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.


edcayce said...

Oh! my dear valiant girl, I feel your pain, it troubles me terribly, however, I know you will remember this experience with melancolic fascination. You are learning to see and understand the world as it is. Some of our ilustrious leaders do not have a clue of how the rest of the world lives or thinks. You would think that it should be mandatory requirement for graduation to work abroad for at least a couple of months, this way we would grow more understanding of the ways of the rest of the world. Well dear stay strong and as you say "you will finish this experience with flying colors." Love, Papa

Gladys T. Olson said...

Dearest niece:
Your experiences are unique because your volunteer work with the school system and young people. Also because you are living with a local family.
You are doing a remarkable job, the students will remember you long after you are gone.
When you write your book, you will be able to use some of this experiences.
Take care of yourself. Lots of love,
Aunt Gladys & uncle Andy

Bree`s blog said...

i love this blog...