Wednesday, November 12, 2008

My Chilean Lifetime

The days left in my Chilean lifetime are quickly dwindling and I’m left wondering: what was it all about? And then a powerpoint presentation flashes in my mind filled with moments...

Shouting counts to the cheerleaders, and struggling to remember the Spanish way to say"bend your knees" or practicing break dancing “trucos” (tricks) on the grass beside the river on a lazy Saturday with some older boys I introduced myself to before boldly asking for some lessons. Then I am making a fool of myself in class, stumbling over Spanish verbs, having my students aid me in writing all the 18 conjugations of one verb on the board. Then I’m sitting at the simple kitchen table with Dorita and abuelita sipping Milo and watching “Hijos del Monte,” oohing and ahhing in horror, surprise, excitement. I remember what it felt like coming home on the days where it felt like I had been beaten, abused, taken advantage of and unappreciated and then I remember the two times walking home and seeing the words painted on the hill above the house that read, “Vallenar Puro Corazon (with a drawing of a heart in place of the word),” and being shocked by the steady stream of tears that spilled down my cheeks when I realized I would eventually leave.

I think about one of my 7th graders who told me after she left our special once-a-week class that she wanted to sleep under the desk and never leave. I think about another 8th grader who, wrote on her little index card that first day that she would like to learn English so that she could better communicate with the beautiful Miss Teresa. Then I’m reminded of my senior, Ximena, who wrote on her card, “I want to be your friend!”… and then I feel good because I realize that now she is. I think about my Anita from my theater group who caught up with me unlocking the gate to the stairwell last Friday and said “Hi Miss!” and then burst into tears immediately after I asked her if she was alright. She told me she was sad because it was the seniors’ last day and she didn’t feel as if she belonged, as if she had many friends now that she and her boyfriend have broken up. She stayed in my classroom all that day and we talked and giggled while sharing snacks and talking about how her life was about to change because she was moving to California in January. I think about the other 10 or so students who know that my classroom is their safe space, where anything goes and I will protect them, help them, be on their side, love them. I think about my “nieces and nephews,” my most sensitive subject. Just the thought that I may never see them again catches sobs in my throat. I think of the day Dora, Marcela, Tico and his two kids, abuelita and I went to Camerones for abuelita´s birthday, to the tiny country house where Dorita was raised in the Interior. And surrounded by old-fashioned brothers and sisters of Dorita -- who stared at me curiously, without understanding how to approach me or the fact that I am quite approachable – I rested my head on Dora’s shoulder and talked with her as if I had grown up in that house with her before running outside and spending the next 6 hours playing with Bruno and Pia (7 and 11) chasing birds, playing jumprope, etc. and thinking how much more I always seemed to prefer the company of Chilean children to Chilean adults (minus Dora).

I remember sitting at the kitchen table again, this time with Dora’s four children, Milena, Daniza, Marcela and Tico, kids running everywhere, climbing over me just long enough for me to plant kisses on their cheeks, all the while whining to the parents for more bread or cheese, and realizing that though I was not their sister or aunt, I felt like I was. Though I am not Dora’s daughter, I cannot help that it seems I’ve always been a part of this family, eaten at this table, loved these people. Because I really really do love them. Faces of students flash before my eyes, kids that love me. How can they love me so much? I remember the first several times I met the youngest two grandchildren, Matia and Josefa and they ran away screaming and I thought to myself, “I will give them time to fall in love with me.” And now I see them in my mind as they were last week, last night, this morning, big olive eyes peering up at me and giggling, repeating English phrases like “WOW!” or “Wassuuupp???!” Allowing me to smother them with kisses after I chase them around the house and dance around them like a clown. I remember what Daniza told me when we were on a weekend trip to Bahia Inglesa last weekend together, “You have a magnetic force that just draws children to you. Children always know.” I’m so glad she knows this. She knows me. I call her my older sister and love her for being the only person in the family with whom I can drink endless glasses of wine and have interesting life-discussions in Spanish til 3 am. I think about Milena, easily my best friend in Vallenar with whom I laugh constantly, and the mother of five. How when the whole family is together, she is the first to touch my shoulder and explain the never-ending Chilenismos to me patiently. I think about how my Spanish was when I arrived and how it is now, and how much trouble I will have communicating in every other South American country since my vocabulary is chock full of sayings like, “cachai?” (you know?), “si poh, no poh, OBVIO poh,” “como estai?” “no te preocupi,” (don’t worry), etc..

And then I think about myself, hitting rock bottom (again) and bouncing back (again). Losing Silvana as a friend for reasons I will never know and discovering a whole population of students just dying to get in the circle. I remember Juan offering to walk me all the way home from cheer practice one day and together counting the 207 steps simultaneously (he in Spanish, me in English) as we climbed the hill to my house. And I vividly remember startling myself awake at 6am on November 5th and scrambling for the t.v. remote and suffering through at least four minutes of Chilean news before seeing the headline saying something about Obama and "HISTORIA" and crying tiny sobs of relief alone in my Chilean bed. Because the country I was going back to was finally one I could be proud of, where the face of the President matched all the values which the past four months have taught me we are lucky to posess, because in this country those same values are lacking: diversity, acceptance, efficiency, the American Dream, the notion that with hard-work, anything really is possible.

