Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Argentina: Post 1

So. Last month I went to Argentina.

Some of you knew this already, and to those who were praying for me, I thank you. The purpose of the trip was a kind of cultural and missions adventure: During the first ten days, our five-person team helped at a Spanish-language ministry conference in Buenos Aires; during the second ten days, we traveled north, stopping to visit a variety of ministry projects along the way.

I plan to return to posting on singleness and the church, but before I do, I want to write a short series - maybe three or four posts - on my time in Argentina, the people I met there and the things that I learned. Since school starts next week, I want to start with something I learned about teaching.

Mosaic tile sidewalk in Brea Pozo
Our second stop on the trip north was Brea Pozo, a tiny village (perhaps 1300 people) tucked away in the arid Santiago del Estero Province. There's not much in Brea Pozo: a a few cows remarkable only for their protruding ribs, cactus plants shaped like trees, and lots and lots of wind - enough to create a sandstorm worthy of the Sahara Desert. The only other thing Brea Pozo is notable for is the rural community center it hosts: a Christian boarding school just outside the city limits. There, nearly two hundred students attend primary school (defined as kindergarten through seventh grade); of those, about fifty students live on campus.

To these students, the Brea Pozo school is a godsend. Poverty in Argentina, as in the United States, almost kills students' chances of a good education. Even students who live right across the street from the village school in Brea Pozo are sent a mile and a half down the road (and remember, most of these families don't own a car) to the Christian school. The problem of education is greater still for students who truly live in the country, up to fifty miles away from the school: Thanks to their isolation, these students would perhaps receive no education whatsoever were it not for the on-campus housing at Brea Pozo.

Yet there are more serious problems than education facing the rural poor in Argentina. Children raised in such deep poverty may also be raised by an abusive, alcoholic father. They may be raised by a mother who, for her livelihood, sells her body. They may be raised by a grandmother or an aunt so that their mother can work in town. In other words, the children who attend the Christian school come from badly-broken homes.

Having fun in Brea Pozo
Unsurprisingly, then, the Brea Pozo school includes in its student body a rather large number of what we would call at-risk students and what they call, all politically incorrect, troublemakers. By 'troublemakers' they do not simply mean students who don't turn in their homework. They mean students who sass the teachers - all the teachers - and students who burn down fields, students that the entire instructional staff has, at some point, wanted to dismiss from the school.

Yet these students are not, or are but rarely, actually dismissed. The school directors (a lovely married couple named Oscar and Susa) explained that as long as possible, whenever possible, the Brea Pozo school hangs onto these troublemakers, trying desperately to give them an education, to give them a safe environment, to teach them about Jesus.

Sometimes it doesn't work. But sometimes it does: One troublemaker raised in the Brea Pozo school later committed his life to Christ. Today he is leading a church and writing Spanish-language books about pressing church issues; we met him briefly at the Hispanic conference in Buenos Aires.

A teacher myself, I found this fascinating. As we sat around Oscar and Susa's kitchen table, I remembered the troublemakers in my classes, at least one a semester for as long as I have been teaching. These are the students who don't play well with others, who talk back to me in front of the entire class, who lie to me about what work they have and have not done. These are the students (I am ashamed to admit it) who sometimes thought would be better off dismissed from the college, sent away because they were nothing but trouble.
I arrived taking pictures and completely
distracting the students in class.

Yet it is just these students that Oscar and Susa hang onto. "We are Christians," they explain. "The troublemakers may not come to Christ, but if we who are Christians do not take them in, who will?"

Good point.

It reminded me of something I heard earlier this summer. At the end of June, I spent a week in Cedar Falls at a workshop on teaching first-year college writing. There, the workshop director suggested that perhaps we stop complaining about how under-prepared our students were, that college instructors stop passing the buck back to the high school teachers and high school teachers stop passing the buck back to the middle school teachers. He told us, "You're the writing teacher, the expert in your field. Stop worrying about what their previous teacher did or did not teach them. You teach them."

That call to be the expert, to assume responsibility, was present in Oscar and Susa's school. In hanging onto the troublemakers, they sent a message to other Christian teachers: "You're the Christian, the expert in love and compassion. Show your students love and compassion."

Is that hard to do sometimes? Sure. But that's the point: As Jesus said, we all show love to people that are easy to love; we all show compassion to people who do not need to be showered with our compassion.

In Game of Thrones, the patriarch of the Stark family is asked by one of his sons, "How can a man be brave if he's afraid?" Ned Stark responds, "That is the only time a man can be brave."

Like bravery, the only time we can show love and compassion - really show them, as they were meant to be shown - is when we show them to those who do not deserve them.

Brea Pozo school buildings
That means the only time I am a loving, compassionate teacher is when I show that compassion to a student who perhaps did not deserve it but who needs it. The only time I can be a patient teacher is when I am working with a student who makes me impatient. The only time I can be merciful is when I am working with a student who has done something wrong.

I feel like Murphy's Law will come back to haunt me after I publish this post, that I'll somehow end up with an unusual number of troublemakers this semester because I am resolved to treat them with kindness, compassion and consistent love. Yet the point remains: Just as I am the expert in writing and so responsible to teach my students writing this year, so I am also, because of Christ, the expert in love and compassion and kindness and responsible to show all my students the love I received, regardless of whether they deserved it. Those who did not most did not deserve it are often those who need it most.

May the next semester be one of consistent grace and compassion in my classroom.