I studied el preuniversitario from 1980 to 1983 at the José Martí High School in Old Havana.
It was a historically rich place. El Instituto de Segunda Enseñanza de La Habana was established in 1863, in the corner of Obispo and San Ignacio streets.
In 1925 the school was moved to its current location, a whole block where four busy streets meet—Zulueta, San José, Teniente Rey and Monserrate.
On the first day of classes, I was terrified. I was an awkward, shy teenager, and the few friends I had made in secundaria (middle school) had been assigned to different preuniversitarios or gone to technical schools.
I remember sitting near the side entrance, fighting the desire to run away.
But of course I came in. We had the matutino, a revolutionary devotional that marked the beginning of the day. We saluted the flag and went through the emulación, where each classroom unit competed for a best attendance award.
The matutino ended with slogans like the ubiquitous “pioneros por el comunismo, seremos como el Che” and a song like La International for good measure.
Afterwards, we all went upstairs—the building had a magnificent marble staircase— and roamed the ample halls looking for our classrooms.
In a corner of the second floor was the library where I would spend many hours reading books that shaped my life.
I remember the classrooms with high ceilings and the bathrooms where multiple groserías had been carefully scribbled on the walls.
But there was so much more.
The massive columns.
The musty scent of books that few students cared to open.
Sunlight filtered through the few vitrales, stained glasses that must have lasted half a century.
El archivo, a locked room where José Martí original transcripts were supposed to be—I never saw them, though.
The smell of freshly made bread from a nearby bakery wafting through a window.
The experience didn’t out to be too terrifying after all. I soon made other friends and graduated in a quite formal ceremony (nothing to do with a prom) in the former Centro Gallego, now Gran Teatro de La Habana.
Graduation picture, with my parents: