Corona, California, USA
I personally would not change the "lost" year I spent in a Spanish boarding school in El Escorial. In many ways it was torture, but positively the most eye-opening experience a 13 year old could have. If I only had one year to relive in Spain, that would be it. I arrived not speaking the language and was totally unprepared for the cultural differences. After two months of summer school, my sister and I were invited to go with a new friend to her home in Valencia. We lived with a Spanish family for two weeks, struggling through our new found "fluency".
When we returned to El Escorial, we enrolled in regular classes for our ages. I found that they (Tercero de Bachillerato) were behind me in Math (and I had to relearn how to do Multiplication and Division the Spanish way). In most everything else, they were ahead of me. It was difficult because I had to learn everything in Spanish and there was a lot of memorization and reciting of facts. I also had to master first year French (and I had only 3 months of Spanish behind me).
My parents came down with Hepatitis after a trip to Gibraltar, so our temporary stay as "internas" became a necessity and I ended up spending the rest of the year boarding (2 blocks from home). We slept in a dorm with probably 20 other girls and a nun behind a curtain near the door. We could shower every other day with warm water (I believe we got 3 minutes). On alternate days we used unheated tap water (El Escorial is basically "in the mountains") to wash up.
On days we didn't shower, we would typically dress under the covers. We were too modest, and it was too cold, to dress in the open. We got up really early because we were expected to go to Mass or something before breakfast (good thing I was Catholic, I felt sorry for the poor girls who weren't, they had to go through all the Catholic rituals anyway). Food was very different, but I must say, except for the "bifstek" and the fried eggs, either of which could have been used for shoe leather, the food was pretty good. Loved those meriendas with chocolate or condensed milk in/on bread! In the classroom, the nuns were capable of running the military. They didn't put up with anything!
ASM was still out at Dr. Fleming, so the commute for a 13 year old was out of the question, but because of my age and "language deficit", it wasn't going to be easy to fit me into the Bachillerato system academically, so I ended up going to Marymount in Barcelona and then to ASM in Aravaca for my final year.
However, that one year I spent in the Spanish school opened my eyes in a way ASM never would have. I never knew what it was like to be a "minority". Although I was well accepted by my peers and everyone else, I was still "la americana"... different. Before I left for Spain, I lived in a typical white-bread Southern California middle class world and, until one summer session between 7th and 8th grades, I had never known anyone who was not white. I have recently reconnected with a boy from my pre-Spain 7th/8th grade. My experience in Spain opened my eyes to the grief we put him through when he came to our school as a 7th grader. He was from Dallas, Texas and arrived speaking with a thick Texan accent three months prior to Kennedy getting shot. He was a bit surprised that I remembered or could identify with that. He put up with a lot because he was "different", but the assassination made it even worse. It didn't help that this was a Catholic school and he was our "Catholic President".
Would I really want to relive that year in Spanish boarding school? No! Looking back, that experience was probably one of the most important ones in my young life. I'm glad that I was given the opportunity, but I don't think I'd want to do it again. We are who we are, we take what we want from the opportunities presented us and we find our path (or not). Sometimes, it is the hardest times that give us the best experiences.
15 July 2003
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