bus from cuba

Re-creation, or now what

Here I go again, re-creating myself, this time into a writer slash editor. Except it’s not so much re-creation as acceptance of the fact that those are the two things I am best at AND enjoy, so I might as well suck it up and try to survive doing those things. Despite a degree in playwriting, I’ve avoided the writing/editing life because I don’t understand how to break into it, and it feels so insecure, hopping from job to job, with no guarantee of the next, and I like security. Sure, I quit a steady job and left my home to teach in a foreign country, but I knew I’d have a place to live, with enough food, what my plans would be for the next ten months, and that I’d have someplace and someone to return to at the end.

Hmm…as I qualified my statement, the bullshit meter sounded. Did I really know what would happen over that year? A lot of crazy can happen under the umbrella called “teaching and living in another culture.” Methinks my tolerance for the uncertain is higher than I realize. Also, don’t I have a fairly secure living situation now, too, as I look for a job? (Hello, retirement savings!) So, really, self, what’s there to fear on this next adventure? A little credit, puh-lease. I’m too hard on myself, I’ve been told. Often.

Wow, you have just had the joy (or annoyance — I have no idea how you’re feeling) of witnessing a successful moment of self-therapy. Hugs all around. I actually feel a little more confident, and I need all the help I can get because it was tough putting on my brave face last week, Week Two of the Quest for People to Pay Me.

Week One was energized and hopeful as I crafted a decent resume, slogged through the clunky platform known as LinkedIn, discovered a few jobs that excited me, and brushed up on a long overdue skill. Week Two, on the other hand, was more of a kid-sized mood roller coaster as I filled in tedious online applications and crafted writing samples (Sell us toothpaste! Come up with awesome medical topics for our blog!). But the mood roller coaster may have been due more to the daily hot chocolate-induced sugar and caffeine crash than the dark hole that is job searching. I’ve been reluctant to admit that, however, because it feels so right to settle cross-legged on the round tuffet between the coffee table and couch with a cup of syrupy hot chocolate as I open my laptop to start clicking job links. A bright spot that coffee (decaf) cannot replace. It is with reluctance and baby dinosaur fist waving that I thrust the cocoa powder from reach. Here’s to Week Three being approached with more of the verve from Week One.

I’ve also been lost as to how to approach this blog. As the header says, it’s here to chronicle my attempts to take over the world, but now that I’ve returned to a world I’m much too familiar with, sometimes the attempts simply don’t make for blogworthiness. I don’t want to post about my breakfast or other dull minutiae from life. So I’ve been quiet, unmoored and searching for the voice again. I think the restlessness relates to my last post about avoiding passivity. That death of life is creeping in much too quickly, helped along by long days searching through job listings, the morning routine of scooping the cat box and watering the garden, the (occasional) evening routine of planning and making dinner. All those tasks are part of life but don’t make a life. It’s easy to get caught up and not look beyond them. I need that manifesto.

Here is something larger than me. I’m doing transcription, and a little PR writing, for a photographer who is interviewing and photographing engaged or married gay couples in celebration of the June SCOTUS decision, one of the few bright reports from the US during my absence. I’ve always been a softie when it comes to love stories. Check out the project.

So long,

theresa

P.S. I’ll probably post pictures from Cuba for awhile, unless you’d like pictures of my cats.

On Passivity

Hello, World! it’s been awhile. I last wrote from Honduras while sitting and sweating in a gray plastic chair, aged laptop burning in my lap, and semi-effectual fan quaking above. Now, after brief stops in Guatemala, Belize, Mexico, and Cuba, I report from my new-old home of Portland, Oregon, USA, chilled from the AC, with a large striped orange cat snoozing in my lap and construction wailing, pounding, chopping, grinding, drilling, and clanging outside.

It’s a different world [sound cue] physically, socially, economically, emotionally. The roads are paved and I’m anonymous. The papayas are barely larger than my hand and cost twice as much. I bus or bike anywhere without consideration to the area’s safety and wince at the frivolity of my $5 almond milk decaf latte (vegan again). People’s eyes don’t meet mine as we pass, and I sometimes pass them while holding hands with my partner. New Seasons, our overpriced local grocery chain, carries several varieties of kale chips and half a wall of energy/protein bars. Hot water and drinkable water are available with only a turn of the faucet. Passivity, born in comfort and strengthened by the option of relying on another to make tedious and sometimes important decisions, because choices carry risks, big and small, slowly creeps in.

And I fear that disconnection from life more than the zombie apocalypse. Perhaps more than the thought of another Bush presidency.

Last year’s steps away from a secure job and comfortable home were not passive. As a teacher, a job that consumed my waking hours for the first several months, reliance on someone else was not an option. I made decisions all the time, sometimes bad ones. I can’t deny that there were passive aspects in my life, which lead to my not learning Spanish as well as I’d hoped, but/and/or several others have suggested that I be gentler with myself on the language matter, given how much energy I expended in trying to be an awesome teacher. Ultimately, I’ll have to decide how to frame that memory.

The few weeks of solo travel after school ended were the highlight of my year, because they weren’t passive. I knew and (usually) did exactly what I wanted, like earning my Open Water diving certificate, visiting random art galleries in Antigua, Guatemala and swimming and scrambling through the beautiful Actun Tunichil Muknal cave in San Ignacio, Belize. Not only was there no one else to make decisions for me, I didn’t want there to be. I didn’t want to compromise my limited time, and there were so many delectable options, life adventures awaiting. I had moments and days of unqualified happiness (and a few of distress). Now, I’m back to before, and while I’m not the same person, I’m similar enough that if I’m not careful, I could slip back into my previous life, especially as I face challenges, like job searching [any leads welcome] in a town that builds apartments before infrastructure.

My passivity springs from fear of the unknown, of discomfort, of displeasing others, and from assuming that everyone knows the answer better than me. It comes from unhappiness and feeling trapped. It comes from rejection and failure. Also, comfort. Too much choice (First World Problem). Obligation. Inadequacy.

I’m searching for a manifesto, akin my beginning entry on the eve of my departure. A manifesto of self-action that makes bold, confident declarations. I don’t have one, yet. I do, however, have an ongoing list I started several months ago as I looked ahead to the pitfalls of my return. A list of things I’ve wanted to do for some time but haven’t:

  • join Last Regiment of Syncopated Drummers
  • archery
  • learn swing dance, among others
  • kayak
  • go beautiful places in nature
  • incorporate more music into my life
  • take writing classes (check! I start a personal essay class on August 4)

There, that’s the list. Pursue action that brings joy and fulfillment. Easy enough, right? While the sun is out, anyway.

The returned,

theresa

Before I forget

Friday was the last day. Many of my students signed a t-shirt for me (*sniff*). The administrators gave the volunteers plaques and a speech of thanks, goodbye, and eternal welcome. I dripped tears in front of everyone. I received unexpected hugs from certain students and wrangled others into chokeholds before they could flee my affection.

This was all more than I expected. Even if my inner cynic takes into account the fleeting romanticism and sentimentality that comes over many of us during goodbyes—perhaps the fear of the unknown as we depart the familiar—it cannot ignore the love. There was love, a lot and surprising given the challenges I’ve had. I don’t understand love. I never really have. Or maybe I just don’t understand kids. Being a kid is hard.

I’ve been here ten months. In one week I leave this small town for Útila, Guatemala, Belize, Mexico, and Cuba. In a month I’ll be back in Portland, Oregon. I return with browner skin, tighter jeans, and a greater tolerance of spiders near my bed and pitter patter of ants on my skin. While for months my anxiety addiction has been directed at teaching, I’ve too quickly redirected those superheroic powers of worry on my solo travel plans and money making capabilities. (Please, gods of anxiety, turn your faces from me.) Before I get completely caught in that net, I need to do some looking back, some internal analysis. Before it all fades beneath the dust stirred in the relentless push on.

From my first post:

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.

So, was I a good teacher? Yes, for a neophyte. Could I have been better? Obviously, and I was the best teacher I could be. I tried to approach each child with compassion and understanding. I worked hard to create interesting lesson plans. When I could, I let the goof out to make kids laugh. I refused to accept cheating and laziness as okay.

I see my failures and understand them; they’re easier to elucidate. When I failed, I looked for solutions, although sometimes I just gave up for an hour or two. I was never firm enough—damn you, self doubt—which meant that the students who wanted to learn suffered, in particular. I couldn’t cater to all levels of learning, so the brighter kids got impatient. Also, I could have tried harder to get into what the kids were into—a recommended bonding tool—but I couldn’t muster the enthusiasm for One Direction or Frozen or the Fast and Furious series. I wasn’t a typical teenager and am much less one twenty years later. Sometimes compassion fell apart, particularly at the end when exhaustion and frustration led to sarcasm. Every now and then I just waved my hands in the air and wailed incoherently like a crazed muppet. These are failures I can live with, because I and the other volunteers did what no one else wanted to this year. We showed up and worked with these kids.

I am proud of the work I did these past months. Next year my grades, fingers crossed, are getting experienced teachers. Unless they turn out to be scary people, this can be only good news.

And now…

theresa

static

Inútil

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

Our cat, Nova

The me of me, or I don’t love *Serial*

In my former life, I loved This American Life. TAL, Radiolab, The Moth…. Give me a good story, sprinkle on some intelligence, and I’m yours. These podcasts accompanied my bike journeys between home and everywhere Portland. Engrossing enough to pass the time and learn me some new stuff, and light enough that half my brain could follow the narrative arc while the other half dodged cars, bikers, debris, humans.

I haven’t listened to any of them in six months. The moments with empty ear time, such as walking through town or taking a bus somewhere, aren’t moments I’m comfortable having technology exposed. Yesterday, however, I started a long-term project, making friendship bracelets for my 7th graders (desires of the heart don’t always make sense), and tuned in to the first episode of Serial, that much-hyped podcast from the TAL team. I liked the story well enough, but what grated was the nasally, detached, self-aware tone of the presenters and even the interviewees. I’d noticed this previously but my interest in the storytelling had been enough to override my distaste. Now, with clean ears, not so much. Couldn’t Sarah Koenig show a little bit of messy emotion as she analyzed the situation, in this case a man possibly wrongly convicted for murder? Rather than sounding impartial, Koenig seems superior to this messy gray-zone battle among truth, lies, and memory. The right words are there and passion is acknowledged, but it’s too pretty and detached to sound genuine. At least Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich of Radiolab get goofy and giggly sometimes and are genuinely excited about their topic whereas Ira Glass and family couldn’t be bothered.

After Serial I tuned in to The Moth and, again, was annoyed by yet another nasally, self-aware tone, now with a huge dose of self-aggrandizement, that of Dan Kennedy as he introduced a live show recorded in Portland, Maine. He opened with his appreciation of the city’s beauty while simultaneously making them aware of just how busy he was on his book tour—this was the most beautiful city he’d landed in after all his flights the past four days. He subsequently commented on everyone’s niceness by way of a New Yorker’s desire to protect the innocence of young stranger who greeted him warmly. Yes, Dan, we are aware that you live in New York City. The audience came to hear just how important you are.

Closer to (my temporary) home, my coworkers are women primarily in their late teens/early 20s. Every event is a story told in that stilted, somewhat valley-girl-but-not voice that is self-conscious, self-interested, detached. The storyteller laughs at herself—isn’t this ridiculous? Isn’t this all just so funny? Aren’t those other people idiots? Unintended but no less present is intolerance. Someone comments about an activity she’s done and another comments that he has never done that before…like never eating chicken noodle soup while sick. One of the girls then gets in that person’s face, OMG, really?! How could you have never done that?! Really?! as if we aren’t individuals with different backgrounds, with our own histories. As if this is something very important and the person is very wrong. This lack of compassion can apply toward the kids, in the teacher talk that happens after hours, laughter at the kids’ behavior in a way that isn’t loving and just…surprises me.

The detachment makes me think of reaction videos where someone puts an odd object somewhere or does something silly that startles a stranger. Then the video is put on the internet so we can all laugh at the stranger being surprised. What is this but manipulation for our own pleasure? The expression of some superior, heartless attitude toward others. Ha ha, I just scared someone with a stuffed animal; I just made someone react in a perfectly normal way; I engaged someone’s startle reflex.

I’m also reminded of backlash to the former chief executive of Abercrombie & Fitch two years ago after a 2006 interview in which he commented that he didn’t want ugly people wearing his clothes resurfaced. To protest this sentiment a young man bought A&F brand clothes from thrift stores and handed them out to people experiencing homelessness. Now the dreaded ugly people were wearing the brand. What was this but manipulating people for his purpose? His own desire to make some point about a revolting man. By all means, share with those in need…because they need it. The people aren’t props for you to use for a political statement.

This lack of compassion, this self-consciousness and detachment connects with the You’re Doing It Wrong trend in the media the past several years. BuzzFeed, Slate, Alternet, Huffington Post, et al, regularly, perhaps daily, feature articles about everything we are doing wrong. We are making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich wrong, we are putting on our shirts wrong, we are breathing wrong, and obviously we are having sex wrong. In fact, we’re just wrong all around. My way is not different—it’s wrong. It’s black and white, this world. We must follow The Way. Okay, the headlines are just click-bait (just like my adorable cat picture above), the messages are nothing new in the world of sales, the cosmetics industry is built on it, but with so many competing for advertising dollars the message has spread beyond product purchase to my innocuous daily choices. How can there be a wrong way to make PB&J? I like mine with banana. That’s probably wrong. Why not call it different? Why not let the me of me and the you of you be something interesting to learn about and adopt if desired? Why can’t we just exchange our points of view without there being a right point? This what the uber-religious and the Republican Party thrive on—who you love is wrong, what you want to learn is wrong, what you want is wrong. Perhaps this is just the (US) American way, a lingering Puritan value.

To succeed is to fail, fail, and fail, and in-between failures, stand back up, learn from the dust, rest, and try again. To be wrong a lot of the time so you can occasionally be right…. Wait, no, failure isn’t wrong. Wrong smacks too much of morality. Failure is a key to learning (Oops, I made my chocolate cake without chocolate. Next time I’ll use chocolate.), but if we’re constantly chastising, teaching people to not trust their efforts and points of view, how can we expect our kids to Just Do It if they’re bound to Do It Wrong? I’m afraid of failing. I’m afraid of messing up, and I grew up pre-internet, when messages had fewer means of reaching and corrupting my tiny mind. My kids are slightly less connected than those in the US but they are still terrified of failure, and why wouldn’t they be? When parents get angry over 90% grades, when kids laugh at peers that mess up, when The Church looms over most of their lives, that doesn’t create an environment where kids are ready to try new things. So they turn off their brains, wait to be given the answer, and pout, whine, and get angry when the answer isn’t clear.

And now to go full circle, how does this relate to my criticisms of Serial? Failure means putting yourself on the very edge. It means having all the feels—the sadness, the pain, the extreme joys, the laughing out loud when no one else is, the crying in the corner for no good reason at all and letting the snot run out of your nose. It’s not always pretty and cool. So the vocal detachment sometimes seems a barrier to the sharing of experience. I suppose the idea is to, in reporter fashion, remove the teller from the story, to not influence the listener’s perspective, to allow space for independent opinion, but I don’t hear that. I hear hiding and judgment. I hear apathy. Sometimes. They’re doing it wrong. Or they’re doing it differently, in a way I don’t understand.

But I’m probably wrong.

And that’s okay.

theresa

P.S. The above is our new cat Nova. He wandered into our house on Valentine’s Day and hasn’t yet left.

Owl a student made

New becoming

The older I get, the more meaningless my numbers become. There are fewer markers than in youth, when 5 = school, 13 = hormones, 16 = driving, and 18 = adulthood and voting for the civic-minded, and 21 = drinking. To somehow get a handle on how quickly time is passing and how slowly I am changing I calculate the distance since key events or non-events. I graduated from high school almost half my lifetime ago. I’ve known my best friend for 23 years. I met my partner in crime when I was 30. My mother gave birth to me when she was 30. Despite my age, I’ve never owned a house or car and don’t see either happening soon. I’ve never been pregnant. I’m older than many, if not most, my students’ parents. I don’t feel 35, whatever those numbers should feel like. The 3 has two little cubbies I could crawl into; the 5 has one. Neither is as pointy as the 4.

Still, if I think about my age, I piddle a little, that is to say my heart thumps, my throat squeezes tight, and then I shut down the emotional circuits, disconnect, and find a book to escape into. Despite the message of youth-obsessed culture, I know 35 is not old, and older age doesn’t have to be the sad, hopeless, decrepit, inflexible, ugly, and undesirable portrait culture paints. I haven’t reached the half-way mark of my 82 year expectancy, according to WHO. My wise mind understands that age is worthless and bears only the value I ascribe. But let me indulge and say I’m not where I’d hoped I’d be. Or, letting go of expectations, impossible predictions when I’m a small part among billions, foresight, shoulds, I’ll adjust that to I’m not where I want to be, because I don’t know where that is, and I feel the door to there shrinking. [Not to get all Dr. Seuss, but Where is There? It’s not Here. Is it Near? Should I fear the Here and There not Here?). I feel too old to be this lost and insecure, more lost than I was at 18 and without the hope I had then, that hope of Youth, and Potential, and Bright Future, to be fighting some of the same demons as at 13, like acne, and disordered eating, and depression, and self-contempt and -doubt, and loneliness, and conflict avoidance. I don’t want to be on the proverbial deathbed ruing the time I wasted disliking myself. It’s nonsense, really, more not important stuff, that time spent in dark places. I’m old enough to have the important stuff sorted by now…aren’t I?

Growing up I wasn’t told that dreams change. In school, by family, I was asked what I wanted to be, as if there were only one thing I would ever become, similar to the myth that there’s only one soulmate. There might be many, or none. Stories usually end when the protagonist has reached The Dream or found The One. Maybe it’s our desire for certainty. I want certainty. There is none. People hop from job to job, live with parents indefinitely, see retirement as a fantasy, cling to worthless college degrees for a guarantee, cling to anything for a guarantee. In The Dream, I wanted to be a Writer, but the vastness of the field—the people, their skills, their voices—and my inability to foresee my place…. Bah, that’s just a fancy way of disguising that I got scared. I wrote a problem I couldn’t solve—how to bring the garden of a story to life (figuratively)—and then lost my confidence to write my way into and out of other problems. And then the stacks of half sheets—the white space of full sheets being too intimidating—filled with snippets of plays that went nowhere got too tall and I stopped waking at 4am to write and just…stopped chasing that dream. I doubted too many of my lines. I tried replacing it with others in theatre, but that drama eventually broke my heart. It took me into its gapping maw, chewed up the juicy bits and spat out the rest. I want(ed) to be married and just a little bit famous. Now I’m in search of another dream, another becoming. Or becomings.

This new becoming is so much more difficult than the first. The first time around I had teachers encouraging me, the relative comfort of school and peers, the cradle of parental support, the promise of potential. That meaningless potential, a bottomless cup to be filled. I’ve let, my fear has let, all those people down, not that they remember. I always felt like a phony. This second time ’round I’m dream-shy, leery of the chinks in the armor, the blade of confidence duller. I’m conscious of the need for money and medical care, that I somehow must prepare for the day I won’t be able to work. I shamefully consider the income-earning potential of my dreams. I plunge my soul for new dreams and find vagueness. I explore ideas and run aground. I skim my resume for skills and come up empty. I pick up a book and hide.

I’ve never wanted to go back to my younger self. The current demons are generally kinder than the old. But I do envy my students. I envy our teenage volunteers. Unless I can carry my current knowledge, I don’t want to be that young again, but I do want what that youth represents. The clean future slate. Untarnished hopes and dreams. So much time to mess up and succeed. Ignorance of failure’s weight and how much nonsense can hide the The Path.

If age isn’t important, why am I worrying? Because one day I’ll look too old to start over at the beginning of a field. Because I’ve lived this long and tomorrow could die with nothing of note in my obituary but regrets. I censor my self-ageism. I publicly cry that you’re never too old to change. I tell myself that I will make something work one day, if I keep trying (how American of me). My public face is hopeful. It is this hope that keeps me going, despite knowing that I might not ever make anything work. It took me here. The hope and the reality play tug-of-war with miles of intestine.

My heroes are Stargirl, Ramona QuimbyYotsuba, and Black Widow of The Avengers movie. In my dreams, theresa is lithe and flits from person to person, place to place, the world a hopscotch board, making smiles. She wears sparkles. Roadblocks make her laugh. She never needs sleep. She’s probably a fairy.

ta ta,

theresa

P.S. The owl was sewn by one of my (male) students in Actividades Practicas, a.k.a. Home Ec. I liked it so much he gave it to me.

Cats!

Hagfish don’t speak Spanish

Last week’s post cancelled due to ignorance. It was something on the theme of the temporality of so much here and poverty, then I realized that nearly all I observed here could apply to poverty in the US, which lead me to wonder what, if anything, was different and what should my role be in that. I’m here trying to make a small change, why do I not do that in my home country? It all became too complicated for a weekend and I didn’t feel qualified on the topic. So the post remains in the draft box.

Today’s thoughts:

Five months in, how’s my Spanish coming along? I was so proud of my first efforts, my first fuck-ups. Full of hope and energy, I valiantly struggled to push aside the language barrier and exchange ideas with my newfound friends. No, not really. That’s how my ideal self envisioned the events, but there haven’t been many friends and the barrier falls over. My Spanish sputters along in the same old way. I teach English and live with English speakers. I use Spanish to communicate to the principal that I’m borrowing his calculator and ask if I’m really supposed to give the 9th graders extra points for the museum trip, offer one of the school cleaners a piece of cake, and request a pound of green beans at the market. I’ve learned the words for cash (effectivo), come in/move by (pase), and sloth (peresozo, the same as lazy). Flustered, I often mix up pensar (to think) and querer (to like), despite having known them for years. A month ago, when I was invited to one of my favorite homes with a fellow volunteer—a local favorite who became fluent in a year—I was reduced to observer, straining to understand their conversation for, no exaggeration, hours. Meanwhile, Vee travels in Guatemala for two weeks and returns confident and willing to barge in with broken Spanish at any opportunity.

Maybe language learning is for extroverts. More accurately, language learning is for people who are able to make small talk or say nothing, really, just for the sake of talking. It’s also for people who have confidence that others will want to talk to them. None of these are me. At a recent birthday party four of us attended, I was seated with two friends of the family, one of whom was the mother of a student. I would have enjoyed getting to know her, but it’s difficult enough to bridge that gap in English without self-awareness-reducing chemical aid like caffeine or alcohol, much less in a language I barely speak and when I’m unsure of culturally acceptable topics; and then my style of semi-intense probing might not be appropriate for a party. I’m more into the What makes you tick? conversation and less This music makes me want to dance, OMG this goofy thing happened to me yesterday you have to listen to it, Isn’t it funny how much the kids are obsessed with their phones? To each their own, I just can’t do it. If I were engaged by someone else, I would try, bravely, strongly, but it wouldn’t go very far because we’d reach the limits of my abilities or the topics I can ask questions for quickly. And generally the families assume we don’t speak Spanish, so they don’t try to engage.

When I chose to work with this school, I was afraid that this lack of learning would happen since I would be living with volunteers rather than a family, but I wanted the proximity and support of other teachers. The alternative was life with a family but possibly too rowdy for my sanity and with not as much support. There wasn’t an ideal situation, and I chose the one that would better promote teaching success rather than language learning success.

This is all a terrible way of looking at language learning and myself. I’m just disappointed that I’m this socially awkward hagfish that resists evolution, that I’m not someone else, someone who believes that she is worth talking to, even in another language, and disappointed that I can’t kick my ass hard enough to…to what? find little funny things to say? find anything to say? I’m rather negative about all of this, especially when I see how quickly my roommate is progressing, due to her newfound friends. Maybe I need longer calves.

Okay, I need to believe in the lights ahead. I do have a conversation partner at school I should utilize more. As far as topics of conversation go, I can always ask her how to navigate the cultural waters that divide us and appropriate party conversation. I could also accept my status as a perennially awkward seafloor-dwelling scavenger. We all have a part to play.

Yours in goof,

theresa

P.S. The cats at our school understand that it’s not what you say but how much sun and playtime you enjoy that really matters.

Junior the cat

Almost Christmas in La Ceiba, or I’m a terrible planner

22 December 2014: Maps

The deceptive map.

The map of deception.

Maps deceive me, at least the kind found in my travel books. The cities consist of small, four-sided outlines. The parks and rivers are shaded gray. Deemed notable restaurants and places to stay are marked with black squares and triangles. The streets and avenues are clearly labeled. It’s all so contained, neat, clean, conflict and stress free. Look! The ocean is only seven blocks away! That cafeteria that sounds so tasty is on the same street as where I’m staying!  So despite my guidebook and other sources saying that La Ceiba is the largest city on the North Coast, I’m, because of all those neat, clean lines, dismayed when the bus enters…what is obviously a big city, with its powerline bundles, streets crammed with vendors, and crowded roads without stop signs or lights. The lines in my guidebook have been colored in. Crap! What was I thinking? I’m in Central America: this is what a big city looks like. Baby pout, complete with thrashing fists: But I don’t wanna be in a big city on my vacation.

Now it’s time for damage control—I don’t have to stay here, we all make mistakes, the owner of the hostel is supposed to be helpful with things like setting up tours, just taking the buses here by myself was an accomplishment-–mentally talking myself out of purchasing a ticket for the Shame Spiral Express. I keep talking and talking, through the awkward exchange with the woman at the hostel who lets me in but doesn’t understand when I try to explain that I’ve already partially paid for a room (she straightens it out with the owner); through the wandering up and down of streets in search of a non-US fast food place to eat; through observation that there are very few street signs, rendering my guidebook and the internet nearly useless unless I want to count blocks;

[Shame break: After a bit of pacing back and forth on the street in search of the ingress point, I found my way to the pier, a rather new structure and wonderfully designed so I can either lean against the railings or walk a few steps down to a walkway surrounding the pier to sit or dive off into the water. I choose sitting and am joined by a local with decent English who when I passed a few minutes earlier was insistent on learning where I was from and my name. I told him he’d have to wonder, which prompted a response of “You are a wonder woman!” He’s older, dressed in paint splattered clothes, earnest and not creepy. He speaks mostly, about his country and how he wants it to get better. He has a strong belief in the current president, who doesn’t look the other way with the drug violence. He believes that the US can and is helping Honduras and also hates the Bush family. We chat; I watch the clouds pass over Pico Bonito, the boys diving into the water. The beach here is not nearly as ugly as I was lead to believe.]

through finding myself back at the hostel rather early, wondering if I’ll be able to set up any tours tomorrow, because dammit, I really shouldn’t have started planning my vacation only two weeks ago, and I should have called some tour companies because fuck doing it all DIY but I have this thing about using the phone, especially in Spanish, and I have a well-developed ability to avoid activities that cause me extreme anxiety, like planning adventures to unknown places; through watching a movie and feeling generally like a loser;

23 December 2014: Monkeys and mangroves

through waking up and wondering if the owner will prove helpful in setting up tours today; through laying in bed and feeling like such a wimp for all of this being so emotionally difficult.

11am. The owner, Peter, has arranged a kayak tour at the Refugio de Vida Silverstre Cuero y Salado, a mangrove covered wetland home to lovely animals like jaguars and howler monkeys and manatees and birds.  I am the first to request a kayak tour at the refuge…go me! [The tour actually takes place in Laguna de Cacao, which is pretty but not what I requested and paid for.]