I am still awed at discovering abilities I never dreamed I possessed and realizing I’m more like my mother than I believed. Meeting the bestest of English-speaking friends in orientation and appreciating them (and all my friends) even more after a couple months of a lack-luster social-life and loneliness. I think about how much my relationship with “my Kevin” has grown and strengthened by living apart, and I think of how much readier I am now just to be an ordinary grown-up, to live with him, leave for work together, and shop for groceries together, quite content with it all. I think about how proud I felt the first time I had an entire telephone conversation with my papi in Spanish and how much better I will feel about myself when I can actually communicate with my Lita (who only speaks Spanish) at our next family reunion.

I think about how lucky I am and how enlightened I feel. I think about how beautiful and complicated my life has been and how every single little thing has led to me being this girl who just feels so….full. I feel full of love, of promise, of wisdom, of memories, of friends, of family, of gifts, of power. I feel I have more self-sufficiency than some women dream of, and yet enough life experience already at 24 to know when to let it go. I feel I know when to hold on to a person, an idea, an argument, one’s independence, and when to forget them, be enlightened, forgive, and share the experiences that ultimately do matter. There is a line at the end of the movie "Into the Wilderness," that I have never forgotten. After traveling and living alone for a year, on his death-bed, alone, the main character writes his final words: Happiness is better when shared. Traveling alone was the best idea I’ve ever had and unless it’s for a paid writing job, I can promise you, I will never feel the need to do it again.

Monday, November 3, 2008

It´s a Theater Thing...

So, after holding rehearsals every weekday at either 8 am or 5 pm and even some impromptu weekend run-throughs, my theater group finally had their performance last week in La Serena. We (me included, which was awesome), were put up in some nice cabanas and served three meals a day for three days. So, that in itself was quite enjoyable. The name of the play, was “The Three Wise Men’s Younger Dumber Brothers,” and it was hysterical. The 20 minute comedy was a parody on the birth of Jesus, and so I was the tiniest bit nervous of how we would be received, though not much, since I haven’t been wowed by the English level here. A quick excerpt:

Sally: So Mary Jane, you must be devastated the baby might not be yours…
MJ: ….we’re peachy compared to next door in the other stable.
S: Who’s next door?
MJ: Mary and Joseph and their new little baby. Our lives are easy compared to their situation.
S: Why? Is it bad? Is it devastating?
MJ: Well, Mary doesn’t even know how she got pregnant, cuz she’s a virgin, and Joseph doesn’t know how she got pregnant either, because they never … you know …
S: They must be absolutely devastated!!!

And so it went on … truly, very funny. I chose the play because all eight characters were over the top and I figured with their limited acting and English experience, the sillier the better. Turns out, I was correct. They were great and to my surprise and delight, I was not the only person in the audience laughing out loud throughout. The group before us did Shakespeare (how original) and it was “fome.”
I have never felt so competent. I have never directed a play before, though I watched my mother do it hundreds of times, and watching my seven adoreable high schoolers up on that stage juggling English and comedy, I realized I was very very lucky to be given the opportunity to undertake this English Theater Festival. Throughout the coaching process, at times, while trying to convey a comedic beat in the script – whether with an outrageous body movement or a facial expression -- I would hear and see myself sounding and acting ridiculous, and have such vivid dejavu of watching my mother direct her plays, without a care to what people thought of her or how ridiculous she looked. I would remember watching her do the very same thing -- being quirky, passionate and talented all at once without being aware of it. So many times since I’ve been here in Chile I’ve been aware that in many ways I am more similar to my mother than I ever imagined. In the ways that require strength, discipline, courage, determination and dear God, let’s not forget efficiency, I am my mother’s daughter. She is tough and as it turns out, when I need to be, so am I. And thank GOD (well, and fabulous genes) for that. I put as much energy as I could into these kids and this play, without building my expectations up too high (based on prior experience with the work ethic of the students in my school), and looking back it almost feels like it was too easy. To coach anything successfully, I’ve discovered you must create an exclusive environment. The fun of being in a play or on a dance team is just to feel like you are part of something special, something that noone else is part of. If done correctly, after the final product, you should have a group of kids who are more like family than friends, who have gone through something together that caused them to push each other but also to lean on each other. There should be mountains of inside jokes and traditions to keep as memories after the performance is over. With my theater kids (and, for such a short time, with my cheer kids too) we had that. The night before their performance we had a little pajama party in my hotel room. One of my favorites, Macarena, has family problems. I’m still not sure exactly what goes on, but she came to me earlier that day crying, convinced she could not do the silly theater warm-up’s with the rest of the cast. After we talked, I promised her an ice cream slumber party (I mean really, when does that NOT work?), and led her by the hand, back onstage and had her push through. She needed to participate with her friends and scream her lines while running around on the stage, just like everyone else (totally helps with their nerves, btw). I honestly believed it would help her, to leave her problems on the floor and be part of the group, her group, especially when things were tough. I’ve been there, I’ve done that, and at the end of the day, it was my saving grace. To have something that was mine, all mine. No ex-boyfriend, or family crisis could ever touch me when I was dancing, because I was in my element and I think it’s probably due to a lack of these elements, that kids get into trouble. That night, I bought a big bag of knock-off Lays potato chips (terrible and burnt) and the kids laughed and had mini photo-shoots, jumping from my bed to the doorway. I gave out little cards I had hand-made for everyone. Each card had one of the particular character’s funny quotes on the front and a heartfelt, good luck message, written in English, on the inside. Minutes later, my four girls were sobbing in my arms. Moments after that, I joined them. If I go back home, with nothing else, I did this right. In tears, Anita said, “It’s just that, I’ve never been good at anything. I’ve been a failure at everything I’ve tried to do…” And that’s when it hit me. Another one of those, ‘Omg, I’ve been a part of something so special here in this country’ moments. These kids will never forget this experience and I’ve watched as some have developed into the best of friends during rehearsals, right before my eyes. And even if they don’t particularly remember me (they will though, they tell me), they will remember how much fun they had and how hard they worked and how they were a part of something truly great for their high school, the worst high school in Vallenar, the one that excepts “everybody.” Except, my kids and I wanted it all for ourselves. They don’t reflect their H.S. and it’s a trick to pretend A-7 had anything to do with what we accomplished.

