After last week’s blog post, I received the following message from a friend. She’s a repatriated expat, who lived in Turkey for two years.
Like me, she has many doubts about being back in the US. Many “Is this where I belong?” questions. Many moments of “The grass is greener” somewhere else…or is it? What’s it like to go back to find out?
Here’s what she wrote:
Have you ever dreamed the same thing over and over again?
Many of my dreams include houses. I used to dream repeatedly about a two-story house with a center staircase. Though I haven’t dreamed about it lately, it’s still very vivid in my mind and I wonder if it actually exists somewhere.
I’ve also had this dream before, the one about mail. The setting is usually different, but the result is the same.
I’ve had to change peluqueros again. This must be the fifth or sixth one I’ve tried here. I’ve lost count.
After an incident with one in El Centro back in 2012, I’d been trekking out to Barrio Yungay to Marcos* who did a consistent job of maintaining my hair style.
The problem? It was two-fold. Over time, I’d noticed that all the magazines in the salon had disappeared and were replaced by religious pamphlets. Along with my haircut, I could expect an evangelical lecture.
Then, there arose the scenario of their son and his learning English. This year, he was accepted into a “prestigious” Chilean school. He had not learned much English before and, now, he is struggling at the new school.
On my last visit to the salon, I’d had the foresight to take my Kindle and was reading the latest trashy novel, in plain view of their religious propaganda, when I heard a little voice say, “Hello, Tía.”
I looked up to find Juanito* peeking into the salon. Since they live upstairs, this didn’t surprise me, but this time, his mother frog-marched him in, one hand on each shoulder, and plunked him down in a chair opposite me. In his 12-year old hands was his English textbook.
“Please, he needs help with his homework. He doesn’t understand it,” pleaded his mother.
This wasn’t the first time that they had asked for my help. I’d given mini-English lessons on previous salon visits and, last year, his mother had emailed me a homework assignment, along with a note begging me to do it for him. The task had been to translate a report which he would then have to read in class.
Put between the rock and being forced to find a new hairdresser, I’d reluctantly done the translation and sent it back with a stern note, reminding her that Juanito would learn nothing this way. They calmed down for awhile, but this year at his new school, he seems completely lost.
I looked at Juanito, seated across from me, and started asking him questions in English. “Does your teacher speak to the class in English?” I already suspected the answer to this, and he confirmed it with the blank stare.
I asked him again, in Spanish, and he shook his head. “Can he speak English at all?”
“Oh, yes. He can.”
“Then, why doesn’t he?”
“The first day of school, he asked who could understand him in English. When no one raised his hand, he gave up and started speaking to us in Spanish.”
Uh-huh. If the kids can’t understand the English teacher, isn’t it his job to actually make sure that they learn how? I suggested that Juanito’s parents go to the school and speak with the teacher, ask him why the kids aren’t being taught in English. If the teacher wasn’t receptive, my advice would be to complain to the administration.
“But how could we do that?” What?! “Why don’t you come and do some workshops?”
I explained that I would soon be leaving Chile for this year, that I was not available to begin workshops. I thought that they had understood me.
They ignored my recommendation that they speak with the teacher, but they went to the administration alright…to ask if I could come to the school to teach remedial workshops to Juanito’s class.
Next thing I knew, I had received an email from an “inspector” at the school, inviting me to send in a proposal, along with lesson plans, so that they could approve it before I arrived to do the free workshops.
After stewing for a couple of weeks, I wrote the inspector a polite note, explaining that I’m not going to be here long enough to begin workshops this year. He wrote back to say that I should inform Juanito’s parents.
Since I’d already tried to inform them and they’d chosen not to hear me, I didn’t bother to attempt it again. This, of course, all means that I’ve had to find yet another peluquería.
I’ve managed to locate a salon downtown where I was able to relax and thumb through the latest issue of Vanidades while waiting, and best of all, the Linda Hunt doppelgänger stylist doesn’t seem the least bit interested in learning English.
In my quest to find viable volunteer opportunities for teaching English, I recently attended a meeting of a new organizaton called Ojos Abiertos.
“To empower children to grow as individuals and valuable community members through initiatives designed to nurture empathy, support learning, and promote respect and self-autonomy” reads its mission statement.
The founder of the group is a dedicated young woman named Helen who has put together an international team of volunteers to spearhead the program. Their first project will be at a municipal school in Conchalí, on the north side of Santiago.
Last year, I had met with the director of this school. He is serious about improving the lives of his students and is determined to give them more opportunities for success in life. Ojos Abiertos is proposing English and art workshops at this school.
When I visited, I did a brief English encounter in a 7th grade classroom. Like at most Chilean schools, the kids were timid, but curious. By the end of the presentation, most of them had warmed up enough to participate.
Afterward, as I was leaving, one of the girls from the class ran up, leaned into me, and blurted out, “I think you are a very good person.”
I put my arm around her shoulders, looked into her shining eyes, and told her, “I think you are a very good person, too.”
She gave me a big hug, and an even bigger grin, before running back to join her circle of giggling classmates.
If you have ever considered volunteering, think about contacting Helen at Ojos Abiertos. You will probably receive much more than you can give.
When something here in Chile is broken, you will often find a little sign on it that says “Malo.”
I went to school today. For the first time in over a year, I returned to a classroom. This time, I was only a visitor and observer.
