Thursday, October 27, 2011

An Exchange in Self-Esteem

Charla: Literally translates to “talk” or “chatter”.  In reality, refers to a sort of guest-led training event.  The speaker may substitute for a teacher in a school or host an independent training (single or multiple sessions) on any number of topics.  PC Paraguay loves charlas.

I have a confession to make.  Throughout junior high and high school, I never took a standard version of a class when an honors track existed.  (Full disclosure, when I transferred to public school in the sixth grade I did not enroll in the gifted language arts program because I had spent the previous standardized test season in the hospital and my new school did not know what to do with me.  At least my math teacher gave a pre-test on the first day of class and promoted me on the second.)  Backdoor bragging notwithstanding, the fact remains: I did not realize until many years later what true classroom management meant for most teachers.  Of course I know that not every class that doesn’t earn an honors point gets crazy and truthfully, arrogant honors kids can get completely out of hand.  However, generally speaking, when you share all your classes with a group of nerds more interested in applying to Harvard than Homecoming, most days pass uneventfully.  If anything, I was probably the most obnoxious female in the A.P. clique.  (Super sorry, by the way.)  Even so, it never occurred to me to carry on a conversation with my neighbor talking over my teacher in my full speaking voice or to blatantly disregard clear instructions.  To this day, I still feel guilty for giggling as the boys in my 8th Spanish class tortured a substitute teacher by tricking her into using made up slang to tell the whole room that she did indeed masturbate.  (She thought she told us about an entirely different hobby.)

Well, today, those thirteen year old giggles exacted a little karmic retribution.  After months of careful observation and planning, Kevin and I dove in head first and lead our first set of self-esteem charlas for seventh through eleventh graders. 

If my high school experience represents one end of the classroom behavior spectrum and season four of The Wire represents the other, typical Paraguayan classrooms lie somewhere in the middle- leaning closer towards The Wire.  Some kids take a great interest in school, others prefer to drink terere during class and throw garbage on the floor.  Teachers, tend to concentrate their attention on the focused students and disregard the behavior of the others.  I have yet to see discipline enforced (or even threatened) for disrespectful conduct.

This problem stems from multiple directions.  One, after speaking with several teachers, I’ve learned that most people who work in schools do not do so because they feel passionate about learning.  In Paraguay, if you want the fastest track into white collar work, you become a teacher.  Additionally, although recently the federal government completely re-hauled grade level expectations, few teachers follow the new guidelines or use suggested methodologies and lesson plans.  Kids move from grade to grade, regardless of their competency, with their peers.  Most teachers teaching today, teach in the same manner that they learned. 

A dictator doesn’t stay in charge by encouraging critical and free thinking.  Incidentally, five decades of Paraguayan public schools concentrated on rote memorization.  Teachers would read from a text book and students copied what they heard into personal notebooks.  In art class, a teacher would draw a picture on the board and expected students to mimic the drawing as closely as possible.  Twenty-two years into democracy, not much has changed.  Students still do not have their own textbooks and struggle with imaginative lessons and creative problem solving.  Kids memorize correct answers and leave the process of getting there to the textbook publishers.  In other words, no one in Paraguay has seen Dead Poets Society. 

Finally, students barely attend class four hours a day and schools regularly cancel for strikes, institutes, and inclement weather.  When school is in session, classrooms lack climate control and proper furniture.  While observing a one hour long class from a broken chair on a hot day, I could hardly pay attention either- and I’ve had tons of experience feigning interest in boring situations.  How can we expect kids to do any better?  Luckily, the teachers in our local school seem dedicated to bringing about major reforms in education and have specifically requested we work with them on the same.

PCVs learn to combat these issues, by hosting interactive charlas where the kids get out of their seats, work in groups, and have to come up with their own answers.  Although the later part requires pulling teeth, after a while the kids catch on and let their guard down.  For our introduction on self-esteem, the students seemed to enjoy themselves and the charlas went basically well.  (I’d average our seven sessions to date at about a “B”.)  Perhaps they went well because we included outdoor activities that work best (at least for discussion purposes) when everything goes wrong.  Eh, igual.  (It’s all the same.)  For the record, I feel no guilt from bribing answers with candy.  Nothing solves a participation problem better than sugar. 

