Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Nueva Esperanza

Driving up the hill
The underpowered engines of my host family’s Chevy Spark roared as they struggled to propel the vehicle up the steep incline towards the school. Jorge, my host father, maneuvered the Getz to avoid steamrolling a host of neighborhood dogs who slept haphazardly on the increasingly rugged road.

“These dogs never move,” he said as he carefully navigated through the mammalian minefield, “It’s like they don’t care if they live or die.”

I grimaced as we narrowly missed crushing the skull of a sleeping Scottish terrier. We turned a sharp corner and continued up a narrow road, passing pockets of scattered refuse as we chugged along like the Little Engine That Could.

Although we were technically still in Bogotá, the neighborhood could have fooled central Baghdad for one of its own. Poorly-constructed buildings and half-paved roads stretched out in all directions—a stark contrast to the booming modern buildings of Northern Bogotá.

As we reached the top of the hill, a structure came into view that could not have been more out of place. The modern building was tall and wide and had the words, NUEVA ESPERANZA written above the main entrance.

Nueva Esperanza.

New Hope.

My school assignment for the year.

Jorge dropped me off with my host mother, Maisa, who teaches music at the school. She took me in to meet with the principal and showed me around the facility. From one of the balconies I spotted another building across the street of similar construction.

View of the Primary School from the Secondary School
“What’s that?” I asked.

“The primary school,” Maisa replied.

Nueva Esperanza is really two schools in one; a primary school (elementary school) and a secondary school (middle/high school). The school suffers such a high demand for enrollment that they divide the day into two halves—there is a morning group that goes from 6:30 a.m. to noon and an afternoon group that goes from 1:00 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.

We left the secondary school building, crossed the street and approached the primary school’s gates. When I saw the primary school, the first thought that crossed my mind was prison. Hordes of chattering children loitered inside the main courtyard between thick, metal gates. Security guards patrolled the main entrance—to keep people in or out, I’m not completely sure.

Mis Estudiantes!
Passing through the gates, I felt four hundred pairs of little eyes catapult to me. I followed Maisa through the sea of uniformed little humans to meet the other English teachers milling about in the courtyard. Children looked up at me with awe as they wondered how a human being could possibly be so tall—I might as well have been André the giant to their curious eyes.

We stopped in the courtyard and Maisa introduced me to an English teacher I would likely be working with in the upcoming year. As if on cue, a company of third, fourth and fifth graders swarmed me from all sides. They asked me if I was from Los Estados Unidos (The United States), if I really was going to be their teacher and a barrage of other questions in Spanish I couldn’t comprehend.

I wasn’t supposed to let on that I knew Spanish, so I nodded, pointed to my chest and said, “My name is Teacher Mike. Tee-chur Mike.”

“Tee-chur Mike!” the kids screamed as they jumped up and down with glee, slapping each other on the back and smiling as they looked up at me.

Iron Man or Hannah Montana might as well have just landed in their courtyard.

At that moment, every doubt, every fear I had ever had about coming to Colombia was instantly extinguished. This was why I was here—why I had passed up a promotion, quit my job and traveled thousands of miles to a country where most Americans wouldn’t dare venture. The euphoric feeling generated by four hundred hopeful little souls was worth a thousand years of missed corporate paychecks.

Me with my students!
It was at that moment I realized I had more than just the power to teach English to the children of Nueva Esperanza. As corny as it sounds, I also had the power to give them hope—new hope.

And I promised myself I wouldn’t let them down.

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