San Pedro in April 2015
This is the public school in San Pedro where I lugged my Quilt and gathered with children, ages 3 to 8. This was my 3rd time volunteering in a foreign country where I don't speak the language and it proved the most challenging.
Setting it Up
My husband and I were doing a 10-day home stay, so we asked our hosts if volunteering was a possibility. On Monday morning we walked with Javier and 4 year old Magda to school, and met the principal. The principal frowned and rubbed his eyes as Javier spoke. I assumed Javier was telling him I spoke no English, but wanted to volunteer with a program (of song & games) with a class or two. The principal's body language made me feel as if I were being interrogated. I awaited my punishment... or just a simple. "No thanks."
But Javier turned to interpret. "He wants you to come 3 days and work with all 5 of the younger classes." I tried not to gulp too obviously, but Javier caught my drift and laughed. "It will be a challenge. You can do it."
On Wednesday, I packed up my stuff, then Don and I followed Javier and Magda down the alleyway. We walked through the park in front of the Catholic Church and squeezed by the market umbrellas, then climbed the steps to the big green doors.
The principal walked us through the central area, which was then bustling with children. He pointed out 5 doors and told me what order to visit. Then he asked again if I spoke Spanish.
He shook his head and I witnessed a hint of a smile, when I answered no. Then he disappeared and left me with my "support team" Javier & Don. At least the teachers were expecting me. I just needed Javier to explain to each teacher that I needed some space on the floor for my quilt. I felt sure I could take it from there.
At 8:30 we headed to the first class, but there was no teacher and the 7-year olds were leaping and squealing all over the room. We waited a while, then decided to move to the next class.
Yea, there was a teacher, but she didn't look too thrilled to have us interrupt. I introduced myself and then Javier explained I needed floor space. In moments the room was a frantic mess, with 22 heavy metal desks screeching across the floor. I gestured to the kids to sit in their chairs, then rewarded the quiet ones by escorting them one by one to a spot on the quilt's blue border. "La Manta especial!" I finally exclaimed as all were seated. Special blanket would have to do, since I had no word for quilt. Then I pointed to a heart and asked "Como se dice?"
The kids chanted back "corazon!" I told them the word in English and began patting my knees and singing in English, ''Do you see a heart on the quilt-oh, quilt-oh..." It was a rowdy little bunch of 22 and I knew better than to waste time explaining... even if I could have. The kids taught me a lot of words with the Quilt Song.
2 Helpful Words
We stood up and continued singing as we patted and jumped and stomped and pointed with feet. I came armed with 2 words to use when kids got too silly...or wild. "Perfecto!" I grinned, pointing to the kids who were following me correctly.
"Bravo!!" A squealed with delight to the boy who balanced like a statue... beside the boy who exaggerated his wobbly balance before falling down. Suddenly all the kids wanted to be praised.
After the first class Javier thought I'd be fine on my own, but I insisted he was wrong. I was okay once on the quilt, but the transitions with each class were a bit insane. We found the next classroom door locked, so I once again changed up the visiting order. The teachers, all in traditional dress seemed confused by my visit. I couldn't explain why I wanted to throw a quilt on their floor or what I was doing when I held the quilted bag up to my ear and made snoring sounds. Only later when I peeked at Don's photos did I notice a teacher taking pictures... or smiling when I asked the kids to sing, "Wake Up!" to my sleeping amigo in the bag.
I usually reserve my puppet for preschoolers, but I needed him desperately. After all the kids had a turn to sing into the bag, Senor Pickle woke up and he appeared to be a bit terrified of the kids, who all seemed anxious to grab him. The puppet whispered in my ear, then broke the news to the kids. "No hablo espanol." I shrugged and shook my head. Senor Pickle would not be able to help me.
The kids who had seemed embarrassed to talk to me, were much more eager to tell Senor Pickles their name. It gave me a chance to come face to face with each child. I'm no fancy ventriloquist, but it still amazes me that there were only a few who addressed ME with answers. It was pretty much between the kids and the puppet.
A Colorful Group
This wonderful little bunch surprised me with all their festive clothing. I had noticed that less than half the little girls in the school wore traditional dress, but in this class even the boys were wearing traditional outfits.
Clothing Affects Behavior?
It seemed like this group was so much more attentive.
Maybe the clothing had a calming effect? It turns out the class was dressed up for some kind of performance, so maybe they were nervously quiet about their upcoming show.
A Visiting Dad?
Or maybe it was the enthusiasm of the visiting Dad who seemed as intrigued as the kids.
While the teacher sat back in her chair, not interfering, this Dad got on the floor and joined in. It made me wonder about parent participation in schools.
Parents and Snack Time!
At 10:30 I got to see a different kind of parent participation! Although many children just headed for the concrete play area, many children met mothers who had arrived with snacks or snack money. The vendors selling tortillas and fruit and ice cream at the market were suddenly swarming with sales.
Javier bought Magda some scrambled eggs and beans. We sat on the steps and watched the children and mothers enjoying the break. It was hard to believe these parents would walk back to school in one more hour to walk the younger children home!
