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I’d wondered if it would happen, if Glisa would come to class with marks clearly human in origin, like a swollen face or belt stripes that couldn’t be hidden by her sleeveless top on Color Day. But I’d doubted it. While the younger kids confide, follow their teachers like ducklings, openly crush with star-pooled eyes, the older ones stay aloof, confiding in each other or no one.

I wasn’t prepared. Can you be prepared for confession? When sitting alone on a bench, lost in space, while your students listen to music or play on tablets during an earned play afternoon? Can you prepare yourself for a tall, lovely girl who is quick to laugh, rather careless, and rarely concerned to suddenly be in tears? And what were we talking about, nothing, I don’t remember, I was in the middle of some joking comment.

“My [step]dad says if I’m not good, he’ll hurt my mom.”

Probably not. I couldn’t prepare for this secret warrior to remove her armor.

The night before, the stepfather came into her room and hit her. She doesn’t know why. He was looking for something in her room; she doesn’t know what. When her stepsister cries or whines or cries—she’s always crying—Glisa gets hit. The stepfather has threatened her with a knife. Glisa is afraid to go home. She stays at her grandmother’s as long as she can during the day. Probably everyone on that street knows what happens in that house, but her mom talks to only her sister. Her mother wants to leave, but doesn’t know to where. Glisa’s aunt is trying to get her and her brother to the States, to Houston. Her mom can’t afford to care for all three kids.

Glisa sat above me on the table, I rubbed her leg, squeezed her foot, maybe took her hand as she talked. I wondered what to say, knowing that listening was the right step, but wanting to hand her a solution, feeling helpless in this pain, trying to not let my own tears show. It’s not my place to cry here. I asked if there was someone who could help. Only the aunt. Thank goodness for the headphones, most students were too absorbed to notice our island at the crowded table, Gilsa’s tears.

“You know you don’t deserve this, right?” Glisa nodded. I murmured words about that asshole, her intelligence and wonderful personness. My hopes of her escape.

Then, she was done and went to play with her iPod. Football was played that last hour. At home, I fell on the bed, drained, teary, and am still somewhat lost.

The days after September 11 were emotional and paranoid below 14th Street, including where I worked in the West Village. Cars weren’t allowed. A stranger sold cleaning fluid in unlabeled bottles and we suspected anthrax. Spontaneous memorials grew on fences and street corners. Pictures of the missing, Have You Seen Me?s, were hung; of course they were never seen again. I knew, and they did too, the hangers of those pictures, they had to have, but they hoped, I guess, that their friend, lover, father, mother, child was out for coffee during the fall and just got…confused. Or lay unidentified in some hospital. I passed them and looked, the candles always burning. The faces gradually familiar, and I looked for them each morning.

My story of that day and the weeks that followed is inconsequential amidst so much loss and real pain. I lost no one and was not even close to being lost. I worked in the Village, a lower part of the island, but still streets and streets away. I was close enough to see the flaming maw in the first building before it collapsed. I was close enough to see the ash-filled sky as I looked south, those days that followed. The ash rained on the cars outside my arts school.

I attempted to join a blood donation queue outside St. Vincent’s Hospital. I arrived just as the crowd was disbursed: there were no bodies. Someone recently pointed out that obviously there wouldn’t be any bodies, but he wasn’t there that day, walking north up 6th Avenue, away from the cloud that obscured the lower island, huddling around someone’s open car door to listen to the report that the Pentagon had also been attacked, and feeling desperate and alone, so alone, and shuffling slowly to some where, to find someone to shake and ask what the hell is happening? I worked in a shop on Greenwich Avenue. The store was dark but I punched the access code, lifted the gate, and waited. The phones weren’t really working. They wouldn’t start working well for awhile. I found out the next day that I missed my coworker Laura by just a few minutes.

I had more luck finding warmth at a nearby church where a friend worked. He and his partner hugged me. The video footage repeated, the buildings kept collapsing. And then I wanted to be alone again, because I felt so alone and it’s better to feel alone away from people. But when I got home—190th Avenue, the trains must have restarted quickly, or did I walk? I know some did—I was alone, and that was the worst place I could be. The phones didn’t work. That night I screamed into my pillow. Why had I come here?

