The world was enveloped in a misty grey drizzle the first time I stepped foot in my little yellow classroom to meet my supervisor, a short, matronly woman named Tania with a kind smile and endearingly mismatched clothing. I was confused at first; I’d thought that I would be teaching my own class. And all the sessions on education had prepared me for underfunded schools with few resources and therefore ample room for me to get creative and really put my stamp on things. But this classroom was well-equipped with books and art supplies and included Tania, a teacher who seemed to have everything under control. I later discovered that this had been a hasty replacement after the school I was going to teach at was shut down, but at that time I just felt
unneeded and out of place. Nevertheless, I tried to help with little tasks as best I could.
It was during the snack break, when we all ran to another building in the now pouring rain for colada and cookies, that everything hit me all at once. I was in a tiny community thousands of miles from my family with no friends, only a little Spanish, and a job I didn’t think I could possibly do anything meaningful with. I felt trapped, desperate, and so homesick, and holding in the tears at that moment was a painful struggle that I embarrassingly failed.
The day only got worse from there. This particular class happens to be the craziest, least behaved bunch of kindergarteners that Tania has had in 20 years of teaching, and I was hit with the brunt force of it on my first day. Tania left me alone with them for “only be a few minutes”—a grossly understated estimate—and I was suddenly outnumbered and defenseless against a mob of thirty sugar-hyped little rebels. There were kids climbing up the walls, kids escaping out the door, kids dragging their chairs across the floor just to relish the stressful effect of the deafening, metallic shriek against the cement. They absolutely delighted in disobeying me; telling them to stay out of the glitter and glue only resulted in a whole slew of sticky little glitter monsters, and I would say they were just playing like kids do except for all the sly smiles directed right at me as they blatantly did the opposite of what I said. They knew exactly what they were doing to me.
It’s a terrible feeling to think you’re hopelessly bad with kids and a lot worse to think you genuinely don’t like them. In the first two weeks I was peed on, punched, and bitten multiple times, and sometimes they would make me so angry it scared me. It was overwhelming,exhausting, and I dreaded going to work every day.
I soon started my other apprenticeship, which involved blissfully hiking through the trees in canary-yellow boots, and I also starting teaching English classes to women ages 14 to 47. My days felt more productive and impactful, and as I felt better everything looked more positive. I started running every morning through foggy pink sunrises, listening to the soft, strange sounds of the jungle waking up and marveling at the fact that I live in such a beautiful place. And I also started forgiving the kids a little for acting like kids.
It probably sounds obvious and a bit ridiculous, but once I stopped being afraid of five-year-olds and just relaxed, my job got a lot less stressful. I started reading to them and spinning them around in circles, tickling and teasing and giving piggy-back rides. It turns out that Tania doesn’t have as good a handle on the class as it seemed, so I do a lot more now than I thought was possible at first. Most importantly, I stopped getting frustrated and realized that it’s not my job to discipline the little ones or try to teach them manners; the most valuable thing I can be is an adult who cares and gives them attention.
Take Berlin, for example. Berlin is a royal pain. He’s an extremely angry little boy with the worst temper I’ve ever seen, and on average he makes four or five kids cry per day. His main interaction with adults is being punished and told he’s a bad kid, which tends to just inspire a glaring fit of biting and kicking. I used to get mad at him too, but then I noticed him around my community a few times, always alone and covered in dirt. I asked some people, and it turns out that Berlin has a very abusive home life—in the rare times when his parents come home at all. So now I don’t get mad at Berlin anymore. And he’s the sweetest, silliest little goofball when he’s being treated like a person with feelings rather than a terrible nuisance!
These kids have come to have such a hold on my heart, the way they call me Señorita and latch onto my waist with their big, goofy grins. Not only do I love my apprenticeship, I’ve sort of unconsciously surrounded myself with small children even when I’m not teaching. I hang out with my adorable, wonderful four-year-old brother every single day. I often go to a tae kwon do class for kids in the city, which initially was terribly intimidating and made that shy part of me that doesn’t like to stick out absolutely recoil. But I quickly got over my fear of looking like an idiot, and in fact it became one of the places I felt happiest and freest, especially when I was struggling the most with everything else. Kids don’t care about any ridiculous self-consciousness of mine, so it feels silly to worry about anything and I can be entirely myself. I can look horrible and they think I’m beautiful. I can act like a weirdo and they just laugh and think I’m so cool. I can be silly and run around and make ugly faces and play limbo and totally suck at taekwondo, and the more I make a fool of myself, the more excited they are to see me.
I truly love my host parents and the other adults in my community, and I could write volumes about my 24-year-old best friend Jesica. But adults are complicated, and relationships take so much more time and energy. Kids bypass all of that. When I feel homesick, hopeless, or just antisocial, I find more comfort and effortless acceptance from my brother, my little students, and the giggling girls at tae kwon do than I do from any adult. All it takes to snap out of it is to walk down the street and hear my name yelled (or often chanted) by their high-pitched, lisping voices. The time is moving way too fast these days. Before I know it I’ll be back in the states, and I really hope that these kids will remember me. I hope I can leave even a fraction of the impact on them that they have already left on me.