As much fun as we were having in Baños, the time had come for us to take our puppy and head to the High Sierra.
We had lined up a teaching gig in Santa Ana de Pedregal, a tiny community found at 15,500 feet, set in a surreal and stunningly beautiful world of snowcapped volcanoes and uninhabited hillside. Up here there is a constant, lonesome “Shh…” of the wind blowing through the tall grass that, when it ushers in the cold night, is both invigorating and somehow deeply morbid.
The culture seems to be a product of these forces. Five minutes after arriving in town, as we trudged down the cobblestone street with all of our possesions strapped to our backs, we passed a local woman sitting on a rock alongside the road. We waved in a polite hello, to which she responded by pointing to our puppy and saying “Va a morir (she is going to die)”. Welcome to Santa Ana!
As I have previously mentioned, we had turned down free room and board in a nearby adventure tourism lodge, on account of their no-puppy policy. For this reason, when we arrived at the school, we still had no idea where we were going to stay. When we mentioned this to the director, she immediately insisted that we stay at the school, in a vacant, standalone classroom next to the bathroom. We were very grateful and relieved at our fortune, until we saw it.
In order to enter, we had to limbo under the boards that had been nailed across the door. The floor was made of pebbles and mud, and was furnished with only a giant, trash-filled oil drum. Our first impression was that it seemed like a fantastic place to get murdered. And they wouldn´t take no for an answer.
Resigning ourselves to a week of freezing hell, and the possibility that the woman in the road was psychic, we headed to the cafeteria to meet the faculty. We were absorbed in describing our program to the teachers and forcing down our cold plate of rice with spaghetti, so much so that we didn´t notice the epic transformation happening outside. As we chatted about our curriculum, the students (who had abandoned their classes on their teacher´s orders) had begun to convert our solitary confiement unit into a studio apartment. I finally noticed the event when my peripheral vision caught a bedframe being carried across the lawn by six little students, a coffee table and two chairs following closely behind. By the time they had finished it was as comfortable an accomodation as any we have had on this tour. Extreme Home Makeover: Ecuador!
We began teaching the next day. Normally we give the students the freedom to choose the theme and lyrical content to the songs we compose together, but this time was different. Upon learning that we were going to compose songs with the children, the faculty insisted that the theme be “mothers”, and that the students present these songs to their parents on Thursday, at their annual Mother´s Day celebration. We were excited that there was a natural opportunity for the students to present their work, but also a little nervous about forcing the students to talk about their family. We vowed to be diligently sensitive.
Things started off extremely well. The students were receptive to the program, and moreover well behaved and intelligent. We instantly got the impression that the school was well-run. The students took on their task enthusiastically and often begged to do exercises “one more time”, usually several times. The only catch was that we were now teaching six hours a day instead of two; a sobering lesson in energy management that caused Karen to permanently cross off being a full-time teacher off her list of possible outcomes.
The next day, while brainstorming with the kids about friends, family, and mothers to generate lyrical content, I noticed that one kid wasn´t participating. I continued to try to engage him but he silently refused. When I kneeled next to him and softly asked him to “please say something”, he began to cry. I looked up to the assistant teacher, who grimaced and gave me the universal sign for “dead”. I felt the floor fall out from under me. I thought we had disaster-proofed our lesson plan by brainstorming about friends as well as family; but looking back at the board where we had enumerated the other student´s praises for their mothers, I realized we had crossed the line.
The other students, bless them, all moved quickly to console him. We called for a 5 minute recess, and began frantically brainstorming about what to do next. We decided to change the theme of the song from “family” to “home”, and began the lyric writing section anew. By the end of the class, the student (whose name is Darwin) had contributed a few great ideas and appeared to be feeling better.
The next day was Mother´s Day. The fathers arrived in the early morning and slaved over the grill to prepare a feast for the mothers. The chairs and benches were extracted from the classroom and arranged in a semi-circle in the courtyard, forming a stage. The mothers began to arrive, and it was fascinating for us to absorb the style and custom of the High Sierra. The men get off the hook and often dress casual-modern-trucker; but the women all layer themselves in ornate blankets, and each adorning themselves with a unique fedora hat. They all were quick to smile, but beyond that very quiet and still. Their dress and mannerisms are a perfect compliment, and a practical response, to the vast, silent countyside.
