view from finca

The final push

Here it is: the final push toward the end. Spring break (Copán with the partner in crime, wonderful, beautiful, comforting, heartbreaking, all the expected superlatives) ends tonight and only (or “only”) eight weeks of teaching remain. I remember early September and questioning survival until the five day weekend at the end of October. That weekend is long gone—but so easy to recall—and now I cling to the promise of permanent relief from this…this…grand experience.

The activities calendar for these last weeks is a procrastinator’s delight of events that could have been spread more evenly over this year but instead have been saved up until we are all exhausted and sick of this. Okay, maybe that’s just me. Science Fair (Come up with an entertaining science project with limited resources!), Parents’ Day (Make your kids do something adorable!), International Day (Make food from your country! Sell it! Maybe you’ll earn back the money you spent!), and Academic Olympics (Make up a game that tests smarts!). Too many of these boil down to This [vague idea] sounds really fun. You [teacher] come up with something educational that everyone will enjoy and make money for the school.

So much freedom and pressure does not summon creativity. Rather it unleashes the demons of self-doubt and anxiety and frustration and resentment. This is why I will never teach again at a general school such as this, where I know this insistence on extracurriculars is the norm. It’s these things that feed the growing monster that hisses I’m paying to teach at the school. I’m paying for this stress, and now you want me to spend more of my money—regardless of little it will be in actuality—and more of my time to make fun for the kids (overlooking that I do all in my power to make learning fun everyday)? Welcome to volunteering.

I don’t think like this most of the time. Only when I’m pushed. My inverse is quite ugly. It doesn’t help that most of the other volunteers, on the surface anyway, are unflustered. It’s only Vee and me, and maybe the sixth grade teacher, we who struggle with the hormone-throbbing whiny rebels, whose shoulders sag in anticipation of these events. But the distance to the end, rather than from the beginning, is now countable in weeks.

In addition to the weekly count, I’m starting the retrospective. I wonder who will remember me. I remember many of my teachers, and several, particularly those from middle school, are gone from my memory. I don’t expect to remembered by all—I don’t care about that—I want to be remembered by the students I work for, the ones who want to learn or who are at least diligent or with whom I’ve forged a connection…like Joe and Krissy and Isabel and one of my geeky boys and a few of the ninth graders, who rarely find themselves on this blog. The ones for whom I fight, despite my inadequacy. Volunteering may seem a selfless act, but my ego cries for recognition of the sweat and wrinkles, and the everything I’ve given here. Some will, I know. The dear ones…?

And who will I remember?

I’m questioning how I’ve changed. I have, but will save those observations for the end.

I don’t, and imagine I won’t, question if this has been worth it.

An abrupt ending, but I want to spend these last hours in a book or watching a series that I discovered a few days ago. Then it’s once more unto the breach, dear readers. (Well, if I can find it.)

In survival,

theresa

P.S. Photo from Finca El Cisne, a place you must visit if ever in Copán Ruinas.

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Bacteria and virus models

Sweetheart and the enigmas

Admire this week’s science project above—making bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and fungi with clay and pipe cleaners—and meet Isabel, John, and Tara.

Isabel

When I consider my failings as a teacher, I think of her. I suspect Isabel’s often bored and frustrated with the classroom disruptions and slower pace of her classmates.  Diligent, she’s the most reliable when it comes to studying. When I asked the students to write a short story, 10 sentences, about their lives at Camp Green Lake, the setting of Holes, she developed an adorable piece about becoming best friends with a “gentle” (vocabulary word) boy there, who later became her boyfriend. When I suggested that she consider writing as a career (I can dream), she laughed. Like Joe’s, her imagination is colorful and my envy. She’s one of two who puts effort into their bi-weekly journal entries.

