’s able prompting–involved variations of “tell us what California is like,” “Do you surf?” and “What animals live in the ocean?”
One kid in particular was especially charismatic, and we bonded right off the bat. In the photo above, he’s the boy in the puffy orange jacket sitting in the front row of desks. His name is Yerais, and according to Dara he usually acts out a lot in class. When I was in grade school (I feel old writing that) I was the know-it-all kid who ever teacher loved until they got sick of the fact that I was always answering questions, even those directed at other kids. I didn’t really act out by way of making silly sounds or asking purposefully stupid questions, but I got attention merely by being the biggest nerd in class. Yerais isn’t the nerd that I was, but he is clearly very intelligent and he has an excellent grasp of English for a 10 year old boy living in a country that dubs just about every English language TV show and film. I suspect his relative mastery of the language is due in large part to his love of the exceedingly violent (and English language) video game Grand Theft Auto; perhaps some good can come out of the franchise, after all.
Between English class with the 5th Graders and sing and dance to popular American songs such as “I’m a Happy Banana” with the kindergarteners (those are the ones in the fetal position with me), it was a pretty epic experience. I already had tremendous respect for teachers while I was still in school, but being on the other side of the desk really made me appreciate the patience and creativity required to drive a bunch of kids to learn. Capping off my experience was a humbling game of H-O-R-S-E which I played with some of the older kids: I barely made a three-foot layup, let alone any of the other shots the 10 year olds made. True to my 5th grade self, being king of the playground still remains out of reach.
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