Wednesday, February 15, 2012

"I have ninja skills and I am not afraid to use them!"

I continue to be humbled by the people here.

Today, Chris, Alex and I were tasked with transporting the Clavinova, a glorified electric keyboard, to the Reyes family's home.  What ensued was that Chris, Alex, Rodrigo and Jose, the two oldest boys (12 and 10, respectively), were heaving the keyboard into the back of our van, while I supervised Maria and Jesus (8 and 7) in the church van, waiting to leave.  Estela, their mom, was supervising the movement of the piano.

A suspicious man appeared in the church parking lot, in the midst of all of this.  Maria felt compelled to get out of the van, but I ushered her back in.  I told her that she needed to stay in the van, and I had Jesus lock the doors in case I needed to close them in to protect them from the man.  Maria was having none of this, however.

"The most important thing to me right now is that you are safe," I told her.

"I have ninja skills and I am not afraid to use them!" exclaimed Jesus.

Everyone was fine - Chris swooped in and redirected the man away from the church van.  We arrived safely at the Reyes family home, and I brought Maria and Jesus upstairs while everyone else brought the keyboard in.  The kids were all so proud to show us their house, and I was so excited to see it.  We helped them move in in November, and it was wonderful to see them having settled into their new home.  It was also eye opening.  Rodrigo and Jose sleep on the couch in the living room, and Maria and Jesus share a room with Estela.  It's really a two person apartment, and somehow it's become a five person home.  As small as our house feels (which is quite often), it's so much more than what all five of them have.  I have my own room.  Estela doesn't even have her own room.  She's a rock, Estela.  I would have gone crazy by now...

With the piano successfully moved, Rodrigo turned to me and asked, "Miss Rachel, now that we have a piano, will you teach me?"

"I could certainly teach you, but maybe we can talk to Ms. Kisada about the Friends of Music program, so that you could get a real piano teacher."


Then, later, I returned to Estela's bedroom, which has become home to the piano, in addition to three people.  Jose was sitting at the piano.

"I love this piano with all my heart."  I had never heard anything more genuine in my entire life.  I could have cried.

As we both headed toward the kitchen/living room/Rodrigo and Jose's room, I mentioned to Jose, "Maybe now that you have a piano, you can get a real piano teacher."

"But you're my real piano teacher!"

"You could get a better piano teacher."

"But you're a better piano teacher!"

"Well, then maybe you could get two piano teachers."

Jose Reyes thinks that I am a good piano teacher.  We validate each other.  It reminds me of a bit of Teilhard de Chardin that I love: "We are one, after all, you and I, together we will suffer, together exist and forever will recreate each other."

Peace and all good,

Sunday, February 5, 2012

"I fought a little boy..."

Don't worry.  I didn't actually fight a little boy.  It's a quote from one of the third graders, Annaliah.  In the third grade, Mrs. Martins, their teacher, has her students write sentences with their spelling words.  The sentences have to be at least nine words long, to show that they understand the meaning of the word.  A few weeks ago, I was sitting with Annaliah as she wrote her sentences.  As she plowed through her words, she came upon the word "fought."  She spoke that sentence out loud, like she had done with the others, to make sure that it was nine words before she wrote it down.  She began, "I fought a little boy..."  I don't remember what the rest of the sentence was, but I was so taken aback by how she had started it.

I'm often guilty of being hopeless, and chalking things in Camden up to the fact that "it's Camden."  For instance, with this sentence, I would have never expected to hear it from kids in my school district growing up, and certainly it took me by surprise to hear Annaliah speak those words: violence here is so much more common than I could have ever imagined.  That doesn't make it right, but right now, that's the situation.

It doesn't have to be like this.

The church had a bowling fundraiser tonight and, although I desperately wanted to bowl, a sprained ankle kept me from the lanes.  Instead, I continued work on a knitting project.  Annaliah, the same third grader, was there with her mother and her brother.  She kept me company for part of the evening when she was not bowling, and she wanted to learn to knit.  She helped me with a couple of the stitches, but I knew that it was going to be difficult to let her work on the project, so I made her a deal:

"Annaliah, I have another pair of knitting needles at home.  When I finish this project, I will give you these knitting needles and I will use my other ones so that I can teach you how to knit."

The proposal was accepted without hesitation.

At the risk of sounding cheesy, I have to find the hope in those little moments.  Annaliah's smiling face and constant enthusiasm motivate me to be more for her, to be more for all of the kids there.  It's really easy to get frustrated and give up; believe me, those kids are no walk in the park, but I know that I am helping them to grow into themselves, and I can only hope that these kids will be better off for what I have done.  At the very least, I remember the Hippocratic Oath, and I try to live by that: "first, do no harm."  My housemate, Chris, describes it as "harm reduction."

One of the reasons I wanted to come to Camden, in the beginning, was because I wanted to be somewhere where I felt that I was effecting change, or could be effecting change.  Well, I am here to tell you that it certainly does not feel like that.  Who knows what the city will look like twenty years from now, when these children are in charge?  It's hard to tell.  All I can hope is that I have helped them to want a brighter tomorrow, and that I have helped them to be more capable of working toward it.  Antoine de Sainte-Exupery said it best: “If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

I hope I can lead them to long for the sea, and perhaps even to find their own starfish.

Peace and all good,

Thursday, February 2, 2012

That's not a secret!

Every Wednesday, I have the privilege of volunteering with a program called Volunteers Engaging Neighborhoods, or VEN, for short.  My work entails helping students who have a lower proficiency in English with their homework.  What it boils down to is that I help Alejandro, a sixth grader, learn the meaning of "complete sentence."  I am determined that he will know what one is and be able to write one by the time he enters seventh grade, which I think is reasonable.  However, any sort of my own judgement of what is "reasonable" is completely thrown out the window here, usually.  And that just means I need to grow.  A lot.  And so it goes.

My growth also includes my continued misadventures as I learn Spanish.  I told someone a few weeks ago that my "aniversario" was February 11th, which does not mean birthday, like I thought, but wedding anniversary.  "CumpleaƱos" is the word for birthday.

So, yesterday I was in helping Alejandro, and my housemate, Alex, was helping Maria and Alma, two third grade girls.  Alex had to step out for a moment, so I was supervising the girls a little (probably distracting them more than anything else).  I tried to say something to them in Spanish, that, of course, did not make any sense.

"We don't understand you," remarked Alma.  I squatted down next to them, as they were sitting in their desks.

"Let me tell you guys a secret," I whispered loudly.  "I don't know how to speak Spanish."

"That's not a secret!" exclaimed Maria.  "You're telling everybody!"

Leave it to third graders to tell it like it is.

And as for growth, two things that I constantly remind myself:

The first is from my Jesuit Education, Teilhard de Chardin:

Patient Trust
By Pierre Teilhard De Chardin

Above all, trust in the slow work of God

We are quite naturally impatient in everything
      to reach the end withour delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
      unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of progress
      that it is made by passing through
      some states of instability ---
      and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you.
      Your ideas mature gradually --- let them grow,
      let them shape themselves, without undue haste.

Don't try to force them on,
      as though you could be today what time
      (that is to say, grace and cirsumstances
      acting on your own good will)
      will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
      gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
      that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
      in suspense and incomplete.

And the second, which I saw on a sign on the side of the road earlier in my year of service:

Don't be afraid of growing slowly.  Be only afraid of standing still.

Peace and all good,