Teach Your Children Well

I may have mentioned that I work with kids. It’s a third of my job, along with writing (now speaking on!) a radio show and helping my counterpart run this region’s groups of kids (trips to the campo, presentations, grants, plans, etc).

For all that they’re a third of my time, the kids constitute one hundred percent of my stress, along with the ten minutes before I speak on air. The situation is backwards, because nothing my students and I do together is particularly ambitious or out of hand. This semester we’re installing a worm compost in the high school, planting trees in the same, and painting eight or nine murals and banners. ‘We’re’ also organizing a couple of community cleanups and a big event in March, but I’ll be doing almost all of that.

My kids

My kids love my camera but they’re not so hot with the autofocus

We had practicums during training led by our talented erstwhile environmental ed. Coordinator, Nicole Salgado, and they were tops. We prepared subject mini-classes for middle school kids in the city, taught then and then led them in small projects. On our trip to camp in small-town Mexico State—Field Based Training in our parlance—we put together an eco-fair for the primary school, teaching the kids grade by grade. It was all dynamite. Learned how to do short lesson plans, integrate activities, all of it. The kind of stuff you’d have to practice to be good at, sure, but the PC gave us a great base.

The thing is, none of that’s the hard part. This isn’t a commentary on Peace Corps training. They’ve got ten weeks to train us, split between a dozen subject areas, along with Spanish and admin and medical and safety and security. There isn’t enough time or opportunity to get to the hard part, which was setting all those practicums up.

Never have kids.

It’s something like the difference between having a kid and watching a kid for an afternoon. You know, levels

What may have occurred to the other volunteers in my class but not to me during those training sessions was that once we got to site, we’d be the ones who had to make them happen. For all that I quejar, my main problem with my kids is attendance. I like them and they like me and when they show up, everything’s smooth. Whether it’s bad that I’m more a friend than an adult teacher to them is something I’ve stopped worrying about. What actually gets to me is all the external organization that goes on outside of the little projects we do.

Man we paint a lot

Man we paint a lot

We started with twenty-five or so recruits from the secondary school this time last year, but our numbers plummeted as I was finding my feet as a coordinator, and right now we’ve got around eight. Which isn’t so bad; we’re flexible, and even though I can’t count on more than four showing up on a given day, I can always count on at least four. But my counterpart wants Jalpan to be an exemplar for the Ecochavos movement, dozens of kids working all over town (it’s for many reasons a pipe dream, the first of which is that this is the only town in the region where the kids have other stuff to do—extracurriculars, lessons, etc). So we’re recruiting this week.

Before that, though, I’ve got to solicit permission to take time out of the school day from the directors of the middle and high schools. Before that, I’ve got to get oficios made.[1] Once I’ve got my oficio, which is difficult enough with our director on the road two days out of three, I can make an appointment with the schools’ directors. On the agreed day, I’ll hump out there, and if I’m lucky they’ll be in. If they’re not, I wave my signed-for-receipt copy of the oficio I delivered previously until somebody agrees to make me another appointment. If they are there, I have to try to justify the Ecochavos movement and why they should cede me class time. This was no big deal in the past (and still isn’t out in the country), but the recent education reforms have had for us the main effect of making it hard as hell to get time in the schools (because it’s verboten in the new guidelines).

When the day comes, if I’ve managed to win the time, I’ve got to head back over and go class by class selling membership in my group. I’m comfortable enough in front of adults, even in Spanish, but kids scare the bejeezus out of me, and these are the worst age. The last time we went to the Secundaria, I swapped an ‘o’ for an ‘a’ in an otherwise correct paragraph-worth of speech and had to soldier through a solid ten minutes of giggling and mocking afterwards. I’ve seen my counterpart work a room a hundred times now, and I do not have whatever it takes to make middle-schoolers sit still and listen a spell. Moreover, nothing we do is fun, per se, and I’m never sure how to entice kids to come do manual labor for me five hours a week.

But if I get through that, no matter how badly I’ve done it, I’ll have a show of hands. Each of these classrooms hold fifty students, and a good half will volunteer. Because I’m a guero or because they’ve been trained by long experience that educational extracurriculars come with extra credit (mine doesn’t). I’ll try to pick the ones who look interested in the environment, but that’s a losing game.

Go on, pick out the future Greenpeacer

Go on, pick out the future Greenpeacer

Once it’s over with, and it scares me enough on its own, I’ll have to go through the incredible teeth-pulling ordeal of scheduling, bringing them around to picking Saturday morning (because my counterpart wants me to), which both they and I will hate. And then I’ll be back to square one, trying to make friends with another two dozen kids who clearly aren’t enjoying my presentations on water quality.

Chava can come to me an hour before closing time and tell me I need to write a new radio show for the next day, twice as long because our guest fell through, and that doesn’t bother me. He can assign me to revise and standardize our twenty (terrible) environmental presentations, and I’ll do it with todo gusto. But when he comes to me and says we’ve got to go to the Secundaria to recruit on Monday, it makes me short of breath.

I said I was going to make this last year of service a new one, and I’m committed to that. My kids and I have had meetings every week so far, real ones where we go outside or paint or make decisions. I’m going to throw what I have into it with these new folks, but in all honest I’m scared of Monday, scared of making small talk with the new kids that show up on time, scared of figuring out activities for twenty-eight instead of eight. At least tag will work better.

[1] Oficios are letters that can only be issued by established offices and signed by their directors. I’m not exactly sure what the rule is with these arcane papers, because they seem to be mainly the purview of government offices but with enough private places using them to confuse things.

Oficios govern everything in Mexico, and nothing official can be done without them. Whereas in the States you might call up a counterpart in another agency or another office of the same agency for an appointment or a file or some data or a small favor. Here, not so. If you don’t have an officio ready, don’t bother visiting, don’t bother picking up the phone.

Not being an actual government employee, I can’t write an oficio, and the language in them is so fussy and byzantine that not a word has survived when I’ve been asked to draft them.

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