I can’t say that I know much about education in Paraguay, because I’ve only seen indirect manifestations of it. Jon and Nalena say that the limits of Paraguayan schools and a resulting lack of achievement in this area is a problem that has held this developing nation back. I believe them, but I don’t have the facts firsthand.
What I have seen are little snippets of the educational system, and what I can say is that kids are recognizably kids en todo del mundo.
I was at a school concert last night. Two English classes that Jon and Nalena have been teaching on Thursday nights came to an end earlier in the evening. They had a “certificate” ceremony where students who had attended received a paper—such papers are important in Paraguay, Nalena notes, and only those who had attended most of the classes received one.
At Nalena’s request, Audrey and I had made American treats—she baked an apple crisp, I made peanut butter cookies. Both proved popular.
Anyway, several of the students who had been in one of the classes are teens who attend a Catholic school that is just across the street from the offices where Jon and Nalena held the English classes, and they invited us to come over to the concert. Their grade, they assured us, would perform after 8 p.m., when the English classes were scheduled to end.
So we went over. The concert has already begun, but in Paraguay they do things a bit differently. Nobody hushes during a school concert, and constant comings and goings, as well as constant conversation, are simply how people behave.
The school apparently goes from lower grades all the way through high school, and they arranged the concert so that they skipped around between lower and upper grades. When one third grade performed, the daughter of one of the people Jon and Nalena works with sang, so Nalena and I joined the cluster of parents at the front of the aisle snapping photos.
Since it was a Catholic School, all of the songs were praises to Mary. And the concert took place in a kind of facility that would be very familiar at almost every older small-town school in Iowa: A gymatorium. There was a stage at one end of a large room, the floor was painted with basketball court lines and a hoop was at the other end, with stands along one side and most of the audience seated in removable chairs arranged on the gym floor.
The difference between this gymatorium and those found in Iowa was that one side of the space was completely open to a cobbled central school courtyard—in Iowa, our climate demands four, rather than three, walls on our school gyms.
It was interesting watching the school groups perform. The kids were noisy and boisterous, but mostly pretty serious when they got to sing (or at least stand up there and move their lips, I’m certain that some of that was going on, too). Most of them, except the special performers, were in the grey and white uniforms of their school, skirts for girls, pants for boys, black ties for both (sorry, SHS alums, no awkward jumpers).
Each class had designated one girl to be “Mary.” Some had rather elaborate skits that accompanied or preceded their songs, often in which Mary rescued someone from despair and helped her (always her) turn back to God.
Nalena asked one of the high school students from her English class if it was an honor to be Mary. Not really. The student replied, in Spanish: “The blonde girl gets to be Mary.”
Indeed, most of the Mary’s were rather lighter in hair tone than the other students in their grades—a bit of a historic anomaly. Given who Mary was and when she lived, she probably looked much more like the raven haired girls relegated to the chorus.
Anyway, the concert got a bit long, and we were fading by around 10, but we did see the group that had Jon and Nalena’s high school students in it. Despite the late hour (Paraguayans are night owls), I thought the concert was a hoot. It was just fun to watch all the kids be kids. In each group they varied in size and shape. Here in the fourth grade or so is the big boy in back who looks like he’s about to explode out of his suddenly undersized uniform. I felt for him. With my August birthday, I was always one of the youngest students in my grade, but nonetheless almost reach adult height in sixth grade.
One of the pleasures was the variety of skits and songs. At one point, a girl was in despair, surrounded by two twirling, black-costumed dancers, until Mary came to her and she perked up and white-clad ballerinas started twirling around. She was saved, by Maria, Mujer de Fe.
Anyway, we burst out laughing during another number. It was a rock-and-roll style tribute to the mother of Jesus—and two girls were, at first, the primary singers, but as they performed, a quartet of bad boys entered the stage behind them. We could tell they were bad boys—their uniform shirts were not tucked in, and their ties were loosened.
They proceeded to rap in praise of Mary. We’re not sure how the nun in the front row reacted.
School in Paraguay takes place in shifts, and students only have three hours of class time a day. High school science courses are deathly dull, a student told us, because chemistry, for instance, is strictly lecture—there is no lab.
That’s too bad, and I hope Paraguay finds ways to lengthen the school day, and extend more science labs for students. They’re just kids, after all, and have all the potential, problems and eccentricities of children anywhere.
We saw this school concert. Several days earlier, we viewed a long parade that featured the favored pupils of Villarrica in a procession that celebrated the republic’s glorious victory in an obscure 1930s war that left it in possession of most of a desert except the corner that has oil in it.
There’s a religious parallel there. Moses led the chosen people around a desert for 40 years until he settled into the one corner of the Middle East devoid of petroleum.
It seems to me that the Paraguayans sometimes take pride in the wrong things—but then again, militaristic displays using red white and blue motifs (the colors of Paraguay’s flag, too) are not a sin restricted to Paraguay. Still, despite the odd military overtones of the procession, the parade was mostly a day for school kids to dress up and march around and be admired by the town.
Worldwide, parents take pride in their kids. Well, they ought to. And I hope as time goes on, the education that those kids receive can be improved. I suppose that’s just as verdad en los estados unidos como es en la republica de Paraguay.