Notes from the Street: Made In Recoleta

It is 5.30pm and I have been sitting on the grass at a Recoleta playground for the last 2.5 hours. It is one of those neighorhood spaces down a normal street and placed so smack-bang in front of people’s houses that residents must drive their cars through the playground to reach their driveways. There are a few exercise machines meant for the elderly but that get invariably commandeered by adventurous children. There are two swings, two slides and some trees interspersing a small grassy area.  In front there is the usual corner store that Emilio will forever associate with cheap icecreams and in the near distance there are cranes building yet another apartment block.

The first tme we came here I felt nervous and more than a little obvious, mainly as Emilio and I are both fair unlike the majority around us. For another, teenagers slumped in tight circles on the grass with loose cigarettes hanging from their mouths while on the roadside groups of men lingered, immersed in clouds of marijuana smoke. Today, for example, there is heavy metal blaring from somewhere nearby while the occupants of the shadowy house beside the park are doing little but standing outside with their beatup car and their fake Nike. The ground around me is littered with poop and ciggie butts and every so often a dog will come over to me, sniff my butt and then leave after confirming that, yes, I am here.

For all of these seemingly ugly features there is something special in this park, something which draws us back day after day, for hours at a time. And that reason is the children. Right now the air is filled with the sound of laughter and squealing as Emilio plays with the neighborhood residents. One of them is about three while the other is around 7 – the latter a mother-hen type who watches her sister like a hawk, reprimands her when she is naughty and comforts her when she falls. She also looks after Emilio and plays with him, pushes them both on the swing, giggles when he does and dusts his bottom off every time he gets (very) dirty.  There is a nurturing aspect to the children we have encountered here that I do not recall ever witnessing as the norm in New Zealand, or even when I take my charges to the park in other areas of Santiago. Of course, I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, I just have never noticed it to this degree.  Everyone seems to be really looking out for each other, and I see this time and time again. I can’t even safely say that it’s because the girls are being shaped into the moulds of their mothers because I’ve noticed the same from the boys as well. I remember when Emilio attended the neighbour’s birthday party and decided to jump on the trampoline with the big kids. They were all so protective of the small fry amongst them that it really touched my heart, with one in particular going above and beyond to help him up every two seconds as he fell down. Alot.

These are good kids, despite some of them growing up in difficult situations. Recoleta is, after all, a barrio just like Conchali, if you will recall the encounters of Ojos Abiertos last year. Or perhaps you can remember the story of Jose, our neighbour, and his family.  Some of these children will spend much of their lives sleeping in the same room as their parents, bearing witness to acts that children shouldn’t otherwise see. Some of them will go on to make bad choices, made bad friends or head off in unwise directions. Some of them may copy their parents and follow a path of crime or other unsavoury activities, while others still will strive and achieve success.

Diego

I can’t remember if I have mentioned Diego before but I have certainly meant to. He is the adopted son of Jose, of the famous empanadas, and at a guess I’d place him around twelve years old. He is tall, skinny, softly spoken and has a shiny earring in one ear.  I cannot tell you where his birth parents are or how he is related to Jose, but I assume Diego has had some difficulty in his life. I admire Jose because not only has he transformed our street to have a strong sense of community, but he actually no longer lives next door to us (though he continues to work there every single day without fail).  When he and his wife were expecting a baby they moved to the countryside near Batuco, taking Diego and Maria with them (another cheer for the subsidio grant!).

Not all the kids we encounter here are angels but Diego has something special. He is caring, considerate, extremely intelligent and most of all he exudes a quality of gentleness. Every time he sees Emilio he hugs him or gives him a high five, and if the other kids are around with a toy or a lollipop he encourages them to share.  One of the children from next door is close in age to Emilio and about as similar to him as night and day.  I will call him Daniel and his mother is one of the daughters of Luisa. Daniel is not a happy toddler, in fact every time I see him he is either crying or bashing Emilio over the head with something. His mother, Ashley, is extremely aggressive and will never make eye contact if I encounter her a few metres away from her house.  I do not imagine that she has had an easy life either, and certainly she has made a few mistakes along the way. Daniel, according to Luisa, was one of them, as the whole street found out the night when her pregnancy was ever so discreetly announced. Luisa was screaming at her using every curse word and foul thing to say under the sun – right below our bedroom window – mainly because the lack of respect her pregnancy brought but also, I suspect, because the father is about as big a drug addict as you can get, does not work and therefore would not be able to contribute to the growing costs of pregnancy, birth and raising a child (even using the public system of healthcare and education).  The family were already strained enough, with a good twenty people sharing the small living spaces next door. That was all two years ago now and during that time Ashley has been kicked out of a rented room down the road, moved back in with her mum and given birth to Daniel. Daniel and Diego are as different as chalk and cheese but they originally started out in the same household. What a difference the guidance of Jose has made. I really, really hope that some compassionate teacher will see the potential Diego has and single him out, hopefully providing him with further positive mentors and options for his future. If he receives that, Diego will go a long way.