I ate a delicious plato típico for breakfast (eggs, frijoles licuados, two kinds of cheese, tajadas, and ham slice), discovered corn flan on the menu and promised to return tomorrow, and then wandered to the beach alongside the rather stinky El Estero, observing how nice it is to walk freely because I’m ignorant of the dangerous parts of town, though I’m still in the central part of town with all the hotels. My lip was and still is twitching…from anxiety? As I was leaving the hostel, I passed a large group of travelers eating breakfast and looking generally as if they do this all the time, and I suspect that no matter how much I travel, I will never look that cool and casual because I’m just not that kind of person, though I want to be. They were also tall—is that the key to cool person travel? Should I invest in a stretching machine or heels? Anyway, anxiety because I don’t want to have traveled six hours just to read in my room and occasionally leave to eat decent food. Granted, it is quieter here than where I currently live. There are firecrackers but not right outside my window, and I do have a fan and private bath and it is overall rather pleasant except for having to be let in and out of the hostel, which is kept locked for security. I suppose what is really bothering me is possibly being judged, by the anonymous Them always lurking in the soft, insecure corners, or in the physical form of the Other Volunteers or People in My Life, as having failed at My Vacation; and I don’t want to waste these precious days in being unhappy.

Then I suppose I just shouldn’t. I am content right now writing in this. I’m a little tired so may take a nap, get lunch, and then get ready for my kayaking adventure.

3pm+. I am picked up in a white battered truck by a young man named Daniel, who also has some English (with all these English speakers I have few opportunities to practice Spanish). I am his third tour of the day. He’s been working nonstop since about 5am and has barely eaten. None of this is said in complaint—he loves his job and spends most of the hour-long ride pointing out edible plants and telling me about the 400 snakes in Honduras, only three of which are poisonous, and how he prefers living in the jungle to his apartment in La Ceiba. As we drive, swerving around the potholes that plague the roads in Honduras, I reflect that it feels rather odd to be alone on this tour, with an unknown man in a truck, when the reputation of Honduran men isn’t that positive. (Or is it odd that I am prompted to think this way?) I am self-conscious of my skin and gender when he idles at a stop light to purchase coconut water and when we pass slowly through a village, where the residents stare at the truck (as I’ve noticed people do to all cars passing through any neighborhood). I’m not concerned, but I can hear the voices of those who worry about these things questioning, Is This Wise? Still, I push those voices aside and reflect that right here, in this truck, on my adventure, I am happy.

Later: I see a howler monkey and her baby waaaayyy up there in the tree. Daniel hoots deeply. The monkeys respond. Another monkey sits in the crook of some branches. Another is hanging by her (I’m told) tail and poking through the leaves and eating. Yep. I am seeing monkeys. They’re too far away for my camera, so believe me. They have fat bellies and their tails are so strong as they do that dangling monkey thing!

The lagoon is surrounded by mangroves, their massive roots jutting out of the water. Daniel tells me the Garifuna use the water to make wine. I haven’t kayaked before. When he paddles too, we move rapidly; otherwise, the kayak barely moves and I splash a lot of water on my shorts. The only wildlife we see is a crab that bites Daniel’s hand. I’m mildly disappointed but not much. The lagoon is so quiet and calm and the mangroves impressive with their bunches of legs. In 8th grade I read an essay about floating mangrove islands, but I’m told these don’t move. Maybe their roots are too entangled. My camera runs out of memory after five pictures (and I later discover didn’t come with a cord to transfer pictures).

Cacao pod.

This could make chocolate.

On the drive to the lagoon, we also passed many cacao trees, but none with ripe pods. Daniel’s co-guide hands me a ripe pod, creamy yellow the length of a banana but thick like a mango. The seeds are surrounded by a sweet edible flesh. Nature!

On the ride back to La Ceiba, Daniel asks if I’d like to try mango wine, or garifuni, a type of alcohol made by the Garifuna. I’m not much of a drinker but when New Experience calls, always answer. He pulls into Sambo Creek, a Garifuna village, and inquires of passersby for garifuni. We pull in front of a house and he returns with manzanitas, a Honduran apple—red skin, soft, tart—and a small bottle, two shots worth. The alcohol is raw but reminiscent of mangoes. It warms my stomach and leaves Daniel invigorated. I really want to find more of those apples.

Back in La Ceiba, hungry, I end up at Pizza Hut. Meh. I read Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin.

Should I stay here for Christmas Day? There are no buses that day and everything will be closed down. I could probably use the kitchen to cook food, but how awkward, maybe too awkward. I decide to go to Pico Bonito tomorrow and then leave that afternoon. While Christmas in my new home will be dull, at least I will be able to eat.

bridge to waterfalls

Bridge over Rio Cangrejal, to the forest.