My luxury is that I get to forget most of that day and those that followed. I hold flashes and emotions, one of the strongest being helplessness, uselessness. I wanted to help, but there was nothing I could do. I couldn’t donate blood. I had no skills. All I could do was stand behind the counter and wait for customers. My coworker Laura had a task, something to do with the search and rescue dogs sniffing the rubble. I answered a call from someone connected with our store (a trainer? supplier?) and I found my task. The rubble was hot, the pads on the dogs’ feet were burning, we sold special booties for the winter, our store could donate. But in the end this fell through. People around me rushed around, and I stood static behind a counter, completely useless, without ideas or skills. What a waste.

The Volunteer Coordinator suggested that Glisa’s mother could be killed if she told the police about the abuse. That night she emailed me a list of shelters to give to Glisa, and I did the next morning. That I could do. But not much else. I can’t take Glisa away from here. I can’t stop the abuse. I can’t stop her fear. There were days as a child I didn’t want to go home, because of my own (first) stepfather, of whom I was also afraid, but not physically. I didn’t fear that I might not leave the house alive. I can only guess what she’s feeling. I can only hug her when she asks, listen to her chatter, and laugh, these last few weeks. I can’t rescue her.

So I feel pretty useless.

I suppose that feeling has never gone away.

theresa

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Tire seat

Thought motes

1. Whining. Sometimes I (along with all the volunteers) am as whiny as the students. I groan when the Volunteer Coordinator reminds us about our weekly meeting, bemoan the pointlessness of our attendance when told of the monthly staff meeting, and bitch when a day off or free period is cancelled. Like my kids, I often try to shoot the messenger.

2. Plastic? I’ve been meaning to mention the love of plastic bags here. The freshness of the observation is lost after nine months, but I do recall that the eagerness to give me a plastic bag with my purchase, no matter how small and how many other plastic bags I already have, used to surprise me. Any rejection of the proffered bag is met with bewilderment. Fortunately, even the smallest bag can be reused for cut produce, like avocado or melon. Also, juice, water, and frozen juice or milk treats called topogigos are sold in knotted plastic bags. Bite off a corner and suck away.

3. Balls. One dreaded part of my job is litigating arguments between kids over stolen balls and fighting in general. If I can’t punt the role of judge to another, I dither about fairness and trust neither party to tell me the truth. Thus I chastise both and no one is satisfied that justice has been done. Is this a contributing factor to the “zero-tolerance” policy in many US schools? Where the bullied is punished for self-defense, as well as the bully?

4. Happiness. For twelve years, my primary jobs, excluding the theatre-related, and even some of them too, have put me in a position that where no one is happy to see or hear from me. A call from me or the sight of my face means that person has something he doesn’t want to. My first adult job was in bookkeeping at a medical collection agency. I took money from people who most certainly did not want to (and sometimes really couldn’t) pay. My next job was as a paralegal who had to contact clients to request a year’s worth of financial documents. And if those weren’t enough to present a solid picture to the court, the person had to supplement with another pile of paperwork. Then I had to contact these people with personal questions about their spending habits. More than one took my questions as personal attacks, despite my sugar padding efforts, my emotional tap dancing. In the theatre life, as a literary manager, I would have to reject more plays than I accepted. Now, I teach children who most definitely do not want to be taught. Please, can I just have a job making people happy?

5. No fun. Joe has been a real jerk in class lately, telling me I’m mean and bad, and whining about every bit of work he has to do. I’m afraid we’re going to end the year on a bad note.

6. Science. My favorite geeky boy told me I was the best Science teacher they’ve ever had, because I explain things so students understand. Now, how can someone not teach that way?

7. Cliques. I will not end this experience with “friends of a lifetime” à la some summer camp or group vacation brochure. Is the cliquishness among the team indicative of age or is this just how adults naturally act when forced together?

8. Ants. I look forward to living somewhere where I’m not awakened by fireworks or firecrackers exploding at 4am. Also, I will not miss the itch of ants crawling over me.

9. Sex. I’ve ended the year by teaching Sex Ed. Of course the kids (and this teacher) are counting the days until school ends, and this is my best bet at getting their attention. It’s also the only topic I feel qualified to teach (get your mind out of the gutter, because experience would mean I’d feel more qualified to teach English) because I was one of those kids in high school who went to other schools to sing about condom use and act as the good witch Sister Syphilis.

