I never thought I could I could do what I am doing. Leave my family, my friends, and everyday comforts to live in a different, less-comfortable country for 13 months? Yeah, right. But something changed in me one night as I was reading an email sent by a friend who was volunteering for Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos Honduras. Her email made me want to learn more about N.P.H and so I visited their website that same evening. It was that late June night, reading the testimonials of other volunteers, that I realized for the first time I could do something like this and, more importantly, I wanted to do something. A month later, I accepted a volunteer position as a Resource Teacher at N.P.H. Honduras.
I arrived here in the surprisingly cool air of January. I remember my first moments well, stepping off a packed public bus and walking up the gravel, pine-tree-lined road. It was a long walk and I was burdened not only by my backpack, but by the inevitable doubts and fears that come with change. How was I going to become a part of the lives of these kids? How was I going to spend over a year away from home? How was I going to teach my students using a language that I myself was only learning? What if I couldn’t do it? What if they didn’t like me? What if I might fail?
“What if I might fail?” seems a funny question to me now. Of course I have failed! I’ve said the wrong things, messed up explaining long division in Spanish, had moments (okay, days) of frustration and general crabbiness, gotten lost, misunderstood, and lost my patience. I am an expert in these small failures. But I see now that these failures are necessary—through them I am learning what I need to know. Learning to fail—and to learn from my failures—has been one of the greatest lessons of my time here.
I try to share this lesson with my students. As a Resource Teacher, or Aula de Recurso teacher, I work one on one with children who need additional attention outside of the regular classroom. Some of my students show signs of learning disorders and all of them have low self-confidence. My job is to provide reinforcement of the concepts being taught in the regular classroom. As we learn and practice, I try to provide a space in which they can make mistakes and learn from them, and challenge them not to give in to the fear of failure, but to be brave and risk being wrong in order to learn.
My days, as a volunteer, are long, sometimes approaching 12 hours. My job is not easy. The kids can be difficult. Some days, I am homesick or my Spanish doesn’t work or I feel invisible. So, why am I here? I am here to tuck in Armando and to see Glenda understand her homework. I am here because I am called “Auntie” and because of kids I don’t even know who run up to me and walk with me. I am here because Yefry tells me he loves me. I am here because of Ruth's sticky hands that reach up to hold mine. I am here because there are tears to be tickled away and stories that need to be told.
I am here because there is no place I would rather be. I am doing something I never thought I could do and being happier than I ever thought I would be. I am meeting amazing children and being let into their lives, having the privilege of loving them and being loved back. I don’t get a big pay check, my life is far from glamorous, but I couldn’t ask for more. It’s not easy to be a volunteer, but it is worth it. Let me tell you, it’s really worth it.
It has been a long week in the school. Sometime last week, the classroom teachers had a meeting and decided that students could not be pulled for individual attention from most classes. This turned my schedule from completely booked to nearly empty. This means that as we wait for some sort of compromise between my department and the teachers, most of my day is spent alone in my classroom reading or mopping.
Hondurans love to mop. People here mop a given space at least 2 times a day and sometimes as many as half a dozen. And there is a special technique to Honduran mopping which I am slowly perfecting. First, you don’t use a bucket. You make a mix of Aziztin (a perfumey cleaning solution that comes bottled like Gatorade in scents like apple and potpourri) and water, preferably in a discarded Aziztin bottle. You splash this mix on your swept floor and then, in long sweeps, mop the floor using a dry or slightly damp mop like a giant paintbrush. Then you clean your mop underneath an outside spigot and wring it dry using your hands. This is where I fail Honduran mopping. I refuse to use my hands to wring out a mop that has recently cleaned up lime green worm guts from my floor. Instead, I twist most of the water out using the handle and run quickly back to my room before anyone can see my dripping trail or try to give me mopping consejo, or advice. Then I hang the mop out my window to dry.
Somehow, I have come to like mopping and the bubble bath smell of Aziztin. There is comfort in seeing the rapidly-drying, artistically-shaped figure 8s on my floor. There is comfort in the routine, the ceremony of mopping. Plus, it is something to do!
When I am not mopping my classroom, I am reading or studying Spanish. My Spanish is okay, but I want it to be better. I am frustrated that I can’t say what I want to, how I want to, and when I want to. I realized yesterday that I haven’t studied Spanish for nearly 8 years and that allowed me to ease up and not be so hard on myself. I am practicing verb forms, testing myself, and swearing that one of these days I will go to the school library, pick out a novel, and read it. Or try to read it. When I read in English, I think in English and that is a problem, especially when someone interrupts me in my classroom. I can hardly talk to them and stammer a bit until they get give up on my company and leave.
Exams are in two weeks and I feel like I have given up on some of my kids passing these exams, much less their grade. I feel terrible about this, but I am not sure what to do. They are all capable of passing, just not willing to put forth the effort in my classroom, their regular classroom, or at home. What can I do to inspire them? I have tried being a cheerleader, a friend, a dictator, a mother, and a fool and used every attempt to encourage them to pay attention, do their homework, study for their tests and some of them just don’t do it. These are the ones I feel like I am letting slip through the cracks. And now with this battle to pull them out of class . . .
