Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thanks and Giving

While Coyhaique storefronts dutifully roll out their Christmas displays, the temperature reaches heights I previously thought were impossible at the end of the world. The intensity of the sun seems to radiate back up from the ground, and the plaza is full of Coyhaiquenos licking their melting ice cream cones and splashing in the central fountain. Reggaeton beats boom from a stage in the center of the plaza, while I sit on the grass leafing through a copy of The Motorcycle Diaries. Che begins, "In nine months of a man´s life he can think of a lot of things, from the loftiest meditations on philosophy to the most desperate longing for a bowl of soup..." I decide that today´s heat makes it a day for lofty meditations, as my preoccupations with firewood, hot water, and long underwear seem a distant memory. How profoundly the weather can affect a person´s mind!

And so it is that I begin Thanksgiving Day in Patagonia. The kitchen sure doesn´t smell like turkey, and there isn´t a can of pumpkin to be found in the grocery store. You could almost say that in this distant universe Thanksgiving doesn´t exist. Almost.

I may not be sitting around the dinner table with my family or gorging myself on Aunt Doris´s chocolate cool-whip pie, but the heart of the matter - giving thanks - doesn´t have to involve pilgrims or football games or even the US of A. As I carry onward through my final days at Escuela Victor Domingo Silva, my students shower me with their own version of Thanksgiving. Karen in Sixto C is the first to pass me a note written with sparkly green pen on notebook paper and folded into a tiny square. "La quiero!" is scrawled across the outside of the letter. Inside, she declares that she will miss my smile. As the week continues, I am inundated with small tokens of appreciation from my students. Evelyn offers a yarn bracelet that spells out "Miss." Yeimi writes me a note that declares she loves me like a mother. Felipe makes a card that spells out "Que la vaya bien!" in yarn lettering. Nelson and Bruno´s joint card declares that they learned a lot in English class but that they especially enjoyed singing Yellow Submarine. Every day I return home with chocolate bars and candles, all carefully wrapped in holiday paper and offered proudly by small hands.

As a final hurrah, I throw pizza and ice cream parties for the most outstanding students in English class. We crowd into my classroom one last time, listening to Guns ´N´Roses and chomping on ice cream bars in the afternoon heat. Jerson Blanco, who was consistently unable to stay in his seat for longer than 15 seconds, was invited to the party in recognition of his efforts to improve. He proudly presents his invite at the door and immediately sets to work writing a note on the whiteboard:

"To a very special person; although I was unruly in your classes, I love you very much and I was saddened to hear you are leaving. I wish you well in your life."

And so I head out into the sun, carrying empty pizza boxes, and thinking about the future. Myself, Jerson, Yeimi, Karen...I wonder what will become of us all. I can say with certainty that in years to come I will tell the story of that Thanksgiving in Patagonia. I will talk about the heat, the ice cream, and how I remember my students´ faces. But most importantly, I will say it was the year I learned that "giving" is more important than "thanks."

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

November Rain

Somehow November in Patagonia feels like November in Massachusetts: lots of cold wind and spitting rain. The odd twist is that everything here is exploding into the most vivid green I have ever seen (perhaps because I am emerging from a seemingly eternal winter). Many afternoons when I trek down the hill from school, the sun breaks through the clouds and highlights the velvet green hills below the mountain tops. Many nights laying in bed I hear rain falling on the steel roof. I remember reading in guidebooks that in Patagonia a person can experience four seasons in a day. I always wondered what Patagonia they were talking about, because all I ever experienced was winter and more winter, but now I understand. Patagonian spring can change from hot and sunny to freezing and windy in a heartbeat.

My seventh and eighth graders are thrilled by the arrival of letters and pictures from students at Bourne Middle School. (Thanks Mom!) They crowd around the pictures examining them and finding the student whose letter they received. "They are allowed to wear any color to school?" Macarena asks incredulously. The boys are impressed by the American girls, singling out the ones they like and writing their names on their hands and notebooks. Oscar, who never writes so much as a word in English class, asks me how to write "You are very pretty." He tears out several pages of his notebook and asks to borrow my whiteout before his letter is acceptable for sending. Elvis, who has written "Tess" on his hand, carefully cuts the notebook spirals off of his letter before handing it in. Even George, who always greets me with an enthusiastic "HEL-LOOOO!" but rarely opens his textbook, stays ten minutes into recess to finish his letter.

The girls are equally excited about the boys, crowding in circles around the photographs. Every few minutes a high-pitched "woooooo!" erupts from the group. I catch Beatriz, the class president, snapping a photo of the photo with her cell phone.

While I watch Oscar fussing over his love letter, it dawns on me that I matter to these little people. I still remember Pasha, my Russian pen-pal from sixth grade whose bedroom had an area of 10 square feet. I wonder what these kids will remember when I leave. I have begun the unpleasant task of informing them that next week is my last week of classes, and I don´t know whether to be sad or pleased by the grief-stricken looks they give me. Although I try to explain that I am with a special program, I can´t help but feel they think I am willingly abandoning them.

So as November ticks by at a shockingly fast pace, I try to slow down and appreciate things: Yeimi´s spontaneous hugs in the hallway, George´s "HEL-LOOOO!", Oscar´s daily declarations of love, Jerson´s inability to stay still, Karen´s pigtails, Valentin´s smile... these kids, the future of Patagonia, my students... three hundred wild and crazy youngsters. They have given me as much as I have given them, if not more. Soon it will be summer and I will be just another gringo wandering Patagonia with oversized hiking boots and a wool hat. But for a few precious days, I am still Miss Sarah. I guess nothing lasts forever, even cold November rain.