This is also my chance for a little socio-political action, to spread messages that girls will not be harmed by masturbation, despite what doctors tell women; that both parties are responsible for protection and the outcomes of sex, despite the fact single motherhood is high and 25% of pregnancies happen to women under age 16; that if someone tries to pressure you into sex as proof of love, you kick that person to the curb because they are quite obviously an asshole and you can find someone better; and, BTW, folks, Miss theresa doesn’t care who you have sex with, or how, as long as you respect yourself, respect your partner—and respect includes protection—and all parties are willing.

I’ve received such wonderful and frank questions, which I attribute to my attitude of non-judgment, but perhaps questions about threesomes and porn and masturbating with car parts are normal conversation topics at this age. I wonder at times if I’m being too direct and open—the grossed out faces on the 8th grade girls when they saw the banana condom, the distressed look on a 7th grader when I responded to her question that the first time probably will hurt, but if she is relaxed and with someone she trusts, it will be easier—and I know, at times, that what I teach is directly counter to their parents and the Church. But they ask, so I tell. And next week we’ll discuss, briefly, homosexuality, in the context of love, because how does more love in the world hurt anyone? While this was on my not-so-secret agenda, someone did ask me, in an anonymous note, if it was “bad.”

With all the grades I did an exercise to prove the point that you have sex with everyone your partner has had sex with. I choose an innocent (ha!) volunteer and informed the class that this lovely person just had unprotected sex and now has HIV, but s/he doesn’t know. She had a great time last night and decides to have more unprotected sex. So she grabs another student, who now also gets HIV, then both have sex with new partners, the disease spreads, etc., until in about four days, all 10, 14, or 17 of the kids has HIV. This lead to a 9th grade braggart assuring me he will buy condoms after school (yes, I am sooo impressed by your sexual prowess) and a shocked expression on Antonio’s face as the exercise ended. Ultimately, I’m skeptical of my overall usefulness here, but if my teaching gets these kids thinking about who they share their feeling parts with and how, then it was worth it. If it encourages my girls to be strong when they’re pressured, because they will be, and makes them less afraid of learning what they like, then it was worth it.

On a related note, the 9th graders laughed when I told them that some schools in the US don’t allow sex education teaching. All grades also enjoyed practicing safe sock wear.

10. More cats. During the Parents’ Day celebration, a 9th grader gave me an itsy bitsy quite-obviously-still-needing-its-mommy kitten, because “Miss theresa likes cats.” Now, she first tried to pawn off the kitten on the Volunteer Coordinator, so it wasn’t a gift for me specifically. Despite my protestations that I couldn’t care for this kitten, it was left on my lap and my student and her father left. Fortunately, my geeky boy loves animals and together we were able to convince his mother to let him take it home to his bunnies and birds. The kitten is doing very well.

3 weeks to go,

theresa

P.S. Today’s picture is the winning project for 7th grade. These were very popular seats.

pig made from detergent bottle

Making do

The busito that takes us to school is gray and battered, like a package that’s fallen off a truck and been kicked around several times. I identify its approach in the morning by its squeaks and rattles. There’s no speedometer, the front passenger door opens from only the inside, and the rear sliding door has always been tricky, requiring a strong arm. On Monday a volunteer’s arm was a little too strong and pulled the door completely off the track. The driver spent a few minutes attempting to slide it back into the track, then left the door at the pulperia across the road. The door was reattached on that afternoon, but has since disappeared. I don’t mind; the additional breeze is nice. The rainy season is long past.

As we trundled off to school, I couldn’t help thinking that if this had happened in the States, we would still be at the small house, waiting for a new van to pick us up. And rightfully so, I’m sure. Part of me was worried about a sudden turn that could push me off my seat and spill me into the road, or a T-bone collision on my side of the van. But we had to get to school and the busito still worked, so, doorless, off we went. Practical.

Almost everything here is cheaply and poorly made, as if this town is supplied solely by Walmart. Bandages don’t adhere. Paint peels quickly. My earbuds broke almost immediately and are held together with masking tape. Kay’s new coffee thermos cracked on the side the next day and it no longer pours well. None of the replacement bulbs for my Christmas lights worked. Our washing machine needs a lot of assistance to get anything clean. But the broken isn’t thrown away. People use wire, twist ties, and plastic connectors to hold the easily broken but ubiquitous plastic chairs together. The cheap and now broken fans are repaired. Empty paint cans are used to scoop water for flushing the toilets. Old pants are used as wash rags and fences for hanging clothes on to dry. Plastic bottles, cans, rocks, and even unripe mangoes double as footballs.

