Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Just Call Me a Boy

There seems to be a racial war that begins in elementary schools long before people even recognize that racial tension exists among children.  Often this tension begins with children simply repeating what they have heard adults say and then, over the years, as that tension grows, may end with an internalization of attitudes and belief structures we like to believe were eradicated decades ago.

There is in our country and thus in our schools a dichotomy of what it means to be an American.  We are divided into the privileged and the not:  into those who speak English and those who don’t, those who have parents and those who don’t, those who have money (and thus access to technology) and those who don't, those who have access to a quality education and those who don't, those who have a home and those who don’t.

Some of these issues are the planting of the seed that ultimately develops into a deeply-felt sense of racism and prejudice and injustice. 

There was a fight on the playground amongst the 4th graders the other day.  One child spoke a racial slur and another child retaliated with a punch.  The child who threw the punch was suspended for fighting and the child who spoke a racial slur was lectured.

Their teacher felt the situation had been poorly addressed by the building's administration.  How did suspending the child who had defended his entire race help resolve the situation?  As a result, she had a sit-down session with her entire class and discussed with them the unacceptability of using racial slurs in any circumstance. 

One student raised his hand and said, “yeah, but I don’t like it when they call me African-American either.”

His teacher asked, “Well, what do you want people to call you?”

“I just want them to call me a boy,” the ten-year-old replied.

How utterly and singularly profound.  Just call me a boy.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Skate City

Went skating this evening for the second time in my adulthood.  I think that brings me to perhaps a total of 5 times in my lifetime.  Needless to say, I am not very good at this whole skating thing.  I’m sure it has nothing to do with the fact that my sense of balance is never very good, even when not attempting to travel with wheels attached to my shoes.  Who came up with this bizarre pasttime anyway?

The truth is I had a great time.  Of course, I went skating with my nieces, which pretty much assured me of having a good time.  I adore them both and take great delight in spending time with them.  I should be grateful that neither of my nieces are experts in the skating rink either, and therefore do not leave me in their dust like many of the other munchkins on the rink’s floor.

T.S. in particular likes for me to skate with her.  So, over and over, we maneuvered our way around the rink, with the wall as our prop and savior.  A.J. had a bear in her arms for half the night, after receiving it from an older child who won it in a raffle and wished to pass it on.  Therefore she skated with one arm waving for balance and the other arm clutching that bear, as if the bear was her prop.  If I had had a stuffed bear at the skating rink, I think I would have wanted it strapped to my ass for additional padding (not that there’s not plenty of padding already there), but that’s just me.

At some point during the evening, I had to go to the restroom, so I left the two girls skating together (A.J. made a face at my command, but then appeared to have fun with her sister despite her reluctance — isn’t that the way of siblings everywhere?) and headed for the facilities.  I now believe that Skate City’s bathrooms were designed by some kind of torture enthusiast.  Upon entering the women’s restroom, I was appalled to realize there were no pads on the floor.  Of course, this realization came a little too late as I flew in the doorway, leaving the carpeted hallway behind and hurtling at breakneck speed across the tile floor toward a stall door.  All I could think is “god I hope no one’s in that stall, because I’m going to land in her lap!”

Luckily the stall was empty.  I slammed into the door and managed to catch myself on the top of the door, which was so short that I gave myself whiplash as my head bounced forward over the top of the stall door and back.  I think those stall doors were designed for midgets.  Did they not consider the fact that adults might also be idiot enough to don roller skates and come flying through their restroom doors?

After entering the stall, I was appalled to realize that the toilet was only about a foot off the ground. On roller skates, I somehow managed to lower myself four feet where I took care of business with my knees in my face (when my feet weren’t flying out from under me of course).  The worst part was trying to extricate myself and stand back up.  It required a sense of balance (see above), inhuman strength (not one of my assets) and wheelchair bars (which were not in evidence at all).  With my feet scrambling for purchase, I used the bottom of the stall to haul myself forward and up.  Thank god the restroom was empty and no one heard my growls and curses as I attempted to lift my carcass from that damn toilet.


Truthfully, despite the crazy bathrooms, we had a great time, A.J., T.S. and I.  I'm looking forward to when my nephew C.S. is in kindergarten and can join us on these school-sponsored events. Yep, lots of fun flying into the walls with less-adventurous parents looking on.

When I asked T.S. whether her parents skated with her when they brought her to these things, she said no.  I asked why I had to skate then and she said, “because you’re a nice aunt.”  I guess I cannot ask for a better reason than that.  The things we do for love.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Playtime's over, folks

Today, for the first time this school year, I had the opportunity to play with my students.  Yes, that’s right.  I actually stopped teaching and we just had fun.  It was even sanctioned fun, so I couldn’t get in trouble for it!

The thing is, we’re an inner-city school, and more than that, we’re a Reading First inner-city school, which means that we got a big grant that requires a lot of hoop-jumping in an attempt to meet the combined requirements of the grant, the government and our school district.  The result this year has been an overscheduled nightmare of a day.

I can honestly say that the only time I see every single one of the 23 students who were assigned to my classroom is during the first 15 minutes of every school day.  From that moment on, small numbers of my students are being pulled from my classroom for reading interventions.
Despite their absence, I am expected to somehow manage to teach every child in my classroom the skills they need to arrive at grade-level outcomes by the end of the school year.  In order to accomplish this, every single moment spent in my classroom is accounted for.  There are no spare moments anywhere for frivolous activities that are not in some fashion attached to the achievement of a specific benchmark skill.

Remember those long-ago school days when a student came to school with cupcakes because it was their birthday?  Remember the building excitement as long-anticipated holiday celebrations approached?  Remember wearing costumes on Halloween?

