07/20/09 — WCDS students take school trip to Mexico

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WCDS students take school trip to Mexico

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on July 20, 2009 1:46 PM

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Wayne Country Day students Cameron Ford, Georgia Tanner, Virginia Yarboro and Blake Marchese with a group of students in Valladolid, Mexico, after a pick-up game of soccer. They spent three weeks in Mexico on a trip to immerse them in the culture and language.

Each spring, Wayne County Day School Headmaster Todd Anderson takes a group of students on a trek through several foreign countries.

This year, he slowed things down a bit, with an educational twist.

The group of 12 -- 10 students and two chaperones -- visited Valladolid, a rural area of Mexico so remote that many inhabitants don't even speak Spanish, but rather Mayan.

The region, comparable to the size of Goldsboro, was chosen because it isn't a typical tourist destination, Anderson said.

"I didn't want them to be anywhere near where they would have any kind of significant experience with English," he said. "We wanted them to be isolated and stuck, because it's the only way to learn a language."

So, from June 15 until July 2, the rising juniors and seniors, who will be taking AP Spanish next year, were immersed in the culture and language.

The student group included Madison Bryan, Thomas Elmore, Kate Etheridge, Cameron Ford, Jay Grisette, Blake Marchese, Sloan Stewart, Georgia Tanner, William Whitley and Eleanor Yarboro.

Each morning, they spent two or three hours at a preparatory private school similar to Wayne Country Day.

"After school, we would hang out with kids, have lunch, then had a siesta from 1:30 to 3:30," Grisette said. "Every day we went and played soccer with kids from the school."

They were only allowed to speak Spanish, which was a challenge at first, Ms. Tanner said.

"They talk so fast and you just kind of have to sit there," she said. "It takes awhile for you to process it. As the day went on, it became easier to comprehend and understand what they were trying to say."

The recent swine flu epidemic almost worked to their advantage, Anderson said.

"They had to close (the schools) because of the influenza," he explained. "Normally they got out June 25. Frankly, the place was a ghost town and this place was especially wonderful because we really didn't share anything with anyone ever, and they were happy to have us."

There was a bit of a culture shock, the students said. Venturing out, it became obvious that there was a difference between the American influence of tourism and the Mexican influence.

"It was kind of neat," Grisette said, recalling a weekend excursion to Merida, an area similar to Raleigh.

"It's a lot more modern," Marchese said. "It kind of felt like an American city, Americanized Mexico."

Grisette called it "a cross between New York City and a farmer's market" with "dead chickens hanging up everywhere, fish everywhere -- it smelled bad."

It was a wake-up call in some ways, Marchese said.

"Even though the size was like Goldsboro, everybody walks, every building's made out of concrete," he said.

But as many differences as there were, the group also found much to like, especially among the natives. The Spanish-speaking residents were not only polite, Grisette said, but very patient with their visitors.

"I know I was speaking the way you speak in English, in Spanish," he said.

"It's a lot different talking to people that actually speak the language," Marchese said. "If you speak English, they're really nice and speak to you but if you try to speak Spanish, they're a lot more friendly."

Overall, the three-week trip was most positive, with each agreeing they would gladly go back.

"I didn't have a single bad experience with someone being negative or the safety issue," Grisette said. "It's really, really, really varying. Cancun is more like America than other parts -- you can't call it third-world, but I wasn't exactly prepared for what it was."

As it turned out, finding common ground was easier than anticipated, the students said.

"When in doubt, start playing soccer," Grisette said.

"People are just people," said Marchese. "Kids are just kids. They still have their own Mexican bands but there are (musical) groups they know around the world."

"And video games, like Guitar Hero," Grisette said.

"Or playing cards," Marchese added. "The only barrier between us was language, but once you overcame that, it's just kids."

Ms. Tanner's biggest obstacle was the food.

"I'm a very picky eater to start off with, but the people at the hotel were always very nice. They were just concerned," she said. "They had hamburgers and french fries and stuff, but it wasn't the same. I think it's just how they prepared it."

Shopping was also fun and prices reasonable, even moreso if you knew how to barter.

"If you didn't bargain, you would spend twice as much," said Marchese, who tried to buy a blanket for his mother. "They wanted 200 pesos, I only had 100 pesos. The guy said, 'Give me your hat.' So somebody now is walking around in my Wayne Country Day hat and my mom has a Mexican blanket."

The youths also traded clothes with their foreign peers.

"We gave them jerseys from our school, they gave us jerseys," Marchese said. "We brought stuff for them, but we really didn't know how we were going to give it to them. At the end of the trip, there was a group we were really close to."

The friendships are expected to continue, Grisette said.

"All of our Mexican friends have Facebook, so I'm still talking to them," he said.

The payoffs are expected to continue in other ways, too.

"It's going to make Spanish a lot easier," Grisette said. "We're going to have an advantage that a lot of kids do."

"You're not going to get better unless you speak it," Marchese said.

And, at the school that traditionally has at least two new international students each year, there will likely be a bit more empathy, the headmaster said.

"I think all of these guys are going to have an appreciation for what these kids go through," he said.