Better Than Crack

It’s 3 am and I shouldn’t be awake but I am.  My body is hotter than it should be with the fan on full blast and my mind is already in the classroom.  Teaching anxiety.  I can’t pinpoint when it began, but it grabbed ahold of me not long after starting this career.

I’m into my second year now and while its gotten better I still associate my job with acute inner turmoil: I feel anxious, under qualified, underappreciated and unsupported.  And now, as I’m am in the process of figuring out what’s next, I want to pull apart those feelings and see if they house anything real.

If you care at all about what you do, some degree of anxiety is unavoidable and can even be healthy at times.  I think it comes from knowing that you’re responsible for something important and having a fear of screwing it up.  The fear part is what makes it dangerous.  If left unchecked, it can gnaw at your heart into the wee hours of the night and leave you with sleep deprivation and a lack of confidence. 

I think I’ve tamed my anxiety a bit, mostly because I’ve been able to dismiss my fears.  But the teaching fears were harsh: I was afraid of what my principal thought of my performance, I was afraid I wasn’t teaching my students anything, I was afraid because I knew I couldn’t measure up to the skills of master teachers, I was afraid that the parents would realize that I was clueless and revolt.

When you start teaching, you realize that you are working with a bunch of humans who are all very different and the permutations of their unique needs and abilities can be both infinite and opaque.  Here is where “under qualified” comes into play.  I have my masters in elementary education but in my actual practice of teaching, I have tasted just how far I really am from mastery.  I don’t know how to remove the scars of sexual abuse in order to pull a fourth grader up past a second grade reading level, I don’t know how to give a kid who sleeps in a chair at home the rest he needs to be able to focus, I don’t know how to get a classroom full of Spanish speakers living in Mexico to start speaking English.

And then, the big picture, societal piece of teaching is that teachers have become the whipping boys of our crumbling education system.  Since there has been public education, teachers have been second class citizens (e.g. the rule from 1915 that banned us from loitering in any downtown ice cream shops. Really, the nerve!).  These days, people feel so entitled to free education that they feel it should meet their every need.  Teachers are expected to be parents, counselors, psychologists, and tutors.  My first year of teaching, I made less than your average McDonald’s store manager, but at least didn’t come home smelling like french fries.

Despite all of this, there is some small part of me that is still considering coming back for more.  Maybe it’s that weird psychological phenomenon where the more you sacrifice for something the more value it holds for you.  Certainly it’s my students and the unbreakable bond that develops after spending one hundred and eighty days trapped in the same room together for eight hours straight.  And even when you spend day after day wondering if your students are really learning, all it takes is that one student to surprise you and suddenly read a whole paragraph in English, or the kid with ADHD and writer’s block to come out with a beautiful story, or the fourth graders who can suddenly do long division, or the heartfelt hug from a seven year old after you’ve missed two days of work to make it all seem worthwhile.

I don’t know.  Teaching is a strange kind of drug.  I’m not sure what road to take: keep on taking it, even if I suspect that its bad for my heath, or sign myself up for the nearest rehab program.

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My students performing in our interactive zoo production.

Better Than Crack

It’s 3 am and I shouldn’t be awake but I am.  My body is hotter than it should be with the fan on full blast and my mind is already in the classroom.  Teaching anxiety.  I can’t pinpoint when it began, but it grabbed ahold of me not long after starting this career.

I’m into my second year now and while its gotten better I still associate my job with acute inner turmoil: I feel anxious, under qualified, unappreciated and unsupported.  And now, as I’m am in the process of figuring out what’s next, I want to pull apart those feelings and see if they house anything real.

If you care at all about what you do, some degree of anxiety is unavoidable and can even be healthy at times.  I think it comes from knowing that you’re responsible for something important and having a fear of screwing it up.  The fear part is what makes it dangerous.  If left unchecked, it can gnaw at your heart into the wee hours of the night and leave you with sleep deprivation and a lack of confidence. 

I think I’ve tamed my anxiety a bit, mostly because I’ve been able to dismiss my fears.  But the teaching fears were harsh: I was afraid of what my principal thought of my performance, I was afraid I wasn’t teaching my students anything, I was afraid because I knew I couldn’t measure up to the skills of master teachers, I was afraid that the parents would realize that I was clueless and revolt.

