Colombia: The Risk is Choosing the Slowest Line at the Grocery Store and other stories

Fifteen hypothetical chapters (blog posts?) that would star in a work of non-fiction about my (ahem, first) year in Colombia.

  1. What Were My High School Teachers Doing On Weekends?
  2. I’m 94% Sure This Is Illegal In My Country
  3. ¿De Donde Eres?: The Conversation I’ve Repeated At Least 700 Times
  4. Using the Green-Eyed Gringa Smile to Get What You Want
  5. Seven Buses, One Day: How to Travel When You’re Too Poor for Airplanes
  6. Stretching The Volunteer Budget with Arepa Consumption
  7. Thanks, Capitan Obvio. You Are Correct In Pointing Out That I’m NOT From Here.
  8. Many People in the United States and Other Western Nations Would Not Be Comfortable With This
  9. There’s Gotta Be a More Efficient Way
  10. How to Spot Colombian Boyfriends Performing Mundane Tasks
  11. Using Interpretation and Secret Agent Skills to Figure Out WTF Is Going On
  12. Why Fairfield County-esque Schools Would Fire My Ass and Maybe Put Me in Jail
  13. Offensively Personal Questions and Public Violations of Personal Space
  14. Interpreting Mispronounced English Without Upsetting Sensitive Teenagers
  15. What Can I Climb or Jump Off Here?
  16. Things That Are Totally Obnoxious When Students Do or Say Them, But Hysterically Funny When It’s My Friends and Me

    #17: Giving one another mustaches in public places, for example.

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An Open Letter to My Students

My school year is rapidly coming to a close – simultaneously speeding and dragging towards November 16th. I’m trying to conclude chapters and concepts while the kids have thrown all discipline out the window in favor of not shutting up ever. I was asked to write something about my experience at GMSB this year for the school newspaper, and it didn’t seem right to just list a bunch of clichés about my life being changed, inspiration, culture, molding minds and making a difference. So, without further ado, and leaving out the parts about the frustration and emotional drain: a reflection, directed towards those who ultimately shaped my experience.

An Open Letter to My Students

Carito me habla en inglés, qué me dice yo no sé…

I guess Carlos Vives didn’t understand his English teacher. Can you believe that? He probably wasn’t listening to her. Crazy, right guys? That’s guys, not gays, so don’t start unless you want to get me on my soapbox again. (Don’t try to translate soapbox with Google. I am not literally talking about jabón here, and definitely not a box of soup.)

Where were we? Something about listening, and English. Remember when you thought I didn’t speak Spanish, and you all freaked out? Funny thing is, you understand my alien language now, even if you don’t know it or don’t believe it. At the very least you know “sit” and “open your notebooks,” though there seem to be a lot of different interpretations on your end. Speaking is still a struggle because it is so darn EMBARRASSING!!! Or so you say.

Nine months ago, I showed up and terrified or intrigued you with my weird accent and exotic green eyes. I talked to you in a language that most of you only heard regularly from music or TV, and I ssstrongly ssscolded you for trying to put an “e” before words like school and stop. I was probably as curious and confused by all of you as you were by me.

Learning a new language is hard. Ten years later I’m still botching conditional tenses in Spanish and I can never remember the word for “needle.” That’s why I don’t expect you to be fluent English speakers after this year, and why I get so excited when you get the littlest things right. Seriously, when I hear someone say, “Hoy te entendí, profe!” I know I made the right choice by teaching.

I came to Colombia to teach English. I suppose I’ve accomplished that, more or less. I was teaching and some of you were learning. Some of you were doodling, or sleeping. All of you were texting. The most important thing, though, wasn’t vocabulary or possessive pronouns. It was being a breathing example of the importance of language, cultural exchange and travel. An example of what’s gained through a little courage, a little confidence and a little recklessness.

