Impossible science

I’m not feeling this blog entry today. I’d much rather be escaping into The Princess Bride, which I splurged on during a NOOK $2.99 sale yesterday, but I’m afraid of losing my routine. I promised myself that I would try writing again during this adventure, after years of fear squelching the urge. I suppose I’ll have to make peace with the imperfection, reluctance, and negativity that will be this post.

Today was the monthly teacher meeting between the Honduran and volunteer staff. It began at 8 a.m. It was in Spanish, which is great practice for my listening skills, but that didn’t override the earliness of the meeting or its devolution into circular, seemingly pointless digressions or that it lasted over three hours. I just wanted to put my head on the desk and cry, especially when “Thanksgiving” was mentioned, a day where each volunteer brings a specialty dish of his/her country (It coincides with the U.S. Thanksgiving, which doesn’t make sense considering half of the volunteers are not from the U.S., but let that go.), or when the school Olympics were mentioned, a yearlong event that includes, as I see it, additional opportunities to do school work outside of school hours, or when I learned that our winter break would be two days shorter than first reported. When I’m unhappy and lonely, I get ugly inside.

I want to quit, I really do. I want to be on that rooftop in Copán, reading a book and drinking coffee. In one of my early posts I mentioned that as tough as the previous school week had been, I wasn’t dreading Monday; now, I am, because when I think about preparing my science classes, I get nauseous. I should be planning right now, except I deserve this one day a week to myself. Exams are over and we’re in our second term (or parcíal). During the first, all three grades were learning the same science topic, albeit at different speeds. It was tough enough then to design the curriculum, from scratch, based upon the at times obscure learning goals set by the government. (I consulted /r/scienceteachers for terminology translation assistance.) Now, the curricula have diverged and I have two different topics. On the plus, I have four biology texts to choose from; on the negative, none of them have all the information I need and I must, again, rely too heavily on Google (animal nutrition, anyone?). I must somehow find interesting projects that are cheap (my pocketbook), need no science equipment, and require materials that are locatable in town in a day, because forget about planning weeks ahead, or days, I’m usually planning everything that night, with “look for interesting projects” on my continual to do list. And no matter how interesting I try to make my lessons, the behavior and complaints derail me. Whenever I think of the teaching advice “Be the most interesting thing in the room,” I want to kick someone.

Previous years’ science teachers didn’t do this. They just taught from whatever books they had and taught all three grades the same science lessons. Last year’s teacher gave a lot of worksheets and free periods. He had time for several tutoring gigs outside of school. I suppose I could do the same, but I was told that our graduates were barred from entering some bilingual high schools because their science knowledge was sorely lacking. Am I asked to do the impossible? Am I asking myself to do the impossible? As in, give these kids an excellent science education when I have absolutely no training in science and three weeks training in teaching English, and the school has minimal resources for me to give that excellent education and the classrooms are so loud, even when my students aren’t speaking, that I have to shout to hear myself? Probably, but I want guide my students to the marvel and wonder that is our universe, from the stars to the cow’s four stomachs. These kids deserve excellence, especially the ones that love science, that ask me the most weird and wonderful questions, the geeky boy on scholarship who wants to join NASA.

You, dear reader, may be thinking that I’m a perfectionist, and you can join the queue of disbelievers when I say I’m not. Perfection is impossible. I do, however, strive for excellence. I have a strong sense of obligation. I have been charged with a task and must do my best to carry it out; I just know that my best isn’t good enough. There are gaping holes in the knowledge I’m passing on, simply because I don’t have the time to re-understand what I learned at my students’ age. The work I put in does pay off. I am some of my students’ favorite teacher or science is their favorite class. I explain things clearly and well. I’m patient and “gentle.” These are comments written on my students’ parcíal exams (Bonus point – What do you like or dislike about this class? There is no wrong answer!), and I’d like to think they were honest. I allowed a few hours to glow. And, yes, a student did write that my class is boring, and I thanked him with a genuine smile and gave him the bonus point. But right now, after a few weeks of depression and sadness and frustration, I am asking myself what my effort is costing me. None of the other volunteers plan as much as I do. My roommate often does hers at the last minute. And while I have the reputation of creating amazing lesson plans, at least for English, I am sure they all think I’m a little crazy for spending four or five hours a night planning. But if they had to teach advanced science, maybe they’d put in the hours as well. Or not. Because the previous teachers didn’t.

