Saturday, August 30, 2008

¨Gracias a Dios, trabajando...¨

Walking to catch the bus earlier this week, i passed by Gabriel´s house and shouted hola to him. He was in his home making leather products, which is what he does for a living. He came outside and we chatted for a few. He asked how i´m doing and how things are going for me. Muy bien. I asked how he´s doing, and he replied, ¨Gracias a Dios, trabajando...¨. Thanks to God, i´m working. So with gratitude that i am working while many people around me aren´t as fortunate, i´ll share with y´all what work has been like.

Monday-Thursday mornings i´m out of the house by 7:30 and hop on a yellow bus 2 blocks away to head into Guayaquil with my community-mate Kasia. For 25 cents (USD), a 40 minute busride takes us out of Duran, across 2 bridges, and into Guayaquil. We run across a total of 16 lanes of ecua-traffic (far more chaos than you´ll ever see in the states) and down a block to the school we work at, Centro Educativo Santiago Apostol. We start out by ´tutoring´ streetkids who have scholarships to other schools they attend in the afternoons. This really means that we sit down in the cafeteria and ask them what homework they have, if its english we try to help, and if not we just ask questions about what they´re doing. From 8:40 on Kasia and i help out in separate classes until 12:10 when we leave. i´m with 12-15yr old girls that have been working on the streets and are behind in education. They´re fiesty and aggressive and loud and shout ¨senorita, ayudameeeeee¨ in whiny spanish that the ecuadorian teachers struggle to understand, forget me understanding it. They´re used to playing by their own rules. They remind me of what most middle school girls were like back when i was that age. They paint their nails with white-out, want to know if i have a boyfriend, ask how much my earrings cost, play with hula hoops during recess.

I´m a teachers assistant which means i´m supposed to be another teacher to them, another authority figure, but they see me as a new friend, somene new that they can walk all over, especially since my spanish is iffy and theirs is incomprehensible. The teacher i work with, Elizabeth, is really great and knows that the girls cheat on quizzes when she leaves the room and is really making an effort to have them see me as an authority figure / teacher that they have to listen to and respect. I also work with another teacher Naty who didn´t show up for class once, might be younger than me, and has only been working there a few months. Classroom control? Whats that? But lets remember this is Ecuador, not the USA, and things are run very differently here. Time is very fluid, which is a nice way of saying that schedules arent really followed and things dont start ¨on time¨ as a US American would expect ¨on time¨ to mean. Homework often means copying verbatim pages from textbooks, even if you can´t read and dont understand what you´re copying. But this is their system, and i am not here to change it or ´improve´ it. I´m here to serve as best i can and as authentically as i can, within this system.

Its hard. How do I serve these kids? What do they need from me? What do i need to learn from them? I wear a polo shirt that says Rostro de Cristo on it. How do i be the face of Christ here? How on earth do i gain their respect? Will they ever see me as a teacher? Do i even see myself as a teacher? [Note: i know that several teachers/professors/student teachers are reading this blog. i welcome any and all advice regarding how to actually be a teacher.]

Its hard. They´re studying social studies. But this is Ecua-social studies, duh. So Maria Fernanda asked me what natural resources come from La Sierra (region in Ecuador). And i have to say ¨i don´t know. did you pay attention in class this morning? i know the teacher taught this to you.¨ So here i am trying to gain some sort of authority and validity in my position yet have to say ´i dont know´ when the girls ask me a question. Nor do i know how to explain the difference, in spanish remember, between arachnids and crustaceans when the time for Natural Sciences rolls around.

Its hard and the system is frustrating but i dont feel frustrated and i dont feel depleted. Its a fruitful challenge and i get more and more confident in it as time goes on. I think the girls are warming up to me.

So thats my morning. I cross 16 lanes of traffic again and take the yellow bus back to the house in AJS, have a quick something for lunch, and by 1:40 i´m back on a bus heading to 28 de Agosto, an invasion community in Duran located in a former trash dump. Another 40 minutes on a bus, this time looking out the window at acres and acres of cane houses, muddy swamps, burning trash, laundry hanging outside to dry, small children running around and playing in dirt with chickens and stray dogs alongside them.