Isabel is still a pre-teen however, with moments of slack. Friday she said she couldn’t finish her paragraph about being sleepy because she was too sleepy. (I recommended she write, “I’m so sleepy that I can’t even finish this paragraph.”)  Likely because of the language difficulties, or because I inspire revelation, she can be rather frank, openly admitting she didn’t study for the writing exam because she was busy with another teacher’s (English always takes a back seat, despite this being a bilingual school.). She makes such observations with her sweet laugh. Sometimes she’ll stand near me, perhaps with nothing much to say, and I’ll wrack my brain for conversation. She confides in me that another teacher’s classes are boring and also when mine are boring; yet, despite her boredom, she has on occasion told me how happy she is that it is my class. Perhaps I am not boring. When I have doubts about my effectiveness as a teacher, I look in Isabel’s notebook and see improvement. I see and hear her try. These signs reassure, a comment, I suppose, that contradicts my “failings” comment above, but let that stand. Isabel can move at a much more rapid pace, but I’m not equipped to manage different levels.

As with nearly all of the kids, Isabel is obsessed with love, as well as Logan Henderson of One Direction, Facebook, my comparatively newer iPhone, and discovering the password to my computer. She has an older iPhone and braces. In fact, she’s one of few students with braces at school, which gives you an idea of her family’s financial situation. Petite, with a sweet smile, she is among the most fashionable on Color Day, in dresses too old for her, but elegant nonetheless. I’ve never had such style.

Isabel is the only one who unfailingly thanks me when I hand out anything to the students. She is a sweetheart.

John

The enigma, a student whose mind I have been unable to open for a peek. He will not speak unless called on, and then in a mumble, and is quick to join the other three boys in goofing off in class. Despite this, he vies with Isabel for the top spot. I often wonder if he is uncomfortable being (one of) the best in the class, among the boys, and this is why he goofs off so wholeheartedly, to fit in. Or, more likely, he’s just a short, stocky boy, who doesn’t make the 8th grade girls’ A-list, who’d rather play than work.

Because he confuses me, I am nervous and awkward with him, afraid that he senses my confusion—did he just glare at me? am I seeing contempt? So I consciously praise him and touch his shoulder during corrections. John usually puts in the minimum effort in class and is just as untrustworthy as the other boys for working independently. This adds to my confusion…and distaste. But—of course, but—he surprises. Parcial exams ended this week. His paragraph, a response to the question Are boys or girls smarter? thoughtful, mature. He said both were equally smart…because both are human and have the same potential. This is not the prevailing cultural thought and most students were decidedly in one camp or the other. I was surprised and softened.

Insight alert: I cannot find a vulnerability or place for connection with John. Were I replaced tomorrow, I suspect he wouldn’t care, and this summons insecurity, because if I am not needed (wanted?), in some way, why am I here? Isabel may not be insecure, but she needs me and my teaching. Antonio may be frustrated with me more often than not, but I know he is appreciative when I explain and he understands. Joe lacks confidence, but I am confident, more or less, in my ability to evoke the bright flashes I see in him. Moments like these answer the question, “Am I needed?” With John, I have none of these. I can’t tell if he’s a good, quiet kid or an asshole, a theory I developed after some exchange I don’t recall well.

But, no, I must remove that asshole consideration after his response to the writing exam question. There is someone thoughtful and considerate in there. I just might never get to meet him.

Tara

Oh, Tara, where to begin? At the beginning of the year, Tara was Kim’s coloring cohort. Now she more often colors alone. She’ll request permission to wash her hands because the pen she was chewing on or the marker she was toying with burst. Five seconds after I’ve given instructions, she’ll ask, “What, Miss?” or “For the notebook, Miss?” having returned from her cloud. If I take a breath, she’ll burst in with a non-sequetorial “How many homeworks [until I get a prize]?” no matter how many times I’ve stated she can ask at break. As the year progresses, I’ve (shamefully) grown increasingly sarcastic in my responses, having no idea how to address her delay, the inattention. Attempts at personal talks, to solicit questions or request behavioral changes, are met with an uncomfortable eyes-averted, “Nothing, Miss,” or “Yes, Miss,” implying she has no questions or understands, when she obviously just wants the conversation to end. Corrections are met with denial and cease communications notice. Like John, I haven’t found the way in.

