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>The "New Boy!!" begins to fit in.

April 4, 2010

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This post picks up the thread from last week: my first day at Colegio Cervantes. I have often thought about how I, the American, was treated by the Mexican teachers and students, particularly in comparison to how Mexicans (I don’t think anyone ever used the term ‘Mexican-American then) were treated at my junior high school in Van Nuys, California, as well as by Anglo-Americans in general. Yet, I was accepted. Students accepted me the same as they would have accepted a new Mexican student. I never sensed any animosity other than what any “new boy!” would feel. Enjoy.

Dave


Luis

I turned and saw a friendly face. “My name’s Luis and I know yours. Teach said it was David. Teach also said I gotta help you.”     
            Luis Gomez was a gabacho, American-born but of Mexican descent and he was fluent in Spanish and English. He was tall, with black hair slicked back, had a long face with intense, dark eyes and an easy, outgoing manner. Luis took me under his wing. He was my interpreter, guide, intermediary, mentor and more during those first few weeks of making my way in a new school in a new country. He made sure I met some other English-speaking pachucos as well as the only other two gueros (light-skinned, i.e., Americans) at Cervantes: Richie Davis and Valentine Rathbun. Richie had lived in Mexico from the age of three. Val, like me, had been there only a short time and was still struggling with Spanish. He was in the salon next to mine.

            For the first two hours of the first day I sat in my seat and looked out the window at the intramural soccer fields next to the school, as if the students, the classroom, the school didn’t exist. I glanced furtively around the room now and then to see if the novelty of “new boy” had worn off, but they still stared and pointed and my attention quickly returned to the soccer fields, where absolutely nothing was happening. Resentment. Just over a year ago I’d been part of an intact family living in a comfortable American suburb and going to an American junior high school. I had friends who all spoke English, liked the same music, the same dances, the same performers, clothes and foods that I did. Now I was a thousand miles from home in a strange land, in a strange school, listening to a strange language spoken by boys who were in every way different from me. It wasn’t fair and I wasn’t going to accept it. I resolved to demand that Mom put me back in the American School.

            At ten o’clock a bell rang. Senor Torres stood up, picked up some papers from his desk and turned to leave the room. Immediately all the students got to their feet. Except me. I didn’t have a clue as to what was going on so I stayed seated. Luis thumped me on the shoulder. “You gotta stand whenever the teacher comes in or goes out,” he whispered, and I joined the rest of the students as Torres left the room. Respect, particularly for age and authority, was a way of life in Mexico. I hadn’t found my way yet.

             “We got a fifteen-minute recess and teach says I gotta show you ‘round,” Luis said as we left Salon 13 and stood on the broad walkway that ran the length of the school. We began our tour and I had to admit, to myself at least, that I was impressed with the school. I was reminded again that it actually looked like a school, rather than the converted mansion, that was the American School. It was nearly new, modern in design, with chemistry, physics and biology labs, a library, sculpting studio, theater and music room. There were the soccer fields I had seen adjoining the school and used by the various intramural teams. Across the playground from the main building were the Brothers’ quarters and the chapel where we went to First Friday mass every month. A food concession booth was located at the end of this building.

            The end-of-recess bell rang and we once again lined up to go into our rooms. I lined up behind Luis and we filed in to the classroom, silently. The number of students in the class surprised me. I counted six rows of desks with eight students in each row. Forty-eight of us (not that I was really thinking yet in terms of “us”). I’d never been in a class that large.

Over the next few weeks I began to relax and feel more comfortable at Cervantes, losing my resentment and opening up to a new and completely different way of life. Playing espirobol was a step forward in that change.
Espirobol

SNAPSHOT: It’s recess and the dozen or so espirobol poles on the playground all have knots of boys around them, playing, waiting to play or watching.
The large blacktop playground between the main building and the Brothers’ quarters had half a dozen basketball courts and perhaps a dozen poles for espirobol, literally, “spiralball”, the tether ball-like game I had seen when Mom and I came to register. I was fascinated by espirobol. It resembles tetherball only to the extent that there is a ball at the end of a rope attached to the top of a pole. The pole is shorter and the ball larger and pear-shaped with the smaller end affixed to the rope, usually no more than five or six feet long. The espirobol was also much softer than a tetherball because it was meant to be hit, and hit hard, with fist or forearm. The winner is the first person to wrap the rope completely around the pole.

While it’s true that tetherball can be a fast game, it’s not played with the kind of intensity and lightning speed that characterizes espirobol. The ball, constantly in motion, is never caught and held. Your opponent slams the espirobol and it comes at you fast. You, in turn, slam it back as hard as you can. Most boys (at least, the right-handed ones) play from the right side of the circle. This allows them to hit the ball with their forearm coming from over their head in much the same motion a jai alai player uses to fling the pelota back at the wall. If your opponent is good, he anticipates your return and is ready to blast it back before it can make even one turn around the pole. And because the rope is short, the ball is moving very fast. If you’re good, you do the same. If you’re both good, you establish a rhythm that picks up in tempo as the game progresses, neither of you allowing even one revolution around the pole, and each of you hitting the ball harder and harder. Eventually (and rarely does a game last more than a minute or two), one of you emerges the winner, ready to take on the next person. Some kids were good enough to occasionally take on, and beat, all comers during a recess.

SNAPSHOT: That’s Jaime on one side of the pole, his smile only slightly smug. That’s me on the other side of the pole, looking befuddled. And that’s the espirobol wrapped tightly around the pole. Most of the boys standing around watching have a satisfied “I knew the gringo would lose” look.
Over the next several days I spent most recesses hanging around the edge of the knot of boys watching one or another of the espirobol games or waiting in line to play. I wanted to play but didn’t have the nerve to get in line. Then one recess a boy named Jaime motioned me in to play, ahead of other boys in line. Curious to see how the gringo would do, no one objected.

I was the challenger so Jaime took the preferred position on the right. The boy next in line to play took the espirobol, held it briefly, then let it drop against the pole. Immediately, Jaime launched his attack, punching it hard and sending it sailing over my head. My arm punched air as my awkward leap to hit the ball was badly mistimed. As it came around to Jaime he hit it again, sending it flying around the pole even faster. Before I could react it was entirely wrapped around the pole and slowly unwinding. He had won touching the ball only twice. I was eliminated in less than ten seconds and without ever touching the ball. I felt really stupid. But then some of the kids smiled and slapped me on the back. Even though I didn’t know what they were saying, their words sounded encouraging. All of a sudden I felt good, like I’d passed a test or met a challenge. I knew that I’d be in line regularly from now on to play espirobol even though it meant going back into the classroom with my arm red and so battered and shaking I could hardly even hold my pencil, let alone write. But I was no longer the gringo outsider; I was just the gringo.

Next: Pantomiming History & A Real Education
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2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 5, 2010 5:09 am

    >Having sometimes been a "stranger in a strange land" even within my community, it intrigues me the way you have always been able to find magic connectors out there (or maybe they find you), and may be one thing that has helped you to become such an effective teacher. Love the description of espirobol and how it created a bond that you so fondly remember.juanson

  2. April 6, 2010 2:31 pm

    >I'd hoped to find some students playing espirobol when I visited in December, but that campus of Colegio Cervantes is now high school only and they took out the poles. Fortunately, I found the photo I used in one of my yearbooks.

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