Saturday, August 30, 2008

Teresita loves...

Things I Love About Vallenar:
1) I am watching Spanish t.v. all the time. I mean literally, we have three channels in my house (four on a good day) and nothing is ever in English and it dawned upon me this past week that I don´t even care. I watch the news about three times each day with my Spanish-English dictionary glued to my hand (Now that is my new alternative Bible, NOT Lonely Planet) and am absorbing at least five new words a day (important words O.K.? I´m working on the volume). I am now so accustomed to living (or traveling) in South America that I watch American movies dubbed in Spanish easily, as if I´m missing nothing -- as if Will Smith always spoke in a husky Castillaño.
Imp. Random Note: I have also discovered that at the finish of these dubbed movies each night at exactly 10 p.m., one of my 3 1/2 channels converts into a public karaoke channel... sometimes these people still manage to leave me speechless...

2) I feel I must properly introduce everyone to my "tia" Dora, Marcela´s mother and the woman I live with who insists on washing my dishes, hanging my laundry, tidying up my room and (my personal favorite) making sure each night before I go to bed I have my "guaterro"(sp?), (a hot water bottle/pack) tucked under my sheets, strategically wrapped with my pajamas. "Dorita" as I call her, tells me that it feels like I have lived here forever (for which I love her) and tries desperately to adjust to my bizarre American habits. The first time I asked if I might make myself a cup of tea for no reason in the afternoon, she looked utterly perplexed. Didn´t I want to wait for "tecito?" (dinner, which actually consists of a cheese sandwich and tea) she asked. I told her if it was alright, I would like some tea now AND at dinner ... and while I was on a roll, might I even pour a couple drops of milk in there? Family will visit us for tecito and offer me the sugar and before I can politely decline Dorita officially informs them that Teresa doesn´t LIKE sugar in her tea. She´s so cute. She has also caught onto my avid love of all things postre. Each night she offers me some sort of make-shift candy bar like it´s a secret special treat only for us girls. (Note: the wrapper warns it is "chocolate flavored," so I must stress that I wait with bated breath for a twix bar from...anyone.) She has also noticed that I don´t really eat the creepy unidentifiable bologna looking "meat" she puts out for tecito but dive in when there´s turkey on the table, and that I much prefer mashed potatoes to rice. Dorita is as old-fashioned as they come and she is one of the people for whom I am thankful every day in Vallenar.
Worth Mentioning: the desperate attempts at communication on behalf of both Dora (who speaks only Spanish) and Kevin (who speaks only English and knows "Hola, soy Kevin. Puedo hablar con Teresa?") when he calls each night. He´s been hung up on a few times (once by grandma) and messages I get on both ends rarely match. But bless them both, they try so hard each time, even with the pleasantries. "Como estas?" "Bien, tu?" "Bien," (I know after this bit Kevin is out of material and panicking so I run to the phone giggling).

3) The sunsets here are a-mazing. It is when I stand on the hill above my tiny city between 6 and 7 p.m., watching the sun set over the valley of 50,000 people, fluorescent pinks and oranges exploding against a backdrop of mountains, that my breath literally catches in my throat and I say "thank you" out loud to the universe for placing me here and giving me this gift. I know I sound stressed sometimes, and I would be lying if I said this was easy, but I am not unaware of how lucky I am and how life-changing this experince has already been.
Worth Mentioning: I love that I can see every single landmark in this city from my neighborhood up on the hill -- my school, the plaza, the church, the bus station, my favorite supermarket. It´s like a mini Google Earth map, except I don´t need to Google it, cuz I´m actually here.

4) I am living in the driest desert in the world (Atacama), but I stumble upon the most beautiful flowers and trees here, unlike any I have ever seen. I love the tree in this picture. I have no idea what it´s called but it sprouts millions of these bright yellow round buds that just always put me in a happy mood. The colors in the desert are hard to find, but when you find them, they are brilliant yellows and red and fuchias and I love them, yes I do.

