Saturday, December 3, 2011

Running into trouble!


Sorry for the delay in blogging! Hmmm, I am not even sure where to begin this one since it’s been so long. I guess morning is a good place to start:

So, at 6:25a.m the alarm on my cell phone played “Minuet” in an obnoxious rasping tone (Minuets are not meant to be played through cell phones). When “Minuet” was finished, “Ukulele” started to play, followed by “Deep Blue Sea”. At that point it was 6:45a.m, I was finally shaken awake from my dream and I bolted out of bed. By 7:15a.m I was out the door with four nuns, Sarah, and peanut butter and honey toast in my hand… and all down my pants, shoe, ankle, elbow, and backpack. It does not take long for honey to drip everywhere and leave a sticky mess!  At school I cleaned up and was back on track. Until Health class. We made it through the lesson on the effects of the media on body image, and we headed outside to finish the game of kickball I had promised. However, it had just rained, so the field was a little squishy. The first time a ball was kicked out of bounds, one of my students volunteered to go get it. He was reaching for the ball, when his shoe sunk deep into the mud. He ended up losing his shoe and stepping into the mud with his clean, white socks. Sorry mom! The second time a ball was kicked out of bounds, I decided I would take care of it. It was in the weeds, but this was nothing for an experienced camp counselor. I reached down for the ball and next thing I knew my feet felt like they were burning! I looked down and saw tons of little fire ants crawling all over my exposed feet (I had flats on). I came out from the weeds, yelled to the class that we had to go NOW, and ran down the squishy hill to the parking lot. Since it had just rained, the parking lot was full of puddles. I threw off my flats and starting running through puddles. My students were laughing so hard at me – it was the worst pain I had ever felt from an insect, but I knew it was going to turn into one of those situations I laugh about later. The students went to the bathroom to wash the mud off of their uniforms before English class, and we all trudged back to the classroom, leaving a wet, muddy trail behind us. Sorry janitors! However, my feet were still burning – I needed to get to a faculty bathroom so that I could actually wash my feet and rinse out my shoes, but I realized I had forgotten my key! The next 10 minutes I spent running around trying to find a janitor to open the bathroom for me. Finally, I arrived to Kindergarten, a little late, super sweaty, in very itchy. After two Kindergarten classes, it was back to eighth grade. I had a powerpoint presentation with a video on it prepared for History class, but surprise, the converter I needed in order to present it, was nowhere to be found! When relying on technology, back-up plans are absolutely essential.

The best part of my day happened during prayer. Usually I am scrambling to find the right page and figure out what is going on, but today, I happened to open up to exactly the right page – it was amazing.

At about 10p.m, I realized my water bottle was completely empty, and that our favorite computerized voice would be letting us know that the alarm was about to turn on. This happened right as I was opening the door… Oh no!! I needed water still! I yelled out the door, “Necesito Agua” (I need water), but nobody heard me. It seemed like a pretty fitting way to end this day.

After a day like this, the best thing I can do is run. I am very grateful that we met a group of fantastic people and joined their running team! I think one of the reasons running is so important to me here, is because it is one of the only times in the day that I feel like I have complete control. I am the only one that can control my body. While running, I am not depending on anyone else. I’m not hoping technology will pull through for me, I’m not depending on my students to listen to my lesson, I’m not scheduled by bells and prayer time, I am in control of just myself. It is a hard lifestyle change to go from living a life of plenty of freedom in college to one that is very structured and controlled. Running has been a great outlet.

Last Saturday, Sarah and I found out about a free 5K race ending with the lighting of the Christmas tree in the plaza of Humacao. Since we live about 5 blocks from the plaza, we thought this would be a good race to participate in. While registering, we were asked for our addresses. We told them we weren’t sure of the exact address, but that we live in the Monastey down this street (pointing down the street we live on). The women reregistering us looked extremely confused – she did not know there was a monastery down that street, nor did she know the address. We asked her why we even needed to have an address, and she told us it was so they could mail prize money. We looked at each other and laughed, “we won’t be winning, so it’s okay”. In the end, they ended up writing down the addresses of our parents’ houses.

Running shoes tied, and numbers pinned on, we piled into a trolley with the other runners. We were jammed all the way in the back, sitting on a spare tire. The trolley cruised to another town, about three miles away, bottoming out quite a few times along the way. Ouch! When we arrived, we chatted and warmed up. The runners started gathering near the starting line, and next thing I knew the gunshot was fired. Off we went! The run was pretty, shaded by big trees and nice views of a little river. When we arrived to the finish line in the plaza, there were a lot of people cheering and the giant Christmas tree looked great. Sister Rufina showed up to congratulate us, which was really nice of her! She knows how important running is to us. After the race, we were about to walk home when some of our friends told us to check out the awards sheet posted in about size 12 font on a building near the plaza. Apparently, Sarah had won first place for our age class, and I was behind her in second. We decided to go check out the award ceremony. It was in a giant parking lot with food stands set up on one side and a massive stage on the other. The spectators included mostly runners and random parents and children en route to Humcao’s visiting carnival. When the award announcer got to the 21 – 25 year old age class, he yelled, “EN SEGUNDO LUGAR, TENEMOS, JANA….. RENEE... … … … GRAZY” The crowd burst out laughing, because they thought he said “crazy”. He called for me to come up on stage. I made my way up on stage and he was talking very loud and fast in my face, asking where I was from, and other questions I probably couldn’t register fast enough. He announced I was from Minnesota, and everyone was cheering a lot more than I would have expected! Next I was handed a check and a gigantic trophy. The announcer then called Sarah up to stage and went through the same routine. We took a picture together, they made a big deal about us coming from Minnesota and Wisconsin, and we hurried to the back of the parking lot with our excessively enormous trophies and unexpected checks! We couldn’t stop laughing – just another typical occurrence of Jana and Sarah having absolutely no idea what they were getting themselves into in Puerto Rico…

As far as teaching goes, I think I am just about as anxious as the students are to have a break. I could really use some time to think about what direction I would like to take next semester. Also, since my students do not have textbooks or other resources for Health or History, Sister Myriam told me I could purchase some reasonably priced class materials, and she would reimburse me. However, everyday I face the challenge of figuring out what I am going to teach the next day, and I feel like I haven’t had a good opportunity to look at the bigger picture, which would allow me to actually consider what materials I might need ahead of time.

Happy December to all!!

-Teacher, Miss Jana, Jana Grazy, La pequeña

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Visitors and Laughter

The first weekend in October, my mom and grandma visited me in Puerto Rico! We spent Thursday evening near our hotel in Isla Verde, eating dinner and walking to the beach.

Friday was a full day of sight seeing in Old San Juan. We started off by eating Mallorca and Quesitos (two typical pastries of Puerto Rico). Next we visited the Paseo de La Princesa, and had a good view of the fort and ocean. From there we caught the trolley up to La Fortuleza (the fort), and spent some time learning its history and exploring the six different levels! We stopped for lunch in a small, local restaurant, and from there we visited the Cathedral, the old convent, and Pigeon Park.

On the trolley!

At the fort!

Pigeon Park

On Saturday morning my mom and I swam in the ocean for a bit, and then we headed to the rain forest called El Yunque. We walked on some of the trails – it was very green and beautiful! From there we followed the shoreline down to Humacao. My mom and grandma quickly met all of the Sisters and got situated in their rooms (my mom upstairs and my grandma downstairs, in the back, where S. Rufina lives). Next, my mom and I headed over to Ivan and Cesar’s house for a delicious dinner of Filipino egg rolls, a roast with potatoes, rice, iced tea, and rolls. I am really glad she had the opportunity to meet Ivan and Cesar – they sing and play instruments in the choir with some of the Sisters.  They are also two of the kindest people ever, and they have “rescued” us from the Monastery a few times :) They live across from the beach in Humacao (about a 15 minute drive from the Monastery), in the beautiful old house that Ivan grew up in! When we got back to the Monastery, we played a few rounds of Rumi-cube in the library, but we made sure we were all in our rooms before the alarm was set at 10pm sharp!

El Yunque

Sunday we spent touring Humacao. In the morning we drove to Palmas del Mar, which is the huge resort and community located on the ocean. It was a beautiful day and the flowers, trees, houses, golf courses, yacht club, and water looked pristine. We made sure we were home by 11am so that we could make it to prayer and lunch! After lunch we visited Colegio San Benito – S. Esther gave us a very complete tour. We were able to see everything from the classrooms I teach in to the third floor where the other three nuns live! Next I showed them the track where I run and play soccer, and then we returned to the monastery. It was extremely hot and humid (like normal), and I think they were both feeling the effects… We spent the rest of the evening on the patio playing cards, Rumi-cube, and looking through my pictures. S. Rufina and my grandma played together on a team for a little bit, and S. María brought us coffee and candy. They were all extremely accommodating and made sure my visitors had everything they needed (at all times!!)

Las Palmas del Mar
My Classroom

I am really happy that my mom and grandma could see and experience the places where I spend the majority of my time – school, Monastery, track, and Old San Juan! It was so nice to relax and spend time with them! I think they will have a better idea of how it feels to live in this community, what it’s like to walk through the town I live in, and how much the heat takes out of you! I feel so lucky that I was able to share some of my life down here with them!

It was sad to say goodbye to them again, but I was really happy to have Sarah back. It would be nearly impossible to survive here by myself. Although my mom and grandma got a small dose of life at the Monastery, there are only three other people in this world (Sarah, the volunteers from last year, and hopefully two more next year) who can truly understand how it feels to be a recent college graduate living in a Monastery and volunteering as a teacher, with absolutely no experience, aside from the previous three months. Nobody else would understand why laughing uncontrollably at inappropriate times (prayer) happens without explanation...

Usually prayer is a very relaxing time and space where I can forget about lesson plans, job applications, being homesick, etc. However, sometimes after a day of letting frustrations, happiness, sadness, excitement, and stress build-up, it is released in the form of laughter, during prayer. Thinking depressing thoughts, pinching myself, and disguising laughter by fake coughing fits doesn’t even help, and as painful as this situation is, it’s nice having one other person in this world sitting next to me who understand exactly why laughter is being released at that moment.

Like I said, prayer is a great time to unwind (sometimes it takes some laughing first) but the place I feel most relaxed and able to connect with God is when I am outside. We actually spend a lot more time inside here that I thought we would. It’s either too stinkin’ hot to be outside, we’re in school, or it’s dark. That being said, the time I do spend outside is when I feel happiest and most at peace. Now that I’ve befriended Luna, I think I will try to do more lesson-planning and reflection outside, where my mind is clearer.

Well, this ended up being a compilation of thoughts. I’ll try to update you sooner next time!

