Booting Up Amid Flattened Frogs

Building a Computer Lab, Poco a Poco

By Edward B. Colby

I have barricaded myself into the sweltering Marbella computer lab to write, on the day of my ReVista deadline. The light bulb doesn’t work, and little children keep interrupting me, but it will do. The next time we use the computers in class, the resident sapo (toad) will have left another present on the keyboards, a compañera will kindly kill a scorpion spider for me, and the resident bat will dart around as it pleases. Two of the five computers will refuse to function—but the fact that my elementary school simply has a computer lab in mid-November, as my year as a volunteer English teacher in Costa Rica draws to a close, is in itself a victory.

I arrived in Marbella—a small, remote town on Guanacaste’s Pacific coast—in February with a seemingly simple task: finish the computer project that my predecessor Jeff had started. Nine computers had been donated to Marbella’s two schools; I would need to track down spare parts and get them up and running. But, like many things in Costa Rica, it hasn’t been easy—the project has been time-consuming, a project that I thought would take a few months somehow turned into a yearlong effort, testing my patience and resolve.

The original title of this piece was going to be “Bringing Marbella Online,” but at some point “online” became a dream deferred—Harvard productivity giving way to Costa Rican reality. At first it sounded so easy: A guy in San José had donated some keyboards; a foundation, Omar Dengo, could give me Microsoft Office, Encarta, and an Internet connection; and I would need to do some electrical work. Burying a cable in a small ditch in the schoolyard sounded daunting, but step by step, I figured, I would be able to make progress. I picked up the keyboards, but only after two months did a contact at a promising program, Intel Educar para el Futuro, return my phone calls, saying “better late than never.” She had exciting news: If a Marbella teacher took a 60-hour computer course given through Omar Dengo, we would get copies of Word and Encarta, plus possibly a Windows upgrade and even mobile networking. I urged my school director, Trinidad, to take the course over our quince días vacation in July, and to write to Omar Dengo to request an Internet installation. When I came back from vacation, Trinidad had not taken the course (having fallen sick), and was now talking about getting the computers in use before the end of the year. Quince días had been our original goal. I needed to act. Jeff had left an impossible legacy to match: he had built a basketball court, he had given away hundreds of pairs of shoes, he had acquired the computers. I was devoting more time and energy to teaching, but in Marbella that didn’t matter. What had I done? The computer project needed to be finished.

In San José I bought the keyboards, mice and power cords that we needed. With instructions from Jeff ’s uncle, I put the computers on a network. And I signed myself up for the only other course Intel was offering, one that would take place on Saturdays for 10 weeks, only to be told later my school wouldn’t necessarily receive software for the course after all. Several times I made the 75 km, 3-hour journey to Cartagena, only to find that the keys could not be found and class was canceled. Time was running short. Trinidad was seriously injured in a car accident and told the new director that we weren’t to use the computers because work to properly enclose the kinder room still had not been done. Fortunately, I was able to convince the new director otherwise, and around the start of October we used the maquinas in class for the first time.

All we had were some children’s stories on CD-ROM, an old version of Word and little else, but the kids were amazed. Many of them, especially in the younger grades, oohed and aahed the first time I booted up. Double-clicking a mouse was (and still is) a difficult task for the children. A nifty drawing program, Crayons Paint Studio, brought endless joy, as did a Tonka Construction CD. In the glittering eyes of Blasita and Jaime and Diego, the computers were magic.

My Intel course finally ended, and after some pestering, the organization finally came through with copies of Office XP, Microsoft Publisher and Encarta in Spanish. I covered the computers with a new impermeable cloth, and now I troubleshoot the inevitable operations problems (at both the escuela and the colegio) as best I can. Once a week each grade gets a turn on the computers—and each day, without fail, at least half the school asks me, “Ticher, vamos a computo hoy?” “No,” I’ll reply, groaning, “Solo una vez por semana.” José Antonio or Gloria or Daniela will pout: “¡Ticher es malo!” And, in a never-ending effort for respect, I will maturely reply, “No soy malo.” I constantly remind them that I am primarily an English teacher. But it is somewhat nice to be a victim of my own success. Our lab isn’t much, but in Marbella—where flattened frogs (well, actually squished sapos) dot the roads and the nearest city is “afuera”—the computers give my kids a glimpse into a world they wouldn’t otherwise know. Even when I’m losing my cool and things are breaking down around me, that makes it worth it—day by day, poco a poco.

Edward B. Colby, a former DRCLAS publications intern, was a WorldTeach English teacher in Marbella, Costa Rica in 2003. A former executive editor of The Harvard Crimson, he plans to pursue a career in journalism—and not computer repair.