The Sweetest Goodbye
This morning, I returned to school feeling like I’d swallowed iron. After two stressful days of traveling, I wasn’t convinced that my (expensive) return to Chile had been worth it. The idea of facing over 300 people asking questions about my trip and surprised that I was back felt like more than I’d be able to handle. And, I had the unbearable sensation that classes would be awkward, between the fact that I really had nothing planned and I would only have final classes with a small portion of my students. Thankfully, my fears were overblown, as is usually the case.
In the first place, today was the last day of the semester
for the students, Friday being designated for teacher planning. This meant that
there was no “learning” to be done (grades were already turned in) and much of
the morning was spent in an assembly attended by students, teachers, and
parents. These things combined meant that I was able to enjoy my last day with
my students to the fullest, moving from class to class taking pictures with the
students, talking to them, and getting hug-attacked. As I went, the greetings I
received from the staff were warm, sincere, and empathetic, and the surprise
everyone showed at my presence was laced with happiness that I was there for
even a short time longer. Taking a step away and returning finally gave me the
ability to see just how much a part of the school I have been for a semester,
and it blew me away to see how much my return meant to my students and
co-workers, that even when I was struggling, even when I was questioning
myself, they felt I was doing something good.
And the assembly... an almost two-hour event involving an awards ceremony for the highest achieving and most dedicated students as well as students dancing Cueca (the Chilean National Dance) and what I believe was a dance based in traditional Mapuche culture. I think watching my students dance and get their certificates for high achievement tops the list of joys I will take away from my time here.
Since I arrived in Chile in April, experiencing cueca has been at the top of my list, and I had gone to each assembly with high hopes that my students would be dancing. Seeing my students in flouncy hoop skirts and spurs this morning sent my hopes soaring, and watching it brought a bigger smile to my face than I could have thought possible. The girls were gorgeous, the boys were strong, and the dance itself is by nature such a fun, lighthearted flirtation that laughter bubbles uncontrollably to the surface.
(P.S. That grey hair guy in front? That's the principal.)
And if all that wasn’t enough, one of my 7th grade students, a contestant in the EOD public speaking competition, honored me with a speech, in English, on behalf of the student body, declaring, “you haven’t just taught us English, but how to be better people.” The principal, addressing the entire audience, spoke of how glad they were to have a volunteer from the US not just come to Chile, to Paillaco, to Escuela Proyecto Futuro, to work with these particular students, but to return after a trip to the US during a family illness, just to be with the community again. Two students from the 6th grade class presented me with flowers. I was overwhelmed to the point of tears.
At the end of the day, after organizing a few things in my classroom and the teacher’s lounge, a student from my most turbulent 5th grade class met me on my way out the door. Carrying a spray-bottle of cleaning fluid, she hugged me and walked me to the school gate. There, I gave her a squeeze, said goodbye, and sent her back to finish cleaning her classroom. As I rounded the corner and started down the next block, she and four other girls from her class came running after me, cleaning cloths and spray bottles still in hand. I doled out a round of hugs, delivered the obligatory, “Even though I might not come back again, you study your English so you can visit me in the United States” (to which they responded, “but our English class is fome (lame)”), thanked them for being my students, gave out more hugs, and at long last sent them back to finish cleaning their classroom, turning around and waving as we walked opposite ways down the block.
I had arrived home, removed my jacket and scarf, changed into my slippers, and shaken out my ponytail when the doorbell rang. My host mom opened the door and was surprised to find five 5th grade girls on the porch. Somehow, some way, they’d followed me home. There wasn’t much left to say, but they wanted to sing me a song. They chose a popular Chilean pop tune and giggled their way through part of it until a neighbor who brought a call for my host mom (literally, a phone call, on a cell phone) suggested they sing one in English. So, I was treated to one last rendition of “Zombie” by the Cranberries, the song all the students at my school learned in music class, which has been my constant soundtrack for the last three months. And then, after one last group hug, a sincere thank you to each of those girls for being my students, a confession that I needed to go eat lunch, one more round of sturdy hugs, one last thank you, and a round of besos, they were on their way one last time, smiling and waving as I beamed and waved and ever so slowly closed the door.
Sometimes we can’t know our purpose, our role, our influence until we hear it from someone else.