Gettin’ Her Done

John Spence - Ecuador


December 17, 2014

***Again due to my ineptitude on this website, this blog was written around mid November, so you’re reading it about a month after it was written.

 

I won’t lie. High school was pretty darn difficult for me. The school year was always a befuddling blitzkrieg of things to do, and after four years I still don’t think I ever quite figured it out. Between academics, athletics, my social life, and the wildcard that was my own laziness, every moment seemed like it had four competing interests vying for its attention. I felt like a Mongolian criminal, strapped limb by limb to four different horses by Atilla himself and pulled in four very distinct directions until I just couldn’t stretch myself any farther. Finding that perfect balance between all the competing slices of my life pie proved to be my greatest challenge for four years. Yet despite the difficulties and my comparison to ancient castigation, high school was an awesome, truly awesome, four years of my life.
 

Now, everything that made high school such a challenge has suddenly evaporated. Life here in Ecuador (for me at least – I have friends who’ve chosen to take on three jobs) is nothing like the bulldozer of a to-do list that was high school. Every weekday, I wake up at 6:00am and take an hour to make my way to the school where I work down the street. From 7:00am to 3:00pm, I work as an assistant English teacher, teaching six classes a day with plenty of free periods. As an assistant, my job only entails helping the English teachers already in place. Depending on the teacher, that means showing up and teaching whatever material they tell me the class needs while they sit and take notes with the students, or modeling the pronunciation, or just helping the kids with their assignments. It rarely includes writing class plans or grading – the time consuming parts of teaching outside of class. At three, I get home, go for a run, and then park myself at the table outside my host mother’s store which I’ve identified as the hub of family life. There, I read and chat with the passerby for the next few hours until 7:30pm when I watch our daily soap opera with my host parents. Afterwards we eat dinner, I help clean up, and then go to bed around 9:00pm. The weekends are more of the same but with even more table sitting and less teaching. Maybe we visit a river to cool off on Sunday. Clearly, there’s an utter lack of time-crunch induced stress.
 

However, despite my black hole of time commitments, life here is just as darn difficult as it was in high school, only in a drastically different way. Here, the pieces of my life pie have taken on completely new identities, and with that come totally new stresses. Instead of a student, now I’m a teacher, not just responsible for my own education but the eduction of up to 180 different kids everyday. Wow, pile that on top of a highly faulty public school system, and the goal to “make a difference” for this school gets suffocatingly overwhelming real quick. In place of sports, I tend to worry more about my general health. I run everyday to stave off a pre-freshman fifteen earned on this country’s 90% starch diet, and any day when my pipes aren’t in a clogged or bursting state, I literally fist pump while sitting on the toilet. My final slice of pie, my social life, has been turned so far inside out, upside down, forwards and backwards that it takes the cake from my intimidating job as my number one stress. In high school, I just had to be there for my friends some of whom I’d had for over a decade. Now, I have to foster new friendships without knowing anyone in the community, something hard enough on its own made mind-bogglingly more difficult by the fact that we don’t speak the same language and we come from very different cultures.
 
That question of cultures has played an unexpectedly massive part in making life here in Ecuador a challenge. Before I left Nashville, I had never heard the term culture shock – the downward spiraling depression that often comes with immersion in a totally new world. For me, the accumulation of a lot of little things – bugs biting me in my sleep, the cursory way people wash dishes, the dogs spreading used toilet paper around my room – piled up to slide me down into the miserable pit they call culture shock. For my first two weeks permanently living in my community, two brutal weeks, the cumulative effect of each one of the plethora of little perturbing differences between life here and life back home produced what I want to call a dogfight inside of me. Part of me wanted to just succumb to the pit, relish in a misery that I wanted to credit these new people and their new ways, while the other part of me, the smaller part of me, knew that was immature, unproductive and not the reason I told Williams to wait. Under the combined pressure of culture shock and all the unfamiliar stresses, life here hit me like a bag of bricks, and for the first two weeks my whiny side smeared my motivated side on the sidewalk in their lopsided dogfight.
 
Five weeks after those first two weeks, life is still darn difficult, but it’s evolved into something beautiful in the same way that high school was a hard yet superb four years. All those little things and all those stresses still have a big ole presence in my life, and I still have a long long way to go before I will feel fulfilled in the relationships that I’ve created in my community and the work that I’ve done in the school. But just like in high school, the only thing to do when things aren’t going as well as they ideally should is work harder. In high school, that meant putting more work into my assignments – more problems, more notes, more revisions. Here, I don’t have any assignments to work harder on. Here, my only job is successfully live in a completely foreign place. The only thing I can find to pour more work into is myself – making myself more grateful, more positive, more resilient, capable, and kind. So far, the results of applying the same standards of work that I applied to high school to improving myself as a person have made this difficult life an incredible life. On the one hand, I see the way things have improved around me in the shared smiles with my coworkers and the jokes with my host parents. On the other, internally I feel myself becoming a better person. If you put enough intentionality into acting more positive, grateful, and kind in everything you do, eventually you become a more positive, grateful, and kind person. While it took me a good seven weeks, I’ve mostly peeled my motivated self off the sidewalk and beaten back my whiny self.
 
Feeling myself change, change into a person I like better, is empowering. And if it means that I have to cope with diarrhea and a little scattered used toilet paper every day for my remaining four and a half months, then good. Bring it on. I’m determined to come back different. Not in your stereotypical I-just-came-back-from-a-foreign-impoverished-place-and-now-I’m-somehow-enlightened kind of way, but in a kinder, more capable, overall just better kind of way. Now, I might rock some parachute pants when I get back, but that’s because parachute pants are dope, not because I’ve turned into some Mac-using bohemian vegan.

John Spence