Her work is erratic, but quiz scores are high, indicating that she studies, and even remembers. After a student tipoff that Tara had cheated on a quiz, I questioned her a few days later. No cheating; she knew her stuff. She is eager to participate in board work—but on her terms. If she doesn’t get to go first, forget it—bingo, and most games. In her own mind, she is infallible. Actually, that could apply to most of the students. They are all perfect, in their own and God’s eyes.

Like John, she is an enigma, but of a different type. A less kind person would suggest that she has a screw loose. Let’s just say she and I have different priorities…and maybe different planets.

And now it’s Semana Santa!

theresa

A plant with sports

You so crazy

Nothing gets me talking better than the topic of my students, and since I described a few of them last week, here are a few more, all seventh graders. Although I teach three grades, I teach these crazy guys at least three classes a day and think about them the most.

Antonio

During one of our parent-teacher-student behavior meetings, I asked Antonio to be my superhero, like Iron Man, and use his power for good. Tall, attractive, engaged in an active love affair with hair gel, and cocky, Antonio is the obvious leader of the class. He doesn’t walk across the school yard, he struts. During a game of grammar tic-tac-toe, his teammates sought his approval prior to placing their mark on the board. Jojo refused to compete against him in a review quiz game. When the first grade English teacher substitute taught my class this week, due to some scheduling craziness, and she was glaring at him for silence, he commented that she must be looking at him because he was so good-looking. He is confident in his immortality.

Of all the kids, it’s most difficult for me to remember that Antonio is still a child, because he’s tall, because his spoken English is fluent, because his defiance is strong, and I, a neophyte, easily fall prey to his manipulation. I roar internally in frustration at his academic scores because he’s smart but thinks he knows everything and always races to finish his work as quickly as he can, then bother those who aren’t finished. He could do much better, but he’d rather comb his hair and chatter. He laughs loudly when others make mistakes, which further discourages students from risking themselves.  He’s also a baby and, I suspect, babied by his mother. Whenever Antonio is chastised more than he thinks he deserves, he puts his head down and refuses to talk. If given detention, he pouts and threatens, “I will not come.” When asked to write about an awesome person, Antonio wrote about his mother, whose awesomeness stems from her giving him whatever he wants.

Yes, he’s a kid, a popular kid. I struggle to like him. He probably taps into the wounds I retain from my own middle school years. He can be charming, but it’s a power struggle, always, and I often hear his protesting voice in my head. When I can find a moment of vulnerability, like when I catch him needing help with something, I spread my teacher-gifted-with-knowledge wings and flash them in an attempt to blind him into humility. Despite how middle school theresa may feel, Teacher theresa does care. He’d make a good politician. I just want him to be an intelligent and kind politician.

May

There are students closer to my heart than others, and May is one of them, mostly due to the near deadpan inflection of her English, which renders her work protests hilarious. She shakes her head and tells me, “Miss, I don’t understand,” with a strange little lift at the end and a flat-lipped, embarrassed smile in her half-turned face as if this is a strange thing I have caused, this not understanding, and she’s casting it off to me to do something with that information. It stems from insecurity and a self-rooted assumption that she will not understand whatever I’m teaching. I’m not sure why she feels this way, and it may be my fault. Despite months of being with this crew, I still am unable to gauge the difficulty of my lessons. So before quizzes and exams, when I remember—increasingly difficult with my sieve of a memory—we review during lunch time and she passes, whatever the topic, or she doesn’t. She works hard, I think. May is a Good Student, not great, but good. I don’t often enough see her smile and I will tease her and turn myself on my head, in our free moments, to find it in her sweet face, that wrinkled-up nose, averting her eyes. I often want her approval and wish I knew her better.

She loves to make cakes…if only I could get her to make one for me.

Krissy

I am the only volunteer teacher who is fond of her. Big, loud, and a school hater, Krissy is a bully. She frequently and at high volume disrespects her teachers and kicks or punches other students. Hers is another voice I hear in the quiet and it often says, “Miss, but I no want to!” Another volunteer proclaimed that Krissy is “just too much.” I suspect I love her for a vulnerability that is rarely revealed.