5) It seems important that I should mention the tiny fact that I now have bodyguards in my high school. I´m not kidding either. These guys are BIG and if they weren´t protecting me from 15 and 16-year-old´s I´d be scared. They are the "inspectors" here, in charge of discipline and disorder and many mornings now before class they wait for me outside the teacher´s lounge patiently and say "Miss? I will walk with you?" Why yes, you absolutely may walk with me. Take THAT, you ... monkeys.

6) In Chile there are endless "modismo´s" or "Chilenismo´s," which at first made my life difficult (all prior vocab went out the window), but which I now enjoy. It´s like I´m part of some secret society that speaks in codes (I have no IDEA how I snuck in). My favorite is the "-ita, -ito." I swear to you that these people believe that every single word in the language could use a little "ito/a" to top it off properly. Tecito, perrito, Teresita, aguita, bolsita, tragito, viejito, pancito, cafecito, zapatito, amorcita ... IIIIII mean... any idiot could catch on and immediately be part of this club. My other favorite new modismo which I probably overuse is "fome." From what I can tell it´s some mix of boring, lame and not cool. I split my seniors into groups last week and had them write a tiny story in English using some funny vocab I had just taught them. The last group of boys got up and read three lines about nothing interesting and I just cocked my head to the side and said "That´s it? ... FOOOOOMEEEEEEEEEEEE." I´m so hip it´s unbearable. They usually laugh AT me, not WITH me, don´t worry.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

What´s in a Blow-pop?

I´m conducting the same lesson for about the 8th time. I have five courses, each one is split in half, so that makes 10 total (not including the two special groups from the elementary schools, the Winter Camp group from this school and the theater crew). The lesson involves the most basic dialogue, all it needs to succeed is participation. I have a new class today. Primero D. They are freshman. I just might kill them. I recognize a particular girl from my observation day two weeks ago. The teacher was handing out a test and the girl walked right out of the classroom laughing, sucking on a blow-pop. "She does what she wants to," Claudia (an English teacher) explained. "Oh....." I replied, not really understanding. But, here she was again, in my class, blow-pop in place. There are mini-conversations going on throughout the computer lab (my classroom). I have never been given a group this big. There are about 25 of them. The average class is 17. I try to motivate them, but they are embarrassed. They will not repeat after me. Their friends are watching. "How old are you?" I single out blow-pop girl. Her eyes dart around the room, and she whispers to her girl friend and shrugs her shoulders. I repeat myself, "how old are you?" The answer is scrawled in giant letters across the board: I am fourteen-years-old. Blow-pop won´t budge. I try to make it even more simple (if that is possible). "Repeat, I (I) am (am) 14 (14) years (years) old (old)." I smile and touch her shoulder. "See? Excellent," I tell her. What´s the expression? "Like pulling teeth." It is the most basic and boring lesson possible, but where in the world do I start, if not from there? Either they have not been taught how to respond to the most important questions in English ... or they are playing dumb. Honestly I think it is a bit of both and a huge lack of conversation practice. They may know the correct answer is "My name is," but they have never practiced saying it. Teachers keep telling me that´s where I come in. The problem today is, this class is giving me very little respect. Very little attention. While I feel deep down that blow-pop kid is warming up to me and needs positive reinforcement (which I specifically give her three times during class), she is still disrupting my class and answers a knock on the door and proceeds to have a conversation... I am suddenly aware of myself at the board giving the lesson, as if out of my body watching. Huddles have formed, noone is paying attention and I suddenly realize how silly I look. I am generally not the type of person who allows others to walk all over me. I have no idea what to do, how to refocus them, how to change the tone. So, I stop ... and I wait.