Until then,

Sunday, October 16, 2011

"Stories" and other updates

In my History of the Americas class we started with some basic geography of the world – I thought it was important for my eighth graders to understand where in the world the Americas even are. Most of them could not identify the seven continents, which I thought was a bit surprising and unsettling. At least I figured out our starting point. Once I stopped receiving answers such as “New Mexico, Alaska, and China” for the question “Name the seven continents”, we moved on to actual history of the Americas. When we started on Central America, I was excited. I think about my experiences in Guatemala almost everyday…

After the five months I spent living and studying in Guatemala, I had realized that my place amongst all the chaos of the world was to go home and tell the stories that were shared with me. I shared pictures, told stories to my roommates and friends, and wrote my senior thesis based on the “stories” from Guatemala. And then I ended up in a classroom in Puerto Rico, teaching “History of the Americas” to eighth graders. How extremely random. However, now that we’ve gotten to the specific history of Central America, I have started to realize how perfect it really is that I ended up in this very classroom.

Now my struggle is to decide what is appropriate to teach. I was given a textbook to follow, but it would be a huge understatement to say it describes accurately what has happened in Guatemala since the Spanish conquest, a similar story in most Latin American countries. However, I don’t want to step on anyone’s feet by describing everything I saw and learned almost two years ago – things that are intentionally left out of textbooks all over the world. 

Every time I think of this issue, I am brought back to the dark hut in Chajul, where brave men and women shared their stories. As these poor human beings embraced me with smiles and prayer, and shared their losses, suffering, frustration, hunger, and fear, I was abandoned by my previous life of naivety. How could I help?

Share their stories… be a voice. Now that I am in Puerto Rico, spending my time with eighth graders, young individuals figuring out who they are and where they fit into the chaos of the world, I have found my audience. I have decided to explain as much as I think they will understand as eighth graders. If they, or their parents find it to be a concern, I will be happy to talk to them, give them my senior thesis (luckily, it’s already in Spanish), and describe my experiences. I was determined to tell these stories upon returning from Guatemala, so someone was thinking when they sent me to Puerto Rico to teach history to young learners who speak and understand English!

“If you have much, give of your wealth; if you have little, give of your heart.” –My favorite quotes from The Prophet (Thank Tia, for giving me that book!)

Other notes/updates

Sarah and I have started a website for the Monastery – it is “up and running”, but needs a lot of work still. Check it out and feel free to make suggestions:

My eighth grade class is still working on decorating boxes that can be used to collect recycling. When they are done, they will be placed in the intermediate classrooms. Next time I find myself at Wal-Mart with a bunch of nuns (a likely situation), I am going to convince them to buy some large garbage cans that we can bring to school to collect plastic bottles and aluminum cans for recycling.

I have “joined” a girls’ soccer team in Humacao! They practice on Mondays and Wednesdays, and have games on weekends. It has been really fun, but I found out that I am actually not eligible to play in games with them, because you must to be 20 years old or younger to compete. Even though I am one of the smallest girls on the team, I cannot prove that I am younger than 20 with valid identification. One of the teachers at the school said he would try to convince the league to make an exception – we’ll see.

Another issue that Sarah and I have both been thinking about a lot is food waste; the school serves every student at the school two free meals a day, which is really great, except when it’s not taken advantage of. The meals are served in the lunchroom, but just outside of the lunchroom are two meriendas (snack bars), where students can purchase snacks and drinks with their own money. Rather, their parents’ money. And almost every student spends money at the merienda, buying peanut M&Ms, Doritos, hot-dogs, Coca-Cola, Jolly Rancher suckers, and any other tasty, sugary, processed food you can think of. So the mountainous portions of perfectly good and healthy chicken, rice, beans, fruit, vegetables, and milk served in the lunchroom goes straight to the bottom of the huge trashcan before the students head to the merienda. It was painful watching a bucket of untouched apples be dumped into the trash today, when I am sure some of the people living in the “projects” (the government sponsored neighborhood next to the school) may not even know where their next meal will come from.

This situation has been difficult: I want to tell them to close the meriendas, especially during lunch, and teach kids to appreciate what they have – if they aren’t satisfied with school lunch, they can bring their own. Has anyone ever told them about the “starving kids in Africa”, or within their very own neighborhood? But it isn’t my place to tell them how I would do things – I am a visitor in their culture and I need to respect that. I know it might be hard to start changing the amount of food waste this year, but it is something Sarah and I will keep thinking about. Maybe we can work with some of the faculty here to see if there is anything that we can do. As for now, I ask to be served smaller portions and clear my tray in order to set a good example for both students and teachers. 

Monday, September 19, 2011

Feliz Cumpleaños A... Yo? And Other Celebrations

We were told before we left that Puerto Ricans like to celebrate; it’s true. Last Tuesday, in authentic Puerto Rican and Monastic fashion, we celebrated the birthdays of three people: S. María, S. Esther, and myself. It made sense to celebrate the Sisters’ birthdays together, since they were born in September, the current month. However, my actual birthday is in July, which occurred about three months ago. During that celebration though, I felt like it was actually my birthday. It was adorable – everyone gave me a gift, we sang a LOT, we ate cake, we blew out candles, I received flowers, and the room was decorated with balloons and streamers for a birthday party. I barely stopped laughing to eat my marshmallow cake, because again, Sarah and I had no idea what was going on, we were singing a song that I had taught the Sisters the previous weekend about a cow, and I had just received more gifts than I ever needed on my “birthday”. What a riot.

