When I was first informed about the details of my apprenticeship all those months ago in Quito’s Parque Carolina, I was slightly terrified, for lack of a better explanation. I was to be assisting in the special education school in Gualaceo, a town I knew nothing about at the time. While my high school had a special education program, and I was not incredibly fearful for lack of exposure to many of the disabilities these children face, I was more scared of the children in general. Besides my now teenage “baby” cousins, and the 12-year-old I spent my days watching (but mostly playing video games with) last summer, my experience with children started and ended there. If you asked me about my future children, my response would be a firm “No quiero.” and a brief rant including all the reasons I don’t like nor want them. (Here in the conservative and traditional culture of Ecuador, this response isn’t greeted with the best reaction.) With much still left to the imagination about the next 6 months, I said goodbye to half my cohort and Ecuador’s capital, and headed down south to the city and people I would soon consider my new home and family.
Fast forward 3 more weeks. I live in Gualaceo, a town that used to be just a name on a map to me, that I’m now getting to know. I have been in my apprenticeship officially for just a week, and have already called my team leader more than once in a panic, overwhelmed and frustrated. No one is telling me what to do. I can’t understand the principle, who speaks what seems to me a mile a minute (or kilometer? I can’t understand the metric system either.) I don’t know anyone’s names, students nor teachers, and feel too bad to ask. I panic and chase the toddlers who want toclimb the slides alone, when the other teachers seem unconcerned. I cringe cleaning up after the kids during lunch, unable to hide disgust when a kid puts a chicken bone in my bare hand. I leave work to a house that has yet to feel like home, crying and ready to quit, after being left with the class of teenagers, who mock my broken Spanish and laugh at me all day.
Fast forward 2 more months. I still live in Gualaceo, a town that two months prior I was just beginning to know, and it’s now starting to feel like my own. I have been in my apprenticeship for a couple months now, and have stopped calling my team leader so often, although cannot say the panicking has stopped altogether. I am beginning to find my place, and have figured out a routine, accepting that I am not going to be explicitly told what to do, as I was used to in the past. My Spanish is improving, and although I’m not confident all the teachers and mothers know it, I understand most of what they’re saying, including the motor-mouthed principle. I still don’t know the metric system. I know all my students’ names andthen some, I’m almost there with the teachers. I’ve learned to let the toddlers climb the slide, ignoring my internal panic that they’ll fall and break a limb. I clean rice like a pro, and hold my hand out for the chicken bones, a preferable option to cleaning them off the floor. I leave work tired and frustrated some days, and others overwhelmed with happiness, but either way return to a house that has begun to feel like my home.
Fast forward to present. Throughout my time working in La Escuela Especial, I am positive I have learned and grown more than I could have possibly thought going in. While I was sweeping rice and feeding “mis niños” for those several months, I learned not only how to like kids (at least way more than I did), but I learned a skill I was in desperate need of; patience. Besides the obvious empathy one is forced to utilize in environments such as this, working with children takes patience, and a lot of it. When I arrived to my apprenticeship and for the first several weeks, I struggled way more than I thought I would, and underestimated the harsh reality of these tiny humans and the job of a teacher, specifically those working in the field of special education. I have so much more appreciation for the patience and ability these teachers have, to come to school each day with a smile, working to make an impact in the lives of their students.
In hindsight, it wasn’t the experience I thought it would be, but for better or for worse, the reality of the experience taught me in untraditional ways, skills I’m glad I can now say I have. Although I cannot say I made an impact, or came close to learning what makes these teachers the super heroes I consider them to be, my time spent here learning will be an experience I will always look back on throughout my life, and I feel incredibly grateful to have had it. And while my mind isn’t quite yet changed on the wanting children front, and I still don’t know the metric system, I’m not quite the same person I was all those months ago, and that’s something I credit to mis niños.