Maybe celebrations still happen in more affluent neighborhoods.  I don’t know.  What I do know is that any children planning to bring a special birthday treat to my classroom had better plan on passing it out exactly one minute before the bells rings signaling the end of the day, because that’s the only minute I can give them.

We have standards to meet, people, benchmarks to teach, and children who must not be left behind. 

Oh yeah, and remember those days when we had a morning recess and an afternoon recess?  My god, we had no idea how lucky we were.  TWO recesses in ONE day?  UNHEARD OF!
In my world, students get 15 minutes to eat, during which time, they are encouraged NOT to talk.  They then get their one recess of the day.  It’s an awesome opportunity for them to relax and talk and run and play (unless it’s bad weather of course, then they have to sit still and watch a cartoon in a tiny resource room, but let’s not talk about that).

Anyway, they get this recess every single day (aren’t they lucky) and it’s lasts an ENTIRE fifteen minutes.  (In case you’re wondering, they really are lucky because last year they only got ten minutes.)

During these fifteen minutes, my students get their only real opportunity to play, to relax, to take a desperately needed brain break.  I should add they do get “special” time each day — 50 minutes of art, library, music, P.E. or technology.  I suppose these times might be considered a break, but I have serious doubts, given there are benchmarks to meet in each of these areas as well.

In any case, I was asked to cover recess duty today, and as a result, had the opportunity to play and interact with my students in a completely stress-free and relaxing fashion for the first time since school began back in August.

As I watched the children running and playing and laughing, I had to wonder:  by the time these first and second graders reach middle school, will they even remember how to do any of this, how to play, how to kick balls, how to chase and play tag and jump rope and laugh with abandon?
Or instead, by that time, will we have smothered the laughter right out of them in our crazed obsession with benchmarks and indicators?  Will we have leeched their joy away in our reckless zeal to achieve the desired outcomes within an acceptable time frame, no matter the child’s background, learning style or life circumstances that brought him or her to our classroom’s doorstep?

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Nameless

I once wrote an essay I called “The Nameless”.  I wrote this essay as a senior attending The American University in Washington, D.C.  It was my answer to what I saw as a loss of my own humanity when facing the homeless on a daily basis.

In my essay, I wrote about some children I had seen on the streets panhandling with their mother in Washington, D.C.  I also wrote about a child I saw in Lisbon, Portugal, who was also homeless.  In my mind at the time, homelessness was a characteristic owned by adults.  These children I had seen were certainly extremely rare, particularly within the United States.

Today I know this is only a fantasy, one shared by most of the complacent population.  In fact, the fastest growing segment of homeless individuals in the United States today is that of families with children.  Approximately 1.3 million children are homeless today, and of those, approximately 500,000 are under the age of 5.  How is this possible?  How could we not know of such a severe problem?

Because we are lulled into believing that those who are homeless are the men and woman we see wandering the streets without a home.  We console ourselves with the thought that they are adults, in charge of their own fate and future.  If they wanted a home, surely they could manage it, we tell ourselves.  Most of them are probably alcoholics and drug addicts, we whisper in our mind, without ever admitting the darkness of our thoughts.

Is someone only considered homeless in our eyes when they are visibly living on the streets?  What of the millions in temporary shelters, sleeping on a neighbor’s or family member’s couch, rotating from home to home every few days to keep from becoming a burden to those they rely upon for a temporary roof over their head?

This issue is extremely important to me, as I have been working with the homeless children in my school district for the past year.  On Tuesday and Thursday evenings, from 5:00 to 7:30, we meet at a local elementary school and do all that we can to provide a small amount of stability in the most unstable of lives.  Our main focus is to provide academic support in the hopes that these children will stay in school, that they will be among the few who actually make it to graduation day.
Each and every one of the children I have met through this program breaks my heart; from the victims of domestic abuse to the African refugees who have memories of escaping into the brush to avoid guerilla warfare; from the victims of severe poverty to those of circumstance like fire or loss of a job.

These are the heroes in my world:  these children who somehow manage to bring me hope and joy, merely through their presence in my life and the demonstration of their will to survive.

Monday, October 8, 2007

The Eloquent Words of a Child

Every Friday afternoon, my students write a letter to a specific student in our class.  As far as my students are concerned, this special child of the week is chosen based on behavior and academic success.  Little do they know that every child on my list will eventually be chosen.

In any case, every Monday morning, before school begins, I collect these letters and staple them into a book for the child.  While arranging these letters, I often find myself amused by the things my students feel are especially important to share with their classmates.  Usually they are utterly random comments (”I like baseball.”) or questions (”Do you like macaroni and cheese?”)  Occasionally however, they are nothing short of unique.

This morning was a prime example.  I happened to notice one letter had not been signed.  As this letter was written in extremely precise handwriting that meandered down the page in an increasingly narrow triangle, it was not difficult to ascertain the author.  Shaking my head, I set it aside to remind the student to sign the letter, realizing I would have to wait until this had happened before stapling the pages together.  It was at this moment, as I was setting aside the letter, that a word upon this unsigned page caught my eye.  It was the word “squize.”

What on earth was a squize?  So of course I had to read what followed.  What followed was “your balls”.  Squize your balls?  This could not be good.

My eyes immediately jumped backward to the beginning of the sentence where I read:  “Be nice to me or I will squize your balls.”  Further down the page, the author continued to write “If you are nice to me, I will not squize your balls.”  I am sensing a theme here.

Did I happen to mention these were second graders?

Of course, at that point, I had to read the entire letter, which began with an eloquent statement of the recipient’s cuteness (”so cute, so cute”) and then a denial of being liked by that person (”I no you don like me, but I like you, so I don kare”) followed by the infamous “squizing”.