Birthday Clip

The Sisters pray, eat, sleep (in that order), in the Monastery, but most of them also spend a significant amount of time working at the school. This means not all celebrating happens in the Monastery, plenty of celebrating is done at school as well. On Friday, that’s exactly what we did at school: Celebrate. What were we celebrating exactly? Being back. Yes, simply being back at school was the theme of this celebration. It was a gigantic fiesta complete with a D.J, dance floor (and ledge), unlimited drinks (juice), cupcakes, and any clothes you wanted to wear that day! It was crazy!! So crazy that the Kindergarteners had to “party” in their own room for fear that they would be trampled by the older kids.

Walking through the hall of the party:

Another unofficial celebration that occurred this week was that of The Coquí, the tiny frog mascot of Puerto Rico that serenades the islanders with its high-pitched melody from dusk until dawn. The festivities started about 9:30p.m. I was in the kitchen eating mango yogurt. Sarah was in our room talking with someone on the phone. The nuns were upstairs sleeping peacefully. At about 9:31 a coquí went jumping across the kitchen floor, obviously lost and confused and looking for a way out of the Monastery – I could relate. Before he could disappear under the refrigerator or into a crack, I scooped him into my almost-empty yogurt container and made my way to the door to grant the little guy his freedom. As I opened the door, the Monastery basically exploded. There were bright flashing lights and blaring sirens. I think I stood there stunned for a few seconds, threw the lucky coquí into the garden, slammed the door shut, and ran to my room. If Sarah’s phone call wasn’t already interrupted by the obnoxiously loud alarms, it was now. We burst into uncontrollable laughter, something we both typically do when we don’t know how else to react. However, the alarm was not going to stop, so I decided I better do something. I started climbing the stairs and found most of the nuns in their pajamas at the top. I apologized for opening the door and setting off the alarm. Apparently they had activated it earlier than 10pm that night (and didn’t tell us!). After telling the security company that, “no, they shouldn’t send the police” (it was just our volunteer again…), everyone settled down and went back to their rooms.  Hopefully that coquí appreciates its freedom, and as a Puerto Rican symbol, it better be representing its country well and celebrating its return to the garden. A unique celebration, or as Sarah put it, “pro-biotic plunge”.

Finally, I have been feeling nostalgic recently for the celebration Sunday Football. Almost every Sunday during football season I could be found watching the game with family and friends. It has been different this year watching the game from my bed at the Monastery instead of waking up, putting on my jersey, and heading over to SJU for some food and drinks. Different, but not bad. I still watched the game, but this year I corrected papers and ate salmon during half time. Although celebrations may change, I am glad that they don’t go away – there is always something to celebrate.

A note about school -
Classes are still going well. The eighth graders are still eighth graders – capable but lazy, super self-conscious, and even when they look like they might be listening, there is a very good chance that they are not. I am trying really hard to motivate and challenge them. I am still working on implementing a recycling program at the school, and they have helped me create posters to advertise the importance of doing so. The next step is to get actual recycling bins and the recycling company to make it a routine to stop by. 

Thanks for readin'!

Sunday, September 11, 2011


A typical morning at the Monastery starts with me stumbling out of bed with my eyes half-open after hearing my alarm go off for the fifth time, and quickly trying to piece together an outfit that fits the dress-code at Colegio San Benito. Next I am off to the kitchen for a rushed bowl of cereal - while I eat, I try to figure out when what nuns are going where? Usually by about 7:20a.m I know if I need to grab my bag and run to catch a ride with S. María and S. Vivian, if I will be walking, or if I should ask S. Rufina for a ride after everyone clears out. Whatever mode of transportation I take to school, I usually arrive about 7:45am. Unless I am substituting for an absent teacher, my job doesn’t officially start until 8:05am sharp, when I lock the gate to the school. Therefore, on a typical school day, I hadn’t been doing anything productive between 7:45am and 8:05am, which is why I started reading Newsweek. I have been feeling pretty behind on what is going on in the world, so I figured this would be a great way to get caught up.

I read some articles about Michelle Bachmann, the economy crisis, and eight ways to fix our politics. I also read, “Somalia: Tyranny and Pain”, a story I will never forget. It was about Dr. Hawa Abdi, an obstetrician and gynecologist who has dedicated her life to service. She is fighting to help the Somalis who have been displaced by the violence of the civil war caused by interclan fighting in Somalia. She established a one-room clinic in Mogadishu in 1983, and it has now grown to house 90,000 people, mostly women and children. To keep the hospital running, she had to sell her family’s gold to buy enough food to sustain the vulnerable children and give the grave diggers enough strength to work. Even when they were burying 50 people per day, she continued to provide free land, security, and medical treatment. In 2010, Hizbul Islam militants showed up demanding that she handed over the authority of the hospital and the management of the camp to them. According to their version of Islam, the role of women is to support men by staying in the home. Terrified mothers had to detach feeding tubes and IV lines from their dehydrated children to run from the militants, knowing they would not survive. Dr. Hawa told the 18-year-old militants, “I do something for my people and my country… You are young and active. What have you done for your people and your country?” Eventually, Dr. Hawa was able to return to her demolished hospital. Fortunately, with the help of donors, she has been able to rebuild the hospital bit by bit. However, all of the international organizations working within their borders (U.N.’s World Food Program and Doctors Without Borders) have left because of the dangerous situation.