Monday-Friday, Kasia, Danny and I open Manos Abiertas at 2:30. We´re located in a small school building (classrooms have roofs, but its mostly uncovered) on a residental dirt road. The kids see us get off the bus and either yell our names or ¨las gringas! las gringas!¨ to let the other kids know we´ve arrived. At 2:30, we let in kids that have homework and one of us helps them in a quiet room. They ask us for red and blue pens because they need to copy their textbooks in these colors, or erasers when it needs to be done in pencil. Kids that dont have homework stay outside and play with a soccerball that often gets kicked into a gutter area of trash/standing water. They sit on our laps and talk to us and argue with each other and they´re just kids. At 3:00 we struggle to get them to lineup at the door and greet each of us as they enter with a handshake and a promise to be well-behaved (easier said than done.) We start with the Our Father and split up the little kids from the big kids to do educational activities that will reinforce what they learn in school and also improve their critical thinking skills (which are nearly non-existant). At 4:00 they have recess, which means a high-energy soccer game with kids of all sizes and ages, or begging me to make them paper airplanes, or constantly reminding them that only 4 kids are allowed on the swingset at one time. At 4:45 we gather them together and have a talk or skit about the theme of the week! We spend one week talking to the kids about 7 themes: Respect, Responsibility, Trustworthiness, Kindness, Spirituality, Citizenship, and Justice. We do our best to make it pertinent to their lives and accessible and understandable to kids ages 3-13. Yea, thats tough. At 5:00 we pray again and each kid gets a piece of bread, a banana, and a glass of uncontaminated water before they head home to....who knows. Violence? Domestic abuse? Hunger? Nothing?

Its hard and exhausting and so energizing and so life giving. The kids are so great and so sweet and so affectionate and so loving, and also so easily set off and so fragile and sooooooo not wanting to follow the rules. But we do what we can. We try to give them structure, a safe place to have fun, a quiet place to do their homework, and three hearts to love them as best we can. The days are long and tiring and i smell like sweat and trash and dirty children at the end of every day and i love it.

Gracias a Dios, trabajando.


Emily Martucci said...

sounds awesome! and challenging...and reminds me ALOT of working w/the kids in bport. maybe we can chat sometime..i miss you!


Anonymous said...

Hi Elyse,

I loved reading your blog --- I was thinking about you and looked up the website --- As I read what you relayed, I couldn't help thinking --- she wants to know how to be a good teacher ---- just tell them that you are VOLUNTEERING to give a year of life to be with them because you CARE ABOUT them --- they will never forget you and you will give them a different meaning to their life.


Anonymous said...


If you want to write me back,


Michelle said...

lots of tough questions. the only answer that I can think of is just do what you're doing. The very fact that you're sitting next to them, trying as hard as you can to understand what they're saying and to respond as best you can, is important in itself- you're showing them how to behave by example. I remember learning in my technology and society class (a service learning thing in Loyola) about the importance of consistency for kids, especially impoverished kids or ones whose parents are not around a lot. Every week my class spent an hour at Bassick high school helping high school sophomores work on a standardized test prep program on a one-to-one level. At the beginning, the girl that I worked with, Nhatalie, was very quiet and sullen and had to be convinced to even open up the computer program and start working. After a few weeks, though, she began to open up to me. Underneath it all, she was a very intelligent girl, but she was afraid to let her friends know that and be teased because of it. Once she saw that I thought learning and being smart was a cool thing, she eased up and was much more productive. So, the point of this little story was, just be patient. Once they see that you will show up every single day, when they expect you to be there, and that you will make your best effort every day, they'll start to respect you. Being a teacher doesn't necessarily mean knowing all the answers, but it does mean being dedicated to your student's learning, which I know that you are.

P.S. you da best