All I can say is THANK GOD I caught this BEFORE stapling the letter into a book and sending it home with my student to share with his parents and siblings and heaven knows who else.  

Is it winter break yet?

Friday, October 5, 2007

School Lunch Meat Surprise

It is inevitable I suppose that when teaching the young ones, unwashed hands that recently touched a toilet seat, boogers and snot wiped upon every available surface, and an often seemingly endless supply of vomit become familiar trademarks of the profession.

Even so, gross.

Today was Friday.  Friday should always be a happy day, one filled with joy for the coming weekend.  Instead, it was exhausting from start to finish, as frankly, many Fridays are for teachers and their students.

What made today particularly difficult however, was the vomit spewed in giant bucketsfull upon my floor.  I swear to god that a child of that size simply should not have been able to contain the sheer amount of vileness that spewed forth.

And I also happen to think this particular child’s digestive system is on the blink, because in the hour’s time that passed between his consumption of our school lunch meat surprise, and its regurgitation upon my classroom carpet, not one single chunk of hot dog had been digested in the slightest amount.  I feel sick just envisioning it.

The worst part was that I was too busy trying to comfort my poor distraught student to realize I should instead be diving for the trash can and shoving it in front of his face.  Give me a few more years with the spewage and I’m sure I’ll get it right.

In any case, this happened around 2:00 this afternoon, and sadly our custodian was off campus at the time.  Being that our school has a 4:00 dismissal time, the rest of my class and I had to suffer through the smell of regurgitated school lunch meat surprise for a full hour and a half.  We were able to crowd into the classroom next door to my own, thus giving us a little relief, but given that Jill (the neighboring teacher) and I share a accordian wall, the smell was not far enough away to save us.
Thank god it’s Friday.  I can only hope if the rest of my class is also contaminated, they will get the puking all out of their system over their weekend and come to school on Monday all chipper and ready to learn.  Yes, I know it’s not kind to wish that upon their parents, but hey, at the very least, the parents probably feed their kids something a bit more appetizing than dead road kill, so maybe there’s a chance the vomit won’t be quite so… memorable.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Bug

Teaching is always fraught with disturbing images, endless fears and boundless hope. You cannot teach without some sense of eternal faith that humanity is worth something, that we are each of us capable of infinite greatness, that we will accomplish much more than we ever dreamed possible.  You cannot teach, at least not effectively, without this true and utterly sincere belief that the children you teach will change the world in infinitely positive ways.  You simply hope that the future will bear out this truth in all its simplicity.

Which is why the bug was so very disturbing.  A tiny image, seared upon my brain forever.  I do not know how it came to end its life in our hallways, but I do know that its passing had such grave importance I shudder even now to remember.

To help you see this image, I must place you within my school setting.  I teach inside a three-floor elementary school building, with open doorways, a product of the open concept classroom of the 70s and 80s.  My classroom is on the second floor, and immediately across the hall from my doorway are two restrooms.  When my class takes a restroom break, we line up along the wall between the doors to the girls’ and the boys’ restrooms, girls on one side, boys on the other.  As the students exit the restroom, they line up on the opposite wall, right outside my classroom’s doorway.  These restrooms are used by three second grade classes and three kindergarten classes, each class made up of some 22-25 students.  Therefore, on any given morning, a full 150 tiny bodies may line up along those walls, waiting for their opportunity to pee.

I suppose if you are a member of the 5-7 age set, the moments spent waiting while 22 of your classmates attend to their bodily functions can be extremely boring.  It is hardly any wonder, therefore, that these children seek ways of entertaining themselves.  They know of course that talking and running and generally acting like its recess time can result in the swift fall of that consequence anvil teachers love to spout about.  Therefore, I suppose other opportunities must be sought, opportunities that are less obvious and as such, undoubtedly of greater value intrinsically.  After all, who can resist the danger of sneaking some revelry in right under a watchful teacher’s evil eye?

Despite knowing this, I will never forget the moment a child squealed “Ms. Culey!” and held out a tiny staple.  Staples in this hallway are a dime a dozen. The hallway is lined with bulletin boards which we are required to keep filled with student work.  Sadly, bulletin boards do not belong on the walls of a hallway that is frequently also lined with 5-7 year old bodies, bouncing up and down, waiting for their moment in the restroom. During any given restroom break, I will generally be offered anywhere from 1 to 6 items that have fallen from a bulletin board due to excessive movement on the part of my students.  And of course, as these items fall, so too fall the staples with which they were pinned to the bulletin board.

What made this staple so unusual was the tiny bug speared upon one of its spikes, looking much like some form of terrible scientific experiment, as if at any moment, the bug might begin to squirm in its death throws while its fascinated audience watched in glee.

I would like to believe that this staple simply fell to the floor at exactly the right velocity and angle, allowing it to spear this tiny bug in a moment of terrible timing and circumstance.  Sadly, the staple was found on the opposite side of the hallway from where the bulletin boards were.  In addition, the bug was so small that the spike of the staple had managed to move completely through its body, so that the bug appeared a permanent feature of the staple — or perhaps more accurately, the staple appeared a permanent feature of the bug’s body, with one side protruding from its belly, the other side from its back.

Perhaps the bug was already dead when a fascinated child decided to spear it so deliberately? But even if this were true, would that make this any better?  Whether it represents a complete disregard for the sanctity of life or simply that of death, he implications left me incredibly disturbed.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Week 3: Tucuman, Jujuy and Salta - Posted from Buenos Aires

4 July 2007
10:15 p.m.

Happy 4th of July!

I spent the morning of the fourth of July traveling by plane from Salta to Buenos Aires, but that's really the beginning of week four. Week three we spent traveling in some very rural areas of northern Argentina.