When you start teaching, you realize that you are working with a bunch of humans who are all very different and the permutations of their unique needs and abilities can be both infinite and opaque.  Here is where “under qualified” comes into play.  I have my masters in elementary education but in my actual practice of teaching, I have tasted just how far I really am from mastery.  I don’t know how to remove the scars of sexual abuse in order to pull a fourth grader up past a second grade reading level, I don’t know how to give a kid who sleeps in a chair at home the rest he needs to be able to focus, I don’t know how to get a classroom full of Spanish speakers living in Mexico to start speaking English.

And then, the big picture, societal piece of teaching is that teachers have become the whipping boys of our crumbling education system.  Since there has been public education, teachers have been second class citizens (e.g. the rule from 1915 that banned us from loitering in any downtown ice cream shops. Really, the nerve!).  These days, people feel so entitled to free education that they feel it should meet their every need.  Teachers are expected to be parents, counselors, psychologists, and tutors.  My first year of teaching, I made less than your average McDonald’s store manager, but at least didn’t come home smelling like french fries.

Despite all of this, there is some small part of me that is still considering coming back for more.  Maybe it’s that weird psychological phenomenon where the more you sacrifice for something the more value it holds for you.  Certainly it’s my students and the unbreakable bond that develops after spending one hundred and eighty days trapped in the same room together for eight hours straight.  And even when you spend day after day wondering if your students are really learning, all it takes is that one student to surprise you and suddenly read a whole paragraph in English, or the kid with ADHD and writer’s block to come out with a beautiful story, or the fourth graders who can suddenly do long division, or the heartfelt hug from a seven year old after you’ve missed two days of work to make it all seem worthwhile.

I don’t know.  Teaching is a strange kind of drug.  I’m not sure what road to take: keep on taking it, even if I suspect that its bad for my heath, or sign myself up for the nearest rehab program.

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My students performing in our interactive zoo production.

First Grade Robot

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My Classroom

Every morning in my class we sit around in a circle to greet one another.  We pat and clap a pattern with our hands and chant a little song. 

“This is Teresa, Teresa, Teresa.  This is Teresa, who are you?”

Each child must say their name and then we repeat it and introduce them.  The two seconds it takes each child to say their name is usually a good indicator of their mood and the kind of day they’ll have.

They must have gotten bored of their names because lately they’ve gotten more creative with the insertions they put into the few seconds after we ask, “who are you?” Now, on a typical morning we greet Robot, Froggy, Dolphin, of course Piggy (they have some weird obsession with Piggy and will start singing some super piggy song if anyone so much as whispers the word), and sometimes if they’re feeling really daring we’ll get a Pompies (little kid Spanish word for booty) or a Poopy in the mix.  I like it.

I’m pretty sure it was Nick* who first started the trend, which is one of the reasons why he is my favorite.  He is usually Robot.  There are other reasons why he is my favorite and they all revolve around his unbridled creativity and imagination.

He is the most engaged nonreader I have ever seen.  I teach my kids that they don’t always have to read the words to a story, they can also read the pictures and tell themselves a story from what they see.  When Nick “reads” to himself he is generally the loudest kid in the room.  While looking at picture books, he makes noises as though he is playing with a toy car set, motors revving, explosions, and people screaming, jumping out of burning cars.

He can’t write yet, but when my class is working on writing, he’ll draw four pictures and use them to tell the most epic adventure story full of good guys and bad guys and ingenious escapes.  I’m really proud of him now because he’s started to string together letters to make words that go with his pictures.  For example, when (by force) he wrote a real story, he indicated that he went to the moobies (movies) with the word “MOBX.”

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The Outside of My Classroom

His dance moves and sense of humor so closely resemble my own, it’s hard to tease apart which one makes me like him more.  Given any opportunity to dance you can always count on Nick to bust out the pony accompanied by vigorous pompies slapping (his own of course).  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve won dance offs with that move.

He’s also the king of fart jokes.  Once I was playing a game with my English language learners where one kid would say something they liked and all the other kids would step forward if they agreed or stand still if they didn’t.  When it came to one little girl, she couldn’t think of what to say and Nick urged, “Say I like farts!” The poor girl listened, not knowing what she was saying and the rest of the group stepped forward (they just liked getting to step forward).  I know I’m not supposed to, but I couldn’t contain myself either as Nick broke into a bad case of the giggles.

