Today I went to the Parche. The Parche recently changed locations, so this morning we walked around the neighborhood fetching children who might want to attend the alphabetization workshop. The people that live in the Santa Fé area, where the Parche is located, generally live in utmost squalor.
We turned onto cracked streets and knocked on doors inside smelly, dumpy apartment buildings. The smell was a mixture of excrement and weed. First, a woman answered with a big smile and a naked little boy behind her. I peered inside her living space and couldn’t understand how smiley she could be when the ceilings were nearly collapsing and the only light peaking into the room came through a greasy, splintered, window. “Si! Take Miguel Angel!” she exclaimed as her other little boy wandered up the apartment building steps with a notebook and pencil in hand. Today, because the mother had to take care of her youngest one, Miguel Angel could not be accompanied to school, instead, he would come read stories in the Parche.
This boy was truly an angel. He had huge eyes with long eyelashes and a quiet, innocent demeanor. “Tengo cuatr-lo años,” he said, rolling his r into an l and holding up four wrinkly fingers. We started talking about the jungle and things you could find in it, like the parrot on his notebook. I waited outside with him while Dr. T. knocked on more doors. We headed back to the Parche, passing prostitutes of all sorts, a few cripples and many stragglers. I tried to imagine being this child…what was his concept of safety and comfort? What did his surroundings mean to him? How much does a four year-old understand about danger? How might this shape his concept of “future” when he grows up?
We headed into the Parche and met the other kids. We split the kids up into mini groups each with a story in hand. I had Johan and Angie, a brother and sister, ten and eleven. “Saben leer?” I asked them. “No,” They answered together. So I began to read about Alice in Wonderland and their new years resolutions, Mickey and his roller skates and Pooh and the lost baby kangaroo. Now and then I’d ask them a word and they would sound it out perfectly. They DID know how to LEARN how to read. They also told me back the stories in perfect detail so excitedly…I had thought that they might get discouraged if they couldn’t read the words. On the contrary, they were eager to sound words out.
After everyone had read their stories we all came together to paint our favorite parts. The kids helped each other; the big kids opened the paints and showed the littler ones how to avoid big blobby drips on the paper. “Ella no sabe nada!” Miguel Angel cried, pointing to the teeny three year-old beside him. I looked at her smiley face and noticed that all she could say was “Sí!” and smile, like a baby. “Pués, ayúdale y enseñale!” I cried back. But it seemed like she couldn’t follow anything he tried to show her. On our way to the Parche, Dr. T had told me that many of the babies born in this area spend a lot of their babyhood in the hospital with respiratory infections and asthma due to the lead in the paint and the poor air quality in the apartments. Lack of oxygen to the brain obviously leads to cognitive impairment. How much damage had been done to her cognitive capabilities? And could she recover if she kept living in these conditions? (picture a closet and then four people living in it. That was her home). The importance of adequate housing for positive health/development was further illuminated when I went to the Proniño foundation to teach English.
Proniño is in another barrio called Patio Bonito. When I got off the Transmilenio Bus (really effective public transport, but a nightmare in rush hour!), I was hurled backward by the wind and noise. Rickshaws and donkeys sped around me creating clouds of dust. Proniño was a few dirt roads away, tucked in between a tire shop and a split-level, brick apartment compound. When I walked in, two kids were gobbling up their chicken, beans and rice at the table. They told me with gestures and noises, not daring to open their full mouths, that my class was waiting for me upstairs.
I began to sweat a little, then slowly crept upstairs not knowing who or what was waiting for me…for some reason I had thought that I had taught English before, but as I climbed up each stair, I realized that I had only tutored French and Spanish. How long would I have to draw out “How are youuuuu?” to make my lesson last 2 hours and a half? I pushed open the door and saw six students (three girls and three boys on opposite sides of the room of course) leaning back in their white, plastic chairs. Oh! Six! Not bad at all…but then ten…oh twenty…hmmm. Twenty pairs of eyes staring right up at me!
I had no time to think. Suddenly we were going around the room saying our names, where we were from, what we liked to do and what we’d like to be when we grew up. They were silly and enthusiastic. We played a game that Hannah taught me to learn body parts, sticking colored cards with the English word on each part. My fourteen year-old volunteer helper, Tatiana, screeched with laughter as she covered her eyes and nose with the cards. Although my voice had turned completely hoarse by the end, I was amazed to see how fast it went by.
At the end of class, a group of the kids surrounded me, asking questions about the difference between “didn’t” and “do not” and other random vocabulary words. One of the talk-all-the-time boys asked me “how to say, asesino?” At first I kind of shook my head and told him we weren’t learning that now, but then I thought again, why not? How would not knowing the word change anything? It wasn’t that surprising that a teenage boy would want to learn the word for assassin. Then Jason, the oldest and most mature looking of the bunch gave me a hard stare and asked, “Y cómo se dice, ‘gente de la calle’?” I told him “street people” and ended class. As they walked out, they said, “Bye TEECHER!” and I was left with scattered plastic chairs and empty milk bags on the floor.
One of the other teachers at Proniño walked me back to the Transmilenio and told me about the workshop he was leading for the kids. “Se llama ‘Valores.’” The workshop was inspired by the suicide of a thirteen year-old several months ago. In the workshop, the kids are supposed imagine receiving a phone call from a friend who is saying he wants to commit suicide and then respond to him in a letter telling him why he might reconsider. The kids need to know their worth, he told me. But we also do this by playing fun games too! Like learning guitar and making art. We kissed goodbye and I hopped onto to the long red bus, thinking about how learning English might help a street kid feel worth it.