By: Robert Bermudez
teaching a classroom full of six year olds in Ecuador helped me to truly understand what it feels like to be on the other side of the immigrant experience
Deciding it was time to both get away and arrive, literally and figuratively, I realized quickly I had no real idea how to go about traveling to and living in other countries. I wanted to experience other people and places, even relocate outside the United States, but beyond that rather vague desire was no real plan of action. To be honest, there wasn’t even a plan for a plan of action. So while current events and a long-supressed wanderlust pushed me onward, uncertainty and fear pushed back. What worldly travellers on social media made sound easy was anything but for a neophyte like myself.
Thankfully, that eventually all changed. After months of searching and planning and joining what seemed like every travel website, blog and Facebook group invented, I finally had my ticket and suitcase in hand at JFK, ready to head to Ecuador. I was to teach English in a small school in the city of Zamora. I had a job and a place to stay waiting for me and an adventure to begin!
Little did I know the hard part hadn’t even started yet.
I called this little story “Shoe on the Other Foot” because once I arrived in Ecuador it was obvious that, for the first time in my life, I was the Outsider. No matter where I had been or what I had experienced in America – and we all feel out-of-place and lost at times – I always understood the language and the social mores. I could communicate and I knew someone, somewhere, to help me if I was in need. That was out the window the very first day I arrived, as I ended up at the wrong bus terminal, with my cell phone barely charged, no internet connection and no way to get in touch with the only person there waiting for me. Oh, and it was also raining. I would be a liar if I said I wasn’t a bit tense, even scared. I had never felt so utterly helpless in all my life. It was not comfortable at all, but I realized even as I was in the midst of it that here was a learning experience that more of should have in life. Nothing can develop empathy quicker than actually experiencing things form the losing end sometimes.
Thanks to summoning up my courage, a bit of winging it and the kindness of the people (I found out the very first hours how friendly and helpful the Ecuadorian people are) I ended up meeting up with the woman who ran the school and was safely at her beautiful house before dark. A day that looked perilous hours before ended with a great dinner and comfortable bed.
All that stood me in good stead when it came to finally going to the school. The first week was to be spent observing and maybe, if I felt ready, easing my way into teaching. I had made clear before coming that I had never taught a class, only one-on-one, and I spoke little Spanish. That wasn’t a problem for the woman who ran the school so, as it turns out, it was not supposed to be a problem for me. I found out eventually that empathy, understanding and encouragement were not her strong suits. In fact, she had little of any of these. Or patience for that matter. None of which made any of this any easier.
When I started teaching, slowly at first by doing simple question-and-answer games (this was kind of cool as I had a ball and threw it to the student I was asking the question of) my “shoe on the other foot” Bizarro World was back in full swing. Once again I was the Outsider, the only “gringo” in the room, at the mercy of six and seven year olds. While every teacher who ever lived is somewhat at the mercy of the students he is supposed to make learn, I cannot tell you how strange, even downright intimidating, a bunch of six year olds can be to a nearly fifty year old man when you have absolutely no idea what the hell they are saying! Are they even answering my questions or talking about some pop star? Are they making fun of me? Are they calling me those little names and phrases that mean nothing to anyone outside their culture but mean all sorts of mean and nasty things? Are they saying I have a big nose, or look stupid, or remind them of some exotic animal I never heard of but you can be sure is goofy looking?
It is amazing what goes through your head when you are in such a situation. It is like walking through the woods at night, you start hearing things and seeing things and there is a feeling something bad is going to happen. If this sounds a little dramatic or over-the-top for something as simple as teaching English to a bunch of six year olds, trust me, it isn’t.
Then there were the names. Yes, there are names you know, like Juan and Jose, but even that gets confusing, especially when you have a class with a Juan, a Jose and – you guessed it – a Juan Jose. Martin is pronounced “Marteen”, and David is pronounced “DA-veed”. Same with the girls. Beautiful names, but where I am from we don’t have any Genedith’s or Mider’s, much less Tinkervel’s.
All this played out against the realization that I was not there just to have an “experience”. I was supposed to teach and the kids were supposed to learn. So Bizarro World would have to take a back seat and my shoe on the other foot would have to just stumble along. And if I had to wonder what goofy animal I looked like that day, or why they were all laughing at that remark I didn’t understand, so be it.
So it went from day to day, week to week. A few days in I was teaching a full class, all fourty-five minutes, by myself. I became an expert at using the little Spanish I knew to get across what I had to. Over expressive faces and hand signals were big. I made sure to tell them to tell me “en Ingles” as often as possible, to the point it became a running joke between them and myself. The best was when I could not find the right word to tell them to stop talking and I inadvertently invented my own brand of Spanish with the word “Quiete” (pronounced Qwiet-tay). I caught some smart remarks and smirks for that one. (Yes, six year olds can smirk) I gave a lot of high fives, bounced the ball off a few heads, gave hugs to the girls and let the boys jump on me WWE style. By hook or by crook or cod Espanol I went in there each day and got through it. I confess that more than once I was on the verge of losing my nerve, but at the last minute I was just not going to quit without giving it all I had.
I am happy to report that some delightfully unexpected things happened. One is I learned that I could teach a class of six or eight or even ten. I could keep them engaged most of the time, have enough control to do what that day’s plan said I had to, and manage to get through two fourty-five minute classes per day relatively sane. I even think they actually learned something! In fact, when the final test results were in some three months later, it turns out I was a pretty good teacher after all. Add to that the fact that I did it with my glaring limitations and I actually had the idea it was okay to be proud of myself. Not that I got much in the way of praise or acknowledgement from Miss Charming, but at that point it really didn’t matter.
I am now done teaching at the school, as my three month commitment is done, and another teacher has arrived to take my place. Having been here in Zamora five months now it is nearly as familiar as my neighbourhood back in New York. It even sort of feels like home. I am planning to stay around a bit longer and see what I want to do, but I know in another month or two it will be time to move on. Possibly within Ecuador but more likely to Peru or Mexico. Maybe Costa Rica. Or Bolivia.
Wherever I end up, however, and whatever I end up doing, my very first foray into what I hope to be an extended period of travel has been a success. I have become more confident and independent –minded than I have been in years. The future looks a lot less staid and a lot more open and exciting. My Spanish is coming along (I no longer say “quiete” thank you very much!) and have seen and tasted and done things I never would have had I not gotten up the gumption to finally stop dreaming and start doing. The first step is always the hardest it is true.
With all that said, the biggest thing my time in Ecuador so far has taught me, the most important thing, is what it is like to be the Outsider. What it feels like to be surrounded by people speaking in a language you cannot understand, doing things that are strange, sharing jokes and referencing things that are utterly alien, and looking at you with eyes that say “you are not from here”. It makes one feel like there is a neon arrow above your head, pointing you out to everyone. It changes your perspective when the entire world is flipped upside down, I can tell you that. Though it was difficult and challenging and even frightening at times, I am glad I learned what it feels like to have the shoe on the other foot.