Early in the year when I’d allow the students to find relief from our stifling and loud classroom by working outside, Krissy’d wander away and bother other classrooms. I confronted her and explained that because of this tendency I couldn’t trust her, despite wanting to. I’m not sure why, maybe it was my speaking to her seriously and honestly, but our relationship after that changed. She started trying more and looking my approval. If I gave her The Look, she’d stop talking, for at least a second, and work. She’d argue less. And we built this relationship where if Krissy gives me crap, I can give her crap right back:

K: Miss, it is so hot and boring.
T: I know, Krissy, but you are young and strong and in my heart of hearts I believe you will survive. Can you? Can you make it through this rough day?
K. (Smiling) Oh, Miss, you so crazy.

And she’ll try…for a minute.

Krissy is the biggest—okay, fattest—kid in school. At a parent-teacher meeting, her aunt mentioned that the family couldn’t get her to stop continuously eating. Her aunt suspected stress from school. When we were studying earthquakes in Science, an eighth grader joked it was Krissy walking. During a writing exercise where kids had to write a sentence then fold over the paper and pass it to another student to write the next sentence, someone compared Krissy to an elephant. And Krissy, big, strong bully Krissy, who never shows hurt from these comments, was upset. My middle school self, one that was also relentlessly teased, the memory of which struggles against Antonio, hugged her. My teacher self struggled to find a solution and felt inadequate.

Krissy’s family is a good one. Her mother is a dentist, her father a mechanic. Both care for their daughter, though seem confused at times by her behavior. Krissy now sees a psychologist, though I’m curious if she actually talks to him/her, because it’s difficult to get beyond the superficial. Krissy excels in math but hates Science and English. (This post’s picture is what I drew on a quiz when she wrote that a plant could reproduce with sports, not spores.) She has great listening skills and is fluent, if grammatically atrocious, and her writing and reading skills are weak. Recently I started tutoring her once a week, and while she’ll lie slickly to wiggle out of it, to the point that I call her mom if Krissy tells me tutoring has been cancelled, our sessions are fun and she’ll play along. I suspect she enjoys the attention. I enjoy shocking her, such as by telling her I used to dye my hair all sorts of colors. I love her incredulous smile and her look of surprise when she gets something right.

If the other volunteers spent as much time with Krissy, I wonder if they’d change their minds about her. They see her picking on their little kids and protesting their instructions at top volume. I see these things too and daily get on her case for physically responding to a slight. But I also see how she is picked on by others for her size and poor vocabulary, and while I don’t see it, because it’s hidden, I know this hurts her. And, I suppose, I like her because she likes me and I’ve figured out, a little bit anyway, how to work with this girl who’d much rather be at home watching Calle 7.

And those are three of my kids.

ta ta,

theresa

Grover

Now and later

Many adults, caught in the tangled net of responsibility, look upon their childhoods or those of their own children with nostalgia. They recall childhood as easy, but I know I wouldn’t want to travel backward, except to visit moments here and there that weren’t so hard, that weren’t rife with confused emotions, intimate conflicts with friends, and tall people telling me what to do and feel and laughing with condescension at my wounds. Then kids, too, get bundled up like debris in the messy lives and emotions of their adults, whether those are parents, guardians, or teachers, people they’ve been told to follow, but who at times have no idea what they’re doing. Yet they tell their kids, Follow me, while another adult, doing something completely different, also tells their kids, Follow me. Still others are punishing their kids in order that their life won’t be followed.

Kids are told to do this now or don’t do this now for reasons they’ll understand later. They’ll get to thank some big person later. Study math now because you’ll need it later. Don’t have sex now and you’ll understand later. Too much of a kid’s life is spent in a vast later that stretches beyond comprehension, because when you’re five and those five years have seemed pretty long, the next 13+ years of later is forever. I would imagine by the time you’re in the adult-dreaded teenage years that later is a pretty sickening word, especially because you’re starting to feel more like an adult, be given adult-level responsibilities, but with none of the freedom, and are still hearing about that neverland later. You know that later is closer but still much too far.

This is me, trying to be compassionate with my students.

