knock knock

(Creative nonfiction example)

This conversation won’t end easily and I want to make a good impression.

“It’s in the center of the country, in the North, by the great lakes, between Chicago and Canada.” I give him everything I’ve got.

He wants to know where I’m talking about.

“I think I have a friend from there. His name is Jose. “

I don’t know him.

He says the friend is from one of the cities and he’s Guatemalan.

I still don’t know him.

I escape from this conversation and go back to the colorful plastic table covered in saliva, crumbs, snot and dirt.

That day stands out because it’s the only time I remember any type of doctor coming in to the daycare. He seemed more interested in chatting with me than understanding the children playing around us. I don’t judge him because I understand how nice it is to have a conversations with someone who understands you and is able to validate you. I feel like when I work with the kids I just sit with them and repeat things to myself. “Not in your mouth! What color is this? Repeat what I’m saying. Cover your mouth when you cough, por favor. Mira, how many are there? Let’s go wash your hands…”

“TOCA TOCA.” Carlos yells gleefully, and then he coughs on the plastic table. I wish I could be as excited about anything as Carlos is at the prospect of a new person tapping on the daycare door. He’s a mentally disabled 13-year-old boy with a whisp of a mustache on his upper lip. He’s holding a fistful of mismatched and broken crayons and colored pencils and waving his arms. Today my supervisor has casually asked me and the German girl I work with, Klara, to teach the colors to Carlos and a handful of his classmates, each one who has a disability. We are useless. One girl looks around 9-years-old. She has downs syndrome and our supervisor tells us she has cancer. Sometimes she cries, and a lot of them she just sits with her head on the table and doesn’t look at anybody.

We can barely get some of the kids to color on a piece of paper, but we hold up different colored pencils and repeats the colors for the children. It doesn’t seem like they learn anything. Everyone sort of knows how to say ‘rojo’ but it’s not really ever correlated to one of us holding up the red colored pencil. I’m not sure if the German Klara and I are the best fit people for this job seeing as Klara can’t say rojo without adding a German guttural sound in the middle.  And I can’t quite figure out if the correct word for orange is naranja or anaranjado, and usually end up blundering through a Frankenstein-ed version of the two words, but I try not to let our own incompetence bother me because the only success we had with the crayons that day was ensuring that none of them got eaten.

I get on the bus home frustrated and secretly glad it is the end of our shift. I vent my anger at another failed day to Klara. “I’ve taken two years of college Spanish classes and I major in communications and I still can’t get one of those kids to learn the colors…or anything. Why does none of this bother you?” Klara shrugs her shoulders and smiles. “Oh Sarah,” she says, giving me a comforting look. “You are silly. Do you really think Ines (our supervisor) thought we were going to teach a table of kids the colors in one day?” She gives me a surprised look and we’re quiet as we listen to the tinny salsa music our bus driver plays.

“I got Carlos to cover his mouth the last time he coughed,” Klara says.

My two favorite kids at the daycare are 12-year-old Celeste and her older sister Beatriz. Our supervisor just tells us that Celeste had a shock, but we don’t understand what that means. She can’t do math, read, write, count or recognize colors. She’s sweet and smiles when I talk to her. Her long shiny black hair is almost always pulled back into a ponytail and she has thick scars that wrap around her wrists and body.

The first time Celeste ever really talked to me we were standing on the open air top story of the daycare. Since we are on the third floor we can look over all the fields, tin roofs, and cement houses that surround the daycare.

I don’t understand what she is saying. My Spanish isn’t good enough and she talks quickly with a thick speech impediment. I understand she is talking about her family moving around and not knowing where she was going to stay. I listen, even though I didn’t understand every word. Before Celeste had only spoken a few words at a time in a barely audible voice that was muffled into her chest. On the roof it wasn’t a conversation, it was her talking in a stream of consciousness, and me trying to listen. I stood on the roof and felt like I had a purpose because somebody else was relying on me.

Back in the States, I was always the person struggling to figure out my life—which major, job, career, classes, friends, apartment, did I belong with. I continuously pushed myself into slots I never could fit into and proved again and again that I was never quite smart enough. Every time I didn’t get the internship I wanted, the guy I liked didn’t ask me out, another semester passed with no scholarships, I never made Dean’s list, and my entire future was a sad question mark, it seemed like the world reminded me of what a failure I am. But when Celeste could open up to me on the roof, I began to realize none of that defined me or any of the other lost people in the world.

This top floor had one enclosed room. I am excited when my supervisor mentions offhandedly what’s inside: a library! I’m pumped because I’ve never seen anyone in Guatemala read before. When Celeste and I get bored of repeating the colors, numbers, and letters again and again and again in the same way, we go upstairs to explore the library.

It’s a bit of a disappointment. The books are yellowed, falling apart, and none of them look new enough to even be second hand. A lot of them aren’t in Spanish, and most of them are old high school and college textbooks from the 20th century. There are a few picture books but they are all cut up. The collages the kids made hanging on the wall downstairs finally makes sense to me. Celeste loses interest, and when a spider crawls out of a 1980s botany textbook I open, we head back downstairs.

