It took almost a month for Luciano, my exchange program coordinator, to find a school that would let me in. The public schools in Rio Gallegos no longer accepted exchange students because they were lazy and disruptive. I would be attending one of the private schools in Rio Gallegos and based on the reaction Andres, my younger host brother, had when I told him I would be going to IPEI it was the richest of the city’s private schools, a dynamic I would learn more about as the year continued.
Maribel, my host mother, scheduled a time for us to visit IPEI, Instituto Privado de Educación Integral, my new school.
A few days later Maribel and I hopped into her red camioneta and drove to IPEI, located a block off of the main drag which would eventually be renamed after the late Argentine president Néstor Kirchner who was from Rio Gallegos. The entire 15 minute drive from our house to el centro my stomach was filled with butterflies. I had come to dread meeting new people, let alone new adults who I was surely meant to impress. I was still reluctant to talk to Maribel so the thought of speaking with the principal and staff at IPEI positively mortified me. I was excited to start school, but mortified of revealing how incompetent I still was in Spanish.
Minutes later we arrived in front of a four story cement building, skinny and tall with a courtyard on one side and a glasses small shop on the other. Maribel parked her hulking red Nissan and we both jumped out and I followed her towards the door. A short dark haired man, who would later befriend me, looked up at us as we approached the door. He smiled at Maribel and buzzed us in. He greeted us and I shot back some combination of buen dia como anda/esta, unsure what level of formality was appropriate to use with the door man. He escorted us up two flights of stairs where a tall blonde haired man in a grey suit and facial hair that made him look rather chipmunk like greeted us.
His name was Raúl and from what I could tell he was the principal. We followed him into an office where a short woman in a bright colored pants suit waited for us. The office was small with a few plexiglass windows facing the hallway we had just walked through to get here. I could see students of all ages, decked out in maroon uniforms, the boys wearing grey slacks and the girls mostly in skirts with panty hose. These uniforms looked much more serious than the long white lab coat looking “uniform” that Andres wore to class. I cringed at the thought of having to wear that everyday.
Raúl shut the door behind us and Maribel and I introduced ourselves the pants suit lady. She wore thick red lipstick that smeared over her front teeth when she smiled, which was often. I found it incredibly distracting. Maribel spoke with Raúl and this other woman and I tried to follow along as best as I could. Occasionally, they would all look at me and Maribel would, very slowly, ask me, “¿Tomás, entendes?” Thomas, do you understand? I would, regardless if I understood or not, slowly nod my head, make eye contact with each person and say “Si, si, si, lo entiendo” Yes, I understand. I’m not sure they really believed me, but they acted like it and went back to talking about who knows what.
As terrified as I was of taking ten classes entirely in Spanish, I was consoled by the fact that for at least one hour a day I would have English and would be able to understand there. About ten minutes into the conversation I realized they had begun talking about the classes I was going to have to take. I heard a couple words I could understand filosofía & matemática and the rest was incomprehensible. Then, to my horror, Raúl turns to me and begins to ask me questions. Terrified, I look to Maribel for help who dutifully swooped in and explained, in painfully slow Spanish, that I am not allowed to take English. She went on to explain that since I am already fluent in English I have to take a new language. I can choose between French and Italian, but there is no beginners class for Italian so I will have to take French.
Dumbfounded that these two school officials, who could obviously see I had the barest knowledge of Spanish were going to 1) deprive me of the luxury of comprehension and understanding for one hour a day and 2) make me learn a new language, as if my entire life wasn’t already focused on that task. It seemed like I must’ve misunderstood something so I held my tongue, although its not like I could’ve articulated much of a refusal anyway. I waited until Maribel and I had left to ask her what had happened.
After thanking Raúl and his lipstick smeared colleague we walked through the halls, empty now, down the flight of stairs, thanked the doorman and climbed back into la camioneta. She revved the diesel engine and we lurched forward. I looked over and asked her what had just happened. She confirmed my fear, instead of taking English I would be required to take French, which started an hour earlier, at 6:30 am, than all the other classes. Incredulous, I looked out the window and just laughed, “I’m fucked, I thought to myself” as we sped through town back towards home.
Once I started taking French my desk partner would often laugh at my, as much out of pity as incredulity at how hopeless I was, as I would sit in class with my French-Spanish dictionary next to my Spanish-English dictionary trying to understand what our French teacher was saying in Spanish, let alone French. It was a painful for all parties involved.