Through teary eyes I finished reading the article and I was filled with the exact same feeling that I experienced in Guatemala in the spring of 2010: the feeling that led me to decide to volunteer after graduation. I was brought back to a hut in Chajul, being embraced with smiles and prayer by the victims of the armed conflict in Guatemala. I was infuriated by the life they were forced to live, yet humbled by their choice to persevere. It was so hard to leave after hearing their stories. I wanted to give them everything I had – my shoes, $20, my ipod – but I knew it wasn’t enough. We could stay with them for a while and build some houses, but that still wouldn’t solve their deep-rooted problems. By the end of the trip, after hours of reflection of everything we had taken in over the previous five months, I started to feel better about where I fit into everything. The stories of the underprivileged need to be shared, especially to young, impressionable, minds so they learn what to “fight” for. There is so much war education, it should come as not surprise that young soldiers don’t understand how much damage they are doing. Where is the peace education? Also, the truth about what has happened in these countries is not written in textbooks and most people will never know the kinds of corrupt operations their government supported. By the end of the trip, I realized my task was to share the stories of the underserved while taking advantage of the opportunities I have, specifically through education. So I knew I wanted to volunteer after graduating, but I didn’t know witch program was right or where I should go. And then the Benedictine Women’s Service Corp presented itself and it felt like the right decision – I would be serving through education. Perfect, let’s do this!

So when I started my volunteer work here I was just trying to keep my head above the water. I was too busing preparing lessons that I never really took time to think about the actual impact of my year of service as a whole, until I skyped with my spiritual advisor. She asked me if I felt like I was making a difference through volunteering, which is the question I have now been asking myself all week.

The majority of the students in my class own cell phones, are in class because their parents pay for them to attend private school, have internet, a comfortable bed, plenty of food, drink clean water, and spend an absurd amount of money to buy snacks and drinks from the school everyday. That being said, it’s hard to feel like these students really need me to make a difference in their lives. Especially after witnessing the devastation in Guatemala and having Newsweek to remind me of the suffering all over the world, I started feeling pretty helpless again, like I wasn’t actually making the difference I was so inspired to work for through this program.

And then my beautiful roommate, Sarah, gave me a reading that she had received from her mom in the mail called, “How Are You Rippling?”. It said, “there are scores of people waiting for someone just like us to come along, people who will appreciate our compassion, our encouragement, who will need our unique talents. Someone who will live a happier life merely because we took the time to share what we had to give”. I was so happy she shared this reading with me, when she did. It made me realize I do have a lot to offer to these students. However privileged they may be, they are the individuals I need to share my stories with. I will be the one teaching them the importance of taking advantage of their opportunities and education. They are the individuals who have the resources and knowledge to save our earth, our people, our future… and I will be here to guide them.

Currently in Health class we are starting a recycling program for the school (they don’t recycle right now). I also want them to think of some kind of project they can do in order to bring awareness about plastic water bottles to both the students and faculty (I can’t say that I have seen one reusable water bottle, besides my own, so far).

In History, we are talking about Mexico, so I have shared the Zapatistas’ story, and their continuous battle for equality in Mexico. Eventually, I want to share the story that the Guatemalans shared with me and hopefully give them the same motivation to take advantage of the opportunities they have, as I was given.

It hasn’t been an easy task trying to get these 13-year-old’s to see beyond Justin Bieber, their iPhones, and the latest trends, but I am starting to feel like that is why it is important that I am here – not only to teach them about health and history, but to teach the more important life lessons. And I don’t want the lessons they learn in my classroom to end in May, I want them to become open-minded, intelligent individuals who are motivated to leave the world a better place than how they found it.

Thinking about all of this doesn’t mean that I’ve forgotten about Dr. Hawa and her struggle in Somalia. Her strength and determination is inspiration for me to be successful with my service here. She, like countless other individuals suffering and fighting for equality, deserves our continual support and prayer. We have to keep on rippling too, because, “often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around” (“How Are You Rippling” by Leo Buscaglia).

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The little things

About a week ago today, I was abruptly awoken to an extremely loud clap of thunder, followed by an obnoxious car alarm that must have been set-off as a result. I guess Hurricane Irene wanted to be the first to say good-morning. I made my way to the kitchen for some breakfast; I could hear people voices and dog noises mixed with the pounding rain outside, so I left my cereal bowl at the counter and went to the door where I found Sarah taking pictures of the commotion outside: Two nuns wrapped in sheets and wearing garbage bags on their heads were searching for mangoes in the pouring rain and flooded yard beneath a fallen down mango tree. Carmello and Luna seemed to be enjoying the scene a little bit more – they were frolicking around in the gigantic rain puddles. It was really sad to see that one of the two big mango trees had been knocked down by the storm – it was part of the monastic community. Anyway, I wanted to help salvage the mangoes (mangoes are my favorite fruit and I like playing in the rain!), but I was too scared to go outside, because I don’t think Luna and I are good enough friends yet. However, she doesn’t bark and growl as much as she used to when she sees me… little steps.