We left Villa Maria on Tuesday, June 26th and traveled overnight from the Cordoba province to the Tucuman province. We spent Wednesday traveling through Tucuman. We visited the Quilmes ruins, climbing the most amazing cliff to look out across miles of mountains and the ruins of an ancient civilization.

Thursday was an even more amazing day. We began the day in Cafayete at a local winery, where we taste tested a variety of wines, an experience I am certain others would have found much more enjoyable. Personally, I was more interested in the cat that kept wrapping itself around my legs than the wine everyone else thought was wonderfully light and smooth (whatever the hell that means). I'm sure this does not surprise those of you reading to know that I was more interested in the animals than in the wine. I am assured however, by the wine connoisseurs of our group that this was a most amazing experience (personally, I would have been happier with a giant vat of salsa and a book!)

After happily tasting as many wines as possible, we then proceeded to tour the countryside where we waded through streams and climbed a variety of mountains (all quite drunkenly I am sure). First, we stopped by a riverbed, where we had the amazing idea to remove our shoes and socks and wade through the ice cold water, just to see what the experience would be like. I suppose it wasn't any different than any other time you would wade through a river in wintertime, but somehow to us, it was amazingly creative and fun. Like all spontaneously stupid ideas, we neglected to consider the consequences of having muddy feet upon exiting the river. As a result, we spent a good ten minutes attempting to remove mud from between our toes and attempting to dry our feet without getting our socks dirty. This was an exercise in futility. Ultimately, we boarded the bus, much muddier yet somehow extremely content. Those who were party-poopers and chose not to participate have no idea how much fun they missed.

We then traveled through the Quebrada de Cafayate. This was a very large canyon system with multi-colored mountains and ridges to climb. First, we visited “El Obelisco” or the obelisk. This was exactly what it sounds like: a giant obelisk that of course we had to climb. It was steep and ended at a point. We climbed and settled ourselves at various points along the way, creating one of those perfect Kodak moments.

After sliding down the obelisk of death, we ventured further into the Quebrada and visited “El Anfiteatro” a point at which the mountains loomed so close together, they created a natural cavern. The result was an amphitheatre with natural-occurring acoustics. We had the opportunity to sit and listen to some local musicians perform a spontaneous concert at the center of this cavern. The sound was incredible.

Finally, we ventured to the “garganta del diablo” or devil's throat. This was the first time I almost died in Argentina. (For those of you who are unaware, the first time I almost died in Latin America occurred four years ago in Brazil, while river rafting. This was mild in comparison, but the fact remains: I ALMOST DIED.)

Due to the fact that I refuse to allow my lack of athletic ability and coordination to dictate the activities I will participate in, I decided that I would attempt to climb devil's throat just like all those other crazy people, who actually had athletic ability and coordination. This was a mistake. Everyone knew it, but this did not deter me.

With reckless abandon, I attacked the 75 degree angled slope headed upwards. Amy and up should never be used in the same sentence, especially when rocks are involved, nevertheless, I forged ahead without regard for my own personal safety. I also failed to consider the nerves of steel required by my companions while witnesses to my impending rock-climbing disaster.

I should insert here that this is in fact Latin America, which meant of course that the rock-climbing we were participating in did not involve any form of safety nets or harnesses or special equipment. Rather, the only equipment necessary was a hard head and an unlimited supply of stupidity.

And so I climbed. I will have you know that I did not fall on this climb. Nor did I get stuck. However, I did make use of Sammy getting stuck to delay my eventual climb downwards. Yes, our fearless leader climbed even higher than the dumbest of us would go and promptly got stuck. In his words, “it was a lot easier getting up here.” Thirty minutes later, he had finally climbed down to the point the rest of us had climbed up.

Unbeknownst to me, at the bottom of Devil's Throat, the majority of the party waited, not worried about Sammy, who had been stuck for thirty minutes, but rather, obsessing about the fact that I had not yet fallen to my death. They waited, with bated breath, cameras perched, searching in vain for that first glimpse of my graceless arrival at the bottom of Devil's Throat.

Once Sammy was down, this of course meant that the attention was now fully focused upon me and I was of course now required to venture downward. And so, I flung myself forward and slid on my ass straight down that mountain, like the ass-sliding pro I was.

The second time I nearly died in Argentina occurred on the following Monday. The days between my Devil's Throat experience and the Death Slide experience were relatively uneventful. We attended various outdoor markets, took a couple tours of local towns in Salta and of course took endless pictures of the gorgeous mountain scenery surrounding us everywhere we went.

Then, on Monday, we had what I can only refer to as hell day. We arrived in the small town of Iruya on Sunday night. We had traveled lightly, leaving the majority of our luggage in the town of Salta, as Iruya was a mountain town and we were required to walk from the outskirts of town to our hotel where it perched at the very top of the town. This was a straight walk upwards and was not exactly enjoyable, but it was worth it. The hotel was gorgeous and the view from our rooms was absolutely stunning. Monday morning, we got up early and set out for the small town of San Isidro, another small mountain town, set high in the mountains. The only way to arrive at this town was to walk, which is exactly what we did.

We began the walk at the base of the town of Iruya next to a small park. We waited there for the entire group to arrive, and while waiting, became quite enchanted by a slide which appeared to be straight out of a cartoon. It stretched high into the sky, seeming to rival the tallest of mountains, and was a straight shot down. The slide ended with a slight tilt up, set for launching some unsuspecting victim into the atmosphere. Miriam, one of our fearless leaders, decided to climb this slide, but not being the venturous sort, she slid down the slide at approximately 1.2 miles per hour, clinging to the sides and slowly pedaling her way downwards. I of course had to show her the correct way to utilize this marvelous invention.

