Monday, January 28, 2013

Six Students and a Latte

The only reason I have had the time to update this blog is because I just returned from a lovely road trip to Chiapas, Mexico where I actually had time to sit still and write.  It makes me sad that there are so many wonderful places to visit and so little time.  San Cristobal de las Casas is reminiscent of Antigua but one cannot help marvel at how much progress Mexico has made in recent years.  Lots of artisans and colorful markets, real book stores, excellent restaurants, culture, inexpensive but chilly at 7200 feet of altitude.  We only found one restaurant that seemed to have heat and it was not in our hotel.  I was reminded of a Slovenian B&B owner once telling me "there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing."  True.  We all just bundled up and enjoyed the place.

San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas
The highlight was a private piano concert by the artist in residence of Na Bolom, the one-time home of a Danish archeologist and his Swiss journalist wife who trekked into the mountains and became friends with the indigenous.  They are both deceased and their one-time home is now a combination museum, hotel, cultural center and place of study.

Richard Pierce Milner

Today it was back to reality and all that six active children bring with it.  For the most part the school year in Guatemala starts in January when the coffee picking season is over. One exception is the international schools that keep a schedule corresponding to that of the developed world from where they draw many of their teachers. Thus, Astrid started her school year in September.  She is repeating the sixth grade having survived a year of learning English and dealing with a huge cultural divide and an imprisoned father.  She has, quite obviously, decided to make it work.  The first edition of the school newsletter for the year touted Astrid as a star student.  She has friends, her grades are good, she is gaining fluency in English and she is not letting the cultural divide get in her way.  For Christmas I saw that she got a recycled first generation iPad which puts her on equal footing with her fellow, far more affluent, students.  She asked me to install the "Pages" app so she could use it for homework. During the Christmas school break Astrid volunteered at one of the Antigua veterinary clinics where she was on hand when a circus owner brought in a baby (17 pounds) female African lion with a broken leg.  Astrid continues to go to the clinic on Saturdays and the vet has been so impressed with her interest and dedication that he has let her assist him with surgeries.  Astrid at 13 is likely on her way to beating poverty.

Astrid and the lion.
Sadly, Denis had to say "adios" to his one-time math teacher who returned to Canada in December.  Alex (not to be confused with Denis father) had spent most of his afternoons for the previous several months tutoring Denis in math, English and life.  Denis experienced a father figure, someone who actually cared that he succeed.  Gladly, the two talk regularly on Skype and I have promised Denis a trip to visit Alex when he graduates from "basico" (9th grade).  So, between that bribery, ongoing work with both Alex and an educational psychologist and the arrival of the perfect home schooling tutor Denis is tackling his return to formal education with increased confidence and interest.  His fears of being stupid and failing are rapidly subsiding.  He smiles and says "thank you very much" a lot.

For now the challenge is Jackie who, at 17, has been the most affected by her father's behavior and imprisonment.  Once a good student she recently flunked her second to last year of "diversificado" (high school).  I fault the less than stellar bi-lingual secretarial program rather than Jackie but, nonetheless, flunking out of school isn't much of a confidence builder.   Fairly quickly, Jackie was signed up for home schooling along with her brother.  During her school vacation she volunteered at the vacation program at the Montessori school that Cris and Mishelle attend.  As a result (and with a bit of conversation) she is, for the moment, setting her sites on becoming a teacher. With the start of home schooling it became apparent that Jackie was lagging, perhaps even ailing.  The good Dr. Oscar was called and he came by the house a couple of hours later.  Lab work showed that Jackie is suffering from anemia, likely the result of living on tortillas and bread.  Dr. Oscar who declined payment for his house call prescribed something to settle her stomach and a decent diet which I can now see to at least two times a day. 

As luck would have it a few days before home schooling was to get underway Victoria showed up.  She was introduced by a neighbor.  Victoria is a Guatemalan who was supporting her younger siblings by selling fruit in Antigua's Central Park at age six some 48 years ago.   She was befriended by an American couple who were able to adopt her after her father was imprisoned for molesting her and her mother tossed her out.  She was then raised in the US by two professors and only returned to Guatemala after raising two American children.  She is now married to a Guatemalan and they have a 12-year old son.  Victoria's passion is teaching, she has home schooled her youngest son in the past and was looking for work.  She found it.  I don't have a clue as to what I would have done if she had not turned up but I do know that I couldn't find a more perfect candidate.  A one-time child fruit vendor with a deadbeat dad and the same color skin who has succeeded in spite of it all.   School takes place in my living room or in my garden.  School lunches (and snacks and breakfast when necessary) are wholesome and nourishing.  I hear laughter and lots of conversation.  I watch Denis writing enthusiastically in his notebooks, using the Khan Academy website and I hear him asking lots of questions.  What a change!  Hopefully, with a few weeks of Tia Joan's school meal program Jackie will perk up and share Denis's interest and enthusiasm.

And lastly there was Diego, bright, polite, deserving, fatherless.  Marielos has had him in a (cheap) private school since pre-school.  He loves school and learning and likes to read and practice the little English that he has learned.  His mother felt that his school had failed him over the past two years and was unsure of what to do for this school year.  Enter Victoria who gained Diego a chance to take the entrance exam at the same private, bi-lingual school that her son attends.  I collected Diego after his 3-hour entrance exam.  He was staring hopelessly at a written English test.  After determining  that he didn't speak much English the director announced that he could not come to the school.  Much to my surprise Diego the "old soul" who takes amazing care of his younger siblings started sobbing and ran out of the room.  Only then did I realize that, at age ten, Diego realized that he had just lost a real chance to succeed.  Feeling that I had nothing to lose I challenged the director (who coincidentally doesn't speak a word of English). I told her that his father was dead, his step-father in prison, that he felt responsible for his whole family and that she had just kicked him in the teeth. And just how was he going to learn English if a bi-lingual school wouldn't take a bright, determined kid?  So, Diego started last week as a "temporary" student with no particular standing for this school year.  I told the director that I didn't care, that she just needed to give the kid a chance.  So, he floats between third grade English classes and fifth grades classes in Spanish and I am quite certain that he will succeed.  He is happy and he tells me that his favorite classes are English and science.  One of the bi-lingual teachers took me aside that first day and assured me that she would keep an eye on Diego as will Victoria.  At 2pm Victoria picks Diego up with her son and delivers him to the school that his younger siblings attend where he gets an hour of homework assistance and and another hour of English.

Chris, Diego and Mishelle
And the littlest two, Cris and Mishelle, once just another couple of kids growing up in the market are starting to read and write along with becoming iPad and iPhone experts.  Along with Diego (who by the way is now sporting retainers as an initial step in sorting out his dental issues) Cris and Mishelle are remarkably secure thanks, I think, to their adoring mother and extended family.

Diego, 10 and Mishelle, 4
And, if six kids and one dog weren't enough I came home one day and found "Latte" tied to the table in the garden.  An 18 pound probable poodle mix of a café latte color he was sorely in need of veterinary care.  I had seen him a few days earlier at a nearby shelter and had offered to take him on a trial basis.  Riddled with mange and infected eyes and ears but otherwise spunky and puppy like.  He spent a few days in the vet clinic where it was determined that he is almost blind from "juvenile cataracts" (which might dissolve). He is still on the mend but all of the kids (if not my other dog) adore him.  He is just the right size yet can outrun Denis, the star soccer player.  Just what Denis needs right now.  

Perfect dog for a bunch of kids.

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