He also has a real cute squeaky voice when he asks questions.  Every morning my kids do the exact same thing: sign in, put their backpack away and sit down to read.  But some mornings he comes in starry-eyed and wanders around with his backpack on before asking me in that raspy little voice, “What I do?”

Yep, he’s a darling, with all the qualities a kid should have: spontaneity, creativity, and great comedic timing with fart jokes.

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School Playground

*Name changed to protect the real little guy from baddies.

20 Questions to Ask Your Lover (in case you’re running out)

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San Blas Graffiti

1.  What do I make you feel?
2.  What do you see when you look at me?
3.  What do you want me to see when I look at you?
4.  When you were a kid, what do you remember wanting most?
5.  What’s your favorite smell?
6.  What’s the best dream you can remember?
7.  How can we make the honeymoon last forever?
8.  What do you need?
9.  What do you think I need?
10.  Where do you want to live next?

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11.  When was the last time I hurt your feelings?
12.  When was the last time I made you feel loved?
13.  What’s one thing you want to experience in your life before you die?
14.  What would your life be like if we had never met?
15.  How has your life changed since you met me?
16.  Why do you think it worked between us?
17.  Who do you want to be?
18.  How do you want to live?
19.  What kind of life do you want when you get old?
20.  What do you think is beautiful?

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What Stray Dogs Know About Love

Since we’ve arrived, we’ve attempted to adopt two dogs, one cat and bonded with countless others on the streets and in the plaza. They follow us home or show up at the door looking haggard, lonely, and needy and we welcome them in, gleeful at the opportunity to love a poor solitary animal.  They stay for a short time until the streets call them back again and then we are left lonely.  Weeks go by before we run into them again, they pass us by on the street barely glancing our way.  It feels like running into an ex who pretends not to notice you.

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“Was that Toochie?”

“Toochie!  Toochie!”

Toochie has moved on.

Dopey was the first.  He was a basset hound with those droopey eyes and short little legs, belly barely clearing the floor.  He showed up at the door on a Friday night as we were getting ready to go out.  Reaching through the welded iron door to pet him vigorously, Matt had given him a name within 30 seconds.

He followed us downtown and hung around as we swallowed our first rounds of beer.  He laid down while we bounced lazily to the blend of three bands from neighboring bars competing for airwaves in the street.  After a while he wandered off unnoticed and we were sad when we realized his absence.

Later on, at the Cumbia beach bar, we saw dopey leaving with a group of button-down-shirted dudes.  I guess he found other friends.

Its hard having these animals come into our lives only to leave just as suddenly.  We don’t seem to matter to them half as much as they matter to us.

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Yesterday after school we went to the beach, just to watch the waves roll in and the surfers do their thing.  We had tired of our pitiful hacky sack volleys and were taking our last sips of beer.  Without thinking, I turned around to pet the dog laying just off the edge of our towel.

At my touch, she gave a start but then immediately moved closer, onto the towel and exposed her belly for some good rubbing.  I crooned to her in dog/baby talk and rubbed her hips and belly.

Matt turned to look.

“Is that Toochie?”

“Nah, of course not.  This isn’t Toochie,” I said, thinking how Matt thinks (or wishes) that every black dog is Toochie.

“It is Toochie, look at her feet!” He was right, there were the sandy markings of lighter hair around her paws.

Toochie got comfy on the towel and when we tossed her the hacky sack she eagerly pounced on it and held it as a treasure. I taught her to sit and “drop it.”  When we drifted off to play without her, she shooed another dog away from our towel as if protecting her territory.  When we came back, she snuggled up to us again.  And then finally, when we left, she went to leave, too.  She followed us all the way to the edge of the beach and then split right, taking a different road back into town.

You could argue that Toochie went her separate way to avoid being seen with us in front of her friends.  You might be right.  But I think the truth about Toochie is that she has something to teach us about love: you give it all you’ve got while it’s there and then graciously say goodbye when it leaves.
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A New Year in Mexico

I’ve been guilty of not living my own life.