I am not very handy, except with duct tape, my go-to solution for just about everything (tape, albeit packing, currently holds our toilet seat together). While DIY and making and crafting has resurged in the US, still the prevailing attitude is buy and replace. Shop and Home Economics aren’t offered much in school anymore, as the push is for academics, not life skills, unless a child is in a special education program. College is the goal, not trades. Rather than a holistic view that values and incorporates academic and life skills, the sides are split and actively—and sanctimoniously—battling each other.

Now, pause that thought. Biking. There are two or three bike parts and repair shops in the less than half mile walk to the town center. Many people, mostly men, bike. A bike can be a family vehicle, with a father pedaling, a mother sitting on the center bar holding a child, with maybe another child sitting on the handlebars. One of my students once transported himself and three others from school to the nearby football stadium on his youth-sized mountain bike, and going at a rather rapid pace, I might add. Bikes carry bundles of firewood and supplies. Vendors pedal and peddle newspapers, pastries and coconut bread, and hot food from plastic coolers.

My home is in a place that desperately wants to be the biking hub of the US. Within a one mile radius are at least three, maybe more, bike repair shops. I bike, my partner bikes, and there is traffic during rush hour and I get bike road rage. If I want, I can order pizza or soup or sandwiches to be delivered by bike. I can move house by bike. New Seasons, the local grocery store chain, included bike parking in its promo campaign for the store opened in our neighborhood. You can go on a pub pedal and ride while drinking beer on a nifty and ridiculous contraption to all the nearby bars, meanwhile drunkenly harassing passersby. Biking is THE THING. Portland is GREEN. Cars vs. Bikes…Who Will Be Victorious?

I started my life as a full-time biker and special waterproof clothing wearer eight years ago when I transitioned from full-time to part-time work and could no longer afford a bus pass. And I had been taking the bus because driving makes me nervous, plus, yes, it is better for the environment. What would generate a low internal boil was when people ascribed moral qualities to me for biking. I’d get comments, particularly in winter and on rainy days, about how good and admirable I was for biking in the weather and how the commenter could never do that. Well, sure, the commenter could if her income was low enough. If the alternative on those bad weather days was a nausea and headache inducing hourlong bus ride. I don’t deny I’ve got a chip on my shoulder about the topic because, honestly, biking in the rain, when condensation builds up in my jacket and my shoes get soaked, sucks. Biking in freezing weather while wearing three pairs of gloves that still aren’t enough to prevent my fingers from going numb is unpleasant. Biking to the point that I have soft tissue (aka genital) pain that several different saddle styles hasn’t helped, leading to significantly decreased sexual pleasure, sucks. Please, don’t moralize at me. I do love having exercise built into my life and the wind-through-the-helmet feeling. But, sometimes, a car would be nice.

I do wish more people would bike in the US because it’s better for the environment. It’s also good exercise, if that’s your thing, and, really, I’m not a gym person. But I don’t appreciate the moralizing, and ego, and, again, sanctimonious attitude from other bikers. I’m not a better person. I don’t like the price markup that comes with bike appropriate gear, like waterproof clothing or bags. The idea of moving house by bike is ridiculous and causes more pollution as the crowd of bikes blocks car traffic. And can my fellow bikers please be honest about how annoying wet shoes and socks are?

Ultimately, the point of biking, just like walking or cars, is to get from here to there. The bikes here aren’t fancy or shiny (that’d be impossible in this dust), but they get the job done. Point A to B. If given the choice, I’ve gotta believe that someone would much rather drive than pedal up that steep hill while carrying firewood on a road that is so rutted and rocky as to bump and bruise anyone’s genitalia. I’m also sure that someone would much rather afford a better built fan in the first place than having to fix it when it breaks down the next day.

Honduras is not an environmentally conscious country. Trash is thrown from the window of a bus and garbage is burned and people wash their clothes, cars, and animals in the river. The choices made to repair and bike are usually, I’m assuming, financial ones. But I appreciate being amidst the attitude of why we repair and bike in the first place—it’s necessary and the best choice. Ten people ride in the bed of a truck because it’s the best way to get somewhere. It’s certainly not safe, but it is practical. This is a place where people make do. They have to. Some people in the US who don’t have to are relearning to, and that’s terrific, blah blah, but along with that comes an attitude and judgment toward those who don’t. The reaction is extreme. I suppose if that gets others to change, great, but in the meantime, I appreciate this aspect of life in the judgment free zone. Don’t talk, just do.

