My favorite poem by Pablo Neruda is called "Adioses" (Goodbyes). I read it on the floor of my room in my parents' basement last February...almost an incantation breathing life into Chile for me. It has played a very important role in my camino here, including giving the name of my blog, being read by a friend who felt like a missing puzzle piece to my soul on the roof of a hostel in Santiago, being the only thing left in my hand when my purse was stolen by an armed robber...keeping me sane through all the changes and the crushing sense of futility. I encourage you to read it here http://d0rkalici0u5.wordpress.com/2008/09/02/adioses-by-pablo-neruda/
I am trying to memorize it tonight, because today was my last day of classes at Escuela 5. Imagine the scene:
After trying very hard to sit through an hour and a half of awards, recognitions, monotonous speeches, and a completely superfluous ten-minute saxophone solo the students of Escuela 5 were slowly devolving into chaos. It was far too much to ask of them to remain quiet and seated for that long. I was trying to amuse myself by taking pictures and eating Altoids. It wasn't working.
Out of nowhere, they announced that they would be recognizing a special person who worked so hard with them all semester and loved the children very much. I suddenly wished I had been paying attention or at least looking like I was.
The announcer said something like, "the incomprable Tia Coleen!" and I walked up to the middle of the gym, silently fearing for just a second that the students will boo me. I was focusing on not tripping, and I didn't hear the cheer until it was so loud that I couldn't even hear the director telling me to take the certificate that he was handing me.
Standing ovation. Certificate of merit from the director. Even the parents standing and cheering. I felt like I was in a movie. I tried to look at all the students, but instead I just started crying.
I walked over to the integration teacher, Tía Christine, who I feel is one of the few who truly is called to teaching in that school. She hugged me. My students, all of them, mugged me, pushing and shoving to be able to hug me. I worried we would all fall down and crush each other like soccer fans storming the field.
With help from the inspector, we restored order and they said goodbye, one by one. A mixture of each level, so much that I could hardly remember who was who and which was which. So many kisses and hugs and "Tía, I will miss you," and "Tía, I love you."
"Tía don't leave...please don't leave..."
Everything, the whole semester, the whole struggle, the tears, the swearing, the wanting to give up, the money I and some members of my family gave for supplies (thank you so much, Aunt Barbara), all the drama of a small town...it all was worth it.
The reality that these kids face every day is so much harder than I ever did, and I broke under the weight of the emotions in the school and the constant struggle just to get through the day. I am an adult. The students taught me how to act like one. They are children, and they have to grow up struggling harder than I did for these four months for all their childhood and adolesence.
I cannot change the circumstances of their lives. I cannot give them all money for school and help them to work. I cannot force their parents know how important school is. I cannot throttle a mother who dared hit her child, my student, at the school today and then leave her alone to cry (even though I really, really wanted to). I cannot fight the systemic and cultural problems that are holding Chile back.
I didn't come here to teach English, when I step back and look at it. Let's get real...my students still can't answer "How are you?" after four months of daily repetition. I came to experience Chile and to try to be a positive influence in the lives of these kids. I traveled 6,000 miles to them to show that there is another way...that just because their parents never finished school doesn't mean they shouldn't, that they are valuable and capable and that someone cares about them. And will always care. Even after they threw spitballs and erasers at me every day for four months.
I can only hope that someday a couple of them will remember me and think of how much I put up with to be with them. That maybe, just maybe a few of them will mature and realize that I was demanding because I refused to accept anything but their best effort.
And that I loved them unconditionally. Maybe even especially the tough ones.
I wanted to leave my students with an example of how to say goodbye. One last chance to lead them by example. So I chose a song that expresses a lot of how I feel about leaving my students ("For Good" from Wicked) and hand-wrote the words in English and Spanish. I paid for photocopies for each one. And I made cards for every course. I played the song, we talked about what it meant, and then I read them the card.
I thought it would be easy, but I surprised myself. I choked up the most with the little ones...the first graders are too young to truly understand that I am leaving, but their eyes glowed with love and innocence (it sounds so cheesy, but it really happened). The second graders refused to let me leave the recess hall. The third graders, the class that made me want to keep teaching more than any other...they made me a huge envelope of letters and put their pocket money together to buy me a stuffed penguin and a Magallanes flag.
I didn't even teach the fourth graders, but they swarmed to the classroom and hugged me and cried. The fifth graders listened to me and asked when I was coming back. The sixth graders smiled and didn't cry. The seventh graders rolled their eyes at my admonishment to make good choices, but behaved better than I had ever seen. And the eighth graders begged me to come back for their graduation in December.
As I stepped through the door of the school, holding it open for some parents and students, everything felt normal. I walked out to the street and saw a few students playing soccer, with no coats despite the cold and smiled, thinking of myself at that age. I looked at the mountains, capped with snow and shining in the afternoon sun.
A breeze came up from nowhere, as the wind in Patagonia always does. I breathed it in deeply, and something echoed in my heart like a raindrop creating ripples on a puddle's surface. The weight lifted. The silence spoke to me.
You did it. You did what you came here to do. And you did it so well.
I didn't look back. Really, I couldn't...the more pressing needs to watch out for stray ankle-biting poodles, speeding POS cars on the avenue, and boot-swollowing mud puddles pressed me back to Chilean reality. The Goodbye Spell complete, I walked home.