(All of the teachers mentioned in this article work at Colegio Interamericano in Guatemala. Names have been changed toprotect their privacy.)
We have all heard enough stories about “The Ugly American” to acknowledge that to many citizens of the world, it is not a myth, but a reality. When U.S. foreign policy divides nations and leaders long polemical lines, that image is often exacerbated and regarded as prototypical. Those of us who work in international Schools sometimes feel both the repercussions of divisive policies and the need to atone for some of the more unfortunate excesses of our fellow Americans.
But there is another kind of U.S. citizen who is steadily building an alternative image, and it is to that different kind of “patriot” I wish to pay tribute. Living and working quietly to change our image abroad are a growing number of young men and women from all over The United States each of whom models daily and weekly a spirit of unselfish commitment. I write this with a sense of deep respect for the teachers with whom I have been privileged to work over the last two years at Colegio Interamericano in Guatemala.
“Linda” taught in some of the poorest districts in the United States before beginning her international teaching adventure. A three year veteran of Inter, Linda works tirelessly during the regular school day to understand the special needs of her (80% Guatemalan and 20% other) students. Through her efforts as National Honor Society advisor, she has established a tradition of community awareness and has modeled a personal ethic of unselfish. For the second year, the NHS Angel Tree adorned the high school office decorated with the names of all of the children in Caserio Las Vegas, an impoverished neighborhood adjacent to the campus, so that students and faculty could purchase Christmas presents for each of them. While many of the rest of us were off on holiday, Linda and her students were delivering the gifts and entertaining the children. With Habitat for Humanity, Linda took student volunteers to rural communities to help build houses, and when the funding of the projects limited our student involvement, she continued to volunteer time and money on her own. When the school day is over at 3:30 and she has completed her “paid” duties, she volunteers her time at a local orphanage. It is, she says dismissively, an opportunity to practice her Spanish and to repay, in some measure, the community that has welcomed her as an international citizen.
Linda is leaving Inter after this year, so one might expect her to scale back her involvement. Instead, as part of National School Day in Guatemala, she and her students visited the local community school for our area, hidden in the hills and almost completely unknown to anyone who does not attend it. At least three private schools and two universities surround the school, and not even the guard at the gate of one university knew how to direct them to the school. He had never heard of it. The school was just on the other side of the fence, hidden by some trees!
After collecting supplies and snacks for the kids, they stayed to visit with the principal, hoping to extend their help beyond National School Day. They returned, excited by the possibility of adopting the school and devoting all of their fundraising and community service projects to helping this needy school.
As I discovered during a recent weekend hike and campout on Acatenago, Linda is only one of a small army of extraordinary young people who, without the official sanctions of government or church, are assuming a mantle of collective international responsibility as casually and cheerfully as most of us would get together for a beer at a local bar. As I struggled up the incline, I listened to the voices of “Ben and Sylvia” and “Lorraine” talking excitedly about their own experiences at the orphanage, apparently a regular after school stop for the past two years. Over coffee the next morning, I chatted with “Vern,” who along with several other teachers, has been conducting what he calls “drive-bys”: he is dropped off in inauspicious locations, gives a seriously deprived homeless person some warm clothes, and is quickly picked up by his ride who has circled the block. Why adopt this strategy? The local shelters are so inundated with whole families that they have had to restrict occupancy to those who are “sane and sober.” As a result, the mentally ill, the abused, and the addicted are turned away, and many die of exposure, as the weather turns colder. Vern has to run away in order to not be mobbed by other desperate individuals.
With each new conversation I found that my colleagues, many of whom I had hired for their energy and professional excellence, were all instinctively and by habit, citizens of the world. Without exception, they have treated their Guatemalan hosts, both rich and poor, with dignity and respect.
Primary teacher “Elena,” a product of the Peace Corps and teaching stints in poor neighborhoods in the US, also does volunteer work and, after returning from a recent conference in Mexico City, was inspired to propose a service-learning plan for Inter. A Middle School English teacher, “Ann,” recently organized a potluck for likeminded educators to discuss opportunities for local and foreign teachers to work together in the community, volunteering for activities as wide ranging as trash pick up to in-home tutoring. Far from simply employing their time abroad as a useful, but quickly forgotten cross-cultural experience, these people are combining a valuable personal odyssey with efforts to clean the environment, clothe the poor, and educate local citizens on issues from women’s rights to diabetes.
Our teachers have come with open minds and open hearts to a country that is only a two and a half hour plane ride from Houston, Texas, yet a location most U.S. citizens know almost nothing about. It is not an easy country to live in. You face a bureaucracy so notorious that people can make a living standing in line for others. You face a corrupt police force that is barely educated, poorly trained, and underpaid. And you must live daily with the visible evidence of the second greatest disparity between rich and poor in the world. It is a country trying desperately to find itself after over thirty years of civil unrest, bordering at times on systematic genocide. Guatemaltecos of good will strive daily to counter the results of years of discrimination against the local Mayans. The pride with which our unofficial hiking “guides,” two local teachers who have traversed Acatenango many times, invited us to share the awe inspiring panorama that is their homeland was heartwarming, yet the shadow of inequity, that, as in many international schools, stands between local hires and their better compensated foreign colleages, is never far from our minds.
Our teachers come to us from traditional American public education, from private schools, from Teach For America, from The Peace Corps. They love their country and they recognize the extraordinary privileges they have enjoyed. They quietly try to change the world’s attitudes towards US citizens, one human contact at a time. They allow their deeds to speak for them. They crave no recognition, they work for meager compensation, and they leave where they have been a better place. Every day, I discover in my teachers the excitement and energy they bring to their advising, teaching, and coaching duties. What I learned on the hike is that all of their professional accomplishments only scratch the surface of who they are. Their willingness to change the world and make a difference simply by doing has moved me profoundly, and I will be always grateful to them. ·