This summer, Ernesto Gasse traveled more than 4,000 miles, across the Atlantic Ocean, to attend school in Cordoba, Argentina, a capital city located in the center of the country at the foot of the Sierra Chicas Mountains.
Although Gasse said he’s visited his father’s home country several times — starting when he was just 6 months old — the Forest Park Middle School (FPMS) student never attended school abroad before. But for five weeks in July, he woke every day before dawn and traveled 20 minutes by bus with his cousin Agustine to school, or escutti, where he attended eighth-grade classes. Surrounded by colonial architecture, and communicating mostly in Spanish, he said nothing compares to his experience at escutti.
“I expected more things to be similar. The no lunch thing kind of threw me for a loop; I was surprised with that,” Gasse said. “I knew they were going to go faster, but I didn’t know they were going to go so much faster. I knew the standards were higher, but I didn’t know they were so much higher.”
Gasse arrived at school about 7 a.m. daily, before the sun rose, and joined classes of approximately 36 students studying core subjects like, biology, physics, and Castilian, the Spanish-language class that Gasse said was his favorite. At FPMS, Gasse is an advanced student. But in Cordoba, he quickly learned why students who earn a 40 percent still can pass.
“I joke very proudly [that] Ernesto got his first F in school,” father Daniel Gasse said with a laugh. “It was his second or third day there, he had to take a Spanish test, and, of course, he failed, ‘F’. The good thing was, five weeks later he took an exam and he got a ‘C’.”
Gasse said teacher expectations are much higher for students — he believes the highest grade any student earned during his time there was an 80 percent. In Cordoba, he said educators teach to the top of the class whereas in Forest Park, they level up from the bottom.
“I quickly learned 100 percent was very, very impressive,” Gasse said. “In my schools, they go at a much slower pace, they explain things a lot more, and the teachers help you a lot more if you’re struggling. They’ll help one kid and kind of slow the rest of the class down to that pace.”
School also jumps from primary school straight to high school, which is where Gasse enrolled. Class blocks spanned from an hour — the longest class time at FPMS, Gasse said — to 2½ hours.
Days were divided into roughly three classes, with a short break punctuating lessons where students socialized and snacked on vegetables and meat. School technically ended at 1:30 p.m. daily, so escutti did not offer a formal lunch period. Students had the option to stay longer and pursue additional math classes, receive tutoring, serve in volunteer groups and more, but extracurriculars like sports were not offered.
“There people just play sports in the street; it’s like, ‘Why would you get a team and go to school for the sport?'”
While the structure of the school day was “radically different,” Gasse said, the everyday drama of school life compared to Forest Park — “like someone took someone’s pencil or something stupid. It’s always going to be the same no matter where you go in the world because it’s the same age group,” Gasse said.
Despite the drama, he made friends. After school, Gasse would bus home with Agustine, where the two would chat with other neighborhood boys, play video games, listen to music, do all the things teenagers do across the world. Gasse said the people he met in Cordoba were very curious about life in America and asked blunt questions about school in Forest Park, his home, cellphone and, of course, money.
Argentina faces a problem with inflation. When Gasse arrived, 28 pesos were equivalent to $1; when he left, it was 30 pesos to $1. Daniel Gasse said military dictators racked up so much debt during a war that, 50 years later, the country is still paying off its debts.
“That’s why people, instead of putting money in the bank, they buy dollars and put it under the bed,” he said.
Gasse, meanwhile, said he had plenty of questions for his new friends, about food, culture, traditions and, of course, the language. The thing that struck him the most, however, was how open people were to help.
“The best thing there was the atmosphere of friendship; everyone’s like a lot more friendly, everyone’s a lot more helpful and open,” Gasse said. “If you need help, you can ask a stranger. Things you would never really do here, you can do there.”