A card

I did it

I made it until Christmas break. I survived four months of being Miss Theresa, Miss T, and just plain Miss. Sharing a room with someone who daily complains about how fat and ugly she is (including to students, which really irks me), how stupid our students are, and observes that one of her best friends is gay but “you can’t tell” (whatever that means). Kids throwing paper across the room, abusing books, blatantly disrespecting and lying to me, and complaining how boring class is. Not having adequate supplies to do my job. Increasingly cold showers and going without running water for four days in a row. Music blasting at top volume and kids throwing firecrackers right outside my window. Levels of alienation and loneliness I hadn’t experienced for some time. Theft of my ATM card number.

I’ve also survived the above pictured Christmas card, enchiladas and plantains and impromptu punta lessons at the houses of my students, smiles tugged out of frustrated faces, and unexpected hugs. Students asking impossible questions, surprising questions. I’ve survived the kindness of our school administrator, Miss G, paying for the partition I requested be built in my room and was fully prepared to pay for, finding my path blocked by slow moving cows, and the sight of a horse sleeping outside a pulperia. The willing ear and confidence of our volunteer coordinator to my oft expressed classroom management difficulties. The rainbow cobbled streets of Copan and the overcast beach of Placencia. Days upon days upon days of sunshine and warmth (bye-bye Rayaud’s!). Daily waves with the secret pulperia owner’s daughter. Attempted conversations in Spanish with patient listeners. Generous care packages. Moments of friendship (and Bananagrams) with two other volunteers. Sightings of bright blue birds and birds with bright yellow breasts.

Now I have two weeks (at least half of which sans roommate) in which to rebuild my mental and emotional strength with reading, writing, Spanish studying, traveling, and teaching-strategy development. I foresee that my panic levels will increase as the break comes to its inevitable end, but let’s not think about that.

Shortly after we return to school on January 5, I will turn 35. While I’m not the type of person to complain that’s old, the size of the number does contribute yet another layer of urgent personal introspection to this experience. I am a person adrift, on a quest for meaning, purpose, and a way to support myself that I don’t detest. Am I any closer to finding this? Once I round the bend of the new year and catch sight of June, the end of the school year, first from afar but ever closer, I will inevitably dig for this answer daily.

What have I learned (or confirmed) since I arrived here on August 11th?
* I survive intense stress, but poorly. I also create stress when I don’t acknowledge that I’m up against unreasonable expectations, sometimes mine, sometimes others’.
* I cannot live with a roommate again, unless that person is a man with an absurdly large t-shirt collection.
* I do not want to teach a class of kids under age 14.
* It’s easy to get by with minimal Spanish but real conversation takes more words.
* My moods are much more manageable with near-daily infusions of sunlight.
* I can live minimally.
* People can be so kind and nice to me.
* I don’t want a job where people think it’s okay to run over me, a.k.a. I need to demand respect.
* I don’t want a job that takes up my entire life, because I need time to read.
* I love making people happy.
* Life without a clothes dryer is okay, as long as it isn’t rainy.
* Life in Portland, Oregon has influenced me more than I’d like to admit.

So I’m gonna let the post fizzle to a close with this list. I need to nap and then pack for my trip to La Ceiba, where I plan to spend some time at Pico Bonito National Park.

Ta ta,

theresa

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Christmas card

Bubble thoughts

I don’t have any Important Thoughts screaming to crawl out of my fingers today. Really, what is occupying most of my thoughtmosphere is Christmas break—one week, baby! One week until I can push the planning and worrying and kids into a box and tuck that into the closet for just a little while. Between now and then I need to coordinate the 7th grade Christmas presentation, find a present for Joe, my Secret Friend, make an extra-credit-for-failing-students-because-it’s-illegal-for-students-to-fail homework packet, and avoid putting everyone in permanent time out.

Here is, in listicle fashion, what’s been knocking around in my head this week:

1. Jellyfish. I feel helpless when I suspect my students are making fun of another student in Spanish, but I’m uncertain and don’t know what to do. It turns out that after I drew a jellyfish on the board that some of the kids compared that unfavorably to another’s head.

2. Bananas. On grade day, when students are absent and parents visit teachers to pick up report cards, I commented to the school cook how much I was enjoying the quiet. This prompted a bevy of “Children are the lights of our heart”-type responses from the cook and two mothers who were helping. I left the kitchen that day embarrassed and convinced that I was now on the cook’s bad side. I’m glad to report I was wrong: she cooked me, and no one else, a sweet banana on Friday.