Being a mother here in Santiago has come with plenty of ups and downs but the general attitude towards my son has been overwhelmingly positive. Strangers will look out for Emilio and interact with him, sometimes in the most unlikely of situations. But what I really love is how warm and caring so many of the kids are, especially when I’m sitting on the grass, five months pregnant (and therefore slow to get up) and writing a blog entry, like today. If the future is in the hands of the children then the future of this city looks bright indeed.

Very bright indeed.

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Valparaiso art, but seemed fitting.

Note: the featured image for this blog was drawn by one of the students of Hoda and Georgina in Conchali last year, during the volunteer Art Expression classes organized by Ojos Abiertos.

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State Schools: The Truth

Half a year later and Ojos Abiertos comes to the end of it’s work in Conchali. Last night we went for a group meal at one of my favorite, reliably good restaurants, Tiramisu (Metro El Golf). Ojos Abiertos began after I posted a message looking for people who shared my passion for righting social wrongs, namely the huge gulf in educational equality. Since then we have not only become firm friends, but we have both opened the eyes of students and had our own eyes opened as we worked in a Santiago state school.

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To reiterate your memory, Carolina ran weekly dance classes incorporating English, literacy and numerous dance styles with any high school student interested in participating. Hoda and Georgina held back to back classes with pre-kinder and kinder aged pupils known as “Art Expression” –  a fabulous initiative born from Hoda Madi, one of Chile’s premier artists. These workshops involved a theme – discussed and then expressed in any form before being put to paper as artwork. The themes were Happiness, Love, Gratitute, Bad Feelings and The Hero Inside. Finally there were art classes held by Lina, Mariana and resident art teacher Amaro, which aimed at utlizing both English and recycling how-to’s. Meanwhile, Zoe tk up a position as an assistant to the English teacher, volunteering twice a week during the morning. We received numerous donations utilized in our classes, from the phenomenal English books donated by Expat Legend Sally Rose, to art and party supplies that the kids loved using. I also must stress that these projects were all lead by passion and a desire to help – no-one paid a fee to join as a volunteer or participant, and no-one was excluded from the classes. These were discrimination-free zones where the children forged real relationships with the teachers … and vice versa. It also wasn’t always easy, from volunteers who we never heard from again to the tireless dedication of Georgina in particular, whose persistence and hardwork really got the Organizacion off the ground.

Here we take a look back over the past few months at our time at Liceo Almirante Riveros:


 

Hoda: This has been the best experience of my life!

Georgina: There is no feeling like when you open the door and the kids just come running …

Helen: tell me about your first class. What happened?

Hoda: our first class was with the pre-kinder and the teacher had no idea we were coming!

Georgina: She didn’t know because she never attends meetings. She doesn’t agree with the art-based methods at the school. This isn’t to say she is a bad teacher. She was a bit wary at first but after the first class she jumped right on board. She started asking us for our opinions and for help and what she could do … once we told her there were loads of English books at the school she ran straight away to get them!

Hoda: The school accomodated us right away. For example in the first class the room only had a cassette player so we couldn’t play ur music. We told Gerhard and for the second class we had a speaker and could play the music off our phones.

Helen: How did the class go?

Hoda: At first the kids were shy but as each class progressed they came out of their shells. The first class was Happiness so we asked them what made them happy. All of them said being at the school, with their friends. At first they were very unsure and nervous about what to do with the painting – how to express their emotion – and always asking if they could do a line or a colour. But by the second class they were more confident and what they drew was amazing!

Georgina: We asked what they loved about each other in the next class. One boy needed a bit of prompting but when asked about a girl in his class he said, “her eyes.” It was the sweetest thing.

Hoda: A lot of them have never had the opportunity to express these things before. When we asked what they were grateful for, again all of them said the school and their friends. We talked about Bad Feelings next. They all spoke about sadness and family problems.

