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March 28, 2010


If you ever had to change schools as a kid, you undoubtedly remember how apprehensive you were, particularly if the school year had already started. That was  my situation in this post, with the added stress of not speaking the language and not knowing the culture and customs. Nonetheless, it didn’t take long to fit in. Within six months I was fluently bilingual 
and completely assimilated. Got photos this time because I still have three Cervantes yearbooks, plus my student card from ’58-’59. I also took some pix last December when I returned, after 50 years. Enjoy and please leave a few thoughts. Thanx!


BTW – I’m really struggling with posting photos and the help suggestions offered by Blogger have not helped. I’ll keep trying.

Colegio Cervantes
SNAPSHOT: The Director of Colegio Cervantes sits behind his desk. Mom and I sit facing him. He has very fine light brown hair, thinning on top. His skin is pale and waxy. His icy blue eyes peer at us over wire frame glasses. As you might suspect from his appearance, he is a humorless man.
It’s done. Or, as I thought of it, I’m done for. I’m now enrolled at Colegio Cervantes. Mom finally had enough of the American School. I was not getting an education (although things weren’t nearly so bad for Valerie, in first grade) and neither of us was learning Spanish. This was a big deal for Mom. Unlike so many other American parents, she felt that to live in Mexico and not learn Spanish was a terrible waste of a wonderful opportunity and she was determined that we weren’t going to squander it. So in November she enrolled us in private Mexican schools. Valerie started primero de primaria (first grade) at Colegio Guadalupe, the school just down the street from us. It was run by the Sisters of Our Lady of Guadalupe. She wore a uniform consisting of black shoes and stockings, a navy blue skirt and white blouse. I started primero de secundaria (seventh grade – sigh) at Colegio Cervantes, a Catholic secondary school run by the order of Marists. Our uniform was dark pants, white shirt, dark blue jacket.

Did I want to leave the American School, where everyone spoke English and rock ‘n roll? Where students could wear what they wanted? Where I could look really cool and tough and with it by combing my hair in a DA and dressing every day according to the latest teen fashion edicts? A school where there were girls? Was I excited about transferring to a boys’ school? About wearing a uniform? And where I would be among the youngest? To a school where religion and discipline were both high priorities? Where my language was the foreign one? Of course I wasn’t. But the decision was made for me.

Colegio Cervantes, at Costa Rica 361, near downtown Guadalajara, was a private Catholic school for boys, from the first year of secundaria, through the last year of preparatoria, six years. It was run by the Marists and some 700 boys showed up each day. Tuition at the school was one hundred pesos a month: eight U.S. dollars.

Mom was doubly delighted. “For one thing, unlike the American School, there will be plenty of discipline at Cervantes.” That news that didn’t exactly thrill me. “It’s a Catholic school and I went to a Catholic school. I know how they do things.” She was just as delighted with the cost: eight bucks a month for one of the best schools in the city.

We went to register on a Friday afternoon. Mom wanted to go first thing in the morning but I begged her to wait until after school was out. “They’ll be a lot less busy then, Mom.” I had no idea if this was true but the last thing I wanted was for seven hundred boys to see me with my mother.

At 3:30 we left the house and fifteen minutes later we pulled up in front of the school. “What if no one speaks English, Mom? How will you register me?” This is called grasping at straws.

“I’m sure someone here speaks enough English to register you.”

Grasping at straws wasn’t going to work. We got out of the car and I surveyed the imposing brick and glass front of Colegio Cervantes. I had to admit that, unlike the American School, Colegio Cervantes actually looked like a school.

We walked through a large, airy passageway into the school proper and stopped, Mom because she wasn’t certain where the office was. I stopped for an entirely different reason: here, in front of me, were the seven hundred boys I had desperately wanted to avoid and I was sure every one of them was staring at me, sizing me up. What we hadn’t realized was that many schools in Mexico ran on a much different schedule from what we were used to. Cervantes had a four-hour morning session, ending at noon, and a two-hour afternoon session, starting at three o’clock. We had arrived during the afternoon recess. Just my luck!

Many of the boys were on the playground playing basketball or a strange game that looked a little (but only a little), like tetherball. Others were talking in small groups or simply walking around.

Mom stood there for a moment, looking for the office. Then, loud enough to be heard twenty feet in all directions, she asked, “Does anyone here speak English? We’re looking for the office.”

“M-o-o-o-m-m!” I hissed, my face as red as the tile floor we were standing on. “Mom! Let’s just look for it!”

Too late. All talking and activity within the sound of her voice ceased and heads swiveled to stare at us. I examined my shoes.

“I can help you,” a young man said, stepping out of the crowd. “You are looking for the office, no?”

“Yes, we are,” Mom smiled. “Where did you learn your English? It’s quite good.” I picked a speck of dirt off one of my shoes.

“Thank you. I study English since first year of primary, now eleven years.” I took a quick peek and saw a tall slender student, handsome (I was embarrassed to say so, even to myself), wearing dark glasses and with a neatly trimmed mustache. I bent over and scratched my ankle.

The student pointed off to our left. “The office is there, at the end.”

Mom beamed. “Thank you! ¡Gracias!” and we turned toward where he had pointed us.

“You certainly did a good job of not being seen, David. All anybody could see was your butt.”
“Well, I had to pull up my socks, Mom.” If they didn’t see my face, so much the better. When I showed up for classes, maybe they wouldn’t recognize me.