Anyway, I am thinking about how long I can sustain this, about the cost of being here. Yes, there’s the monetary, but I mean the psychological. I don’t deal with stress well. I eat, I cry, I…. I’m lonely, isolated, and alienated. I share a room with someone (soon to be someones) who doesn’t see reading as a reason for leaving me alone. My only outlets of relaxation are reading, Netflix, and this blog. I’ve started running as often as my joints will allow, physical therapist be damned!, and that helps, kinda, except because I find running boring, I run with Vee, who complains a quite a bit. I have to wait until my stolen debit card arrives before I can buy a guitar (I wanted a banjo but those aren’t sold here.), something I think will help on Saturdays, my free day. I’m not learning Spanish. While don’t regret my choice and all I miss of Portland is one person, I often wonder if I should have just wandered Central and South America instead, focused, for once, on pleasure, but I thought I needed structure of some kind and purpose.

I don’t deny that there are fantastic moments, some of which I’ve shared here. This week the aunt of a sixth grader gave me a wonderful haircut for free. She is not professionally trained and usually does dying, styling, and trims. She was hesitant. In a town of waist length hair, it was probably the first short female cut she’s ever done. During the haircut, the sixth grader gave my face a makeover. The experience was undeniably sweet, and I will return. I gave an English lesson to the sister of one of my seventh graders. It was fun, we laughed a lot, and I was paid with a chocolate-cornflake licuado. Many of my 8th and 9th graders loved the video clip I used from Little Shop of Horrors in my carnivorous plant mini-lesson. I see evidence of improvement in the English of a few of my 7th graders, who are very behind. I love all of this.

Why are such moments not enough? I bask in their warmth, but the hole inside my chest gapes wider and resentment chills and fills it, and sadness. Why should I feel resentment when I made the choice to be here? Because I’m already giving so much, yet more is asked of me? Why isn’t it enough for me that I know I’m giving it my best, even when I fall short simply because I’m human and am being asked to do, well, something extremely difficult? Why do I still feel like a loser? Because it seems easier for the other teachers? because I’m not filled with the humanitarian-aid joie de vivre glow that pervades other volunteer blogs? because I’m still the awkward, reclusive, shy, insecure, impatient person I always am? because for once I just want people to see me and smile?

So why am I not quitting? Because I’ve made a commitment, because maybe this will get better, because I have nothing else.

And there you have it,



[insert title here]

This week’s post ran into a thick wall of depression yesterday. I tried scratching through but gave it up for Never Let Me Go, napping, and lesson planning. This is as much as I squeezed out, and I imagine it will return next week in some form:

Depression strong today. Weep-weep message posted on Facebook. I’m starting this post late.

I’m wondering today if I create my own loneliness. Of course I do. I can see the pattern, it is plain, I’m living it, as I have so many times before; and I’m living it because I’m me and despite how run, I’m still right behind. Hello, there you are. Here we are.

I haven’t slept well the past two weeks. Despite having early release school days and no lesson plans, exam week was exhausting.

My roommate talks and talks and talks empty words about subjects I care nothing about (calories, weight, washing her hair or clothes, gossip, how she’s gotten nothing done, men are bastards, you’re going to bed now?!), or she talks of nothing, but anything so she is the center of attention, and I lose my place on a page, the thought I am chasing for a lesson, the quiet I’ve tucked into. I smile a smile that reads complicity but is really communicating a Will you please shut up? And while I like to think I have a lot of compassion, empathy, and sympathy, especially when I can see her vast insecurity, I find my abilities being stretched. Home is supposed to be where I can take off everything that is not me.

She and another volunteer plan to go to Guatemala for Christmas break. Initially I was to go—hiking! volcanoes!—but since the itinerary includes significant partying, I’ve decided to find my own way solo. Nothing against a party, I do enjoy some bouncing around to happily frantic beats, but I prefer the company of people I trust. You know, every place you go will probably be just one big party, theresa, the message being that I should just suck it up and deal. The message being that I’m unrealistic, that I’m an ill-formed snotball. It’s just as well. By the end of Copan I wanted to be as far from her as I could. We don’t play on the same of side of most teams.

