I trek the long dirt-winding road gasping for air at 10,000 feet elevation. This road, located in the northern lush green Andes Mountains of Ecuador, leads to the rural school where I am assigned to work as a Peace Corps Volunteer for the next two years of my life. As I gasp for a breath, I go into deep thought about what is waiting for me at the end of this path and I repeat to myself, remember why you started. Although I think I am ready to take the world by storm I will soon find out that the universe has other plans for me…
The school is made up of exactly 101 students from kindergarten to sixth grade. Each class has all the children packed into one tiny room lacking most of the resources you'd be accustomed to seeing in a more developed nation. I arrive and see the children lined up; chattering, whispering, giggling. The girls are beaming, smiling and staring at me like I have parachuted in from another planet.
A large, robust woman comes toward me sporting a brisk walk, with her hips and arms swinging and coming in for a big hug. "Dah-nah, (I believe that is my name) so nice to meet you and welcome to our school." Blanca, a seasoned school principal, warm and kind to me although I would learn later about her wicked reputation amongst the children and other teachers. As a teacher, being placed in a rural Andean school is viewed like a punishment. The teachers I work with all dreamed of working in the bustling, developed city schools. My five teaching colleagues were not happy to be placed at this tiny school and I find myself surrounded with a group of people not motivated nor enthusiastic about their jobs.
Blanca asks me to serve as their non-existent English teacher. I explain that I don't know how to formally teach English even though I speak it, that truly you didn’t want ‘me’ as your English teacher. I explain that the Peace Corps told me that I will be working in this school doing life skills training with youth around the areas of self-esteem, decision-making, communication, health and leadership. I shared this thinking there must be a mistake. Blanca, in her boisterous voice says "these kids won’t benefit from any type of leadership work; they aren’t going anywhere, most of them won't even make it past 3rd grade." I take a deep breath, stay calm and assume I am having a ‘lost in translation’ moment. No, she didn't just say these kids are going nowhere. I have two years, I have time, things will change, hope for the best…
I meet the other teachers; Rodrigo smells of alcohol and has a glazed look in his eyes, he shakes my hand and holds on a bit too long, I kindly pull away. I notice in the backdrop, the 101 little ones, all lined up, whispers and giggles echo and bounce off the cement walls. Blanca yells in a loud, deep voice "SILENCIO!” Immediately it is silent. Wow, how did she do that? They must really respect her. I will learn later that obedience isn't out of respect but fear. Blanca walks me to her office and hands over a long, wooden ruler/stick. It is heavy and my arm drops a bit as she places it in my small hand. "Thank you Blanca, this will be helpful for designing my classes, am I getting paper supplies with this as well?" Blanca laughs, "There are no supplies, we don't have any money for that, and you are going to have to get creative. The stick is to discipline the children." "Discipline the children, how?” A cackle of a laugh busts out of Blanca's face, her white cheeks turn rosy red, “hit them if they misbehave, are disrespectful or do not participate.” I step back, this has to be a joke. She was speaking so quickly in Spanish that I missed it again. "Blanca, could you repeat that slower again, please?" Yup, I comprehended correctly the first time, she is dead serious: use the stick to hit the children if need be. She explains that the parents give permission to the teachers to discipline their children with force when they are at school. This is widely accepted and actually encouraged. What have I stepped in? What am I doing here? What can I do here?
Does Blanca think this little hippie-chic would even do this? If I didn’t use the ruler, would this be my one-way ticket out of the village because I couldn’t conform to their norms? Would I be known as the gringa who couldn’t adapt and ‘accept’ approaches different than the ones I was raised with?
I take the ruler and walk out to the first grade classroom. There are 40 children ages 5-6 jumping out of their seats as I enter the room, shouting in unison, "Buenos Días Señorita." I have the ruler in my hand not sure where to place it and just hold it behind my back with my arms crossed as though no one would notice this large stick-like item shooting up behind the back of my head. I notice one little boy ‘Humberto’ with a mouth full of corn tortillas. Like a little chipmunk he has all the tortilla stashed in his cheek trying to quickly chew and swallow as the number one rule is no eating in class. The children chant ‘Humberto’s eating in class, get the ruler.” Oh boy, even the kids buy into this ruler shit. I walk across the room, put the ruler down in the corner. In Spanish, I explain that I will never be using this ruler and for Humberto to ‘chew on' and enjoy those tortillas. I have blank stares and know I will deal with the wrath of Blanca later on.
I am not sure how to make my entrance strategy a success at this school or if I should just pack up and go running for the hills. I repeat to myself, remember why you started, remember.
Abuse is all around me; in the community where I live, in the lives of the women with whom I work, the children at the school. I don't know how to avoid it and soon I realize I can't avoid it, that I need to address it. I decide to use education, respect and critical thinking as tools to empower the teachers on alternative forms of discipline while also teaching the kids. Yeah right gringa, what bullshit! I hear my inner voice loud and clear kicking me back into reality. These are some of my unrealistic, hopes and dreams of an American woman living in a foreign country, culture and environment. This is the way it is and who am I to come down here for 2 years thinking I would make any dents or impacts on ideologies so deeply engrained in the local people?
