It was the night before the first day of practicum. Bailey and I had just finished our lesson plan. Confidence shook with an underlayer of nerves. I went down to the tienda, got a beer, and smoked one of my last American Spirits. The reality of the classroom pressed in like city smog. I knew I was going to have a hard time sleeping that night. Somehow, around midnight I found myself in bed with my eyes closed. Dreams of friends back home melted into dreams of the colorful streets of Bogotá. I found myself naked at the front of a classroom of horrified high school students as they ridiculed me. In the morning, I didn’t wake to my alarm; I woke to the six girls I shared a room with yelling at me to turn my alarm off. I skipped breakfast and focused on my first teaching outfit, a variation on the same high-waisted, tied shirt combination that I wear all the time, with a couple more buttons fastened to hide my chest tattoo. I put make up on. Colombian culture values aesthetic above nearly everything, so I was nervous about presenting myself well. I grabbed a breadroll off of one of the breakfast tables and hopped on the bus with my fellow volunteers. Everybody looked anxious. I chattered away at Bailey, not really paying attention to what I was saying. She tried to sleep.
The bus pulled up to the school late. We had not accounted correctly for the traffic of Bogotá, a long city from North to South, and we were going real South. Oh yeah, our student base wasn’t just high schoolers, but was located in a part of the city that our program refused to send a permanent volunteer to because of the reputation of the neighborhood. The further South you travel in Bogotá, the more the bricks of the buildings seem to disassemble themselves. Dogs peered down from rooftops at our tour bus as it stood out like a sore thumb on the dusty uneven streets. When we stepped off the bus, the students stared at our group like a zoo attraction. They looked a lot younger than I remember high school students looking, but then it had been a while since I was a high school student. Apparently I had grown up and didn’t realize it.
Entering the classroom, I kept my back to the chattering students and pulled out my laptop and our planning materials. I tried not to think about the students as the proverbial bell rang and Bailey and I were suddenly teachers. I turned around and pressed play on the Rihanna song that we were using to teach possessive pronouns. As always, I got caught up in the music and sang along to the chorus. I danced around the room like I was at home and the students cracked up. When the song was over, they stood up and applauded. I blushed and we went into our lesson. Once the flow of words started and the activities caught their attention, everything came naturally. I remember thinking, good god I think I can actually do this. When the lesson was over I grinned at Bailey and the students rushed up to ask us questions about our lives. Several of them asked if I had a novio back home, if I had hijos, why I came to Colombia, if I liked it. It blew my mind. They were just so happy we were there that it made me sad to leave that first day. We were only going to get three days with those little terrors before we were sent to our official placements and they were on to the regular school year. Volunteer-less because of the danger of their neighborhood. It took so little time to fall in love with them.
The next two days we taught classes individually. I had them write songs, create event flyers, read a story I wrote about the Hip Hop Apocalypse destroying hippopatamus. I downloaded some reggaeton after some of the kids told me it was their favorite type of music and played it while they wrote. We had a blast together. On our final day, after mi clase ultima with them, the students crowded around me and begged me to cante – sing a song for them. I sang the Rihanna chorus again and they laughed. I hugged them and we left. Eating an ice cream cone in front of the school, I watched the kids walk away. This was why I was in Colombia. I looked up at the dilapidated town that crawled up the mountainside and a wave of gratefulness swept over me. Right then, at that second, I was exactly where I wanted to be. And it’s a great feeling.