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Middle School Students Gain Ear of King of Spain
Monday, April 16, 2018


What would you say if you had an audience with a world leader?

Fifteen students from Wood River Middle school got the chance to ask questions of King Felipe VI of Spain recently during an hour-long audience at the Zarzuela Palace, a 17th century hunting lodge on the outskirts of Madrid. And they had to do it all in Spanish.

The visit with King Felipe was arranged by one of the student’s moms--Tracy Simon, who attended college with the then-prince at Georgetown University. And the meeting turned out to be the highlight of a somewhat emotional three-week exchange program.

The students presented the king with a book containing photos of Sun Valley, along with an invitation to visit. And they asked him what it’s like to be head of Spain, what he would have liked to have done if he were not a king, what kind of music he listens to and what sport he plays.

“He gave us advice on how to live life to be a better person. He told us how his life is kind of hard, as he can’t travel wherever he wants due to the need for security. He told us he competed in sailing in the Summer Olympics during the 1980s. And he said he would like to come to Hailey—he likes to ski and he would like to try snowboarding,” said Juan Reyes.

Harper Mallett, who has already invited his host brother Alvaro to visit Sun Valley this summer, said it was amazing to meet royalty from a different country. He described the king as very friendly, yet very clearly royalty because of the way he carried himself.

“He also told us his daughters were learning Arabic and Chinese. He said he knows five languages and he told us how important it is to learn languages because it gives you a perspective you wouldn’t have, otherwise.”

The visit was the latest chapter in an exchange program that started four years ago.

Jorge Pulleiro had participated in a similar program with the Madrid school while teaching at a high school in Oregon. When he moved to Sun Valley, the director of the school begged him, “Please, tell me we can still work with you.”

Two years after he began teaching at WRMS, he staged a pilot program, taking eight students to Spain. The second year he took 12 and the third, 22.

“I didn’t want to go with a tour because I didn’t want them to be tourists. I wanted them to have an immersive experience,” he said.

Students funded the trip with money raised from a raffle and donations from the WRMS PTA, Blaine County Education Foundation, Papoose Club, Power Engineers and individuals.

They entertained six Spanish students who came to WRMS for a month’s stay earlier in the year.

Then Pulleiro and fellow Spanish teachers Erika Liebel and Lorena Horne led the student to Spain where they lived with hosts families while attending one of two schools.

They took four field trips together, viewing the beautiful architecture of Toledo, checking out the Roman aqueduct of Segovia and touring the Royal Crypt of the Monastery of El Escorial where Spain’s kings and queens are buried and getting the opportunity to sample traditional dishes like paella.

They also visited the Real Madrid soccer stadium, country’s famed soccer stadium where they got to make a video of themselves in the press box.

Since they were there during Easter Week—Spain’s version of Spring Break—they got to travel with host families to cities like Valencia, Barcelona and Salamanca.

Reyes visited Portugal with his host family.

 “I saw lots of beautiful places, including a small city built with walls to protect it against the Portuguese,” he said. “It was interesting how different the shopping and the fashion were. They have such a different way of dressing. Even their jeans are so different—rolled up and all. They keep their shoes much nicer looking than we do.”

Ellie Monge, who lived in Spain while 5 and 6 years old, concurred.

“What’s formal to us is casual for them. Even when you go to beach, you see them wearing nice stuff instead of cheesy shorts.”

Pulleiro, a Zumba instructor, taught Zumba to the Spanish students.

“They had never done anything like that. They gave me a stage, a microphone—I was like a rock star!” he said.

While the youngsters were traveling with their host families, Pulleiro took the opportunity to visit the land of his ancestors in Galicia north of Portugal.

“My father’s parents left during the dictatorship and never went back. I am the first to visit the place where my grandparents lived and see the port where they left. It was a very emotional and special treat for me.”

Pulleiro dined on octopus and shrimp while there.

“Their portions were huge and cheap—they love eating and they eat a lot. The area reminded me of my town in Buenos Aires where I’m from so as I walked the streets where my grandparents walked and I came to understand why they chose Buenos Aires,” said Pulleiro, who came to the United States to study Spanish interpretation and Italian at Brigham Young University Spanish interpretation with a minor in Italian.

Pulleiro also went to the local cemetery where he looked at every headstone until he had found three of his ancestors.

“I just lost it,” he said. “To find those three people was so very special.

“And I am beyond grateful for the opportunity I had to shake His Majesty’s hand. My father’s grandparents left Spain and immigrated to Argentina because of the dictatorship in Spain. And, as I shook King Philip VI’s hand, I realized that I was shaking the hand of the son of King Juan Carlos who was the instrument to bring back democracy to Spain. He brought back the Spain my grandparents always dreamed of and never had the chance to have. Yet, there I was—their grandson—witnessing the miracle they so desired to witness.”

Pulleiro’s 15-year-old daughter Emma, a sophomore at Silver Creek High School, traveled with the group and took four classes from an opera singer while in Spain. She also had the opportunity to tour the Teatro Real, or the Royal Opera House, of Madrid.

Inspired by the immensity of the stage, she turned to her father, and said, “I know exactly what I want to do now. I want to sing on the stage.”

Those attending in addition to Pulleiro were Liv Nelson, Elizabeth Clayton, Ellie Monge, Pranaleyadri Meyer, Margaret Keating, Lola Randolph, Eduardo Escalera, Larsen Bier, Gabriel Horne, Cesar Tellez, Spencer Gaudreau, Quentin Van Law, Joel Gonzalez, Harper Mallett and Juan Reyes.

Courtney Gilbert said her daughter Meg seemed so much more grown up upon her return.

“And I can tell that her Spanish is so much better,” she added.

Greg Randolph said it was a gift to have his daughter Lola have such an experience.

“She was totally pumped up the entire time and came away with such an incredible set of memories and experiences. She and the other kids just got o do something that every human should do,” he said. “It’s such an important thing to experience, as it builds understanding and compassion, as well as bonds.”

Teresa Espedal said she felt blessed that her daughter Live was given such an amazing opportunity.

“I can already tell that it has changed her life. She was excited to come home but so sad to leave her host family. She definitely feels that they are part of her family and she plans to continue a relationships with them.”

Pulleiro said he was heartened to watch the students survive speaking nothing but Spanish.

“Not only was it fun to watch them learn Spanish slang but to see them in front of the king asking and answering questions was so emotional for me,” he said. “And the relationships and friendships they made—these will last forever.”

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