Angel, who was the other teacher there with me, beamed with pride the night of our performance. He was sweating nervously before they took the stage, even though I assured him they were ready. I think he knew I could do it, but he was also shocked that I did it well. Chile is so confusing to me at times. An hour before the show, he said to me, “Teresa, you’re gonna kill me, we don’t have the cradle you asked for…” I looked at him, half-annoyed, and said “Angel, did you honestly think, I was holding my breath for that cradle?” But what if I had been? From the beginning, he’s wanted me to work magic for his high school. He is obsessed with his image at A-7 to the point where it’s his vain Achilles heel. Yet, every single time I approached him in the weeks before the performance with practical questions like, “On the list, where it says I need a cradle/dagger/staff, are we on top of that? Should I go out and look for the props?” or “Can we get started on scenery?” or “Have you emailed La Serena to check the layout of the stage?” I was always always always greeted by the same response. Even more infuriating, it was always in English. “Teresa, don’t worry, don’t worry!” Then, in Spanish, “Sit down? How was your day? How have you been feeling?” I almost screamed at him several times, “I’m fine! I don’t want to sit down so you can waste my time and tell me the same thing for the millionth time, just answer my question!!!” Honestly, it’s like some Chileans have absolutely no sense of personal time… Anyway, the point is: 1)the scenery was painted by three students who missed three straight days of classes to get it done days before we left 2) we arrived in La Serena and had to search the shops for a dagger and 3)two local boys had to hold up our canvas backdrop (scenery), for half the play. This is why I say, my expectations do not dare soar too high. However, it must be said, that though Angel is completely machista and on my back all the time, he did take me aside after dinner, the night of the play and fighting back tears (I swear to you) thank me for helping him achieve what he needed to. I really think for him it was personal more than having anything to do with A-7. He got offered a job in La Serena the next day, after a local school saw the show. His head as big as a hot air balloon he paraded around with the information and had me suffer through many a one-on-one talk about how I helped him achieve the image he wanted. I finally turned to him and said, “Yes but, what will you do next year, when this festival rolls around again, and they ask you to direct your new schools play?” “That’s when I’ll call you Teresa!” he said triumphantly. He did nothing. Not one teacher in my school helped me, at all. I did it all by myself. (Hmm, that sounds familiar…) If Angel had it his way, I’d do his leg work for the rest of his life from the U.S.. No sir, I will not be answering that telephone call.

After our pajama party, I felt more like my kids’ older sister than their teacher, and with my head on Maka’s lap, the constant stream of Chileno (which is NOT normal Spanish) filling my brain (which patiently converts more and more English to Spanish each day), I giggled with my girls as the boy’s struck ridiculous poses. I guess once a theater kid, always a theater kid. And if you have truly spent any significant amount of time with “theater people,” as I did at AMDA, you know what I’m talking about. Birds of a feather flock together, “cachai?” I’m not saying we’re normal….

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Chilean Elections

Today is election day in Chile. They are voting for Concejal (which I´ve decided is a position comparable to the Senate), and Alcalde (Mayor). This is interesting to me as an American for many reasons: First, because Marcela´s boyfriend, Edgardo Castelli -- the man many years her senior and rejected by her mother (thus never allowed one step into the house) -- is running for Concejal. A month ago I awoke one morning to rediscover my little city completely covered with giant posters of his face. These posters were quickly joined by countless others running for office. It is their propaganda. Effective? Who knows. By the time I took the attached photo, there were so many giant posters with people´s faces plastered on them, I had no idea who was who.
Second, I learned that here in Chile, if you don´t vote, you must pay a fine. In other words, you are bound by the law to vote. The only exception is if you never register to vote (which would demonstrate an extreme lack of interest in your country and community, if you ask me). In this case, the gov´t has no means of enforcing your participàtion today.
Third point of interest, is the occupation of the voting points (my HS being one of them) by the military. Liceo A-7 closed Thursday and will not reopen until Wednesday of next week. I am not complaining ... just, why all the drama? Marcela explained this probably has something to do with a tradition from the time of Pinochet´s military reign. I´m talking men all over the place with guns and military garb. I suppose that would make one think twice before rigging a ballot or even worse, voting against the big guy (Pinochet in this case).
Fourth, there are four main voting points here in Vallenar, and I also discovered that two are strictly for voting females, and two for voting males. Why the separation? Noone seems to have an answer to this question. I don´t think I like it. Call me anti old-fashioned...

