We’ve done back to school in Panama, we had some back to school activities in Antigua and now it’s that time of year again… the Shermanitas are headed back to class here in Medellín. That statement sounds so simple and perhaps you nod and have a slight smile: “Oh how lovely”. Well let me tell you, it was a lot of work! Here’s how it all went down. (Spoiler alert: lots of self-back-patting will be forthcoming, feel free to join in).
Shortly after moving into our swanky apartment with a view of the
building next to us city, we headed up the hill to a school that our realtor told us about. It’s a private Catholic school and she says they’ve had foreign kids for a temporary enrollment in the past. Ah! I love it when someone has gone before me. Makes my path easier. Sometimes.
So we head into the school the second week in December, right after the students left for their “summer” break. We timed it perfectly that we were arriving in Medellín in time for the new school year to start in January. I’d like to say I planned it all out just like that but no, I did not. This makes up for our timing snafu in Panama where the girls went to school for 2 weeks in November, then took a 3 month break and went back in February and Haley needed an entirely new uniform. Live and learn, right? Yeah, tell that to Haley who was mortified the first day of 8th grade in Panama when she showed up in her old uniform and was told it was all wrong. #bygones
So we walk in to this Catholic school like we owned the place: “Hi we are here to enroll!”. We were greeted with big smiles but eyes that looked confused. “But this is not a bilingual school” the recepcionista said. “That’s OK, we want Spanish speaking” LONG PAUSE “OK then, welcome!”. From there we proceeded little by little to complete the process.
It took 4 visits to get the girls enrolled. Our first visit was when we walked in cold-calling and introduced ourselves. We ended that visit when they handed us a big folder of forms. Maybe they thought we would be intimidated by all the paperwork and maybe we’d go away. Well, paperwork is my middle name so I was up for the task. We (read: I) worked on the forms for a bit and when it came time to turn them back in, I saw that they wanted a transcript of classes. Uh, we don’t do transcripts and we haven’t done real “classes” for 3.5 years. So I did the Worldschooler thing and I FSO’d (that stands for Figure Shi!t Out for you new readers!). I created a resume for both girls where I listed as much official information as I could. I put in their schools in the USA, the school in Panama, the online classes they’ve taken, the countries we’ve visited, the museums we’ve gone to, and the subjects we’ve studied. This was some serious work. And then I got it all translated by an online friend who was super happy to help even though she didn’t know me. Colombians are so nice like that. I included pictures of some of the more significant learning opportunities we’ve had over the last few years and at the last minute Dan reminded me to put in a picture of us at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. “It’s the mother ship for a Catholic school so you gotta include it,” he said. He was right.
I was banking on the fact that we were not enrolling the kids as official students, but instead as “audientes” which I think means something like “audiences”. For us it means that the girls don’t get grades and they don’t take tests. They participate as much as they are able but the school is not responsible for them if they don’t learn squat. This term was called “oyentes” – listeners – in Panama so we were familiar with the process. I was happy that the school understood the process and even had a form, and a different fee structure, for such kids.
We went back for visit #2 to turn in the forms. Note: this school seems to like early morning activity. Every time we went they said to come back at 8 a.m. for the next step. Do they know we don’t like 8 a.m.? But OK, we do what we gotta do. So visit #2 was to turn in all the forms. They accepted the forms, told us “welcome to the family” and off we went. I wasn’t sure, but I thought we’d just show up in January a few days before school starts to confirm our enrollment. They told us we were officially “in” but I still wasn’t sure what was going to happen next. I played it cool and decided to let it play out naturally. Read: I stressed about it a little but frankly I was so busy trying to pull off a festive Christmas for the family to the point that I could not handle one.more.thing.
A few days later I got a phone call from my new friend at the school office. She said that the Directora wanted to meet with us. We went in at the unGodly (haha, get it?) hour of 8 a.m. yet again and had a lovely interview with the Sister who is the head of the school. I had prepped the girls to speak as much Spanish as possible to show the school that we could at least communicate, even if we all needed more practice. The Directora is probably the nicest person on the face of this earth, with no less than 3 hugs per child, some kisses, lots of “welcome” and she even gave us a few gifts like this pretty commemorative tin. At this interview the Sister Directora made it clear that she needed to meet the padre – Dan. This is visit #3 and so far no padre. So I told her I’d bring him in on visit #4.