So, Hurricane Irene set off some car-alarms, knocked over a mango tree, flooded the yard, and left the school without electricity or water for almost a week, which meant we could not have classes for almost a week, which meant we stayed inside the Monastery for almost a week...
In just under a week, we were able to work on a lot of necessary lesson-planning, which was a great thing! However, not being able to go outside for that long was also quite difficult. Finally, towards the end of the week, Sarah and I were feeling pretty anxious, so we decided to brave the weather and go on a run. It wasn’t raining when we left the monastery, but it didn’t take long for that to change. As we were running, it started down pouring! It was raining so hard that it was a little bit painful, but refreshing at the same time. I felt the happiest I had felt all week while running through the flooded streets of Humacao…  little moments

We finally returned to school on Friday, well, most of us. I only had six of my eleven students show up. The students were supposed to give presentations in Health class and start a new unit in History/Geography, but with only half the class there, we had a change of plans. So, my class didn’t really resume until Monday. As far as classes are going, the biggest struggles remain the gap between the students’ comprehension levels and the technology. There is a huge range between what some students already know and understand and what other students already know and understand. To get some students caught up, I am hoping to spend a little extra time with them during their homeroom period if possible. As far as technology goes, on Monday I was FINALLY able to project the powerpoint that I had put together for History/Geography class! However, I had three video clips from the historychannel website that I was hoping to play, but apparently the projector does not have sound, so that ended up not working out very well. Nevertheless, being able to project my powerpoint and not having volume is better than not having a functioning projector at all… little improvements

Sunday, August 21, 2011

My blog posts are all over the place, just like my life has been lately, so it's hard to think of an appropriate title!

I was going to work on lesson plans tonight, but school has been canceled Monday for the entire island because of hurricane Irene. So, I will update my blog while listening to the rain outside…

One of the first days here, Sister Rufina brought us with her to meet her family who lives in Maunabo, a town in the mountains about 30 minutes away. When we arrived, we met her brother, Felix, who was on bed rest on the living room, because he has some type of cancer that has now spread throughout his entire body. Most of the family was at his house spending time with him for the last few days of his life.  We didn’t know that he was sick, so I was surprised that Rufina invited us to meet her family at such a tough time. I felt sad for everyone, especially the brothers and sisters of Rufina and the wife of Felix. However, like all of the Puerto Ricans I have met so far, everyone was very open to meeting us and making us comfortable in their home. Later in the week, we got the news that Felix had passed away, so we packed into the van with the sisters and headed up to Maunabo for the wake. All of Rufina’s family was there, including the wife of Felix. When we walked into the room Felix’s wife embraced Sarah and I into a hug filled with so much warmth and emotion that it felt like we had known her our entire lives, definitely not like we had only met her once before. It was very special. Later, Rufina told us that Felix and one of her other brothers hadn’t been talking because of a serious dispute they had many years ago. This was something that was very tough on Rufina - she told us she prayed for them everyday for many years, and the night before Felix passed away, the brothers forgave each other, a relief for the whole family. I was amazed by the strength of the loved ones of Felix, especially the women. It made me think of a story I had heard about consequences:
There once was a farmer who owned a horse. And one day the horse ran away. All the people in the town came to console him because of the loss. “Oh, I don’t know,” said the farmer, “maybe it’s a bad thing and maybe it’s not.”
A few days later, the horse returned to the farm accompanied by 20 other horses. (Apparently he had found some wild horses and made friends!) All the townspeople came to congratulate him: “Now you have a stable full of horses!” “Oh, I don’t know,” said the farmer, “maybe it’s a good thing and maybe it’s not.”
A few days later, the farmer’s son was out riding one of the new horses. The horse got wild and threw him off, breaking the son’s leg. So all the people in town came to console the farmer because of the accident. “Oh, I don’t know,” said the farmer, “maybe it’s a bad thing and maybe it’s not.”
A few days later, the government declared war and instituted a draft of all able-bodied young men. They came to the town and carted off hundreds of young men, except for the farmer’s son who had a broken leg. “Now I know,” said the farmer, “that it was a good thing my horse ran away.”
So the passing of Felix was hard, but it led to forgiveness between brothers and relief for the family. Life happens and most of the time it’s hard to know why things are happening. However, I think throughout the course of life everything falls into place. Sometimes we think we are being punished, but it’s really a time for growth. God gives us difficulties to make us stronger. I am trying to remember this throughout my experiences here in Puerto Rico. Sometimes I get caught up in the stress of teaching or communicating in Spanish, but I know that through both good and bad experiences, I am growing and learning.

Sarah and I have decided that our life (yes, our life – we eat, run, pray, travel, etc. together, haha!) could be a good plot for a reality TV show. Within the last three weeks we have found ourselves in many situations asking, how? How did we get here again and what are we doing?! For example, I never thought that I would be sitting on the patio of a Monastery correcting papers (that I had assigned as homework to my students) on a Saturday afternoon. Later that day, at Felix’s wake, we were asked to play tambourine in the choir. Then, driving home from the wake, we piled back into the van. There was one nun driving, three more as passengers, one choir member, one friend, and two young volunteers, for a total of eight people in a seven-passenger van. We were speeding down the road when all of a sudden a group of people riding horses on the other side of the road appeared in the darkness. We continued to drive quickly down the mountain (not sure what the rush was, usually there is no pressure to get places on time…) and all of a sudden a horse with a cowboy on it appeared in our lane. The driver laid on the horn - a maneuver not recommended around animals that get spooked easily. We ended up broadsiding the horse, and kept driving… yikes.

