San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Serenata: Gringo Educator Meets Tico Tradition

ALL of us rememberthings we did andtraditions we carriedout in our senior year– that delectable andscary time when weknow we are justabout to escape fromthe confines of childhoodand enter intoadulthood. Costa Ricankids are no different;they just havedifferent traditions.In a private CostaRican high school where I was the seniorEnglish teacher, the principals are usuallyGringos, and the seniors have certain end of-year traditions – things like mud slidingand egg throwing – that don’t sit particularlywell with them.One of these is the tradition of the serenata,which works as follows: Sometimeduring their last semester, the girls plan asurprise serenata for the boys, and the boysplan a surprise serenata for the girls. Thisinvolves hiring a bus and, on a school night,going to the house of each and every memberof the opposite sex, rousting him or herout of bed with a song, and taking him orher to an all-night party. Of course, an all nightparty during the school week meansthat the entire senior class feels sick andmisses school the next day. This is the partthat doesn’t sit well with most principals.The second semester I taught there, wehad a new principal, a rather naïve U.S.Midwesterner we’ll call Mr. G. He was anice guy, but he neither spoke Spanish norhad any experience with Latin culture. Thefirst serenata occurred the second week ofAugust on a Wednesday night, so thatThursday I got to sit in an empty classroomall day. When the seniors returned toschool on Friday, Mr. G called them all toa general meeting in the auditorium andannounced that since they had all skippedschool on Thursday, they were required toattend school the next day, Saturday. Thedate was Friday, Aug. 14. The next day wasMother’s Day in Costa Rica.No one treads on Mother’s Day in thiscountry. Here, Mom is sacred, andMother’s Day ranks right up there withChristmas and Holy Week. Every otheradministrator on stage shuffled arounduncomfortably, but no one dared tell Mr. G.about it. Nor was it necessary because, atonce, several angry students jumped totheir feet and told him what they thought ofhis idea. In the midst of the uproar, it tookthe muddled new principal a while tounderstand he had committed a culturalboo-boo. Even then, he had no idea justhow serious a boo-boo it was. He suspendedthe assembly and sent the angry studentsback to class. Later in the day, he sentout a memo stating that the students didn’thave to come to school on Saturday, andthe issue would be resolved on Monday.The poor man had no idea with whomhe was dealing (and, in all fairness, howcould he?). The huge majority of the parentsof these kids, most of them wealthy,many of them in top posts in the government,had also attended this very highschool as teenagers and had participated inthe same end-of-senior-year traditions. Thenext Monday, all the members of the seniorclass brought excuse notes from their parentsstating they had not attended schoolon Thursday “due to illness.” There wasnothing Mr. G. could do.He was not, however, one to give up.He called another assembly and announcedthat there was to be no “next time.” If theentire senior class missed school again, hewould require doctor’s statements, medicalexams, etc. – in other words, absolute proofthat the absence was not due to a serenata.The seniors promised it wouldn’t happenagain. Nevertheless, a few weeks later, thenext serenata did indeed come to pass.Did the students come to class the nextday? Oh, they came all right. They camehalf-drunk, hung-over, dead with sleep,completely unable to listen, write oranswer. The senior teachers spent the daytending the sick and nothing else.One of my students, a tall, slender girlnamed Leah, came to class in such a badstate that she immediately curled up on theback counter and fell sound asleep. I coveredher up and went to all her other teachersand informed them she was asleep inmy room. None of them marked her absent.After all, what difference did it make whereshe was sleeping? All of the other studentswere simply sleepwalking from one class toanother and collapsing at their desks anyway.Leah slept there all day without oncewaking up. At the end of the day, I got herup and out the door to the bus.The students had obeyed orders. Theyhad not missed another day of school.Or had they?

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