I stick around after the stick encounter and hang out during recess and the five teachers gather around me with a very warm and welcoming (especially Rodrigo, ugh) 20 questions; “Where are you from? Why are you so far away? How long will you be in our country? Do you have a boyfriend? Why are your eyes and hair brown? We were hoping you would have blue eyes and blond hair, you have the same color hair and eyes as these indigenous girls, too bad.” The female teachers tell me they would like to introduce me to their nephew, cousin, family friend and argue who would make the best match for me. Rodrigo stays quiet but his smiling and staring me down continues to make me feel uncomfortable. The teachers go on to tell me to never date an indigenous man. That the indigenous men are bottom of the barrel and 'below' us. "We don't like seeing American girls dating these guys, the Indigenous people are stupid, filthy and poor."
Here I am again, hoping for another ‘lost in translation’ moment, wishing that this isn’t being said. I start my rebuttal and forget I am attempting to argue with and convince the same people that gave me the wooden ruler/stick.
The biggest challenge of my volunteer service isn't learning 2 languages, it isn't the home sickness, it isn't the isolation, it isn't the culture shock, or the fact that most of the time I feel incapable and stupid. My biggest challenge is 'holding back' what I really want to say. I never had a problem in the States, speaking up, speaking out and speaking my mind. I was raised to question, clarify and communicate directly. Now, I am tongue-tied, speechless, dumb; the words will not roll. I am silent, nothing, just blank. I am in my early 20’s, fueled with passion to make the world a better place; one word and action at a time. The challenge to always be ‘on,' be polite, be diplomatic, is forcing me to stretch way past my ability.
Back then I may not have delivered the message as I would now but I did do my best to turn the mess into a message and prayed my broken Spanish would grant me some forgiveness points after setting the teachers straight once and for all on my views on physical and mental, abusive behavior.
I deliver my sermon to the teachers, coupled with my blazing red cheeks and sweaty palms, complete silence. I figure Principal Blanca will grab the ruler/stick and come after me or at least kick me out of her school. I gaze at five blank stares with a blurred view of the children in the backdrop running around playing, in perfect, synchronized fashion, I listen to hysterical laughter and see actual knee slapping, and I remain silent. The laughter continues, the teachers are now tearing up from such hysteria and now pushing each other’s shoulders gasping for air they are cracking up so hard at me. Am I live entertainment for them? I feel like an idiot, a loser. Not only did they not get anything I was saying but I am now the laughing stock. I feel defeated, what do I do now? The five stooges change the unbearably funny mood into a serious, lecture like moment. Stern looks on their faces and deeper voices say, “You’ll adapt here and you’ll see once working with these stupid little kids that we were right, that they are lazy and useless. You can leave now if you’d like but we’d like for you to stay.” Blanca then says “I can’t even imagine doing this job for free, you’re a volunteer, not even making a real salary, and you must definitely be LOCA.”
I sigh and sit there alone in my own mess of thought as the teachers get up and walk away. While the other children are playing at recess, three little girls are hiding behind the corner who happen to overhear the conversation. I look up and immediately go into panic mode thinking they overheard all the terrible talk. I don't know what to say to them, I'm not ready to have 'that' discussion with 9 year olds on the heavy, mean, terrible world we live in. I am speechless. One of the girls looks at me and says in a sweet, shy voice, "Pagui" (thank you in Kichwa.) I remain quiet, not a word comes out of my mouth. These shy little girls who generally do not make eye contact, are looking at me head on and glowing. I hear their giggles, now turning into laughter. They take out their small hair combs to brush my non-blonde hair to get out the knots and ask if they can braid it like theirs. One of the girls goes on to say how happy she is that I will be teaching at her school for the next two years. That she'd like for my first project to be to teach the teachers how to act human. As one of the other girls pulls the right side of my head to get another braid in, she whispers in my ear that I have my work cut out for me but they are there to help and have lots of ideas...
I had many more days of wanting to quit, walk away and get the heck out of there. Earlier that morning when walking up that dirt trail to the school, when I repeated to myself 'remember why you started', I knew I had started this journey for many reasons; I wanted to volunteer, learn, grow, contribute, travel but I didn't have one set thing to keep me going. After that day, I did. I discovered that the issues that fired me up the most drove me to ‘act’ to implement and not stay tongue-tied and silent passively accepting the bullshit. All the abuse, machismo, discrimination that I witnessed (especially with the girls and women) became that driving force for me; my ‘why’ and purpose to continue to serve. It was not going easy, but I knew I had others that wanted to see things change and that together we were stronger and could make impact.
Now 20 years later, when I find myself in a challenging situation, I remember my why and the girls come to mind. This ‘remember why you started’ became my mantra that carried me through those two challenging years and later on in life…