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.



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
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,


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,


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,



Impossible science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And there you have it,


7th graders

Schoolday in the life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so another day is done.

Still here,



Detention, stickers, and earworms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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,