08 June 2011


I think I've had something of a breakthrough today in terms of my volunteering experience and mentality. Or maybe a tiny breakdown. Or both.

I felt pretty crummy all day today. When I awoke, my stomach was upset from a course of antibiotics that I am taking. I simply lacked motivation to go to school. I slept in turbulent, escapist dreams all morning and felt guilty all day that I was missing (more) class. I felt anxious to even go downstairs to get something to eat because I had made myself a film (an expression in both Spanish, "Hacerse una película," and Italian, "Farsi un film," meaning something along the lines of "making up a whole story for oneself that things are worse than they actually are") that people were judging me for missing class. Talking to each other about how I was a bad volunteer. How they would talk about it for years to come, saying "She started out so well, but then she just fell apart..."

Then suddenly my Chilean mother knocked on my door, rousing me from my film.

"Can I come in?" She had a look of genuine concern on her face. "I have to go out for groceries and I just got back from the school, but I wanted to see you before I left. Are you ok?"

We talked about how my stomach hurt and how I felt sick. I mentioned the antibiotic.

"You can't take an antibiotic without eating! How about you come downstairs and I make you some cooked rice? You have to eat something and it can't have any milk or butter or you will get sicker."

I came downstairs. Everyone, instead of sitting around talking about me behind my back, was worried about me and asked me how I was. They offered advice on how to get better. They told me I absolutely should not go to school if I am sick and that they will tell the director. It's not my responsibility. You have to take care of yourself. Don't worry about it.

My film dissolved. I think that I have been approaching this whole experience far too intensely. Pushing myself far too hard. Telling myself that I have to be the responsible one, and try to make up for the ways that the responsibilities of the program and my "boss" teacher and my school have been somewhat shirked lately. Taking a mentality that I had to do battle with the entire systemically flawed (but improving) Chilean Education System. Keeping myself in a constant state of Fight or Flight has done a number on my health, physically and mentally. And when I couldn't measure up to my own impossibly high standards, I felt that I wasn't doing a good enough job.

But that's just it. This is not a job. I really am a volunteer here. I am volunteering my time, my money, my effort, and a big chunk of my life to help out in Chile, but it is still voluntary. If I am sick and I don't want to go to school...then I don't have to. I can pass off the actual responsibility to teach classes and maintain order and decide students' grades to the people for whom it actually IS A JOB. And from there it is not my fault if things get mismanaged. I figure that the contracts and payment from the UN and pressure from the school to be a real, live teacher all skewed my view over the last three months.

I am not working here. This is not a job. This is something at I am choosing to do and that I can just as easily choose not to. I am a volunteer.

That little epiphany may just change my outlook on the rest of my time here in Chile. I am volunteering, trying to bring a little fun and light and care to these kids, almost all of whom come from high-risk situations in their families, economics, and resources. (This little revelation came to me from our guidance counselor last week, nearly three months after I arrived. I honestly thought that all schools in Chile were this way. Turns out that I actually am in a tougher school for Natales...suspicion confirmed! I wasn't just making up a film!) I have to take care of myself and remember that I am already doing my best.

So now, my stomach is full of plain white rice and chamomile tea. My heart is full of knowledge that people do care and worry about me. And my brain is full of the epiphany of how volunteering actually works. I am ready to continue.

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