Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Farewell to Nicaragua

“Check in with me at the end of the trip, but the beginning was sheer delight” I wrote a lifetime ago last week and I’m happy to report that minus five kids getting sick and vomiting in the last 24 hours, the delight was sustained through the last moment of tearfully sending the kids back off with their welcoming parents into the freezing San Francisco air. The day was mostly a bus ride, market shop in Masaya and long airport time for the cultural transition zone— air-conditioning, water fountains, toilet paper put in the toilet instead of the basket, French fries and the like. Short plane ride to El Salvador and then the long haul to San Francisco, kids so sweetly curled up asleep cuddled together. (In a sharing about favorite moments, one boy said out loud, “I liked how all the boys cuddled together in the room we shared” without a single snide comment. That quality of innocence and comfort with affection is a great victory for our school culture!) The kids all applauded when the plane landed at 1:00 in the morning, fell into the arms of their smiling parents and were gone within minutes after brief but heartfelt goodbyes to their fellow classmates, who they will share some nine more days of school life with before heading off into their separate futures.

My 38 years of journal writing (which I still keep up in the old-fashioned handwritten style) got me in the habit of bidding farewell to places I visit, offering thanks, appreciation and gratitude and this trip deserves the same. I left Nicaragua alternately horrified and inspired by its difficult war-torn history, moved by its natural beauty, appreciative of its simple close-to-the-earth lifestyle, its old ways of commerce in open air markets, street vendors singing their wares, small stores without chain names. I liked that horse-drawn carriages shared the road with buses with pictures of Jesus next to Donald Duck and sexy cartoons. It was refreshing to see people changing money in the street without ten reams of official forms, children carrying machetes (no Risk Committees here!), the directness of life uncomplicated by civilization’s convoluted bureaucracies. I loved learning about the festive traditions like La Gigantica and El Cabezon masked dancers, was thrilled by the marimba music, was intrigued to return and visit the quite different Caribbean culture on the East Coast.

I found the people warm, educated, knowledgable both about their own history and their own land and its creatures. I had one uncomfortable conversation about Obama endorsing gay marriage and felt the shackles of the conservative Catholic culture and also saw a few billboards about domestic violence. At the same time, I was impressed by La Madre Tierra Cultural Center’s concern with educating children about social justice, environmental stewardship and gender equity. I found what I have often found in “Third World” countries—an economic level that reads “poverty” by the World Bank’s standard, but mostly feels to me like a humanly-proportioned simple life, not the beaten-down grinding poverty of real hunger and disease, but the make-do-with-less and shift the energy from things to culture and relationships that I admire so much. And so nine bows, great thanks to the people and places we were privileged to visit and come to know. Que viva Nicaragua!

And then there’s the kids. It’s one thing to say “ I love the 8th graders” when you see them twice a week for 45 minutes of music-making and quite another to say the same after living the full spectrum of their character, their fears and phobias and foibles and talents and gifts and surprising qualities. To live in close quarters without respite for nine days running, to run the gamut from eyerolls to appreciative hugs, from tears to laughter, in sickness and in health. To be alternately their teacher, their guide, their parent du jour, their doctor and nurse, their counselor, their friend. To scold them, to encourage them, to publicly acknowledge their acts of courage and kindness, to shoot the breeze and elevate the conversation, to dig deeper into their talents and interests. To feel your own insecurities and loneliness and inclusions and exclusions by vicariously participating in their dramas. To sit together on long bus rides, dig holes and mix cement together, play card games and ball games and music games together, speak Spanish together, splash and cavort together in the pool or lake, eat meals together, sing together. At the end of all that, to say “I love the 8th graders,” not only to love them generally as a group, but specifically as 31 unique and promising individuals, all of that has a very different meaning coming from an intense and hard-earned process. 

So let me say it out loud. "I love the 8th graders. All of them."

But that said and done, I’m glad they’re in their homes tonight and I’m in mine. Goodnight, kids!!

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