I don’t know how else to put it, it’s as though I’m standing in the center of a wheel spinning all around me and all I see is the blur of events passing me by.  I engage with them, but only to fret and worry and wonder why I can’t do a better job.

I’m living in Mexico but with the way I’ve been living, I could be anywhere.

But now its almost the New Year and I have time to reflect, confess, and repent.  It’s time to reclaim what’s mine; time to recognize its precious worth, time to celebrate imperfection and accept all that comes with the present.

I’m in my second year of teaching and not liking it most of the time.  I’m charged with the responsibility of teaching twenty-eight first and second graders to be readers, writers, mathematicians, scientists and lovers of learning.  That is enough of a challenge without the added caveats that at least sixty percent of my students either don’t speak English or are learning it as a second language and I’ve never taught anyone to read and write before. 

Anxiety and fear of failure follow me night and day.  They have been stealing my presence and I have been letting them.  So, before its too late, I’m going to capture the Mexico that I want to remember.

Remember the first sunset on the water?  You were on your surfboard, content because you had caught a few waves without an extra push and had a few good rides.  The water rolled deep blue with cotton candy pink pools reflecting the slow fading light.  It felt good just to be on the water near a few newfound friends.
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Or remember the first time you happened upon the turtle release?  The sun had just gone down and you watched as the volunteer retrieved a hatch of babies from the nest.  She poked a pile of sand with a stick and it all caved in to reveal a sleepy bunch of blackish newborn turtles.  You held one in your palm as he helplessly flapped his little fins and you stood behind the line in the sand, waiting for permission to set him free.  When the moment came you set him in the sand next to the fifty-some others newly hatched and watched as he made those waddling imprints, moving in spurts and then resting.  When he finally reached the shoreline, the waves pushed him back another two feet but he would persist until he found his home.

Or the first time you met your students and they were a blur of untamed childhood?  These are children who run free in the plaza, bouncing soccer balls off of walls and tourists alike.  Kids who roam unsupervised at parties, forming tribes and allegiances.  These are kids who are their parents’ joy, who brought new light to the home they helped to fill.
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I want to remember walks on the beach, leaving behind footprints that would be washed away again and again by relentless tides.  I want to remember the way the stars looked from the lifeguard tower and the hushed voices of lovers down below.  I want to remember the amber light of the plaza in the evening, sitting on a bench watching everyone else just passing time.  I want to remember dancing to Cumbia in the sand and the swing that takes you out in a long arc beneath the palm tree.
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I think its okay if my life is colored by my struggles with teaching.  I’ll grapple with the challenge of teaching and let it stretch me beyond the comfortable ideal I had hoped for.  I’ll struggle and I’ll fail and I’ll learn and stand up again.  But I won’t rob myself of the joy of being here now.  I’ll frame my struggles in the beauty that surrounds me.
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Mexican Party Scrooge

There’s a party in the square that I’m told will last twelve days.  It’s the celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe or some such thing.  If I were a good expat, I might do some research into the cultural roots but all it means to me is shitty Mexican music blaring, fireworks blasting at all hours of the night, and a more diverse selection of street snacks.  On any normal evening you can find taco stands, the “cake lady” with her assortment of homemade slices, and bacon wrapped hot dogs.  The Virgin of Guadalupe brings us white tents hovering above fully occupied plastic chairs and tables.  The occupants overflow into the plaza and feast on all the goods from vendors who line the walkway.  There’s a reason Mexico ranks second in the world for obesity: within a one block radius are the famed bacon wrapped hot dogs, tamales, tacos, crepes, and deep fried bananas topped with sweetened condensed milk and chocolate chips.  Wash it all down with the Mexican beer of your choice sold for twice as much as the store across the street.

Call me a cynic or hard to please, but this festival also highlighted the depravity of the Mexican music scene.  The traditional dancers on stage were beautiful with bright red lips and embroidered dresses soaring through the air like butterfly wings.  Unfortunately, when the dancers finished, we were left with yet another karaoke singer gone public.  It seems to me that Mexico is stuck in a tar pit of music.  I’m not sure if it has changed much in the last three decades; with the exception of delicious classical guitar, all I’ve heard here are permutations of Mariachi or Kumbia.  Last night was no better. 
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We followed our noses to a nearby bar that had been advertising live music all week.  They offered us free beer and assaulting shots of mescal.  Not the best business plan for them but an easy win for us. 

