The first glimpse of San Pedro Sula
Looking out from the balcony of Los dos molinos youth hostel over San Pedro Sula by night, excitement, intimidation, even bewilderment overcame not only me but also my fellow volunteers. What had we got ourselves into? In our view lay power cables, strung in disorderly fashion around masts that seemingly would defy any attempt at disentanglement even from the most adept electrician; dogs were heard hauling and scampering though the streets; and beyond the fence lined with razor sharp barbed wire lay the 13 Calle Sur, whose dim street lighting illuminated cars, houses, mountains of litter and yet more of that violent barbed wire.
In order to reach the hostel for the first night in Honduras, located in the heart of what was then the world’s most dangerous city (still ranked second, only inferior to Caracas), we set off from the airport in two minibuses when night had already hidden most of our new home country’s second largest population hub under its opaque blankets. We chatted with Luis, the hostel owner while he navigated streets and enfolding clouds of smoke rising from burning rubbish heaps on the roadside. Through the open windows passed the unmistakeable stench of burnt plastic. “Are there many chicas bonitas [prostitutes] here?” We had been advised on numerous occasions about the country’s social problems: drug trade, gun crime, homicide rates of astronomical proportions, police corruption, impunity for 96% of reported crimes, domestic violence and prostitution accompanied by human trafficking. Halting at a rare traffic light our host for the night replied, less to me and more to the woman outside the driver’s window: “Yes, there are many chicas bonitas, and fat they are, too.” He laughed as I wondered what on earth I had got myself into.
Honduras, more precisely the town of San Juan Pueblo, was my gap year destination, and here I would spend a year of my life as a teacher in the Mercy Christian Academy (MCA). Why? A desire to volunteer, to be challenged and to benefit others with the education I was so fortunate to have received. What were my expectations? Given Honduras’s violent reputation I tried not to expect anything. I trusted my volunteer organisation to know that it was safe enough to live there.
And where is this Honduras, asked my mum. In Central America, and my host town was located a mere three hours from San Pedro Sula. We arrived just in time for lunch, followed by some birthday cake, as it had been Santa the school director’s birthday. Sat beneath the mango trees we sipped cola and I patted the school’s pet bulldog; everyone, including the dog, was excited to meet us.
Equipped with a Spanish A-level and a passable grasp of verb conjugations I made out that the conversation later on was centred around the murder of a woman a mere two days prior. Frightening, yet we had to concentrate on making a good impression even so. Evidently, brutal incidents were not confined to the big cities.
As it turned out school would not begin for another three weeks, time which we used to prepare ourselves for our job. Here I realised what it meant to be a teacher for a year; Santa dug out the Science and History books, and following a three minute chat, planning commenced. Aiming to complete plans for every lesson two weeks in advance I got down to work and after a mere hour I finished my first lesson’s plan. Good, now there were only 37 lessons more to go.
A lot of hours were spent getting to grips with planning, and what’s more redecorating classrooms, positioning new whiteboards and getting to know the surroundings and the people we would spend a year with. In particular I valued Don Benigno and Don José, the night-watchmen, as every bigger property would have to be guarded due to the precarious security situation. Not only was their presence reassuring but their willingness to converse and impart their knowledge to us was admirable. My ignorance of life in Honduras was immense, and it would not have decreased without their help.
But no matter what the preparation, the first day of school was always going to be a step into the unknown. And so it was. Having got used to life in a school without children (for we lived on site) all of a sudden the playground was invaded by children between the ages of three and fourteen.
Our first job was to greet everyone, but after that it was anyone’s guess. The director said a few words of welcome, and soon I found myself in a classroom with my new pupils. Of the thirty children, some were scarcely four years younger than I was. Thus, maturity and professionalism were of prime concern. We broke the ice well, so much so that I could have been quite pleased; if only I had not overrun my lesson and covered the whiteboard with what turned out to be permanent markers…
Not the typical science class: my 8th grade and the teachers gave me surprise birthday celebration.
School started every morning at seven with half an hour’s worth of greetings, handshakes and hugs while the children entered the premises. Three lessons were followed by breakfast, and after another three lessons came the hour long lunchbreak. But when the sun was at its hottest and our teachers’ uniforms were being impregnated by sweat and the dust from the adjacent irt tracks, it was time for the last two lessons of the day. With that my day in the Mercy Christian Academy was over and my work in the República de Honduras (RDH) school began.
At the second school I taught one to two lessons a day, three times a week. Here I looked after four primary school classes whom I was charged with teaching the basics of English. As this was a government run school, one class was the size of my entire responsibility at the MCA, and given that my pupils had only just begun school, a radically different approach was required.
My 1st grade class at the República de Honduras school pose for a group photo before we went outside for English songs and activities.
