April 20, 2004

rural boarding school

Northern Patagonia

The Llanada Grande Escuela Internado is only two years old, and in pretty good shape. The only things its missing is a gym and heat. For physical education all grades, 1-8, run up and down the corridor that connects all the classrooms, or shove their desks in the corner of the classroom for stretching. All the classrooms are equipped with small cylindrical wood stoves, fed sporadically by the teacher while she tends to writing on the board or circling among the kids. One kid wore a pair of gardening gloves to class, not a bad idea. I had long underwear and a jacket on all day and still managed to freeze most of the time. Half the kids wear plaid or tan coats, uniforms, and most wear slippers or woolen slipcovers over their shoes. Thirty pairs of black rubber boots stand outside the front door. I have no idea how each kid finds his own.

Approximately thirty kids live at the school for the duration of the school year, whose boots you won’t find outside, since they live in bunk rooms in the building, their homes a matter of hours away by trail, the furthest valley being Ventisquiero (Glacier), where the kids must travel a full day to get home. It makes it hardly worth it to go home on weekends, and some of the kids are left for the year, while others go home all the weekends that the weather holds up, which become fewer and fewer as winter comes on.

The school is lacking so much of everything. Most of the teachers teach two grades at a time, dividing their class in two rows. Because of the scarcity of books the 5th/6th grade teacher had students read passages silently which they picked from various models and editions of reading books and comment individually about them. Another teacher photocopied small bits of text which the students pasted into their notebooks, which then became a sort-of textbook. One teacher lectured, “the problem here is comprehension. So when you read, pay close attention.” Unfortunately, a third of the class couldn’t read.

The students aren’t typically allowed to bring books home. One teacher said, “I can’t count the times we’ve loaned a book and it disappears, then you visit the house and find it in the bathroom, being used as toilet paper.”

I expected a certain amount of claustrophobia, for the confinement, the rain, the lack of space and privacy. What I found was confirmed later on my bus ride out the valley, when I was one of two passengers, and put between the driver and his other passenger on the front seat, and between their conversation, instead of sitting in one of the various empty benches in the back. Proximity wasn’t shunned, it was savored. The girls of third and fourth grade adopted me immediately. They grabbed my hand when they saw me in the hall and snuck touches of my hair. I felt like The Beatles or Nicole Kidman.

The downside of being so special is my every move was broadcasted. I got lost coming home from school to the farmhouse one day. There are no streets in Llanada Grande, a few mud-bogged oxcart trails that end in houses, sinewy paths that meander and loop around straight-shot destinations. Instead, everyone takes the footpaths, which are a little distracting, crossing log cattle fence ladders, the re-paved municipal airstrip, fallen limbs over streams, flocks of ducks, piglets, horses, thick forest, open, ruddy farmland, thick, low forest, pegged wooden gates and fences.

Of course I wasn’t really lost, because I saw the landmark waterfall nearby, but I had roamed back and forth in the fields and the forest and still hadn’t found the farmhouse. Finally I headed for the house under the waterfall and a woman collecting wood gave me directions.

The next day at school a little girl came up to me. She turned out to be the wood-collector’s daugher. “You got lost yesterday?” The question was more puzzlement than inquiry. It drew the other kids closer like magnets.

An army lieutenant thought he saw my horse being prodded by another rider on the trail a few days back. “Impossible,” I tried to convince him. It was no use. Tourist season had ended, there were no other blondes to take cover in. Llanada knew me now.

Of course, like any other place it holds its secrets. But I was surprised to find the kind of stories that became public fodder. One day at recess a kid named Leandro, age 11, played the guitar and sang for me. The principal’s office was packed. I was dragged to the scene by my girlfriends in 3rd grade, who had set up the concert themselves, saying “there’s a kid who can play guitar and he sings about the guy who drowned in the Rio Ventisquiero.” Like a folktale, I thought. No, it had happened two years ago. They even dragged the little sister of the guy to the concert, saying, “She’s the one who lost her cousins.” The girl nodded sadly. I tried to offer my condolences while the music started—Ranchera—which has a huge following in rural Patagonia.

Little Leandro played a mean guitar, but he didn’t author the lyrics. Those were penned by a guy in the valley. The tragic song about the son and husband that was lost in the flooded river when his horse slipped was followed by one about a drunk man who goes to jail for killing another man (also inspired by true local events) and one about a man attempting to make conjugal visits to a married woman. I didn’t even ask about that one.

The kids of Llanada Grande escuela internado clapped along and cheered to the songs, their stories, of their valleys, which everyone knew by heart and counted among their few possessions.

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