One of my seventh graders, KB, lives in one room with her family, her mother, her older and younger sisters, and her niece. The fathers of her sisters are semi-involved financially in their lives; hers is not. Their family relies on her mother’s part-time income and foreign support. KB is the responsible one, for her little sister and for her niece when her older sister isn’t home. She worries about too many adult things, like rent payments, because she has to. She has adult worries but not adult trust, and KB is very torn by this. Her mother gets suspicious whenever she talks to a boy in her neighborhood and has punished her upon hearing rumors of such conversations. I’ve been told about name calling and shouting over this issue. My student knows why her mother is concerned—pregnancy—but all KB wants to do is talk, and it’s unfair that she’s responsible enough to take care of her family but not move beyond the gate that closes their apartment to the street. I have heard this story many times this year.

With my oh-so-vast adult wisdom, I can see as her mother does, how talking leads to one thing and another, as it did for her mother and so many others—and too many of the others are barely older than KB—and I can understand that her mother fears most that this second daughter will create or end up in her same circumstances and is determined to lock her up and even beat her to prevent this. I can also see that KB is fiercely loyal to her mother, protective of her family, responsible as best she can be, and she honestly just wants to talk to this boy (Okay, I bet if a kiss happened, she wouldn’t mind.). But there’s no way that KB will understand that for now she gets to worry like an adult, care like an adult, but can’t be trusted like an adult. There’s too much now and later.

This is me trying to be compassionate when she fails a test and can’t help flirting with a classmate rather than take notes.

Kim is insecure and not a little goofy. She’s tall, long-limbed, and has a birthmark on her face she’s ashamed of. Rather than believe in herself, she idolizes other girls, girls I wish she wouldn’t, because they are terrible role models, girls who need good role models themselves. For a few weeks early in the school year, Kim and I had a breakthrough and she went from coloring in class to wanting to please me, which translated into her working. Now, she works and will participate more than she did at first, but if her friend isn’t working, neither is she. So I try to sit them apart, and her mother wants this as well, but Kim is shy, a little strange, and a lot of the kids don’t like her. How can I begrudge her a friendly elbow partner? She gets mad when I move her and sulks with her head on her desk. She tried to cheat on her last parcial exams. Then, after lunch, she’ll zoom around the room and stand an inch away with her lovely lopsided smile and a “Hello, Miss Theresita!” Of course it’s a joke on me, but I’m glad she’s comfortable enough with me to be that weird and, honestly, I’m quite weird. I just worry that the sparking light I see in her is going to be twisted by whomever she places her trust in and not lifted, as it needs to be, but she’s not strong enough to lift it herself. Yet.

Lately she’s been in detention a lot, for not doing her work. When she’s upset, she shuts down and it’s hard to find access. Sometimes I have to threaten her with going to the office.

Her best friend and idol, Jojo, has divorcing parents and a distant father. Too many dads are out of the picture. Jojo’s been a slippery enigma since the beginning. She has a wall a mile high, much of it fortified with insecurity. I also can’t sit her next to anyone else in class because, as I’ve said in my less compassionate moments, she gets her claws into them and brings them to the dark side, as she did with Kim. But I’ve found some chinks in her armor. If she doesn’t do her work, it’s often because she doesn’t understand, which she’s too proud to admit, and so I always thank her for her questions and invite her to ask more.

This is me trying to be compassionate when they both ignore and giggle at me and I itch to place them in hugs bordering ever so slightly on a chokehold.

This is me trying to be compassionate when Fred, mortified at being so behind, yet again cancels our tutoring session, but the fact is he shouldn’t be in seventh grade, he’s already failed once, and he continually disrupts class because he’s bored and lost. He gets by on his sweet smile.

Sometimes I have no idea if my sandwich is being buttered with bullshit. I wasn’t prepared for life in this emotional blender of compassion and adolescence. Did Jojo really not understand the homework or is that an excuse for forgetfulness? How can I blame the kids for whining when it’s over 80 degrees in our classroom with the broken fan, but I need the whiteboard for our lesson? Was the science quiz too difficult or did the kids just not study? Am I explaining this poorly or are the kids just not paying attention? I’m not proud or arrogant to enough to assume I’m always right. I dole out negative reinforcement with secret guilt, wishing the positive reinforcement were enough.

