7th grade classroom

Because I’m mean

Friday, 29 August 2014, 135pm CST: I’ve sent the little shits on their way and they can kiss my ass. Okay, I’ve gotten that off my chest. It’s just that when I come up with a pretty darn interesting, or at least silly, lesson plan, and the seventh graders spend it whining and pawing each other, well, a person can get pretty down, for five minutes, anyway. Then I have to move on and plan the next lesson and hope that the next one is a little better. Thus concludes my first week as a teacher.

I teach Science to seventh, eighth, and ninth graders and English to seventh graders. The consensus among the volunteers, the majority of whom are in their second year here, is that the seventh graders, around age 11, are the most unruly kids in the school. The phrase “herding cats” has come to my mind more than once, even multiple times in a period. See, you have this group of cats and a few of them will chase the toy, but the rest are climbing on the scratching post, fighting over a dust bunny, or licking their butts. And when you show the latter group the laser toy it looks up for half a second and immediately forgets and resumes the climbing/fighting/butt washing.

Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration.

No, I’d say it’s about right, which is why I don’t take the long view but do this day by day. At least no one has died or even shed blood.

No one is sure why this class is…fill in the blank with appropriate descriptor…but it sounds as if this group has always been a little rebellious. In fifth grade (9 years old), instead of teaching their teacher the word for “beer,” the students taught him the vulgar word for “butt.” This teacher found out the truth the hard way. Supposedly the kids like me, so I could comfort myself that the cats could be worse. When I deserted them outside (it’s best to try to have lessons outside in the afternoon because the classrooms are so warm) because they wouldn’t stop arguing with me, they did follow me back to the classroom. I also get hugs from even the worst behaved ones. (Then why did you steal my pen and claim I had lent it to you?!) As for the title of this post, it is what I told one of my kids when he asked why I wouldn’t let him go to the bathroom despite the class being immediately after lunch and I have a pee before class rule. And, yes, at least one student has called me “mean.”

I’m certain that the readers who are current and retired teachers are nodding their heads and chuckling. Vee, who teaches eighth and ninth grade English, after the first day said she already had more admiration for her teachers, but there’s never a time I’ve not had admiration for them, at least the good ones, the ones who make an effort to interest their students and obviously care about them. I admire these teachers so much that I am skeptical I can walk in their shoes. Who I now have more sympathy for, however, are the defeated teachers. It’s gotta be so easy to turn that way. By the end of just this week, thinly veiled sarcasm was slipping out during my more frustrated moments. Sigh.

For now, the students who keep defeat and despair from consuming me are the eighth and ninth graders. While there is still chatter and boys socking each other, there is also note taking and kids answering questions and even asking me questions, some of which I know the answer to and others I have to look up at home. (What is the difference between silicon and silicone? Does lava have metal in it?) On Wednesday, when I wrote “Science!” on the board, the eighth graders cheered. I suspect that had more to do with the subject than my uneven teaching skills, but it still was gratifying to have a semi-willing audience. I have students, specifically two boys (my “geeky boys”), who deserve a more knowledgable Science teacher. In the right hands, they could go very far, as could many of my students. I keep thinking that these kids need better teachers than us mostly untrained, though dedicated, volunteers. The list of what these kids need and deserve is very long. Here’s to hoping that my own dedication is enough to get these kids into a good high school in San Pedro Sula.

I want to be more comfortable with failure. Rather than it being a gigantic, grayish white, much too thick and long-legged, possibly poisonous spider lurking above the kitchen doorway/behind the door/on the screen door that I have absolutely no interest in seeing, thank you for the offer, I would prefer it to be a pila water bucket shower — a little unpleasant, but each time I learn how to make that water last a little longer and rinse off more of the soap. I’ve failed here and there this week. I gave a science lesson that was rather confusing. I did not teach the English vocabulary words well at all and skipped the quiz. I’ve been unable to accommodate students who finish their in-class assignments early. I haven’t enforced the class rules consistently. I’ve hit a student in the face with an inflatable globe. But that’s how it goes, and I make note and try to do better the next time. I don’t dwell; there’s no time!

