Paul Kearney writes from Chile: Underneath the ashes of the exploding volcano, Chilean students are on strike. At both high schools and universities throughout the country, students have refused to go classes, and are marching through the streets. The education minister even brought the holidays forward two weeks yet the students continue to demonstrate during their holiday time.

But why? The students are protesting against the free market system of education created by Pinochet, which has been responsible for rising costs, inequity, and poor quality of government education. Specifically, students are protesting against the introduction of a law which will increase the costs of university education, but they are also calling for a complete change in the system: they demand a change in the country’s constitution, which will change the government’s duty to provide a good free education. Some students go further, and take control of the school (called a “toma”), occupying it until their demands are met.

When visiting my friends in the south, where I volunteered in a school last year, the students had just instigated a toma. They invited me in, and what followed was a fascinating experience of democracy, power, and legitimacy.

On Friday, the mayor of Los Lagos, the headmaster, teachers, parents and friends arrived to find out that 30-60 students had taken control of the school. At 1.30 in the morning, in what must have been sub-freezing temperatures, they had jumped the fence, opened the locked doors, disabled the alarm, put up signs and chained the gates against the public.

Next, occurred a series of confrontations as various authorities tried to scare the students into leaving the school. They were angry for various reasons — the school was being used, not by students, who were on strike anyway, but by teachers to apply for grants, by the parents and friends for meetings, and for storing the school buses. The headmaster threw around threats, including claims he would take away the much-loved students’ week in November, that he would stop the volleyball match from happening and that he would bring in the elite police to throw them out by force.

In the school, the students were busy. They opened the canteen, and worked out how to make food there last as long as possible. They divided themselves up into groups, including cooking duty, guard duty, treasurer and heating. Even, after some debate, a discipline committee. They organised places to sleep, meal times and a Nintendo wii.

Central to the toma was the way the students were perceived. There was a lot of talk about “lazy students”, just “fooling around”, or even “taking alcohol into the school”. Others were nervous about the school being damaged in some way, and mentioned that the kids involved were the “bad kids”, not the “good students”. Of course, this is, in some ways, natural, as we normally think of adolescent students as lazy, trying to avoid learning in any ways possible, and so when we hear they are “on strike”, or “taken the school” for better education, it can be hard to take them seriously.

The school inspector would call out, half-jokingly, “You want a better education? Come to class more regularly”. Moreover, the students had no specific demands, and the toma was more in support of the country-wide strike for better education than for local improvements, like cleaner classrooms, or a better library (which tomas at other schools had demanded).

But, little by little, the students won the adults over. They refused to cave in to the threats, and stated their position coherently and clearly. Adults who were allowed to enter the school were impressed by the level of organisation they found, and when the students said that they would spend time cleaning graffiti and improving their school, this was further proof of their seriousness. The rumors of alcohol inside the toma were firmly denied, both on the internet and the local radio. Eventually, the headmaster announced that he was in favour of the toma, and wouldn’t call in the special police after all.

I loved watching the students run a meeting. It was relaxed, with plenty of joking around, but even still, had energy and direction. While not everyone spoke, everyone was paying attention. Sometimes they would use words like “democracy”, an “education”, and other times they would say things like, “we just want to last longer than the previous toma”. These were students I had taught last year, and had spent the class sullenly at their desks, avoiding learning as much English as possible.

The way they negotiated with the authorities was telling. Motivated to be strong inside the school, inside their own meetings, they would sally forth to negotiate with the authorities — the headmaster, the mayor, the parents and friends committee — people they were used to obeying, or at least avoiding. At one point, the student leader came back to the school, ashen-faced, saying, “I just spoke to the parents, and they are angry! Are you sure you want to continue with this?” However, he was greeted with a yell of supportive voices, and, reinvigorated, he marched outside to negotiate once more.

For me, the image of the toma was seeing the students guard the front gate. Normally, for me the front gate is a place guarded by the inspector — the school disciplinarian. At 8.10 every morning he stands at post, making sure tardy schoolchildren get to school on time. He friendlily bosses the students as they drag themselves to class. But, on Friday, it was the students in control of the gate, while the teachers had to wait outside. They were informed that four could come inside to negotiate and pick up their books, but no more. The teachers decided which four would go, and were finally allowed in.

This is the second student strike Chile has had in the last decade, and it is clearly a continuation, both ideologically and organisationally. The leaders in Santiago state that the purpose of these protests is to continue the struggle and aims, and avoid the mistakes, of the earlier group. During the toma in Los Lagos, they were continually in contact with students from the previous “Penguin revolution”. One ex-student let them know, “The first day is the easiest. Everyone’s excited and motivated. It’s when you get to the 18th that things get tricky.”

When I left Los Lagos on Monday, four days later, the toma seemed in good shape. They’d spent three nights there, and knew how to last through the cold nights, and feed themselves. One night, kids from the local neighbourhood came to throw rocks at the school, but they saw them off.

So, it seems, this is how a nationwide students strike happens. Some students are there for the adventure, some because they wanted to do something about the state of education. In my school, I didn’t see students walking around with a copy of the constitution under their arms, but neither were they drinking and breaking windows, as happened in other locations. There was a real sense of excitement and purpose in the air — as one student said, “It’s good to feel everyone so united”. Amidst calls such as “I’m scared! The Inspector is outside”, “how do you work the heating here?” and “Come quickly! The noodles are burning!”, students were making a stand for their right to a quality education.