Tag Archives: oaxaca

Win/Win Kid Birthday Tricks, from a Still-Novice Non-Expert

19 Jun

Conan and I have officially been parents for half of a decade now! In other words, it was Lucia’s 5th birthday this week. Granted, we still don’t have much (any?) parenting wisdom, per se. And yet, we not only survived this birthday, it seems that we totally rocked it, despite the extra chaos on top of our normal mayhem this month. Here are our parenting hacks for birthday time, this time around. They might not work for you, and they might not even work for us again next time, but you’ve got to celebrate your victories.

Trick #1: Be Proactive. Talk them into the party of your dreams, not theirs.

Sure, it sounds mean, but if you ask them what they want to do for their birthday it’s destined to end in disappointment, unless you can actually produce unicorns and rocket-ship trips to space. If you have the means for that sort of thing, you’re reading the wrong list of tips right now. I, however, needed to get proactive.

Remembering a time my dad took me and a friend to Mammoth Cave for my birthday, I tried to talk Lucia into having some kind of adventure with a friend or two instead of a party. That was an instant negative, though, since a cake and a piñata are her number one birthday obsessions. For once, though, I outsmarted my little one and talked her out of a big Mexican-style party where you have to invite everyone you’ve ever met and give out five courses of party favors in addition to the meal, the cake and the multiple piñatas. We just couldn’t do it this year, not economically and not time-wise. So I cleverly talked her into having TWO parties instead this year- two very small parties. But that means TWO PARTIES, people, what’s not to love for a five year old?

I sent a cake to her school on her actual birthday, and then we had a teeny tiny, closest-family-only “party” at home on the weekend- complete with pasta (her favorite food), another cake, and just one piñata. Her papa even splurged on a giant bag of the decent candy for the piñata instead of like 5 pieces of good candy mixed in with the cheap-ass suckers we normally fill it with. It was a win-win situation for everybody.

 

Trick #2: Take advantage of all of your unique available resources.

If you have a cousin who works at Chuck E. Cheese and wants to give you a discount, go for it. If your best friend is a chef and will make an epic birthday cake for your kid, make that your billing point for their birthday gig.

For us it helped immensely that the birthday celebration at her school is awesome. It is a serious ceremony involving crowns and capes and classmate “angels” and a red carpet and everything. The teacher gives a hand-made gift (a really cool, small hand bag, in this case), and the other kids give the birthday kid a drawing each, which they then sew into a little book of sorts. It was so cute and so cool; she was thrilled. And all it required on our part was buying the cake and getting it there.

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Headed to school in a princess dress made by her aunt who’s an awesome seamstress. 

 

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Who wouldn’t be thrilled with this kind of celebration? 

Trick #3: Don’t let Mother Nature ruin your plans. Pray profusely to the universe, and clearly explain to the heavens that your kid will be emotionally destroyed for hours on end if the weather doesn’t cooperate.

In other words, you gotta think on your feet! Our little hiccup that could’ve been a two day tear-fest came when tropical storm number two of this year cancelled classes the day before her birthday. Conan was off work that day and was in charge of getting the cake to school, since it would be impossible for the babysitter to carry the cake along with the two kids on the walk to the bus stop, on the bus, transferring it then to the carpool where there are 6 children flopping around the car. Luckily the weather calmed and we worked things out just fine. Meanwhile, I had a minor panic attack and invented three ridiculously far-fetched schemes and plans to call in favors to make the cake at school happen, tropical storm or not.

Trick #4: Perspective is everything. Use all relevant comparisons from books and videos to sell your options.

I meant to make her a cake or cupcakes for our home party, since I like to bake for their birthdays when I can. But when we talked about what she’d like me to make, she never really decided on what she wanted, and recipe-searching time escaped me this year. (This month is kicking my butt, in case you can’t tell.) So instead we let her have the excitement of going to a bakery and picking out her own cake, just like Daniel Tiger. And then she got to go to another bakery and pick out another cake, just like Daniel Tiger again! It’s a wonderful life for 5 year old Lucia, folks, let me tell you. And for us, even buying 2 cakes, one and a half roasted chickens, two kilos of tortillas, and paper plates for us and our five guests was about eighty thousand times cheaper and easier than last year, when we completely lost our little parent minds and had big birthday parties for both of our children. (Yes, you read that right- we only had five guests to our house for this year’s “party.”) Cheaper, easier, and Lucia was just as pleased about it all.

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Cake #2: Just as thrilling as cake #1

She did have a brief moment of doubt at one point in the planning stages, however, when she had the sudden epiphany that fewer guests would mean fewer presents. “But Mommy, they don’t bring you presents at school. Only the teacher gives you a present.” She informed me with a suspicious tone, her eyes wide and worried. It’s almost a legit concern, too, because we tend to not give a lot of presents, and we rarely buy her stuff she doesn’t need except for birthdays and Christmas. (Don’t worry, though, this child is far from deprived; her numerous grandparents make sure both of these kids have ample toys and clothing.) I assured her, though, that she would end up with several presents anyway, including gifts from multiple grandparents. That appeased her sufficiently.

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Pleased with herself and her new bag

Trick #5: Give them “presents” that you were going to give them anyway. Everything’s amazing when it’s wrapped in pretty paper! 

Yes, I am totally that super mean mom who gives kids socks and underwear as presents. Only this year I talked her Abuela into giving that as a gift! I would put a bow on her morning Cheerios without thinking twice about it. Attitude is everything, after all.

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In this picture we are using the Cheerios box as storage for another present, but I’m not above giving them Cheerios as a present. 

She got plenty of other non-necessary presents, too, so don’t worry. She received a couple of new stuffed animals from aunts, a really cool jewelry-painting set that I bought with money her Nonna sent for her, and the coolest books ever from National Geographic- one about space, one about dinosaurs, and one about animals. Her Gamma sent those, after I asked her to look for a cool dinosaur book, since we hadn’t been able to find anything interesting and age-appropriate at the library here. Books here are not accessible and they’re insanely expensive. These books would have cost thousands of pesos here (according to Conan’s family), if you could even find them somewhere in the first place. I feel so incredibly privileged to have so much access to quality books for me and my children. But I digress, as usual.

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Everyone was impressed by the books.

I also pulled off a double win because I managed to clean out my office and give Lucia perfect presents for free. I had a couple of things sitting around my office for the past almost-three years, resources that an ex-coworker had given me that Lucia was way too young for. One is a phonics game- Zoo ABC Bingo!- and the other a book of poems for kids. So, like the crafty, thrifty mommy that I am, I wrapped it all up and gave it as a birthday gift. (Grown-up Lucia, if you’re reading this someday, just remember that money spent has no correlation to love and thought put into giving.)

Also in the realm of “attitude is everything,” you can talk up all the advantages of your plan vs anything they’ve had in the past or seen at their friend’s house. Like better quality candy, as I already mentioned.

 

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Serious Birthday Business

We broke the piñata with two of her little cousins and the neighbor kids across the street, so the amount of candy that both of my kids got ahold of wasn’t of epic, diabetes-producing proportions after all. I let them overdose on candy the day of the party and then the next day they took a decent portion of it to Lucia’s neighborhood bestie who’s been sick all week and couldn’t help break the piñata. Another parenting win: sharing and getting more candy out of our house.

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A piñata wouldn’t be a piñata without some help from your friends. 

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So obviously we’ve learned a lot in these five years. Apparently the half-decade mark is a moment in which you finally have more than just the basic survival skills as a parent. It seems that we may have a couple of parenting tricks up our sleeves now, at long last. Now if I could just get the recipe to make my kids go to sleep when I want, or to leave me alone in the bathroom, then I would declare myself a super parent. Maybe by our next half-decade? Or perhaps never. Sigh. You gotta take your victories when and where you can, folks, which might be the most important thing I’ve learned in these five years of parenting.

Routine and Obscene: Birthing in Oaxaca Part II

12 Apr

Life is messy, and birth is super messy. No matter how you birth, C-section or vaginal, in a pool while listening to jazz or screaming like a banshee at that dumb-ass doctor, it is full of messy body fluids and messy emotions. There is no sterile birth. The whole messy shebang- pregnancy, birth, and the never-ending afterwards is a wild medley of joy and misery for most people. Your body is totally hijacked by this creature and just about everything in life therefore becomes about this creature, which is maddening some of the time even if you had to work hard to get that creature in there. But here’s the thing: it’s still your body, and everybody, every body, every baby, and every body carrying a baby, deserves respect. Period. You deserve respect. You deserve information and you deserve care. No ifs, ands, or buts.

