“Class, who can read this sentence on the chalkboard for me?” I ask.
“Oh! Oh! Me! Me! Me!” At least seven of my eleven third-grade students yell out, squirming in their seats.
“Okay, Misael, what does it say?”
“Ummmmm.” An embarrassed smile races across his face, then as he glances out of the corner of his eye mischievously, “Ba-do-dee-choo.”
“No. No it doesn’t say that. Try again.”
“Okay are you trying to speak Chinese?” A fit of giggles erupts throughout the class and Misael realizes he has me exactly where he wants me.
“Yes, Chinese,” he says, and stretches his eyes sideways as the class explodes with laughter.
“Well, this is English class,” I say, as calmly as possible, “so who else can try reading this sentence? In… En…glish.”
“Teacher!” Misael shouts out.
“I get a star for reading the sentence, right?” We give out stars for good behavior in class and checks for poor behavior. Three checks and you get a detention.
“Well, you didn’t actually read the sentence, Misael.”
“Yes I did.”
“No. No, I was listening, and you didn’t. You said ‘Ding-ling-bow-bah’ and…” The class is bowled over laughing now and I realize I’ve made an enormous mistake. ”You don’t get a star. End of discussion.”
“Teacher!” Shouts out Jenni.
“Yes, what does the sentence say?”
“I had four stars yesterday, and now I only have three. You erased one of them.”
“I didn’t erase – I just want someone to read the sentence on the – why would I erase your star Jenni? And I don’t remember you having four. You can earn more today if you want. Who…” I feel a tug on the ankle of my pants and look down. Andres is curled up in a ball behind me, grinning. I have no idea how he got there.
“May I help you?” I ask.
“Charlie is thirsty,” he says.
“Well he can… wait who is Charlie?”
Andres points to a small, young fern planted in an empty three liter Coke bottle sitting next to him on the ground.
“That’s Charlie?” Eleven heads nod sincerely at me.
“Well, we can water Charlie later,” I say.
“You’re killing him,” a voice says quietly and indistinguishable from the group. Somewhere in back.
“I… wait, no. I’m not killing him. I’m just saying now is not the time. We need to read the sentence on the board. Andres, go back to your seat. Now. Get up. Stop touching my foot and go back to your seat please. Thank you. Okay sit down in your seat, don’t just stand by it. Thank you. Sit… Thank you.”
“Teacher?” Another asks.
“Can I borrow a pencil?”
“But I can’t find mine!”
“You should be more responsible.”
“But it was right here and now it’s gone!”
“Have you looked under your seat?
“You should look under your seat then.”
“But why can’t I borrow one from you?”
“Okay! Who can read the sentence on the board please?”
“Me! Me! Me!” Ten more hands shoot into the air. I noticed in the back Juan isn’t raising his hand, or apparently, even listening as he stares out of the classroom.
“Juan, please read this sentence for me,” I say. He looks at me confused at first, then frustrated, then looks at the board, squints his eyes and takes a deep breath. Finally.
“Can I go to the bathroom?” He asks.
“No! Okay, I am going to give checks to every single one of you if the next person I call on does not read the sentence on the board!”
“No! No teacher! That’s not fair!” They all cry out.
“I know, I know. But it’s what I am going to do. So who will read for me?”
A hand raises up from the middle of the class.
“Okay, thank you, Carlos. Please, what does it say?”
“I… waaant… good… God, God… tooooo… I want God to… No way teacher! This isn’t Theology class! I won’t read it.”
I have several jobs at the Finca. Some big. Some small. I am an English teacher for third and fourth grade, as well as our house tías. I’m the financial administrator – that title still embarrasses me every time I have to say it. I’m involved in hospitality and the personnel committee. I’m special friend to our middle-aged boys. The list goes on. I suppose I imagined that when I came down here those jobs would be important. Naturally, I would excel at them and have a big impact on the kids and various aspects of life at the Finca. The kids would always run up and give me hugs and the adults would find in me a confidant and kindred spirit. Community members would, no doubt, be grateful I am there and the place just wouldn’t feel the same without me. What I did not expect was for the word failure to be quietly whispered by my conscience so often. Nor so explicitly by those around me.
When I first realized I wasn’t meeting the expectations I had for myself or that others had for me, I re-wrote my imagined story of how these next couple years would play out. I may not be that impressive now, but what a fantastic turn-around it will be! From nobody to somebody essential! Never quite consciously, but somewhere deep down, I am sure I told myself that I needed to start getting my act together and get the long march toward impressing people going. I came down here to serve these kids, but how can I do that if they don’t think I can really help them? It was time to get to work.
Now I’m not so sure. It is easy to look at the Finca as being just another social program. Us volunteers one more peg in the giant wheel of the Church’s charity. There is a problem – kids without parents – and here is the solution – family-style homes run in a community setting. I had come down to Honduras because I wanted to be a part of that solution. But what I found was I wasn’t actually solving anything.
There’s a whole host of explanations I could come up with. A lack of funds. A crazy and inept local government. Machismo. Poor management. Childhood abuse. Poverty. Malnutrition. Lack of leadership. Constant change in the kids’ lives. Cultural differences. Lack of training and experience.
All I know is at the level of the volunteer – the one I occupy – the things I set out daily to accomplish often feel woefully unaccomplished. My kids aren’t learning English as well as I think they should. The finances, well, you can teach a chimp to use a calculator, but that doesn’t mean he’ll understand what he’s doing. I don’t spend the time with the kids that I should, and when I do, it often feels so superficial that I know the bigger issues in their lives aren’t getting addressed. And as far as community life goes, it’s enough to say the gap between who I wish I was and who I am is immense.
When I stop and look out at the solution I thought I came down here to be, I realize I’m farther from it than ever. If my goal was to change lives and really be someone important, then it is time to accept that isn’t happening. And it was a shitty goal to begin with.
The world needs its social programs. The world needs its solutions. It’s non-profits and NGO’s. But what I’ve decided after a whole lot of failure here, is that I don’t have to save the world.
I just have to be a friend.
In some senses, this makes life easier. I’m no longer on the hook if the best I got leaves me with a class that is still struggling to learn English. But in another sense it makes life harder. To be someone’s friend, truly, means to place yourself in their mess. To live it with them. To let their hurts sting your heart and feel the – at times – hopelessness of their problems.
We’ve got kids down here that have been through a hell of a lot. My gut reaction – and I don’t know that it is a wrong one – is to think, how can we fix their lives? It’s great to try. But what if after all our trying – our counseling, our discipline, our intentionality and sacrifices – we can’t fix it. At least I can’t.
But that doesn’t mean I’ve lost my purpose in being here. Just that I need to reevaluate what I think being here is all about. To be with our kids as much – if not more – as we are for them. To be someone they laugh with. Play soccer with. Struggle through English with. Pray with. Yell with. Wait for God with.
Those aren’t solutions. But they are the stuff of friendship. There are waters that only love knows how to navigate, even if you feel like you’re not actually going anywhere. And at the end of the day, it’s what I’ve realized is all I really have to offer to our kids. A chance to feel loved in the the midst of a life that might otherwise feel unlovable. They may not feel fixed, but by God, they’re not alone.