They arrived at school in their regular blue-and-yellow uniforms — polo shirts and navy pants, plaid skirts and crisp blouses. But nothing was ordinary during the first week of April for the 26 elementary school students. They took seats beside children they’d never met and greeted a teacher they did not know.
They were 1,200 miles from home, in long-forbidden Cuba.
The Spanish-immersion students from Prince George’s County, Md., traversed the communist island nation for eight days, a rare visit for U.S. students. They took classes, played baseball and danced for a Cuban audience in Havana. Their sojourn came in the immediate wake of President Obama’s historic visit, the first for a sitting U.S. president in more than 80 years, and at a time when travel restrictions between the countries have begun to loosen.
“It was amazing,” said Zora Chatman, 7, now back to classes at Maryland International Day School in Fort Washington. “I felt good because I was learning a different experience and speaking another language with children who are really fluent.”
Esther VanDeCruze Donawa, head and founder of the small, private school, said Cuban officials told her that the group of students — ages 5 to 13 — was the first of its kind from the United States to spend time in Cuban classrooms. She called the journey “life-changing.”
“I wanted them to attend school in Cuba, but the idea was for them to have a complete immersion experience, and they were with Cuban kids every day of the week,” she said.
The idea of traveling to Cuba goes back more than a decade for the school. Donawa said the country has fascinated her because of its high literacy rate and reading programs. She traveled to Cuba last summer, at the invitation of Rosemari Mealy, the grandparent of a former student, as part of a people-to-people exchange. There, she met Cuban officials who extended an invitation to the school.
The school previously had organized trips to other countries — the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Costa Rica — arranging to attend classes in a school for a week. The itinerary in Cuba, which the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples arranged, was more varied but included classrooms on two days.
The thrill of exploring the island nation had not faded as the students returned to their classes in Maryland. They recalled the country’s warm weather, its classic cars, its love of baseball.
And its children.
“We just talked and played games and interacted with each other — in Spanish, of course — and so that was awesome,” said Kenyatta Holman, 13.
Anthony Parris, 11, said he had expected children in Cuba to regard the Maryland students like anyone else. But he found that the children he met were surprised, and glad, to see their visitors. One day in class, they played a singing game called “Who Ate the Cake?”
“They were really happy with us, and they were constantly playing games with us, and they were asking us what we liked to do in America, how’s the weather, what sports,” the fifth-grader said.
Many of the children recalled one of the high moments of the trip as their baseball game with Cuban students. As the game was about to start — in an area called Matanzas, on the island’s northern shore — their hosts played Cuba’s national anthem.
When the song ended, the Maryland group assumed the ceremonies were over, but they suddenly heard a sound they did not expect: “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“We all kind of stood there shell-shocked,” Donawa said, adding that a U.S. flag was on display next to Cuba’s. “It just kind of told me that we have come a long way.”
She said that one Cuban official at the game said he had heard the U.S. national anthem twice in three weeks after not hearing it for years.
“It made me feel they have respect for us, and we had respect for them,” said Kedar Hudson, 11.
As both sides gathered for the game, it was clear that the Cuban children — wearing full baseball uniforms and gear — were more experienced at the game than the Maryland group (which plays soccer). To avoid a lopsided competition, the Cubans regrouped some of the players into new teams, instead of having the two groups compete against each other.
“It just kind of showed how these two countries can get along and mix in with each other,” said Jackson Adams, 13, a seventh-grader.
Later, when the Maryland students gave their new friends Washington Nationals hats — which the professional baseball team donated — the Cuban students took off their own caps and gave them to the Marylanders.
The children noted other memorable moments. They donned costumes in Havana for a performance of salsa, merengue and bachata, dancing for a crowd of hundreds. They visited a historic area where vintage cars were on display. They were part of a marine biology lesson that included a dolphin show.
And they made discoveries about the food and the scenery.
“The hamburgers were way much better than the American ones,” Anthony said.
Zora’s first impression of the island: “I was just like, ‘Is this really Cuba, or is this Florida?’ There were palm trees.”
The children recalled the classrooms they saw as fairly typical, though filled with more children than at their Maryland school. Some rooms did not have windows but had doors that opened onto a courtyard, with a breeze blowing in, they said.
“It felt like any other classroom, just with speaking Spanish and with more kids,” Kedar said. He joined a fourth-grade class. “I made a lot of new friends while I was in that classroom. They kept on asking us about how the United States was like, do they have certain sports, what do they eat, what do they wear to school.
“I said the United States has almost all the sports of the whole world because it’s really diverse with culture because most countries think the United States is the land of opportunity, so a lot of different cultures come with their traditions.”
At a school in Cardenas, the students split up by grade level and spent time in classes with children of similar ages. At a trade-focused school in Havana, they took classes in bread-making, soda-bottling and television broadcasting.
In a music class, Cuban children played the violin and sang a spiritual — “Wade in the Water” — for them in English.
Nigel Davis, 8, recalled making a friend while he attended a second-grade class and giving the student a pack of gum as a gift. “Muchas gracias,” the student responded.
In the days after they returned to the United States, many of the children wrote reflections about the trip.
“The eight days I spent in Cuba were some of the best days of my life,” Kenyatta wrote. “I made so many memories that I will never forget. Spending time there admiring the culture and people was definitely one of the highlights.”