So this is about to be messy, y’all. This is approximately my 18th attempt to finish and publish a blog post about this topic, but I am over-the-top-determined, fired-up and mad and impassioned all over again. So brace yourselves. I am bringing the mess.

Now, let me be clear. I’m about to get very detailed and slightly rabid over doctors, nurses, education, and health care in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico (especially the coast, since that’s where I live.) But that does not mean that this does not apply to you, too, my darling USA. Do not- I repeat, Do Not- go around patting yourself on the back that you’re doing better than Mexico, or that you don’t need to worry about it because you’re safe up there in the North. Do not fool yourself. Mexico learned a lot of these tactics from the US in the first place. The problem is, Mexico ends up scoring higher on the charts at all the wrong things. Soda consumption? Mexico wins! Type 2 Diabetes? Another goal for Mexico. Cesarean births? Mexico is kicking the US’s butt again!

So there are the fews stats I have: “…(T)he maternal mortality rate in Oaxaca is approximately 62 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, double the national rate,” according to Child Family Health International. The US has about a third of its births via C-section, when the World Health Organization suggests that a C-section is medically necessary about 10-15% of the time. Around here in Oaxaca, it’s hard to get solid statistics*, but it’s estimated that 50% of births terminate in a Cesarean, and that the rate of C-sections is even higher in private clinics, with some estimates at high as 80%. Such a high C-section rate brings much higher risks and worse birth outcomes for both mother and child. And that’s only part of the story of what’s wrong with birthing in Oaxaca.

References: WHO C-Section Statementmortality ratein Spanish, more information about the state of giving birth in Mexicomore info in Spanish, more info on estimated rates  (I am not very familiar with the publisher of the information in Spanish, so I can’t vouch for how definite it is, but it is just about the only information I can find.)

Now, I studied sociology and everything in me is against relying on anecdotal evidence as fact, but in the absence of well-researched statistics, I think anecdotal evidence is worth a mention. This is a big part of what has had me crying and wringing my hands and pumping my fists alternately in these nearly 5 years of living down here- the birth stories that I hear. This is what is going to be my long-term mission to join with others in the community to change, if I end up living here forever: humanizing pregnancy and birth.

It’s ugly in the public sector and it’s ugly in the private sector, but your treatment is drastically worse the poorer you are. In the news there are loads of stories about women who were forced to give birth in the parking lot, on the lawn, in the bathroom, in the waiting room, etc., because there wasn’t enough space for them in the hospital/clinic when they came in. The women that this happens to are always indigenous, but luckily there is no racism here (yes, this is sarcasm). I suppose that’s the worst end of the spectrum, although I’m not sure the care that people receive when you’re admitted qualifies as desirable, either. Yes, it is better than giving birth outside with nothing, but is that really what we’re willing to accept?

What always strikes me as the worst acceptable, routine thing, is that women are giving birth alone. Labor and delivery is one of the hardest and most beautiful and wildest and messiest things you can do in life, and that’s cool if you choose to do it alone. Anytime you give birth in the public sector, though, you have to be alone. All by yourself, with just a bunch of other women around who are also in labor, with not enough doctors and nurses or even, sometimes, enough beds. ALONE! With no one to advocate for you, for your health and wellbeing, for the baby’s health and wellbeing. With no one to hold your hand, to rub your back, to get that hair out of your face, to tell you that you’re doing great and it’ll all be over eventually. Alone! For your entire labor and delivery. Already that, in and of itself, is completely and utterly inhumane to me. I can. not. fathom. it. And it pisses me off extra here in Oaxaca because if you go to the hospital for ANY other reason, they force someone to accompany you. If you have to be recovering from something in the hospital for 3 months, you have to have someone there, just about 24 hours a day, because there aren’t enough resources for the hospital to take good care of you. So why the hell would you send people in to give birth totally on their own?! Heartless bastards! I suspect it’s partially because they don’t want anyone there to defend you and help take care of you.
Let me tell you what kinds of things happen there, while you’re there, contracting and alone. You don’t get any water. I know, many places in the US like to do this too, which is equally senseless and unnecessary, but it’s even more cruel here, where it’s 85 degrees and more humid than Hades. One friend told me that they STILL wouldn’t give her water or food for hours after her birth. Finally she begged a doctor for water and he told her it was at her own risk- as if water was going to do her harm after giving birth!

Furthermore, more than one person has told me that nurses berated them for making too much noise. You’re often in a big room with a ton of beds filled with other laboring women, receiving little attention. One woman just told me that during her birth, they decided that she wasn’t progressing fast enough (normal), but there were no gynecologists in at the time. Therefore she had to wait another 12 hours for the gynecologist to come on call, and then they could only give her a C-section because they decided it was too late to try to speed up her labor any other way (which is a pretty common story in the public sector, due to lack of gynecologists).

Then there are all the excuses they give you to have an unnecessary C-section, especially in the private sector. The cord is wrapped around the baby’s neck. The baby is too big. You’re a couple days past forty weeks. Your hips are too small. You already had one C-section. Ad infinitum.

All of this is similar to stuff they might tell you in the US, but the difference here is that there is no such thing as pregnancy and birth education. There are no child birthing classes. There is no education about what to expect while pregnant even. If you have a doctor like the one I had at the insurance company, they don’t even tell you basic information like when to suspect there is a problem. Culturally, there is no questioning authority. So if the doctor says your baby is too big for you to give birth to, you don’t ask how he or she knows that. You either accept it and get the C-section like they want or you reject the system entirely and go to a midwife, which could or could not be a good option. (More about midwives in another post, I promise- it’s too broad a subject to broach). Many people don’t have the option of midwives, or of anything beyond the very limited bit their health insurance provides.

If you do have the money or borrow the money to give birth elsewhere, it ends up being a similar scenario. The private sector thrives on your ignorance and the total lack of available options, on the fact that almost all the doctors are out to screw you over equally. For example, one prominent gynecologist here told me beforehand that if I didn’t want an automatic episiotomy, that I would have to sign a bunch of consent forms beforehand, and that, you know, it was all at my own risk, because that made it very dangerous! It felt to me like they just make stuff up to sell you more services you desperately “need”- and if it turns out you need a C-section, (which you probably will), then even better, because it’s more convenient and way more money for them. (Multiple people have sworn to me that doctor friends have even admitted this is how they operate.)

On top of treating women like animals in labor, often doctors take the opportunity to abuse their power and your reproductive health and rights while you’re there. The straw that broke the camel’s back in forcing me to finally publish this messy, disorganized blog post about this was hearing ANOTHER story of forced birth control. This story came directly from a doctor who had no reason to make it up. We were talking about IUDs, and how sometimes the strings hang down too short, and he was telling me that he just had a case where a woman had been trying to get pregnant with her second child for years, She had had all kinds of testing done and everything, and they couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Finally, it turned out that she had an IUD in place, that had been put there when she had her first child via C-section, without her consent or knowledge. Apparently this is a common thing- giving women an IUD, either without their knowledge at all, or forcibly without their consent. Another second hand story came to me about a woman getting a forced IUD and the doctor telling her, “I don’t want to see you in here pregnant again for the next few years!” Which I can totally imagine, because that is how doctors talk to people here, especially to women.

Of course they do the same thing with sterilizing women. They pressure you into it if they decide you have enough children. Just this weekend I was chatting about this with someone who experienced it. They tried to force her to get a tubal ligation when she gave birth to her fourth child. “How many children do you have? Don’t you think four is enough?” The doctor tried to shame her. This woman is a total heroin, though- she is the same woman my nurse friend told me about who REFUSED to let the doctor put his hand in her uterus to “clean her out” after birth (another routine, unnecessary, and very painful procedure). She was like, “I came to deliver my baby, not to get surgery, thank you.” She said the doctor wouldn’t leave her alone about it until another doctor who is her neighbor came in and defended her right to decide. Your rights mean nothing. She got to decide because a man in power intervened on her behalf.

I could rattle on and on about more abhorrent stories and accounts, more abuse and lack of rights, but here’s the end game for me: We need more education in the community, AND a total shift in the system. Let’s stop reading about another indigenous woman giving birth on the lawn of IMSS and acting like it doesn’t affect us. Let’s stop listening to each others’ horror stories. It does affect us. It means that we are accepting this as the care that we deserve.  Giving birth is messy but it shouldn’t be dehumanizing. Being routine does not make something acceptable.