Learning From Mistakes
As the morning progressed I had begun to learn what worked and what I should avoid. Do Not let kids help fold up the quilt. That's fun with kids you can guide verbally, but it's too easy to get a mountain of kids in the middle. And it's hard to achieve order once I've lost control! I also learned that the kids love it when I make a mistake. So Senor Pickles and I made quite a few.
Magda had already been acquainted with Senor Pickle from the house, so I was surprised when she responded with genuine enthusiasm. She is not a bit shy, so she could have demanded to be first or she could have yawned with the repetition. But Magda at age 4 was the perfect role model!
Throw and Catch
Javier was surprised that he was able to stay in the room without distracting Magda. But she was too busy playing Catch & Throw with the chiffon scarf that Senor Pickle pulled out of his bag. (2 more English words for the kids)
As I finished up, giving each child a turn, I made mental notes for the next day. In 5 classes I had simply taught a song and had the puppet interact. I knew what to expect... now what could I actually TEACH the next day? More words?
On Thursday I was ready to try it on my own. I lugged my big bag, took Magda's hand and we were off to school... alone.
"What am I doing?" I had to laugh at myself as Magda chattered along in Spanish. "Si?" I answered with enthusiam, so wishing I understood her. But she caught me with a firm, "No!" when my reply didn't fit. Then I distracted her with steps and puddles. We chanted "Up, up, ups" and lots of "Jumps!"
Before 8:30, the common area of the school was echoing with kids flying in every direction. I was suddenly bombarded with hugs and giggles from kids who remembered me.
Minutes later, it wasn't much quieter when I gathered with my first class on the platform stage in the corner of that room. We had no choice since the group I met with couldn't use their flooded classroom because of a storm the night before. Noise from all classrooms spilled out of open doors into the common area. Even children spilled out of classrooms now and then. A group raced through in gym uniforms and another small group gathered by the wall to do embroidery. I don't think I taught the kids on the stage much, with all the distraction.
Beanie Babies Help Out
There's nothing like a good prop to help teach. I pointed to the animals and taught the words puppy-dog, kitty and bunny. I fit the words into a simple 3-word song called, Ram Sam Sam. I taught simple hand motions that go along with the somewhat scrambled order of the now, 3-Animal Song and then we got tricky.
It was time to say "Adios, Puppy Dog!" I hid the dog and clapped my hand over my mouth to show them we weren't allowed to sing (only hum) the word puppy dog, anymore. It got silly as we omitted different animals and suddenly we were only humming and gesturing the whole song. Miraculously, all 5 groups caught on!
Mardi Gras Beads
Pickles had a supply of beads in his bag, so we used some to make shapes and learn words. The kids taught me the words for heart, square, eight, three, diamond... And then I taught them the English.
But the kids really liked the scarves more than anything, so I paired up the kids to play, "1,2,3, Throw!" Each child had a scarf and counted to 3 in English then threw to their partner... scarves and giggles crossing the air between them.
Scarves and Music
Just as I pulled out the I-Pod with New Orleans Dixieland Jazz, the teacher apologized and had to take the boys to gym class. I was left with a group of eager girls, ready to dance with scarves. Not a problem!
I taught the kids the words "Stop" and "Go" and the music stopped and started and the kids had the scarves dancing in circles and zigzags and twirling and snaking... I was able to do a tamer version with my bigger groups, but this group had the most fun.
End of Day 2
As it turns out, there would be no Day 3, since the principal had forgotten there was a school holiday on Friday. I was a bit relieved. It had been more draining than I ever expected.
When you can't verbalize your thoughts, every ounce of creative energy works overtime to communicate with the face and body and gestures. The kids had responded with such enthusiasm, I felt rewarded, but I couldn't read the teachers and none spoke English.
What do the teachers think?
But as I was preparing to leave, one teacher asked me to write down the words of the Pup/Kitty/Bunny Song. When I went in her class to get paper, I saw that all the children were happily coloring. Earlier, I'd given each teacher 1 sheet and tried to explain how they could reproduce it. (Unsure if they had a machine in school) The teachers had obviously understood and the kids were already happily working on designs.
As I was writing down the words of the song, another teacher came in and wanted the words to the Quilt Song. Then another teacher asked me to sing it so she could film it on her cell phone. And as I was leaving the school, two more teachers approached and each took a turn shaking my hand. All I could understand was the word gracias, but there was such warmth in the tone and sincerity in the eyes. I did the same thing back. I thanked them in English, (patting my heart) for sharing their classrooms with me. I hoped they could understand from my eyes what my words said, "Thanks for trusting me with your children... so grateful for the experience..."
What Did I Learn?
Too much! My brain is still baffled 10 days later. But mostly I learned that there is a way to share and enjoy one another, without verbal skills. I'd like to think I could do the same thing with kids in France or Japan or Brazil. But could I do it without the Quilt? I'm not sure!
For 20+ years children have called it the Magic Quilt. They've danced and pretended all over these colorful squares. I've dragged it to schools, shelters and studios where children have climbed on top to hear Magic Quilt Stories and to act them out.