Several minutes pass before even blow-pop girl has acknowledged my muted presence and her rude chatting. She giggles nervously and looks around, but for once, noone else will look at her. They are all looking at me and I´m time portaled back to elementary school when a teacher stood as I am standing for five minutes before we shut up (which reminds me, I need to call him and apologize). I stare back at the 25 little pubescent faces and say the only thing I can. "You know, I´m not being paid to be here." Hushed translations go around the room. I´m still defiantly speaking in English/sign language, very very slowly. "I´m not making any money today. Also, I´m not a teacher. I studied journalism. Also, I don´t speak your language, Spanish. Also, I miss my family and friends and boyfriend (wow this is sounding familiar). I´m here, every day, with you all, as a volunteer. I´m only here to help YOU learn English. But why? ... why do you need to learn English? Does anyone know?" Blow-pop girl shrugs her shoulders. Everyone else is still amazingly silent. I write the word ENGLISH on the board and circle it, initiating a spider chart. I repeat the question in Spanish and someone mumbles something about leaving the country. I write it on the board and connect it to my ENGLISH bubble. I continue to explain about traveling, meeting people, working, jobs. Someone wants to be an engineer. I tell him about my father, born in Colombia, a hard worker and successful engineer in New York City. I tell them that if they don´t want to learn English to kindly stop wasting my time. If they want to act like they are in kindergarten, then I´ll let them play and save myself the trouble. I take out two big poster sheets and some markers and throw them on the ground. "Here, you want to play? Go ahead. Make some posters." I´ve had every class make a poster to represent their course (and for a possible scoreboard for contests to come), it´s been a winding down activity for most and a bit of a reward for good behavior. "MISS!!? porque jardin?????" They are asking me why I keep calling them kindergardeners. "Just play," I say.
I put on some music as they huddle around the sheet on the ground. The girls are closest to me and a couple keep staring at me quizzically (think: misbehaving puppy which has been quarantined to the kitchen peeking over the gate at you on the couch in the den). "Miss? Estas enojada?" I ignore them and begin reading the New York Times online.

Fifteen minutes pass and I get up to peruse the artwork. The girls are giggling and trying to cover theirs up when I approach. Finally I push through to see the finished product.
A giant red heart covers half the white space and inside it, Miss Teresa is written with a happy face. Blow-pop girl is dedicatedly finishing the multi-colored leaves on the flower stem that runs alongside the right edge of the poster. She has filled much of the empty space with several other beautifully drawn flowers. I feel as though I have stumbled upon one of blow-pop girl´s valuable secrets. She is an artist. Now she is calm, content, even acting her age. Girls laugh and talk and tease each other around her and she never once looks up from her petal project. I hold the poster up and crack a smile for the first time in 25 minutes. The girls all look at me anxiously, wanting my approval (I realize to my astonishment). I tell them it is my favorite poster thus far and it is beautiful. Blow-pop girl speaks for the group, "We are sorry for how we acted today. Sometimes we can be like that." The other girls nod their heads furiously in agreement. They tell me they will be better next time. I am touched and relieved and I realize this is what former volunteers have been warning me about. They said this experience would be "the hardest thing you´ve ever done, and also the most rewarding." I´m looking at my name in a big mishapen heart on the wall, and I feel ... different. It´s the way you want to throw your barking puppy out the window sometimes, or give him to your cousin who lives in another city. But you don´t, cuz he´s just a puppy and you know he needs you, at least for a while.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Lessons Learned & Planned

