The Unbearable Lightness of Teaching

The school I work at in Copiapó is called Vicente Sepúlveda Rojo, or just “Escuela 18,” as we tell the colectivo driver in the mornings when my history teacher host mom and I make our way the six blocks straight up into the hills, hanging heavy with morning fog. It is a public K-8 school in a peach colored building in a bad neighborhood far away from everything, where all kids who are kicked out of other schools in the city get sent.

The kids live in a different reality here,” my head teacher said when I first started, telling me stories of kids with alcoholic and drug addicted and incarcerated parents, kids who had been abused by family members, kids who were using drugs themselves, kids who had severe learning disabilities, kids who were being bullied regularly by their peers, kids who in class when we learned how to talk about family could not write down the names of their fathers and mothers because they didn’t know what they were. I looked around at the ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen year olds who came into her class every day and wanted to hug every one of them, even the ones who sat in the back and ignored everything or bothered the other kids or swore or fought. How could I expect a kid to care about learning another language when most of them were barely making it through the school day?

There is an extremely pervasive Chilean slang word used to describe people who are being a pain that comes from the word that means “heavy”—“pesado.” I’ve heard the kids use it to describe teachers they don’t like, and even more I’ve heard teachers use it during lunch hour to describe kids who don’t behave in their classes. How can they not be pesados with all the heaviness around them all the time, all of the things that they are far too young to have to be dealing with, but that they are dealing with anyway? The level of English in all the grades is extremely low, and I knew that coming in I wasn’t going to produce a single fluent English speaker in the four months I had to teach, but I wanted to at the very least bring some lightness into their worlds, which themselves were so unbelievably pesados.

Teaching is not like a desk job. It is not static, it is not steady, it is not reliable, it is not something that allows you to let down your guard. You have to be “on” at all times, as my mom has always told me from her many years of teaching, and I didn’t realize how true it was until I was suddenly up in front of a room of students for 90 minutes at a time by myself, having never taught before. It is thoroughly dynamic—the energy you bring into the room is contagious, one way or another. And just as your energy is felt by the others in the room, you are distinctly able to feel the energy they bring as well. The highs and lows are pronounced—you can go from experiencing the ballooning pride when you’ve actually gotten through to a kid one second to the desperate helplessness when they simply refuse to cooperate the next.

Ana* is a girl in my eighth grade class with a punk-rock haircut, multiple piercings and a practiced apathy, a girl who practically begs people to give up on her so she can then resent them for it. She and her friends come into my classroom every day during recess to hang out and chat, where she throws in English words she knows and then when she comes into class sulks with her headphones in and refuses to do the work. My head teacher has told me that Ana’s mother abandoned her at a young age and she now lives with her grandmother, who started treating her like a disgrace to the family when Ana cut her hair and came out as a lesbian. Her first class with me, Ana participated with enthusiasm and was in the class by far the student who knew the most English. But the next week, she crossed her arms when I passed out a written activity and walked out of the class shortly after when I wouldn’t translate swear words for her. I talked to her later that day, telling her things I figured she probably didn’t too often like how I thought she was smart and could do really well in my class, but that she had to come in and do the work if she wanted to stay, and I thought in the naïve and overly optimistic way of someone who has seen Stand and Deliver more times than they’ve taught an actual class that maybe that little self-esteem boost would be enough to offset a lifetime of rejection, and left the conversation thinking that next class she would return transformed and ready to learn. The next week, when she handed in her quiz empty without even attempting to answer a single question, I felt the heaviness hit deep.

There are those days, the ones where you feel like you have an opportunity to save someone and you are completely botching it, and then you realize that just like you can’t make a twelve year old speak fluent English in four months of once-a-week class, you can’t save someone from a lifetime of disadvantages either. But you can maybe, just maybe, bring a little lightness. Because after the moments where the Anas hand in empty quizzes and pull their hoods over their heads, there are the moments that make you remember why you wanted to do this in the first place. The ones where one of the most hyper, impossible-to-control boys in your sixth grade class starts jumping around the room, dancing cumbia and chanting “HALF PAST ELEVEN, HALF PAST ELEVEN” when you are teaching them to tell time, making you laugh until your jaw hurts. The ones where you overhear a kid telling your head teacher that “aprendimos HARTO con la Miss Carolyn” (we learned SO MUCH with Miss Carolyn”) and you feel a little like you might burst. The ones where a kid who you’ve been told is getting terrible grades in all of his classes gets a near perfect score on his English quiz. The ones where kids make you little drawings on the graph paper from their notebooks and yell in protest when you tell them you’ll only be teaching them until winter break.

In one of my fifth grades classes there is a boy named Maximiliano* who is widely considered by the teachers to be a complete and utter menace—and not necessarily for bad reason. I have seen him at recess fighting with other kids, causing trouble with teachers, and generally behaving inappropriately. In my class, there have been days where he whines that he doesn’t understand English, that he doesn’t want to work, that he can’t do it. And then other days where he runs around like a maniac bothering other kids and making it nearly impossible for me to address the class. On the day we learned about the members of the family, he refused to participate, saying bluntly that he didn’t have a family, only a dad.

But today when I handed him a short written activity to do, he sat down quietly and he filled it out, asking me clarifying questions and finishing it without trouble or complaint. In that moment I was glad that I wasn’t having to reprimand or cajole him, and that he wasn’t bothering his classmates to the point of them not being able to work.

After the written activity we moved on to a game involving the new vocabulary they had just learned. While Maximiliano was usually the kid sitting with his arms crossed and only reluctantly if at all participating in games, today he jumped up to take his turns and got at least a couple of the answers right. In one moment I caught a glimpse of him smiling involuntarily and saw that his entire face had changed. The game was swirling on around him and he was wholly focused on it, grinning and engaged despite the fact that he was supposed to be an atrociously behaved, unintelligent terror of a student. It didn’t matter that he was cooperating so I didn’t have to discipline him, it didn’t even matter that he had gotten the definitions of a few vocabulary words correct, it mattered that even for a few fleeting seconds, he had lost himself in the world of the game, and smiled from a place that was real and genuine.

When students enter and leave the classroom, they say hello and goodbye to me with an “Hola, Miss,” or “Chao, Miss,” and the traditional Chilean greeting of a kiss on the cheek. Most of the girls do this, and some of the better-behaved boys, but Maximiliano was always the first one to sprint out the door without a word—I was lucky if he even waited for the bell to ring to do so. Today he was the last one out of the room, packing up his things and putting his desk back in its rightful spot after it had been displaced during the game. On his way out, with no one left in the room to witness him but me, he turned back and waved. “Chao, Miss.”

I felt that one, too. I felt the absolute, soaring lightness.