Dogs ran free. The markets, so vibrant and teeming with life were filthy. How and why were these people so happy all of the time? Teaching in Peru was a gift and sometimes a challenge. The people that I met made it so worthwhile.
One day I was asked to substitute for Helen so that she could attend a meeting. This was a last minute opportunity to meet some of the 3rd graders(Freshman). There wasn’t a lessons we listened to American music, which really got them energized. There were 30 students sitting in a box type seating arrangement so I could easily see their smiling faces. My eyes were drawn to a thin girl, with a long braid and beautiful black eyes, hidden behind thick glasses that had seen better days. She noticed me looking her way and quickly averted her eyes, she wasn’t participating with the singing and dancing the other students were enjoying in the raucous space. The class requested Baby Shark and everyone participated, except the girl, she just looked at her desk.
When Helen returned to the classroom I asked her about the girl. She told me the girl’s name was Mayley and she had started 3rd grade with the rest of the class, but she just didn’t seem to have acclimated to the school community. I learned from Helen that Mayley had come from the Highlands, the Andes and that things were different for girls there. I committed to finding out more about that then and there.
That night the Principal, Director, and teachers had a small dinner for Brian (my teaching partner) and me. I didn’t want to pry too much, but I needed to find out more about the Highland girls. What I learned shocked me. Girls in the Highlands of the Andes are not encouraged to get an education. Most fathers had marriage plans set for their daughters by the age of fourteen, they wanted to insure that someone would be responsible for their daughters. Mayley probably didn’t intend to do well on the standardized test that would determine whether she was accepted at the COAR school in Nazca. I can’t imagine the shock that came with learning that she was in the top 10 percent of students in Peru. Her appointment at COAR Ica had to have been a journey of enormous dimension, affecting both Mayley and her family. Going away from her family to a boarding school was probably something that hadn’t occurred to Mayley, but away she went.
Students at the COAR Ica school came from all walks of life. The dormitories held students from very rich families to students who had spent their first fourteen years in Shantytowns. They all had only one thing in common, they were smart. It’s important here to wonder about that Peruvian decision to separate the current population of students into those with higher IQ’s and those without.
Time passed and I would see Mayley at lunch, alone, or sitting in one of the cubbies outside studying, I would wave and she would smile. COAR teachers and Brian and I planned a surprise Game Night for the students. Brian and I had brought some games and picture books and of course there was always music. Josue was determined to have karaoke, so we set that up too. The common area was swarming with students and competitions with Head’s Up and Scrabble were popping up. We had a table with picture books on it for the students to read at leisure. Around 9 pm I felt a light tap on my shoulder, it was Mayley. She indicated that she hoped I would read Rosie Revere to her. We found a quiet corner and sat down to read. When we finished she dipped her head and sputtered out that her English was not so good. Encouraging her I told her practice would help.
The days moved on, we taught and read, and did professional development, we graded portfolios, and book reports for books that students had never read. The day came for us to leave. There were many tears and hugs and photos taken. Many requests for facebook and whatsapp links were shared and we left with heavy hearts. I’ll never unpack all of the emotions that followed me home that summer.The cataclysmic shift in the inner workings of my brain changed me forever. We, and the students we teach are so privileged here compared to what some of the Peruvian kids were up against.
So many things to do to get ready for school on my return kept me from digging into my backpack to remove the books that I had taken with me to teach. Weeks later I needed a book for class and I knew it was in that backpack. There was so much stuff in there. I reached in and pulled out bug lotion, the bandana I had to wear around my face for every sand buggy ride, bandaids, antidiarrheal medicine, finally the book To Kill a Mockingbird. There was a slip of paper sticking out of it that I took to be a receipt, but it wasn’t, it was a note from Mayley:
I will practice my English skills every day so that when you come back we can talk to each other,