When World War III was being waged in the place I had no choice but to call “home,” I found a haven in school. I loved school. I loved the solidity and the orderliness of it, the fact that it followed a strict schedule — punctuated by bells — and everyone knew (or should have known) where they belonged and when. Despite the occasional bomb drills that had us kids lined up in layers against the hallway walls, I felt safe there.

I loved my teachers. I loved seeing their faces brighten when I shot my skinny arm up in the air and announced what I hoped would be the correct answers. I made sure to sit in the front row so I could see the blackboard better – and so that my teachers wouldn’t miss me. I made sure to do all my homework. I did my best (with zero parental urging, since they were too busy warring) to get good grades.

Did my classmates mock me, calling me “teacher’s pet” behind my back? I never knew. And I really wouldn’t have cared because my teachers’ opinions mattered more to me than my classmates’. I only wanted to please my teachers. Popularity, if it were to ever come, I decided early on, could wait.

I loved books. Books, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson, “took me lands away.” They were the magic carpets I rode to escape the domestic violence I witnessed at home in the run-up to my parents’ overdue divorce. Books showed me other worlds, other ways of being – some better, some worse. Lucky me, I thought, not to be living in Dickens’ London as a hungry, dirty, little street waif!

Books gave me perspective. I lived in a red-brick house in a nice-enough town, and my mother made sure we took baths and ate three healthy meals a day. Books taught me, though, that I needn’t be stuck behind the barricades forever.

It’s no wonder then that I ultimately became a teacher (in New York, in Africa, in New Mexico, and now in “old” Mexico), a writer of books (three memoirs), and a lover of schooling in all its forms. Schooling, to me, is like hiking – a gerund (noun) derived from a verb: it’s ongoing, upward-moving, vista-expanding. The word “learning,” is fine, of course; but to me it’s too amorphous. “Schooling” has more architectural structure; you can visualize a school. I often think that life is just one big school, and I’m stubbornly determined to pass my tests.

Here and now, as an American expat retiree in San Miguel de Allende, the “courses” I’m taking in the school program I’ve constructed for myself are: Spanish (private lessons each week with my delightful young Mexican teacher Edith), English Literature (I read a lot), Urban Sketching (a humbling weekly endeavor since I’m such a beginner), International Folk Dancing (also humbling because I feel like a klutz), and Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL).

As for the TESL, I’m winging it. Or, I should say, I hide behind my puppets and let them do the teaching at the little afterschool program, Aprendizaje del Ingles, where I volunteer on Wednesdays during the school year. This past Wednesday, my last before the kids’ summer recess, Linda, the school’s wonderful creator and director, took my picture with the students:

The ninos and me last Wednesday. (Antonio is in the front, far right, wearing red shoes.)

The lesson for that day was “I like ____________/I don’t like___________.” I’d brought my puppet Jake the Snake with me, and the kids began by asking him (in English) what he liked.

Pablo asked, “Do you like ice cream?”

Jake shook his head vigorously, causing his mop of red yarn hair to fly. “No! I don’t like ice cream,” he said. “Snakes don’t eat ice cream!” The kids laughed.

My pet (I confess), Antonio, shot his skinny little arm into the air. “Do you like my hand?”

With that, Jake nodded. “YES! I LOVE your hand!” He told the kids, “Antonio’s hand is DELICIOUS!” Antonio cracked up laughing as Jake made a beeline to nibble on his hand. We all laughed.

Antonio is only about seven years old, but I can almost see his future. While the other adorable kids were drawing the puppies and teddy bears that they claimed to like, Antonio was busy drawing (and labeling!) the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, and the Twin Towers. When I look into my crystal ball, I see a career in architecture for him. I can only hope that he will never stop loving all of his schooling.