24 December 2014: Waterfalls     

Breakfast is another plato típico. Afterwards, as I repack my backpack, I question my choice to leave after only two days. It’s not as if my small town has anything better to offer and here there are more places to walk around, and while the shower isn’t hot it is lukewarm, and that’s something. Plus it’s peaceful. But damn having to ring the bell to be let out of the building is awkward and then how am I going to eat if everything is closed? No, might as well go. Why pay to sit in a room in another city for a day if I’m planning to leave the next?

Daniel and I re-meet at 830am. Today he’s tired—he got too much sleep. The road to Pico Bonito is horrible. Really, nearly all of the roads here are horrible, even the paved ones. Most of our journey is over a road that is unpaved but covered with large, smooth rocks. I suppose it must help with drainage during heavy rains but it is bumpy as hell to drive over. Two women hop a ride early on and are carried most of the way into the park. A friend/co-worker of Daniel climbs onto the back of the truck and is carried to the visitor’s center. The truck rattles, groans, and shakes, but holds together, and I admire the river, rapids, and trees. Daniel picks a purple morning glory for me.

Waterfall

The first waterfall.

I’m not an experienced hiker. I enjoy it, but the paths I’ve been on would probably be categorized as easy. This is not easy. It is up and up and up, lifting myself over tree roots that ring hollow when tapped, ducking under branches, looking for solid footing amid the rocks, and even slipping and falling on a wet patch near a waterfall. I jog occasionally but this is the most strenuous exercise I’ve had in months. The breaks are worth it though, at a small waterfall, eating melon indio, soaking my feet in the pool. Then at the biggest waterfall, approached by descending extremely steep steps where I tell myself that as long as I am careful I will not slip and die. (I didn’t.) Initially I had planned to swim in the pool of this waterfall, one that hikers have apparently scaled, but upon sight of the rocks I would have to scramble over to reach the pool, after the scare of the descent, I content myself with sitting in the mist, drinking juice, eating pineapple, and watching Daniel scramble and hearing him hoot at the numbing temperature.

That brings me to another topic, which I should research at some point. In Honduras, people throw trash on the ground while walking, biking, driving; it all goes to the ground.  Other volunteers do this, albeit with only fruit. I’ve asked them about this and their response has been, “It’s natural.” Well, yes, but doesn’t it take a while to decompose? So I am surprised when Daniel says I should toss my melon rinds aside. I do, but I’m uncomfortable, but I know he and others hike here and I don’t see fruit rinds or food all over, so…the animals must be eating it? And while I see food wrappers all over the roads, I don’t see banana or orange or lychee peels all over the place. So…the animals? I am content to not throw my stuff out the window, but I wonder who is right in this case.

The big waterfall.

The last and biggest waterfall.

The return hike is a rush because I’m close to missing the bus. Now it’s down and down and down, its own challenge. At the visitors center I spend a few delightful moments with their black and white cat, Junior. Junior is the first affectionate cat I’ve met in Honduras. Most cats are feral and kept by families as mousers. While my own three cats may drive me crazy, I love having cat affairs.

My 230pm bus is cancelled and the next isn’t until 415pm. This means: time for flan! Alas, the cafe is closed early for the holiday. I have yet another plato típico, boring, but the licuado saves the day.

The bus to San Pedro is mostly empty and I have the two seats to myself. Am I making the right decision to return early? I should have gone somewhere else, probably, like a good, spontaneous little traveler, but I don’t have any regrets until I hear the first firework. Shit. Near San Pedro we pass about 20 or 30 firework stands…in a row. My little neighborhood loves fireworks. For the past few weeks I’ve been wearing earplugs constantly. How did I forget about this? I did hear them from my hostel room, but being on the second story, I was a little removed.

The taxi driver gives me a bit of a deal on the fare because “Tengo cuidar con los maestros” which I appreciate on the pitch black road, with its blind curves and potholes. I teach him how to say “Hi,” “Hello,” and “My name is Juan Angel.”

And then I’m back. The fireworks and music are going like mad, Maxi Despensa is closed so I grab what food I can from the secret pulperia. I talk to a housemate and eat rice. I watch a movie, mope over an annoying email, and try not to be upset with myself. There were no good solutions to the Where to Stay for Christmas problem and I just didn’t plan properly for this vacation. Next time I will. It’s all about learning, isn’t it? At least the roommate isn’t home.

25 December 2014: Sigh 

Feliz Navidad and be sure to hug a unicorn!

Without fail,

theresa

Pretty river.

Rio Cangrejal.

Stickers

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.

theresa

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