Breaking the Mold

Origin: Ponderings on a rainy day in Paraguay.

Subject:  A limited attempt to justify my actions.

You know how when you put water in an ice tray, bag, or anything and then freeze it the water expands? If you’re not careful, the ice will break the container as it freezes or you end up with not-so-aesthetic ice cubes.

I feel like freezing water—the mold trying to keep me in shape will not hold up. I’m already overflowing, just imagine what’s going to happen when I solidify. Living and working abroad is the freezer, I’m the water molecule, and the molds are who I think I am and who I try to be. I often view myself as a homebody, but a homebody that tends to try to live more like a cosmopolite. Thinking about ice cubes made me realize, however, that I don’t fit nicely into the homebody or cosmopolite types.

Familiar. Routine. Known. Planned. Those are all things that I’ve always thought were important, and without which I’m usually harried, uncomfortable, and general miserable. But, at the same time, my fondest memories archive events that arose from spontaneity and going beyond my routine. And, I often do things to leave my routine behind: studying abroad for a time in high school, leaving Vermont to study in Washington, DC for college, and joining the Peace Corps. This juxtaposition in my personality—being comfortable only with the familiar but wanting and taking action to explore the unknown—started to make me wonder if I’m a masochist.

Don’t worry, after a thoroughgoing investigation I can say with certain confidence I am not a masochist. I just misjudged my character. I will explain.

When I left for a semester in Spain my junior year of high school people said it would change my life, and that I’d have amazing memories forever. When I left for college, people said to cherish my time studying because those years would be my best. When I left for the Peace Corps, people justified my leaving by reassuring me that the experience would be profound and the pinnacle in my life. I believed them, and now I think those thoughts were based at least partially on flawed assumptions.

All those times add up to more or less 6 years of my life. I am 25 and I want to live for a while yet. Were people telling me that my best years are now almost over? That might be the greatest tragedy that fate’s devised. I won’t accept that my life is a tragedy. What people meant to say, I think, was that studying abroad, college, and Peace Corps would be awesome because they would change up my routine and make life a fresh adventure.

“A fresh adventure”, that is the point of this rant. I like routine and familiar because they are easy. I periodically leave behind most everything that fits into the known not because I want to torture myself, but because comfort isn’t enough for me. I am on the trail of something else, and if I have to be uncomfortable sometimes to get there, it is a worthy sacrifice.

I do not think I could handle the life of a nomad; I’m just not that flexible. Nor do I think a fresh adventure is based entirely on changing location. However, I am reminded of the quote that pops into my mind more than any other as I go about my doings, “You have more power over your life than you think you do.”

In my heart I know I can not be happy just talking about the old times. Trying to accept the ordinary makes me restless. I am not a great adventurer or the bravest person, but I’m not scared to expand. I don’t want to just remember glory days, I want to be ever on the path of times worth retelling. That’s what I realized. Changing things up is scary, if it were easy everyone would do it. There’s always a chance for a real flop. But, since I can remember my favorite stories have always been those of people who took a leap. There is a beautiful, quaint simplicity to the stories of people who have spent all of their lives in the same place. But, there is something exciting and fantastic about those who can call more than one place home and who can say they’ve dabbled in many things. Molds are a way of setting a baseline. They’re a suggestion. As all expectations, molds are something to be surpassed.

 

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The Sly English Teacher

Now I’m happy to teach English in my community, but I was against it in the beginning. I am acutely aware that there are many more pressing things for youth in my community to learn than English, from reading Spanish well to using a condom correctly. And, even if I were the best teacher in the world (very doubtful) my students could not master English studying just 1 or 2 hours a week. Language just doesn’t work that way. But, English lessons are one of the things people in my community want; and I’m here to serve them.

So, then, the question arose: If I have to teach English and my students aren’t attacking it with the tenacity necessary to become fluent, how can I most effectively use our time together? Some volunteers turn to games. Games are a good solution, but I struggled with them.

My solution came when I realized that I was looking at teaching English all wrong. My English classes aren’t about English. (But, I like to think they will give those kids who choose to pursue more English study later an advantage.) My English classes are about mentoring and sharing my culture. Defense: We also discuss English grammar and vocabulary.

How do I start the cultural sharing? Music. In my English class, we usually listen to a song in English, talk about what it means, and pronounce the words. Listening to music is a good language-learning activity, but that’s not actually why I do it. I try to pick songs for a reason. Half the time I just pick a song because I know my students will like it, but the other songs I choose because they have an interesting cultural message. “Dear Future Husband” by Meghan Trainor was a successful choice—the youth even like the song. Most of my students are young women. It was neat to talk about how women don’t have to fall into the stereotypical role of “the perfect wife” when they marry.

“Hard to Love” by Lee Bruce was a silly chance to talk about how we should say “thank you” to people when they do things for us. Most women in Paraguay are expected to clean and deal with food while men (not all!) sit and watch. I’ve seen young men get up from the table, leave their plate as a disaster for some woman to pick up, and not even say “thanks” for the meal (rage almost not repressed). I also used “Hard to Love” to talk briefly about the differences between how Christianity is practiced in Paraguay and the US.

As I get to know my students better, they feel more comfortable asking questions about the States or about my life. Sometimes the questions make me laugh: Is it true that people in the States wear their clothes once and then throw them out? Bit-by-bit I think they are forming a more realistic notion of the States, and at least they are opening their eyes to the idea that not all people do things the same way.

In the end, English class isn’t just a time to talk verbs and articles. It’s also a chance for my students to talk about life. It’s an open space that encourages learning.