My post-charla self-esteem, though... that’s another issue entirely.  Make no mistake, these classroom hours drained the life out of me.  However, not all hope has fled.  As we exited the school this afternoon- after a particularly difficult group of ninth graders put us through the ringer- some eighth graders stuck their heads out the window of their classroom and yelled, “when’s our turn?”  Our reply of “tomorrow” met cheers.  Of course this exchange interrupted their teacher mid-lesson, but I take my wins where I find them.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

How to Fight with Your Mother in Paraguay or A Guide to Indirect Communication

As a nation, Paraguay engages in a lot of indirect communication.  Of course, when speaking in generalizations regarding an entire country, exceptions occur (er, certain radical terrorist organizations, for example).  However, if the Emily Post Institute ever decides to publish an edition of her rules regarding proper etiquette and social behavior for Paraguayan audiences, page one will read: never confront anyone about anything or offer a clear opinion any topic (except soccer).

As the type of person who has, on at least one occasion, “told it like it is,” this particular social adjustment required a delicate hand.  I work best when all the cards are on the table.  When I have the opportunity to obsess about a situation, I will take it.  If I receive unclear feedback, believe me, I will concoct the worst case scenario in my head and assume that I have offended everyone.  How will I ever adjust to a place where straight answers have gone the way of the dinosaurs?

As it turns out, this lifestyle has a few perks.  Awkward situations rarely arise.  In fact, the word doesn’t even directly translate.  One night, while sitting around with a handful of former Spanish majors and a few native speakers, we realized that the term awkward does not exist within the Spanish language.  Strange, difficult, uncomfortable, embarrassment (extraño, difícil, incómodo, verguenza)- these all make the list.  Yet nothing quite captures awkward.

Think of the possibilities.  You never have to say no to an invitation again.  Don’t feel like going to yet another birthday party on a Tuesday night?  No need to worry about hurting someone’s feeling with a firm “no”, when “sure” or “maybe” will do the trick just fine.  This may seem troublesome to the one throwing the party, but Paraguay has this figured out too.  Always assume, regardless of response, that one third of those invited to an event, will attend the event.  Simple.

Organizational non-confrontation works great during actual arguments as well.  For example, earlier this week I decided to start a fight with my home-stay mother.  She enjoys bossing me around and, upon crossing an invisible line over the weekend, I decided my foot needed to come down.  She knew she crossed the line as soon as her pinky toe creeped over it, but I made the issue known.  For our battlefield, I chose the always risky dinner table.

Paraguayan mothers feed their guests with the force of ten Italian grandmothers.  Making it away from any meal before hitting 1500 calories demands carefully timed eating and precision guilt navigation.  Rarely will you have the option to walk away from seconds without deep interrogation.  For a while, I said yes to extra helpings in the interest of avoiding an argument.  With time, I learned how to eat just slow enough as to not attract attention, but to still finish after everyone else.  Thus, confusing the option for seconds as others have already left the table.  This time, however, I had no intention of carefully navigating anything.

During lunch, as I finished my last few bites and placed my fork on the edge of my plate, my “mom” offered me seconds.  I looked her straight in the eye and said “no, thank you.”  She, upon realizing the dogfight in front of her, she accepted the challenge by giving me “the look” and sitting down.  (All Paraguayan women of a particular age know and regularly employ “the look”.  Imagine the most disappointed look you’ve ever received from your own mother.  Now double it.  Now add a flash of rage.  Now hold it for at least seven seconds.  That’s “the look”.) 