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The "Real" Chile

This past weekend, I treated myself to a little three-day holiday trip 9 hours south to Rancagua, the city where my friend Katie (another volunteer) lives. After disembarking my crappy Pullman bus (why can I never trust that "semi-cama" will actually be semi-cama?) and massaging my creaky knees back to life, I smushed Katie in a bear hug and we began to talk. That was at 11 am Friday morning. Twenty-five hours later, at around noon Sunday we agreed on a nap. My throat was beginning to hurt a little. "Do you wanna go for a run?" Katie asked me Saturday. "Not in the slightest, but I´ll come with" I replied. We ended up running for precisely 12 minutes and walking a beautiful path facing the Cordillera mountain range for another two hours and 48 minutes. Pat (another volunteer) made fun of us. Our "run" was lame. Our response? "The conversation was just so good, we didn´t want to ruin it by actually running." And so I have discovered that I am the type of girl that literally cannot live without her girlfriends. I am starved for conversation in Vallenar. Not the types of conversations that involve politics, nor education systems, nor cheer formations nor play rehearsals. I talk frequently with Angel about how my projects and classes are going and during tecito each day, I tell my Dorita and abuelita a story to make them laugh. However, the types of conversations that involve incessant disclosure concerning life-lessons, heart ache, love, challenges and, currently, teaching English in a strange land, can only be had with certain types of people, namely, Katie and Bree, the girls I met in Santiago and remet in Iquique.

Katie told me a story about how on Teacher´s Day during an elaborate school ceremony all the teachers at her school were called to the front and handed nicely wrapped presents and she was left all alone in the teachers seating area without a present or mention of her name. Luckily, the student body quickly picked up the slack and began chanting "Miss Katie! Miss Katie!" and rushed the teacher´s seating section nearly toppling my dear English rose over with hugs. But really, how awkward. Katie´s story made me feel a bit better because it was the only one I´ve heard since I´ve been here that slightly reflects experiences I´ve had as a "teacher" in my school. Someone who occupies a classroom every day and teaches English to five courses, but is not comfortable in the teacher´s lounge nor invited to school parties. The integration aspect of our program really has yet to be perfected. Discussing events like these had such a healing effect on my soul I can´t even begin to tell you.

It was also nice to finally have a female around to tell me that, contrary to what male volunteers in Chile will tell you, I am not imagining nor exaggerating the incessant whispers, hisses, whistles, catcalls and yet-to-be identified Spanish crooning of any male over the age of seven. I feel like there is a giant bull´s-eye smack dab in the center of my forehead which magically appears each time I step outside. Above the bull´s eye, the words "GRINGA/ALIEN," are written in bold red. And Katie, red-haired and light eyes, can understand that this makes me feel unsafe more than anything, whereas my fellow male counterparts in the area -- Drew and Russell -- cannot. The biggest difference between mine and Katie´s situation being that she is always with Pat or one of the other seven volunteers in Rancagua. I am alone 98% of the time. So, the good news being, I´m not crazy. Whiiiich ... I already knew. I don´t feel unsafe in Vallenar, but sometimes I feel uncomfortable in my liceo. Kids screaming down the hall and banging against my door as they pass makes me a little nervous I suppose. I feel like my time alone here in this town has made me hard, and sometimes I resent that. Maybe if I had someone I really connected to living nearby I wouldn´t have grown such tough skin these past few months, but I am the only gringa (woman-specific) living within a two-hour radius of this city. Bubbly, open-armed Gervase wouldn´t have lasted a week in my liceo and that´s just the hand I was dealt. Katie is in an all-girl elementary school where she teaches classes filled with adoreable little girls who think she looks like a princess (which she kinda does, btw). I am in the public high school that "rejects noone," attempting to teach rooms filled with troubled teenage boys and girls with behavior problems, family issues and more piercings than I ever thought possible (my first cheek piercing really threw me for a loop).

Silvana caught me on my way out of school today (which is random because I thought we weren´t friends anymore), she found me upset and frustrated with the way my morning had gone. When Angel tried to cancel my class for an unnecessary theater rehearsal this morning ("I´m on top of it," I told him for the eighth time) I, for some reason, insisted on having my 1D kids (my worst class), having hunted down their teacher yesterday to ascertain the next day´s schedule. I then waited in my classroom for 50 minutes until I sent a friend up to check and finally 8 kids trickled into my class -- 5 boys, 2 girls. I would say they were some of my worst behaved and least interested except that I was informed that the rest of the class "didn´t want to come," because my class was boring and too easy. So they came on their own accord -- a tiny win. Where to start... 1) Why were they given a choice of whether or not they wanted to attend my class? 2) If it´s so easy why is there not one single student in that class capable of responding to the question "What is your name?" Why then, do I get the answers "very good" and "fine"? 3) I´m not a real teacher so I´m really not going to be too hard on myself. And how the hell am I supposed to teach effectively if I have no communication or direction from the teachers?
I managed a 30 minute quasi-lesson with the 8 kids. I again started to wonder, why am I here?
Silvana explained to me she feels the same way all the time. She explained that back in the day, Liceo A-7 was marketed as the "La Escuela de Todos," (Everyone´s School). It is now the only h.s. in Vallenar that accepts kids with records of behavior problems and failed classes. It is literally, a school everyone can attend. She explains that half the kids come from broken homes, or the father comes home Sunday nights drunk, or they live with single mothers. They are taught violence at home. Thus, half the kids come from good schools and have a decent education and others are repeating their sophomore year for the third time. I am amazed because then she is apologizing to me for not having held a meeting. She says the word "disorganized" several times. I calm down a little. I tell her that half my frustration stems from my knowledge of volunteers with nice, proper all-girl schools like Katie, where behavior is not a problem. She says "ahhh," knowingly. "But that´s not the real Chile," she tells me. I am acutely aware that I am having a very important culturally-charged moment. So this is the real Chile? I don´t even know anymore. How can I speak for 200 other volunteers? We´ve all seen such different things, but I am quite certain the word "disorganized" would pop up more than once if we were all in the same room telling our stories...

