Sunday, December 7, 2008

#2 Setting the Scene...Los Estudiantes

I begin again and again in my mind to describe my first impressions of the children I’m teaching here but there is so much to say and so many more questions come tumbling in with every thought that I keep erasing and starting over. These children are wonderful, exhilarating, and awe inspiring as are all children when you truly connect with them. But at the same time, their situation feeds my wrath at humanity’s apathy and strums a low chord of terror for their future. It nips at the heels of my enthusiasm.

These kids are incredibly poor. Many of them have only one or two changes of clothes, I’ve noticed. My first day was a Monday and I was terrified by the students lack of attention or discipline and overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of them (over forty) that were awaiting our arrival at 8am…then one of the other volunteers reminded me that many of these kids had little to no food since leaving school after lunch on Friday. Many of the girls have light streaks in their dark hair, which I’ve learned is a sign of malnutrition. At the morning break we provide them with milk, which is powdered milk mixed with hot water and maize flower and a little sugar for taste. For lunch they get rice and beans and a bit of fruit, usually pineapple or banana. The rice is regular rice to which we add packets of soy-and-vitamin-fortified, chicken-flavored rice from a program called “Kids Against Hunger.” Sometimes there is meat or tortillas but not often. Often my kids have come into class having pulled up chunks of a leafy plant they call “canya,” the stems of which they strip of leaves and then proceed to eat. It has an acidic, lemony taste but is likely they closest these kids often get to a leafy green vegetable, which isn’t even all that common a food type among more well to do Hondurans.

There are many large families of kids attending the Jungle School. Some are the usual stories of basic poverty and then some are even worse…children who have lost their parents to AIDS and now live with extended families that couldn’t support their own children in the first place.

There is no set curriculum at the moment. We are in what is called “Vacation Care” as the school year ended with November and starts up again in February. We have been asked to work on their Math and English skills and to teach them Christmas songs to sing to the children at the Helping Honduras Kids Hogar (Orphanage) a few towns over. All three tasks are proving incredibly difficult. I’m teaching Math in the morning in two groups, one grades 4-5, the other grades 2-3. The 6th graders have graduated and the kinders haven’t started yet. That said, our students currently range in age from 3 to 22. The toddlers run about with minimal supervision and little interaction. When they fall down and cry, their older brother or sister leaves class to care for them. If there is an extra volunteer to keep an eye on them or if the toddlers want to settle down with the first graders while they color and talk about language skills all the better, but you can’t count on either, of course. Dilcia, the 22 year old, is actually one of the toddlers’ mother, who is coming when she can during vacation care to improve her English skills. In the afternoon I take a group of kids and work on music, science, or social studies. Teaching music is surprising difficult. For many of the kids, listening to music is an incredible luxury, so rhythm and harmony are fairly foreign concepts.

These kids lack so much, rhythm is really the least of my worries. In math last week we worked on money…practicing how to add it up and subtract it and then with the older kids I’ve also added figuring out how long you would have to work at a certain wage to earn that much money. They can do sums and long division like pros for the most part, but the moment you go to apply it to a practical task, it is completely beyond their imagination.

But they are catching on quickly. Not a soul among them is not in some way a clever problem solver. And they love learning. I have never been so heartened as to see a child sitting, studying my math problem on the board, and choosing to go late to a vital lunch because they want to understand it better or ask a further question. It is not lost on them that these are important skills. When you get past the part where they sometimes miss a basic step they should have learned years ago, something as simple as lining up their numbers in a sum, they are willing to take on more than most children I’ve met. They all want to hold up their sheets of loose leaf paper for me to check and they laugh when I step back and say “Yo soy sola una mujer…uno por uno…” (I am only one woman…one at a time…) When I am sweaty and gritty from biking uphill to the school and they run to me for hugs I can’t help but hug them back despite my grubbiness. And, when I have to fake my enthusiasm for math after trudging up from the road to the classroom, their responding enthusiasm makes for a fabulous feedback loop of positive energy.

Still classes here are not what I could have imagined prior to my arrival here. Trying to teach twenty children who are hungry and who have never in their life been given the kind of supportive, consistent structure to which we were accustomed is much like teaching a room of children with severe ADHD. Tempers flare in a moment, things are thrown, attention is distracted and sometimes they even just walk away from the lesson entirely. If I set something on the table, it is jumped at with the feeding frenzy of sharks. Sharing nicely and waiting one’s turn are not common skills. Anything they hold goes into their mouths in a moment’s notice, an oral fixation that I attribute to both the hunger and the lack of parental guidance to discourage it. I am slowly pushing the basic classroom skills like sitting quietly, raising your hand, and keeping attention on the teacher, but it is an uphill battle. I am earning their respect, however, which means a lot, both personally and for their willingness to agree to my rules. They want to show me respect, I can tell, but as few adults have shown them what that means by respecting them, they don’t know what to do.

We have to lock up everything at night and nothing can be left on or near the window sills where hands could reach in through holes in the window screens. But, I really believe that stealing anything that isn’t locked down, even things they have no use or value for like pencil sharpeners, is just a part of the hoarding behavior typical of someone trying to fill enormous wells of emotional and physical need.

Imagination is the hinge to my current thoughts on my students’ intellects. When Vacation Care started two weeks ago, apparently, the children would only use pencils to draw, crayons and markers were just left to lie there. With a little coaxing, they have taken off with the crayons and markers, and with a little coaxing and practice they start to see that they can solve these practical problems I put before them, but it is an extraordinary task for all of them. I think it goes back to their basic starting places, where there is so little interaction with them while they are forming their early minds and language skills. Their families have so little time to tell them stories or work with them on their colors, numbers, shapes, and letters or even basic motor skills. It occurs to me that imagination is a skill that we teach to tiny children. When you have toys to manipulate and parents to interact with, you form the ability to imagine that those blocks are a castle you are building. These kids have the difficult task of forming the ability to imagine well after the best age for the brain to do so. It isn’t about dreaming big; it’s about solving basic problems in life.

I believe they can do it. I feel incredibly blessed that I can help them with it. I feel sad that we didn’t get there sooner for them and worried that we aren’t doing enough for the little ones who still have the greatest chance.

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