First Day of School In Mexico
The night before the girls’ first day of school I was ironing white shirts and pleated skirts and wondering how my life had gotten more complicated instead of less with this move to Mexico. I haven’t ironed anything in at least 15 years. We had planned to homeschool/worldschool, but the girls really wanted to attend school here and what they want is important so we listened. We had no idea what we were getting into.
So Much For the Plan…
Our first choice was the local Montessori school, a compromise between traditional school and worldschooling. It seemed meant to be when we got the perfect house just two blocks away, but when we walked over to enroll we were told they were full. It was a shock, and complicated enrolling in school since we didn’t have a car to easily go to another school.
Our second option was the Gardner Institute, which is also an excellent bilingual school used by expats and locals. It’s more structured than Montessori and it’s more expensive, but like I said, the girls had their hearts set on being in a classroom, so we caught a ride across town and signed them up.
To go to school in Mexico there are specific requirements. Each school has its’ own uniform to be bought or made and a list of specific school supplies and books to purchase. Even though public school is free if you don’t have these things or can’t afford them you can’t go to school. We know we are fortunate that we can afford to take our pick of schools. Some families here have to choose which of their children go to school and which do not. Friends of Cozumel is an organization we have volunteered with here that has a school supplies drive every year to help send kids to school that otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it-if you are coming down and want to help please contact them.
Gardner is a private school. The day we enrolled we were able to buy uniforms on site: two pleated skirts, two white blouses, two pairs of “bikers” to go under the skirts, a gym shirt and shorts for each girl. We have to go online to pay for books, but they’re already at the school. Tuition is monthly or you can pay in larger installments, but we’re doing monthly payments while we see how the girls like it.
We had to have tiny pictures taken for school I.D.s, and everyone said “Just go to Sam’s Club, they do it all the time.” I went to the photo kiosk was just inside the entrance. She took the pictures and said 20 minutes, but when I was ready to pay she asked for my membership card. I didn’t have a Sam’s membership…I do now, making them our most expensive school pictures ever. Live and learn.
We were too late to get a “paquete,” a pre-made package of school supplies from the school. I was so relieved when my new friend Julie offered to help. She saved me days of puzzling over the list, (all in Spanish of course) and took me around one morning helping me gather all the necessary items. We had to go to 4 different stores to find it all, plus hair bows of the requisite navy and white. I’d still have to buy white socks and two pairs of shoes, one white for gym and one black for daily wear. The notebooks had to be covered with clear contact paper to make them last longer, and everything had to have the owner’s name on it. After days of non-stop shopping and organizing we were finally ready.
Getting to School
The most worrisome thing to me about going to school here is that we have to get up at dawn-literally, dawn, because school starts at 7am and after 7:10 you’re locked out. If you forget your homework Mom can’t bring it, if you forget your lunch you have no lunch (not really, they’ll feed them, but they’ll get a lecture on responsibility.) In Iowa we struggled to get to school by 8am. We’re not morning people (especially me) so this realization was a big “Yikes!” moment.
The school is across town from us, only about 10 minutes by car but we have no car. We considered using the Colectivos, public transportation that runs circuits around the city of San Miguel but I haven’t figured out the routes yet. Plus if the van had already passed how would we know we’d missed it? It might be 20 minutes before it came back around, and the likelihood of error causing us to be locked out seemed high. We decided we’d take taxis, at least for a while, so we’d have to leave the house and walk two blocks to the main road by 6:30am. Sounds simple, right?
The first day we rose in the dark and got ready to go. Rory’s skirt had buttoned around her perfectly when we tried them on, but today it was suddenly too big and kept slipping down. June pulled hard on her new shoe and the buckle ripped right off. Jason managed to re-attach the buckle and we told Rory she’d just have to deal with a loose skirt for today, they wear shorts under them so even if it fell off it wouldn’t really show anything. Not the best start, but they looked so cute in their uniforms!
We left a few minutes later than we wanted to, hurrying to keep ahead of the mosquitos. It was less than 3 blocks down to Melgar, the road that runs along the ocean where taxis are always lined up waiting…and there was not one in sight anywhere. I couldn’t believe it. After walking a few blocks we flagged one down but now we were running late.
We’re Here…Now What?
Adding to our apprehension there’s a little ceremony on the first day for the first graders to be walked in by the sixth graders, kind of a graduation from the kindergarten to the bigger grade school. The girls were nervous about this, and it didn’t help that we barely made it in time.