It started out well and good.  The musicians were lively and played danceable original melodies.  A few songs in, however, our senses were accosted by the neighboring bar, Don Pato’s.  It was as though someone gave a four year old some drumsticks and a microphone and then turned the volume way up.  The sound of band just in front of us was swept away by the tinny blare of the Don Pato balcony.

Our band gave in and took a break.  Not long after, we watched them head to Don Pato’s.  If you can’t beat em, join em.  We followed suit.

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We got there just in time for a karaoke style rendition of “Venus” followed by “Rock and Roll All Nite.” The crowd was loving it.  Among them was a sweaty parent of one of my students and every other person I’ve seen or talked to in town.  We halfheartedly bounced around a bit to avoid earning the party pooper stamp, but when the band stopped, we called it a night.

So there you have it.  I’m in Sayulita, Mexico’s mecca for beginning surfers and beach bums.  The street dogs are healthy and the music is bad.  If it wasn’t for me and my Mexican belly affliction from all the street snacks, I might have something nicer to say about it.
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Friday Night

I’m on my way.  Down the cobblestone street toward the two flights of stairs leading down from Gringo Hill into town.  As soon as I round the corner toward the darkened steps the sounds of Sayulita rise to greet me: the ocean waves rolling in and the muted thump of Cumbia warming up the evening.  Rain is falling in a slow trickle on palm leaves and I step lightly on the cement, carefully navigating my way down steps I can barely see.
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I’m late to meet a colleague and eager to arrive.  We are teachers who hate the institution of school, living in a mellow surfing town and working in a school where we have all the freedom we could want to mold our teaching to our idealism.

My steps are quick and hurried and through the thin rubber soles of my shoes I can feel every curve of cobblestone down the steep hill.  I reach the plaza and in an instant my pace drops four beats.  I am swallowed by the vibrant lull of Mexico.  I cross the plaza, where children at play and drug deals coexist as if there could be no more natural combination.  I walk by one of my second graders, plump and missing his two front teeth, engaged in soccer within the plaza courts.  He doesn’t notice me, so I walk on.
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People are in the streets selling their crafts or casually drinking a beer.  Everyone is out for the sake of being out; the vibrance seems to stem from the cumulation of people doing mostly nothing at all.
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As I walk, I’m thinking of what it means to teach, what could be the most valuable lessons I could offer.  And I think it’s just this, to be a member of the human race.  To recognize our dire need for connection and reach deep into our capacity for compassion.

I approach the bar and my colleague has just arrived but is already engaged in a conversation with some locals at the bar.  I sit and we drink tequila and we smoke hand-rolled cigarettes and we share.  We share books we’ve read and splotches of our lives that have brought us here.  We share cigarettes with our neighbors and travel stories with the bartender who turns out to be the mother of a student. 
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In these moments of peaceful, easy conversation, I dream that this is all I could ever really hope to teach; the feeling of being connected and included, the knowledge that everyone has valuable ideas and purposes to contribute, the sense of oneness with the world around us.

Saturday Morning

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Like any other morning following beer after beer, I can’t sleep. I roll over to look at my clock at 6am and lie there thinking for another hour before I decide to give in to the day. I gather my clothes from the night before: bathing suit, jean shorts, and a tank top and sneak out to search the lawn for my missing earring. It’s still dark and my flashlight scans over glistening dewdrops, but no earring.

Rather than fumbling for my friends’ keys to unlock the padlock, I climb the side of the wall next to the heavy iron gate and drop with relative ease on the other side. The hill down into town is steep and my footsteps fall heavily with the clack of a tap dancer. By the time I make my way to the plaza, they are drowned out by roosters crowing and a flock of squawking birds all sharing the same palm tree. Below the palms, men are sweeping the streets of last night’s revelry.
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I head south of the plaza to cross the bridge toward my temporary home but before I can cross, I make eye contact with a boy sitting on the corner. He’s in the traditional costume of Sayulita: bare feet, board shorts and a t-shirt.

“Where are you are you going?” he calls out after me.

I slow my pace and turn back. “A mi casa.”

He stands up and walks over to me. “Are you the girl from Camaron?”