A Flawless Foray into the Big City

17 Mar

 

Perhaps both children vomiting all over themselves in the car doesn’t sound like an auspicious beginning to an utterly delightful outing. Obviously, then, you’ve never voyaged upon the seven-plus hours of winding, two-lane “highway” between Puerto Escondido and Oaxaca City. You have no idea how bad it could have been.

Because Conan was scheduled to work on Saturday and Sunday, I originally decided I would go up in the public vans on Friday night. The last time we made this trek, when Khalil was two months old, we’d gone in a van at night and everyone had survived. Conan slept through it all that time (while I was covered in children, not sleeping), so I was sure I could do it alone. Apparently, however, I underestimated the chances of my kids waking up to vomit. So just imagine! I have been in the public vans plenty with puking children (mostly not my children), and let me tell you, half the time that driver doesn’t even slow down. It could have been so, so ugly.

But it wasn’t! Because Conan got someone to work for him on Sunday and we have a car that actually does car-like things, such as take you places. The miracles abound! So there we were, over four years in to living here, finally in our very own private transportation for this billionth trip to Oaxaca. We got baby vomit on our very own car seats at last!!!

Additionally in the “dodging bullets- aka winning” section of events, I narrowly avoided meeting a long-last family member of Conan’s when he realized we were in their neighborhood in Oaxaca City. Don’t get me wrong; meeting new in-laws is normally a rollercoaster I can ride. However, at midnight, when your eyes feel like they’re glued semi-shut and your mouth is dry like 3 day old tortillas and you’ve been in a car for 8 hours and you’re drowsy on Dramamine and your children still reek of vomit and darling, these relatives are not even expecting us– that’s not even a rollercoaster, it’s just a train wreck tale in the making.

So we continued on to our dear friends’ house, where they were totally expecting sleepy, confused, slightly smelly guests at midnight. We are so lucky to have adoring friends-turned-family who graciously accept us and our pukey children at any hour of the night with open arms and smiles. We are so ridiculously privileged to live in Oaxaca, where guests are synonymous with royalty. Our hosts greeted us lovingly, chatted for a few minutes, and left us to rest in their comfy bed. These folks are the reason I always rule out doing our bureaucratic business in Mexico City. Even as I washed vomit out of car seats the next day, I thought, “Airplanes are fun, but there’s no Argelia and Magaly in Mexico City. Totally not worth it.”

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When we asked Lucia later what she liked the best about the trip, she replied, “When we ate the broccoli at Arge’s house.” Since we eat broccoli once a week at our house, and I cooked the broccoli like I do at home regularly, I have no idea why this was wondrous for her. Children are a mysterious species. Apparently Oaxaca City made a serious impression on her this time, though, because she nonchalantly told my mother-in-law later that she’s planning to move to Oaxaca. She refrained from specifying a date, so I can only speculate about her intentions.

My favorite part of the trip, in contrast, was when we did something novel. I liked it when we went to an actual park with more than three trees, and with a gorgeous view of the valley that is Oaxaca City. I loved the swings hanging from trees, swings made out of slats of wood. I loved our easy feast of quesadillas, cucumber, and watermelon.

I loved that the non-parent-people in our group didn’t get mad or upset when we didn’t do the two mile hike that we originally mentioned (ummm that was never, ever going to come to fruition with the little people). I loved that when my about-to-turn-two-year-old resolutely and rapidly took off his diaper and shook his two year old penis at the sky before peeing, all the other families thought it was funny and endearing. Nobody called the police or child protective services on my child and his rebelliously naked butt. (Granted, it was temporary nudity, but still.)

I loved loved loved fulfilling my new self-imposed obligation to seize all interesting opportunities, to try all the new things. (I’d like to thank the current political climate and brilliant author Shonda Rhimes!) It helps that our friends are so open-spirited, too. “What’s that?” I asked when I saw the zipline, “And how much does it cost?” Instantly, Argelia was already grabbing me by the elbow and leading me to the action. Magaly agreed to be the fearless distraction expert for the little ones. Arge volunteered to be our fearless leader and slide herself over the cliff first, since she’d done it before somewhere else. She wasn’t actually fearless, though; it took a little coaxing to get her to push herself out into the abyss. Even when you’ve decided to be fearless, that shit just creeps back up on you. I had to hold my breath and close my eyes, too, to convince myself. It was, in fact, really fun, and I’ll absolutely be doing it again the next chance I get!

Here we go:

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You can just barely see Arge zipping across there.

To top off a perfectly fabulous day, we finished things off by drinking beers (those of us who drink) and (gasp) playing cards! More of my favorite things!!!! Can life get any better? I suspect not.

While playing cards, we discussed the fact that this kind of fun doesn’t happen among women in small towns. Argelia is certainly not a small town girl in spirit. She’s petite but packed with a giant personality that couldn’t really fit into her tiny mountain town. Now Argelia plays cards and drinks beer, and can even play a little pool, but only thanks to all these years in Oaxaca City and Magaly’s wonderful influence and big-city girl privilege. Magaly is from Mexico City originally. I knows she’s from a big city because she knows how to do all the things the girls from small towns almost never learn. Magaly knows how to play pool. She knows how to play cards. She knows how to drive a car. She knows how to drive a motorcycle. She knows how to ride a bicycle. She likes to drink beer for fun. She was allowed to have all kinds of fun in life. I’d bet money that she knows how to play a musical instrument, too, although I forgot to ask her. Granted, it’s not that all of those things are expressly forbidden to girls in small towns. They just tend to not happen, if you want to put it in apolitical terms.

The next day was dedicated to bureaucracy and travel (aka destined for disaster). And yet it was nowhere near as disastrous as it has been in the past. I didn’t spend hours crying and agonizing over how to “forge” my own signature, for starters. Our friends whisked my mischievous two year old away to have fun outside of the consular office. The (woman) security guard was ridiculously nice, telling me that I did, indeed, have time to hurry and guzzle a coffee downstairs, just when my caffeine downer threatened to knock me out right there in the back row of hard plastic chairs. Once our turn came, it turned out that we had successfully brought the right-sized photo and all the other correct paperwork. There were no excessive questions, not even dirty looks. When the in-charge person asked about one document that looked slightly dodgy, and I shrugged and affirmed that that’s precisely how it came from the dodgy organization known as my insurance company, she accepted it without further ado. It was, by far, the least stressful passport situation we’ve dealt with thus far, considering our ridiculous number of visits and renewals and such for this multi-nationality family.

The adults in our group had started having mini-meltdowns  from hunger by the time we were finished with our obligations, but we made it to a restaurant before any violence broke out. We forgot the childrens’ balloons that Arge and Magaly bought them, but there was only a small panic attack on Lucia’s part, and we hoped that some other kids found them later.

For the trip home, I got smart and got the Dramamine for Kids. Khalil vomited his dose about 10 seconds after taking it, which was totally best case scenario! I had zero doubts about re-dosing him, plus the puke was only on his pajamas and Arge’s floor, allowing for relatively easy clean-up. Another win for our trip! Additionally, nobody puked in the car. Our car delivered us to our door without breaking down or even making new, worrisome noises (thank you, Conan, for being the fearless driver)! A good time was had by all!

May all our future outings, and yours, be as optimal as this one!

My School Bus Sedan

24 Jan

I’d be destined for jail if the supposedly existing seatbelt law were anything more than some distant formality that only exists on paper somewhere. In the states I’d have all kinds of extra charges, I’m sure, of reckless endangerment and who knows what kinds of other great stuff they could drum up. For now, though, I live in small town Southern Mexico, and I drive a 4-door school bus at liberty.*

I drive half of my kids’ kindergarten home in a four-door Nissan Sentra. There are only fifteen kids at this fabulous school, so the six- and sometimes seven- that I chauffeur around town is only minimally outrageous. It’s perfectly in keeping with that aspect of Mexican spirit that I so appreciate- making happen whatever needs to happen, despite the obstacles. It’s that spirit that causes folks to ride a motorcycle with a full-sized ladder, for example, or to tie a refrigerator on top of a taxi. It’s that spirit that made my mother-in-law encourage Conan to “just do some kind of home remedy” to fix the brakes on a borrowed car once: Extreme Driving, A Year- Round Oaxacan Sport. It’s why my weights for exercise are different sized plastic bottles filled with sand or concrete. Folks here tend to be much more creative in finding solutions when they don’t have the ideal resources or circumstances, and I love that about Mexico.

