Saturday, June 7, 2014

Getting Closer to Goodbye

My four original students, all demonstrating pretty accurately
their individual personalities. All photo credits go to the amazing
Emily Pettinger.
Once again, far too much time has elapsed between posts. The last time I posted it was just about May and we had all begun to think in earnest about the approach of going home. Now, just a few days away from the two month mark, the thought of leaving occupies more and more of our thoughts. We're planning our goodbyes, setting goals and making to-do lists.

My thoughts and feelings about leaving are, as always, a mix. The last month was harder than I expected. I had hoped, starting out in May, that the last three months would be easy ones, filled with great parting moments with the kids and finally a sense of deep-rooted security in my place here. The month started with our final retreat as a volunteer community. We went to the beach and spent a long weekend in a beautiful practically-beach-front house donated to us by friends of friends. It had air conditioning, hot running water and cable TV, so basically paradise. I spent my 23rd birthday on May 8 floating in the  Caribbean Sea and chowing on spaghetti with meat sauce and red wine. It was a wonderful retreat. We all enjoyed one another's company more than we ever had before and had plenty of down-time to be in it. The retreat consisted mostly of looking back at our time at Amigos. We shared stories, laughed and cried together. And we ate amazing, ultra-gringo food, like bagels and cream cheese and cold-cut sandwiches. (As Amy, our director, observed oh so aptly, Hondurans never eat cold food! Even the milk in breakfast cereal gets heated up).

Over those four days I missed the kids a lot. I wrote down stories of things that had happened and spent a lot of time thinking about the kids who were important to me, the things they had shared with me, their terrible suffering, the ways they had made me laugh so hard, and the intenseness of my love for them.

I came back from retreat ready for the last three months to be one big high culminating in a heart-wrenching goodbye. I still haven't learned that there will always be good and bad, that there has to be. That life here, and everywhere, is always a mix of ups and downs. We aren't, after all, really in paradise yet. The bads make the goods real.

The boys and I present our science fair experiment,
"The Amazing Egg," another good moment in May.
A week after coming back from retreat I got sick. The insidious thing about it was that I was only really bed-ridden, not-able-to-move sick for maybe a day. The rest of the two weeks the darn thing held on I was okay enough to walk around and work, but feeling like I had a giant sack of potatoes on my back. I was tired all the time, always felt nauseous, and never had an appetite. I watched as my clothes got looser as day after day of practically no eating went by and still I wasn't hungry. I finally was able to start taking in earnest the antibiotic I had brought with me in the second week and after about four days I started to feel better. I'll never be quite sure what I had.

The week before I got sick, four new children came to the hogar, a four-year-old boy, two girls aged 8 and 10, and a 10-year-old boy. My main teaching job during the day is working in our transitional classroom, which is theoretically supposed to be just for new kids who come to the hogar, assessing their levels and placing them in appropriate classrooms. The thing is, since our bilingual program can't take new kids after Christmas, kids who might be a fit for one of those classrooms have to stay in transitional. We had gotten three new kids right before Christmas so those three were in my class, plus a fourth with such severe behavioral issues that there was no other place for him. I had had those four boys since starting with the classroom after my vacation in January. It had been tough. Three of the four have learning disabilities, all are at different academic levels, and all have behavior problems. But the four had gelled. I had English goals for them and was working through a science curriculum. In math I worked with just the most advanced two and it was enough because even with two the levels were completely different. Even though behavior was a constant battle, I felt like I had finally begun to get a handle on it and had a system that they at least understood, if they didn't always respect it.

Then, new kids. The week I got sick was the week three of the four were introduced to my class. It was Wednesday. I was constantly vacillating on whether or not to go to see a doctor, but with such a big change, I couldn't miss school. When I needed energy, creativity and patience more than ever I found instead a sack of potatoes. After that first day I felt completely overwhelmed. I realized, with a touch of pride, just how far my four had come in English using the bilingual approach I had copied from the teachers in our bilingual program. How to bridge that gap? Science was easy enough to just continue where we had left off with a new unit. But my math class doubled to four, all at different levels. The three new ones had to be exposed to classroom procedures and had not a few behavior problems of their own. As the second week started, the fighting that had always happened between my four was augmented by bickering between the three, who had lived together in the state-run home, and spats between the newbies and the oldies.
My special needs student, Rana!

