A New Kind of Crowd

Perhaps you’ve heard of the term “machismo,” the dictionary definition is “strong or aggressive masculine pride.” It’s often used in Spanish class to describe Latin American culture. It’s usually mentioned along with a comment about how women’s rights in Latin America leave something to be desired.

Nine months in Paraguay and I’ve had the opportunity to experience both these popular Latin American studies topics first hand. But this post isn’t about the catcalls and hanks I get when I walk down the street—after talking to other female volunteers, especially blonds, it seems I’ve been mostly spared on that front.

This post is about the female, teenage students who performed a spectacular skit about decision-making and social pressure in my class and were greeted by an appalling response from their male classmates. And, this is about how those female students thought that response was normal and almost a compliment.

The plot of the skit was this: Boyfriend asks girlfriend to have sex. Girlfriend asks friends for advice and they say, “go for it” because there are no repercussions and he might leave you if you don’t. Little sister overhears the conversation and tells mom. Mom confronts girlfriend, and we learn that girlfriend hasn’t even told her mother she’s dating. Girlfriend sneaks out and has sex. She gets pregnant and when her mom finds out she gets kicked out of the house.

A team of students wrote the skit. When it was time for them to perform the skit they went and changed into their “soccer game best“: Nice sundresses, wedges, tights, tight jeans, and moderately revealing tops. In the school where I teach the students wear uniforms.

As soon as the girls changed and came back into the classroom their male classmates greeted them with catcalls and a litany of comments about how they looked. The girls smiled and posed. Throughout the skit this male commentary didn’t stop. It was as though the two actors playing the girlfriend and boyfriend were actually having sex in the classroom.

Often machismo is a little subtler and I have to think to notice it, but sometimes it is acute. Culture can’t be changed in one-fell-swoop, but I wish those young women didn’t have to live their lives that way.

The Classroom

When I say I’m teaching in the school here’s what it means. The class is filled with 20-30 students. There aren’t desks for everyone, and if it’s the first class of the day some students inevitably have to wonder off in search of a chair. The chairs have seen better days—they’re covered in graffiti, their desk arm is broken, they’re a little crooked.

The classroom door won’t stay closed, so if I want to reduce distractions I have to prop a chair against it. All classrooms have chalkboards—they don’t always have erasers, so sometimes I use a broom. My school has a projector, but I haven’t worked up the courage to try it yet, mostly because I worry its setup will take half the class period. Between transitions in the school and holidays and any number of activities that get in the way of learning time I don’t want to lose time—it’s a useless obsession of mine to attempt to have no wasted time in my class, but it’s one of those unachievable goals I strive for anyway.

There’s always a group of students in the back who hardly (or won’t) participate. In the younger grades those students do their homework for the next class, and in the older grades those students listen to music, send texts, and crack jokes. There’s usually one student who wants to help, one students who simply disappears, one student who looks utterly confused, one student who looks on the verge of sleeping, and one student who looks vaguely interested. The rest of the class falls into those categories too.

Before Paraguay, I’ve heard it argued that teaching is a gift or that teaching is something you learn. From my time in the classroom I’ve come to a hybrid conclusion. The mechanics of teaching well is something you learn—through a somewhat painful process—and the ability to find the nugget that makes any subject interesting is a gift.

Each class I teach I think is better than the last. I haven’t got the teaching thing down flawlessly, but I have plenty of time to get there. I’m getting better because I’m seeing first hand what my students like and dislike. I’m also uncovering my own limitations. Language is a problem, so I’m learning what kinds of things I can explain and which ones are just beyond me right now. Not a class passes without me wondering if and how much better the class would be if I was fluent in the language.

I don’t see any value in fighting my students. My desire is to find a way where my interest in the topic of the class is contagious. I’m getting closer. The students are starting to get used to me—I wouldn’t say that familiarity is translating to greater respect but it is crumbling some of the barriers they put up between us when I first entered their classes. I keep telling myself that I have next year. I focus on listening to them. I want to know what makes them tick. I want to know what drives them. I reflect on every class and think about what worked and what didn’t work. I’m reading about classroom management. I ask other volunteers about their teaching experiences.