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just waiting for the kids to get out of school

School buses don’t exist here, and vans use up too much gasoline. All four of us families in the carpool have small cars, so at least I don’t feel like we’re the only ones schlepping the kids around like sardines. I’m still so thrilled that we have any working car at all, I do a happy rain-dance sort of prayer/celebration every day I go outside and the car starts up.

It almost didn’t start on my second day of carpool, and my heart essentially stopped for several beats.“This cannot be happening already! We can’t be flaking out on the second day of carpool! This car cannot be as bad as the other one!” I might or might not have screamed at the trees and stray dogs. But then it did start and life continued to be well. Well, there’s a trick to it, and I think I’ve got it figured out. Good enough. 

I do a lot of screaming in the car, but not like you imagine with me as the bus driver. (I haven’t even cursed yet!) All of my screaming happens before the kids get in the car, when I’m screaming (aka singing) along with my music because (GASP) there’s a working CD player in the car! So I get 25 minutes of alone time with my jams before the seven little savages hop in the car. It’s really a brilliant set-up.

It takes me ten minutes to get out the door with all of them. The teachers help me get their shoes on, and even my almost-two-year-old (the 2nd youngest in the posse) can carry out his own lunch box. Despite that help, and despite telling myself that I’ll get faster at it with practice, somehow corralling them all is more time-consuming than I psyche myself up for it to be. Two weeks in, I’ve only gotten about one minute faster, and my measly minute is totally negated when one or more of the older kids are sleeping.

They hold hands in pairs to go out the door and get into the car. The baby of the crew (one year old) goes in the car seat in the back. Khalil and one other kid get strapped into the front seat (with the lap part of the seat belt). Then in the other two seats in back we squeeze in another 3 and sometimes 4 kids, obviously not with a seat belt because it just won’t go over all of them.

They are some very well-behaved savages, except for my two savages, of course, who feel more at liberty to throw tantrums because I’m the Mommy. So of course it’s always Lucia who’s screaming about something if there’s screaming happening. Sigh. It’s pretty easy to distract and entertain them all with fun games like, “Who’s not here? Raise your hand if you’re not here!” And we pretend that none of them are there. I love this age group (one to four). Mostly they entertain themselves, and if I really need to distract them, all I have to do is encourage them to talk about bodily functions and fluids. Poop is their number one idea of fun discourse these days.

The kids sometimes enjoy my music-fest as well. Lucia is currently obsessed with a Sleater-Kinney song. When I play it she and Khalil tap their fingers and wave their arms in time to the music. (I can’t imagine where they learned to dance in the car. Ahem.) A couple of the other kids mentioned that they liked one of the songs I was listening to, too. They will surely be finger-dancing with us eventually.

Lucia’s current favorite jam

Really, carpool with the kids is kind of a blast.

Thanks to the universe and Conan’s savvy in car shopping, we found an automatic car in the right price range- which is not the easiest task around here. The original plan was for us to get a standard, and I was going to learn how to drive a stick. I already had a teacher lined up. Being the brilliant procrastinator that I am, however, I didn’t get lessons before buying a car. So by the time we were buying the car I would’ve had about 2 days to learn how to drive it before rolling across town, navigating the countless speed bumps, the holes in the road, the motorcycles swerving around cars unexpectedly, with a carload of small children loaded in.  “And on top of that you want to be learning something new?” Conan asked, shaking his head at my shrug and grin. (Perhaps I’ve adopted some of that “I’ll make it work anyway” attitude. Thank you, you wonderful Mexican folks, for teaching me this important life skill.)

Despite my nonchalance, I was a train wreck of nerves the first day I had to go get everyone. I had to call my mom to talk myself back into calm (okay, this might be a frequent occurrence). She reminded me that I do actually know how to drive, AND it’s far from being my first day driving in Puerto. And I’m certainly not worried about dealing with the seven small savages; two of them are mine, and the rest are sweet and lovely little savages, too. I got this.

So I didn’t panic that first day when there was some random rerouting lane-share happening for no apparent reason. The traffic cop didn’t even look twice at me when I passed again with a boatload of children. Totally rocked it. All was fine.

I sweated a bit that first Friday, though, when I thought I picked up a kid by mistake. There’s one little boy who goes to his dad’s house some days and his mom’s house other days. When he goes to his dad’s, he’s part of our carpool, but not when he goes to his mom’s. Well, another parent asked me to pick him up one day, and I thought that maybe his dad hadn’t been able to get ahold of me or something. I stopped at the usual spot but no one was there. I called his dad and he assured me that no, it was not his day. I pictured the little boy’s mom going to pick him up, frustrated that I’d taken him by accident and possibly questioning my faculties. The parent who had called me about him didn’t answer the phone. I wiped the sweat from my brow and drove on to the next drop-off spot, where, luckily, the boy was, indeed, supposed to be going, to go play with another girl in the carpool.

It’s true that driving here is not at all like driving in the US, but it’s not as tricky or scary as Conan might make it sound. Nobody can drive all that fast, thanks to all the speed bumps, pedestrians in the street, animals, bicycle carts, and other random road blocks. One day last week half of the highway-two lanes, for about a block’s stretch- was closed off for what appeared to be some kind of festival they were having in the middle of the road. (Highway is a loose term, I guess. There are two lanes going one direction and two going the other direction.) It’s never a dull moment on the road but it’s not rocket science to navigate, either. Many folks around here do it without ever having lessons even.

Of course, there are other things to navigate additionally, like the situation with the folks on the side of the road/in the middle of the road. Sometimes there are street performers who are juggling or spinning fire or hula hooping or something. Those are the traveling kids, I presume. There’s been a family selling some kind of blow-up toys at one big intersection. There’s another guy on crutches with only one complete leg who is often at one intersection asking for money. There’s another kid (adolescent, I suspect, although he could be in his twenties) who often asks for money at an intersection, who calls me “madre” and blesses me, even the days I haven’t had any change to give.

Then there are several different guys who seem to take turns at a couple different intersections, cleaning windshields for change. Now, this is a great service in our dusty, sandy town, as pretty much everyone’s windows need cleaning every single day to be in optimal condition. Furthermore, they are working, providing a service, and not just asking for money, and I get that for many people that encourages them to give. (Not that I have drama with people asking for money because they have no other options. I think that’s a hard and nasty job in its way, and I am not judging them, especially when I don’t have a clue what circumstances have forced them into that position.) But apparently I have a sign on my head that says, “Please wash my car, no matter what I say,” because almost all of these guys are aggressively insistent with me. Is it because I’m a woman? Because I’m light-skinned? Because I look foreign? Some of it is just them, perhaps, because it does happen to Conan some, too. I’ve learned to have a few coins ready every day, like a “highway” toll I pay to someone or the other every day. I feel pretty lucky that I can spare a few pesos every day now.

In general, I’m thrilled about so many aspects of my mini school bus drive. I’m pleased to be one of the school bus drivers for our kids and their friends. I’m so pleased that Conan and I are now able to share the burden of labor and gas money. I’m so happy that my kids are stoked to see me, and that now Lucia isn’t the only ones whose parents never go to school to get her.

I miss my daily walks and bus rides with Khalil, in which we grunt and scream at the sight of every dump truck, bus, and other large vehicles/heavy machinery. My body doesn’t much appreciate driving in place of walking, but it’s still a totally worthwhile tradeoff, for my kids to go to a school we all feel good about. I’m ecstatic for Khalil to be in “school” with his big sister, instead of at home destroying my house out of boredom.

All in all, getting this carpool thing down is another daily adventure. Similar to riding my bike to and from work- navigating through the sand and around the rocks and without splashing mud on my clothes and carrying rocks to scare off the mean dogs- driving the carpool is another daily task that makes me feel like I’m living a video game.  I can only hope that your daily commute is half as interesting and fun as mine. And if not, I humbly suggest that you change it up, and at the very least, add some finger-dancing to the mix.

xoxoxo,

Julia

*Don’t get me wrong: I am a seatbelt fanatic under other circumstances. My dad, a photographer for the police department, used to bring home pictures of accidents to teach us about the importance of seat belts if we were in rebellion over it. My parents wouldn’t start the car if we didn’t have seat belts on.  And it makes good sense; it’s an easy, simple, free thing to do that is likely to save your life. And yet that is not the reality that we live in; it’s just not always possible, as I’ve written about before.

