Daily walks from the classroom to the dining hall with the four year-old students at my volunteer placement really should be enjoyable. The kids couldn’t possibly be more adorable, with their shiny black hair and dimpled smiles. The weather is lovely and the school grounds are charming. But as these cherubims stroll along the fence of the vegetable garden, they have only one dark goal in mind. Their eyes pass over every leaf and under every rock, despite my pleas to face forward and walk faster. I cringe and pray they don’t find a victim. But without fail, every time, I hear their squeals: “caracol! caracol!”
Snail genocide is the only way to describe it. I’ve seen them smash and crush and ooze more snails (caracoles) in one week than I thought humanly possible. The usual method is to toss them onto the sidewalk, so that each person in the line can step on the shelled critter till there is nothing left but green goo. I yell. I wave my arms like a mad person. I consider alerting PETA. But then I remember that they are four, and there are much, much bigger things to worry about in this world.
During the first two days assisting their teacher, I worried that I would be more of a hindrance than a help. My understanding of their fast-paced Spanish was poor, and everything about me was a novelty and a distraction to the children. From my watch, to the zipper on my sweatshirt, to the color of my eyes, I was studied up close and pawed with gummy little fingers. I was not an adult to obey, but a new toy to inspect. Taking them to hacer pichi (go peepee) was a fun exercise to see who could get away with the worst behavior in the bathroom or even escape into the playground beyond.
I came in with grand hopes of coddling and loving these little angels right into prosperity, like everyone seems to be doing in international volunteering brochures, but that behavior was nipped in the bud by la profesora: ”Please, Meghan, you must be serious with the children to maintain control and order. If they grab your hand, say no and pull them off. If they misbehave, yell ‘no’, fuerte!”
There are times that we can be sweet with the students, but more often than not we have to be authoritative. A ratio of two adults to twenty-four niñitos is unforgiving. At times, my frustration mounts and I yell at the kids to keep them in line, and I immediately feel guilty. Aren’t I a volunteer? A visitor and ambassador from another country? Shouldn’t I be more Mary Poppins, less Nurse Ratched?
Luckily, Friday brought with it a glimmer of hope. While the students transferred their little plantas (beansprouts) from wads of cotton to cups of soil, I sat next to a few of them and asked them what they would call their plants. Thinking this was another translation failure on my part, they responded, “es una planta” or “pepita.”
“If you have a dog or cat at home, he has a name, right? So why can’t your plantas have names too?”
Puzzled stares. Awkward pause. Great, now I’m not only an ineffective teacher but a crazy one too.
“Oo, Barbie!!” exclaimed a wide-eyed Estela.
I could have cried with joy. A beansprout named Spongebob. As simple an exercise as it seems, I was conversing with the kids and drawing out creative responses. I had graduated, at least for the moment, from being the new toy to the new teacher. And we now have a garden of beansprout cartoon characters to show for it.
I continue to learn from them every day. My vocabulary is growing along with my patience. I’m letting go of expectations of perfection and embracing the humor of dead snails and poorly aimed urination. Mostly, I am humbled, and remain in a constant state of awe of the teachers for the work they do every day. Each day has been an adventure and there are many more to come.