Last Sunday, the leader of the running team picked us up and drove us back to Maunabo for a 5K race with the running team! It was extremely hot (around 100 degrees) and very humid. There were about 1000 runners at the race and I ended up placing 297th. My time was pretty decent, but I wasn’t very tired or sore when I finished, just hot, so I probably could have run a little harder. At least at the next race I will have a personal time in mind to beat! As you ran across the finish line there was a giant sprinkler and they handed you a medal, water, Gatorade, bananas and apples! I am so thankful for the running team. They are all extremely kind and caring. They have told us multiple times that if we ever need anything at all that we shouldn’t hesitate to let them know. They are also determined people who I can learn a lot from. I was talking to one of the guys about his service in Iraq that led to a severe accident that disabled him from running for two years. Through the  help of the running team he is finally able to run again and feel like his life is back to normal. They are a tight community of people who love, support, and want the best for each other.

I finally caught a lizard – I was in my room and I could hear one of the sisters yelling from the stairs for me to come out. She was saying something and pointing at the little lizard on the stairs that she wanted me to catch. As I made a dive at it, it ran into the living room and I ended up chasing it around while she laughed at me from the stairs. Finally I got it and let it go outside.

School has been going well still. I have now survived two weeks with the thirteen-year-olds. The biggest challenges have been the varying levels of English the students know, the technology, and the textbooks. It is hard not to get frustrated with technology, because I have always had up-to-date computers/projectors/etc. I find myself relying on technology, especially projectors, since that is how I was taught. However, everyday that I have had a powerpoint planned or needed an internet site, the electricity has gone out or the projectors are not compatible with my computer. I am hoping I can eventually find a compatible projector and a good balance of using my computer and using other methods of teaching. The problem with the textbook is that the books that the students were required to buy are a completely different than the one I was given, and their books are in Spanish and mine is in English – it makes it interesting.

I appreciate paperweights more than I ever used to. In the classroom I teach in, one complete wall is covered in windows that are open as often as possible in the hopes of providing a draft to evaporate sweat produced merely from wearing clothes to school. There are also multiple fans in each classroom in order to provide additional airflow so we can breathe in class! (Okay, I am making it sound pretty awful, but it is awfully hot …) That being said, with all the air currents swirling around the room, papers are always flying everywhere, so paperweights are valued. I forgot to mention above that another challenge I have is how noisy the classrooms get. Even when every student is completely silent, I find myself struggling to talk over the loud fans!

This past weekend was a blast! We were invited to go to San Juan with a teacher I work with, so she picked us up from the Monastery and brought us to meet a bunch of her friends. We went to a small hole-in-the-wall bar that was outside. Her friends were all very friendly, and she let us sleep at her house for the night (in order to avoid the 10pm curfew at the Monastery). The next day she drove us to Fajardo, and we caught a ferry to the island of Vieques and went to the beach! It was an absolutely perfect day to spend at the beach. We traded off lying under the palm tree and cooling off in the water, even though it was just as warm as the air. That night we returned to Old San Juan for a friend’s birthday party. We are lucky we decided to come back to the mainland Saturday evening instead of Sunday, because they ended up shutting down the ferry due to the approaching hurricane, leaving a lot of very angry and rioting people stranded on the island for the time being.

I will try to get better at posting smaller, more concise blogs, sorry!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Enseñando y aprendiendo

One of the funniest moments Sarah and I have shared happened the other night at the expensive of the extensive security system mentioned in the first post and myself. I think it is more of a “you had to be there” kind of a moment, but I wanted to mention it anyway. At about 9:10PM, the lovely, computerized, Spanish voice (we need to give her a name still) gave us the one-minute warning announcement, about 50 minutes earlier than planned. We both froze, stared at each other, and then I realized I didn’t have any water, a necessity in Puerto Rico, especially when you are locked in your room for the night! I grabbed my empty water bottle, leaped over the beds, ran through the doors, and bolted into the kitchen to fill it up with filtered water. I could hear the beeping of the motion sensor speeding up, but I couldn’t make the water come out any faster. When the beeping seemed like it was at its max, I stopped filling my bottle and sprinted back to my room. The beeping must have stopped just before I made it to the other side of the sensor, because I think I set the alarm off.  Sister María came down the stairs, and was saying something to us through our doors. At this point, Sarah and I were laughing so hard we could barely make out Sister María’s rapid Spanish, let alone breathe. I think Sister María thought we were absolutely crazy. I finally controlled myself enough to open the door a bit and tell her sorry and that we had everything we needed. We probably continued to laugh about our situation for another 10 minutes straight. HA ha!

Our lifestyle in Puerto Rico is completely opposite from our lifestyle at college. Luckily, Sarah and I share an interest that we are able to practice here, and that helps keeps us sane: running. There is a track about four blocks from the Monastery that we decided to check out last Wednesday. As we were running, we noticed a big group of people slowly gathering on the side of the track, and every time we passed them they cheered us on. When we were done with our run, one of the guys from the group starting talking to us. We learned that the group we saw gathering is a bunch of friends who meet everyday to run together. They train for various races in Puerto Rico throughout the year, and they invited us to join them!  The next day we met them on the track and we did a full workout, something that Sarah and I have not done since being on the CSB track team. It felt really good, it was fun, and we met a lot of great people. So far we’ve been invited to an art show, and will be competing in a 5K race this Sunday with the team!

As far as monastic life goes, it seems that every time we go to prayer or mass, we are able to follow along a little bit better than the last time. We went to mass at church in town on Sunday, and it was gorgeous, but also very hot and hard to understand the priest. On Tuesdays a priest comes to the Monastery and we have mass there. I really enjoyed that, because I was able to understand the complete homily (given in Spanish, of course). It’s easier to understand someone when they are talking in a small room that doesn’t echo.

