The Great Migration: Where I've been

Monday, September 8, 2008

Carrot Soup and Popcorn at Fundacion Crecer

Children. I shiver at the mere mention of the word. I make a strong, concentrated effort to keep a healthy distance from them in public places. I call them Cave Demons for freaking sake. Oh lord.

I have absolutely no experience with children. I have never babysat, never worked at a summercamp in any serious capacity. I never even really watched my sister, until we were old enough that we were kind of watching each other. Kids terrify me. I swear I'm going to say something to them that will turn them into little mass murderers. And now I'm spending about 20 hours a week surrounded by them.

From 8:00 am to about 12:30 pm, I am at Fundacion Crecer, a catch-up school for children who missed regular school because they were working on the street. Not only are there about 60 kids, with little hands and little legs and little patience, but they are kids with issues. Kids who have gotten the shit kicked out of them by life. Kids with seven siblings, who's parents' beat them, who may not eat except for what they get at school. Kids who have seen and experienced more violence by age ten than my ten-year-old self was even allowed to see in movies.

I am so completely and utterly over my head.

This school is a mess. There is no structure, no organization, no expectations. I was told to teach English (the value of which is an entire conversation in and of itself). I began with the numbers. We counted together, we played games with it--it was actually a rather successful lesson. But when I asked Katherine, about eight-years-old, to count for me, she just shrugged. I asked her for "uno"--one. She shrugged again. Turns out she couldn't even count in Spanish. And she is in the same class as a fourteen-year-old doing long division. The class goes up to age fifteen, and when I think about what I was doing at fifteen...12-page essay-tests and critical thinking about Socrates. These kids don't know that Ecuador is in South America, and think Hume is a reference to the weather.

But the kids really want to learn. Though one of the teachers literally told my volunteer amiga "they're just street kids," they can and want to learn. I was helping a group with division (with some dividing multi-digit numbers and some barely understanding how 4 divided by 2 is connected to 2 times 2) and they were begging me for practice problems. They were begging me for homework! I couldn't believe it. And on top of that, they did it. They actually did their homework--and they drank in my praise like water.

But every part of this situation is problematic. The teachers don't have consistent help, so don't know what to do with us. The kids spend half the day sitting around waiting for something to do, and the other half running in and out of the classroom, while the teacher plays hooky. This week they've spent literally hours everyday practicing parade marching for a Flag Day celebration that's coming up in two weeks. They get two to three hours a week of religion. Not the "let's learn about world religions" kind of religion, or even the "let's discuss the moral lessons of the bible" kind of religion. No. This is, "let's memorize Christian Dogma without any kind of meaningful discussion or opportunity to ask questions" kind of religion. This is call and response, Jesus is Lord. Well bully for him, and amen to that, but what about your times tables? What about reading? I was trying to teach a ten-year-old to use my English-Spanish dictionary, and it turns out he doesn't even know his alphabet. What would Jesus have to say about that?

It's difficult to know what to do with these kids. I was trying to teach another class basic English greetings and numbers, and one boy wasn't writing them in his notebook. I told him to get his notebook out and work. He just kept shaking his head. I persisted and persisted, and finally asked his permission to look through his backpack for his notebook. When he finally took the notebook I saw that he had one synthetic arm that he was covering with his sleeve (no one wears long sleeves in this unbearable humidity...that should have tipped me off) and one badly knarled hand. Clearly he had trouble writing. What's the best response? Another girl didn't have her shoes on, so I started telling her off for messing around. Then she started crying and, embarrassed, showed me her broken shoes. The soles had come right off, so a teacher went off to find some glue, and I had her help me put up some pictures while the other kids were at lunch. She'll probably be wearing super-glued shoes for the next couple of months. My amiga had a girl that was having trouble learning subtraction because she only had one hand, and didn't have enough fingers to visualize the problems. As I start to learn more about these kids, I can begin to see where the inefficent soft-touch of the teachers comes from. When a kid punches another kid, they tell me, we've got to remember that it could be because a drunk father punched him that morning. Discipline and love is a fine line that I've never walked before.

The first two weeks have been mostly observation, and A LOT of discussion with my fellow volunteers. We are overflowing with ideas. Computer classes, the school garden, group murals, team building games, volunteer-teacher lunch meetings...we all see so many places where we can help. But it isn't just about what we think is right, what we want to see done, our solutions. These teachers have been here, they live in this country. We are limited by our experience, our time, our knowledge of the culture, the situation, the language. The last thing we want to do is barge in as the all-knowing foreigners, wreck havoc for four months, and leave a disaster in our wake. But there are things that are just not right, and I hope we can find a way to work with the teachers to implement some new ideas.

Two days in a row, I found myself confronted with the same little boy acting out. Eduardo. He kept fighting and punching his classmates, and I had to bodily remove him from the room once. Then I saw him sulking in a corner, very upset. I asked him what was wrong, and got the impression through my foggy Spanish that there had been some very rude insults flying around between the students. I decided to take Eduardo away to the garden for a little while, where we worked with Jorge, the all-around fix-it man, to plant some cabbage. We talked about roots and where food comes from and why leaves are green. He absolutely loved it. He was so careful with the fledgling plants, really listening to Jorge's instructions. I tried to help him with his letters, and he was happy to do the homework I assigned, and finally peacefully, if reluctantly, returned to class. There were probably a million things wrong with how I handled that situation, but Eduardo responded. It was an experiment, and I'm more than ready to try again.

Then my Spanish class (advanced, baby, oh yeah) watched a movie the other day, set in Ecuador, about a young kid leaning toward a very dangerous path of drugs and crime, being strongly influenced by his older cousin, the hardened criminal. Not a terribly original movie, but it's timing and setting was absolutely striking. That's the future of the kids at Fundacion Crecer. That's where the fifteen-year-old ends up who refuses to do his multiplication math assignments. That's where the twelve-year-olds end up that want more than anything to go to the US but can't find it on a map. A 20-year-old with absolutely no experience or training who barely speaks the language shouldn't be the thing standing in the way of that. No kid should have to learn division from someone who doesn't know that there is no such thing as the word "subtracion." (The verb is "restar".)

I'm loving all of this new Ecuadorian food. It's more starch than is digestable, but the odd combinations are fantastic. Last week I had carrot soup and freshly popped popcorn. Together. And it was absolutely delicious. I'm afraid all I can hope for is a delicious result of the equally atrocious combination of me and children for the next three and a half months. (Nice metaphor, huh?)


Orly said...

i say this for the umptienth million time-- you lead the most fascinating life, hayley. keep up the good work wit the kids. now i feel guilty for coveting parisian fashion when there are kids who have to superglue their shoes :(

Sheena said...

this is an absolutely inspiring blog post hayley! it's like walking into your biggest fear and conquering it. oh wait it's not like. it is.

Anna said...

hahahaha. so, i've found your blog. just read through your delightful narration of our lives here in guayaquil...
umm, wanna go back to ayamape at 1:30 pm this Friday? i'm down...
anyway, i enjoyed reading it! i think by me posting on here, you can find mine... it's not nearly as entertaining.