In the weeks leading up to our departure for Guatemala, my 6-year-old son was obsessed with death.
“How do you get malaria?” Reid asked one morning as he pedaled alongside me on my run near our home in Maine.
Later that afternoon, he had moved on to rabies. “What if a dog with rabies bit you, and you were the last person on Earth, and you couldn’t get the vaccine?”
The young fellow had reason to feel unsettled. Our family of four was culling our large house’s possessions down to what we could carry in four duffel bags, preparing to move to Central America for a year. The majority of that time would be spent in a cloud forest in Costa Rica, but to jump-start our Spanish, we had signed up for a month of language lessons and a homestay in the Guatemalan Highlands.
Two weeks later, after several bus and plane rides, we were finally in Guatemala, meeting our host family. On our first morning at the language school, our family split up, each of us assigned to a private tutor with whom we would study for four hours every morning. Beautifully dressed in a vibrant hand-embroidered huipil blouse, my teacher immediately launched me into conversations. She soon had me feeling like I was gossiping with a girlfriend back home, only in Spanish, in a tropical garden, overlooking a stunning blue lake with volcanoes in the background. By the end of that first morning, I was in love with language school.
But I wondered about Reid. Walking hand-in-hand with him back to our host family’s house for lunch, I asked how his lesson had been.
“Bad. I didn’t understand anything. I don’t want to go back tomorrow, Mommy.”
“Oh, Hon, with more practice, we’ll all start to understand more.”
“We won’t,” he said.
I knew better than to pursue this conversation.
Over the next few weeks, our family fell into a routine. In the mornings, we had our individual lessons, and in the afternoons, we enjoyed getting to know our host family. They nicknamed Reid “El Colochon,” the curly-haired one, and doted on him, slipping him extra pieces of cake, tousling his hair and bragging about how he, unlike the rest of us, never got sick.
Despite this love, and Reid’s characteristic air of quiet confidence, I could tell that inside he was suffering through what felt like a Spanish trial-by-fire. He took to obsessively rereading a graphic novel, “El Deafo”, about an American hearing-impaired girl who often felt left out because she couldn’t understand what was being said to her.
One afternoon, as we sat in a cafe sipping papaya and pineapple smoothies, Reid jumped out of his chair when a Coldplay song interrupted the stream of Latin music. “English, Mommy! Finally.”
I tried to reassure myself that Reid’s discomfort was natural, even good. He had enjoyed many benefits growing up in rural New England, but cultural diversity, multilingualism and the humbling experience of feeling like an outsider had not featured prominently in his childhood. These were all experiences I valued, and so would he, I told myself. Eventually. But the line between sharing my values with my child and living them out through his life was fine. Sometimes I wondered if I was pushing too hard.
During our fourth week of lessons, Reid and his teacher obsessively practiced “La Cucaracha,” the song they would soon perform in front of the whole school. One morning, the sound of their shaking maracas and ukulele strumming suddenly stopped, and his teacher interrupted my lesson. Reid had locked himself in a bathroom stall. When I coaxed him to unlock the door, I discovered a quivering, red-faced little boy, sobbing in the corner. I scooped him up, locked the stall door from the inside and settled down on the toilet seat to hold Reid in my lap.
“Too much pressure with the song?” I asked.
The wet face, nestled into my shoulder, nodded.
A week later when our month of Spanish lessons drew to a close and we boarded a plane for our more permanent home in Costa Rica, I was relieved for Reid. Stability was on the horizon. Nevertheless, he had many questions: How many seconds are in a year? Is Costa Rica close to Maine? Do people there speak more English? I realized how much we were requiring Reid to trust us, how much control he was forced to cede on unchosen adventures like these. Time and geography are such an enigma to the young mind, and clearly my long-standing dream of exposing Reid to another language and culture wasn’t at the top of his 6-year-old’s list of joys.
Two weeks later, I was picking Reid up after his first day at his bilingual school on the Costa Rican continental divide. “How was it?” I asked.
“Bad,” he groaned. “The Spanish teacher is mean. I don’t want to go back.”
But the next day he declared Spanish was fun, and on the third day when I came to pick him up, he grabbed my hand and skipped me out to the playground’s treacherous course of half-buried tires. Wanting to match his enthusiasm, I climbed up on one. The tire wobbled, but then held my weight, so I lunged to the next one. It buckled under me, and I fell hard on my wrists, collapsing to the ground.
Reid leapt past me, nimbly negotiating the firm and soft tires, his body already able to predict which ones would fold. “Qué fácil!” he squealed, commenting on how easy this all was.
He grinned at me and I smiled back, in awe of youth’s resilience. I didn’t want to call him out, but Reid was speaking in Spanish, even though he didn’t have to.
Katie Quirk writes at warmerthancanada.com about family gap years abroad and her family’s experience in Central America. She is the author of “A Girl Called Problem,” a middle-grade novel set in East Africa.
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