I was afraid of this, a reliving of college dorm life. But when I settled on working here and having to live in this situation, I figured I was older, had had enough therapy, and, for better or worse, this would just be another element of the adventure. Oh, and did I mention that our third roommate arrives soon?

[to be continued…]



P.S. Those are some delicious donuts I enjoyed at Donut Friend in L.A. The dark one is chocolate with mint filling. It’s vegan!

7th graders

Schoolday in the life

My days start at 5:05 a.m. I’m the first awake in our four person household. I grab my smart phone, slip on my house flip flops, tug my REI quick dry towel from the nail in the side of the desk, and sneak my toiletries bag from my cubby. Outside the room I share with Vee, I fill my water bottle with cold potable water from the pitcher in the fridge. We buy the potable water in 5 gallon jugs or tambos. The jug is kept on a broken chair outside the fridge. I like thinking that lifting it to fill the pitcher will make my arms more muscular.

Water, bag, and towel in hand, I head to the girls bathroom. (There is a boys bathroom for our male housemate, thank goodness, because he is 20 and attends to his hygiene in an age predictive manner. But it’s not perfect—the wall between the rooms does not go to the ceiling.) While peeing, I turn on the sink faucet to see if the water is working this morning. If it rained the night before, the water is probably off. Supposedly the rain overwhelms the sewer system and officials turn off the water supply because they can’t guarantee the water is safe. I put my used TP into the pink and white trashcan and flush the toilet normally or with a bucket of water from the pila. I stopper the sink with a bottle cap and wash my hard contacts. If the water is on, I rinse with the non-potable faucet water, then water from my bottle. If it’s not on, I just use the potable water. The shower faucet is a thin white PVC pipe jutting through the exterior wall. It’s operated by a small lever on the top, labeled ‘cold’ by way of a thin blue rubber covering. Sometimes the water is a trickle, other times it’s a sputtering spray. Its temperature ranges from cool to goose bumps cold. I take a breath and dive under. I don’t complain or notice it much; it’s a fact of my life.

After shower, after my feet are slightly cleaner, I clear the teensy ants from a plate and breakfast on a quarter of papaya and a hard-boiled egg. I open the glass slats at the front of the house to welcome the slight morning breeze. The sunlight grows quickly. The street is relatively quiet. I check my phone in hopes of electronic missives from my other life, then browse reddit; aww pics are too slow to load.

Then comes all the other routine morning activities like dressing, pig tailing, applying essential mosquito repellant to my legs, and skimming that day’s lesson plans to see if candy prizes are required. I pack a snack for recreo and about two bathroom trips worth of toilet paper so I don’t have to rely on the office roll, which might be nonexistent that day, for my tiny bladder. Then it’s 6:30 and off to the Big House where the busito, a type of van that serves as hired transport, picks us up. I would much rather walk the mile or so to school but the school funds this ride. Also, the distance includes a not so safe stretch of road.

Sitting near the front of the busito has advantages; I’m one of the first in the office to print documents or make copies, not that the two printers or the copier are reliable, and they certainly are not fast. Some days only one of the two printers works, some days neither. Only one recognizes my flashdrive so I also save my documents on Vee’s. I handwrite my worksheets and tests if I can. The copier jams at least once per copy group and more if I’m trying to copy double-sided to “conserve” paper (quotes because a lot of those copies get trashed). So I always have a back up plan in case a worksheet or picture doesn’t happen that morning. I bring my own paper since we are restricted to the amount of copies we can make each day (one page per student per grade, so if Vee makes copies for 8th grade, I can’t use the school paper that day).

Copies made or not, I grab some TP from the office roll and venture to the girls bathroom, where only one stall is adult sized; the rest require me to grab onto the wall for balance as I squat awkwardly over the seatless toilets in such a way that my head or knees don’t hit the door. A trash barrel full of water and empty jumbo condiment containers is stationed outside the bathroom. I fill a container with water and then bucket flush the toilet. Some kids don’t do this; it’s obvious. The floors in the bathroom are wet from the water splashing into the toilets. (Now, there is a “teacher” bathroom with toilet seats and privacy, but it’s often locked and the loos are shared with the little kids, who can make a mess. I’ll take the discomfort but reliability of the girls loo.)

