Nothing makes me happier than when a dozen of my elementary school students stampede me with arms flung open wide, eyebrows raised in full excitement, puddles splashing every which way, screaming “Carito! Carito!” It’s in these moments that I remember why I come to school every day.
There’s no doubt that my exotic white complexion had a lot to do with their initial attraction to me, but now I finally feel like I’ve made a solid connection with each one of my students. I feel the same sense of comfort and belonging here in the school as I did in the gym where I taught kids gymnastics at home in the US. But the satisfaction of winning the adoration of these Ecuadorian children is far beyond that of any other child I’ve encountered because of the immense difficulty I’ve had getting here.
Working with children is no easy task in any situation. It requires relentless spontaneity, wittiness, goofiness, and a good sense of humor- most of which take a good blow when you can scarcely communicate. At the beginning of my apprenticeship, I was sure I would never reach the same level of comfort with these students as I did with my old students in the U.S. I thought I’d be lucky to be able to teach a coherent English class, if anything. But, what I’ve come to realize is that children are probably the easiest people to connect with. A connection made with a child is something so honest and basic that it comes naturally with enough effort and time. I believe children have a special knack for sensing emotions and personalities. They follow a set of fundamental instincts that aren’t subject to the formalities of social rules, allowing them to see past any barriers. And most importantly for me, they are quick to forgive any faults. Turns out, what once seemed like a catastrophic situation was actually just what I needed.
I have only recently obtained the vocabulary and ease of speech and comprehension that I need to interact casually with the kids. I can finally make them laugh (on purpose, that is). I can actually understand the rapid jabber they sling at me from across the room. And we can all enjoy a happily content class now that I have a handle on disciplinary phrases and I can teach them all sorts of fun games.
But working my way up from a state of utter helplessness was definitely a lesson in patience and humility. I rode a rollercoaster of good days and disasters, building both the tolerance and the confidence I needed. I’ve gone from absolute unmanageable chaos to smothering kids in stingy rules, from relationships that are too formal to relationships that are way too relaxed to get anything done, and from static complacency to overambitious ideas. But as I’ve fallen into so many extremes, I’ve risen with a better sense of balance and a more focused path forward. I’ve finally come to accept that the greatest value isn’t found by getting everything perfectly. If you haven’t messed up, you haven’t learned much.
Since I first decided to take a gap year, my ultimate goal has been to make a positive difference in people’s lives. While my goal hasn’t changed, my perspective has had some remodeling. It’s tough to admit it, but I know I’m not Superwoman. I can’t fix every single problem I come across in these seven months, as I would like to do. Great changes come with deep understanding, plenty of time, and experimentation. As of right now, I’m still working on the deep understanding. I simply don’t have the bait to catch those big fish just yet. But, in the mean time, I’m making the most of what I can do. I can introduce my fellow teachers to new teaching methods and disciplinary systems, I can show these students the exciting side of learning that they haven’t seen before, and I can develop meaningful relationships with the people here that will have a lasting impact on them, as well as on me. I may not walk away with a flawless record, but I will definitely take with me a valuable collection of memories and lessons that will leave me better equipped to go after something even greater next time.