He heard the horses coming before he could see them, but he knew they meant visitors and perhaps a treat.
It was late morning in rural Costa Rica and the school classes were not yet released for the midday break so seven-year-old Estaban was hanging around outside waiting for his friends who could all afford the school uniform of jeans and a blue T-shirt.
The horses, each with a pale rider, rounded the bar on the corner and headed for the fence across from the restaurant where they knew they were going to be tied, watered and rested while the pale ones ate fish or chicken noon meals with the tour guide.
The restaurant in this mountain town was not yet ready for them and so some went down the street to the bar for a cervesa and some went to the playing field where Estaban was kicking around a scuffed-up soccer ball. Some of the pale ones soon accepted Estaban's gestures to join him and the makeshift game of knock the ball about. Some may have noticed his limp but since it never slowed him down and he fell and rose in one easy motion it might have escaped the notice of others. He was a bright, personable young boy who could communicate well enough without knowing English. One player and one observer asked to take his picture and gave him some coins; he was endearing with his wide smile and animated, welcoming manner.
The pale ones soon tired under the noon sun and went to the restaurant.
Estaban followed and watched as they ate and drank. One of them offered him their drink of jugo de naranja and ordered a replacement.
When they left on their horses to go back over the top of the mountain and down through the coffee plantations into the valley where they had started out, Estaban ran and skipped along for a few blocks and one of them threw him a few coins as they rounded the last corner and headed up the road under the trees on which they had arrived.
Estaban went home for siesta.
After Raoul had finished his dish of red beans and rice with a little chicken meat, he went outside to sit under a tree with Estaban. Raoul was in the first grade and was willing to answer all of Estaban's questions about what Raoul had learned in school that morning. Estaban's insatiable curiosity about what Raoul was learning kept Raoul interested in spite of his previous indifference about going to school. As a peer teacher, Raoul was actually learning better than many in his class, in order to answer Estaban's questions. Often, Raoul had questions for his teacher when he returned after 2 o'clock that had not occurred to him earlier and for which he did not have enough understanding to answer Estaban. As a result, both Raoul and Estaban were mastering the content of the first grade.
Curiosity was so great in Estaban that he found ways to overhear what was going on in the classroom through the open windows. He found an old crate from behind the restaurant and would climb gingerly upon it so he could be closer still to the teachers voice.
Estaban lived with his grandmother in the barrios, a very poor area. The walls of his home were made of rusted corrugated siding, termite infested wood floors and very few furnishings. He would often ask when his parents were going to return for him, but it had been four years now and his grandmother sighed wearily after he went to bed knowing in her wise way that they most likely never would return. She did not have enough money to buy him the uniformed outfit that would permit him entrance into the local school, so his prospects of obtaining an education were remote.
To earn money for food for the two of them, she did the laundry for the village restaurant and a few locals who worked in the coffee fields and made a decent wage. Life for her was not easy but one of her few joys was the gleaming smile on her grandson's face after he would return from his daily lessons with Raoul. The excitement he showed whenever he had mastered something new delighted her. She had the practical wisdom of how this community operated but Estaban sometimes told her of things she did not know and that made her wonder what kind of life he would have and what kind of world he would grow to work and live in.
It was nearing the end of the school year and Raoul came bounding down the dusty lane where both he and Estaban called home. He was very excited about a contest that the teacher had devised to enthuse the slower students to learn more clearly the letters of the alphabet and simple number problems. When he met Estaban he told him about the contest and that the prize was a uniform for the second grade. Miss Garcia's brother, who works in the clothing store in the town, has offered a uniform as the prize.
Estaban said nothing for a moment and then his eyes widened. 'If that is the prize, it would get me into school next year', he thought and he grabbed Raoul by the shoulders.
"Raoul, I wonder if I could ask the teacher nicely, maybe she would let me be in the contest too."
Raoul laughed, but said "Why don't you try. It would be fun to have you in the contest with me."
That did it. A chance to get into school and a chance to test his skills with his buddy. He would plead for this chance.
The very next day, Estaban was there before any of the other class arrived. He had on his Sunday best and was shaking as he entered the classroom, that all the children took for granted. This was his first time inside, so he stopped and just smelled the air around him, before he walked to the front where the teacher, Miss Garcia, was arranging her days lesson plan.
"I have a question and a prayer for you. My question is about the contest you are giving all the grade one children, and my prayer is that you will say yes." he babbled.
"You speak in a riddle, my little one, what do you want?"
"My friend, Raoul, said you are having a contest to win a new uniform for grade two. I want to try to win."
"But you are too young. You aren't even in my class yet."
"I'm seven and as old as Raoul. I know I'm not enrolled, but could you make an exception? My grandmother does not have any extra money for a uniform so I can't go to school, and I want to learn so much .... please say yes, please, please!"
He was down tugging on her long woven skirt and she was touched so much by his welling tears, she could hardly think what to say next. She crouched down and looked Estaban in the eye.
"How do you think you could have a chance in the contest when you've never been to school?" she asked.
"I've been listening outside and asking Raoul to help me learn what he learns. Please let me have a chance to show you what he has taught me and that I am ready for the next grade." he pleaded.
Anita Garcia could hardly believe her ears. A student who wanted to learn so fervently that he went to these efforts was asking to be tested. She couldn't bring herself to say anything else, but yes.
"If you pass both tests in letters and numbers and come in first place, you will become a student in Centralez public school." she assured Estaban. "The contest will be on Friday morning. Be here at 9 o'clock and I'll let you be in the contest."
"Thank you, thank you, Ms. Garcia. Now I must run and tell grandmamma and Raoul."
"Estaban, can I ask you for a favour first?
"I guess so, Ms. Garcia. What do you want?
"I want you to tell your grandmother and Raoul but also tell them that it is to be a secret. I also ask you not to tell anyone else. I don't know how the parents and the principal will react if they hear about me letting someone who is not a student in our school take part in the contest. I can deal with them after the contest, if you win and if you don't win, it probably won't bother them to know that you were present. Will you do that for me, Estaban?" she asked.
"O K Miss Garcia, I can do that."
"Then get going because I'm about to ring the bell to call the students in. Good luck, Estaban."
"I'll see you Friday, Ms. Garcia. 'dios." and he raced out of the building to find Raoul.
He ran past the other children on the playground and grabbed Raoul.
"She said I could be in the contest but that we had to keep it a secret. I can tell grandmamma and you but we must not tell anyone else. Okay?"
"Sure. That's good. See you at noon; I must go in now."
Estaban galloped on home and told Grandmamma his good news. She had to sit down and hold him before she could speak. It was a prayer being answered with an opportunity but what would happen if Estaban did not win the uniform. How would he feel - devastated or only embarrassed? How would loss affect his enthusiasm for learning? She felt his excitement mix with her caution and said "It is a great opportunity, Estaban and I will pray for you to have clear thinking all morning long as I wash the tablecloths." She kissed him and stood up and stretched her back in an arch.
Estaban hugged her and went outside to draw letters in the dirt and call out their names. Raoul had taught him how to write his name and Raoul's name and he did that now and drew a circle around them. They were buddies. In two days they could be classmates.
He could hear the horses coming and he looked up from his printing. He might as well go to the field across from the restaurant. Raoul wouldn't be out of class for another hour.
February 1995 at Margarita Island, Venezuela
Copyright © 1995 Charles M. Bidwell