Tam students travel abroad

By Melissa Uzes

In the days leading up to spring break, three groups of Tamalpais High School students packed their bags and left the comfort of Mill Valley for a more exotic adventure. While the rest of Tam prepared for spring break, the Spanish students were off to Mexico, the French students were on their way to France, and the drama students were flying to England. Each trip offered a different experience, and students and chaperones were happy to share their stories regarding how they spent their spring breaks.


While the other two student groups went overseas to Europe, Spanish teacher Fernando Cruz and his wife, Gloria Cruz, took a group of 14 students across the border to Cuernavaca, Mexico. The students left the United States on April 2 and returned on April 18. Unlike the France and London trips, the Mexico trip was open up to any student in the school, even if they did not take Spanish.

Cuernavaca is a city 15 miles outside of Mexico City. The students stayed with families the entire time. However, unlike the France trip some of the families do not have children the same age as the American students. The majority of the families did not speak English, and if they did they knew that they could only speak Spanish to the Tam students.

“It was really interesting living with a Mexican family,” said junior Kailen Peck. “We ate breakfast like normal, but around 2 or 3 in the afternoon, we ate La Comida, which was the main meal of the day, and then we ate dinner at around 8 at night or later. My family was hilarious. They had grandchildren running around all the time, they were such great kids. It was so amazing to be around so much love.”

The main purpose of this trip was academic, “meaning learning, perfecting, and advancing in the Spanish language,” Cruz said. “Students go to school every single day from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. They have classes according to their level and no more than five students per class. So students learn tons of Spanish.”

A typical day at the Universidad Internacional, the school the students attended, included three hours of Spanish class, one hour of Spanish idioms, two hours of conversation classes with topics including health, economy, politics, sociology, education Mexican songs, cooking, social life in Mexico, and conversational games. Classes were taught by certificated native instructors and homework was assigned daily.

In addition to the academic nature of the trip, the goals of the trip were to learn about the Mexican culture and have fun. In addition to going to school, the group took trips to Mexico city, different villages, an orphanage, different historical sites, the Museum of Anthropology, and Cruz’s personal favorite, the water park.

“We went to an orphanage, and I use the word orphanage loosely because most of the kids were not orphans, called Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos, which means Our Little Brothers (and Sisters),” said Peck. “It was a place where kids whose family could not care for them, or had legal troubles, or had abused them went to get schooling and an environment where they were cared for and well-fed. We all brought small gifts or candy or something to hand out to the kids. I brought a soccer ball for them to play with. We spent an afternoon playing with the kindergarten-aged kids, and they were absolutely amazing. We all had so much fun.”

According to Cruz, the student’s Spanish greatly improved. “They are embedded into Spanish 24 hours a day,” he said.

Cruz has been taking kids to Mexico for 32 years. He has also taken groups of students to Guatemala, Costa Rica, Spain, Peru, and Ecuador. He hopes to continue the Mexico trip again next year.

“We’ll have to see if the people are interested in going. Chances are we will,” he said.


French teacher Catherine Welter, Spanish teacher Marie-Noelle Hicks, and social science teacher Augusto Andres took 24 Tam students to Paris, France as part of an exchange program on March 31. In Paris, the students participated in group activities then were left to roam the city.

“Of course some crazy and funny things happened,” said junior Jack Budish. “Personally, I had fun telling the gypsies to leave us alone. I started off nice with the “Non merci” and then, when the kept pestering us, especially with the [pushy selling of] bracelets up by Sacre-Coeur, I got really excited and started yelling random Italian expressions at them… which made everyone laugh.”

After spending two nights in Paris, the group headed down to Orthez, France, where each student spent 10 days living with their counterparts. In Orthez, the Tam students were immersed in the French language. Each student lived with their French correspondant and their families. The Tam students attended the school Lycée Gaston Febus and shadowed the “Frenchies,” a pet-name given to the French exchange students.

After living with the French families, the Americans noticed a difference in culture, especially when it came to school. At Lycée Gaston Febus, school starts at 8:30 a.m. and can end anywhere between 4 and 6 p.m. The French students come from all around Southern France, so they are given the option to live at the school in dorm rooms during the weekdays. Budish recognized noticeable differences between American and French school culture throughout an average day.

