Gabrielle is 11 years old. She’s four and a half feet tall and doesn’t weigh much more than a couple sacks of groceries. Her black hair shines in the dim light of the dingy classroom as she nervously twirls it in the fingers of her right hand. Her eyes are almost black, the whites bright white; her smile, a contagious flash of fun, bursts like a sunrise from flawless cinnamon skin.
With dogged determination and mixed success she tries to pronounce the word “like” using just one syllable. I suggest she try to use it in a sentence. She gamely asks, “Jew lee-keh choe-koe-lah-teh?” I answer her truthfully, “Yes, I like chocolate.” I choose to ignore the confusing complexities of the verb “to do.”
She and five other Costa Rican adolescents show up voluntarily to study English three times a week at a little school in Santa Ana, Costa Rica. The school is supported by a private Costa Rican business. This writer volunteers as the gringo native speaker. The students are beginners so there is plenty of Spanish spoken, and God knows, this gringo viejo needs the practice.
The school is a humble building. There are two single florescent tubes attached crookedly to the ceiling. One of them works, smearing the room with a dim gray light. The floor is bare concrete. The walls show evidence of paint applied long, long ago. Four wires coil down the far wall from two cheap ceiling fans. Five feet above the floor black tape joins them to two other wires protruding from a four-inch hole.
There’s a sink in the back of the room and a bookcase with rows of what look to be new, unused books. An old TV mutely occupies the center shelf. A map of Costa Rica hangs on the wall in the space between the single window and the door. Modern white-board covers the front wall.
There are three boys and three girls in the class. The two other girls, Raquella and Maria, are a little older than Gabrielle, 14 or 15 maybe. Typically attractive young Ticas, they wear tight, revealing clothing with plunging necklines. The three boys, Juan, Simon (pronounced with the accent on the end), and Daniel, all around 14, are more or less constantly distracted by the necklines and the prodding, squealing and giggling of the two older girls. The boys don’t seem to mind. Occasional discussion of the English language barely penetrates the swirling hormonal fog.
The Costa Rican teacher speaks excellent English. He teaches eight hours a day in this school. These are the last two hours of his day. The kids have worn him down and are in full control. Little or no English is spoken. The students are translating a random smattering of English words using English/Spanish dictionaries. Raw beginners, I wonder what use they will make of words like, skull, golf and proud.
I don’t have much to do. The students listen and repeat as I pronounce the words on the board. I answer a few questions. They go back to fooling around and make halting progress in their translation assignment.
Gabrielle comes up to me during a break in class. She tells me she has a girlfriend in the United States. She doesn’t know where her girlfriend lives, but thinks it might be in Nueva Jork. She would like to go the United States someday she says.
We’re speaking Spanish. I ask if she goes to school. She says no. I ask why. She says she can’t go to school because she is a Nica. A Nica is someone from Nicaragua, a minority here, looked down upon by many Costa Ricans. She is an illegal immigrant and doesn’t have papers. I think about giving up Spanish so I won’t have to discover things like this.
Last week I read an internet report that Costa Rica’s child protection agency was threatening to take a child away from an American expat family because, after an intolerably bad experience in a Costa Rican public school, the expats were schooling their eight-year-old son at home. An offended teacher reported them to the Child Protection police.
It turns out that not allowing your child to be bullied by his classmates and ignored by his teacher in a crappy Costa Rican elementary school is the bureaucratic equivalent of “child abuse.” Talking to Gabrielle, I was having a disconnect from the mythology of the splendid success of government schooling in Costa Rica. Child Protection bureaucrats were going to force a rich foreign boy to go to a lousy public school while they kept a poor foreign girl from going to any school at all. It occurred to me that public bureaucracies are the same everywhere, self-interested, ineffective, defensive, and vindictive. Education, if it appears at all on a list of priorities, is very close to the bottom.
I didn’t know what to say to Gabrielle. I wanted to figure out some way to get her an education. I wanted to take her home and teach her to read myself. But the low trajectory of an uneducated life didn’t concern her. She was much more interested in the romantic poetry of Latin pop music. She wanted to know how it sounded in English.
What is the English for “Eres bonita?” she asked.
I answer, “You are beautiful.” Beautiful is a challenging mouthful of vowels for the native speaker of Spanish. She repeated it many times. You are beautiful. You are beautiful. You are beautiful. She loved saying it. After a dozen tries she was understandable, sounding like a pixie bandida in a spaghetti western.
She also wanted to know the English for that timeless touchstone of Latin crooning, “Te amo por siempre.” “How do you say it?” she asked, delightfully unselfconscious, as if “Te amo por siempre” were the name of a bus stop.
“I love you forever,” I answered. She made me repeat it a dozen times, imitating me after each one until she thought she had it just about right. Then she ran over and tried it out on Daniel. He seemed pleased.