"Why are all the parts for girls?" a couple of male high schoolers whined earlier this morning, during auditions for the upcoming theater festival in La Serena. "They are just names. You can get over it," I heard myself saying. Wow. I am a badass. I have been placed in charge of literally running this show, from finding the short, English only play (suggestions appreciated), to conducting the auditions and running the rehearsals. Step one, hold auditions (the American way), switching parts til I´m satisfied and have fully grasped the potential. I will only be able to choose eight students, which means seven students will be very disappointed. A couple girls begged me for Shakespeare ... I laughed out loud. Impossible. I have found a very simple five-page dialogue online with about seven female characters coming and going. There are lines like, "Sally have you heard what Cindy has done with Deborah´s pencil case?" Some students get it. Some trip all over the pronunciations. All I know is, thank GOD I trusted me instincts and nixed William S. in the butt. But still, it was very fun. Almost Hollywood (just kidding), maybe Broadway? I acted friendly but serious. Watch out! Woman in charge! Comin´through! "Will Alice and Cindy please take the stage!" I yelled through cupped hands, only half-joking. I liked being the director, I felt right back at home. My mama would be so proud. After I told them all to go home (and good job, of course), I heard a student named Jonathan complaining to Marcela in Spanish. He only read once, he says. I really can´t stand whiners. "You read twice Jonathan," he gives me an unconvincing head shake. "Yup, you did." He complains the whole way out the door. I discuss the contestants with Silvana and Marcela and when we get to Jonathan I give them my honest opinion ... he showed me very little. His pronunciation was pretty bad and he looked like he mighth hurl at any moment. I hear a bunch about how we need to boost his self-esteem, and I dunno if it´s the power trip or what but I flat out tell them that I don´t think we should just give him what he wants because otherwise it will hurt his feelings. He´s a senior, I remind them. He´s an adult. Angel pipes in. "Yes, but Chileno´s are this way!" He seems to think this is some sort of acceptable explanation. "Well," I continue "I can tell you now that if I´m working with him every week and he acts like that, I´m not going to baby him just because that´s what he´s used to. He´s 18." Marcela kinda smirks and says to Silvana in Spanish "This is why the North Americans are where they are and we are still here." Whoa! Most fascinating quote of my day. I dunno, maybe it´s true, we do have really good theater...

Second event worth discussing: last night I attended my second barbeque at Silvana´s house (she´s so nice to me). I sit around a table with her two uncles and their wives, her father, her grandmother and Mauro (Silvana´s boyfriend) and discuss why I wanted to travel, why I´m here, how I found the program, etc.. We are drinking beer, wine and pina colada´s and I am forced to dance cumbia with an uncle (twice), and then to try to learn the Chilean national dance, Cueca (sp?). I hold a napkin in my right hand and twirl it around my head and dance in circles. It´s hysterical, and quite fun and I am enjoying the company. Silvana´s uncle, Alberto (?) keeps toasting to me and everyone agrees I´m very very nice. And then ... something changes, (maybe on account of the pina colada´s?). Alberto (in his incessant interviewing style) keeps prodding about the program I´m here with. It´s run by the Chilean Ministry of Education and the U.N. English Opens Doors Program. "So you leave at the end of November and then who takes your place?" he asks me. I don´t know. "But you´re job is to improve the student´s English? In only four months?" Yes ... I don´t like where this is going. He keeps looking at his wife and going "zero." After hearing him tell me that this will be of "zero" help to the students for five minutes, I cannot contain my tears. They begin streaming down my face ... and they won´t stop. "Teresa, why are you crying?" I tell him that he is basically telling me that everything I represent, believe and am trying to do here is worthless. He is basically telling me that I am wasting my time. "Then, why am I here?" I demand as I struggle to push the tears back into my eyes with my balled up fists. "This isn´t easy for me, you know. I could be at home, in my country, with my friends and family and my boyfriend, speaking English and actually MAKING money, instead of working for free with your children in your schools," I tell him. The dam has broken, everything I have felt for the past week is pouring out and I cannot control it. He tells me he is not criticizing me and my life, but the program which the Gobierno of Chile has set up. I understand that, but I also try to make him understand that at this point, by criticizing the program and it´s inevitable failure, he is hurting my feelings. "How," I ask him, "will I be able to pep myself into showing up at school on Monday and getting through a lesson with a class full of freshman who never stop talking and don´t even want to learn English, when I have been told with full certainty that I am not making a difference? If I am not helping them ..." I know he doesn´t mean to hurt my feelings and everyone is shocked at how sensitive I am on this subject. But, they slowly start to understand. "It is her vocation right now; She believes it in her heart; She cannot separate her heart from her head on this topic," all the woman around the table explain to the men. Yeah ... exactly. It´s cheezy, but you try teaching fifteen different classes each week, when you have no idea what you are doing, without repeating the mantra, "I am making a difference," over and over in your head. I want to help damnit, don´t kill my buzz. "It just reminds me that most people have no idea how hard this is for me," I tell him. "She came here alone, Alberto," his wife reprimands him, "try to imagine that. Now change the topic!" Well ... my second most embarrassing display over with. What´s next?