I started learning a language – your language – when I was your age, and it ultimately brought me here, to Gimnasio Moderno Santa Barbara. Fourteen-year old me would be pretty psyched to know that twenty-four year old me was in Colombia, all because of that silly high school Spanish class. Twenty-four year old me would love to see as many of you break through your comfort zones as possible, see the world and follow your passions.

I undoubtedly gained more from 130 of you this year than you gained from one of me, and I think that’s ok. You’ll have more English teachers, but I don’t know when I’ll have more students. I do know I’ll never have the same students.

So, thanks. Thanks for the smiles, the hugs, the candy and the laughs. Thanks for enough good days to make up for the bad days, or at least enough to not make me quit. Whether you passed, failed, triple-paged the Observador, ignored me all year or were one of the hilarious, friendly and sweet faces I looked forward to seeing every day, I’ll remember you. I’ll miss you. Thank you for an unforgettable, extraordinary year.

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The Day of the English, and the Pilgrims Hugged the Native Americans.

How do I even begin to describe English Day? I mean, adjectives are easy. Stressful. Chaotic. Loud. Confusing. Educational (?). Red. White. Blue. Cute. Hilarious. Exciting. Messy. Exhausting. Fun. That all describes my average Monday-Friday at school, so what was this English Day that practically sucked out my soul but put me in absolute adrenaline rush Control Freak Organizational Championship of the World status?

Colombians are big on Special Days, especially at school. English Day is common in a lot of schools here, and it’s a specific day set aside to celebrate English education. This year, we (the English department, aka two other teachers and I) decided to be extra ambitious. First, we wanted to organize an inter-scholastic English spelling bee, then have students put on performances in the afternoon with the theme of U.S. holidays. Phewf. The weeks leading up to the Day itself were absolute locura and left me dreading the morning it would all come together – but it did. The spelling bee was impressive and – aside from some on-stage tears by the littlest kids – smooth sailing. My UConn roommate Kasey was in town and some of my WorldTeach friends came too. The afternoon performances were perhaps less than…informative of our holidays, but highly entertaining.

The Run Down:

- 4th and 5th graders prancing around with hand painted Easter eggs….

- 7th graders dancing to Katy Perry (only girls, because they got into a big fight with the boys and kicked them out of the dance the day before)

- My 8th graders playing a Christmas rock ‘n’ roll mash-up (and due to communication errors not singing Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer that they totally mastered with Kasey’s help)

- 11th graders coming out of left field with a New Year’s Eve dance to “New York, New York”

He spells, he sings Sinatra…what can’t this guy do?

- 10th grade boys rocking Cotton Eye Joe (obviously my idea) and Michael Jackson (obviously their idea) versus the girls dancing to Adele – 4th of July, the Yankees vs. the Brits, get it??

- 9th grade leprechauns with an adorable Dropkick Murphys and Britney Spears combination (festive correlation lost somewhere)

- 6th graders dancing to Thriller

- 2nd and 3rd graders…oh my god I will never look at my favorite holiday the same ever again because it will never be as precious as their Thanksgiving performance. It involved a lot of hugging, a poem about turkeys and a special dance performance.

Picture quality is icky because of the terrible auditorium lights (and 16 year old assistants)  but you get the idea.

Now, I breathe again.

And hear someone humming the Chicken Dance tune at least once a day. And join in. That’s what we call cultural diffusion.

(Apologies for repeated pictures, disorder, and overall blog hiatus. Internet problems, always.)

Family Day.

Recently, in the midst of all 7 billion things I had going on the past two weeks, Gimnasio Moderno Santa Barbara dedicated a Sunday to school Family Day. Family Day was part fair, part pageant, part talent show and all fundraising for new computers and technology. There were food sales, intense bingo, raffles, auctions and of course a vallenato band performing. The teachers also performed a typical Colombian dance that had me frustrated to tears during the rehearsals (EVERYONE YELLING LOUDLY IN SPANISH AND NOT EXPLAINING THINGS CLEARLY) but came out pretty well according to the audience.