Of course, it could have been much worse. The new kids could never have been exposed to school before, as has happened with other new arrivals, and been totally illiterate. They could have had severe learning disabilities, and the spectrum of behavior issues goes way beyond what I've seen in the kids so far. But the days are hard. My school day has no breaks or planning periods. I go from mornings in pre-school and with my special needs student, Rana, to after-recess classes with transitional, to after-lunch library classes, which have gotten harder and harder to plan as I reach absolute rock-bottom on ideas (I've been teaching these classes since late August). All in all, May closed with a very burnt-out Joanna who has vowed never to be a teacher again. (That's a little dramatic - check back in ten years :]).

So, as much as I hate to admit it, I've started a mental countdown to going home. I miss its comforts, I miss my family, and I'm so very tired here right now. The biggest countdown of all is to the end of teaching. This Monday marks just three more weeks since I'll be teaching only until the end of June. For the month of July I'll be helping out with a summer camp for the kids in our bilingual program. The summer camp is being mostly run by a group of month-long volunteers coming down from the states so the burden of planning doesn't fall to me at all. I'm so grateful to have a change of pace for my last full month here. The first weeks of August, leading up to our depart date on August 12, the six of us volunteers will be running a summer camp for the kids, which also promises to be fun.

The biggest disappointment for the month of May was how grumpy I was all the time and how short-tempered I felt. I feel like the kids saw too much of a very angry, frustrated Joanna. I hope that in these last two months I can be more myself again. I don't want them to remember me as always grumpy, always tired.

My Mother's Day escort.
But, of course of course, May had its good moments. One interesting, bitter-sweet one was Mother's Day. Here, as for father's day, all women are celebrated on Mother's Day. And, as on father's day, that meant that we women were put through two celebrations, one on the hogar side, and one in the school. As the celebrations came closer I confided in one of the teenagers here that I felt uncomfortable being the center of attention. I'm not a real mom after all. He basically gave it to me. "What do you mean you're not a mother? These kids don't have moms," he said, waving his hand over the field we were looking at where the kids were playing soccer. "And you're here, taking care of them. Being a mom doesn't mean you have hijos, your own children." I was a little taken aback and said I hadn't thought of it that way. "You should think then," he said. He's a frank kid, and coming from him it wasn't as harsh as it sounds. But lesson learned. I needed to learn to receive graciously, to let the culture celebrate me, to not always be on the giving end.

Mother's Day meant dinners where we sat at tables set aside specially for the women, served first. At the hogar, they took us all at noon one day to a neighboring farm with a swimming pool and gave us a spa day, complete with manicures and wine. We got all dressed up there and came back to the hogar for a dinner and fiesta. At the school, there was a presentation of songs and performances and another fiesta. Both were so much fun. And I got a mother's day card from one of my students that made me cry and cry.

Maybe because mothers were on their minds, kids wanted to talk about their moms more in those days. The subject would come up suddenly, unexpectedly in a conversation. One mother had died when the boy was young. Another mentioned how much he would like to just know where she was. Another said he dreams about her sometimes, walking away down a long street. Learn to graciously receive.

I think about moments like these and the kids behind them, the kids I've gotten close enough to to have conversations like this, and my heart still breaks at the thought of leaving. Yesterday at breakfast I was sitting with one of my favorites, an all-around good kid who is 15 and in many ways seems younger, but also often older. It's become common for the subject of our leaving to come up with the kids a lot and yesterday it came up with this kid at breakfast. He was one of the new arrivals who I went to pick up in my first week from the state-run home so he saw the old group of volunteers leave and has always understood that our parting will come too. He asked, for the umpteenth time, what day we were leaving. I told him and he kind of groaned, like he does in library when he gets passed out an assignment he doesn't want to do and said, "I'm going to miss you." Then he said, "You're going to be weird when you go back to the states, aren't you." I asked him what he meant. He said, "You're going to be missing Honduras. You're going to feel weird and sad." I was stunned at his perceptiveness. Most kids, certainly myself at his age and often now, wouldn't be able to put themselves in another's experience that way. I've never heard another kid express so perceptively what it must feel like for the volunteers who leave. That takes incredible maturity. He's a really special kid. 

Dammit, they're all such special kids. They're all such incredibly frustrating, exasperating, disrespectful, resilient, miraculous, loving, life-altering kids. What am I going to do without them?

1 comment:

  1. Likewise, they are really lucky to have you.