And so, I climbed the 4000 steps into the sky (okay, it was more like 40, but it seemed terribly high) and after perching at the top of the slide for that perfect Kodak moment, launched myself downwards. I was quite surprised at the speed with which I hurtled downward. I felt like I was in a wind tunnel, I moved so quickly. The ground hurtled toward me at alarming speed, necessitating a shriek of girlish fear.

The best part was my landing. I am told it was
worthy of record books. The way it happened was that I landed on my feet. It was absolutely unbelievable that I would land on my feet when moving so quickly, but land on my feet I did. I am told that I literally shot from a sitting position to a standing position and that my entire upper body ricocheted slightly backward from the force of my landing, but that gravity then pulled me forward. For one split second in time, my entire lower body was still, while my upper body swayed backward then forward. Sadly, gravity was a powerful force that jerked my body forward and down, so that approximately 3 seconds after landing on my feet, I landed on my knees with a horrendous thud.

I did end up with a scraped up knee for the adventure, but also with a series of Amy photos that are worthy of awards. I am particularly fond of the shot of me on my knees laughing hysterically.

The third and final time that I nearly died in Argentina was on the hike from hell. As I mentioned, we were staying in the small mountain town of Iruya and were planning to hike to the “nearby” town of San Isidro to visit an elementary school there.

Two and a half hours later we finally arrived in San Isidro. Those hours can only be described as non-stop torture. Two and a half hours hiking up the mountain, following the rocky riverbed of death - whose great idea was this? We crossed the same river at least twelve times (NOT an exaggeration), rock-hopping across the rapids, which of course filled me with memories of flying down a Brazilian waterfall for my very own special rapids experience. Luckily on this trip, my only close encounter with the rapids involved a misplaced foot that landed in two feet of rushing (and freezing cold) water.

The trip up the mountain was nothing less than torture, a test of our endurance, and it was only sheer stubbornness which kept me pressing forward, especially when the group had a tendency to spread out a bit too much, leaving a couple of us alone at key points of the walk. Good hiking rules were not being followed!

Eventually we arrived within sight of the town. This meant that if we looked up, we could see the town sitting at the edge of a cliff, just waiting for us to climb the final 500 feet straight up.
I of course was more inclined to climb into the back of the ambulance sitting in the middle of the path and take a nap. You might be wondering (as I was) what on earth an ambulance was doing on the side of a mountain. Well, if you looked up in the opposite direction of the town, you could see men standing on the edge of the mountain, swinging picks at the mountain because they were building a road. Presumably the ambulance was there so that if one of these road-builders were to fall off the side of the mountain, first aid would be available on scene immediately.

Despite the pressing need to avail myself of first aid, particularly in the form of an oxygen mask, I pressed onward. We walked uphill quite a ways before arriving at “stairs” leading upwards. These stairs were more like a jagged ramp etched out of the edge of the mountain, headed straight upwards, with the steep drop of death at your right, and the side of the mountain stretching upward to the left. And so we inched along the very edge of the mountainside, bracing one hand against the side of the mountain in the hopes that this tactile connection would prevent an unfortunate stumble across the threshold of death.

Finally, finally, we arrived at the town, visited the school, interacted with kids and promptly took a nap on their playground. This sounds as if we did not enjoy our visit in San Isidro. We did, we were simply so exhausted from our climb, we needed a small power nap to recover.

 I suppose I should mention that I left San Isidro and Iruya feeling quite amazed at the fortitude of the inhabitants of those towns and the neighboring mountains. Some of the children we met take walks similar to our hike up the mountain every single day in order to attend the school we visited (they of course make these walks in a fraction of the time it took us). Some children literally climb up and down the mountain several times a day, just to receive an education, or to tend crops or for some other mountain business. These people are strong and endure living conditions the likes of which I cannot even imagine. Many of the houses we saw were no more than four feet tall, with three walls and a tarp stretched across the roof for protection from the elements.

After walking two and a half hours to arrive at this school, witnessing these people's simple lives, then making the return journey (in more like three and a half hours), I am quite simply struck at how fortunate a life I lead and yet, how these people do not even seem to worry that their lives are not what mine are. They are happy, they are living a life upheld by centuries of tradition and they are certainly more entwined and connected to their roots than I will ever be.

Of all of my experiences during this trip, my visit to San Isidro was undoubtedly the most profound and enlightening of them all, the unending climb over rocky terrain included.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Week 2 in Argentina: Villa Maria and Cardoba

26 June 2007
8:15 p.m.

Well, my time in Villa Maria has officially come to an end.  The first two and a half weeks of my stay in Argentina (minus four days in the hills of Cordoba) have been spent here in the small city of Villa Maria, which is located in the province of Cordoba.  Argentina has 23 provinces and Cordoba lies at the center of the country, much I have been told as Kansas lies at the center of our country.  In any case, this missive covers the past week and a half, which began with a short road trip.

This trip, which later became known as the trip from hell, began promisingly enough.  We all boarded a bus at 8 a.m. to travel to the city of Cordoba, about a three hour bus ride (not too long when compared to our previous 12-hour bus ride from Buenos Aires).  We went on a tour of the city, visited a shopping mall (why on earth when visiting a city in a foreign country these people would choose to visit a shopping mall, I have no idea, but that's where we ended up for lunch and to do some shopping  I couldn't even find a bookstore in this so-called mall, so I generally considered that trip to be a complete waste.)

Eventually we left the mall and found a bookstore, where I promptly bought a trashy romance novel in Spanish (hey, you never know when the words "sexy" and "biceps" might come in handy), and a children's novel I recognized (Artemis Fowl).  Trust me, if you had to settle for reading books in a foreign language, you wouldn’t buy Lord of the Rings either.  