3. Fridays. Fridays are the worst days for the 7th graders and me. While we have only two classes together that day, I’m so burnt out and they’re so squirrelly that we almost always end the week on a bad note.

4. Dichotomy. I am unable to reconcile my frustrations with a student who disrespects me during class enough to ride the busito home with her to tutor her sister for free. While I enjoy the tutoring, it is awkward for me to have casual, occasionally confessional on on my 7th grader’s part, conversation when I was so annoyed with her only two hours earlier. But, I’m also just really tired. She’s a good student who has more life stress than a girl her age should have. I tabled the tutoring until after the break.

5. Song. How the heck do I teach a song that I can’t even sing?

6. Goof. Two of my 9th graders asked me if I am a serious or silly teacher. They said I am silly. I said I am serious with a touch of goof. This was a goofy-teacher week, no doubt fueled by break anticipation, that involved a lot of arm bending and waving (animal undulation and oscillation), hand fins on my head, sides, and butt (more oscillation), and cruising sllloooooooowwwly across the class to demonstrate that while turtles may be slow, they do locomote.

7. Oatmeal. I must not finish all the maple brown sugar oatmeal (gluten-free, care package gift) this weekend. Helloooo, sweet tooth.

8. Gifts. What do you buy a 13-year-old Honduran boy?

9. Holiday. Over break I plan to travel to La Ceiba—the party town of Honduras, but I’m going for the nature—and may be lucky enough to stay in someone’s apartment, if her current tenant is still out of town [update: the tenant is coming back into town; other plans in the works]. Also, it’s expensive traveling solo but not wanting, because I already live in a house with five other people, to stay in a dorm on my vacation, because I have to pay for two people.

10. Borax. So many cool Christmas science projects involve Borax. There is no Borax here.

11. Grrr. “It’s all in your head.”—roommate to me.

12. Water. Sometimes the morning shower is a little too cold.

13. Teaching. At about 26 classes a week, I have the heaviest teaching load. Is this a normal load? Do I do a normal amount of planning? If so, I don’t think this life is for me. Then again, the school did just give me two textbooks that appear to follow the science curriculum. If they find a biology text, I just may have cut my planning time significantly.

14. Students. I really like some of my students.

15. Bubble. I rarely peek outside the microcosm that is my teaching life in this small town. While I see the headlines and occasionally read articles, I don’t have strong emotions toward any of them, like Ferguson or face-sit ins. I get the gist and move on. On reddit I’m more likely to look at cat pics. Is this good, to so willfully disconnect from all the rest of it? I am not a good citizen of humanity.

16. Feet. After school my feet are really stinky.

Undoubtedly,

theresa

textbooks

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,

theresa

donuts

[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…]

Inescapably,

theresa

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!

Macaws!

Copán: Ruins! Parades! Hot Springs! Hammock!

It’s been a long two weeks since lovely Copán, since reading in a hammock while the rain thunders on the tin roof, since eating a slice of flan de cafe – que rico!, since the significant decrease in my stress levels.

GargoyleThis will sound strange, but my favorite part of the Ruins is the macaws. Near Copán is a macaw rehabilitation center. Once the birds are healthy enough to start being reintegrated into the wild, they are brought to the Ruins and supplied with food, sheltered perches, and freedom to explore the park. The birds’ plumage is early Technicolor, like Wizard of Oz or Oklahoma! The reds and yellows and greens pop like freshly applied paint in an Andy Warhol painting. The birds swoop and soar between the trees. They screech loudly and repeatedly. At one point we are in the middle of a group chatting from the depths of the tall trees. Two birds on a branch are fighting or flirting. There are no cages, no signs, only trees, noise, and these birds. They are fantastic, vibrant, and this is definitely one of those Mr. Macaw, I’m not in Kansas anymore moments.

The ideal way of experiencing the Ruins must be with a guide, because while there are signs explaining the ages of the statuary and pyramids (600 A.D. onward), their context is a cipher. That’s not to say I am not awed by the structures, only that I don’t have enough context to fully appreciate them. I have to admit I have a difficult time in museums. I often need a story, not just the facts, to fully appreciate the artistry. I’m a little embarrassed of this failing as a semi-educated person. I will return to Copán in the spring and will definitely hire a guide to explain just what that tortoise means and the pyramids and the symbols on the altars.

Monday starts with chasing the Independence Day parade(s), because I love marching bands. The sound and feeling of thundering drums combined with thick brass—forget the winds—gives me chills and teary eyes. In 2000 (according to IMDb), a small movie called Our Song, about three Brooklyn girls in a high school marching band, came out. It opened with the band playing and I immediately teared up. Between the drums and bittersweet story of friendship, my eyes were not often dry. There’s a band called The Last Regiment of Syncopated Drummers in Portland that I fantasize about joining.