 

No Need for Thanksgiving, but Thanks Anyway

28 Nov

The best thing that happened this past week was seeing Khalil’s feet lift off of the ground. Y’all, this child has been trying for months to imitate his sister in jumping. He would kind of bend his knees and then straighten them back out, raising his arms and grunting in a hilarious imitation of jumping. He even made it up onto his tippy toes after a while. Still wasn’t jumping, though. But now, folks, suddenly and certainly, he jumps! His feet go up in the air! If small children can’t make you see the miracles in everyday life, if you can’t feel the magic in absurdly simple things like rocks and bubbles and successfully pooping in a potty, you are missing out.

Speaking of poop… I know, who wants to talk about poop? Four year olds, apparently, because that is the number one topic of conversation for Lucia at the moment. Poop and princesses, but mostly poop. In both languages. This is a normal conversation for us:

Me: What did you do at school today, Lucia?

Lucia: Poopies!

Me: Did you play with so-and-so?

Lucia: No, just popo.

Sometimes I even know that they’ve done a certain activity- like they go on a walk every day. Every single day. Sometimes I’ve even seen pictures of them doing something, like making a lantern. So I’ll be like, Did you go on a walk today? And she’ll tell me no. Did you make lanterns? No. Did you do anything? No. Finally I asked her one day, So you just sat in the corner by yourself all day? Yeah, she said. That’s what I did. Smiling. We both know damn well  that is not what she did. But now that’s the game. Alas. That and poop. It’s a wonderful life, folks.

Lucia is also really into fashion these days. And I love her four year old fashion. She dresses up “really pretty” in shocking, eye-dazzling combinations of patterns and colors. She tells me, “My teacher’s gonna say I look so pretty today!” (I think she has some really awesome teachers, or else she has my outrageous self-assuredness. Perhaps both.) I try not to piss on her parade, although she does have to wear somewhat sensible shoes to school for their long walks. She’d prefer these crappy rubbery pink shoes or the Mary Janes “princess” shoes that are now too small for her.  Also, I did try to intervene the other day in the name of preventing excessive laundry. (As the sole laundry-doer in the house, this is a big problem.) She wanted to wear a tutu AND a dress. And you couldn’t even see the damn tutu under the dress. I tried to tell her that. We began a power struggle. I decided it was not a worthy battle and threw in the towel… And she ended up ditching the tutu and keeping the dress. Hopefully my tactics remain this effective when it’s time to discuss sex and consent and protection and whatnot instead of tutus and dresses.

In the moments when Lucia doesn’t want to be a goat (so she doesn’t have to clean up) or a grass-cutter (because those riding lawn mowers in Kentucky impressed the hell out of her), she’s now started saying that she’s going to be a teacher. “I’m going to go to work with you, Mommy!” As if it were all that simple. Of course she’d teach at the same place I currently teach. Of course I won’t ever change jobs and of course she’ll get hired there as well as soon as she’s a grown up and gets some magic fairy dust to turn into a teacher. I miss how small and intimate the world felt when I was her age and even older, when being able to go to the corner store a couple blocks away- without parents- was the biggest responsibility and privilege that you could imagine.

I love when she’s decided to play pretend and be a teacher. She walks by me and says, “Hi, student!” So that I say, “Hi, teacher!” Just like she’s seen my students do to me (for the record, I say their real names when I see them, not ‘hi, student.’) It’s like the way Khalil, who still prefers body language to words, will wave bye-bye to me for 3 minutes, in silence, until I notice and say “bye!” when he’s pretending to go bye bye in his plastic car or his broomstick horse or whatever. Sometimes my role seems like a bit part but a word or two is still a starring role to them.

Lucia is so much like me in her character. There was a little girl Lucia’s age at my volleyball game the other night, and she got mad about something and stomped off to sit down by herself. It was like the mildest tantrum I’ve ever seen. And another prof who always plays, who doesn’t have children, was like, “Does your little girl do that too?” I burst out laughing. “No, she’s way more demonstrative!” I told him. “She has your temper?” He asked me playfully, making fun of the fact that I get huffy and bossy when the boys start invading my territory and stealing the ball from me in volleyball. I wanted to tell him that he hadn’t seen nothing from me yet. And that Lucia could hold her own, too. She huffs and puffs and blows your whole damn house down. But instead I showed him my radiant smile and agreed. “Yep, definitely my character.” She gets hangry like me, too.

Khalil is his own force to be reckoned with as well. He hasn’t yet turned two, and he’s already training himself to eat spicy food. The other day I was seasoning my food with some medium-heat curry powder, and he insisted that I put some on his food. I told him and told him that it was spicy- pica, we say- but he kept pointing at the container and at his food. He beat on his chest like he does to say for me. I put a little bit on his food. He ate it. His eyes got very wide. He drank several gulps of water. And he ate some more. And more. He liked it! It was like the time I thought that my strong, bitter black coffee was going to cure Lucia of her desire to drink coffee, when instead she asked for more. Whoops. Remind me not to play chicken with these children.

Yesterday I made pancakes in a pan that I’d reheated salsa in. For some reason, even though I’d washed it well with soap, the first pancake in the batch came out with a spicy aftertaste. I split the first one between the kids because, as ALWAYS, they were starving to death. Khalil had already devoured most of his half when Lucia tried hers and started complaining that it was “pica.” I tried it, and sure enough, it was fairly spicy! Khalil finished off all his water but he sure didn’t complain. He’s gonna take after his mommy on this, apparently. (Don’t kid yourself that Conan loves all things spicy because he is Mexican. He likes some, but I could kick his butt in a chile-eating contest.)

I’ve mentioned before Khalil’s obsession with the garafones– the big jugs of drinking water that we buy. He’s now started speaking his first two words in Spanish, motivated by his need to communicate with his future boss, the garafon vendor. He can now say both “uno” and “dos”- theoretically depending on how many bottles we need, although really he just says either uno or dos when he wants to refer to garafones in general. Like if we see a truck full of them go by, he points and says “uno!” It’s pretty endearing.

This child is the kid who wants to do ALL the grown up things already. He is so uninterested in the majority of his toys; he’s very interested in re-organizing everything in my kitchen, and “helping” me with every single thing I do. We went to a birthday party the other day, and there were a bunch of plastic chairs sitting out for the kids. Khalil spent the first hour of the birthday party stacking them up and then putting them back when I’d unstack them, only to stack them all back up again 30 seconds later. I am always asking myself if there’s some way he can actually help me, and if not, how can I make it appear that he’s being helpful by doing the thing that I want him to do? These monsters certainly force me to stay creative. Khalil was giving me a very hard time about taking his new inhaled asthma medicine, but finally I brought his stuffed cat into the mix. Now Khalil has to give medicine to the cat before he does his own medicine. It’s doing the trick so far! Score one for Mommy!

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These are the chairs Khalil was stacking. And this is how he wanted to sit in the chair. All by himself. No help for him, thanks. 

While Khalil still refuses to use words to communicate most of the time, his big sister is a verbal giant. Her Spanish has exploded thanks to her new school, and her English continues to grow to astounding new heights. I love talking to this child about as much as she loves to talk. I am hoping, however, that she doesn’t suffer the same fate that I did, thinking that because she’s all verbal, she can’t be visually creative as well. I’m feeling extra hopeful about it after she wrote her first book yesterday! I also wrote my first “book” at four, but I dictated it to my mom and then drew pictures to go with the words. Lucia was much more autonomous about it. She got scrap paper from the pile of scrap paper. She drew a bunch of pictures. She asked me for glue. I suspiciously inquired about her intentions for the glue. She explained, and I got all excited and instead of gluing we sewed the pages together with cheap dental floss (thank you, punk rock traveler kids from the 90s for teaching me to sew with free dental floss). Within a couple hours her brother had crinkled one page and then she left it in some water that had leaked out from the washing machine. It survived, but while we were waiting to see if the sunlight streaming in the door could cure it she went ahead and made another one, just in case. I am raising some resilient babies, after all.

