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….