It must sound like all I´m doing here is crying, but those are just some highlights. You cannot imagine the wave of emotions I´ve had this week. But, each day spent as a high school teacher, I have learned how to improve the next day´s lesson. The last thing I absolutely must share is a lesson tip I have discovered for my fellow English Opens Doors volunteers who are also faithful blog readers. YOU GOTTA TRY THIS LESSON! ... Musical chairs...seriously. Work a simple dialogue as a group first. Example: 1) Good morning, how are you? 2) Fine, thank you, how are you? 1) I feel tired/excited/nervous 2)What´s your name? 1) My name is Fe-fe .... etc etc etc. Then I undergo a light-hearted listening session and I split the class into groups 1 and 2 and scream "number one´s raise your hands! Number two´s raise your hand! Go!" (Over and over and over...all the while looking like a clown.) The two different groups recite the dialogue back and forth (this can get obnoxiously loud, but I usually take this as a good sign). Then set up the chairs, blast some pop music and watch what happens when the music stops. Kids run around the room frantically in search of chairs screeching. It. is. hysterical. The kids know that the two losers left standing must read the dialogue on the board alone in front of the class. I have laughed so hard during this exercise that tears have streamed down my face (unusual, I know). The crazy classes love this game because they get to dance and scream, but then they are silent when I need them to be silent, because they want to hear what game I will have come up with next, and it really encourages participation. It is amazing.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Attack of the Flying Monkeys

It started out just like always. I left my computer lab classroom -- where I was working alone -- to get a copy of the key from the main office. I pass a group of boys loitering on the stairs. They whisper amongst themselves, shout a "HE-LLO!" and then look at me smiling. No, scratch that, these are not smiles, these are smirks, they are mischievous and they make me uncomfortable. I drop a routine "good morning" back and then cringe as soon as I have passed them. I wait for it, and of course it comes. The whistling, the "psssssst" sound, the "linda" and "bonita" whispers directed towards my back. I keep walking and watch as the next gaggle of boys in the hallway get the signal from their friends (the boys I´ve just passed). She´s coming. Get ready. The whole routine is repeated again (several times) until I reach the door of the Director´s office, Angel (his name, not an adjective). I deliberately chose to sneak out of my classroom while classes were still in session because I thought maybe, just maybe, I would avoid this whole routine. But today is different, I am not accompanied by a teacher and now all these boys that I am working in my classroom -- alone. On the way back up to my classroom, the forces have doubled. There are more stations of underage prepubescent boys and they are rowdier. The gaggle outside my classroom has become particularly obnoxious, shouting louder and more insistently as I pass. I am supposed to be a teacher here for God´s sake. I (being my mother´s daughter) can finally bear it in silence no more. I whip around and try talking to them. "In the United States, that is considered rude." They play dumb. "No entiendo blah blah." Of course my vocab is escaping me when I most need it. "Basta," I finally say firmly. Enough. I shut the door.

Minutes later, after they have been banging on my door for five minutes straight, screaming, I finally crumble when I see that they have scaled the walls and are now at the windows 10 feet high above the concrete walls to my room, staring in at me with those smirks. The are yelling loudly in Spanish while they bang, and I can´t stop thinking of the flying monkey´s from "The Wizard of Oz." I feel infuriatingly helpless, like a piece of meat and though I know it´s irrational, I am kind of scared. I know positively that they will not stop. My vision blurs and I´m not sure whether to run outside screaming and rip them from my windows or burst into tears. Without many options, I fall victim to my second choice. I storm out of the room and again walk the miserable 45 seconds to Angel´s office. I barely make it through the door before I collapse in sobs. This is so embarrassing. A sweet, plump secretary whose name I have of course forgotten, takes me in her arms as I sputter out my story. My whole body is shaking. Was I really that scared of a gang of high schoolers? What´s the worst they could have done? I don´t care. I repeat over and over in Spanish "no estoy accostumbrada a eso," (I´m not used to this) and it takes me about 20 minutes to really calm down. Poor Angel says it´s his fault, I shouldn´t have been unaccompanied. What? You think I traveled from another CONTINENT alone, traveling a month before hand alone, to arrive in this little high school and require a 24 hour babysitter? I cannot get used to that. Angel tells me to go home, I have a meeting later that he will reschedule. No way, I tell him. "Today is just a bad day," I tell him. "I´m so sorry for reacting this way." I have things I need to get done and I have over three months ahead and I cannot cancel my whole day on behalf of a nasty group of high school boys. Ugh, boys. "They are just going to have to get use to our little gringita," the lady who is stroking my hair tells me. "But they were like animals," I tell her. Flying monkeys to be exact.