Despite some debilitating afternoon downpours, Family Day was highly successful for our school. And now, if anyone in Tabio had any doubt about who I am, they know. Sigh.

Not that I’m counting…

Eight 90-minute classes to a weekend in Boyaca. Twelve more until Ecuador and Medellin.

The lack of seasons in Bogotá/Tabio has me bugging out about the passing of time. Having spent 24 years gauging life’s milestones by appropriate New England weather patterns, I don’t understand that it’s now summer at home, and people are drinking seasonal brews near a body of water or on the patio at Main Street. My father is sitting in an Adirondack chair on the deck spying on the neighbors, everyone is wearing sandals and listening to happy, summery country music. Is that really happening? Here, when it’s raining and chilly, people say it’s winter. When it’s warm and sunny, it’s summer. When it’s both simultaneously, it’s Colombia. Although I’m really only fond of the warm parts of seasonal weather, I miss the organization.

Sunny but raining…It’s pouring in this picture of my backyard. I kid you not.

So here we are, June. These recent weeks have been nuts with the end of the second marking period, long weekends and getting ready for my mid-year vacation. We just had our WorldTeach Mid-Service conference, which entailed Bogota, Cali and Medellín volunteers joining forces at a finca/hotel outside the capital to talk about hating/loving everything about our experiences so far. It was nice to be back in the group (the interior half at least), remember how amazing we are and that it’s ok to whine sometimes.

The halfway point of the school year is all kinds of stressful, but while I’m adding up grades and fending off the whiners, I feel a million times more organized and confident than I did at the end of the first marking period. I am still quite possibly doing everything wrong, of course. I thought this might be an appropriate time to publish something I wrote a few months back and finally touched up, so check out the next post if you’re interested in some abstract, 100% Made In Colombia words from the brain behind this blog.

Dia del Profe

Riddle: How many times can one commemorative holiday be observed by a school of 200?

Answer: Thus far, maxing out at three, with intentions of four. Colombia’s Día del Profesor (Teacher’s Day) was officially Tuesday, May 15. Wikipedia tells me it marks John the Baptist’s appointment as patron saint of teachers? Sure.

Tuesday was marked by cheery students, aware that they were missing most of their classes, wishing me a happy day and some bearing gifts. I got candy, cards, notes and even perfume from a seventh grader. At mid-morning the celebrations started with a tae-bo aerobics instructor that the students had invited…naturally. Then the teachers shared a brunch of crepes and fruit salad also collaborated by the students. In the afternoon, everyone gathered in the auditorium for a video tribute to the teaching staff, followed by a mariachi band also organized by the students. It was really fun and I appreciated it at a different level – as someone who has probably never known that Teacher’s Day was a real thing.

Celebration number two was rather anticlimactic. Minuto de Dios, the large corporation that runs my school and some of my friends’, had a routine Saturday meeting for all the teachers in the system. Normally, we play the volunteer card and don’t attend, but there was talk of Teacher’s Day recognition so it seemed like a good time to show our faces. It ended up being church, team-building and trivia with an underwhelming though appreciated lunch.

The third invitation came from Oscar Lozano, one and only Mayor of Tabio. All teachers in Tabio (I think nine schools in total?) were invited to lunch on Friday. Afternoon classes canceled, we were treated to a huge cookout lunch of meat, potatoes, avocado and yucca and an excellent live band playing salsa, merengue and vallenato. Beers were flowing all afternoon but the real fun started when waiters delivered a bottle of aguardiente to each table and the dancing commenced. Have I mentioned that I adore Colombians?

The Parents Association was supposed to have a lunch for us today as their contribution, but it was canceled.

Día del Profesor Official Tally

Celebrations: 3

Anthems sung: National (twice), Cundinamarca (once), Tabio (once)

Live bands: 2

Meals: 3

Snap bracelets from 7th graders: 1

Tae-bo: 1 hour

Attractive gym teachers from other schools: 1

Canceled classes: 5

Cheers (both the drink kind and the voice kind): many