On a happier note, this Friday marks my 6 month anniversary here at NPH. Hannah, Jen, and I are planning a night out in Tegus. We have decided to look for a hotel nicer than Hotel Iberia where we usually stay. Hotel Iberia is a wonderfully character-building hotel featuring shared bathrooms with cold showers, windowless rooms, and an owner who insists every time on complaining about foreigners and all the beer they drink and how late they come in and how noisy they are. Still, Hotel Iberia serves its purpose. For less than $5 a night, you get a safe and relatively clean place to stay. Still, it is no place to celebrate something as important as reaching the 6 month milestone. For that we deserve hot water and a window!
We are planning a nice dinner somewhere (sushi?) and nice drinks somewhere else after that. While we´re not even half-way through our 13 months (that will fall 2 weeks later), is a big deal for us. Half a year. The older volunteers tell us it is all downhill from here. The next time we will celebrate like this we will have been here a whole year. Then we party for a month, say our goodbyes, and, ya, we are done. How strange to think about time going any faster than it has gone. It is time I suppose to think about what is next. What is next?
Last night, after some rousing renditions of The Star Spangled Banner, My Country ´Tis of Thee, and about every vaguely patriotic song we know, the volunteers--without regard to homeland--devoured hot dogs, French fries, potato salad, and deviled eggs (or, as I tried to explain them to the Hondurans, huevos del Diablo). We huddled around 2 little American Flags and reminisced about Fourths past. Even the Germans celebrated by drinking American beer. It was a boisterous, happy celebration, but a little sad, too, as we thought of our friends and families attending barbeques, picnics, and fireworks without us. Though none of us profess to be the most patriotic, we all miss our country, our home, and all the luxuries and opportunities that go along with being an American. We know our privilege better now.
Our celebration was a bit haphazardly put together, thanks to a Ranch event held on Friday and Saturday, The Olympics or Las Olimpiadas. Las Olimpiadas are an annual event, awaited by the kids with more anticipation than a birthday. We had been planning for over a month, attending horrible meetings that always started at least 40 minutes late and accomplished nothing. In typical Honduran fashion, we waited until the week before the event to planning our dance routine, t-shirts, cheer, banner, flag, and mascot. This meant days and nights of gluing seahorses on t-shirts, painting seahorses on a banner the size of a bedsheet, forming a wire seahorse for our mascot, and putting lots of blue glitter on everything.
Our team was called Los Caballitos de Mar, or (yep, you guessed it) The Seahorses. The entire Ranch was divided into 18 teams, all named for animals in danger of extinction. Friday night, we had a night of presentations. Each group performed a dance and presented their flag and mascot. We wore our matching t-shirts which looked like blue tie-dye and the silhouette of a seahorse on the back. The dance routines featured lots of booty-shaking and some questionable costumes, but some amazing mascots and incredible dance moves. Our mascot was a wire seahorse, bigger than a person, covered in colored plastic with lights inside. It had to be carried on poles by 4 people. The event lasted from 6 until 10 pm. Afterwards, we all rushed home to bed in order to be fresh and energized for Saturday´s games.
We began Saturday with a typical Honduran breakfast of beans, plantains and mantequilla (liquidy sour cream). Then, a special Mass at 8 to kick off the games. Before I knew it, we were passing trays with full glasses of water, climbing through obstacle courses, running on plastic covered with soap and water, and running on stilts. And then there was the one game heralded by all as the best . . . La Lucha de Tirones, Tug-of –war.
You all know this game. 2 groups, one on each side of the rope, pull until one group tires and lets go or falls over. It is the same idea here, but with a new twist. Some clever person decided that mud would be a nice touch. Mud. Stinky, swampy, Honduran river mud. This tug-of-war was staged in a pit filled with mud up to our knees. You can imagine the aftermath. The rest of the day, I walked around, muddied from head to toe feeling like something from a bad horror movie.
The games ended around 4:30. We hobbled back to our rooms, muddy, bruised, bug-bitten, and exhausted. After a 20 minute cold shower that got most of the mud off, we enjoyed a special dinner of carne asada, refried beans, cheese, rice, and chimol salsa. After dinner (yes, the day just kept going), there was a dance where the winners were announced. The Seahorses took 11th, I hate to admit. The dance lasted until early morning, but I didn´t last that long. Neither did most of the younger kids who fell asleep outside the dance, using the brick wall as a pillow.
Whew. As much as I loved Las Olimpiadas, I am glad to see them go and return to a relatively meeting-free and mud-free life for a while. The new batch of volunteers have been appearing one by one. Soon, the old volunteers will leave it to us to keep the kitchen dirty and the hallways of Casa Personal un-mopped. July will be a month of hellos and goodbyes, parties (there is always a reason to celebrate) and some tears, too. If we can all survive July, August will be the beginning of our final times here, as “viejos,” the "old" volunteers. And I still feel sometimes as if I just arrived.
Well, Happy Fourth of July, everyone. I am thinking of you, tonight, beneath the fireworks, wherever you are.