The males here take the heckling tradition to a new level, even I am obviously wearing thin. These are kids. My students. I feel disrespected, but fellow women seem to think I am overreacting. They seem to be saying ¨get over it,¨ that´s just how it goes. Why? I am repeatedly told that Chile is a machismo culture, I don´t even want to know how I´d hold up as a teacher in Italy. Well, if harrassing every single girl who passes you, when in some cases you are half her age, means machismo, I am over it. I don´t care what you call it, consider me twice the feminist I was yesterday. I can´t wait to get these boys in my own classroom and get them to focus on speaking English in front of others, instead of focusing on my face.

I know today is just a bad day. I woke up with a crick in my neck and upper back that has barely subsided and it´s gray and freezing outside. I lay in bed at night and think of all the lessons I must organize and I think I work myself into a tizzy. Stress, the cold and a stiff neck led to homesickness and that was topped off with flying monkeys. This poor day never had a fighting chance. But, man do I feel better after writing this all down...

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Beginning to Blend

Today after lunch I am scheduled to participàte in a futbol match. Six teachers (who rotate spots) against six students, all female (thank God). Some of you who know me may ask? WHY IN THE WORLD AM I ENTERING MYSELF IN A GAME THAT REQUIRES HAND-EYE COORDINATION AND A BALL? To fit in of course. Besides, I played real football with Kevin and his friends once, and there were boys in that match. I´m not SO challenged. Anyway, I want the teachers here in my high school to know that I am trying, that I do like them, that I want to integrate. My weekends are looking a bit dull (Dorita and abuelita can only entertain me so much), so I am making friends. I hear Chilean barbecues are "la raja," aka ragers. Maybe I will lead the teachers in a warm-up, oh the possibilities.
Which reminds me, last night the English department held a "tecito," to welcome me to the staff. Every single teacher in the school sat around U-shaped tables, with Marcela and I at the head (quite embarrassing) and Silvana stood up and introduced me (for about the 8th time) and welcomed me. So ... of course, I started tearing up. I don´t know what´s wrong with me these days ... waterworks. It´s just that, there was this big sign they had made that said "Welcome Teresa," and sandwiches and tea and coffee and terrible tasting cookies. I am discovering that in situations such as these, all the mastery I have gained of the Spanish language disappears in a very unkind way. I am speechless, literally. One on one I am decent; sitting at the head of a buffet table with 45 trained Chilean eyes fixed on me ... not so much.