Our fascination with the morbidity of the culture here gained serious depth throughout the presentation. Other than the three songs that we performed with the three different classes, every presentation was on the subject of death. The school play focused on one woman´s plight to find her stolen baby, during which she gouged out her own eyes to pay for a clue, only to discover that the baby was taken by Death itself (played by a 9 year old named Joel, who delivered the ultimate line of the play: “Now I´m going to take your baby to an unknown land!”) There were many interstital DJ sets in between performances, and the lyrics to all of the songs were about love, drinking or suicide. With regards to their relationship to the hereafter, however, the most profound insight was saved for last.
The principal announced that the students were going to read poems to their mothers. I sat frozen in anticipation, horror and curiosity, unable to imagine what was going to happen when Darwin was asked to read his. The others in his class went first, and the majority of them burst into tears at some point during their poems and had to be consoled by their mothers. Whether this was due to the subtext regarding Darwin, or whether the kids were just emotional, I´m still not sure. Throughout the readings Darwin stood to the side, his head hung the same way that it had been during class, crying only to himself in a way that seemed to me very dignified and mature, which of course only made it sadder. When it was his turn to read his poem, he held the microphone silently for a few moments, then handed both it and his pòem to the principal, and retired to the classroom.
The principal recited his poem for him, slowly and clearly, and it began: “Dear mother, you have left my side. Who is left to comfort me? Living without a mother is grief beyond comparison.” I didn´t catch all the words, but I heard enough that I also was overcome with emotion and started to cry. Some of the children were sobbing, holding their mothers for dear life. There wasn´t a dry eye in the courtyard.
On cue the DJ segued the poetry reading into a dance party. A few couples stood and took to the dance floor, giving me a moment to reflect. Some thoughts that stay with me from this moment are 1) It was inevitable that Darwin was going to have an extremely difficult, emotional week (in fact the entire presentation was designed to be particularly intense for him), and aside from the fact that I didn´t diagnose his reticence quickly enough I shouldn´t feel too guilty about his experience in our program. 2) A public school U.S. would never in a million years put on a program this raw and death-oriented, and once I had recovered from my shock at how far they had taken it, I found myself wondering if maybe this was actually healthy? 3) On the other hand, though, beyond their healthy expression of sadness at loss, why are these people so morbid?! Every song that was being played under these meditations was about death. And people were happily dancing to them!
The dancing continued long into the night. The teachers pulled me up and took turns feeding me mysterious shots from recycled plastic bottles. I soon found myself loving the dance of the High Sierra. It´s a humble shuffle that anybody with two feet can do. Having come from Colombia, where everybody is freaking Juan Travolta, I was relieved to look around and feel like I was dancing as well as everybody else. This is something that has NEVER happened before, and my confidence only grew with every shot that the patrolling grandmothers/bartenders forced me to take from their crumpled plastic bottles. When the sun set, the DJ moved his rig into the 1st grader´s classroom and we continued to lay waste to both the room and our sobriety. As the hours drew in the night the DJ masterfully and imperceptably increased the tempo, so that before we knew what was happening the slow shuffle had become a wild hoedown, with everyone trading off partners and throwing them around the room. Darwin was there, smiling, playing with his classmates and shaking his head at the debauchery. It was, in fact, the greatest party I have ever been to; and a profoundly vibrant exhibition that completely banished the idea of death, at least for a little while.
We had such a great week in Santa Ana that we asked to stay for another. The director was happy to have us, but asked that we integrate an English component into our program. At first I was hesitant, as I am not an English teacher and have never claimed to be, but when she explained to us how valuable it was to have native speakers, especially those that can teach with music, we conceded.
We have just finished our second day of teaching English, and we both feel it couldn´t have gone better. The kids have been jumping at the chance to sing “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes”, and do the “Hokey Pokey”. At this point, we can´t imagine teaching English without music. We have also been composing original material for themes that we can´t find preexisitng songs for (daily activities, numbers 1-100, etc.) We plan to make these available on our website for other teachers in the near future.
In the meantime, we´re going to try to be as alert as possible while we´re still here, amidst the giants.
PS – Darwin is loving the English classes and is the fastest learner in his grade.
PPS – Videos and lyrics of the original songs from the students of Santa Ana coming soon. This computer won´t let me upload them.
PPPS – Happy Mother´s Day Mom!! (From Luke and Karen)