When I first heard I’d be working with four-year-olds for five weeks, I was secretly horrified. I do like kids, in a very vague, conditional way. I like them for limited and quantifiable periods of time; I like them if I don’t have to discipline them; I like them if they are already potty-trained and quiet. I have no experience with dealing with more than a few at a time, let alone 30 of them.
Unsurprisingly, my first few weeks working at INABIF in Villa El Salvador have been a roller coaster. I was enamored by the experience for a few days, then overwhelmed and angry, then hopeful, then saddened, then swearing up-and-down I’d never ever have children ever. Every step forward seemed to be accompanied by a few steps back. There are times when I need to step away from bad behavior or glue spills and count to ten in my mind to deal with the stress (a trick my mom taught me at a young age to manage my legendary temper).
But I realized today, in my fourth week in Lima, that I actually do love the little nuggets. It wasn’t a tear-jerking, angels-are-singing realization. I was watching a boy sing along with the teacher to a song about Jesus, making absurd facial expressions and gesticulations with absolutely no concern for who might be watching him. He finished the song with a smile, leaned back in his chair, and dug deep for a few booger-snacks while the teacher moved on to the next lesson. When I found myself affectionately smiling instead of gagging, I knew I had fallen for them, boogers and all.
Still… Kids are annoying. They mock the rules. They laugh at me when I tell them to sit down or do their work. They kill snails for fun. Somehow up until now, I thought it was my responsibility to correct all of their “bad” behavior and help them learn to be normal.
I described the challenges of my work to someone recently by saying, “Little kids are absolutely crazy. They just want to run around and play and do whatever they want all the time!” The new friend laughed and responded, “Oh, so they’re like me?” Great. Now the kids are the fun free-spirits and I’m the conformist. When did that happen?
Between alternately feeling all-consuming rage and affection for the students, I usually forget that they are “under-privileged.” The school has become comfortable to me. I no longer notice the details (some big, some small) that betray the economic status of the district and the children. They do things that kids everywhere do, not excluding fawning over Justin Bieber. I have to consciously remind myself that they leave and go home to a very different place than I do every day. Life won’t be as smooth for them as it has been for me, and doors won’t open as easily, if at all (although the doors I’ve sought are probably not the same ones that they will). I’ve pushed these thoughts out of my mind for some time now because, as I come to know and love the children more as individuals, it becomes more difficult to face these facts.
All of the students at INABIF come from families of four or more, living on less than $2 per day. Some of them wear the same outfits every day or every other day. They obsess over my simple Timex watch as if it were gold and diamonds. Higher education is a doubtful goal (although it is becoming increasingly likely, now that the first university in Villa El Salvador has opened).
When other volunteers or visitors come in and seem to notice these things more, or patronize the students and staff, or complain about the facilities, I become surprisingly (and maybe sophomorically) defensive. Who do they think they are? How dare they be so condescending? They have no idea how much good happens here. I can’t tell whether there is any basis for these feelings or if I’m being overly protective. After talking with my roommates and fellow CCS volunteers, we discovered we had similarly defensive attitudes about our workplaces. We’ve all developed a deep respect for Villa and have little tolerance for patronizing visitors.
Teaching isn’t going to become any easier overnight because I’ve come to adore the kids, but I have a greater capacity for patience now. Plus, I’ve succeeded in ingraining a respect for snail life* in the niños, and for that I will be eternally proud.
* The mass murders have ceased, but there is still widespread displacement of snail populations (e.g. the children hide them in their pockets, carry them around the playground, and drop them off on another leaf or rock). Snail humanization and empathy training will continue with the perpetrators until peaceful coexistence is achieved.