Then it’s to the teachers room to review, organize, or, depending on my mood, just plain hide until 7:15 a.m. and the first bell. And we’re off! Mondays start with Acto Civico, a school wide assembly that includes a prayer, the national anthem and pledge, presentation of Star of the Week for the top English and Spanish students in each grade, and a Honduran teacher rambling on a topic like respect or community. At 45 minutes, the kids standing the entire time, occasionally in the sun, this assembly is much too long. Often the speakers can’t be heard. Two kids are on stage the whole time, holding the national flag. My 7th graders squirm, talk, and whine. But, on the plus side, the assembly fills first period.

I start and end my days with 7th grade. Between these times I hop among the 7th, 8th, and 9th grade classrooms. I shout over the sound of four classes of kids and strain to hear my students. I sweat and gulp water. On off periods (I teach an average of five classes) I grade and plan in the teachers room or an outside table. Recreo includes the snack I brought and, inevitably, because I’m frikkin’ hungry, fried plantains with beans and disgusting cheese shreds, which don’t energize so much as leave me yawning, but food options are limited and always fried. The food at lunch, where half of the volunteers choose beans over meat since the latter tends toward toughness, usually consists of rice, beans, tortillas, and some sort of salad or fried vegetables or tajadas, and salt, always salt. The volunteer coordinator, who assembles our lunches, considerately leaves off wheat-containing foods from my plate. Occasionally there is a fresh squeezed juice—melon or pineapple—and always a sugary drink in plastic bags that you open by biting off a corner (true of many drinks here, including water. Empty bags litter the streets.). I avoid these. All the volunteers wish for more vegetables, but at least our food is free. During these breaks we are responsible for making sure the big kids don’t trample the little. Kids stop by to chat with their favorite teachers. A few of my 7th grade girls visit me, more often Vee, of whom they are huge fans.

School ends at 2:10. I sit on the low wall outside my classroom, sapped of verbal energy and longing for a small dark room to collapse in, and prevent my kids from rushing the gate. Kids are picked up by busitos, moto-taxis, and family members. Two fruit vendors and an ice cream vendor linger outside the double-doored gate, awaiting the mob of kids and adults, including me (green mango slices with barbecue sauce and salt, 5 lemps). The volunteer teachers—most of the Honduran staff is long gone to the public schools, where the second shift starts at 12—wait until the last kid is picked up. Inevitably, a ride is late and two volunteers wait at the school with the kid, and the rest of us, except those who accompany kids to their houses for tutoring, high-five Don Chepe, the daytime guard, and return home on the busito, driven by the father of a smooth talking and self-proclaimed womanizing 8th grader.

I invariably get off the busito at the town square to pick up produce, fresh tortillas, or school supplies. On Fridays I purchase a celebratory licuado (chocolate and banana or cornflake and papaya) from a small stand surrounded by a multicolored fence.

Once home, sweat drenched clothes are peeled off and replaced with boxers and a stretched out tank top held together with a safety pin. I make decaf coffee in my itty-bitty press (Thank you, care packages!) and allow myself a little time for texting and email and blog stat checking, maybe some feet washing—sandals + dirt + anti-mosquito spray = stinky—then it’s to the internet for research and lesson planning, unless the internet or power isn’t working, in which case I just hope that I have enough information for my next science lesson and look through old plans and notes for interesting English activities. The kids next door return home from school and start yelling and playing football, the ball regularly banging against their metal gate. The neighbor across the street blasts music or the next door neighbor parks his moto-taxi in front of the house to do the same. A little girl stops by our house multiple times per day to see my housemate Ky for her English lesson, to give her a gift for the lesson, and then to check on the time for the next day’s lesson, despite it always being at five. Ky’s room is in the back of the house; I answer the door. Vee is chatty. The house is disruptive, my focus tenuous. I wear earplugs almost constantly.