Often I forget they’re kids. It’s hard not to when they’re practically adult sized and not cuddly like the wee ones. I struggle to comprehend that they (mostly) aren’t kids like I was, who paid attention, who suffered the boredom silently, who didn’t like but understood the importance of later. I forget that my world is not their world. The other volunteers were more normal as children, or perhaps they’re just more resilient, and don’t appear to be caught in this emotional goo. I forget that inadvertent rudeness happens when you don’t know the subtleties of the language you are learning. I get impatient and sometimes unfair and too often take this all personally.

My kids are kids; they barely comprehend tomorrow, much less later. As I write this, the compassion swells into my fingertips and my weekly forecast is tinted with hope and strength. I can just see myself navigating these moments with skill and grace. I feel myself remembering childhood and the future that came much too slowly. And then…I can feel myself dreading the alarm Monday morning.

I’ll try.

Indubitably,

theresa

P.S. Grover came to Honduras with me. Despite his self-doubt, he dabbles in superheroism.

what colors are your markers?

Good Teacher

My days are so changeable; I’m so changeable. Earlier this week a housemate was turning off our water at nights due to a leak in the pipe through the kitchen wall. The controller for the water is located at the front of the house, outside the gate that is locked with a stiff, rusty lock one has to arm wrestle open. The way the gate is designed, you have to reach through the gate to unlock it if you’re in the house. I’m the first one up on school days. Tuesday morning, the lock key refused to turn the final millimeter. Now, it’s one thing to have some anonymous entity turn off the water; it’s another when the water could be on if only a stupid fucking lock would work properly—don’t ask me why we all refuse to buy a new one—and I had what could only be called a tantrum, at 515am. I rattled the gate violently, vowed to throw that lock into oblivion, slammed our front door, and knocked over some liquor bottles that are stacked immediately beside the door (no idea why). I was an absolutely furious baby dinosaur. Brushing my teeth, I waited for housemates to storm from their rooms and yell, What the hell is going on? and then upbraid me for being rude. No one did. No one even mentioned my baby fit, at least not to me.

Despite this disastrous beginning, it turned into a good day, because I got to be a Good Teacher. A Holy Grail of teaching seems to be a book called The First Days of School. When I was researching teaching how-tos, that book was frequently cited as a touchstone for setting up a classroom to avoid behavior problems. The small house has a copy and I flipped through its pages before the school year started. Many teachers share their personal stories and the one I remember is a man who said his style of teaching involved his students doing all the work. At the end of the day his fellow teachers would be exhausted, while he was refreshed and calm (I envision him skipping down the hall, La la la) because his students knew procedures, took charge of their activities like knowledge-nibbling beavers, and he merely guided them along this river of self-learning. Oh gawd. If I’m gone for a minute to retrieve forgotten supplies from the teachers’ room, the 7th and 8th graders immediately abandon all educational tasks for gossip, mirror worship, and wrestling. My science lessons too often consist of me lecturing for the period and attempting to generate some discussion, some Socratic back and forth. It’s like wrestling hogs on a slip-and-slide. Use your brains, dammit! After class I slink away to the next class. Sometimes, though, I’m a Good Teacher, and while I might not have a posh yacht upon which to steer my students, I make do with a leaky raft.

I have a science textbook for this term. Let me tell you that my lesson planning is hours shorter. My school nights sometimes end at 6pm rather than 9. The book has science application ideas, and I just love the whole darn thing. I can wax poetic about it….  Here, let me do just that:

Oh dearest text of mine
that maketh the science so clear
let me clutch you to my heart
you are to me so dear.
Let us never part
without you…I
I
I
I
would have a complete frikkin’ nervous breakdown I was so close to the edge I tell you and I do not deny my need for you and if you leave me ever I will find a bridge surely there are bridges here and throw myself from it.

And, no, that is not hyperbolic. I have never loved a book with such desperation.