These are some highlights of the week:

  • Using hard boiled eggs to demonstrate the earth’s structure (9th graders grossed out, 8th graders interested, 7th graders…I think they liked it.)
  • Geeky boy comparing his zit to a volcano and the pus to magma.
  • Student regarding the inner core: “This must be where the devil lives.”
  • 7th graders creating colorful construction paper pictures of the earth’s structure.
  • Comparing the inner core of the earth to a marshmallow. A lot of pressure on both of them makes them compact and hard.
  • Challenging a geeky boy’s theory about why the dinosaurs disappeared in such a way that I’m pretty sure he’ll come back to me next week with an improved theory. This was a success because I was able to seem like A Well-informed Science Teacher Pushing Student Toward Growth and Research.
  • Lending The Giver to one of my more ambitious (and frustrated at my lack of behavioral management skills) seventh graders.

I wouldn’t say I’m excited for next week, but I’m not dreading it. I know I’ll be excited and hopeful Sunday night as I fall asleep. In the meantime, it’s Saturday and a day filled with food buying, blog writing, lesson planning, meeting with parents and teachers at school to plan El Día del Niño, and an awkward volunteer barbecue at the Big House (see previous post re: alienation) await!

ta ta,

theresa

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8/23/14 The post that wasn’t posted

I’ve stared at the screen most of today, trying to find a starting point for this entry. Friday was the first day of school, and the entire week was busy with planning and training and school cleaning and fruitless emails with Vital Records and a trip to the nearby river. There were several times I wanted to sit down to sort the thoughts and emotions piling up, but none of them were very brave. I’ve fantasized about leaving most days, but the plane just circles.

Two days ago I wrote, “It’s been awhile since I’ve been this lonely.” And it’s not the loneliness of being in a place where few people speak your language, though there is that, of course; it’s the loneliness of being a circle in a crowd of squares, triangles, and trapezoids. The latter are different shapes but can still form bonds along flush sides, whereas a circle can join only at a point. In this case that point is being a volunteer. Being misshapen was also most of my college experience (student bond) and theatre experience (we are theatre artists bond), times when I was part of a close-knit community but simply never belonged, and I was continually made aware of it. Loneliness is a thread in my life, but it’s weaker when I’m not continually reminded that I’m just a little off. Por ejemplo, when someone tells a joke, I’ll get it but rather than laughing, I’ll analyze the language or the social situation it’s lampooning. Or I’ll force a laugh and then analyze it, either quietly or aloud, depending on the company.

All this to say, I’m really lonely right now, not that I’m not with with a bunch of terrific people (except one). And, yes, dear reader, it might get easier, but sometimes it doesn’t, and that’s just how it is.

As always,

theresa

Snapshot

My home for the year is a small town of about 40,000 people, according to a fellow volunteer. Located 24km/14.9mi/a 1 hour bus ride away is the nearest and second largest city in Honduras, San Pedro Sula.

This is the street in front of our house, or really any house in our immediate neighborhood. Occasionally there are sidewalks, but these are narrow and often change levels or are crowded with goods or people, and it can be easier just to ignore the honking and hooting and dodge the cars and tuk-tuks and walk in the street. The houses and buildings tend toward cement bodies, tin roofs, and some disrepair, are surrounded by a cement wall or wrought iron fence, with a crowded clothesline and plastic chairs visible. A family member rests on a stoop or leans in the doorway. The wealthier homes are painted. The Small House is a neon green; others are tri-color. Our street – and did I mention there are few street names? – is a blend of homes and homes + pulperias (those little stores, remember?). Trees, shrubs, weeds, dust abound.