Dinner is simple, often ayote or broccoli and red beans and tomato and rice sautéed together in a battered pan on a match lit gas stove where the burners operate on high only, with avocado chunks stirred in.

I try to end lesson planning by 8 so I can have a little bit of reading time before bed at 9. It doesn’t always work that way, but that’s my goal. I clear my backpack and computer from the bed, shake dust and bugs from the sheet, turn the ceiling fan on high, and collapse onto the pillow.

And so another day is done.

Still here,



Detention, stickers, and earworms

Joe, along with six other of my seventh graders, has a two-week old behavior plan. At the end of each day I complete a sheet outlining his homework, assessing his behavior on a scale of 1 to 10, and providing any explanatory notes on behavior, either positive or negative, from a stock collection of phrases translated for me. A parent is supposed to review and sign the sheet everyday. Of all my kids, Joe is the most challenging. He talks almost incessantly and flings rubber bands across the room. He and another boy make porno-quality moaning sounds when my back is turned. Joe has massive goof potential and speaks to me in a loud silly voice and echoes me when I say “thank you” to him or one of the other students. His hair is light brown and styled with gel, he has long eyelashes, and like almost all the other boys at school, he is obsessed with football. He rarely does his homework. If I chastise him about anything he claims that I’m treating him unfairly because he’s a boy. He loves girls and has a good imagination. His attention span is fleeting. I like Joe quite a lot.

Many of my kids have stories of poverty, abuse, and violence. I don’t know if there’s a story behind Joe’s behavior. He’s known as being particularly problematic for all his teachers. At the recent parent meeting, which included the parents of the other students on behavior schedules, his dad (or uncle? This was never clear.) gave a bit of a speech about how tough things were at home. His parents are divorced. Joe throws school notes away or stuffs them under the seat of his busito.

My seventh graders remain a troublesome class, but (and because) I’ve been reluctant to impose punitive measures, probably because they weren’t necessary for me. I don’t have any stories of talking back to teachers or cutting class (The one class I did skip was on my 18th birthday and approved by my teacher, so that doesn’t really count.) or sneaking a smoke or drink in the bathroom. I took notes, raised my hand, did my work. I wanted to succeed and understood that I would have to do the work for this to happen. So I keep thinking that my kids will have the same understanding and that if my lessons are creative and interesting enough, I will tap into their latent desire to speak better English or discover the origins of the universe rather than gossip with each other and style their hair. My co-volunteers, more daring and rebellious, understand the kids’ perspective much better than I. They all have encouraged me to put names on the board, give detentions, because actions have consequences and the kids have to learn that. I know this is right, but it’s just so…negative. And these kids often get a lot of that negativity at home because yelling and hitting aren’t taboo here. Some parents tell us to smack their children if they’re acting up. I like giving out stickers and saying “thank you” and making people happy. I dread conflict; it makes me nauseous. I have too much self-doubt to hand out detentions. What if I’m being too hard? What if I punish the wrong kid? And what if they get mad enough that they stop talking to me and become even more disruptive? What if I’m wrong or unfair?

What finally pushed me onto Team Detention was someone pointing out that my reluctance was an unwillingness (my word) to work within the culture. The kids are used to the negative reinforcement approach from their Honduran teachers and parents. It’s what they know and expect; it’s their school culture. One of my TEFL books noted that it would be necessary to learn how to work within my students’ culture. The example it cited was Chinese students’ discomfort with volunteering answers and calling attention to themselves. They were used to attending lectures and taking notes. The teacher in this situation compromised her cultural expectations by letting the students compare answers in groups first and then calling on a group representative to give an answer. While all the other advice I was given on the issue was wonderful, citing my cultural inflexibility helped the most.

Not that it has been easy summoning the God of Names and Tallies on the Board for assistance. Every name earns a “Whyyy, Miss?” whine and a “Why aren’t you writing her/his name down?” and, if it’s Joe, desk banging on the floor. The students continually tattle on whose name belongs on the board because of something I didn’t see. I prefer the school of self-responsibility, but they also don’t understand that and, I admit, it isn’t much supported by the school, where kids throw their food wrappers on the ground for the cleaners to sweep up, ruin school property, and are promoted, even if their grades are poor. Obviously, they aren’t ready yet. Maybe we can get there.

