First Day of School

I walked in and miraculously remembered the maze. Go through the principal’s area past another tricky false door and up the stairs. I borrowed my coordinator’s computer to make sure my USB worked – after running around the city looking for internet, then wasting all our data I needed to check. Everything had transferred perfectly and I didn’t have to scramble to fix it.

I had come early enough to prepare for more panic that I still had 10 minutes until my first class. I needed to find another English teacher, Sara, to give her my bank information for paychecks. She took it, “would you like to rest or would you like to come with us?” Where? But I’m trying to say yes to adventure more so I said I’d come.

Turns out we went outside to be playground monitors. Another English teacher joined us “let’s air kiss” she warned me. We did.

We tried to talk between child mayhem. 2 girls brought their crying friend to us, she had fallen on her chin. There was no blood or even redness. “Go to the bathroom and wash up” they told the group. A crew of boys showed up, not crying, a boy had a flap of skin missing on his knee and the blood was dripping down his leg. “Go to the bathroom and wash up” they told the crew.

I didn’t have to know any Spanish to understand the political problems that arose between children who came up to us, brows furrowed and pointing at each other. That crap is universal.

“We were playing tag and I tagged him and he said I didn’t and so he wasn’t ‘it’ and then he didn’t play the game right.”

“No because I didn’t get tagged and you’re lying.”

“No because I tagged you here”

“Well we werent there, so we can’t know” the teachers told them.


Another group arrived.

“We were playing ball and I passed it to him but…”

“Well, we weren’t there.” The teachers told them.


The girls came out of the bathroom, no tears. Everything was cleaned up. The boys came out of the bathroom, wet blood continued dripping down his leg. They had barely cleaned up. “Okay” the teachers approved and sent them all along. No coddling here.

The bell rang and we finally had to start. I didn’t know where 2B was because my tour had consisted of a point “1st and 2nd is over there”

Air kiss teacher brought me to where 2B lines up and I lined up with them. After recess they line up to walk in “orderly” lines back to their rooms. So I was just part of the class, shuffling with them in line, back to the classroom. Some giggled. One stopped walking, turned around, and looked me dead in the eye

“Soy Sure-gee-eye” and pointed at his chest.

“What?!” I asked incredulously. Was that even Spanish?

“Yo soy Sure-gei”

“You’re Sergei. That’s your name?”

“Si”  He turned around and kept walking. It was very important that I knew that in that moment.


We made it into the classroom. The frazzled teacher walked up to me and said in lieu of an introduction, “This classroom is too small. We have a large class, 27 students. It’s the largest in the school” in English. Oh thank god, an English teacher.

She got the students silent – a difficult task for 27 seven-year-olds. Everyone looked at me.

“Oh, uh” I held my usb up. My powerpoint security blanket. I needed that to be understood.

It didn’t work. And didn’t work.

“Shhhhhhhhhhh” the teacher kept telling them. Oh please can’t you do something with them while you wait for my presentation?!

Finally it worked. But the overhead projector wasn’t working.

“Shhhhhhh” the teacher told them. Stop shushing them and help!

She finally fixed it and we finally, mercifully, began.

Things were going pretty good. They liked the pictures. Then the pictures of South Korea showed up. Eyes got wide. Then fingers rose to the corner of those wide eyes and pulled them back to mimic. Half of the students pulled their eyes into slits and looked at each other to show off their slit-y eyes. Do you see what I’m doing? Oh look you’re doing it too!

But then you could see wheels turning in their heads as they looked beyond.

“Where are the girls?” A girl asked suddenly. My coteacher translated it for me.


I had shown them a picture of an all boys class. I changed it to another picture of an all girls class.

Whoa. The wheels were turning, this was a whole different thing. They go to school, I go to school, but it doesn’t look anything like that.

“Why do they look the same?” (uniforms)

“Why do they have to cut their hair like that?”

“Why do they wear the same clothes?”

“There’s uniforms but that one girl isn’t wearing one” (she had a different part of a uniform on, not the jacket)

“Why are the shoes all the same?”

Why do they take their shoes off inside?”

“Do the boys have to cut their hair the same length too?”

We spent probably 20 minutes on the Korean student pictures. Seriously, this is why I travel.

We moved on. At the end they asked me questions. How old are you, do you have kids, what is your favorite video game, what is your favorite food, what is your favorite fruit (hadn’t ever given this one any thought) Favorite animal, etc.


The bell rang. I was supposed to have a 10 minute presentation because it wouldn’t hold their interest but we had lasted the whole 45 minutes.

Since there are no passing periods I rushed to my next class and was the only teacher in the room. The class president kept shushing everyone because they thought I was ready to start. I mean, I was, but where was my coteacher?

Was I in the right room? I asked a 4th grader by way of pointing “4A? Aqui? Si o no, si o no?”

Where was the other teacher?

“Your teacher? Where?” I asked in English.

About fifteen people started mimicking my pronunciation of “teacher.”. There was a chorus of “tee chair. Tea chair. Tee churr.” Good, that’s some good English. Yes, good, work on your accents. Why am I alone in the classroom?

I asked in Spanish “Maestro … maestra…. Donde?”