“For starters, Gaston-Febus has an awesome bell. The students get to choose which song they want to play over the loudspeaker whenever the bell rings,” Budish said. “So you just here some beat coming out of the speakers periodically throughout the day.”

Budish also noticed that class sizes were relatively smaller and that French students tend to talk a lot more than Tam students.

“[Students] talk all the time, even when the teacher is talking,” Budish said. “Teachers seemed to just carry on. They didn’t raise their voices over the side-conversations – it was you either pay attention and get it, or you don’t.”

After living with the French families for a little over a week, the group headed back to Paris. After spending four more nights in Paris, the group was ready to leave, until the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull erupted, causing delays in air traffic. The group was left in Paris for an additional five days. The hotel they were staying at, Le Petit Trianon, allowed them to stay in their rooms for the extended time period without additional cost.

Welter, one of the trips supervisors, said that the ash cloud caused by the volcano did not create any problems, besides the fact of being stuck in Paris, for the group. She noted that the group handled the situation very well.

“If you had to be stuck in Paris with a group of teenagers… it was a really good group. It was actually enjoyable,” Welter said.

“The teachers were really great the whole trip: they knew what they wanted to do and what we wanted to do, and they were really cool about it,” Budish said.


The drama students had a quite different experience than the French students. Instead of being immersed in a foreign language, 28 students traveled to London, England to see performances and experience the British culture. Under the supervision of four chaperones—technical director Heather Basarab, drama teacher Ben Cleaveland, his wife Julianna Cleaveland and drama teacher Susan Brashear—the drama students had the opportunity to live on their own and roam the streets of London.

“The purpose of the trip was twofold,” said senior Anschel Burk. “First of all, it was to experience theatrical productions in a city world renowned for putting them on. We went to such places as the National Theatre and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, where some of us, including me, saw the premier of Macbeth. But also, it was to teach students the life skills needed for the future.”

Instead of staying in hotels or living with British families, the students stayed in apartments. Students had to be independent by setting their own alarm clocks and buying their own groceries.

Senior Charlotte Thomas said that while in London the group went to a play almost every night, visited numerous museums, and usually had free time. During free time, students ate at restaurants, went shopping, and went out for tea a couple of times. “We got crumpets and scones and little sandwiches…that was so much fun I want to go back,” Thomas said.

One event that stuck out to the group was when junior Frankie Stornaiuolo had a confrontation with someone not on the trip.

“One night, Frankie almost got stabbed by an angry British teenager because Frankie muttered something about money,” said senior Tara Costello.

The group had just gotten off the Tube, London’s train system, at the Hampstead stop and were lingering outside. A few local boys, ages 16-17, showed up and began to ask the group to give them their Tube passes so they could ride for free. Stornaiuolo told his classmates to just walk away and to not give the boys any money. The British teenagers began to make threats, and one allegedly said, “I’m going to knife you in the face.” Basarab got involved and diffused the confrontation by getting everyone to walk away from the angry group.

Like the students on the French trip, the drama students’ flight was delayed due to the ash cloud caused by the volcano. Although they were faced with financial trouble, the students made the most out of their extended trip.

“The most exciting thing I did was to figure out how to live independently in the face of an unexpected situation,” said Burk. “After the volcano hit, I had to deal with the fact that I had a limited amount of money, a quickly-diminishing supply of clothes, and needed to eat and clean and do all that sort of thing.”

“That was so crazy,” Thomas said on the trip being extended. “We were stuck in London for like a week. It was so much fun.”

Some students were ready to come home before the volcano errupted.

“At first, I was incredibly sad because I had been ready to go home,” Costello said while she was on the trip. “I still want to go home but I’m happy about the fact that I got to go back to Spitalfields Market and the Victoria and Albert”

Half of the trip returned to the United States on April 23 and the others returned on April 25. However, students who had airline insurance were able to come back a couple of days earlier because the airlines said they would reimburse them later.

Because the Mexico kids did not have to worry about an ash cloud, they were able to come home on their scheduled depart date. The London and France students, on the other hand, missed most of the week of school following spring break. This caused difficulties with missed schoolwork and STAR testing. Read more about the ash cloud and its impact on students on page 6.

Written by Melissa Uzes. This article originally appeared in the May 2010 issue.