Depending on the heat, it’s about a 7-10 minute stroll to the town center, and the little stores rapidly multiply and now sell everything from used clothing, car parts, cell phones, tile and toilets, and school uniforms. With few exceptions, all are tiny and crammed with goods. Along the way is also Dentista Hernandez, a large smiling mouth painted on the wall, and at least one clínica. Because of the lack of street names and obvious landmarks, town center serves as my and Vee’s home base for exploration. The center is crammed with stores and more food vendors, including freestanding carts and tables with portable gas ranges in the park. This is where the bank (armed guard included) and mattress vendor are located. The square is always crowded, or maybe it just feels that way because of the vehicles and heat and attention.

On the topic of attention, yes, the stereotype is accurate. Men, all men under 70, little boys, turn, leer, and make greetings or comments, sometimes Spanish (qué bonita), sometimes English (I love you), to the female volunteers. They lean from tuk-tuks, cars, and doorways. They honk. And if you’re in an eatery, they might just sit at a table and stare. For the most part, except for that last example, and depending on the location, it feels harmless and slips immediately from my mind, but, I have to wonder, to what end do they do this? I suspect that if these men did a scientific analysis of their approach, they’d learn it had at least a 90% failure rate. Don’t most, if not all, of our interactions have an end goal? So what is theirs? I’ve read that I should consider it a compliment, and I can temporarily see through those lenses, but the commentary certainly is uninspired (Well, there was the tuk-tuk driver that called our volunteer coordinator “Sunshine of my heart.”). Maybe I will figure this out, if there is anything to figure, by the end of the trip. Please, if you have the answer, don’t tell me. Not to say that all men are like this, and those that know we are volunteers tend to be respectful.

The women, on the other hand, are much easier to relax with. In the States I tend to do the where do I put my eyes thing when I pass by someone. Usually the other person is doing the same, which is really silly, because why are we pretending the other person doesn’t exist in this temporarily shared space? Anyway, I tend to consciously make eye contact and smile at the women, and kids, and they usually give a genuine smile in return.

Skinny mutt dogs, the females with well-worn nipples, roam freely. And while they are used as guard dogs and are probably fierce when at home, still, I just see semi-starved little animals with dopey happy expressions on their faces. Scrawny chickens poke around the side streets. Lizards dart everywhere. Oh, and yesterday we had a spider about the size of my hand in the kitchen.

So that’s a snapshot of the town. I wish I knew more of it but wandering freely isn’t as possible as I was lead to believe, and the returning volunteers, i.e. suitable guides, are world-weary with the town and its offerings. In the meantime Vee and I poke around, buying groceries, school appropriate clothing, or just walking, expanding our borders where possible. But I am patient, and the lack of freedom forces me to focus on class planning. Less than a week!

The other night we had baleadas. So fresh! so wonderful! so full of yum!

As ever,

theresa

P.S. If you zoom in on the figure to the right hand side of the first picture you’ll see a little girl on a scooter. She made sure I was watching as she took off down the rocky hill in front of our house. [Actually, the way the blog is formatted, you can’t zoom in, but trust me, she’s there. Still learning WordPress.]

My first attempts to communicate

I’m starting this entry at 6:50 p.m. CST but would rather be sleeping. It’s been an exhausting day. Morning sounds included dogs barking, roosters sounding their scratchy bugle, and a bird making a sort of slide whistle call. Tonight’s sounds include dogs barking, three wheeled tuk-tuks, crickets, and children. The electricity was out at 6:30 a.m.; now it’s on. The water was on, then off, then on, now off. The internet shows a preference for certain websites one moment, for others the next. I’ve tried to download WhatsApp all day, with no success. At least the gas stove works and we have several tambos (jugs) and a pila (outdoor cement tub) full of water.

