This anxiety followed me, unwavering, throughout my journey to and arrival in Bolivia. On the flight from Miami to La Paz everything around me seemed to confirm my helplessness. Even the flight crew did not speak English! The difficulty and nervousness I encountered when trying to decipher the immigration forms compounded my feelings. Everyone and everything seemed to be hostile and new. All I wanted to do was to turn around and go back to the safety and comforts of home. Going through immigration everyone seemed to look down on me for being a “gringo”. When I was met by the people escorting me to my next flight their first question was, “How is your Spanish?” Defeatedly I answered, “zero.” The answer hit me far harder than the altitude sickness I was feeling. I was supposed to be coming to this country to teach; how was I going to communicate with these children, let alone teach them math skills, knowing so little of their language?
Arriving in Cochabamba was the greatest culture shock. There was almost nothing familiar that I could hold onto to give me some hope of success, at least in the way I perceived it. I felt completely overwhelmed by the sights, sounds and, of course the language, especially knowing I would be there for a month, the longest time I had ever been away from my family. Upon my arrival we headed directly to the office from where we would be heading the Khan program. I met Elahdio and Jose, and sat idly by, watching nervously as they taught the kids effortlessly in fluent Spanish. I looked at the kids, understanding none of the sounds that flowed from their lips. Once again questions of doubt flooded my brain. It was intimidating to say the least.
The next morning was when the ‘fun’ really began. I had my first Spanish lesson, which was both encouraging and discouraging. I realized I knew more than I had originally thought, but there was also the realization that I was learning kindergarten level Spanish. Equipped with a few simple phrases, I prepared to begin the task of tutoring fluent Spanish speakers in mathematics. With broken words and sentences I helped the kids sign up for Khan Academy and begin learning. I looked around. Everyone around me seemed to be able to approach and teach the kids with ease. I looked around for someone who was struggling. In the corner I saw a little boy who was having difficulty with fractions. Nervously and cautiously I approached him, greeted him and asked his name. “Fernando,” he replied in a quiet voice. I could easily read the nervousness and shyness in his voice and face. But there was also the keen and almost desperate desire to learn and understand. It felt familiar. I looked over the problem. It seemed to be simple enough. In single words and poor attempts at pronunciation I explained to him that a fraction was equal to part over the whole. In this case red rectangles over the total sum of all the rectangles. As I spoke he seemed to read in me what I had read in him -- a feeling of nervousness and apprehension, and it put him at ease. His expression was one of contemplation, that slowly gravitated to understanding. Quickly, as though afraid he might forget, he scribbled ⅗ down on the whiteboard. I smiled, relieved, and said with a terrible accent “Si! Muy bien!” He entered in the answer and a smiley face appeared on the answer button, which he quickly mirrored. I found the rest of the session, while a challenge, very enjoyable and very gratifying. Leaving the session, I allowed a smile to creep onto my face; I knew that I would be able to contribute here.
Over the past few weeks teaching has only gotten better. My desire to help these children who are faced with a very limited educational system and few opportunities has grown. Although I still constantly need to ask my fellow volunteers for vocabulary, somehow I have been able to teach the kids and impact them in a positive way. The students enjoy my poor attempts at the language and they are learning the material, even calling me back to explain something they don’t understand. Despite our very different backgrounds, we are connected. Because of my limited Spanish I think they see me not as a symbol of authority or intimidation but as someone who is just as hungry for knowledge as they are.