Anyway, we’re studying light this term. The application idea was to envision what a red, green, and blue beach ball would look like through filters of those same colors. I had magenta and green filters. The students had markers. They drew their beach balls and passed around the filters. I took a break from talking for what I had anticipated would be ten minutes. My confidence quailed a bit when this turned into two classes—had I taught the concept so poorly? I self-consoled—whether my lectures were clear or not, application is always different from reception, from regurgitation of notes. None of them whined and gave up, and most of them, the ones that w/could, diligently tried and understood with a little individual attention. Then, Friday, we played with pigment, putting strips of paper marked with a black dot in a glass of water to see what colors of ink the marker companies used to make black (Crayola uses magenta and blue/cyan, FYI). More science in action. These classes were so relaxing, not because I was working less, but because this is what science is about, this playing with the world. I felt competent, like real learning might be happening. Like my students would do more than just memorize answers to the quiz questions. I was a Good Teacher.

The educational culture here, and to a lesser degree in the US, promotes regurgitation. Teachers lecture and students take notes, memorize, and recite on exam day. Students work for the grade, not understanding, which is completely normal and was a key factor in my educational drive when I was in school, although if I didn’t understand, I couldn’t memorize, which, BTW, some people find rather annoying. Over winter break I posed this question to /r/teachers (ever my resource), “How do I teach my students to think?” because once the students are done writing, they immediately turn off their brains. They can’t follow instructions or put 1 and 1 together to make 2. If it’s not already in the box, they won’t find it on their own. This drives me bonkers because science is boring without thinking and discussion. As is reading and speaking and anything, really. Learning English is more difficult and slower. One teacher suggested riddles, so that’s what the 7th graders do during double hour science on Tuesdays. They like it because it delays science, but I hope I’m sneaking in some critical thinking. As I write this, I don’t know why I don’t do this with the older grades. I will.

A common discussion among the volunteers is cultural differences in educational styles. The volunteers, most of us from the US and Europe, strive for dynamic classrooms with hands-on activities, peer interaction, discussion. My TEFL crash course was crammed with activity ideas. Note-taking and lecture is unavoidable, but it is never the primary approach. Depending on their grade level, the students receive this style of education about 2 or 3 classes per day. The remaining classes, lead by the Honduran teachers, are heavily lecture and notes, with the exceptions of P.E., home economics, and art. So our style is the anomaly of the day, and most of the students don’t quite understand how to manage their relative freedom when the activity is to discuss their winter breaks using the past tense, or piece together without significant assistance (spoon feeding) that if the apple reflects red light but the green filter transmits only green, that the red light will not go through the green filter, or that if Crayola keeps making more crayon colors, it probably means their brand is popular. But I try and I’ll keep trying because I see no point to teaching otherwise. I do wish, however, that the culture, and the US culture as well, was more open to inquiry, to playing around with ideas to find out how and why things work, and didn’t worry so much when the student’s grade falls below 100. Grades don’t equal learning, but that is a difficult idea to accept when grades also equal better schools, a road out of here, and parents feeling they’re getting what they pay for.

Science saved this week and while I won’t say 7th grade was a laugh, I will say it didn’t upset or depress me as much as it often does. I didn’t cry and beat the bathroom wall with my palms as I did last week. Also, our water was fixed.

But the gate lock is still pointless.

In color,

theresa

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

Kids and me dancing

Level up

I just don’t think quickly. My high school biology teacher said he liked to watch my face during class because he could see me putting the pieces together. Sometimes I do feel like my thoughts are a Tetris game, somewhere around level 4, when the pieces are falling a wee bit faster than the initial level. An idea drops down, I slide it into place, another idea drops, I flip-flip-flip it and slide it into place. Idea by idea, click by click, until things are lined up and…release: I understand.

Early this week a final piece fell into place, and I leveled up after verbally chastising a student again for an action that deserved at least a name on the board, lost my train of thought, as I do during these moments, and turned to wipe the whiteboard, while the gossip behind me quickly rose. I am a teacher, regardless of the green around my ears, and I deserve attention and respect. Why am I not demanding it from my students? Why am I not teaching them what I need and deserve? Why am I disrespecting myself? If I don’t demand it, if I don’t teach them how to practice it, if I don’t show it to myself, how can I expect my students, children who laugh when someone hurts him/herself, leave books on the floor, and have no trouble telling me their peers are stupid, to give me respect? I can’t. Having read my teaching posts, I would expect loyal readers, or actually anyone, to be thinking, Took you long enough. 