After the bookstore, we headed for an artisan fair, where I promptly bought items that I have no idea how on earth I will be getting them home.  Really they were so far outside the realm of realistic, I don't know what I was thinking.  (No, I did not buy a dining room table.)  However, they might as well have been tables and chairs for the amount of difficulty I'll be having in transporting them.  Thank god I packed a suitcase inside a suitcase.  Basically, I bought artwork for my house and it's awesome but too big to be believed and too heavy for shipping and WHAT WAS I THINKING?  Why can't we have amazingly cool artists willing to sell their gorgeous artwork for a song in the United States, where I could just load my car and drive home?

Anyway, that pretty much sums up the extent of the trip that was reasonable or enjoyable.  We returned to our hotel room, by which point I was not feeling so great and promptly went to bed.  When I woke up the next morning, I had no voice.  And we had to travel.  And so I packed, loaded the FREEZING COLD bus and we hit the road.

We went to an Estancia (a Jesuit plantation) where we saw very cool things and beautiful scenery that I could not appreciate because I was too busy freezing my buttooockus off and hacking up a lung.  Eventually we got back into the freezing cold bus and headed to Ascochinga where we checked into the hotel from HELL.

The original plan was to visit a second estancia, go to dinner and check into the hotel later that night, but because I was obviously miserable, we went to the hotel first and everyone unloaded their luggage, took a restroom break then left me at the hotel while they headed off to visit some other estancia.
I feel it necessary to insert in here that I use the term "hotel" loosely.

Perhaps if I had been feeling better, I might rhapsodize here about the beautiful scenery surrounding the gorgeous cabin in the woods, the rustic feel to the cabin, the wonderfully authentic feel of it all.  

Unfortunately, I was so sick, I was unable to appreciate these aspects of our stay.  Instead, I could only focus on the following:
  1. The temperature outside the cabin was approximately 2 degrees.  The temperature inside the cabin was approximately 20 below zero.  The management had failed to turn on the heat before we arrived and so the cabin was ice cold upon arrival.  After 24 hours of solid heating (and again, I use this vocabulary term loosely), the temperature in the cabin had not risen at all.  I would simply like it noted that central heating should in no way refer to scary-looking radiators that put off enough heat to burn you if you got too close but not enough heat to raise the temperature of the room more than 2.9 degrees.
  2. The first time I attempted to use the toilet was a disaster.  First, finding the handle to flush a toilet in Latin America can often be an adventure.  Handles as we know them do not exist in Argentina.  Instead, there are usually buttons (very well-hidden) or occasionally a cord hanging above one's head.  It took me a while to find the cord, but find it I did.  Sadly, when I pulled it, the damn thing broke apart in my hand.  This necessitated standing upon the bedet to reach above my head to re-attach the damn thing.  After many excruciating moments of reaching above my head trying to tie the two pieces of the cord back together again so that I could flush the damn toilet, I finally met with success.  The stupid thing was back together.  Sadly, the damn toilet would not flush, so I had to climb back up on the bedet and manually flush the stupid thing, which was practically impossible to do without pitching headfirst into the toilet.  I promptly decided the next time I needed to use the toilet I would use one from someone else's room.  Sadly, upon exploration later in the day, I discovered everyone had locked their doors.  The closest restroom necessitated a hike. 
  3. The first time I took a shower, the water sprayed me in the face with the sting of a thousand ice blades.  There were only two settings in the shower:  scalding hot and freezing cold.  I chose scalding hot because I froze the rest of the time.
  4. It was freezing.
  5. The damn toilet didn't work.
  6. I had a headache and I couldn't breathe, I was hacking up two lungs, and it was FREEZING.
  7. The damn toilet didn't work.
This was pretty much my life for the next two days, as everyone else went off to climb mountains of mammoth proportions, leaving me behind to fight the toilet and shiver under a mountain of covers (I raided other people's beds while they were out mountain climbing so that when they came home, they usually found a sheet and that was all).

Eventually after a day of misery, Samuel (the leader of our humble group) brought me some antibiotics he purchased over-the-counter (it's a different world down here) and I spent the next seven days downing pills the size of a horse.

My fellow teachers trooped in on the second night covered in mud and fairly exhausted.  They told tales of scaling mountains the size of Everest and falling down giant slopes into muddy water.  They scoffed at Sammy's leadership abilities, rolling their eyes at the stories of him "leading" them to a point of no return where they had to continue forward even when this would leave them wet and exhausted and ready to mutiny.

I suppose I should give my thanks for the convenience of an illness, but I endured my own form of hell, huddled under my covers, watching my breath swirl around the trashy romance novel I tried to read between each nerve-wracking shiver.  And I was assured by all the weary travelers trooping into our rooms that night that "dear god, it was a lot warmer outside than in this icebox!"
By our final night in this Argentine igloo, the majority of our group had dragged their "mattresses" (or what we might commonly refer to as giant flimsy pillows) into the hallway, where they huddled around various radiators, desperately seeking warmth.

Finally, it was time to move on, so, hacking and coughing, I packed up my things, dragged my weary body to the bus, and huddled under my blankets as we ventured down the road to the next town.  We visited another estancia (their third, my second, and I must admit, having already seen one, I sighed at the thought of enduring another).  However, despite not feeling well, I have to admit the scenery was quite beautiful.

We then went to Che Guevara's childhood home.  It was very interesting learning of his early life.  I had to wonder how a child who grew up so privileged managed to develop such a strong sense of injustice.  It's interesting because in some ways, though his methods for protesting injustice were vastly different from those of Martin Luther King, Che is as great a hero for many Latin American citizens as Martin Luther King is for North American ones.

Eventually we arrived back in Villa Maria, where we settled back in with our host families and continued our rounds to elementary and secondary schools.  We had a chance to observe the Argentine flag ceremony at various schools on June 20 and participate in a few folkloric dancing lessons (I don't think these people understand that I have no rhythm). 