However, in the classroom (thus far) I am a hit. I pretend not to speak Spanish and feel completely at ease among the rows of students, even the seniors. This week has been so much better because I am observing only the classes that I will be teaching and so I am meeting kids I will see every week for the next four months. When I introduce myself, I really introduce myself. "I am from the United States," I tell them, "I hope you´ve heard of it." I tell them that I´m a volunteer so I don´t get paid. I want to stress to them "I´m here because I want to be here, not because I have to be here." There are always a few girls who stare at me, smiles from ear to ear, eyes sparkling. The class never understands everything I say, but usually they can grasp bits. I get that. It´s exactly how I get by with my broken Spanish. I love these kids. Today in a freshman class, groups of girls kept begging me to listen to their favorite songs on their MP3´s and to dance. Of course I did both. "Do any of you girls like to dance?" I asked. They nodded their heads furiously. "Would you like to have dance classes after school once a week?" "SIIIIIII!!!!!" Alrighty then. Consider it done. They asked me if I had been a cheerleader. The unfortunate answer is yes. They seem excited. "You want to create a cheerleading team?" I ask. Again, "SIII!!!!"
This is too easy.
Brave, lone representatives from each class inevitably ask me, "How old are you?"
I make a lock-and-key motion across my lips. "I´ll never tell," I reply.
Right, like I´m gonna tell a bunch of 18-year-olds that they must do the assignment given by the 24-year-old teacher. One girl nails it on the first try. "I think you are 24," she says in Spanish. My blood pressure rises. I stick to the lock-and-key move. It´s working for now.

Last night I also met with the two English teachers from the two elementary schools, with whom I´ll be working once a week. They tell me that almost noone goes to college here. Today, a director at the school gave me a number. Maybe 20 out of 200 continue to college. They don´t have the money or they can´t pass the entrance exam. They usually go to technical schools, to be a secretary, learn a craft, etc.
The English teachers tell me about the Chilean education "problem." Students incessantly strike against teachers in Santiago, teachers strike with students against the government here. Students here are lazy, they tell me. They fail their tests and their parents don´t care. The parents are never home. The children do whatever they want and their parents buy them $200 cell phones. "But if the parents aren´t home, is this because they are working?" I ask. The difficult answer is yes. Lots of single mothers here. "But it is the same in the United States too," I tell them. "Just more segregated." This "problem" belongs to this entire city, dare I say country. In the U.S., it is easily ignored. The middle and upper classes can easily spend a life time without ever having a conversation with someone of a lower-socioeconomic class.
I´ve noticed a different tone in the grown-up conversations I´ve had here. The Chilean people see their situation as dire. They tell me they are very poor, with a very bad education system, but I cannot help but compare their conditions with those of Peruvians. Peru is by FAR the poorer country. The Peruvian economy is pitiful. Chileans seem to know they can do better. They demand more. Perhaps, the Peruvians are just more resigned to their conditions. Obviously I´ve only seen so much, met so many. This is just my assessment.
However, without a doubt, these people could use some help -- a fresh take on teaching English -- but they are on the right track. I was recruited by the Chilean Ministry of Education, that´s a start. Michelle Bachelet, their female president (hell yeah!!!) has done alot for this country. However, there is, without a doubt, extreme poverty in this city, but can´t that be found in almost every American city as well?

"Why did you choose Chile? Why did you want to leave the United States?" a 4th year asked me yesterday.
"To meet all of you of course," I replied.
I mean, I´m just glad to be here.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

