Getting Schooled

Video: Colombian President Álvaro Uribe Vélez

April 4, 2006 10.05 a.m.

The mango was ripe. I wrote 30 sentences using imperfective and past tense, while spearing pieces of perfect orange with a fork. I was alarmed later to see Marta take out her red pen.

The first several sentences got red check marks, then there was a red X. It hurt me to see it. Later, on the next page, she made another correction. I hoped she would omit the red X. She made the correction in red, paused, then made the X at the end of the sentence.

Marta had suggested watching soap operas in Spanish, suggesting one from Colombia called “Betty the Ugly.” She also suggested listening to the radio. She closed my book when we did examples. It was much harder without looking. A black pen was added to the red and the blue. It made a rare appearance for the letter “U,” when it was pronounced.

There were case one verbs and case two verbs and case three verbs, written out longhand. I looked on from the side, watching a small purple stone on her right hand move slowly across the graph paper. Maybe there would come a time when I would leave the paper, leave the map.

I remember the first time it happened in Russia, in the old Rossiya Hotel. I had to go out with a driver whose father's name was Ivanovich. No where in case one or case two, or in any book, does it tell you to call a driver by only his father’s name, and when you did, to not pronounce the “ova.” I remember giving it a try, “Ivanich, let's go.”

April 3, 2006 1:47 p.m.

Marta had several pens in front of her on the small wooden desk. When a verb went irregular, she would put down her blue pen and pick up her red pen. It was very reassuring.

The chairs were wooden, too — some days a cushion, some days none. The chair was small, so sometimes I stood up and leaned against it.

I was taking a beating with irregular verbs: oir, ver... a few changed in the present tense and others changed in the past tense. The blue pen would go down and the red pen would come up.

There was coffee every two hours, brewed, with sugar and dried milk. At break time, Marta and I would get up and take a step out of the open-air booth. She was quite a bit smaller than I was. I stayed a step behind her and her head was not much higher than my waist. When she sat at the little table and I stood, she had to look almost straight up.

On Sundays Marta sold enchiladas from her house. She sold between 20 and 30 for about 50 cents each. She was saving the money to take her children to the Mayan ruins in the country. It would be an end-of-school year gift. They would travel by bus. It was an eight-hour ride.

March 22, 2006 9:15 a.m.
Bogota, Colombia

You can't roll down bulletproof windows, and you look like an amateur when you try. But you can tap them with your knuckle once in a while and it is a good feeling.

There is a man here who makes designer bulletproof clothing. He says he dresses three candidates in Mexico's presidential elections as well as several other Latin American leaders. Each leather coat has different levels of protection. What the designer said he liked the most was the flexibility of the material. Several times he reached out to the model and twisted the material with both hands.

To demonstrate the reliability of the clothing they brought out a lot of guns, from a .32 to an Uzi, and laid them out on the table. He asked me if I wanted to get shot on camera. I declined. Instead the designer shot his brother with a .38 in the lower left torso. It took him a while to fish out the slug. The brother was unmarked.

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