Lovely ladyWe stand in the town square crowded with food vendors, kids in school and band uniforms, occasional tourists, and a young woman with a golden fan headdress topped with dried grasses and long woven skirt of the same dried grasses, surrounded by people with cameraphones. It’s unclear if we’ve missed everything. Then the drums and glockenspiels start at the opposite end of the square. The sidewalks fill with onlookers. I stand on a wall, unable to see anything (the visual element seems important for the chills), but ten minutes in, drums start on another side of the square. I dash over and have a front row view of the drummers, glockenspiels, and kids with pom-pons and banners expressing peace, god, love, and history. My nose tingles and weeping beckons, but I hold it in. Once that section of the parade moves on, another band starts at a third side of the square. I never do figure out if the parade has any official beginning, because as soon as one section of it ends, another section starts elsewhere, this time a block in the opposite direction. The parade is modest, with the occasional vaquero or traditional dress outfit, but mostly school uniforms and banners. So many schools for such a small town, at least 15, and the bilingual school is so much larger than CBS…and the female volunteers teachers are mostly tall, strong, and blond—is this a requirement? There is a float of Noah’s Ark and a crowd of kids with Halloween masks. Many of the kids wear sunglasses, lending a secret agent or too cool for school feeling to the whole event. I lose my fellow volunteers early on. A whisper wonders if they might worry and try to call my phone, left behind in the room, but I just don’t care. This is for me.

The final adventure of our trip takes us to the Luna Jaguar Hot Springs, a mostly beautiful and bumpy hour ride away on a rain-soaked mattress in the back of a truck, where Eza and I attract quite a bit of attention and whistles. I mentioned earlier not really fitting in with my co-volunteers. One-on-one, conversations about topics other than drinking or mocking classmates from high school can take place.

hot springsI’ve always wanted to go to a hot spring. There are several near Portland, but…it’s just never happened. For some reason the adventures close to home rarely are explored. I can’t imagine any spring would ever compare to this, however, and, again, my descriptive abilities are challenged. It is raining hard. We are lead over a swiftly moving river across an occasionally slippery rope and plank bridge into dense forest. We pass through a narrow tunnel and to the right is a cascade of small pools. The path winds around and there are yet more pools alongside a stream. The pools are cloudy and surrounded with flat rocks. After a brief tour and explanation of the pools’ temperatures, we strip down into bathing suits—I am the only one without a bikini—and venture back down the stony path to the first spring, and then the second, and third, and beneath a warm waterfall, only to climb higher until we’re level with the top of a steaming waterfall. The rain has cooled the air so sitting in warm-to-hot pools of water in a humid environment is thoroughly pleasant, romantic, and I’m ready to move in. And it is so quiet aside from the rushing water; Honduras is not a quiet country. Until the very end, we are the only visitors. After at least an hour we conclude at that cascade of small pools. Each is warmer than the next until we reach the final, largest, and hottest pool of them all, too hot for everyone but me. I relish hot baths, especially in the winter when my fingers and toes are often numb and swollen, and if I miss any luxury on my adventure down here, it’s reading in a hot bath with a book. I soak and float, and by this time my feet, all of our feet, are cleaner than they have been in a month. Actually, the final pool is a cold water pool, and I do dare to slide my full body in , and it feels as if fine bristled brushes are pressed against my skin and my body were poured lead. I laugh.

The other delights of Copán are small. I taste genuine pupusas, a type of cornflour pancake filled with cheese, beans, and/or meat, a foodstuff previously eaten only at home through the efforts of my unskilled hands; drink a decaffeinated (bad tummy) espresso; and spend several hours with a book (Cloudstreet by Tim Winton, and you should read it right now) in a rooftop hammock. I meet an Australian traveler who asks me questions, rather than the interest being on only my side (see co-volunteers). Also, speaking of whiteness, since the residents are used to tourists, there is much less gawking and catcalling. I see white tourists and Asian tourists. And we walk anywhere comfortably, without warnings of danger. The views from the hills of the city are spectacular.

For these days I’ve done my best to bury school in a dusty corner of my mind, yet it unearths, of course. We leave Tuesday morning, with minimal transportation drama. Then it is back to lesson planning and stressing over teaching the formation of the universe.

As I write this entry, the pleasures of Copán are difficult to comprehend, buried as I am in the dramas of school. I look forward to the next break, at the end of October.

Endeavoring,

theresa

P.S. I love you, Erpie!

Relaxing

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