Looking back, I’m mystified how my high school teachers were motivated to enter their classrooms day-in and day-out for years. There is a wonderful energy that emanates from the youth in my school, but it doesn’t always make up for the hours of preparation and grading. I keep telling myself that I never know how I’m impacting my students. I like to think that something I talk about will stick, will make a lasting impression, will have a positive impact. But, I’ll never know.

Coping Strategies: Not for Me This Time

Not long ago the unimaginable happened in my community: a teenager commit suicide. I’m not entirely sure of the circumstances, but he attended the high school where I work and supposedly in his note he claimed having his girlfriend break up with him was one reason he decided to take his life.

When I heard the news I thought naïvely, “I didn’t know suicide happened in Paraguay.” But, apparently it’s not the first attempt by kids in my community and it’s not the first kid in the area who’s succeeded. Yet, if I hadn’t stumbled across the news the day of the memorial I’d never have known. It seems that the topic is unspeakable.

After I heard the news, I decided that I couldn’t proceed without taking the time to address the topic in a small way. I work with all the kids in 7th grade through 12th grade at the school he used to attend. So, I revised my lesson plan for the following week to address the topic of mental health in a round about way. My thought was to at least open the door, and see where the students decided to take the topic.

My lesson started by defining stress and what causes stress, and from there we brainstormed all the problems we can face in our lives using 4 locations: home, school, work, and community. After coming up with a sizable list of problems, we discussed ways to solve those problems. We brainstormed with whom we could talk if we needed help and the qualities of someone in which we could confide. Then, we talked about what we could do if a friend approached us with a problem, and how we could help him or her find help if we didn’t know how to help him or her. Finally, we talked about strategies to reduce stress and why it’s important to think about problems and address them before they pile up.

Most of the classes proceeded like a normal class, except one. In that class we had the opportunity to talk in greater depth about coping strategies, finding someone with whom we can confide, and what it means to be a good friend. We touched on what it means to be in a healthy relationship, and that no one should be obligated to stay in a relationship. As we worked the dynamics of the class transformed from the normal jokes to serious. Some students asked questions, they don’t often ask questions without much urging, and some students seemed like they might be on the edge of tears.

There were some heavy themes that came up. What hit me hardest, however, was that most of the students said they’d never before talked about something like coping strategies. On top of that, one class explained that they couldn’t talk to their parents about their problems because that’s not how parent-child relationships are in this country—according to this one class; peers are the common source of help. Not being able to talk through problems with parents is hard for me fathom in a culture that centers on the family, like Paraguay’s culture does. It’s difficult, being an outsider, to understand something that seems so contradictory. Families, in Paraguay, are the nucleus of everything, so shouldn’t families be the first source of support and information on all topics? Are the needs of individuals being overlook as families focus on the good of the whole? Is there another explanation?

Names: Why Do I Care?

I took photos of my students with name tags so I could study.

I took photos of my students with name tags so I could study.

I’m working with 200 students, spread out over 10 classes. That’s a lot of names to learn, but I’m determined to do it. Why? Answer: There’s something powerful about being able to address people by their names.

What is so powerful about a name? In Paraguay you can tell a lot about a person by their name. Almost everyone has four names—first, second, mom’s last name, and dad’s last name. Often, one of the first two names can give you a clue as to when the person was born because it relates to the saint of a person’s birthday. And, in a community where few people move away, the two last names can help you make connections between people. It’s a relatively safe bet that if two students share one of their last names they are related somehow.

My worked is founded on relationships. I’ll never know how my time here impacted the lives of the people in my community—development and public health are a slow process. And, on top of it, I’m focusing on intangibles like self-esteem. The way I see it, the one thing I can do is set example. I can really only control what I do, so I might as well try to exemplify the life skills about which I’m preaching. For me, that starts by respecting people. Respect starts with giving people the time they deserve.

When working with youth it’s easy to lump them into categories—the studious, the bad kids, the troublemakers—but that practice won’t help anyone. I’ve noticed that as I get to know my students a little better each has his or her own way of being, a way of being that is as unique as their name. I want know the person behind the name, so I might as well start by learning the names.