The heat is unbelievable! I don’t think they even bother changing the 7-day forecast…everyday is listed as an average 85 degrees, 80% humidity and chance of showers (which by the way, when it rains or storms, the humidity stays the exact same!).
On the first day of class, Sarah and I packed our backpacks: computers, textbooks, water bottles, rain jackets, umbrellas, markers, snacks and all. At about 7:20AM, we started walking to Colegio San Benito (CSB), and by the time we arrived, about 10 minutes later, we were soaked with sweat! That will probably be the last time walking to school for us. However, the important part is that we woke up on time, found the school, and made it there in one piece for our first day of teaching… EVER!

The first day was a bit overwhelming, as it should be. I was asked to be a substitute teacher for a seventh grade Physical Education class. Seventh graders talk “muy rapido”… It was hard to understand their questions, but I survived. After substituting, it was time for me to teach my first Health class to 11 eighth graders. I was pretty nervous, especially when they started entering the classroom – Puerto Ricans are much taller than Guatemalans, so height is not something that will be on my side when trying to establish control. I was also unaware of how much English they would understand. That being said, I could not have asked for my first time teaching (ever!) to go any better!

When the lunch bell rang, students exploded into the halls and were off to go eat. My face must have given away the confusion that I was feeling inside, because one of the teachers, Mrs. Piazy, asked if I knew what was going on. When I told her I didn’t even know where the cafeteria was, she took me there and explained how everything works. I was extremely grateful for this. The students and faculty all eat together in the cafeteria, which is nice, but also really hectic! They piled so much food on my tray – I ended up eating a huge portion of rice and beans, two pieces of chicken, vegetables, watermelon, and milk from a bag (another first).

After lunch, it was time for my second class of the day, History and Geography of the Americas. I have the same 11 students for this class that I have for Health class, so I will really be getting to know them. They speak varying amounts of English and have varying knowledge of the geography of the world. One student thought Alaska was Nevada and another thought that Europe was a country in South America… we have some work to do! I think I am most excited for my History/Geography class, because I think I will learn the most from this class as well. It is overwhelming and intimidating right now to think about planning for an entire school year, but I am hoping that after seeing how the first week of classes goes, I will be able to envision how the rest of the year might look.

Monday, August 1, 2011

"Que bonita la vida"

Well Sarah and I have arrived to Puerto Rico, safe and sound (and sweating – its hot!). Sister Mary Ruth and Sister Miriam were waiting at the airport for us. On our way out of San Juan, we got caught in a mini traffic-jam outside the Krispy Kream doughnut shop, but eventually made our way to Longhorns Steakhouse for a very non-traditional dinner. Nonetheless, it was good food and made for a good transition, I suppose.  

This place is beautiful – the Sisters, the Monastary, the school, the church, the teachers, and the backyard (papya mango and banana trees)!  The Sisters were so excited to show us our room, which is incredible. The furniture is very nice, and Sarah and I have cute, matching comforters. We also have a bathroom with warm water for showers (an amenity I did not have living in Guatemala, however I should probably shower more often as a teacher than I did as a student), and a flatscreen TV with satellite (another amenity I’ve never had).

Next we met our pitbull guard dogs named Luna and Carmello. Carmello warmed right up to us, but Luna will take more work… I’ve made it a goal of mine to befriend her.  

“No hay prisa” – There is no rush! We figured that out quickly. For example, mass started at 6pm last night and we got into the car at about that time. The next morning, we were supposed to have a teacher conference starting at 8:15, and we left the Monastary at about… oh, 8:15! The great part is that nobody minds. When we got to the teacher conference, Sister Mary Ruth brought us right up to the front and had us introduce ourselves in Spanish, of course! It was a little intimidating but I kept reminding myself that it is the best way to learn! My name here is “Hana”, because “J” is not pronounced the same way.  I also learned that I will be teaching Health and History/Geography of the Americas to eighth graders. I am still crossing my fingers that I will be receiving textbooks/materials for both of these classes before Monday, because otherwise I don’t really know where to start. I am also hoping to get a girls soccer team going at the school!!

Today we saw a little bit more of Humacao, the city we are living in. I have noticed there are a lot of abandoned and run-down buildings right next to nice, clean houses. It will be interesting to get to know the town better. 

For those worried about our safety here (Mom, Dad…), rest assured that we are quite secure! Sarah and I learned quickly to be in our room by 10pm sharp. At that time, loud beeping fills the monastery hallway and a Spanish voice warns of the motion detector that is being activated – the device detects movement DIRECTLY outside our door, so no leaving that way. As for the windows, I don’t think we will be testing Luna or Carmello’s protective capabilities.

I cannot express how happy I am to have Sarah on this adventure with me! It’s good to have someone I can be completely lost with in chapel (there is only an average of 5 of us in there at a time, 2 of which are Sarah and I…), laugh with when everyone else is laughing and we don’t know why, and to hang onto when the Sisters drive on the wrong side of the road.  But really, I think this journey will be even more meaningful having someone who can completely relate to all of the new experiences to come!

My favorite part of tonight was that Sister María gave Sarah a plastic recorder from a fast food restaurant, because Sarah told her she used to play flute. When we got home from dinner (Pizza Hut), Sarah played “Hot Cross Buns” and I danced to it in the kitchen for the Sisters! J  It’s going to be a good year.