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).