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.)