Learning to Listen in the Lion’s Den

The world has a funny way of teaching you things once you close your mouth and listen. As a comfortable college student used to hearing myself speak, I did not know that what would forever change my perspective would involve something as simple as listening. I was going to learn that there are parts of the world where voices are but whispers silenced by adversity. I was about to hear these voices.
In July of 2011, I landed at the San Pedro Sula airport in Honduras. This was my second visit; I had been on a volunteer service trip to the area a few months before with Students Helping Honduras, an organization that helps build schools in rural Honduras. This time, I aimed to serve as an intern for the organization, with one mission in mind: to live in the village created by the organization, and teach English in the village school.
Riding from the airport with Shin Fujiyama, the organization’s founder, he bantered back and forth in perfect Spanish with another worker named Ana Lucia. I sat behind them, feebly asking the children in the backseat basic questions in my hesitant, self conscious Spanish. When we stopped at the SHH office in El Progreso and dropped Shin off, I was the only English speaker left in the car.
Then, the weather took a turn. Rain poured down onto the truck, as Ana Lucia and I attempted to understand each other against the sounds of the storm. As the sun came out, the truck wove in and out of ruts, the children bumping around and giggling in their seats. The car began to slow, and we passed through a set of gates.
Before me lay a large field, surrounded on both sides by rows of neatly placed cinder block homes. A water tower stood at one corner, a school at the other. This was Villa Soleada, the community built by SHH, the one I visited months before, and my home for the next month  I lived with an older couple, Ramon and Natalia, in a four room cinder block home . I learned to take bucket showers when there was no running water, and to work hard. Each morning, the other two interns and I would wake up and help with a construction project around the village, followed by a delicious, home cooked Honduran lunch. After lunch, we began the hardest part of our day– teaching.

Shin was honest when he said, “You will be thrown to the lions, and have to claw your way out.” We taught our classes with no outside help. After trial and error I finally began to get a feel for the way my class learned, and what did and did not work. I had a whiteboard that leaned against the wall precariously– sometimes slicing my ankles as it fell– and two markers. The classroom was the main  room in the school house, and oftentimes other children from the village would run in and out, trailing toddlers behind them and sometimes even dogs. The rain would often come during afternoon class time, creating a deafening noise on the metal roof which made it impossible to hear.

Soon I learned to take advantage of the quirks of my classroom. The precarious board became a tracing table, where I would have the students trace each other and draw clothing and body parts to learn vocabulary. The size of the room aided me in running games of Simon Says, and allowed me to switch up desk formations for group work. We would play telephone, which my class called “Secrets,” or secretos in Spanish, in order to practice hearing and speaking new phrases to each other. The drumming of the afternoon rain on the roof gave me an excuse to draw out my more shy students, and soon I had them shouting out numbers in English at the top of their lungs.
The students were eager to learn, sometimes showing up early to help me set up the tables and chairs, or to see what I was writing on the board. However, attendance became an issue often, and students would be missing or simply have to leave suddenly, which became frustrating and confusing to me.
One student in particular was a mystery to me. His name was Luis, and he was one of the brightest of the class, although he never seemed to believe it. I caught him out of the corner of my eye, leaning forward to read the board, but when I turned he joked with his friends or appeared apathetic to the lesson. His attendance became an issue, as he always left early and sometimes didn’t bother to show up at all.
My patience was wearing thin. One day, as he was about to leave class early, I threatened to take him off the attendance list for that day– an act that affected his chance at the weekend reward trip for good students. Luis became angry and left.
A few minutes later, Sergio–the director of the school– pulled me aside and asked why Luis was sad. When I explained to him what had happened, Sergio paused. He informed me that Luis’ family hadn’t eaten in a few days.
The news shocked me. This must be why Luis was acting out. How could I expect him, much less the rest of his classmates, to learn and succeed if they didn’t have all the basic necessities of life?
The children in my class were capable, hardworking, and displayed extreme potential, yet lived as part of a system that swallowed them whole. They were desperately poor, and just when there was no one to help them, gangs like MS13 came along and offered jobs and security. Their world was a trap, and it seemed as if they were set for failure. Poverty and the threat of gang life bit at their heels as they ran towards the way out– and so many would trip along the way!

I felt helpless that day as I walked the dirt road back to my house. Back at home Natalia was cooking, and I settled down in a chair to journal out my frustration. It seemed as if there were countless children out there, all trying to crawl out of the circumstances they were given– thousands of tiny fists pounding on a locked door.

I closed my eyes and thought of all that had simply been handed to me: a home, an education, food to eat, and most importantly, a voice. If I ever found myself needing something, I could speak up– and I was guaranteed to be heard.
I didn’t have millions of dollars to donate, and I knew I couldn’t teach my class to speak fluent English in a month. There was one thing I knew for sure: I had to give these children a voice.

I had taught the children English for one month. But what I didn’t realize before entering the village was that the people who lived there would teach me so much more. The Hondurans I have met show a resiliency beyond compare– despite their poverty and hardship, they are the most caring, loving people I have ever met. They taught me to work, to sweat, to feel tired, and deserve to sit down. They taught me to love. Each step of every construction project was a father with a pickaxe, a child carrying a rock–each ready to work alongside us to improve their community.

I have learned not to be discouraged by the smallness of an act of service, because, in the long run, it causes a ripple effect that eventually spreads in waves.

The work that Students Helping Honduras is doing just that. With every school built, an entire community of children have a chance at a better life, a chance to have a voice, and those voices are heard by others.
So here’s to Ena, a 12 year old who displays maturity and grace beyond her years. To Genesis, with her sharp wit and contagious laughter. To Jose Fernando, who speaks English as confidently as any American kid. To Keylin, whose energy and spirit is unmatched. To Wilfredo, who writes like a poet.
To Luis.
This is your voice. And it will always be shouting against the rain.

This essay may also be read on the Shatter the Looking Glass magazine website, an e-magazine devoted to sharing stories about travelling and volunteering.

Check it out here: http://shatterthelookingglass.com/?s=honduras&x=-1093&y=-17

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