The first day I work with Celeste’s older sister, Beatriz, I instantly connect with her because she’s sarcastic and acts apathetic. Cindy is constantly drawing in her notebook instead of paying attention to me, but she’s eager to learn, something she tries to hide. I see myself in her. I teach her, and a little group of bright kids, English lessons. She draws pictures of all the vocab words I teach, and likes to mock English’s convoluted spelling and pronunciation.

One day she casually tells me that her older brother, who was working in Huehuetenango, a city in western Guatemala, was going to come visit her and her family soon. I can tell she is excited. The next day Klara and I take a bus to Mexico where we spend four days in order to renew our visas. It was an adventure, and I come back excited and motivated that my little group will learn some more conversational English. Beatriz is bitter and short with me and I don’t understand why.

“Where did you go?” she questions me.

“Klara and I went to Mexico for a few days to renew our visas,” I explain.

“Are you from England or the states?”

“I’m from the states.”

“When are you going back?”

“The middle of January.”

“Has your brother visited yet?” I ask.

“No,” she says firmly.

I give her a questioning look.

“He went to Mexico,” she tells me defiantly and walks away.

One day I’m working with a little girl, she had big brown eyes and is about six years old. She doesn’t talk, she just likes to sit in my lap and play with her pigtails. I don’t know what to do with her (she doesn’t even want to color!) so I search around in one of the rooms and find a dictionary for kids. It’s buried on a side table among German flashcards and English workbooks. It’s perfect, with little pictures of everyday objects, and then the word for it written in Spanish underneath.

She’s engaged in it, and cheerfully repeats the words after me. She fits perfectly in my lap and we both hold the book like a treasure as we each discover new words and pronounce them, trying to make them sound just as beautiful and natural as they would coming from a native Guatemalan. el Algodon, el aguacate, la boca. English words that seemed so standard suddenly seem drab to their Spanish counterparts. Cotton. Avocado. Mouth.

The supervisor comes over and a look of surprise crosses her face before she begins to scold me. “What are you doing?” she says more as a warning than as a questions.

“We’re reading…”

“Don’t cut up the pictures,” she continues. “I use that book for teaching the children.”

I feel like a villain as she snatches up a pair of scissors that was laying on the table. 

She doesn’t believe my reassurances about just wanting to read, (“Who just wants to read?”) she must have thought, because a few minutes later she returns and snatches the book from my hands. The girl with big eyes and I find some glitter glue to play with, but it isn’t nearly as exciting.

My last day at the daycare was the Christmas celebration before the winter break. The day included Santa Claus handing out bags of goodies to the kids, a mariachi band, and every daycare child, parent, and volunteer, running around outside and drinking punch.  But the main event that day was the living nativity scene, a mainstay at every Guatemalan school. It’s a warm, sunny December day and we sit outside on folding chairs and watch the kids file out into a semicircle in their costumes, music playing. Even though we have multiple Mary’s, one of the wise men didn’t show up, and we had to wrestle several children into their costumes, it’s a perfect day for the kids and their parents because it’s Christmas and they’re part of it.

I feel guilty because I’m sure that in a few months, or even a few weeks, none of the kids will remember me. All the parents come in and are so grateful and humble, thanking me for working with their children, but I don’t deserve it. I think over the past three months and cringe at the messes I’ve made and the ineffective teaching I’ve done. How could I have helped any of those children who always seemed like they needed so much more than I could give them?

 I’ve been responsible for a botched craft project, where I wanted the kids to make pictures of the Guatemalan national bird, the quetzal, a rare rainforest-dwelling bird with green and red feathers, but instead we just made piles of ripped up feathers and congealed glue. Then we ran around the garden the entire morning. Needless to say we didn’t do the endangered and elegant tropical bird justice.

 I once was working with Calvin, who has severe autism so all we could do was walk around with him. I wasn’t paying enough attention so he ate an entire black colored pencil. I still don’t know how he managed to suck out all the lead, a half hour before his mom picked him up. For the rest of the morning the other volunteers and I frantically tried to pull the ink out of his mouth, and several bitten fingers later all we could do was get him to spit up black sludge in the garden.

 Another time the prim British volunteer who just painted around the daycare because she didn’t like working with children, painted the stairs the primary colors right before our busiest day of the week, Saturday. She specifically instructed me not to let the children go on the stairs that day. I was very vigilant, my attempt to do something right, and nobody went on the stairs. Except for one little boy, Trevel. Who also had several colored pencils clutched in his hand. When we first noticed, Klara and I couldn’t help laughing because it seemed like he had only scribbled on the yellow stairs. But as I took a closer look I realized he had also gotten to the blue and red stairs too. He was very thorough, but I couldn’t be mad at him. Instead I just teased the artist for painting stairs in a daycare yellow.

 I felt like I spent most of my time helping kids color and repeating the names of colors, numbers, and letters to distracted children. I don’t deserve any thank yous or hugs for that. But those kids deserve much more than a hug and thank you for teaching me I don’t have to be the best at something or the smartest to make the people around me happy and have a life worth living.