Mercedes Isabel Sota is the Superintendent of Schools in Mancotal, north of Lake Apanás, in Northern Nicaragua. The kids in that school probably fear her like I used to fear Mr. Armstrong. He was my high school history teacher and was so respected and feared by all students that we always tried our best and then some. You never wanted to let him down or cross him. Never miss a class, never be late, never have your shirt untucked. Ever.
I got the sense that Directora Sota is like Mr. Armstrong. We got to meet her this past November on a trip to a small Fair Trade Cooperative from whom we buy some nice Nicaraguan coffees for blending in some of our Newman’s Own Organics coffees. The Coop is called UCA SUMAN and is based in Jinotaga. The leaders of the coop wanted us to see this district’s central school, called Jose Dolores Estrada, because the coop had paid for a small addition to the school with some of the extra money the farmers had made selling Fair Trade Organic coffee.
You could tell right away that she was in charge. The coop leaders, all of them male, all from the area, (a few were former students), were completely deferential to her. When we arrived, we went to a small office – kind of like the principal’s office, where she sat behind the only desk in the room and the rest of us sat in chairs arranged around the desk.
She gave us a history of the school and her various positions there as well as some of the projects they were working on in partnership with UCA SUMAN; many of the school’s parents are farmer-members of the coop. She told us how she has to borrow a horse, from a coop member, to ride to the 7 other schools to check on them and how she can do about 1 school per day. “The government in Managua won’t even give me a motorcycle!”, she said. She told us how they were waiting for electricity at the school. She pointed up at the ceiling and sure enough there were light bulb sockets and conduit – but no juice. They were waiting for a final inspection.
She took us on a tour of the school, the kitchen, and the little two bedroom dorm for the teachers. When were in the kitchen, it was a little dirty and you could hear the cleaning woman getting scolded very quickly and quietly under her breath, thinking we wouldn’t be able to catch it. The best way to describe the cleaning woman’s expression was that she had that “oh, I’m going to get it later look.” When we visited the somewhat untidy dorm house, unannounced, she also dished out some scolding to the teachers.
I’m glad she’s not my boss or my teacher. But if I were a parent in the area, I would love to have her running my kids’ school. In fact, she had been offered a promotion recently but the community protested so much, she ended up staying.
One of the nicest things she said was that “thanks to the respect the coop gives the school, we’re able to keep moving forward, making progress". And you could tell that meant a lot to Directora Sota.