How To Grow A Village School
t was inevitable: things were going to get ugly. My fate was sealed when I mastered the word for "circumference" in Spanish*. I was going to have to teach seventh-grade math.
It was with this realization that I began my first day of work in the inaugural year of the summer school program of The Village Education Project, the non-profit I am currently co-directing in Otavalo, Ecuador. The foundation began last summer after I spent three months teaching elementary school in a village called Huayrapungo. Now, the Village Education Project provides matriculation fees, supplies and uniforms for students from four villages to attend high school. This year, we will sponsor 48 students. To prepare them to enter high school, we began our summer school program with classes in Math and English, providing sponsored villages with school supplies and volunteer teachers.
For some reason, in the flurry of preparations for the summer, I hadn't thought about the fact that I would actually have to teach. And since math has been a source of casual terror for me since elementary school, the prospect of explaining what a decimal means to my students was cause for anxiety. What was worse, in ironic imitation of the seasons south of the equator, long division in South America operates in reverse.
Co-directing The Village Education Project has run parallel to my experience teaching math as a volunteer. Just as I scrambled to explain fractions as my students watched with unwarranted faith in my infallibility, I struggle with my co-directors to keep the foundation running. The pressure is high when a mistake can mean that one less student will attend school that year. In my mind, it is always just barely that we make funding deadlines, always by some miracle that things come together.
One recent miracle was having Teresa Kelley '07, an Education and Spanish major at Swarthmore, join us as Education Director for the summer program. Teresa spearheaded the development of our English curriculum for the Summer school, organized volunteer placements, and kept chaos from ensuing from when volunteers got sick to when an insane cow began chasing our 25-year-old truck up a mountain road.
Luckily, Teresa was not the only person from Swarthmore to help us. Jackie Avitabile '09 and Jessie Bear '09 both came as summer volunteers, and as testament to their commitment to a true cultural experience, I have photographic evidence that at least one of them ate an entire guinea pig during her stay. Our website at www.villageeducation.org was designed by Rafael Rivero '09. Professor of Spanish Aurora Camacho de Schmidt has also recently become an incredible source of support for us in fundraising and creating awareness, and contributions from Swarthmore are a great part of meeting our fall expenses.
I have been thinking recently of the unbridled giving of these people. As a college senior, I am often asked what I want to do with my life. When I respond with what must seem a meaningless proposal that I professionally save the world, I am met with a pedantic cynicism. Accompanying their words with knowing nods, people assure me that in a few years, I will recognize the futility of what I hope to do. And yet thinking of the dedication and care that I saw in people like Teresa and in the volunteers on our program, I refuse to believe that all intelligent enough to gain power are bound to become malicious climbers. And as for making a difference, I know that we can because we are doing it. $200 is enough to send a child to school. No excuses about the futility of service will take away these numbers; changing a life is more tangible and realistic than most choose to imagine.
Sometimes I work on foundation business like an automaton, filling out spreadsheets and answering emails the way that I would tackle a paper for a seminar. The realization that 48 students will be able to go to school because of it all, that their lives with be concretely changed, always comes as a shock.
Everything this summer was motivated by all that was at stake. Sometimes it was easy to forget that the students were poor. Like typical thirteen-year-olds, their faces were marked by nonchalant defiance. I dodged their perception as I tried to pretend that errors in two-digit subtraction were a cultural difference like driving on the other side of the road. And yet in their work there was an intensity of focus, a knowledge that passing the program meant school, which meant better food, better health, better life.
Jessie Bear '09 wrote of this intensity from her perspective as a volunteer: "I loved being there because it was so satisfying to have a distinct, tangible purpose. To see the progress the kids made in the two short weeks I was there was baffling. It excited and inspired me to know that if anyone can rise above the odds, it was these kids, and it was overwhelming to know that I was a part of that."
That knowledge and public service go hand in hand at Swarthmore should not be surprising. Both connect us to a world outside of ourselves, make us part of a larger matrix of activity and living that we could never access alone. And if this is what they mean by the circle of life, I'd believe it - just don't ask me to find its circumference.
* "The word for circumference in Spanish," Katie says, "is 'circunferencia,' which is inordinately fun to say."