When she was reading me her first published work at bedtime tonight, she made up all kinds of fascinating details for her squiggly lines and circles. But the best was her showing me two connected circle-ish parts and saying, “This little one is Khalil’s house. Us three live in the big house, and he lives in the little house.” When I probed into the reason behind Khalil living separately from us, she thought for a second and said, “Because he’s little. He needs a little house. We’re big, so we need a big house.” Uh-huh. No underlying psychology about getting your little brother out of your hair there, kiddo. Sure thing.

Lucia presents her book:

They’re growing so much, and teaching me so much. Although I could do without the constant tornado damage that Khalil leaves in his wake, and I hope he learns to respect books instead of tearing them up so lovingly like he does now, he is more fun than should be legal. And while I’d appreciate a little less screaming and melodrama from Lucia over every single thing (e.g. “Khalil’s wasting the water!! I don’t want you, Khalil!!”), hanging with her is such a wonderful adventure.

I don’t need any Thanksgiving holiday to be grateful for these monsters. (And no, nobody down here celebrates Thanksgiving.) Every day is Thanksgiving in my house, minus the brutally oppressive history and the consumerist free-for-all the next day.

I’m so grateful for these kids that even when I am pulling my hair out and losing my temper, even when it’s my turn for bedtime and they refuse to sleep, I valiantly resist all urges to sell them on ebay… Oh, wait, that’s just called parenting. Whatever. The point is, I love my pumpkin (Khalil) and my sunshine (Lucia) more than even real pumpkins and real sunshine. That is true love.

Thanks, Obama. (Did I utilize the meme right, Conan? No? I never get it right. Bwahahaha.)

 

Joy to the World, the Semester Has Begun!

9 Oct

I was teaching about the difference between being boring and being bored the other day, and I posed a bunch of questions for the students to talk about with a partner, using other –ed vs. –ing adjectives. “Who is an exciting person that you know?” I asked them, along with, “Who do you know who is easily excited?” (Careful, Spanish speakers, excited isn’t excitado in most casesget your mind out of the gutter!)

Apparently these young folks don’t have enough excitement in their lives, though, because many of them seemed stumped about exciting and excited folks. I started telling them about my kids, and how everything excites them- airplanes, dump trucks, the moon, you name it. (Khalil gets up every morning, and points and shouts at everything he’s excited about until I name it. It’s the only reason I forgive him for cutting into my quiet/exercise time at 6AM.)

Finally one of my students said, “You, teacher! You are easily excited.” It wasn’t quite what I was looking for, but at least someone finally answered. And it’s true, I realized. I am so excited every day! I have way more fun at work than most people, I’m sure. Between my grown-up personality (which is somehow less jaded and more light-hearted than when I was younger- go figure), my kids’ contagious excitement, and loving my job, I am pretty damned excited about the universe.

I love my students. I love teaching. I love being able to use my Spanish language skills to instill my mad passion for language and communication and critical thinking into my students via their obligatory old English class. I love that I get to set an example of joy for lifelong learning with a whole bunch of helpless “victims” of my cause- 5 days a week, 4 times a day. I love my job!!! (Yes, I am using excessive exclamation marks, thank you very much, you punctuation snobs. I am expressing precisely how I feel, so there.)

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This is totally what I probably look like in class, except with a bunch of grown-ups in a boring, all-gray classroom. photo from: 

http://www.gettyimages.in/detail/news-photo/karen-renton-is-retiring-after-a-32-year-career-as-a-music-news-photo/477724468#karen-renton-is-retiring-after-a-32year-career-as-a-music-teacher-at-picture-id477724468

I’m starting my 3rd year with the curriculum that I helped invent, so I’m feeling extra confident- perhaps even just a tad cocky- about my ability to invent more and more fun and interesting ways to teach what I need to teach (on a good day, at least). On top of that, I’m a textbook extrovert who gets more energized and motivated after each class. And I have fabulous students this semester. “You say that every semester,” says one of my co-workers, jokingly scolding me.

We just finished up the two month-long introductory period for this year’s new students, and for that I lucked into really great groups again. “You say that about every group,” my co-worker said, rolling her eyes at me just a bit. Really, though, just about all the kids in their intro course are sweet and enthusiastic, so it’s easy to adore them. Even my three students who tested out of the course still wanted to participate- that’s the kind of innocence and awe these first-year students have at the very beginning.

My 12PM class of Biology students was really sharp, as the Bio students tend to be. But they were also really adorable. When they asked me if I was going to be their teacher for the fall semester I explained to them that I definitely would not be, because we rotate classes so that nobody has the same teacher two times in a row. I tried to explain why this policy is good for them: you get exposed to different accents, to different teaching styles, and if you dislike a teacher you don’t get stuck with them for a whole year. I refrained from telling them that the reverse applies for us; we don’t get stuck with a class we dislike for two semesters in a row. “But can’t we request you?” a couple of them asked hopefully. I wanted to tell them that it’s college, not Burger King, but nobody’s ever even heard of Burger King, so I shook my head sadly instead. Now every time they walk by my class, each one of them waves happily at me. “Teacher, we miss you!” they tell me (in Spanish) when I see them around campus. I’m enjoying it while it lasts.

My favorite thing in my 12pm introductory course, though, was my student with the disgruntled faces. While some students are always less-than-thrilled to be called on in class, this student was loathe to answer. She’d scrunch up her nose and make other disgusted faces every time I called on her for an answer or to read aloud. But I called on her anyway, sometimes saying all of the sentence aloud with her, one word at a time, pulling it out of her, pushing her along. But I forced her nicely, and I was constantly, jokingly reassuring her that soon she will love English. I noticed- and made sure to applaud her for it- that she was really good at reading comprehension, and better than everyone else at guessing the word’s meaning based on the context. I found out that she speaks Zapotec (one of the many indigenous languages around here), and publicly congratulated her on already being bilingual. By the end of the course she had changed her disgruntled faces to resolute faces, a sort of willingly-going-into-battle stance. And she joined the “Teacher, we miss you,” club. I absolutely called it a win.

My 6pm class was a tiny class of Forestry students. All 7 of them were kind and studious and interesting, as our Forestry students tend to be, in my humble opinion. My favorite class last year was also half-filled with Forestry students. Last year’s students- a level two group, no longer aiming to please the teacher- even came to a Friday evening class when the other half of their class was out on a field trip, just because I promised to make them popcorn to go with the educational video. I love my Forestry students- those guys and these new guys. (“You love all your classes,” I can hear my coworker saying with a jovial eye-roll.) Look at these Forestry students, though! In my introductory course, at the end of the final exam, each one of them came up and shook my hand as they turned in their exam. One of them, my little Guns n Roses-loving rocker, even hugged me. How adorable is that? Their little wanna-be-professional handshakes. Bless their little hearts. You know you’d love ‘em, too.

This semester- the start of the new school year- I have two first level classes. One of them is a group of Animal Science (Zootecnia) kids, known for their high energy and rebelliousness. If any of our students are coming to exams drunk or high (most of them definitely aren’t), it’s bound to be a Zootech student. My least favorite class at this university was a Zootech class with over half of them dutifully resolved not to learn anything, at whatever cost necessary. Their strongest tactic to evade new knowledge was to spend at least 20 minutes out of every 50 minute class outside. “Teacher, can I go to the bathroom?” was the only thing they mastered all semester. Some of them were still kind of fun when they were in class, though. The Zootech kids are their own little zoo.

My Zootech class this semester is ragingly high-energy, and blessedly enthusiastic about English. I’ve already had to remind them that all words are good to learn but not all words are good for English class. “Motherfucker,” for example, is great for Pulp Fiction auditions, or for your rock band, but not okay for our class. This 6pm class is full of jokers and inside jokes, after having completed two months of stressful introduction to the university together. I don’t get all their jokes- like the student they call Saul even though neither his first nor his middle name slightly resemble Saul. But I can certainly appreciate their enthusiasm. I love how I don’t have to tell them twice to get into groups or to practice talking about whatever we’re learning. Even my foursome who failed this level last year couldn’t resist asking “Have you ever…” questions the other day. So obviously, I love this class, too! (“See? You do say it about every class,” I can hear my coworker point out.)