In the meantime, while tallies have invoked more quiet, they have also invoked glares and whines, and my poor lonely heart wavers. I love making people happy, I want my kids to have fun, and, despite my protestations of not needing to be liked, I do want to be liked. How could I not when I see the other teachers getting breakfast and stickers and candy and hugs and devoted affection from their kids, while mine are generally too cool for that sort of thing, and I have masses of second guesses and continual longing for reassurance that this is a battle that I am qualified to slog through? The logical part of my mind knows that my lessons, at least for English, are interesting, that I’m approaching everything with compassion, and that tough love really is necessary. I also know that my kids like me. I do get hugs, smiles, and “Goodbye, Miss” at the end of the day. But…. There’s always that but, that nasty little whispering earworm.

Back to Joe. Tuesday, I made tallies and Joe collected the unlucky three. Also, some girls left class without permission to get in the recreo snack line early. That earned them detention, too, and some pretty impressive yelling (thank you, vocal training), which two girls didn’t much care about. (One girl, perhaps my sweetest, Yu, left early for the snack line but without my observing; she gave herself detention. I wanted to waive it just for her honesty.) Joe fumed and yelled about unfairness. He wrote that he was in detention because I favored the girls and that he wouldn’t be doing this again. We sat through detention. Another student apologized. We parted ways. I felt exasperatedly invigorated.

Seventh grade class doesn’t much improve, but Joe and I finally connect on Thursday. That afternoon, the kids let me know they are having no more of this sitting quietly for taking notes nonsense (and in retrospect they were right to disagree) and I divvy them into groups for some World’s Longest Sentence competitions. Joe refuses to join a group and asks to sit where he is, in a little desk island in the middle of the classroom (that day’s punitive measure). I reluctantly agree, but only if he practices Subject + Verb + Object sentences. A deal is struck. I circle the room, inspecting sentence competitions. I return to Joe and his sentences. They are perfect, even complex. The best sentences I’ve seen from him, from almost anyone. He names the S, V, and O. I ask for more, circle the class, and return to more beautiful sentences. I give him stars, pats on the back, and praise. A lot of praise. I say he can write more or just sit quietly. He chooses the sitting quietly. His behavior report says 6/10 that day, his highest score yet.

Friday is a short day for us. I have seventh grade for only two periods and one of them is filled with an assembly. The class works outside in the afternoon on a mystery game. Joe is not only the first one done with the initial part of the game—drawing a picture and interviewing his classmates—but he writes up his accusation and 14 present progressive sentences regarding what the suspects were doing when Miss Theresa’s cows were stolen, and is the only one to finish. His report that day is 8/10, a Dr. Seuss sticker, and some garbled Spanish comment in praise of his participation. After school, I want to tell the world about his work, host a parade in his honor; I have to confine myself to a few fellow teachers.

My best teaching moments so far are these, when I’m able to meet with my students one-on-one and give them the attention they crave. At 14 students, my class is small, but they are all needy little buggers and the classroom is tiny and cramped and so loud because there are no full walls in this row of four classrooms. No wonder no one can focus. All of my troublesome kids love the spotlight of my attention. Unfortunately, one-on-one moments are rare unless I have an assistant or I’ve happened upon an activity that my kids will do independently for a whole minute before calling out, “Miss. Miss! MISS! MIIISSS!” They need more.

I have another story similar to Joe’s, a girl named Kim, who spent her time giggling and coloring and was too embarrassed to answer questions. Her friends would tell me she didn’t know English. But I had my doubts as to the veracity of this after our first written test when her mark was surprisingly good. It turns out, after separating her from her fellow colorer and having her mom review the behavior plans, that Kim has some of the best written work in the class; she’s started participating. She loves getting stickers and I love giving them to her.

Sometimes, no, often, what doesn’t work in class overwhelms me and I feel pretty hopeless. It’s these moments with Joe and Kim and Krissy and Fred and Antonio that keep me going. My kids drive me batshit crazy, I doubt daily that I’m going to survive the next eight months, and I wouldn’t exchange these moments of connection for anything.