When we arrive at the top of the hill and pedal up the final, more gradual rise to the turn-off for La Cuchilla, we hear the first shouts of “profe, profe!” Lacey and I are drawing breaths in huge gulps and sweating through the backs of our shirts, but we manage to grin holas and buenos diases as we pull up and disentangle from our bikes. Still meditating on the long-term effects of sucking diesel fumes while exercising strenuously, I cross the street to the concrete window of a store perched across from the school, trailing a tiny Maria. The dented sedan on blocks out front serves double duty as a jungle gym for a few more grinning “profe” callers. At the store window, after my third “buenos dias?” floats hopefully into the back, a woman slowly appears and hands me the keys to our classrooms. By now a bored Maria has found other entertainment and the sun is breaking through the clouds; crossing back to the school I watch Lacey peel off layers as early arrivals chase around her. The fifth grade classroom key sticks as it always does, but finally it gives and Lacey and most of the early birds tumble in. There will be time to sort them out later, and indeed, by the time all the classrooms are unlocked, our bikes pushed to the corner, and the last of the students trailed in, it’s almost quarter after. Class has begun.
We always start with an icebreaker, which can make or break the rest of the class. The song “Pollito, Chicken,” which I learned from another volunteer, was more than icebreaker: it was the key to my transition from a helpless adult who occasionally stammered a few miserable Spanish words in front of the class to a goofy crowd-pleaser, a confident bumbler who strewed his tattered Spanish like confetti, and even imparted a thing or two as the months went by. (Note that the “Pollito, Chicken” song is basically a nonsensical, but very catchy, list of Spanish words and their English counterparts; after a few weeks it was a number one hit, requested constantly and even sung at recess.)
On the other hand, sometimes the icebreaker left me in shambles. Lacey liked to split the class up for short games, which I respect but learned to dread after Donald, an eleven-year-old and our most defiant student, wouldn’t change partners:
“But you have to go with your partner. It’s part of the game.” In my early, broken Spanish.
Donald gave his trademark smug grin and shook his head.
“Donald, please. You need to go with your partner.”
He leaned over and snickered something to a classmate, which I couldn’t understand.
“Donald, we’re playing a game. You need to go with your partner, or else you’ll have to leave.”
He looked at me and grinned again, even more smug than before. “Shit.”
It was the first English he had spoken all class. Pride eluded me. “What?”
He didn’t repeat it, but the smug look was even more challenging.
I tried to take up the challenge. “Do you think that’s funny? I don’t. I don’t even care. I think it’s just stupid.”
Five minutes later I had completed my descent to Donald’s level and was dragging him out the door in front of the whole class, his knuckles gripping the doorframe as if he were being sucked out of a depressurized plane. Lacey glared at me while the class watched in stunned silence. I spent another fifteen minutes outside with Donald, alternately trying to send him home and trying to explain that I was his friend, but also his teacher, and that when I asked him to do something he needed to do it. He sat twenty feet away from the classroom, creeping back whenever I looked the other way, ignoring me, trying to taunt his classmates through the window. It was my worst moment. And his. He didn’t come back to class for two weeks.
“So in this picture, where is the ball, in relation to the box? Donde esta la pelota, con relacion de la caja?”
Shouts leap around the room: “Adelante! Encima! Sobre!”
“In English? Raise your hands.”
Four hands shoot up. I point to Alan, straining over his desk. He’s endearing but another troublemaker, and I’m impressed that he has his hand up.
I wait and nod, but his hand is still up. “Alan?”
He hesitates, grins, drops his hand, and shrugs. He laughs. For some reason this is a popular trick, raising your hand when you don’t know the answer. I point to Zulma, who didn’t raise her hand, but should know the answer.
She shakes her head vehemently.
“Yes, yes,” I counter.
She shakes her head again, but then the shake becomes a shrug, and she begins to move her mouth. She makes a very small noise. Is it the answer? It sounds like it. I grin. “Louder? Mas fuerte?”
Zulma seems almost ready to shake her head again, but her expression suddenly focuses. Still quietly, but loud enough for me to hear, she says: “on.”
I beam a congratulations, wanting to fall down on my knees and sing her praises, but simply give a warm“very good, muy bien, very good Zulma,” before I point again to the picture, address the rest of the class, and begin the call-and-response chorus: “On.”
By the end of our stay Lacey and I were coming up with worksheets before almost every class, alternating games and quiet study work during classtime with a degree of success I never thought possible. Our students began to display not only an intermittent understanding of certain aspects of the English language, but a confidence in themselves and their learning that was an even greater reward. I hadn’t had the imagination to understand how hard teaching would be, how critical the planning, how quickly it might all be thrown off track, how ravaging the anxiety or disappointment could become. But I also hadn’t imagined how deep were the rewards, how much more satisfying it was to teach a good class than to write an apt e-mail or run a good meeting. The thrill I felt coasting back down towards the city on my rickety bike after Jason had written a complete sentence or Sara spoke up because she knew the answer or Josue said anything at all was an utterly new one. Still, teaching means you have to come right back and try to do the same thing all over again, and again, and again. It’s the hardest job I’ve ever tried, and I would never have survived without Lacey. The example of her warmth and energy, her dedication, and her knack for getting wide-eyed students to follow her were nothing less than inspirational. Whenever she took a boy aside to scold him he invariably cried, and whenever she drew one of the girls under her arm she got the most brimming look of happy confidence any teacher could hope to see. I’m in awe!
On December 21, after two weeks of traveling, Lacey and I returned to Xela. It was our last full day in Guatemala. We caught a 5 a.m. bus from San Pedro La Laguna, a town three hours away on Lake Atitlan, because we had a special date: through e-mails to other volunteer teachers we had asked our students at La Cuchilla to meet us one last time up at the school. We were exhausted; our trip had begun with my camera being broken and Lacey’s stolen, and had included four (often bumpy) transit days of over ten hours, our full share of missed buses and boats, plenty of haggling at every stage, and even a night where we were awoken after midnight by a roaring fire on the hillside above our hotel. So when we hustled up the hill one last time to meet our students, this time without our bikes, we were a little dazed. And also late, our weariness compounded by the fear that even if our students showed up in the first place, they might have already given up and gone home. Classes had been over for a week now, and families everywhere were preparing for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.
I jogged ahead. The shriveled corn on either side of the road was all knocked down now, the fields dry and quiet. I fought the sudden, desperate certainty that our students wouldn’t even be there to meet us. My back sweated against my backpack, heart valves thumping their return to the highlands. As I drew closer I saw one or two children on the corner. The same children who were always there. Not our students.
Suddenly another head appeared around the corner, then a body, and two more. The tousles and pony tails looked familiar – or where they? – but then they started bobbing toward me, the shouts growing more and more distinct as we closed the distance in a cinematic run: “Profe! Profe! Profe Ethan!” In a moment I was at the center of a home-plate style mob, small hands and heads poking in for a hug. The joy was tempered briefly by panicked questions about Lacey, until I pointed back down the road and half the growing crowd kept running: “Lacey! Profe! Profe Lacey!”
By the time we herded the mob back up to the school there were twenty or twenty-five students, surrounding us in various stages of hugging, laughing, or pretending it was just another day and horsing around with each other. Eventually Lacey and I began a final set of games and activities, skipping out to the local store to bring back sweets and prizes. In the end, the final reunion lasted only an hour and a half, but for that hour and a half the feeling of being a Profe, a Profe whose students had come back to see him one last time, was one of the most fulfilling I’ve ever had. I’ll never forget it.