The school, which shall remain nameless, is a municipal high school with a whopping 1400+ students. At first glance, it looked to be a cut above the subsidized schools where I had previously been teaching. Mostly free of graffiti, with art painted on some walls, it appeared clean and inviting.
I met the head English teacher, a short, feisty woman near retirement age. She welcomed me into her classroom where we faced 44 fifteen-year olds. This was a sophomore English class, one of nine. When class started, I found the same pattern that I have always experienced here. There were a few very interested students, some very disinterested students, and the rest just “there.” Maybe they were absorbing a little English, but maybe not.
Miss Minerva, the teacher, was well-prepared. She had a good lesson plan. The problem is…teaching 44 students, who have at least three different levels of English, all at the same time. The advanced are bored. The Level Zeros are lost and, therefore, bored. Those in the middle are, I repeat, just “there.”
I spent a lot of time shushing or walking around the room and monitoring. The minute I moved away from them, they’d start misbehaving again. I’d go back, put my hand on a shoulder, ask them something to try to engage them. How can you motivate 44 fifteen-year olds? How do you capture their interest and attention? How do you make a difference for these children?
I’ve been asking myself the same thing for four years. Now, I’m asking my workshop students who are at the University, studying to be English teachers, the same question. Theirs is an uphill battle and it makes me so angry, frustrated, and sad that I just want to sit down and cry.
There was a protest yesterday, a march of Chilean teachers asking for better wages and conditions. Miss Minerva told me that, this week, the teachers are going out on strike which will last indefinitely.
How do you fix Chile’s broken educational system? I don’t have the answer. I only hope, for my students’ sake, that it improves before they are facing 44 fifteen-year olds.
People often ask me, “Why Chile?” If you’ve read this blog for awhile, you may already have a clue to the answer. If you haven’t, I’ll give you a hint: volunteer teaching.
If you’d like to know the story of my original visits to Chile to be a volunteer teacher, it’s all in my book, A Million Sticky Kisses. Now available on Amazon in both print and Kindle versions.
In the box that contains the “love notes” from my original students, I found the mermaid that I mention in this story from A Million Sticky Kisses.
“On Monday, there was a full moon and we were expecting rain. The kids at school were wild as March hares.
The younger boys were chasing each other around the classroom, hitting and tackling each other, bashing each other into the walls, desks, and floor. In other words, like a wrestling match, minus the costumes. I spent the whole hour breaking up fights.
When Jacqueline and I arrived at our second class, a male teacher was removing the boys. He had them lined up against the wall outside for a big lecture. They appeared to be appropriately chastened, but when he brought them back in a few minutes later, they were feral as ever.
Jacqueline sent one little boy outside to sit in the corridor by the door. Most of the girls were quieter, busy drawing pictures of hearts and flowers. One little girl drew a mermaid with red hair.
She handed it to me. “Is that me?” She nodded timidly and grabbed me in a big hug.
Another little girl who was usually very happy was having a bad day. Janís was crying through the whole class. She would not tell us what was wrong. Finally, she wanted to sit outside the door with the troublemaker.
When I checked on her, her big chocolate eyes were filled with tears and her long lashes trembled with them, too. I asked her again what was wrong, but she still wouldn’t tell me.
“¿Quieres un abrazo?” Would you like a hug? She nodded her head, launched herself into my arms, and held on tight.
When I checked on the boy who was supposed to be sitting outside, he had desaparecido. Disappeared. Panicked, I frantically searched for him before I finally found him hiding under the stairs.”**
What a journey to “plunge into the sublime seas, dive deep and swim far…”* even if it sometimes feels like it’s over your head.
*Quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson
**Copyright 2015, All Rights Reserved
This week, I received two Facebook friend requests from former students.
I taught these kids two years ago when I was volunteering as an assistant in 11th grade “Social Communication” classes in English. Their teacher had requested a volunteer. It turned out that she was pregnant and didn’t feel well enough to be at school at least half the time.
Given the choice of going to school only when she was present or going no matter what, and teaching the classes myself, I chose to go. There was no book, no lesson plans either. I never knew in advance whether or not the teacher would be there, so like a good Girl Scout, I started preparing my own lesson plans “just in case.”
If someone had previously told me that I would be teaching 16 year olds, I would have told them to have their head examined. But these 16-year olds were a dream, polite, respectful, and timidly interested in learning English. I spent the entire year in their classrooms and, because of their enthusiasm about English, I also initiated extra workshops on two levels. Level One was for those who needed reinforcement. Level Two was a conversation workshop for those who were already able to communicate in English.
I grew close to those students. Probably too close because, when the year ended, saying goodbye was heartbreaking.
The school had been sold and these kids, “my” kids, all had to move to different schools to complete their final year of high school. One young lady, a smiley girl who had always been excited about learning English, was also moving to a new area of Santiago.
On the final day that I was at school, I asked her where she would be going to school. She said, “I’m not going to school any more. I’m going to study at home.”
I stared at her for a few seconds, thinking that this day would be the end of her education. Then, without warning, I suddenly burst into tears. Shocked, she gave me a hug and patted my back, murmuring, “It’s okay, Miss Sally. Don’t cry, Miss Sally,” which only made me sob harder.
I hate losing track of a student, but since then, I had heard nothing from her nor about her…until last week when she “friended” me. I can’t wait to hear how she’s doing.
No more tears now. Can you see me smiling?