I had a chance to observe in several elementary school classrooms on Friday, both by myself and with another teacher named Tom.  Tom's wife is pregnant and due in August, AND was accepted to participate in this program but chose not to come due to the pregnancy, so I'm thinking he was very brave to come on this program (I know if I were married and my husband abandoned me, he'd probably never survive the trip home, which would probably be one of the many reasons I never plan to marry!)  In any case, we had a lot of fun with the students, quizzing them in English and giving them prizes if they could answer appropriately (prizes were from Kansas like a bookmark, pencil, that sort of thing). 

The most bizarre thing I've seen in a school so far though has to be the video shown as part of a sixth grade presentation.  It involved very loud and ominous music, incomprehensible words (even if they had been in English, they still would have been incomprehensible), fleeting war-like images, etc.  They took us through the history of the man who created the Argentine flag (his name escapes me at the moment) and his very important role in history, but in such a bizarre, disturbing fashion I'm surprised the children didn't all have nightmares.  If I showed something like that to my students, I'd undoubtedly get fired (though this was presented by sixth graders, all primary students attended the presentation, so yes, there were 1st and 2nd graders there).

Our last Sunday in Villa Maria, we had a dinner / talent show for the families.  By talent show, I really mean a non-talent show.  My contribution was to put together a slide show of a collection of our photographs to share with the families.  I even inserted background music (all appropriate Spanish songs) and everything.  It was lovely, except for the whole non-working sound system which meant the Spanish songs I slaved over were barely audible.  Then, and don't ask me how this happened, I got roped into singing Yankee Doodle Dandy (like I even know the words) and Home on the Range.

THEN, as if things weren't already bad enough, we danced the Cha Cha Slide and the Chicken Dance, all to practically non-existent music, at which point, we decided we'd shown enough non-talent, and ended with a giant bonfire and S'Mores, which were a big hit (thank god - we needed something to redeem us from tripping over each other while doing the reverse during the cha-cha slide).  Overall, it went well, and hopefully those video tapes of me singing and dancing will meet some unfortunate and tragic end.

We ended our school visits in Villa Maria at Escuela Granja, a school that specializes in teaching boys who have been working in the streets of Villa Maria.  Each of us brought activities to do with these boys and we had a wonderful time, drawing, painting, sewing, playing dodgeball and cooking S'Mores.  The kids LOVED the activities, and the S'Mores were a big hit, once again, with both staff and students.  Note to self:  when traveling to a foreign country, ingredients for S'Mores are a must-have.  With these in hand, I am guaranteed to be loved and remembered for all the days of my long and graceless life.

One of the things I noticed the most in traveling from school to school is that it really didn't matter whether we were in a private school, public school or some combination of the two, heating was non-existent.  Students and teachers alike were bundled in layers, completing their work and teaching while draped in scarves, hats, gloves and heavy outerwear.  At some of the poorer schools, like La Granja and a school that served the children of migrant workers from Bolivia, children also came to school dressed in the same outfits day after day, and were often covered in dirt and sweat.  Many children worked at home or in the fields or at some other place of employment before arriving at school.  A number of boys were seen washing windows and completing other odd jobs around town, while still more were reported to work at a brickyard completing masonry work.  These boys ranged in age from 9 to 15.  Every last one of them broke my heart and filled me with a bittersweet hope for their future.  With so much going on in their lives, the fact that these children still make it to school on a fairly regular basis is an amazing accomplishment, and is a tribute to the teachers who work so hard to make sure these students know that they are missed when they do not show up for school.  The dedication of these teachers becomes even more apparent when one learns that an average teacher's salary here is typically 900 pesos (or 300 U.S. dollars) a month.

I suppose that sums up our Villa Maria experiences:  families, friends, schools, teachers, students and real moments filled with real teaching and real life.  Ultimately, we had a lot of fun and a lot of laughs, plus a few embarrassing moments as well (like when a fellow unnamed, and no it wasn't me, teacher mentioned at a school, in front of a number of teachers, the principal and 20 high school students, that the U.S. might actually beat Argentina in the soccer match since it was on our home turf and stranger things have happened, only instead of saying home turf which is "cancha" she said "concha" which is slang for pussy).  Yeah, things have definitely been interesting.

And it's time for me to wrap things up here for I'm leaving my host family's home in a few moments to catch a bus north.  We're heading into the foothills of the Andes next.  Life is definitely on fire right about now.  

More later!


Thursday, June 21, 2007

Week 1 in Argentina

Buen di­a, amigos!

Well, I have survived my first week in Argentina and what a week it has been!  I feel like I have been here a month (or more) so much has happened.  First, the trip here was unbelievably long.  We were delayed leaving Kansas City by several hours (due to the threat of thunderstorms) and were concerned we were going to miss our flight to Buenos Aires as a result.  Luckily, the flight to Buenos Aires was also delayed (as we arrived in Atlanta, Georgia a full forty minutes AFTER our international flight was scheduled to depart).  Once we boarded the plane in Atlanta, we waited so long to take off we had to return to the terminal to be refueled.  Then we had the lovely overnight ten hour flight from hell.  Once we arrived in Buenos Aires, we were forced to circle the airport for almost an hour due to fog in the city.  We finally landed, gathered our luggage, went through customs, and immediately caught a bus for a twelve hour trip to the interior of the country.  To give you an idea of how long we had been traveling, I left my house in Kansas City at noon on Thursday afternoon.  We did not arrive in Villa Maria until 10:30 Friday night.  We were utterly and completely exhausted by then.