Then there is a flag ceremony every Monday, and the kids salute and sing the song of the state of Quintana Roo. There were announcements made in Spanish that I couldn’t follow. Another mom said she’s not sure how she feels about having her kids salute another country’s flag, and I hadn’t thought of this but I knew right away it wouldn’t bother me. They are showing respect for the country we currently live in, and besides, in the U.S. people would sure get offended if we saw someone from another country not saluting our flag during a ceremony. I appreciate being able to live here and will happily show my respect for the country.
The kids lined up to go to their classrooms and my girls looked pretty nervous. There are two classrooms for each grade, one where they speak only English and one where they speak Spanish. I hoped they would start out in English so my girls wouldn’t feel too lost. Rory was scared, but at least she knew someone in her class already. We hadn’t met any 3rd graders and June was looking beat, drooping and staring at her feet when she walked to the classroom. I pleaded silently with her to talk to someone, anyone, and make just one friend. It was hard to walk away and leave them (isn’t it always?)
Jason and I walked away from the school, again finding no taxis. We walked about 10 blocks to the Chedraui grocery store, picked up a few things, and then snagged a passing taxi to get home. There was no way the kids would want to walk that far in the afternoon, so I’d have to take a taxi and keep it there to have a ride home. We were starting to think we might need a car after all.
School got out at 1:50, and when I left the house to pick them up I found that the few taxis I saw were full. The irony of this was killing me. Usually taxis are everywhere, honking and shouting at us as we walk down the street, but when we really needed one they had all disappeared. After walking 8 blocks I found one and directed him to Gardner, then asked if he could stay and bring us back. He said he was done at 2:00 and needed to meet the other driver to give him the car, making my heart pound with dread, but he agreed to wait.
Parents were stopped at the gate to wait while their children were called from the classrooms and sent out. Mexicans have a hard time with June’s name calling her “Jenifer” instead of “Juniper” and I hope she would recognize that it was her. To my surprise it was Rory that came out unsure and weepy about school. June bounded down the steps, announcing that she made 5 friends and they have a guinea pig for their class pet. This was the last straw for Rory, who then wailed that she wanted a class pet, too and started to cry. Her lunch hadn’t filled her up and she was tired and out of gas.
We got home and had “snack.” Rory ate 3 pickle wraps, 3 hot dogs (each with bread and a pile of condiments) and a large glass of apple juice, and her mood improved dramatically. I let them watch one cartoon, but then insisted they lie down for at least an hour, whether they slept or not. Rory passed out almost immediately, but June resisted.
I think siesta is going to be really important when we’re up and going so early every day. Honestly, if I had realized that putting them in school would mean I had to get up every day at dawn I probably wouldn’t have agreed to it (really, not a morning person.) Jason and I had crashed for a few hours, feeling only slightly guilty that the girls had to wait until after school.
It’s Not Over Yet…
That night we had to go back to the school for a new parent orientation from 6-8:30. Yep, a two and half hour meeting on the first day of school, and all in Spanish. They asked if anyone didn’t know Spanish and Jason and I were the only ones who raised our hands. Before you judge we are trying to learn, and it was embarrassing, but we wouldn’t have understood at all if the staff hadn’t taken turns sitting by us and serving as translator. We learned a lot about how the school is run and what the routine is. All the kids got to go outside on the playground so they didn’t mind.
As we put the girls to bed that night June was happy and looking forward to the morning but Rory wasn’t so sure. “It might be too hard, Mommy,” she said, looking worried.
I had tried to prepare them, telling them that at first there will be a lot they don’t understand and it will be frustrating. We had joked that after spending all this money to put them in school there was no backing out, and that’s part of it, but we also want them to keep trying even though it is hard. New language, new culture, new kids, new foods, it’s scary to have to face it all but we don’t want them to give up when things are scary or hard.
This whole move to Mexico has been a step outside our comfort zones, and some days we do hide out at home a little and take a break in the pool and eat a hot dog. Other days you have to get out there, attempt some broken Spanish with whoever is willing to listen and eat something you can’t pronounce.
I think being in school in Mexico will be good for them, they’ll learn a lot not only about math and science and the standard stuff, but about other people and other cultures. They’ll probably be teaching me Spanish before long, and in a month or two we’ll adjust to the early start. Going to Gardner wasn’t part of the plan, but if there weren’t some surprises it wouldn’t be much of an adventure, would it?
Update: Today was the second day of school and Rory came out smiling. I moved the button over on her skirt to tighten it up and it fits better, but June is probably going to need another pair of shoes. We rented a car for the first week to make it less stressful while we figure out transportation. Ay, Mexico!