Gangs and Motorcycles: Adios Guatemala
Since my last blog entry in early July, things in Guatemala had, as expected, drastically changed. A new round of English volunteers had joined the team at the school in Ciudad Vieja, so the classes needed to be redistributed based on each volunteer’s past experience, ability to speak Spanish and capability of handling certain age groups. Within a day, I was considered a “senior” volunteer and designated as the new fourth grade English teacher.
I started teaching the class as I had the first, second and third grade classes. My class plans for the younger ages had been designed so that they could easily change based on the students’ understanding of the topic or an activity taking longer than anticipated. However, the cuartos had an entirely different idea of how class should be run.
The first three weeks were full of frustration and learning how to discipline children in a language I had just begun to grasp. I had no disciplinary protocol to follow, no extra volunteers to help manage the class and little respect coming from the kids.
For two weeks, I ignored petty interruptions from the usual culprits and tried to engage the kids who at least appeared interested. Items were thrown through the air, and I was having trouble memorizing the names of all thirty children. I felt like the entire class was spent ensuring that the same troublemakers did not hurt themselves or bully the other kids.
The third week, I lost my cool. I was writing an example on the board ignoring the typical chitchat from the right side of the room, and a young boy lit a paper on fire with his lighter. I certainly don’t remember bringing lighters to school in fourth grade for my show and tell!
I stopped the class and walked the boy to the principal’s office. Upon returning to my completely unintended class, and I was greeted by utter silence. I finished the class with the kids copying English sentences, and I immediately found the volunteer coordinator following the completion of the session.
“I’m sorry, but I need another volunteer to help me. I had a kid start a fire in my class today”.
“What!” he said, most likely anticipating a lecture from the school principal about the English interns inability to control the kids.
“Well,” he said regaining composure, “I must admit, we did give you the worst behaved class in the school. The anti-bullying posters were designed as a result of these kids being cruel to one another”.
We started discussing potential safety and disciplinary protocol that the interns could use. No matter what, it was going to take time for new teachers acclimate to each new class at the school. However, if a base set of disciplinary rules were followed, the kids would hopefully respect the system in place and in turn, allow the volunteers to do their jobs.
The next day, an email was sent to all of the volunteers outlining the new system. Weekly meetings with the volunteer coordinator and all the volunteers were started to discuss any behavioral difficulties and suggestions for the program. While I can’t say that the weekly meetings will last, it was a step forward in the right direction.
And bam, I realized it. That is how it works. Small ideas are created and changes are made, but they do not necessarily last. For the changes that do not fade away, they eventually morph from extra work for the already-struggling staff to necessities for the program. Frustrations and things that go wrong in the day-to-day rhythm of the school create enough grief or disturbance to finally make a volunteer approach someone to say, “How do I fix this? What do I do?”
Change cannot be made without communication. As the program worker who lacked the ability to communicate on account of pride or fear of failure, I was truly disappointed in myself. At the time, I didn’t even realize I was doing it. When I jokingly told my friends these kids were more terrifying than the gangs of New York, I was not conveying my actual fear for the children and their behavioral problems, but my own fear of being incapable of resolving a situation.
As clear as I can see this now, I was completely unaware at the time that I was neglecting anything I had learned in my Management of Public Service Organizations (MPSO) class or from general life experiences. Accepting failure can be the biggest asset to a person and an organization if an effort is made by everyone to make the changes necessary to resolve the situation.
I did not receive an extra volunteer as I had requested, and I am glad that I didn’t. In the following weeks, I gained better control of my class. There were still times when I looked at them, and I really wondered how great of an impact this English program was even making. Did I really contribute to anything that was worthwhile in their lives? Would any of these kids actually ever be able to apply English to their future jobs as farmers or market women?
I realized something essential however. Thinking of one eager boy in the class who was often bullied, he always was interested in learning. He wanted to learn, his English improved every day and he hugged me when he saw me each class. He might one day use English to have a better opportunity at a career in Guatemala. At that realization, I felt a bit more optimistic.
My final goodbye at Casa Jackson, the house for malnourished children, also caused me to pause and reflect on things. It was a Friday, and I walked up to the designated meeting spot at 1:30pm as I had each of my times previously. From the meeting spot, the group of volunteers would typically be walked by a young man to the center as San Felipe’s back roads could potentially be dangerous.
For the first time in eleven weeks, I walked up to an empty meeting spot. I spoke briefly with the designated guide. “I think you’re the only one today,” he said quickly in Spanish, “so I arranged a ride for you”. A Guatemalan man pulled up on a motorcycle and indicated I hop on. I laughed at myself as I clumsily crawled on the back. My mom would have had a heart attack watching me climb on the back of a stranger’s motorcycle without a helmet, but my volunteer friends from the center who had left in the previous weeks would have nodded and laughed in approval.
We sped down the bumpy, cobble-stoned streets towards the center and I watched the local San Felipe residents notice the pale, red-headed gringa on the back of a motorcycle with a Guatemalan man. I pulled up to the center and after some brief conversation, Julio told me he would return at 4:30pm. I had never been the only volunteer at the center. The smallest group I had ever worked with had been five volunteers; yet Casa Jackson did have a much higher turnover of volunteers than the schools. With universities reopening in the coming weeks, everyone in Antigua had felt a major change in the atmosphere of the town.
The nurse looked alarmed when she answered the door and realized I was the only volunteer. I greeted her, changed in scrubs and disinfected my hands. I heard the babies as I walked up the stairs, and I felt like I could hear the sickness in their cries.
The day was a blur. I changed, fed and administered respiratory medication via nebulizer for sixteen babies. I tried to hold and play with each room for an equally fair amount of time, but there will still a few babies I had worked with for the last eleven weeks that I held onto for a few moments longer to say goodbye. I cried for the little girl I knew was going to an orphanage. I sang to each room and brought disinfected toys to the babies that had been quarantined. Lastly, I said goodbye to the one I had fallen in love with, Sarai. I wished her the best with her life, even though I knew that it would be tougher than some of the other babies as a result of a neurological disorder.
The nurse ran from downstairs, “Julio is here”. I didn’t have time to say goodbye to everyone, and as I left I felt fairly defeated. I knew that tomorrow, there was a possibility that no one would come. They would sit in dirty diapers longer than usual and not be held. They would cry. By caring for them for such a short period of time, I realized just how much there is left to be done. Tomorrow, there will be another sick baby.
Choosing a job in public service is creating a new lifestyle that will revolve around redundancy, change, sadness, anger, policy, corruption and the potential ever-lasting feeling that you have not yet accomplished your intended mission.
I did not go to Guatemala naively thinking that my short period of time would change anything. However, I did leave with a new direction and clearer understanding of the large tasks ahead of individuals currently working in or entering public service.
With that said, I have found myself ever-more interested in public health and the implementation and development of health systems and infrastructure in communities. It is difficult to summarize what I learned and how I changed as a result of my time in Guatemala. I will be heading back to Guatemala in December to solidify my knowledge of Spanish and further explore potential options for my future career.
“I think there’s a point where you realize the world has just been revealed to you. It’s like realizing your parents are both good and bad. It’s sort of, oh no, things will never be quite the same again.”
I want to thank everyone for joining me for my updates and time in Guatemala. I really look forward to working with everyone this coming semester!