My host family greeted me at the bus stop.  They are a family of four - Leticia (or Leti) the mom, Eduardo (or Edu) the dad, Leila who is 12 and Elin who is 9.  I was so excited to be placed in a family with children again (children always make the experience so much more enjoyable) and they are truly a lovely family.  Leticia and Eduardo have gone out of their way to make the most wonderful vegetarian meals for me - they have made the most unbelievable vegetable tartas (the best I can compare them to is a vegetable pie, some like a pot pie and some more like a pizza).  And speaking of pizza, Eduardo has made some incredible vegetable pizzas.  Not to mention the salads and postres (desserts that are absolutely to die for).  I'm eating VERY well here, most definitely better than I eat at home.

The girls are thrilled with the gifts I brought for them - the three Sandra Boynton CD/book collections from Kohl's.  This is a very musical family, so the gift was very much appreciated.  Leila has already learned the words to one of the songs from Dog Train AND has learned to play it on the piano as well (as the music scores are included at the back of each book).

As for my experiences in Villa Maria, we have been on the go from the day we arrived, visiting schools, speaking with students and teachers, and attending lectures.  All of the schools have welcomed us with open arms, usually offering providing some form of refreshments and often giving us a gift as well.  Today we visited a vocational school (a lecheria where students participate in processing of dairy products) and were given a gift bag with a block of goat cheese and a jar of dulce de leche (a sweet caramel-like substance that is found in many of their desserts).

And what is Argentina like you might be asking (seeing as I'm rambling about food and schools, but am not really saying anything of particular interest).  Well, first and foremost, Argentina is currently very COLD.  It seems even colder due to the lack of central heating.  Some of you may be thinking that I'm probably exaggerating since I hate the cold, but trust me, when they said winter, they meant winter.  Luckily, Leticia had an extra winter coat she was able to loan me, because otherwise, I'd be utterly miserable.  Of course, my body is having a riot trying to understand why it went from summer to winter so quickly and I have a terrible cold to go with the wacky change in seasons.

What else can I tell you about my experiences here?  The people here in Villa Maria are by far some of the kindest people I have met anywhere.  When you enter their store or restaurant or business, they are thrilled to greet you.  They welcome you with a kindness that never feels artificial and are willing to spend as much time with you as needed, patiently wading through our sometimes limited Spanish.  I can also say most sincerely that all of the people here on this trip with me are wonderful.  Everyone is so concerned about everyone else, sharing medicine and ideas and clothing so that each person has what he or she needs.

Of course, things here are not perfect.  Life in Argentina moves along at its own pace.  No one is in a hurry; things happen when they happen.  I've visited a local travel agency every day for four days in a row, trying to arrange hostel stays in Buenos Aires and Foz do Iguacu, and each day, after a lovely, meandering conversation about everything we can possibly think of, all of it in Spanish; Mariana tells me that she is still waiting to hear from the hostel in Buenos Aires, is working on arrangements for Iguacu, and should have more information for me the next day.  And so I return the following day, to indulge in another lovely conversation and to receive the same information again.

It's impossible to become upset because Mariana is so kind and because she is doing the best she can, waiting on others to respond to her attempts to contact them, etc.  It is quite simply a different pace and in most aspects, it's very nice not to be rushed and stressed and watching the clock all the time.  On the other hand, when it's freezing out and all I want to do is buy a warmer pair of socks, but can't because all the shops are closed for siesta (which lasts four HOURS), I have to wonder which is better - the laidback, relaxed society where I can't buy a pair of socks to save my life, or the extremely time-conscious society that will have me popping pills for stress before the age of 40 but with a hundred pairs of socks all neatly arranged in my dresser drawers.

I've also had to get used to the whole no seatbelt thing again.  I honestly don't know which is worse -  sitting in the front seat of a remis, seatbelt securely fastened but with a birds eye view of the insanity of Argentine drivers or sitting in the backseat where no seatbelts can be found at all, but a little further away from the disaster of a cab driver.  Either way, your life typically flashes before your eyes while you hold on for dear life.

I have almost had a heart attack more than once as our remis barrels through an intersection at top speed (apparently the government of Argentina has decided that stop signs and stop lights are unnecessary expenses and instead chooses to rely on the fast reflexes of its insane citizens).  Indeed, there are very few stop lights to be found anywhere and I have yet to see a stop sign at all.  Most intersections are considered a free-for-all, so as cars approach the intersection, an interesting sort of dance occurs.  Whoever reaches the intersection first gets the dubious pleasure of barreling on through.  Whoever arrives in second place taps the brakes enough to skate through the intersection at a slightly slower speed than that of a rocket, narrowly missing the bumper of the first vehicle.  Individuals riding bikes and motorcycles tend to hurtle through these intersections as well, showing little regard for their own safety.  I have been disturbed on numerous occasions by the sight of a child sandwiched between its parents on the back of a motorcycle (I wouldn't take a child for a ride on a motorcycle in the middle of the country with only cows around to get in my way, let alone in the middle of an Argentine city populated by kindness and crazy driving).

And let's just say that pedestrians are taking their lives into their own hands when choosing to cross a street.  In Argentina it might be better to choose a particular turn to make and stick to it (i.e., when leaving the house, take a right and continue taking rights at every intersection, thus negating the necessity to ever cross a street.  Sure you'll probably end up walking in circles, but it beats getting hit by a car!)

I am certain there is much more to share about my first week in Argentina - like being interviewed by a local newspaper and quite innocently stating that we were here to have fun, and to learn about the culture and history of Argentina.  This seemed an honest statement to me, but divertirnos (to have fun) in Spanish apparently gave the impression that we were party chicas and only here for the quilmes (local beer).

In any case, it is time to wrap this up as I have a 7:30 a.m. bus to catch headed for Cordoba, and I need to get some sleep before then.  So let me just end by saying that:

Argentina es de lindo!