No one answered me. Damn. I tried the president girl “Maestro, donde?”

She looked at me, I made exaggerated signs and had my shoulders past my ears in a where motion. “Donde donde?”

“No se” she giggled – I don’t know.

“Okay, everyone just, wait.” I sat down and pretended to write. Stop shushing everyone, stop waiting for me to start, everyone just hang out, please.

Blissfully she arrived almost 10 minutes late.

This was an older class, so I had them guess where I was from. Expecting the usual Hawaii/California/New York that everyone on Earth seems to know.

“Maine.” what? For real what 4th grade non-American student even knows about Maine?

“New York” okay, good but no.

“My cousin lives in Colorado” the class president blurted. Holy crap good guess.

We hit the Korea slides.

“China” some kid decided.

“No, no es China” my coteacher said.

“China” he said a few minutes later.
“It’s not China” we said.

“Japan” he told us

“It’s between China and Japan”

“Corea del Norte” some other kid said. North Korea.

“No. No. Not that.”

He went off in a tirade in Spanish. Kids looked on in horror. My coteacher translated maybe an 1/8th of what he had said. “He is concerned about the leader of North Korea having missiles.”

Okay Junior Current Events, tone it down.


This coteacher was a red blooded Andalucian woman, a European woman who has quite a lot of freedoms. When we went to the Korean students slide she lost it.

“They don’t have freedom! They don’t have the same freedoms you do!” she told the class. “You can keep your hair however you want” she grabbed a girl’s long hair to demonstrate. “They don’t have freedom!”

The 2nd grade teacher had also encountered this but had explained “well different schools have different rules”

“Why?” innocent 2nd graders asked, just trying to make sense of this crazy world.

“Because they have different principals”

“Oh.” Makes as much sense as anything else.

But this one was different. Two Muslim girls who keep their hair long for their religion were concerned about the Korean girls (according to my coteacher) After freedom was preached we established the Koreans have different religions and that … freedom. We didn’t get further than that.

The last class learned that people around the world do things differently. This class learned that they should be thankful for what they have. Both are right.

My own co-teacher didn’t know where my next class was so she sent me with an escort. A sweet faced little 10 year old slowly brought me just around the corner. “That was easy.” I told her “Facil” she smiled shyly. Of course I couldn’t have done it by myself with all the strange doors and ramps.


This class was a lot more engergetic, but the coteacher didn’t engage with them as much as the last one so we got through the powerpoint faster. These students had a lot more questions for me but they needed to practice their English. So they didn’t ask engaging questions but questions they could actually make in their second language.

“Do you like potato?” “Yes”

“Do you like tomato?” “Not really”

“Do you like unicorn?” “I have no idea”

“Do you like rabbit?” “To eat or to pet?” She made a face. Hey, your grocery stores have full rabbits in the meat section, I’m just trying to clarify. “To pet” “Sure, I guess”

“What’s your favorite fruit?” “Banana”

3 minutes later “Do you like banana?” “Yes” (passed that test, I hope)

“Do you like” (holds up notebook with Avengers on it) “No”

15 boys scramble to get their own movie notebooks.

“Do you like Pirates of the Car- …. Car- ….(holds up notebook)” Caribbean. The bane of my life as an ESL teacher. If you’re not pronouncing it you’re spelling it, Caribbean


“Do you like Walking Dead?” “What? No.” how does a 9 year old kid know what that is?

“Do you like tomato?” 20 kids shouted at him in shame “someone already asked that!”

“Do you like God?” “What?” Their accents sound like “dew jew laike got?” “Cat” my coteacher explained, “do you like cats?” This is a common question and every time “cat” sounds like “God.”

The bell rang. In every class I had taken the entire 45 minutes instead of the 10-20 I was supposed to use. It was fine because (worryingly) the other teachers didn’t seem to have anything else prepared.

I was trying to talk to my coteacher on the way out of school about expectations in her class but a kid fell down the stairs (he was okay!) but a crowd needed dispersing (memories of elementary school are flooding back to me so hard. I remember being this clumsy and being fascinated by plight).

The school exodus was unreal. I forget parents pick this age up so there were barking dogs and crying babies with parents everywhere.

The best part is that while I was at school for 3 hours Chris ran some much needed errands. This included accidentally finding the bombona man and buying 3 full bombonas! We’ll never run out again! We rejoiced with a hot shower and completely ignoring the hole in our wall and broken shutters. We’ll deal with that later.

2 thoughts on “First Day of School

  1. Ok, your day exhausted me! First thing that breaks my heart working in the school system for over 20 years was the lack of sympathy on the play ground. A simple “I’m sorry” or acknowledgement followed by telling them to go wash it wouldn’t be that difficult in my opinion….just saying. Secondly I think Sergei will be your friend, and lastly I think you made quite an impression on all those munchkins! Yeah for hot water!!


    1. It’s incredible how they handle things here. They’re really quite firm with the kids. The most amazing thing is that the teachers change rooms so the kids (even 1st grade) are left alone in the classroom between teachers. That’s pretty much illegal in the US so that’s a real shocker. Sergei will be my friend, I think I have one friend in every class. One of them is actually my neighbor upstairs and she plays the recorder late at night to impress us I think.


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