Katie is having the ride of her life (with some obvious bumps and bruises along the way), I am undergoing the test of my life. (I intend to pass with flying colors.) She struggles with the language, whereas I feel the language to be one of my smallest disadvantages. I just will never get over the novelty of how 75 volunteers arrived in the same country to participate in the same program and yet, we are all having experiences so distinct, you´d never know we all filled out the same forms.
It´s also funny to me how, because I´m in another country all alone, a nine-plus hour bus ride and $45 is a small price to pay for the reward of excellent conversation, some hugs and cuddles and to hear the words "I know how you feel." It´s made me realize that I should do that more often when I get home to the States, where I happen to be lucky enough to have an army of girl friends spread up and down the East coast who could probably use some of the same.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


Since my last post, I have added the title of cheer coach to my Chilean resume. About two weeks ago I began coaching the A-7 (my h.s.) cheerleaders. I showed up for my first practice on a Tuesday afternoon, with the intention of observing the team, the level of their tricks and their method of practicing. What I discovered was that, there were no tricks, their level was non-existent and of course, there was no method. Silly, silly me. Random clumps of people stood around and the same girl was lifted again and again by the same two boys. When I arrived back on a Thursday afternoon it was more of the same, but with a twist. The official "coach" waited til the last 10 minutes of practice to make an announcement. The girls (and boys actually) would be performing in the plaza (equivalent to Lincoln Center to this town) the next Thursday night for the big wrap-up event at the end of the liceo´s anniversary week. The entire student body would attend. The "coach" also lamented that she would be out of town, but that Miss Teresa would be here on that day to get everything together. After all, Miss Teresa was also going to help with the choreography. Well, as it turned out, Miss Teresa became responsible for organizing 30 students with zero prior experience in anything even remotely similar to what she considers dancing or cheering (her experience in the latter being quite basic). Really, what Miss Teresa had already surmised from her first practice, was that this "team" was more like a club in it´s first year with no leader and sadly, no talent. So, what did Miss Teresa try to do? She tried to turn water into wine. (And, I have amazingly enough, figured out how to post a video of a practice on my blog. It´s not much to look at, the end got messy after Juan fell -- don´t worry, he´s fine -- but when I tell you it was a struggle, please multiply that by 1,000 and tell me how awesome I am.)
Anyway, after the announcement the girls wasted 10 minutes of my time fighting about what color shoes they should wear until finally I solemly raised my hand.
"Miss Teresa has a question, shut up!"
"Um....can we pick some music first?" I can´t choreograph anything without a song. And with less than a week left, I realized I was expected to have everything prepared by Saturday..
"How many practices do I get?" I asked.
This was followed by more fighting about what days people felt like coming. Sunday was out of the question it seemed. Tuesday I had theater (which at that point was way more important to me). So, all in all we had about 3 and a half practices. Lovely. Great. Simple. Impossible, I thought.

And so it began. After hearing everybody´s opinion on what songs they thought would be best. I took home the one cheer cd of the "coach" and picked the song myself, not at all concerned with the team´s personal taste in music. Then I spent my weekend choreographing tiny little bits of the song, and stalking dance and cheer teams on Youtube in search of the world´s most simple, yet deceiving tricks. I roughly considered the breaks in the music when the team would be doing their lifts, but focused more on choreography, since, after all I had warned them from the principio, I´m a dancer, I don´t do cheer lifts.

Saturday´s practice began much like always. In a big circle, the coach "warmed them up" and basically did shoulder rolls til I could bear it no more. I had arrived this Saturday with the intent of showing them how a dance/cheer practice was supposed to be run. If I was getting all the responsibility dumped on me (kinda like my now AWESOME theater group), we would do it my way ... we would stretch dancer style. Ohhhh yeeeeaaya. I fully intended to push them ... something about laziness just irks me... "Mind if I add some stretches?" I asked her. She looked relieved. I think I was making her nervous with my dance pants. And THAT, is when the cheerleaders of A-7 began to actually do what athletic teams are supposed to -- work. I stretched them properly (but not ridiculously, mind you) and was greeted by the usual sounds of my Chilean students: groaning, whining, grunting, complaining and this horrible nasal sounding "aaannnggggggghhhhhh!!!" the kids make here that I never knew was possible til I myself pìcked it up. "Lazy, lazy, lazy" I kept saying. "I´m sorry, I thought you all wanted to be I wrong?" They want to be cheerleaders that have zero flexibility, no jumps, no splits, no tumbles. And they did not take well to my introduction of the "bridge" to stretch their backs.