Admittedly, I love my 10 o’clock nursing class, too, this semester. On the first day of class, when I had all of my classes make their own list of rules and suggestions for building a mutually respectful classroom, one of the kids in my ten o’clock class was already announcing dramatically, “Teacher, we love you!” How could you not love a class with students like that? More than half of my level one nurses are shy, according to my icebreaker/survey, but they’re comfortable enough with each other that they don’t need too much prompting to participate. One of them felt so comfortable that he wrote on his paper to me about himself, “Hello Teacher, I’m gay!” I was honored that he marked me a safe person for him to tell that to. (See? You love my classes, too.)

My level one students, who don’t know me yet, were surprised and impressed by my culinary knowledge, when I reported, for example, that my favorite Mexican food was “Chepil tamales with a salsa made of chile costeño.” (“Sí se la sabe,” said one student to another: “She knows her stuff.”)

In my level 2 classes, most of the students have been my students before and thus my reputation precedes me. I guess my credentials for Mexican slang knowledge and Spanish pronunciation still needed to be proven with a couple of my Level 2 nurses who hadn’t been my students before. “Teacher, how do you say refrigerator in Spanish?” one of my favorite students asked me in his impressive English, and I accidentally answered on autopilot before I realized his purpose- proving my pronunciation capabilities to another student. The new student was much more impressed by the slang I knew. “Teacher, do you know what pistear means?” I grin and nod, lifting up my fingers in the international sign of chugging an alcoholic beverage. I turn back to continue erasing the board, but I hear the same student saying, “See? She’s more Mexican than Gringa.” As if they expect us English teachers to somehow be living here in a vacuum, in which we don’t learn any slang or other relevant cultural things. Bless their little hearts.

Once I had a student tell me he was really disappointed that I could correctly pronounce the word for turkey (they don’t say pavo here- the word is guajalote, which sounds like wah-ha-loe-teh). While students partially appreciate my Spanish abilities in, say, their grammar explanations, I think they prefer to have some language points to feel superior about. I try to keep it in mind, although truthfully my spelling and vocabulary in Spanish is better than that of many of my students. (Because I studied my ass off in college, dear students, and because I love to read about like I love to teach.) But I digress.

So it’s true, I suppose. I do love all my students. I do think all my groups are fabulous in some way or another. I know, the two-month introductory period for new students, followed by the first week of the regular semester, is definitely the easiest part of the year. We’re all happy to be there and students aren’t yet overwhelmed.

But I’m pretty good at keeping up the mood when the going gets tough with my students. (How do you come to class so animada– excited, animated- every day?” my little newbie Biology students asked recently. Bless.) One of my challenges to myself that I started last year is to have more and more compassion for my students, and more and more respect for them, and for where they are in the learning process. Granted, I’m still the first teacher to ask folks to leave the room if they can’t stop disrupting other people. But I don’t hold it against them the next day, and I find things that I like about them anyway. In general I try to assume that students are doing the best that they can do, even if that’s not quite what I’d like them to be doing. I don’t know if that helps them much in the long run, but it definitely helps me to not be angry when, say, kids aren’t paying attention or haven’t done their work. It definitely helps me to be a happy teacher. I work with and know some pretty awesome teachers, and I definitely don’t think I’m a better teacher than other folks, by any means. (Besides, comparisons are odious.) But I get to do pretty much exactly what I want to do, the only standardized tests I have to give being the ones our team made, no excessive paperwork to fill out. I do think I’m enjoying my job more than most other folks. And I think that joy, like excitement, is often contagious. I don’t think that my students are going to switch from nursing to an English career, but if they can get through the semester and actually enjoy learning a thing or two, I’m calling it a win. And I’m publicly announcing that I love all my students! I love my job!!!!! (With plenty of exclamation marks, so there.)

Corruption for All: Democracy and Education in Oaxaca

1 Jul

Somewhere between six and ten people died and lots more were injured during a protest in our state, Oaxaca, on June 19. It’s impossible to know for sure how many people died, or exactly what happened, because everyone has a different account, and you can’t really believe anybody. The government, the police, the media, and the teachers’ union are all notoriously corrupt. Both the causes of the protests and the way they are being carried out is a lose-lose situation for everyone in our state, especially for all the children and youth.

The government says six people died, but nobody trusts the government. Elections here are even more rigged and fraudulent than in the U.S. Buying votes is normal. You might get killed by the competition if you are running for office, partly because if you are elected you can (and probably will) steal enough money from the people to keep you set for life- therefore it’s worth killing over. The government is full of outright, blatant lies: just Google “the missing 43 Mexican students ” (here’s some of the info:  http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-35539727) if you haven’t already heard about the biggest government and police corruption scandal during this president’s reign. In this most recent case, in Nochixtlán, Oaxaca, the original official story was that some other organization or group jumped in and shot the protesters. Originally, reports even said the police went to the protest unarmed, which isn’t the slightest bit credible. So you can see why government and police reports aren’t believable.

Unfortunately, there are reasons to doubt the utter honesty of the teachers’ union as well. I imagine that accounts from teachers and other folks on site when it happened are more realistic than accounts by police or the media. But the union here is not really the voice of the teachers. Membership in the union is obligatory and participation in protests is mandatory, although they rotate participation some so they don’t have to be protesting every day for these month-long strikes, at least. While I don’t think our public school teachers are the bad guys in this scenario at all, and I’m in favor of unions, I think this particular union is not good for our schools or the kids, and not even particularly good for the teachers. (More info about the teachers’ union, sección 22: http://www.mexicogulfreporter.com/2013/08/oaxaca-education-at-mercy-of-omnipotent.html )

Some articles act like the teachers are screwing over the system, and it certainly sounds like it when you read that teachers’ and staff compensation account for 94% of education funding (http://gppreview.com/2016/03/10/mexicos-education-reform-what-went-wrong/ ). But teachers don’t get paid excessively, I can assure you (people aren’t shy about discussing income here, so teachers I know have told me how much they make). It’s not bad pay but it’s not outstanding, either. Thus, this statistic in context speaks way more to a) other folk that get paid, for example folks who only exist on payroll and not in a classroom, including dead people (yes this really happens here- some live person is cashing in the dead person’s paycheck) and b) just how little funding there is for education. Here, there’s no funding for transportation or food, and next to nothing for anything else. This means classrooms not only don’t have enough books, sometimes they don’t even have classrooms. (Conan and other students had to help build their own high school, for example.) Parents pay so much out of pocket that for “free” public education that school is inaccessible for many people. Not only do parents pay for school materials for their children- which is already hard on many families-, but also they regularly get asked to pay extra fees for whatever the school needs. Parents also have mandatory volunteer work days at the school (because schools can’t hire other staff), and they get fined if they don’t attend.

What Are They Fighting About? The Existing Problems, the Reform, and the General Lack of Confidence in the System

Mexico has some of the worst educational outcomes in the world. It “ranked 118th out of 144 countries in quality of primary education, behind many poorer countries, including Honduras, El Salvador, Bolivia, Bangladesh and Sierra Leone.” ( http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mexico-reforms-idUSKBN0OI0AL20150602) Within Mexico, the state of Oaxaca is pretty much at the bottom of the barrel in education. The federal government passed a bill for Education Reform back in 2013, because pretty much everyone agrees that radical changes to the system are sorely needed in Mexico.

The reform sounds helpful on paper, and in general people seemed to be mostly in favor of it before. Some of its official objectives are creating more equity, and that it be free and accessible. The reform proposes lots of money for more schools, money to improve existing schools, money for food in schools in poor areas, and other such necessary funding. Who knows if it will be enough funding and where the money is coming from, but that part sounds great. It proposes transparency about where the money goes in schools. It calls for better textbooks, more parental and community involvement, and more access to teacher training. It will also require teachers to undergo evaluations and trainings, and to justify their absences if they miss more than 3 days of class. There are lots of things that it doesn’t cover that would be nice, like changing the curriculum, teaching critical thinking, things like that- but it’s a start. (this article gives a good overview in English and here’s some info in Spanish directly from the government about their plans: http://gppreview.com/2016/03/10/mexicos-education-reform-what-went-wrong/ 

http://www.nl.gob.mx/servicios/reforma-educativa

Since nobody believes the government, however, and the news can’t be relied upon for real, relevant information, either, we are also inundated with rumors and counter beliefs about the reform. The number one complaint is that they are going to use this to privatize education. The government viciously denies it, but they are working on privatizing other public things, like petroleum. The government also said the police weren’t carrying guns, among other lies; they don’t prove themselves trustworthy, to say the least. So the government repeats that the tenets of the reform are to make education free of fees, and people shrug their shoulders.