I Don´t Speak Grammar

Two days into my four month stint in Vallenar and I basking in my happiness. I am in a city of about 50,000 people and teaching five different classes in a high school of about 900 students. This city, these people, my school, all seem to be things that I hadn´t even realized I was missing. The past month I have been a nomad, in search of self-sufficiency and a ferocious sense of independence and trust in myself at the mercy of the universe, and I feel I've found it, I've felt it. I've honestly learned new things about myself, but now here, stationary in this new city and living with Dora (the mother of the English teacher at my school, Marcella) and her mother, I have stumbled upon a family again. And in Chile, family does not mean ¨my mother and my grandmother,¨it means cousins and children and aunts and uncles and neices and nephews and friends and their families and boyfriends and colleagues. These people don´t understand why I don´t live with both my parents and my boyfriend all in one house. ¨Why leave?¨they ask me. How do I tell them, ummm ... ¨in America, we have this habit of leaving our families once we turn 18 and then finding a college as far away as possible and living in co-ed dorms with our friends for the next four years...¨ Just kidding. But, really, that´s kinda what we do, and after four years of absolute freedom, it´s tough to move back. The kids in my high school all go home at 1 p.m. to have lunch with their families ... as of course do Marcella and I. Honestly, I have the cutest surrogate family in the world, complete with awkward drama -- Marcella is dating a much older man, who has yet to officially to divorce his wife from who he´s been separated for 18 years -- and awkward conversation ... what do I say to the 84-year-old grandma who is missing an eye (literally) and speaks a Spanish that sounds like gibberish to my American ears ...? ¨Pretty blouse!¨I told her this morning, (I´m trying, OK?). Two hours in, Marcella bluntly told me about her ¨situation,¨aka how she´s living with her boyfriend Edgardo and after a year her mother has yet to allow him into her house. Ahhh, finally, colorful family dynamics. How refreshing.
The teachers at the school are so welcoming and I think I honestly met about 150 people today (students included), which is terrifying to me as it took me an hour to engrave Marcella, Dora and Silvana´s names into my brain. Oh, and Silvana is another English teacher at the school who I adore, and she lives with her parents and her four-year-old daughter, Sophie (boyfriend very much in the picture since forever ... I dunno what´s up with that...). Currently I am at Silvana´s house using her computer and downloading illegal music (finally!). People keep inviting me to their houses for tea and bread (duh) and though the teaching part is gonna be challenging I am so ready to begin. After all the orientation and traveling, it´s so nice to finally be thrown into this alternate universe. A boy in my class screamed out that he loved me today, and when I tried to explain anything to the other boys they just looked at me and smiled at each other ... that part is a bit embarrassing. ¨You need to be very very serious to overcompensate,¨a fellow teacher told me today. OK, but I am not serious. Ever. I am sarcastic and weird and incapable of taking myself seriously (particularly as an English teacher).
¨What is the past progressive?¨ Silvana asked me today in front of some students. ¨Ï have no idea,¨I told her. Similar to the class I observed in Santiago where they were studying the phonetic alphabet. People were asking me to identify symbols I had honestly never seen in my life. I know the English alphabet, and believe it or not that´s worked fine thus far. I´m here because I speak English, not grammar. The Chilean Ministry of Education told me so, seriously.

Oh, and as far as being back in high school in general, it is truly bizarre. I´m the new girl again. But I don´t care. For some blessed reason my doubts have floated away. Working with the kids today I was not nervous or worried about my blatant professional deficiencies. I was just myself and I have to believe that that´s enough.
In our Santiago training, our teachers reminded us to have fun, enjoy, take time for ourselves. ¨Don´t forget that at the end of the day you are all volunteers who aren´t getting paid,¨they reassured us. And, honesly, it must have worked because, though I have no illusions that planning hour and a half lessons for different grades each night is going to be easy, I have so many ideas! A talent show, English songs, ice breakers, games, dance classes... my head is spinning, but my fingers are about to freeze right off because in South America central heating just simply ¨doesn´t exist,¨(I am told). I will adjust, I always adjust. (Note, if anyone feels like sending me thermal pj´s, that would be cool...). Lunch is now my dinner and instant Nescafe tastes better than a latte (OK, not really). Bread is my breakfast, yogurt, coldcut sub and dinner and walking my 15-minutes to school each day down a giant hill that´s ¨under construction,¨ will be just another part of my routine. Tonight on the phone with Kev in an internet cafe using Skype there was 80´s music blasting in the background. ¨Is there a concert going on?¨ he asked me. ¨Nope, that´s just the internet cafe soundtrack,¨ I told him. The randomness of South America will never cease to amaze me. I am truly in awe of this continent´s randomness. Clowns riding trucks, a lone transvestite walking the plaza in Copiapo, raggaeton played during the school breaks, a fire alarm throughout the city at noon, oh and absolutely NO GP´s (that´s game plan for those of you who are not my friend). I am worshipper of the game plan, the routine, the schedule. I need to mentally prepare. Organize events in my mind (I have a problem, I am aware). Today I was finally told to relax. Chileans don´t have game plans (how do you live?!?), they are absolutely never on time and they have no sense of your personal plans. ¨Take a chill pill,¨ Peter from Pisco had told me weeks ago. Looks like I will be learning to ¨chill¨sooner than later...