I was a fairly typical suburban New Jersey high school kid just starting my sophomore year when the idea of moving to Argentina was first brought up. My father had been offered a transfer from Exxon and I was being given the option of vetoing it as I was midway through my mediocre high school “career.”
The move wasn’t going to happen until the following summer but I had to say yay or nay fairly quickly. First thing I did was find an atlas (no Google maps back then, of course) and tried to figure out where the hell it was.
It was far away, I learned quickly.
I mulled the pro and con of it and fairly quickly came to the decision to make the move. The fact of the matter was simply that I didn’t have a whole lot going for me at Madison High School. Known to many as “little Hook” after two of my brothers preceded me at the school, I had only a handful of friends and wasn’t really involved in much by way of extra curriculars. A new start was cool by me.
That year passed pretty quickly (and was easily my best year in the Madison school system interestingly enough) but come August 4th, 1987 I started my junior year at “Asociación Escuelas Lincoln”, “The American Community School”, or, as we simply called it: Lincoln.
There weren’t a huge number of students at the school. My class back in New Jersey would graduate more students than the entire high school in Buenos Aires. My junior class had about fifty kids in total. And the turnover rate year-to-year was probably about 40%. In numbers, that meant about twenty of my junior year classmates wouldn’t be there at the start of our senior year. Of course, they would be replaced by a group of twenty new kids.
On that Tuesday in August (I missed the first day of school on Monday as I was, you know, flying halfway around the world) I was a one of those new kids. I had been a new kid before – a number of times, in fact. We had moved to New Jersey when I was starting the 5th grade. I then moved from one elementary school to another across town one year later, then to junior high school the year after that.
I was ready for that awkward few weeks where the other kids just look at you funny and no one much talks to you. That’s what being a new kid meant.
Not so at Lincoln. The simple fact of the matter is that when you lose nearly half your classmates on an annual basis there simply are too many new ones to ignore. I didn’t know this going in and was quiet and shy. But when lunch rolled around, two gregarious classmates – Dalyta and Karina – literally grabbed my hand, took me down to the cafeteria, and had me sit with them. They introduced me to everyone else at the table and my year was off and running.
It was a whirlwind two years at that school. I had a tremendous time and, while I’m fearful of sounding like a high school quarterback looking back on past glories, they were easily two of the best years of my life so far.
The school doesn’t allow for people to be in a shell. There were too few kids and too little time to waste of it hiding in a corner.
You could chop up the student body in a few different ways. Geographically speaking, about a third of us were from the United States. There were also big chunks of Asians and Argentines. And then there was the “everyone else” group. There were kids from all over the world. Everyone spoke more or less perfect English and, pretty much without exception, at least one other language. Many of the kids were fluent in three or more.
It was not at all uncommon to walk in the courtyards and hear a conversation flow in and out of various languages seamlessly. You know how there are those words and idioms that don’t really translate? Well, kids would use those in whatever tongue worked and just insert them into whatever other language they were speaking. It was dizzying for me – what with my only speaking English and a fairly plodding Spanish.
The other way to classify students was by what brought them to southern South America. It was pretty simple in this case: oil, government, or God.
There weren’t many multi-national corporations doing business in Argentina in the late 80’s. But oil was. A couple others, too, but Big Oil is happy to dispatch families all over the globe. So, too, is the U.S. government who had a large contingent of military and diplomatic families in Buenos Aires. The U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires was a huge block of building and the only place in the entire city over 10-million people where I could get Oreo cookies. This was important. Doritos, too.
Most of the kids from the “everyone else” group were also kids of diplomats.
Finally, there was God. I admittedly have only the loosest grasp of most things religious, but I was surprised that there were so many missionaries in a country that was already so heavily Christian (the country’s constitution proclaims, in writing, that it “sustains the apostolic Roman Catholic faith”) but there were. The Mormons and Southern Baptists seemed to be most heavy in numbers but there were others mixed in there as well.
Try doing a Venn diagram that broke down this relatively small population and there would be simply too many circles to make them all intersect.
I, for instance, dated three girls in my time there and they were, in chronological order, the daughters of a Puerto Rican military officer (who scared me speechless), a Norwegian diplomat (who quizzed me of the policies of FDR), and a Southern Baptist missionary (who mainly just glared at the atheist who was standing next to his daughter.)
This was a worldly group of kids that I went to school with on a daily basis and we did some worldly things too. Lincoln hosted an athletic meet where similar schools from the other South American countries came and competed for a few days. We hosted students from these other schools in our homes and it was some incredibly friendly and enriching that I’m pretty sure we learned more life lessons than any Texas football kid ever could.
No athlete myself, I travelled to Bolivia for a forensics meet my senior year. Again – meeting kids from schools all over the continent and countries all over the world. When I went to school in New Jersey, the furthest we ever ventured was East Stroudsberg, Pennsylvania. There weren’t even any kids from the Keystone State there – all New Jerseyites.
Our senior trip was a multi-day trip up into the Andes Mountains. The “community service” student group was the largest in the school and so popular it was limited to just juniors and seniors. And we did real community service like working to improve the conditions at an impoverished day care center in the city. At the snobby boarding school I spent a year in after Buenos Aires, rich kids complained that they were required to do fifteen hours of community service a YEAR and working on political campaigns counted for credit. We’d do fifteen hours in a week and not handing out “Vote For Richie McMoneybags” bumper stickers.
In the end, it’s hard to put into words everything I got from spending two years going to this school in this country. I made friends that I still speak to periodically which number far greater than those I kept after three times as long in the New Jersey schools I attended. I went to this school as simply myself. No one knew me as the little brother of two other guys.
All of this just touches on my time at school. My two years in Argentina is sometimes divided this way in my mind. “At school” being one; “everywhere else” being the other. And as different as things were inside school, the differences outside of it were even more dramatic.