We’ve gone on like this for three whole days.  Neither one of us has any intention of discussing the issue and every other exchange we share seems perfectly normal.  Despite all this passive aggression, somehow our differences have started to work themselves out in silence.  I think the argument has begun to break.  Tonight, as I declined a second helping of dinner, she looked me straight in the eye and asked, “But wasn’t it delicious?”  This must mean I won.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The New Guy

When it comes to work, I don’t like being the new guy and detest learning the ropes.  I very much prefer being the friendly and wise sage-like senior staff member who makes the new guy feel right at home.  I like when co-workers bounce ideas off me and come to me for advice.  I like knowing how to work the finicky and ancient coffee machine.  I like knowing everyone’s name.  As such, changing careers and accepting a job closer to Antarctica than to my mother’s house and agreeing to function in a language that I don’t speak has presented a handful of personal challenges.  These personal discomforts, separate from the weird bug bite/missing the flavor of cheddar cheese sort of discomfort, I doubt will ever fully disappear.  They have, though, started to feel a bit more comfortable.

Recently, someone suggested to me that in Paraguay, the days crawl, but the months fly by.  Seeing how swiftly October snuck up on us, I couldn’t agree more.  It’s odd to think that we’ve been residents of our town for over two months.  We’ve gone from strangers to strange neighbors and those projects which felt so far away at the beginning of August have started to emerge. 

Some newly christened volunteers receive assignments where they have a clear objective from the day they step foot in site.  Occasionally communities, especially those where a new volunteer takes a site over from a previous PCV, have active projects where they slip into pre-ordained roles upon arrival.  Other communities have never heard of the Peace Corps or met anyone from the United States.  In these cases, the volunteer constantly has to explain themselves and the PC. 

We all face different challenges.  The volunteer who walks in the front door with a clear idea of his or her future work, may spend the next two years in constant comparison to the previous volunteer- an especially harrowing (or at least annoying) situation when that previous volunteer married someone from the area.  (PC Paraguay has one of the highest rates of volunteers marrying other volunteers or host country nationals of any PC post in the world.)  Volunteers who struggle with work may integrate well into their communities personally.  However frustrated over failed projects, they leave having formed deeper bonds and relationships than they initially expected possible.

Our area, though not unfamiliar with the Peace Corps, has not seen a volunteer in almost a decade.  Some of our neighbors remember these volunteers fondly and kindly associate us with them.  Other people think we’re spies.  Community leaders request volunteers through a lengthy application process.  Usually, these folks have a firm grasp on the PC experience.  The rest of the community, generally, does not. 

Although we did not walk into any active projects, our community already had a number of long term goals which (supposedly) our training should enable us to assist with.  Still though, walking into a new place charged with the task of supporting something intangible- building civic participation in youth, for example- feels overwhelming.  In many ways we interview for the job with every conversation we have- except that we don’t bring our resumes door to door to talk about the weather.  We both fully accept that we will get nowhere before our community places a certain amount of trust in us, our abilities, and our mission.  (And yes, a childless married couple does arouse suspicion.)

Our site presentation helped.  Representatives from the central office came to our town and shared the goals and mission of PC with over sixty of our neighbors.  Our bosses also used this opportunity to explain how they match volunteers with communities.  No, the US government didn’t just send two random Yankees and assumed they would do well simply by virtue of birthright.  We were asked to join this community because Kevin and I have specific skills that compliment the long term goals of the populace.  I know we have something to share and I feel exceptionally fortunate that many leaders within our community listened to the presentation and have since approached us to collaborate on plans.

However, I knew before we even arrived in Paraguay that I would take with me far more than I could ever leave.  I guess, though, I didn’t expect to feel quite so lost.  Please don’t confuse this with sadness or distress.  I love it here and feel happy most of the time.  There are just some days where I have no idea what’s going on or where things will lead.  It’s like right before a blind date.  Your friend promises so and so is great and you two will hit it off smashingly.  The couple days leading up to the big night, butterflies flutter through your stomach and daydreams fill with “what ifs”.  Except that mix of nervous excitement is every day of my life.  Like blind dates, some days go well.  Some even turn into something wonderful.  Other days go horribly, terribly wrong.  And despite the direction the evening goes, a story forms and we remember something for next time.