Work to facilitate the next Hope Kitchen event relaxed somewhat throughout the month of January while personal obligations brought by the new year engulfed crew members. The monday following Hope Kitchen I was hurtled forward into my next service project as volunteer art teacher at La Isla Bonita Elementary School.
A privately initiated facility operated by brother and sister team Hector and Addy Trejos, La Isla Bonita Elementary is host to over 100 students ranging from Infant 1 (Junior Kindergarten) to Standard 6 (grade 6), serving Belizian, Kriol, Garifuna, American and middle-eastern ex-pat children. In the Belizian school system special needs students and non-English speaking students are thrown into the mix without customized considerations. The children are wild and unruly and as a whole happy to have to opportunity to learn. The teachers are young, some without university education, and all possessing a great deal of bravery. Not having a formal education in Education myself, I felt like we were all in the same boat together, all learning from each other the hows of learning and communicating.
It was my intention to offer free art workshops to each grade each week, amounting to 7 classes a week. Over the course of my 3 months at La Isla Bonita I taught approximately 120 student each week, and received at least 400 hugs a week. With the younger students we explored the world of colors and shapes through painting, mosaics and mandalas. With the middle grades of students I created ad-hock projects themed to their weekly curriculum and monthly holidays. Some of our more successful projects included Carnival Masks, Valentine's Day Collages, dioramas and paper Easter Flowers.
The most challenging group turned out to be the combined standard 5 & 6 classes. It was not challenging in the sense that the student were unruly, though they were, not challenging due to the nature of the project, which was the building of Australian Didgeridoos, but challenging due to the subtle unrealized hesitance from the teachers themselves. While each of the other grades enjoyed the benefit of a new class each week, I had continual difficulties in getting access to the students of Standard 5 & 6, and I couldn't understand why. Both of the teachers were much obliged to talk to me about the proposed project and how it related to their current curriculum, but each Friday that I came prepared to teach there was one reason or another why the students were not available. On the first week they had not collected the $5 donation required to purchase the supplies locally (it had not been possible for me to ship 100 feet of PVC piping all the way from Canada with me). The next week the teachers claimed that the students were just too unruly to focus so they had been dismissed early. The next week was a school assembly, and the week after that there were class presentations. The next week was exams, and the next week again the teachers claimed that the students had elected to go home instead of doing art. This seemed highly unlikely to me as I was hailed by students each day from open school windows with the question 'When do we get to finish our Didjeridoos?' As I wandered the streets around town on my daily personal business, on recognizing me children would laughingly shout out 'Didgeridooooooo!' for the sheer joy of wrapping their mouths around the unusual word. Eventually, a week here and a week there I was able to get the kids working on their Didgeridoos. But what should only have taken 3 classes over 3 weeks ended up taking the entire 3 months of my stay, and we never did get to learn how to play the instruments the students had so eagerly constructed and painted. It was not until 3 weeks before the end of the term that I understood what the obstacle to our progress really was.
During a long weekend I traveled to southern Belize to make an inquiry into the next service mission on my journey and it was on the long 7 hour chicken-bus ride that I came across the missing pieces of the puzzle. While waiting for the passengers to load and the bus to depart from Belize City, I opted not to plug in to my iPod, but to take in the sounds of the local radio. As I tuned my attention to the chatter of advertisements being broadcast from the front of the bus I overheard an ad sponsored by the Government of Belize on behalf of the education system. The announcer was elucidating upon challenges currently facing an education system struggling to catch it's student up with international standards. The announcers revealed that only 40 % of school aged children in Belize attended school, and of that percent less than 40% were girls, owing in part to unfounded and outdated beliefs that education is irrelevant and that girls are better used in the home, specifically in the kitchen. He went on to expound to the general public the benefits of education in the sciences and arts, noting that some 80% of surveyed parents distrusted the methods of science, and an equal number found creative development though art to be a waste of time. Though I understood the education system of Belize to be in an early stage of development by comparison to north-american standards, these statistics were shocking to me. The voice urged local listeners and parents to revisit their understanding of arts and science, and to recognize the economic relevance of fostering creative thought processes in the children of the country. Though astounded, I was greatly encouraged to note that at least the government was aware of this sad gap in education standards and was working toward changing the public opinion.