After stretching I had them get with partners and try some of my "easy tricks" and then began the combination, complete with endless repetitions of "5,6,7,8!" Everything took four times as long as I had planned. And as it turned out, I did wind up responsible for choreographing in the cheer lifts. (Some old dance team girls would be so proud.) We got a decent amount done that first Saturday. Considering every five minutes I was asking wandering people (mostly the boys) why they were sitting down or doing cartwheels on the other side of the gym. It was like babysitting (without the paycheck). I was pretty strict because I wanted to set a tone: if you work hard and follow my lead, you will be...decent. But you will work, you will be organized damnit and you gotta pay attention. Similar to the beginnings of my theater group, I felt confident in my new role and knew that I truly had the means to hide their flaws and help these kids present themselves in a new light. This is a small town. They´ve just had no exposure to the things kids in Santiago have, or that I have, for that matter. Dance practice is all I´ve known since I was, say, four. Like theater, this I know.
I was given four days of practice to do what had been hard for my dance team in college. And we had talent -- lots of it.

By the end of my second practice on Tuesday I collapsed at home in tears from exhaustion, frustration and anger. My schedule was now flooded with theater practice every day at 8 am or 5 pm, cheerleading, normal classes, Winter Camp, random drop-in´s each day for help singing English songs and the two 7th and 8th grade classes I had each week. There was never a "thank you." Before I left cheer Tuesday night I gave a tiny speech. You know, the whole, "I don´t get paid, I´m not gonna be the one performing in front of my school, I have better things to do with my free time," speech. "Don´t tell me it´s too hard, don´t tell me you don´t know how, don´t tell me you don´t understand my Spanish....just try. Please. I´m trying really hard to make you the best you can be." I wasn´t mad, just tired and I felt a bit abused. I closed the practice with a ritual I had in college. "Everybody put your hands in the center of the circle on top of eachother." I yelled "1,2,3" and with one big upwards swoop of arms we all shouted "FOX!" (They picked the name, don´t ask.) They loved my tradition. In any case, the speech worked its magic and the rest of the week was smooth sailing. We pulled it together and for the short amount of time, I thought it went really well. If it´s possible, we grew into a team in four days.

And on Thursday afternoon, Miss Teresa, alone, meticulously applied little gold star stickers (she smartly brought from home) to the faces of every single girl on the team after expertly applying the same bright blue eyeshadow to their eyes. Miss Teresa then did a quick warm-up, two run through´s and joined in a nervous hand circle of "1,2,3, A-7! 1,2,3, FOX!" before walking with her jittery team the five blocks to the plaza. There, she calmed them down, told them which side of the plaza to face, walked them through their formations once, before personally announcing them herself (in Spanish) to all of her students/their classmates/random old people in Vallenar and screaming their counts from the sidelines as they gave their first official performance. No falls, no huge mistakes -- all petrified smiles. And that night, alone, in her bed, Miss Teresa proudly thought to herself, "You didn´t know you could do that, did you?"

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Finally in the Slow Swing of Things ... and lemme tell you, they move slowwwly

It´s a lazy Vallenar Sunday. I´ve come to appreciate these Sundays more and more, but my first several weekends here I was completely unprepared. Nothing is opened past 1 pm except for the Deca supermarket and hardly any stores bother opening in the morning anyway. To walk down the main street downtown at 3 pm on a Vallenar Sunday is to essentially walk through a ghost town. Coming from Queens, N.Y., it scares the crap outta me. WHERE ARE ALL THE PÈOPLE!??? I thought the first time I made that mistake. I don´t dare walk the (ridiculously safe) downtown streets of this city on Sunday afternoons because, while I´ve adjusted and appreciate the charms of my small town, I don´t like the eerie feeling that creeps through me when I pass by NOT EVEN ONE other person on a stroll. There is a lone car now and again and there´s always the mangy dogs. But, from the safety of my cerro (hill) overlooking the valley, I find the peace and quiet quite nice actually. I sit contentedly on a low, stone wall and gaze at the light-purplish mountains in the distance. My eyes sweep the town below. Ohp! There´s an old lady walking down the sidewalk! Spotted one (human life form, that is)! I strain my ears for sounds of life ... I hear a rooster crow. I´m not kidding. A motorcycle guns, a ways off, over the small bridge out of town. The rooster crows a second time. I see a big Pullman bus pulling into town. An old man passes me on a bicycle, moving deathly slow. (It´s like the whole town has been drugged ...) I am bathed in the hot, dry sun of the desert and need only to cross the street to ring the doorbell of Milena´s house. (Reminder: she is one of Dora´s daughters, with five children and a working computer.) But, I sit and watch and wait for ... nothing. I feel completely at peace. I´m vaguely aware of an attachment that I am forming to this place, to these hills and far-away mountains and particularly to the top of the church tower, the highest point in the center of downtown (about seven-storey´s high?), a half-dome structure that shines bright copper in the sun. Sure enough I am falling for this place, for my students, for my extended family (Milena and her kids, Tico and his kids). Clearly, I am already head-over-heels for my Dorita. Marcela jokingly (but not really) warns me at the lunch table, "She´s my mother! MINE!" OOOokkkkk lady, whatever you say. I don´t dare tell her that just yesterday after I finished helping Dora with the dishes she told me, in no uncertain terms, "eres mi hija adoptiva," (you are my adopted daughter). I´m so in.