Georgina: One said he knew to just turn on the TV when the arguing starts. Another – who was four years old – said he would take his little sister’s hand, take her upstairs and cover her ears. Someone drew a person with a black face and said that it was his father leaving the house, because he always jumps in the car after a fight. Our final session was about The Hero Inside. What do they want to do? Some of them said doctors and nurses, but mostly they said carabineros [police], which says a lot about how active the police are.

Hoda: One girl who was 5 said she wanted to be an artist – to make people happy through her art. I really believe that art is something that anyone can do – it can save your from bad feelings and give you a way to let emotions out, without turning to drugs.

Helen: Carolina, how did you find your experience?

Carolina: It was amazing. There was a bit of a problem with people not turning up, but there was talent and people had fun. The teachers were really helpful and when there was a problem they did what they could to solve it.

Helen: Could you pinpoint any issues at the school, like where it is lacking?

Carolina: I was teaching teenagers in or nearing their final year, so around 17 years old. But many of them had no idea about basic literacy things like metaphors or similies. There also didn’t speak to be much cohesion between teachers – no collobarative learning. It seemed like they were learning not to respect adults or peers but to respect just the Head teacher when it should be towards anyone.

Helen: Zoe, you were 4th basico – so aged 10 to 11- and alongside their regular English teacher. How did you find it?

Zoe: I had a very mixed experience. The teacher had absolutely no presence in the class. She told me right away she wanted to leave and was looking for other jobs, and when we entered the class she would just sit down and start making notes – no greeting to the class, nothing. She didn’t speak English at all in the classroom – in fact when I finally got her to say something one of the students asked “Miss why are you speaking English?” She taught the same curriculum for all her classes from years 1-4 and no-one knew even the basics like what “how are you” meant. Instead of English she’d do lots of arts and crafts, and after a while I was like “use me – I’m here to help!” So she copied a long poem on the board without translating it and told the kids to write it down. They had no idea what they were writing and were so bored. I asked if I should explain and she said to the class “Zoe will say it out aloud and you all copy it!” She didn’t know the kids names, she didn’t know why certain kids were taken out every class, she cancelled classes every week and she never had a plan for classes. One time I told her I had some ideas, she said no they would make Christmas stockings instead, but when we got there we found the kids had finished them all at home. So the kids spent the whole class with nothing to do.

Georgina: But that is not completely normal. She’s not their regular teacher, only takes them for English, and she told us this was her first job. She was not experienced.

Zoe: I saw that the students were very good at sharing and that a few were really interested and tried hard. But without the teacher taking charge or explaining, they didn’t understand what they were doing. They did have textbooks, but they had never been used before I went there.

Helen: I don’t understand why there are teachers like this? Can’t they be fired?

Mariana: I think they are on a one-year contract and funding is tight with state schools.

Helen: Mariana, how was your experience there with Lina?

Mariana: We worked alongside Amaro, who was really respected by the students. He was incredibly well-spoken, knew all the terminology and explained everything to the kids.

Lina: All the kids were helping each other, asking opinions, and looking after one another.

Mariana: Amaro was taught by Gerhard, the principal, and took the job because of him. There is a lot of loyality between the staff and many aren’t there for the pay but because they want to be there.

Georgina: It all comes down to the teacher. If they are not happy with their salary, they won’t be happy.  There was good and bad at the school: the majority were really dedicated but there were some who were not so. We were left for two hours once by the teacher who was meant to stay with us. Most of the kids just ran away. We were only meant to be there 40 minutes.

Helen: Is that the guy who was yawning through our meeting?

Zoe: I saw him always sleeping in the staff room!


 

What have we learnt? That volunteering is not just out helping those in need. Its incredibly rewarding for both sides because everyone learns. We didn’t go in there with guns blazing thinking we knew better, instead we listened to the teachers, asked what they wanted and needed, and tried to work beside them in the classroom. We tried to provide a friend and a mentor, learning while having fun in an environment that is safe. We gave the kids an outlet to be themselves, be creative and learn something that was perhaps a little bit strange. Not all of us will be continuing next year due to various commitments (immigration! Work!) but we welcome new members and new projects. If you would like to be involved, have an idea or a school to nominate, please send me a PM to hlcordery@gmail.com. We also welcome donations for educational or play purposes.  If you are interested in the four week programme run by Hoda Madi, please contact her directly to see if she is interested in visiting your school.