The parents I’ve interacted with give me respect without my having to ask for it or prove myself. I was invited to a birthday party for one of my 8th grade students. The mother seated me and my three fellow volunteers at the table on the best chairs. The mother, aware of my passion for fried sweet plantains, made a special plate of them for me (which I reluctantly shared). When we parted she told me, “Nuestra casa es su casa.” Other parents and two of our Honduran teachers have said the same, and while the phrase is almost cliché, part of the travel-outside-of-the-US-everyone-is-so-kind lore, the faces the words come from appear genuine (and, goodness, I sure would love to visit these houses more often if it weren’t so damn awkward for this monolingual wallflower). If these parents can give me, a neophyte teacher, such respect, even kindness, again, how can I not give it to myself? Level up.

‘Cuz this shit’s for real. I may be green but I am one of the many tools that will help mold these little human beings into adults, and I’m no less important than any other. Rationally, I know this is true, but within the emotionally charged spaces of my mind, in the gaps between my bones, I feel so small, like a wisp of a person who’s barely there at all, or bothersome, like that person who is blocking the [insert tasty food stuff here] you want, and my personhood, the fact of my existence, is much less important than yours. Reader, whomever you are, I will usually assume that despite my having grabbed the last jar of [insert tasty food stuff here] first, you deserve it, somehow, because your presence is much more solid than mine, your immediacy is felt, your wants are known. Much of the time, that is my reaction. Though not always. Sometimes I will take that damn [insert tasty food stuff here] because why the hell shouldn’t I? I need more of those days.

I ponder the origin of this conflict and some of it I know, some will remain a mystery, part of my chemistry reacting to the world, but ultimately the origin is unimportant. I am here and now.

Now, where does this all leave me? Still wiping the whiteboard, burdened with new understanding, uncertain of strategy. The blocks fall faster now and I’m not flip-flip-sliding fast enough. A fellow teacher said I must like the battleground that can be my class, otherwise, why wouldn’t I change it? Well, I’m only an inch tall today.

Back to class. Friday afternoon was playtime since it was the first event of the school Olympics*. The Olympics ended early, leaving me with 8th period to fill with practicing our song for the school Christmas celebration, and then the last 10 minutes free after the kids give me 3 past continuous sentences. I admit my attention is elsewhere, then I turn to see one of my girls climbing the forbidden stairs, forbidden because they lead to the roof and each step is just a metal frame, with no center. And what was it about that moment? Was it the uncertainty I was feeling over how to teach the student-chosen song and my kids’ growing frustration with it? Was it the post-performance crash after the rush of my Olympic team being the highlight of the presentations? The girl, and her cohort, managed to push the Activate Teacher Yelling Voice button, which did draw them back to the group but didn’t stop their giggling through incomplete apologies. Then I felt ashamed. Another teacher, who witnessed the event, felt my response was just right, but…I don’t know. This isn’t the way I want to do these things, but I have put the pieces in place that lead to that moment, despite my knowing I should do otherwise.

It’s two weeks until Christmas break and I doubt I’ll do much changing until then. For now I’m hanging on, trying to balance teaching with the fun of holiday classroom activities (Secret Friend, decorating, blah blah). But after Christmas break, a time I’ve read and heard that newbie teachers return to school invigorated and with new plans in place, I have to empower myself for change.

*So what are the school Olympics? The students are divided into houses (Yellow, with Vee) and the houses pick a country (Italy) and the first event is presentation of the country to the school. The event du jour was unanimously mine, a simplified Tarantella with the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders, a simply sweeter than sugar group of kids. Throughout the year are other events, such as the sports competitions this upcoming Friday. Kids can earn additional points for their team by being awesome in class (I am terrible at awarding these points.).

In other news, almost all of my students passed their recent Science quizzes—a first—and many of my 7th graders are now able to put together a past continuous sentence, but despite my best efforts and use of science, my more religious 9th graders refuse to believe that humans are animals.

And that’s that,

theresa