As the bus prepared to pull out one last passenger boarded, and took her seat next to me. Her name, I believe, was Ramona, and she was a Q'eqchi Mayan Indian of Guatemalan decent. We rode together for 2 hours, during which time she revealed to me an astute and perceptive mind critically attuned to the political considerations of her nations. She was primarily concerned with the outcome of the Guatemalan/Belizian border and territory dispute and the upcoming referendum in Guatemala regarding the completion of the Panama connector highway due to be constructed through the heart of her family's territory in Belize. She discussed the many conflicting interests involved within the southern Toledo District of Belize, and of the internal conflicts tearing apart families and individuals within the indigenous communities of that region. She explained that while she was born in Belize, her family of Mayans had come from Guatemala, Honduras, Panama and just about every other nation in Central America, due to their constant migration as refugees over the preceding 200 years of discrimination, persecution and massacre. For her people, who were at heart Mayan, there were too many conflicting political interests and moral dilemmas for the average family to justify sending their children away from home into the public education system. Who knows what the governments motivations were for demanding that their children be educated outside the home, or what the government was teaching their children. How could the average uneducated Mayan elder justify sending away his progeny to classes in speaking English, dissecting frogs and painting pictures when their immediate concerns were in growing enough food to feed the family, or protecting their lands from infringing foreign economic interests? While the indigenous parental figures of the nation undoubtedly enjoyed the energy of artistic creation, as demonstrated in their many traditional hand-crafted arts, and enjoyed hearing about the novelties of technological marvels produced for the outside world by scientific exploration, there was a deep-seated resistance among the more remote communities to certain topics within education. The entire subject of education in Belize was far more complex than I had understood it to be. After she departed, this brief encounter left me with much to consider over the many hours remaining on the chicken-bus ride south. When I returned home to San Pedro Town on the far side of the long weekend, I had an altered view of my challenges in reaching certain student with my art.
As my last few weeks of teaching at La Isla Bonita drew to a close, I was firmer in my intent to complete our workshops. I was more aware of the gaps in communication, and the subtle, unspoken meanings behind conversations regarding the continuation of an arts program at the school after my departure. I came to recognize a similar communication pattern between the local teachers of Belize and the native communities back home in Canada; sometimes no response was a response. When a teacher or staff member spoke enthusiastically about getting back to me on a proposed project but continuously failed to follow through, I came to understand the reasons why. It was not the children who did not want to learn, it was perhaps that the leaders and educators were unconsciously hesitant due to an underlying difference in views on relevant education. I remember one particularly hot afternoon after sweating and shouting my way through another raucous class, one of my Infant 2 children approached me to joyfully share something her father had told her. All innocent eyes and excitable nature, she said “My daddy told me that you are wasting our time and money with these stupid art classes.” I told her I was sorry to hear that and asked her if she agreed. She simply shook her head no and hugged me. I hugged her back. As she ran off into the school-yard din she tittered, “I love art class, I love art class.”
In the end, like so many other volunteer teacher who came before, it came time for me to say my goodbyes. And just like the Christmas Day present delivery episode, though my heart was full from giving, my soul was unfulfilled. I realized that I had not thought far enough ahead into my role as traveling volunteer teacher to develop the goal of establishing and leaving behind proper infrastructure, curriculum and training for the teachers and schools at which I volunteered. Thus on my departure, the creative guidance I was so keen to establish ended. This is not to say that the teachers of Isla Bonita are unable to facilitate art classes, and I know that even within the limited curriculum set forth by the Belize government there is provision for 50 minutes of art per grade per week. However, I also feel that handing a child a coloring book only teaches them to fill in the gaps, to color inside the lines. Where art is concerned the value is in the act of creating, not replicating. Only too late did I realize my failure. As the last weeks drew to a close, I tried to rectify my lack of forethought. I spoke several times with the principal of the school regarding the potential to return in the future to create and design a Creativity Program. Unfortunately, by the time it came for me to depart, we did come to an arrangement. This would not be the first of the many lessons I am learning on this journey about the nature of learning, teaching, caring and creating positive, lasting, sustainable change.
Renegade Ocean Sports Instructor, Vagabond Art Teacher, Roving Writer: Jessica Lea Salo
"The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore."
"Having a healthy respect for the sea did not mean she owed me a moments grace."
"It is good to be alive."