Sweatily,

theresa

P.S. Another project from Earth Day, this time by seventh grader Isabel.

Basket made from newspaper

The Joy of Solitude

Friday, May Day, was a fantastic day because I was alone, without threat of undesired company, all day long. That hasn’t happened since winter break. Vee and another housemate left town for the long weekend, and our male housemate is rarely ever here, leaving me and Kay, my fellow uberintrovert, to ourselves. I knew Kay was here by only the occasional kitchen sounds or slamming of the bathroom door.

That morning, I awoke. There was no one to comment on the minor drop in temperature the previous night that was “freezing.” The water flickered off and on. No one commented on a thwarted desire to shower or how she couldn’t focus or how odd it was that the men who arrived to weed the yard just hopped the fence and started working (but I did text The Boy about this). I wasn’t expected to react to the lack of bananas at the secret pulperia or expend energy on matters I didn’t care about. Ahhhh, relaxation. I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, made and ate brownies, typed and thought and typed and thought on The Machine, researched end of year travel plans (swimming with sea turtles!), ate brownies, watched a movie, and discovered new music, including Mexican alternative pop. My only interactions were at an end-of-year dinner at Miss G’s house with the other volunteers and the Honduran teachers, the highlights of which were discussion of a volunteer’s 18 intestinal parasites and scheduling a future date with Kay to see the new Avengers. I wonder if I have parasites.

The pleasure of solitude comes from having control over my internal environment, interactions, and choices, to the maximum extent possible. It means cooking dinner uninterrupted, farting loudly when required, paging through a book for hours, and leaving the vocal cords and the Spoken Word Generation Neural Network (SWoGNN, pronounced “swhoa-gen”) unexercised. I can give everything I have to my own interests. The alternative is just too tiring, especially within a group of people whose needs, ideas, or modes of expression rarely coincide with my own. I’m unsure how to respond and resent that my interpretation of social convention requires that I do so for the sake of politeness. Some days I just grunt noncommittally.

Aside from my living situation, I get the impression that desire for solitude is not understood here. The room Vee and I share initially had three twin beds and we briefly had a third roommate, which for us was a bit much. But some families live in homes smaller than this room. Multiple generations live together. Families are large. Solitude requires space, which is a luxury, so the need might be somewhat culturally developed.

Being shy and self-concious, in addition to introverted, contributes to my frequent yearning for all extra people to be gone. These qualities, unfortunately, interfere with my ability to follow some Honduran customs. When entering a room, even if people are having a conversation or you’re late for a meeting, it is proper to say “Excuse me” or “Hello” or “Good afternoon,” to call attention to yourself beyond the physical interruption. If you pass by someone eating, even if it’s a stranger, it is proper to offer a “Buen provecho.” These courtesies are beyond me in any language. They require me to break the fourth wall and call attention to myself, assume that another cares to interact with me and cares about my existence, increase the risk that the person with whom I interact will want more, and risk rejection. My awkwardness has lead to unintended rudeness before. As a child, when I left a friend’s house I wouldn’t say “goodbye” to the family for the reasons listed above. So some families didn’t like me. I still have this problem, even with my family.

This seems to be a very outward and social culture: what happens to introverts and shy ones? Activities require so much more assertiveness and personal interaction here. To buy almost anything I have to tell the vendor what I want rather than grabbing it myself. Replacing the gas tank requires a visit, sometimes multiple, to the Tropigas shop. People don’t line up but push to the front. There are no street signs, so finding a new someone or something entails help from someone else. It all requires people, whereas I love the impersonality of the internet. The language barrier here makes all of this so much more challenging of course, but, even at home, I shy away from small stores, where the attention of the clerk is unavoidable.

The roommate will return Sunday, then it’s back to the stress of unwillingly lending brain space to another, but it won’t be long now before I’m back home, sharing my space willingly with my partner and a little less willingly with our three cats. And when even that is too much, retreating to my room for some quiet time.

Shake your ta tas,

theresa

P.S. Today’s picture is of the winning art project from the Earth Day competition. The lid removes so you can store tiny trinkets inside or your false teeth.