Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard

It’s already Julio and I can say with confidence that after a month and a half I finally feel settled in Chile. I’ve learned the streets by driving my mamita’s car around (shout out to my high school sweetheart for hesitantly teaching me to drive stick shift in his beloved Acura on my eighteenth birthday after a year and a half of begging even though he cringed every time I stalled and never actually let me leave the parking lot); I have detangled the counter-intuitively designed public transportation system (the system is based off of “just knowing”); and I now know about half of my students names by heart (those that haven’t already lost their carefully crafted nametags).

There are hundreds of kids floating in and out of my classroom every day. Some come in shyly, standing around for a while before mustering up the courage to say “Hello, miss” then giggle and run out of the room. Others burst in uninhibited, shouting questions at me in rapid Spanish. The newest attraction in my room is my teacher corner where I have an expanding collage of photos from Italy, Penn State, and even one of me on my 13th birthday—when I was their age. The kids love asking about la universidad and Italia, but don’t really understand our Halloween costumes (especially Bobby and Kevin’s elaborate Gumby and Pokey get-ups sophomore year).

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I have been teaching in my own classroom for three weeks now. Most days, I leave school, buzz myself through the large penitentiary-esque gate, and amble down the gravel walkway towards the car with a smile on my face, replaying the hilarious interactions of the day. Other days, I can’t wait for the bell to ring. I don’t know at what point kids start getting out of control, but I can tell three minutes into a class if it’s going to end poorly or not. I try to steer the kids towards a game, bribe them with candy, or threaten them with grades…but attempted manipulation is much more exhausting than I would have thought. My voice has acquired that perpetual raspy effect, which some (and hopefully many) consider sexy, and I have had three separate colds.

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I am fairly certain that my host mother is wrong. It is not because I walk around the house in bare feet, nor because I go to bed with wet hair. I am sick all the time because I constantly have small children hugging me, kissing me, and holding my hands. Adorable to some extent, but the consequences have all but negated the terms of endearment. Obviously, the student-teacher relationship is very different in Chile. There aren’t clearly defined boundaries and legal obligations to distance yourself physical or emotionally from the kids.

The teachers are large parts of the kids lives, especially because the children that attend my school come from the most deprived parts of the cities without traditional family structures and some without their basic needs met. Sometimes I feel like the teachers act as foster parents almost and I’ve been advised that it’s okay to get close to my kids. But, with six cases of H1N1 in my school, I plan on keeping my distance until flu season subsides.

I typically work from 8 to 2 everyday day except for Tuesdays and Fridays, which are shorter days. Yeah, my work schedule rocks. I have time to go to the gym everyday (thank god, because my mamita feeds me way too much and gets this really hurt look on her face if I don’t finish my food). I have been trying out all the gym classes and have had some interesting encounters. Latin dance power, for example, was taken much more seriously that I anticipated and gringo giggling from the back of the room was not appreciate. Likewise, pilates was next to impossible and was oddly enough soundtracked by techno Spanish jams while all of the songs in my spinning class were overplayed a year ago in the States. I was sitting there spinning and singing, the only one who understood the words to “I kissed a girl and I liked it.” The class was pretty tough and when everyone stood up and stretched afterward, steam rose off of people’s heads and arms.

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In the past month, we have made two short trips back to Santiago. One was for less than 24 hours, because we had to attend a training for an “English Immersion Camp” and the other was just a weekend, just for fun. And that it was, until merciless thunderstorms severed our plans in Santiago, dispelled a potential trip to the beach, and invited yet another cold. Luckily, we got in another crazy dance party until 530 in the morning, tried some world famous ice cream (Rose flavored…who would have thought), and had a real cup of coffee. I am getting seriously sick of NesCafe, which is exactly what it sounds like…instant coffee. Thank goodness I like tea, because it is the only other option here that doesn’t contain three weeks worth sugar. Tea, tea, tea, and when I run out of tea bags at school, I just drink hot water. That sounds weird, but the schools are so incredibly cold (indoor heating does not exist in Chile) that my hands need something warm to grip. The tea soothes my throat as well, which is sore from talking ten decibels above screaming kids.

(A corner of my classroom. The collage on the right has grown three times as large since this picture, but feel special if you were featured in the original. Sorry Dad, Mark, Gray, and extended family—only Mom made the cut).

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While we were in Santiago, the Andes were especially clear. Usually in the winter in Santiago it is difficult to see the mountains because of the pollution, but on a good day they are disarming. As we were strolling from Bella Vista back to our hostel on Saturday we caught a glimpse through the high rises and between lines of autobuses. In Rancagua, the mountains are carefully defined and I am able to study their contours every morning on my drive to school (sometimes it’s hard to keep my eyes the road), on my walk to the gym, and I can even catch sorbet-swirled sunsets right through the windows of nuestra casa.

The mountains are beautiful, yes, but I am disenchanted by the weather. This has been the longest winter of my life and I am starting to lose my sanity. I definitely misjudged the weather here, feeling impenetrable after four State College winters. While it doesn’t snow here, mornings and evenings are around 30 degrees Fahrenheit, while afternoons spike up to the mid 50s. I don’t try to understand this fluctuation, I just accept it and layer accordingly. Luckily, I will get a break from perpetual winter in three days.

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Winter Break starts on Friday, so of course I have filled two weeks with sunshine. Laurel, Kelly, and I are heading up to Iquique, the “Miami” or Chile, for four days where the temperature is consistently 70-80 degrees Fahrenheit (above). After a few days roasting on the beach and hitting on surf instructors, we are taking a bus to San Pedro de Atacama. A famous tourist spot, San Pedro offers a number of attractions in addition to favorable temperatures: sandboarding, great salt basins, volcanoes, hot springs, and geysers (below).

The second week, Laurel, Cami, and I are working at an English Immersion Camp for the students of Valdivia (below). Valdivia is located in the southern, Lagos region. The region is known for its large lakes, ocean views, and rain while the city of Valdivia is famous for its German influence. Validvia produces a reputable, and delicious, beer called Kunstmann (go try a Kunstmann negro and thank me later), lots of marzipan, and hopefully some Bavarian soft pretzels. We only work from 10-5, with both weekends free, and all of our food, housing, transportation provided. AND we get a bonus in our petty stipend. Pretty good deal.

When I return from my Chilean excursions, my parents will be landing in Santiago and another week of adventures on their tab will commence.

Since everyone always asks…the answer is YES! I have favorites, and I feel like that’s okay because I’m not a real teacher.

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My favorite boys are by my side constantly. And my favorite girls actually aren’t even in my classes, they are little third graders who come and dance to reggaetón (less than modest moves, I might add) between classes. The little one in the center with a big smile and big green eyes is the one I am going to kidnap.

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Kate Springer

Freelance writer and editor based in Hong Kong. Contributor at CNN, Forbes Travel Guide, BBC Travel, Fodor's Travel Guide, superfuture, Tatler, and more.

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