The primary barrier in my attempts to learn Spanish has been shyness (not to mention a lack of encounters with native speakers). It’s too easy to avoid the potential embarrassment of mistakes, hence, my forcibly living in a country where I have no choice but to risk looks that say, “¿WTF are you talking about, gringa?” That was later in the day when I attempted to help my roommate and fellow old lady (32 29), Vee, find plantain chips at a pulperia (small market where you order what you want through a grate). Plantains = platanos. Chips = ?, but surely if I ask for “dried plantains” the appropriate message will come across. “¿Tiene platanos secas?” Ummm, nope! Cue: mini-flood of shame. (Turns out the word we needed was tajadas.) And now I wonder if my directness was rude. Also, there was the encounter at the (semi)super mercado, where you can buy laundry soap, soy milk, and stoves, in which the clerk questioned my purchase of brown rice—did I have a medical issue? Not that I understood her question, spoken or mimed, and that’s where Vee and I make a great pair. Despite her lack of Spanish speaking skills, she understands okay; flip it for me. Thanks to Vee’s translation, I could stand my ground and declare my preference for brown rice, despite having no medical reasons for needing it, and proudly make my purchase with crumpled lempiras. I think some school boys asked if I was a dog.

But those were the only real bruises, and minor at that, as Vee and I wandered from the Small House (for the introverted volunteers. There is a Big House for the extroverts.) to el centro for flip flops, a hat, and groceries. A man behind us in line at an eatery explained Vee’s order to the clerk. The clerk at the pulperia across the road from my house patiently repeated multiple times just how the eggs were priced (5 eggs for 15 lempiras ~ US$0.75), and a produce vendor made sure I understood that the avocado (aguacate) should be eaten mañana. A smile to a passing stranger usually garners a smile in return.

Ta ta,

theresa

P.S. And…the water’s back on.

P.P.S. The internet currently works in 5 minute increments only.

Picture of llamas at sunset.

I declare my intentions

Over the past several months, I’ve begun venturing into the unknown. I quit my paralegal job of nine years and agreed to teach Honduran seventh, eighth, and ninth graders English and Science for a year. In exchange I’ll get a roof over my head and lunch five days a week. I earned a Teaching English as a Foreign/Second Language certificate. I was inoculated against typhoid and tetanus. I bought a one-way ticket to Honduras, and I leave tomorrow. I have no source of income or idea of what I’ll do once the school year ends.

I am 34. Few, I think, would call me a risk taker, until now. Despite a fine arts degree in playwriting, I’ve mostly played it safe emotionally, chemically, sexually, and experientially. The rent is paid on time, and I’ve avoided getting lost in foreign countries. I re-read and re-read and re-read favorite books and trust in the loyalty of a plate of brownies. So, needless to say, I’ve lived well outside my comfort zone the past several months; I plan to continue doing so.

Sigh, that last sentence reeks of confidence, so let’s get real. While there is something to be said in praise of stability, if its root is fear, then I remain silent. I hate being afraid of failure, of not knowing, of falling on my ass, of external judgment. I hate being too afraid to discover what I love, including how to love myself. I want to change my life because I’m disgusted with the person I am. That person gets overly frustrated with origami, assumes that even her closest friends want to hurt her, and rarely commits, even to an opinion. I know the fence well.

Every now and then, perhaps on the seven year cycle, I realize it’s time to rip off the blankets. So what am I doing? I’m committing to goals that I, not anyone else, have decided are vital. I’m traveling to a country where a minority of the inhabitants speak English. I’m planning to learn as much Spanish as I can, after 20+ years of trying. I’m teaching, which was a dream in my early teens before I decided I couldn’t do it. I’m planning to write here at least once a week. I’m committing to now and not fretting about what will happen once this year is over. I’m doing my best to avoid Thoreau’s “life of quiet desperation.”

If I take too long of a look, I’m afraid about all of it, so I pick one fear: I want to be a good teacher for these kids! This journey toward selfhood is difficult and I’ve whined a lot. But, despite my fears and doubts and whining, something inside of me believes I’m up to this challenge, that even failure will be a success.

Undeniably so,

theresa

P.S. Llamas are not native to Honduras; I just like them.