The kind of information that my students tell me they believe about the reform is that, for example, they just want to fire all the teachers. We’ve heard that they’re going to take away everyone’s retirement benefits. We’ve heard that you won’t even need teacher training to be a teacher- that anyone who can pass the exam will be a teacher (which is not a very credible claim, since so much of the reform emphasizes teacher training, but there you have it). A big concern is that if teachers don’t pass an exam they will be fired on the spot. According to the proposal, teachers with poor evaluations will receive more training and then take the exam again in a year- and have a third chance with more training if the fail the second time. Supposedly the evaluations will take many factors into consideration, including the environment and culture where teachers are, which is really important here in Oaxaca where there are many indigenous languages spoken throughout the state, and many kids growing up in a household where Spanish isn’t spoken. Of course the reform needs to take regional and cultural factors into account, and it does propose to do so- but once again, it’s easier to believe what your teacher friend down the street tells you than what the government puts out there. And the teacher may or may not believe what they’re being told about the reform, but regardless they have to protest it or there will be serious sanctions against them.

My impression before this protest was that most people do want evaluations for teachers, or at least some kind of accountability, to deal with the very real problem like teachers selling their guaranteed, lifelong position off to someone else when they retire. Some people are definitely concerned that there is ZERO oversight on teacher quality; teachers are guaranteed a position for life (and beyond, when teachers give their position to their child, for example), no matter what they do or don’t do. Parents are also sick of the strikes; Oaxacan kids have lost more than an entire school year in the past 7 years of strikes. (from this article, which was also one of the broadest and best articles I read covering the situation: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/27/world/americas/mexico-teachers-protests-enrique-pena-nieto.html?_r=0  ) And that’s not including the 6 or 7 months-long strike that happened in 2006, which was the 25th consecutive year of teacher strikes in Oaxaca under this teachers’ union. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2006_Oaxaca_protests  )

But ever since people got killed, the tides have changed drastically in terms of public support. Most people are vocally or actively standing with the teachers now (including a lot of international folks who don’t seem to know what is actually going on here), which also means they’re against the reform now. Also, people down here still revere teachers and, more importantly, lack trust and faith in government to a much greater degree than the cynicism and distrust they have for the teachers’ union. The union talks a good talk, and the demands during the annual strikes (yes, every year for the past 30 years or something now, according to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2006_Oaxaca_protests  ) always include some demand or the other related to the wellbeing of the students.

While pretty much ALL the systems and agencies in this country are corrupt, the government is seen as the most corrupt. Certainly the federal government cares very little about Oaxaca, too. (For example, when the months-long strikes were going on in 2006, for ages the federal government washed their hands of the situation, saying it was a local issue.) So the union is robbing people, sure, but the government killing people- and getting away with it, as usual- is certainly worse.

At the very least, no matter how people down here feel about the union and the striking teachers, most people doubt that the reform will actually help Oaxacan children anyway. After all, it’s been proven over and over that people can’t rely on institutions here. It’s pretty depressing, if nothing else.

The Effects of the Protests

The protest is ongoing and the demonstrations and blockades, along with its secondary effects, are widespread throughout Oaxaca- plus there’s some similar action happening in our neighboring states of Chiapas and Guerrero. Teachers have been on strike since mid-May, first of all, although it was all pretty low-key until elections in early June. Things heated up, then calmed again, and then the killings happened.

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a shot from 2015 strikes (borrowed from ibtimes.com)

zocalo

teachers camping out in the zócolo, the main square, of Oaxaca City- a common sight…. (image from nvinoticias.com)… Teachers have rotating schedules for when they have to participate in protests- thank goodness! They have families, too. 

Since then, the government and teachers’ union have had two separate dialogues, both lasting for several hours, where NOTHING has been gained nor lost on either side. Nobody is reporting any clear news on what the hell they’re saying in there for all those hours (perhaps they’re talking about their grandkids, a la Bill Clinton), but there they are. So far they haven’t set up a third meeting. (Here’s an example of the very vague reporting: https://oaxaca.quadratin.com.mx/reforma-educativa-no-se-abrogara-osorio-cnte/)

The union and the government are at an impasse. The union won’t accept the reform, and the government won’t rescind the reform, which is now written into law and already partially implemented. The union is promising to get more drastic and expand their actions to other parts of the country. More and more police are arriving. There are rumors of military involvement. The only thing to do is to wait and see. Here’s a lot of relevant information about what’s happening:

http://www.theyucatantimes.com/2016/07/supplies-airlifted-to-oaxaca-as-blockades-continue-in-several-mexican-states/  I suspect things will get crazier before they get better, despite the government’s vague promises that they will resolve this within a few days.

A big part of the protest is the numerous blockades that the teachers union and their allies have set up throughout the state. They’re mostly letting people pass (with some delays) but blocking commercial trucks. So some areas are short on food supplies, and the gas supply is short everywhere, although it’s coming through sporadically, here at least.

I can’t attest to the extent of the problems happening due to the protests, because there’s also a lot of misinformation and false information about it. For example, I just read an article saying that in Puerto Escondido (where I live) and in Huatulco, there’s gasoline but only for 12 hours a day and each car can only get 200 pesos of gas. In reality, the situation here is that gas seems to randomly arrive at one or two gas stations and everyone lines up to fill up. At times there are cars parked lining up hours before a pipe even comes in. At times people are waiting in line 3 hours to get gas. Sometimes you can get lucky and get a short wait. But it’s not how they painted it in the media.

The news is also stressing how much people are suffering from a lack of food, and it’s hard to say to what extent that’s true. Here we still have plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables at the market. The prices of the stuff that gets trucked in from Oaxaca City has gone up, but even that seems to still be plentiful enough. The two supermarkets in town have some empty shelves, but they are at least getting sporadic shipments of things or they’d be totally empty by now. I have been able to get most of the things on my grocery list every week despite the situation, for example. But I don’t know how it is in other areas. Supposedly Oaxaca City is seriously affected, but a friend of mine there said she’s not seeing that. The government just set up a schedule to airlift food to our state, but I’m not sure exactly where it’s going, or what food they’re taking. Our family in Juquila says they aren’t getting stuff like cookies and other commercial food, but nobody’s going hungry there, either, or at least not because of the strikes. It’s all a bit 1984-esque to me.

The strikes are hurting a lot of the small businesses, though, which a large portion of people rely in for their income. Less people are travelling, for example, so all the folks who have their restaurants along the (very slow, winding) “highway” are not getting as much business. Our friend in Juquila had to come down here for hamburger buns for his restaurant, as another example. It is making people late to work for transportation problems in some areas. It means my friend has extra hours added to her weekly journal to her Masters-level class in the next state over. It’s definitely inconvenient and costly for a lot of people who already have enough economic problems. I don’t think it’s as bad as it sounds on national news, but again, it’s hard to know for sure. I do know that people are a bit sick of it. “I don’t know why they can’t protest in Mexico City instead of here,” one friend said. It’s a good question.

selling gas photo

Surviving beyond the system: individuals selling gasoline at higher prices for desperate folks- here in Puerto Escondido (sorry it’s not a great pic- taken from our moving car)

Conclusions: What about the kids? What about a total revolution?

Regardless of the outcome of this battle, the kids are not winning. The children of Oaxaca, already living in the poorest state of this country, living in a country with one of the worst educational systems and outcomes in the world, are not benefitting in any way, shape, or form from any of this protest, and they might not benefit from the reform, either. I don’t know what the answer is to all this, but it would be nice if some institution did something with the best interests of the children in mind as their primary motivation. I’m sure President Peña Nieto and Local 22 Teachers Union are open to your suggestions, dear Reader. (lol)

We do desperately need reform, or, better yet, revolutionary improvements for our students here in Oaxaca. Yes, we need books, food, transportation, uniforms, and so, so much more. We need a different curriculum, dynamic teaching and learning strategies, a way to make school worthwhile, relevant, and accessible for kids so they’re not routinely dropping out at 12. We need institutions that serve the people, institutions that people can count on. We need police who don’t shoot protesters as the status quo. We need governments that don’t order, support, and cover up killings and disappearances. If corruption is always going to exist, we at least need a bit less corruption in all levels of our public institutions and agencies. We need much more than what anyone here in Oaxaca can even realistically imagine receiving at this point. And that’s the worst part of all, perhaps- that there’s so little hope, for our state, for our youth, for our future.