Last week was a good week because, just as I am beginning to note how harmoniously I am coexisting with my town, I am noticing a developing equilibrium in my high school. I have become quite a natural at "playing teacher." Whereas my first month I couldn´t walk the hallways without being harrassed by whistles and catcalls, I am now stopped several times by students who want hugs, kisses, help with English homework or a private session with me to work on the pronunciation of songs in English. The theater kids smile and wave, "He-llo Miss Teresa!" The cheerleaders who I´ve just started helping (don´t worry I´ll get to that some other day) smile shyly and wave. Kids from my (awesome) classes that week shout "Good Morning!" down from the second and third floors. I don´t have to look up to see if they are talking to me, the English greeting (seemingly so simple to me) is a huge feat overcome for them and reserved solely for Miss Teresa. Bravely screaming out words in English, they are ... reaching out? Let´s just say, English was not heard in the hallways of Liceo A-7 before I arrived. I push through a swarm of "He-llo´s", "Good morn-ing´s" and without fail, the occasional "I love you" before I reach the stairs and a quiet 4th grader, who I pass every single morning, hands me a tiny flower made of a lollipop wrapper. I don´t know his name. Later, I tape the flower to the side of my computer screen in my class, alongside several other friendship roses (made of similar materials) and a note that says "Miss Teresa, te kiero. Love, Clelia." The teachers are not my friends (except Marcela), and while this baffles me, I can´t quite care anymore because, well, the students ARE. Not to discount the fact that this week my friendliness towards my fellow compañeros nauseates even me. I am being so friggin approachable and lovely that I think I may have swayed some of them, just a little. If I am not to be accepted fine, but I will NOT let them treat me as an outcast and get away with saying "oh, she never said hi to me in the hallway," or "she wasn´t very friendly!" Puuhleeeze, grow up. AND, watch out -- I intend to kill you with kindness.

I brought cake for my "Winter Camp" class -- basically an English club -- this past Wednesday to celebrate one girl´s birthday and make another girl feel better. Makarena (a replacement-turned-cast member in the play, who also regularly attends Winter Camp and has a class with me) fled to my vacant classroom earlier that day sobbing about a boyfriend, accompanied by her two friends (also regulars) Karina and Judith. After I had hugged her, given her some candy (which I ALWAYS keep on hand for prizes and dramatic teenage situations like this one) and sent her on her way, I couldn´t stop smiling. She picked me. I´m her teacher and I´m her friend and while many people told me I would not be able to be both to my students, I am. I have made myself available to them whenever they need me and yet I have demanded (and earned) respect when I am before them giving a lesson as their teacher. There are constant knocks on my door throughout the day and visits from students for help or just for company. My Winter Camp is no more than 13 or so kids on any given Wednesday, but we just talk and laugh and play games and, I noted the day of the cake, that this classroom has brought unlikely pairs of students together (quiet 1st graders and boisterous 4th graders) and we have become a sort of family which I have grown to love. And it is amazing what a successful lesson plan will do for my spirits. This week I worked with flashcards I brought from home with verbs and pictures on them in the past and present tense and then had what I can only describe as a lightning round quiz. I split the class into two teams, lined them up in two rows and quized them on tense and pronunciation. The first of the two opponents to answer correctly gets a point for their team. When both kids who are up falter or continually get the pronunciation incorrect, I take a big breath and slowly scream "N-EE-EEEXT!!!!" and the kids. go. nuts. I don´t know how many adults will be familiar with the stimulating MTV series called "NEXT," but it involves one girl or boy and a bus filled with 6 suitors of the opposite sex. Each gets about 30 minutes with the chosen one until he or she decides, alas, it simply won´t work, and then usually says something both painfully witty and cheesy like, "I´m sorry, I´m lookin´for a man, not a mama´s boy! ... NEEEEXT!" At which point the rejected suitor returns to the bus and sends the next unworthy suitor on his/her date. My flashcard game has nothing in common with this tv show except the rejection bit, but this is definitely what the manuals mean about relating teaching material to your student audience. They just know they are playing a game where they get to shout "NEXT" and the cutthroat competition that ensues is unprecedented in my 2 and a half month experience. (Dear volunteer/teacher friends, you must try this.)

Monday, September 29, 2008

Stepping on Teacher´s Toes

I´ve had this "situation" (let´s just call it) for quite some time now, which I have been trying to avoid writing about, but I think it´s time. (Drum roll please ...) The English teachers in my high school -- and there are five -- don´t seem to like me very much. Now before you get all worked up. I know, I know, the most obvious question (that comes to my mind) is HOW is that possible???!!! I am very likeable, if I do say so myself. But I have slowly come to the realization that I rub the teachers in this school the wrong way, that is, the American way. I was chatting with the host father of Drew, the volunteer who lives in Huasco, a couple weeks ago discussing this "situation," and we came to a very disturbing conclusion... It is quite possible that these Chilean teachers may not like me simply because of my American habits, the ones I always thought were universal (stupid, stupid, stupid!). Before anyone starts wondering about what I´m wearing (I´m dressing quite modestly, I can assure you), my drinking habits or how bossy I am being, let me provide you with some examples:

