Wednesday, September 8, 2010

How are you fine thank you and you?

A lot of senseless things happen every day, but something happened today that tops them all. Every last one of them. 

I began my morning with a group of fifteen 1st grade girls. Twirling, singing, pony-tailed, pink finger-tipped girls, all with their own little agendas. The door to my room was locked when they arrived. I was still sitting in the teachers' lounge pretending that NPR was some kind of online ESL class preparation tool.

To be correct, "my room" is not my room at all anymore. Last Thursday morning at 7:15, a classroom caught on fire displacing the entire class of high school seniors (and cancelling two entire days of school for everyone). Rumor has it someone left the gas heater on all night, and the nuns caught the fire before it got out of hand. The English volunteer from the United States is the lowest on the totem pole, claro, so I volunteered my space before it was taken from me forcefully.

A tiny voice called to me, "te busco, tia Mary!" It has become a bad habit of mine to wait for my students to find me before class starts, instead of the other way around. It's my own version of hide and seek. One day I'll decide to be creative and they'll discover me under the gym stage huddled with my laptop and a cup of instant coffee. I'm impressed they search for me at all. It's misleading. Almost like they want to learn something! I discover that's never the case. I gathered my things and followed her out of the lounge.

The messenger and I approached the crowd of squiggling bodies. When they noticed us, they yelled "sorpresa!" trying to surprise us as though they had been invisible until they said it. Through the window of the adjacent classroom I could tell by the expressions on the faces of the senior class that they were not happy about 1. being in a different room period and 2. being bothered by the constant squeals of my class. While I fumbled for the key to the room, I did my best to reason with the first graders. I tried to explain "why we should be quiet when others are trying to learn." Within that blurry 30 seconds I managed to ask the questions, "where are we? Why are we here? Why should we respect other people?" It kept them quiet only while I was physically asking the questions. We entered no less disruptively than we had arrived. 

I had been instructed by my host teacher Lucy to help the girls prepare for their oral presentations.

"Hello my name is Valentina. This is a cat," holding a small square cardboard picture she pulled from the pocket of her smock. There were four more animals in her pocket anxiously waiting to be introduced.

In order to keep the attention of all fifteen chatty ladies, I paced the room non-stop smiling and touching their arms and backs. Interest waned, so I decided to ask the presenter to stand on a chair. It didn't stop the conversation and wiggling, but I tripled my number of volunteers. 

"My name is Gabriela. This is a frog. That is a bee. This dog. Is a Cat." They are taught to memorize, not to understand. For that reason, I am sometimes noticed, greeted, questioned and dismissed all in one sentence. Passing girls in the hallway I hear, "Hello Marie how are you fine thank you!" 

Another teacher appeared at my door with a stack of papers in hand. I knew exactly why she had interrupted. Announcements to parents are typed on official school stationary and distributed at all hours of the day. Attention spans and concentration aside, these letters have to get out! I permitted the nice lady to enter. I stood by helplessly as she managed to ruin any semblance of order I had achieved. Everything thus far  is normal, everyday Chilean school routine. But what happened next was astounding. 

She passed out the papers, turned, smiled and closed the door behind her. I gestured for the return of business as usual, but was met with something unexpected. A shriek of fear. No, that's wrong. Fifteen of them. 

"Vacuna! Noooooo!"
"Una vacuna!"
Mumble jumble, unintelligible chatter. Anxiety swept my room faster than I could react. The word "vacuna" was shrilled by more voices than what seemed like there were children in my classroom. 

"What's a vacuna?" I tried to ask one little girl staring blankly at the white board in front of her, dazed and speechless. She raised her right hand from her lap, formed her thumb and index finger in an L shape and held it to her opposite arm. I knew immediately.
A vaccine. 

Lessons in classroom management. I'll suggest it to NPR. 


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