“Camaron?” I repeat, searching my brain. Shrimp?

“La fiesta en la playa,” he explains.

“Ah, no. Last week, but not last night.” I realize that he thinks he knows me from the night before, from Camaron, the beach bar that hosts a dance party every Friday night. I explain that it wasn’t me and he asks again where I’m going.

“Home,” I say.

“Te acompañó?”

He doesn’t seem to care that I’m not the girl he thought I was and I let him walk me home. I recognize that I know him from a week ago, he was paddleboarding while I was out taking my first surf lesson. My instructor caught a wave and we had chatted from our boards as we watched.

“Are you guys friends?” I had asked.

“No, he is a gay,” he had told me with a smirk and a strong accent.

He’s been out on the street all night and I ask him what he’s doing.

“Ah, la cocaína,” he says and shakes his head.

“Por eso no duermes.”

We walk the darkened street and he tells me about the crazy girls he met. They live up on the hill in a big house and it was a wild party. That’s why he has no shoes and he had almost lost his phone, too, but a bartender found it for him.

It’s 7am on a Saturday and as we near my house, we pass some girls I work with at the school. I greet them and ask where they’re going but they don’t return the question.

By the time we arrive at my gate, I’ve got an appointment to meet the boy back on the corner again. He says he knows where some apartments are that are cheap and nice. He leaves me, probably to sleep the day away, and I come home to greet the morning.
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Waking Up in Sayulita

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We’ve finally arrived and all I can think of are hummingbirds. They have those little hearts that beat as fast as I can blink but when they need to conserve energy, those same tiny hearts slow to a rhythm that just barely keeps them alive. For months the rhythm of my life has been gradually decelerating. I’ve been soaking in the spaciousness of slowness and storing up energy.

Now we’ve finally arrived: our visas came through and we’ve found ourselves a block from the beach in Sayulita.

I slam the gate shut behind me and turn the key a full three rotations to lock it. The ocean sings her rhythm from behind the row of houses across the street and carries my footsteps as I walk to work. At 7am, the cobblestone street is still dark and empty.

The town is gently waking as I weave my way through the quiet streets. Two uniformed boys ride by on bicycles as a few stray dogs round the corner to wake their friend curled up beneath a truck. A man calls out to another who is sweeping the sidewalk outside of his tienda just as I approach the school. I am just quiet footsteps to add to the roosters’ call, the ocean song and murmurs of “buenos dias” from passersby.

The school is arranged in a ring of classrooms with mine standing alone in the center. It has the appearance of a house, complete with a front porch and a fireplace and now, after spending two days organizing, decorating and rearranging, it is beginning to resemble the classroom I’d imagined.

Outside the students eat at picnic tables under leafy green trees thick enough to keep out the glare of the sun. Their playground is a sandy rectangle with a climbing wall, a slide, and a few knotted ropes hanging down. In the back corner is the community garden where old tires have been painted bright colors to house young papaya trees, eggplant, basil and coffee plants. There is no recycling bin, just a large compost heap tucked behind the garden.

It’s a Thursday and after two twelve-hour days of work, followed by an evening swim and toasting to finally being here, my mind does not want to start. I follow the smell of coffee to the kitchen behind my classroom. This has quickly become one of my favorite places in the school because of the three bright faces that always warmly welcome me. Adela, the head of the kitchen crew, explains to me that there is a teacher co-op for the coffee and fifty pesos will get me ten cups of coffee. Because I have brought no money, she punches her own card and treats me to the remedy for my sloth.

When school begins at 8 o’clock, my students filter into the classroom with their backpacks half as big as their little bodies and find their place on the carpet. The first two days they were like untamed animals, pushing each other and tattling, without any real concept of raising their hands or listening to a speaker. Now, after three days of directions, practice, songs and rewards, they are showing signs that they can be tamed and I can see the sweetness in their little faces.
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The day passes smoothly enough that I can leave before four, in time to swim in the sun and nap on the beach. As I walk the same route toward my temporary accommodations, I think about how soon it will be before these streets feel like home.

My view is consumed with vibrant palm trees and tropical flowers set to the backdrop of steady rolling waves; my life has a new routine and new people to love. I’m finally here and my hummingbird heart is picking up its pace again.
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