Moments come quickly and leave in a flash, but they have the power to change the way we think about the world. Giving myself time to step back and enjoy these rich moments that challenge preconceptions I have about neighboring cultures has been nothing short of invaluable. Yet, there’s no real way to express all that I’ve learned here, in my time away from home. In fact, I’m not even sure I fully understand all of the life lessons that have drifted my way over the past few months; it will likely take me years to assess the impact that my family, my students, and Ecuadorian culture has had on me.
After months of getting accustomed to so much new, I only recently started to feel like I am a part of my town, Ambuquí. It doesn’t just happen overnight, it comes with extended time in a place and an effort to integrate. For my first few weeks, I only knew my family really. I was somewhat known to other family friends, but the majority of Ambuquí just saw me as the new gringo in town. Before long, things changed. I started my internship, teaching kindergarten through 10th grade at the local school, Unidad Educativa César Borja. I wouldn’t call it the most relaxing job ever, but it gave me an incredible entry point into my community. I began to see my students around every corner. To this day they still yell my name and scream “Good Morning!” no matter what time of day it is. Through my students I got to know their loving families, and then by strolling through town I got to know many other locals. Soon enough I knew everyone in Ambuquí.
Now, as I walk for forty-five minutes from the bus stop on the Highway to my house, every Friday, I pass by the whole town with a grin. I greet the dirty farmers, the tired mothers, the young couples, and crying kids; I greet the market clerks, town drunks, waddling toddlers, and every elderly folk on my path. With time, people have started to know me less as a “gringo” and more as “Henry.”
To be included in such a warm and safe environment has changed my view on the importance of a united community. I’ve spent late nights in the park, buying delicious salchipapas (french fries and chorizo) from street vendors and playing tag with little kids until midnight. I’ve seen our family cat give birth to kittens, my cousins lose their baby teeth, students improve their English despite gigantic doubts; I’ve seen seeds transform to greens, hundreds of stars shoot across the black sky. I’ve seen real poverty and boundless joy; I’ve seen my definitions deepen and my mind expand. I’ve seen what most people from The States only read about. I didn’t just watch it or hear it, I lived it.
Although I have countless wonderful memories that I will carry with me into adulthood, it’s important to note that not all of my time here has been sunshine and smiles. I’ve had hardships too, I just try and handle them a bit differently. When I start missing home or feel frustrated in my community, I attempt to remind myself the power of a mindset. I think about my limited time here and how I want to make the best of it. With a negative mindset, all of your experiences pass through that ruthless filter before you interpret them. I’ve noticed that when in a bad mood it’s hard for me to appreciate the most beautiful things. Likewise, the opposite is also true: when I’m in a good mood I can find immense beauty and happiness in something as meaningless as a chocolate bar. The lens that we wear to see the world, matters.
I have small decisions to make everyday. Do I want to say, “Buenos Días” to a neighbor I pass, or not? Do I want to share my Christmas candy with my young cousins? Show up to work with a smile? Help my grandpa on the farm? I get to choose what I do, every time. And my answer, it makes all the difference in my experience and the experience of others. I am the captain of my ship, and the mere truth is that storms rage all the time. It’s my responsibility to figure out how to chart a course through the disaster and persevere. While struggling might not be that fun, it’s been in times of difficulty that I have learned the most. After all, smooth seas don’t make skillful sailors.
Let me share a story that highlights the challenges of a novice teacher. One Wednesday afternoon, after teaching for four hours, I entered my fifth grade class full of warm energy. I was teaching solo. Usually I’m a teacher’s assistant, but this day he didn’t come into work, so I had to handle the young ones by myself. It hadn’t been a crazy day. I taught first, second, third, and fourth grade in the morning and after break I had class with fifth and sixth grade. Generally, I look forward to teaching the mischievous fifth grade class. I know that deep down they’re loving adolescents and there’s something about how they act reminds me of my days in elementary school.
When I arrived to the classroom, their teacher Lucia, left for a meeting. I caught a couple crumbs of attention from the typically distracted class and began explaining the lesson for the day. Each person was to color a picture that was divided like a puzzle into pieces and each portion was labeled with a number. The numbers then had a corresponding color, written in English, on the rubric at the bottom of the page. I asked for two volunteers to help me pass out the drawings. At this exact moment, not five minutes into class, the shenanigans took off like a rocket.
Nearly ten people got up to help me pass out the papers. I didn’t know how to pick just two so I stuck out my hands and let the kids sort it out. This proved to be a terrible idea because my students started to shove one another, and soon enough I had a crying fifth grader in my arms. While caring for the injured, I was attacked with all sorts of wild questions. Caught in chaos, I responded “yes” to every question I received. Soon, I realized that everybody wanted the Santa Claus drawing, but I didn’t have enough for the 26 person class, so I ran back to the teacher’s office with a student to collect more. When I returned to the classroom I had a kid rubbing soap in his hair, some kids dancing on desks, and a group of students who thought it’d be a good idea to play tag inside. Amongst children screaming and desks crashing against the floor, there were — to my surprise — a few angels getting work done.
As I was distributing the rest of the drawings, I encountered two girls in a heated argument. One girl had a gigantic bottle of glue in her hands, filling the pencil slot of a desk, while the other girl was wailing about the stupidity of her idea. Granted, it wasn’t just a tad of glue, she was giving everyone a solid river of it. I was about to agree that it probably wasn’t the best idea to waste glue like that, when all of a sudden I realized that this situation was entirely my fault. When I was getting pummeled with questions a few minutes earlier, this same girl with glue asked me something that I didn’t understand and I just said “yes” without knowing what she was babbling about. Now, I had to defend the messy glue idea. I then scanned the classroom only to find that almost all of my 26 students had way too much glue on their desks. This sort of havoc persisted until our forty minute class finished.
It took me nearly half an hour to scrub all the glue off each desk. The whole time I was thinking how dumb I was to answer questions I didn’t understand. I was lazy with my leadership and foolishly unprepared. I let my classroom turn into “Lord of the Flies,” and it was all my fault. But eventually, about two hours later, when I was halfway through my mile walk home, I laughed about the whole thing. There was no reason to let an inevitable failure like this keep me down, so I learned my lesson and kept living.
It’s crazy how quickly situations can go south, but with a centered and focussed mind anything is possible. I’ve stopped adults from fighting and kids from crying. I’ve hitch hiked with drunk drivers, made friends with family enemies, and self remedied some serious homesickness. I’ve learned how to rely on myself, how to build genuine relationships, and how to accept whatever is. All I needed was mindfulness in the present.
Look, nothing is forever. We only have this one life to explore and appreciate the diversity of our planet. We have this one chance to make the world our family, so wander and connect. Love strangers. Forget time. Be happy. Be strong enough to forgive those who mess up because all of us are just sifting through this confusing life attempting to make the best of our situations. We are all trying our best. There’s no road map or manual. But there is wisdom. Live life without regret and without fear. If you mess up, we all do. If you’re imperfect, we all are. Too much worrying takes you out of the present. Go out and gather stories, to tell to your friends, to tell your family, to tell the world. Be honest and courageous; open-minded and thoughtful; bold and loving; but more than anything, just be you.
Here’s a last thought to take with you:
The only fool that exists is he who hides in the corner afraid to become one. For when he is old, he will have let his entire life pass him by until there is nothing left to watch — successfully wasting every last drop.