The next day at – you guessed it – 8 a.m. I haul Dan in there (wearing his LONG PANTS and full on shoes… no flip flops) and introduced him around to my new friends. Everyone loved him despite the blank look in his eyes when they tried to talk to him. He impressed them by demonstrating his mad skillz at ordering a coke with ice in Spanish. Lots of giggles at that joke from Señor Dan. These people really knew how to slow down their speech for us and I understood pretty much everything that was going on so I translated for him. The Hermana/Directora gave me and Dan a full tour of the property, including the nuns’ residences and her living room. She was adorable. It was during this visit that my life came full circle. Some of you may know my 13-year career with AFS-USA, a high school exchange program. I had mentioned my love for studying in other countries from my time working at AFS when the girls and I met with the Directora previously. Sometimes I’m not sure if what I’m saying makes any sense but I tried to explain AFS to her anyway.
That next day during the interview with Dan, the Directora shows me a folder that was given to her the day before. It was an AFS Colombia folder! Same logo, familiar materials, it was all there! She said a father of one of the students had approached her and asked about having an exchange student from AFS at the school. This is my world! The Directora said that when the school starts up again, she wants me to come in and tell her all about the program from my perspective. I just about kissed her feet, this was so exciting for me. Not only does it mean that she understood my babbling from the day before, but that there is an AFS chapter in the area, a way for me to get involved in the school and some like-minded kids and parent volunteers. Dan giggled at my excitement because he knew all about my AFS career from the “let me tell you about my day” stories at dinner for 13 years.
After completing the lovely tour of the grounds for Dan, and after I finished gushing about AFS, we wished the school staff a happy holidays, they closed up for Christmas break and sent us on our way. Whew! A break from the 8 a.m. visits!
Even though they went on break, we still had a lot of work to do. The uniforms! So many pieces! And why do we have to trek 20 minutes across town via taxi to the lady who makes them? Dunno, but it’s what we were told to do so we did it. We had her make the skirts, the long sleeved blouse (for any possible chilly mornings and fancy holidays), the short sleeved blouses, and an unshapely vest that made Zoe very sad.
Then we bought the socks, the shoes, the PE shoes, the PE socks and then the PE uniform, including the reversible jacket that matches either the sweats or the skirt – your choice. Finally something that saved us a little money! The uniform pieces were about $150 USD per kid. The $5 school uniform skirts in Panama were a fond but distant memory.
I may or may not have asked for a PE uniform in my size. My PTO days are coming back to me, I know this role. You won’t be surprised to hear that while president of PTO at our school in Arizona, I was the one that got all the volunteers matching shirts. I love me a uniform. Even if it is just the same colored shirt.
Then came the supplies. So many supplies! But we had a detailed list from the school so at least we didn’t have to guess. Perhaps we didn’t need 1 notebook per subject like the list said, and Haley cheated a little by getting a 5-subject notebook. But we felt like we should try to go with the plan rather than buck the system so early on in our Colombian School Career. I say “we” because at this point I’m feeling as invested in the school, if not more so, as the girls.
The stores have an interesting system where the brand reps all hang out and help the kids shop for their items. The dude from the notebook company took us under his wing and helped Zoe search for her preferred color and design of notebook. Papermate company gal was very helpful in finding just the right pencils. And when I showed up the next day with Haley to do it all over again, they just laughed, grabbed her list and started handing us stuff to put in the cart. I’m ready to cry with happiness at this point, that I don’t have to do all the
Next we had to figure out transportation. The bus systems are private here. You contract with a private company to take your kids to school in these mini white buses. The school gave me the name of a company to call but I asked my realtor friend who she uses and she said private transportation was cheaper and faster. I like both of those things. And frankly I could not handle one more phone call in Spanish. Talking on the phone in Spanish is my kryptonite and I was ready to avoid it at all costs.
So I texted my buddy Ramiro, who was our tour guide to Guatape, and arranged for him to take the girls to and from school for the first week, until we knew more of how it might work out. It’s not too far to walk, but headed to school it’s UP UP UP the hill. I’m still trying to convince them to walk down the hill home. So far, no luck.
Finally, all the pieces started to come together. The holidays passed, January came, we picked up the rest of the uniform pieces from the lady across town, we went into the school to ask the ever-important questions such as can we wear earrings, can we wear makeup, what uniform do we wear on the first day and what time do we show up? They introduced us to the English teacher, Juan Carlos, who shares a name with our Christmas Elf on the Shelf. I hope no one tells him that. He talked to the girls a little while and asked if they knew any Spanish, such as “Quiero hamburguesa”. He looked a little surprised when they launched into a full history of how they learned Spanish in Panama – in Spanish. At this point I think he realized that his translation services would not be needed. Frankly he looked a little disappointed.
By now you’re probably on the edge of your seat: “Well?? How was their first day??” I will tell you all about it… in the next blog post. This one is long and I’m tired. Getting up early is not for the faint of heart. And those 8 a.m. visits to the school? Well, compared to the schedule when school is actually in session, that feels like sleeping in. #zzzz