We quickly found the office and went in. My hopes that we wouldn’t find anyone who spoke English had been dashed by our encounter with the student who pointed out the office. “Mr. Helpful,” I thought to myself. “They can always find him.”

As it turned out there was a teacher in the office who spoke English and in about ten minutes I was a full-fledged member of the Colegio Cervantes student body. Yay.

First Day

This was it, Monday, November 19th, 1956. My first day. Mom drove me to school. Even before our blue Ford stopped in front a few minutes before the first bell I told her, “No, Mom, you don’t need to go in with me.” Actually, part of me did want her to go in with me so I wouldn’t have to make my way alone through a crowd of strangers speaking a foreign language in a new school. I slid out and closed the door. Mom dropped the Ford into first and she was gone. Nervous. Anxious. Fearful. Apprehensive. I felt all that and more as I made my way to my homeroom, Salon 13. I wondered if they’d recognize my butt.

I was relieved that no one seemed to take any particular notice of me. My notebook, pinned tightly between my arm and rib cage, was stuffed with everything Mom thought I’d need: pens, pencils, erasers, two packs of notebook paper, scissors, compass, ruler, even a metric conversion sheet. Students all around me laughed and carried on conversations (and once again I thought to myself, so fast! How do they understand one another?) I was hoping against hope that no one would think to include me, the new guy. My anxiety increased when I remembered that we’d been told that my homeroom teacher spoke no English.

SNAPSHOT: The large, square clock high on the third floor of the school lets us know the time: 8:00 AM. Seven hundred boys, ages twelve to eighteen, stand in class lines, waiting to be led into their rooms. A student stands stiffly in front of us, holding the Mexican flag. The actual scene was as silent as the snapshot.
A bell rang and students began forming lines on the playground. At first, I found myself near the front of the line for Salon 13. As more students arrived and the line got longer I kept dropping back. Invisibility not being a possibility, I opted for the next best thing: being as inconspicuous as possible, minimizing, if not eliminating, any possibility of being noticed or spoken to. I looked around and saw that students from every room were lined up in equally long lines. I also noticed that the lines were quiet and orderly.

Another bell rang and immediately everyone fell silent, much to my relief. Next came one of the older boys carrying the Mexican flag. He stood in front of the assembled students and a voice barked a short command over the PA. The seven hundred assembled students placed their right arm over their chest, palm down and parallel with the ground. I had no idea what was going on. It reminded me of the Flash Gordon serials I used to watch on TV: the minions of Ming the Merciless saluting him. Then the PA system blared out the strains of what I would later learn was the Mexican national anthem, Mexicanos Al Grito de Guerra. At this point I figured out that the hand gesture was equivalent to Americans putting our hand over our heart for our flag and national anthem, but then I was faced with a new problem: Do I salute? If I do, will they beat me up because I’m not Mexican? If I don’t, will they beat me up because I didn’t respect the flag and the anthem? Will they even notice one way or the other and beat me up anyway? A lose-lose-lose situation. I was truly worried about being beaten up by Mexican boys for a couple of reasons. I’d overheard adults talking about the hostility many Mexicans had for Americans, how they’d try to cheat us whenever they could and how they used “gringo” as an insult. More to the point, I’m the new boy in a boys’ school where there’s bound to be a pecking order I’ll have to fit into. I felt like I was walking around with a sign on my back that read “Beat Me Up!”

Undecided, I remained in the default mode of no salute. I moved forward silently with the rest of the boys into our classrooms, ready to start the day. I wondered when the beating would start.

My classmates began walking into Salon 13 and I realized, too late, that I’d be just about the last one in. That meant everyone else would be in place watching me. To avoid any eye contact as I walked into the room, I studied the ceiling and light fixtures. The room was large and airy, with a wall of windows opposite the door letting in a flood of sunlight. The floor was tiled. A clock hung on the back wall where the teachers, but not the students, could see it. At least not without craning around. (I learned later that students were not supposed to do that.) There was a PA speaker on the wall in the front of the room, a Mexican flag in one front corner, and the teacher’s desk in the other. A blackboard ran the length of the room’s front wall. Several rows of desks were bumped up against one another.

I stood hesitantly just inside the door, taking all this in, wondering what I was supposed to do, where I was supposed to sit. Salon 13’s homeroom teacher, Torres, put a gentle hand on my shoulder and started talking to me, saying what I’d no idea, until he pointed out an empty desk by the window on the far side of the room, about halfway down the row. I nodded, walked past all the stares that were now coming my way (“New boy! New boy! And look! He has a “Beat Me Up!” sign on his back!”), took my seat and stared stiffly ahead. I still wasn’t about to make eye contact with anyone.

An announcement came over the PA system and Senor Torres motioned everyone to stand. I stood with the rest, wondering what was happening. He bowed his head, closed his eyes and the PA system began to intone what I quickly realized was a prayer, my first reminder that this was, after all, a Catholic school. The other students intoned in unison, some casting covert glances in my direction. Prayer finished, we all sat down again. Senor Torres began talking to the class and in a sudden panic I realized that he was talking about me, introducing me. He motioned me to stand up, as if I didn’t already stand out with my blue eyes, light brown hair and much paler skin. Plus the sign on my back, of course. He said a few more things and motioned me to sit down. As soon as I did a voice behind me said, in perfect English, “How ya doin’? Nervous?”

Colegio Cervantes Today





One Comment leave one →
  1. March 29, 2010 8:44 pm

    >You have a great memory and eye for the terror and humor we all experience when stepping into a new environment. This one really brings life to the whole slice of time. Enjoyable.Nirojo

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