Posted November 28th, 2011 by Leah in Merida, Mexico
I have been waiting to write about my “service-learning” opportunity until I had a better sense of what it was going to be like. I have now been going for about a month (although I only go once a week) so I want to share a little bit about my experience thus far.
Amor y Vida (love and life) is the name of the orphanage that I work at. There are probably close to 20-30 kids there (although maybe more because I don’t work with the little niñitos who aren’t yet school age). Kids are accepted there between the ages of 4 and 14, but most of the kids are on the younger side. The interesting thing about this orphanage is that most of the kids actually still have parents around in Mérida. The kids are sent there if their parents are in jail or rehab, don’t want to take care of them, or can’t take care of them because they don’t have the financial resources or the parenting skills. Some of the saddest cases, I think, are when parents or a single parent has several kids but not enough money to support them, so one or two children are sent to the orphanage while the others stay behind. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to pick one of your children over another, and I am not even a parent yet! I believe some of the kids get visits from parents or relatives on occasion, but for the most part the families are no longer involved.
Despite all this, the kids act like any other kids. They are generally always smiling, unless they have a tough homework assignment in front of them and they love to play. Lydia and I go on Tuesdays during homework time and help out. Although the kids are young, and their homework simple, it has proven to be more difficult than I thought. It’s hard enough recalling how to do things like long division, its even harder to explain these things in Spanish. My first big challenge came when I had to explain math (of course…). I was working with the older girls (10 or 11) who had questions like this: “how many minutes are in two weeks?” or “how many days is 500 hours?” Of course there was not a calendar or clock anywhere to be found… Since then, I have struggled with terrain and geography of Mérida and glandular system — both of which have a completely new vocabulary set for me. Probably my favorite day was helping a 12 year old learn about the changes during puberty, and watching her face as she flipped the page to reveal two naked teenage bodies. Some things really are the same from country to country! What I hate the most though is when I have to tell them I can’t help them because I just don’t understand the vocabulary enough. There are usually two other older people in the room to help, but they don’t seem to understand much even though they speak Spanish. Furthermore, they are preoccupied yelling at all the little boys (and a few girls) turned monkeys climbing on everything and screaming. I can tell that many times the kids aren’t able to finish their homework because they don’t understand and have no one to help them.
If they finish their homework early, Lydia and I usually go play outside for a few minutes before we have to leave. The girls love to play with our hair and I have been given a head full of braids twice now! Last week was fun, because I brought some nail polish with them and gave them manicures. I think they are really starting to love us – at least they remember our names now! I am going to start going twice a week, one day to help with the English class taught by the US consulate in Mexico. I figure if I am only going to be here for two more months and then going to leave them, the least I can do is spend a little more time. Plus, its great for learning Spanish and I miss being around kids so much!
Here are some pictures that little Elsie took. She was SO bad at taking pictures. When we looked through them afterward there were probably fifty taken of the ground or the wall. Luckily there were a few good ones. It was so precious watching her take them them though – I have never seen anyone so excited with a camera!
It is really interesting to compare these kids with my peers at the Marista, which is full of “fresas” (strawberries – the term for rich kids, with a connotation of snotty and spoiled). That is not to say I think the students are snotty, all my friends there are really nice and welcoming. This is just what people in Mérida think of the Marista kids. It is so clear that the students there have always had parents at the ready to help with homework, encourage them and love them. The kids at Amor y Vida could never end up at the Marista. Its sad, and it reminds me that the problems in the United States occur other places too. It reminds me of how many of the problems start at home, outside of school. I am glad to be having these two different education experiences here in Mexico, because it is pushing me to continue thinking about the education system and ways in which I think we might be able to change it in the future to better benefit the kids who don’t have the at home resources to go to a private school and later University.
I know this post is getting long, but while I am on the Marista, I really can’t help but share my most recent dose of culture shock:
In Mexican schools, all grades are read out loud in front of everyone in class. I almost toppled out of my seat when the teacher announced she was going to read the grades of our most recent essay. The teacher says a name followed by the grade and then, if the grade is bad, laughter and ridicule follow. When I expressed my shock at this system, my friends just laughed and basically said the teasing is just motivation to do better. “Somos más fuertes aquí” said my friend Alvaro, with his fist on his heart (we are stronger here), when I explained how much of an uproar this would cause in the United States.
Also as I was arguing with them (clearly I couldn’t drop the subject) I asked them what they thought about a elementary school kid who didn’t have resources to do well, no parents to ask for help, no place to do homework etc., getting made fun of for bad grades by all the rich kids who have everything going for them. In this case, I argued, perhaps they don’t need motivation to do better, they simply cannot because of their situation. The Marista students just shrugged and told me that those kids go to schools with other kids with similar situations.
On a brighter note – we are going to Chiapas, a near by state in the mountains, next week for a group trip! We are going to be there for Day of the Dead which should be incredible. I look forward to posting about it when I return!