1) I always arrive on time. Well, that´s a lie, I used to arrive 10 minutes early for every class and then forced myself to curb it to five. So, let´s just say on my schedule it says I have a class at 9:45 a.m., I unlock my classroom and start setting it up at 9:35. I don´t know why I don´t just let myself in at 10 a.m. though, because I rarely receive my students anything but 15-20 minutes after the bell rings. I have discovered (or rather, been told by Chileans nice and not-so-nice) that this is an American "thing," this ... showing up on time thing ... and I have a hunch it may drive some Chileans absolutely mad.
2) I will categorize this example separately, even though it overlaps with the first. I arrive. Period. If someone tells me to meet them at 2 p.m., for a meeting ... I go. It never occurs to me that I should a) meander over to the approximate meeting area 45 minutes to an hour later, or b) simply just not go. For this, again, I am the annoying American. You see, the first month and a half, I still tried really hard. I´d tirelessly search the school grounds for the missing attendee, asking around. Or, the next day, when I finally found them, I´d ask (TRULY curious, thinking, "crap, did IIIII mess up the times...?"), "Did we have a meeting yesterday?" etc. etc. Yeah, so, I´m told that´s "North American" too.
3) I tell people when classes are cancelled, and in return, (now this is REALLY annoying) I expect the same courtesy in return. I cannot tell you how many hours I´ve spent sitting in my computer lab classroom waiting for a class that never comes (for instance, without this suddenly-free hour and a half, I couldn´t have written this blog!). At the beginning I let it slide, but then one morning before class I was in the teachers lounge and I happened to overhear another teacher, wishing Rommy -- the English teacher of my next class -- good luck. Good luck? The only reason Rommy would need luck for the next class (which I was supposed to take), would be if she were being observed by the government for the new assessment which all the teachers were painfully enduring. So I began the following conversation:

Rommy, are you being observed today?
(Rommy doesn´t look up at me) Si.
So ... I don´t have your class today ...?
(Rommy looks up at me in disgust, with a look that says, why am I asking her such a stupid and annoying question?) No.
(Rommy is gone in a swish of skirts and papers.)
Oooooooooook. Thanks for the info ... (I am talking to myself, don´t worry)
After encounters like this, my American brain argues silently, "Why am I here then? Do you people even know I´m here? What, so my time´s not important? Why was she just so rude to me ...?"

Such began the slow and steady lifting of my American denial. My efficient nature is irksome in some circles (primarily, I blame my mother) and to survive here, I attempted (for a while), to change it. I have tried to blend. To leave feathers unruffled. Really, I have. But, on my return from Iquique, the bleak realization of my inability to help a high school that seems, at times, to not want my help, became too much. I´m supposed to work WITH the English teacher´s here, not AGAINST them. I´m not meant to be competition, but reinforcement. I don´t ever pretend to be a certified teacher. But, I do however, insist on being professional. Another thing Drew´s host dad mentioned during our very-serious political/Chilean education system discussion, was that perhaps, the Chilean government had another agenda for the English Opens Doors Program. The governement undertook this program, to a) place fresh-faced, "native English speakers" with virtually NO teaching experience in hundreds of schools throughout the country, and b) to set a tone. I feel like a helpless example. AKA, "Look, I´m the silly gringa trying to organize a meeting with all of you because I´m not comfortable wasting time. Now, everybody try!" Government thinks: "maybe after the gringa is gone, the notion will remain and the teacher´s won´t like to waste time either." However, the government didn´t take into account that essentially, many of us are stepping on some teacher´s toes. It´s kinda dampering the whole cultural exchange, because, like in my case, I´ve found my welcome was half-hearted at best. It was pretty at first, but there has been no cooperation/support to back it up since then. I´m thinking, "Look! I came here to help!" They´re thinking, "We know you think you´re better than us, but you´re not." You follow?

I can´t change that I´m efficient. You cannot convince me to arrive at my first job in the States 20 minutes later than expected, without consequences. I just don´t live in that world. In my two years at AMDA (theater school), if you were one minute late, every single teacher shut the door and you were absent. In this case, my American way is better, and without stirring up my Chilean melting pot too much, I´ve now decided it´s best for me to keep working at my job here as I naturally would. I have come home sad many days, wondering what I did wrong, how I could offend my fellow teachers so, but I´m trying to cut myself a break. I am only here for two more months and I´m sick of waiting around in my classroom for change to magically come. Now, I go straight to the source, I have requested a meeting with all the teachers to mark calendars and work out dates and I put schedules for theater practice outside my door (they can´t seem to follow the schedule´s we wrote out the first day). I wanted to work with the cheerleaders so I talked with their coach. I might annoy people, but sometimes I feel like I´m the only person around here getting anything done.

On an opposite note, when I brought this issue up with Marcela, she told me some of the teachers complain I don´t greet them enough, and maybe that´s why our relationship has become strained. "I told them you people (North Americans) are different and not as close and friendly as us," she explained to me. I promise you I have never intentionally ignored anyone (except the monkey clan of whistling 15-year-olds), but maybe I haven´t tried hard enough, maybe feeling ignored or spoken to rudely has taken it´s toll on me and I´ve put up walls, I really don´t know. So, I will try again. My goal this week is to walk up to every single English teacher, grab them by the arms, give them a huge smile and a hug and ask them how they are doing. I will FORCE them to like me, damnit.

(Note: there are a couple Canadians, British, Australians and New Zealanders here too, but I´m generalizing.)