It wasn’t personal pride that I felt when I entered the small classroom of a 7 room school house nestled among the north western Guatemalan mountains, it was pride that I saw reflected in the eyes of those teachers and community members who had worked so hard to turn the key and get the motor of this school running.
It wasn’t personal pride that I felt when I entered the small classroom of a 7 room school house nestled among the north western Guatemalan mountains, it was pride that I saw reflected in the eyes of those teachers and community members who had worked so hard to turn the key and get the motor of this school running.11 students sat in the pale green benches “hecho de mano (made by hand)” at similarly colored tables with their notebooks out and backpacks slung over the backs of their chairs. Standing at the head of the class in front of an enormous dry erase board stood their teacher explaining the complications of long division in their native language K’iche’. If you weren’t listening to the language being spoken then this might just seen like a normal everyday classroom but to the community and to me, it was so much more than that. I had first felt the pride that vibrated around the classroom two days before when one of the community members sat around the dinner table with my housemates and I at our home in Santa Cruz Del Quiche. With one look he conveyed a thousand emotions as he told me that this past Monday their school had begun. At this point, there really was no question in my mind as to what I would be doing this week. The next day I walked into the director’s office at ACG and asked Luis if I could go see the school in action. Since he also had some communications that he needed me to take to the rural village, he immediately agreed and the following day I was on a very familiar bus ride up north.
The pride that the community feels for their school is obvious and, to me, is so much more powerful because of the work, sweat, and commitment that the entire community has invested in this project. As is the case with many schools out in the rural areas of Guatemala, the school was built from it’s first stone by the hands of the community. This remote school can only be reached by a hike of around 40 minutes from the point where pickup trucks must stop and turn around for the road turns into a rocky path. In many ways, this makes the accomplishment of the work done that much more incredible. I think that in many ways it is a surreal picture for many of us from other countries to think about. Consider this, the school is built with hundreds of cement blocks and roofed by at least 50 metal sheets. It has windows, doors, furniture, etc. for a remote community that can only be reached by foot this means that all the materials were carried in, either on mules (there are 6 mules in the community) or on the backs of the people. I remember one time being told that the men were carrying 5 blocks of cement in each trip, the blocks balanced on their backs cradled within their head straps. In addition to these mind-boggling feats of manual labor, the community had to fight to get the school recognized by the government. It took countless meetings in the department capital (a journey of at least 10 hours round trip each time) and Guatemala city (a journey of at least 18 hours round trip each time) to get permits, permissions, recognition, etc. (this is one of the reasons that I have seen many of the community members in my home over the last several months since I live in the department capital which is on the way to Guatemala City.) In writing, I can’t even come close to scratching the surface of what the community went through to see this dream become a reality. While before the children could only go to school in the community up through basically 6th grade (up through 6th grade is funded by the government), they now can watch their children continue on in their own community with the education that many of the parents did not have a chance to receive. The school has started small in its first year but plans to expand year by year. Combine all the communities labors together and you can see where the pride comes from as 11 students this year from the community and 3 surrounding communities begin their first year of basico (what we would call 7th grade.)
While the construction of the school is, itself, a tremendous story it is also what goes on inside those brick walls that speaks volumes about the progress in Guatemala. The classes are taught for the first hour in Spanish and then the second hour in K’iche’. Part of the peace accords signed in 1996 paved the way for students to be taught in their native language, for that piece of their culture to be maintained. In a time where the rights of the indigenous populations are being examined in detail, this one little classroom shows, at least in a small way, the advances that have been made for the people of Guatemala. This school also operates in a unique and cultivating manner as students learn the subjects in ways that can be applied to their own lives and cultures. I sat in on their science class the next morning and they were learning about how living things in nature relate to each other. This included ways of preserving their environment. The teacher pointed out the window to a spot on one of the mountains where there were no trees and talked about how a fire had gotten away from one of the farmers and burned all the trees on that parcel of land. He talked of how the trees function in the environment and the need to conserve them. The students all made lists of how they, in their communities, could work to protect the environment. The students spend 2 weeks of intense studying at the school and then 2 weeks in their homes applying their knowledge and studying within their own environments. In this way, they come back with the knowledge that they acquire.
I have played a small role in helping out with the school, just one minuscule piece in the puzzle. In some ways it could have been my own pride to see these students, many of them friends of mine, sitting in the school that I watched built from the ground up but I know that that wasn’t it. That the pride I felt was theirs, the teachers, the students, and the communities. It was almost overwhelming and I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face as the teacher erased equation after equation from the dry-erase board. It was amazing to watch math taught in K’iche’ and I easily followed along with the lesson and marveled as the kids shouted out answers quicker than I could think of them. The even more incredible piece is that this classroom of 11 students is made up of 4 boys and 7 girls. Again with the usually unequal opportunity for girls in the Guatemalan society especially in the realm of education to see the ratio at two to one in this classroom and to listen to the, more often than not, quiet, timid voices of the girls ring out loud with the answers was a blessing. There were so many reasons to see and feel the pride in that small scene that when they asked me to stand up and say something since a few of the students (from the other communities) did not know who I was and since it is traditional to introduce any visitor, I didn’t know what to say. I was the one with the quiet, timid voice who finally formed a few words in K’iche’ and then in Spanish to try and say how happy I was to see them in this class. I remember repeating the phrase “k’amo b’a” or “que bueno” (both meaning the same thing, basically how incredible) a few times. For that was what was going through my head while standing in that classroom, feeling the dreams that had built that school and the pride that now makes its home within those walls.
Paul Pitcher is a missionary with the Christian Action of Guatemala (ACG). He serves as a communication and youth worker with ACG.