The MCA was a privately run bilingual school with financial resources coming from an evangelical Christian charity in the USA. Furthermore, a substantial part of pupils paid for their education. As a result, the school had many air-conditioned rooms, books, a projector and the classes were much smaller, twelve pupils in my case, allowing for a much more personal and individual approach. Also, they were able to accommodate us two volunteers. The RDH could not have been more different, most notably in the subject of air-conditioning. Clad in trousers and long sleeved shirts, we were sweaty before we even arrived. Yet after an hour we looked like we had endured a sauna wearing smart casual. Only a light breeze could provide relief in the summer’s heat.
Outdoor interactive science experiment: my 9th grade had great fun investigating on the conductivity of metals and non-metals, but I don’t think Health and Safety in the UK would have been a great fan.
The month of September was special, not only as it was our first teaching experience, but also because it happened to be the month of national celebrations.
On the 15th September, 1821 Honduras became a sovereign state, gaining independence from the Spanish crown along with the neighbouring countries of Central America.
This was marked by singing the national anthem every morning before school, the tune as well as the words everyone knew. Leading up to the 15th classes seemingly became ever more irrelevant. Almost three hours a day were devoted to manufacturing placards and banners of national symbols such as the deer (national animal), the Guacamaya (national bird) and the Native American man, Lempira (the national hero), who valiantly fought off the Spanish until he was betrayed.
Younger pupils from the MCA prepare for the independence day procession down the highway.
Each one of them is wearing a ribbon stating the Department of Honduras that she represents.
Come the big day the whole school marched down the highway under the scorching sun. The anthem was sung and folklore acts were danced, and everywhere one looked there were flags and spectators. I was honoured to prepare my students for march and to take part in this event that seemed so central to Honduran culture. “When is your independence day, mister?” was a frequent question, but nonetheless a poignant reminder of this fundamental difference between coloniser and colonised countries.
Only with these celebrations out of the way did teaching properly start. I got to know my pupils and my classes, and had to start preparing their second, this time proper, exams. Just as grades seven to nine were learning about the Roman world and the makeup of flowers, I was picking up the skills of teaching.
The children at the MCA had wonderful English science and history books, yet the accustomed style of teaching in the country was to copy what the teacher wrote on the board, and then do exercises in silence. Knowing no better, this was the style I followed for the first quarter of the school year. But as the weeks rolled on in the second quarter, it became ever more apparent that this was just not working!
So to begin the third quarter of the year we had not advanced as far as I had wanted to in my materials. My pupils often did not understand what they were supposed to learn and I was not encouraging a productive and dynamic learning environment on a regular basis. What’s more, these were the least of my concerns in 9th grade, whose lessons frequently descended in undisciplined chaos. In short, I realised I was failing my classes and again was asking what had I got myself into?
Had it not been for the encouragement I got from my work partner, my pride and sense of duty, I do not think I would have continued at the MCA. Despondent, I grew ever more worried and had nightmares. But rather than sulk and be sullen, I decided to persevere and overcome what was dragging me down, and the results were great.
Using computer presentations and class projects as much as possible, my classes became more enjoyable; I tried to minimise my participation as much as possible; and although the pupils continued to complain that the exams I gave them were far too difficult, their grades demonstrated a marked improvement; while 9th grade continued to present challenges, I empathised with them – had I not been the same at their age? The outcome was not perfect, but far more acceptable than it had been.
One obstacle persisted: though the MCA claimed to be a bilingual school, lots of children had an at best mediocre grasp of English. This became painfully apparent the older they were. How to teach complex scientific topics to non-native speakers? Well, lots of vocabulary help, model building and clear idea of which topics to focus on. Depth, not breadth.
A few pupils at the MCA even began reading in their spare time, ever since a teacher and I had taken up reading in the playground during break and lunch hours. This was rare sight, for unfortunately Honduras suffers from high illiteracy and a lack of available books. The only bookshop in San Juan Pueblo housed two novels: Chronicle of a Death Foretold by García Márquez and The Little Prince. Even if more literature were available, the cost of books would no doubt deter potential readers. So, in context, it was encouraging to see young readers make use of the books available to them.
Despite overcoming the initial problems of being a teacher – my lessons were interactive and productive, and I had built a good rapport with the pupils and the staff – the third and fourth quarter of the Honduran school year continued to be challenging. After the cooler winter, temperatures soared. The weeks rolled on with our usual routine in the two schools, a church visit on Wednesday evenings and the weekends spent planning the week ahead or meeting up with the friends we had made. Energy levels were beginning to drop and with every passing day the yearning to return home became stronger.
So when the day finally came, with lessons and exams completed, it was very saddening. Many goodbyes were said and now only memories remain; the familiar faces that had surrounded me for nigh on a year would stay in San Juan Pueblo.
I pray that my pupils at both the MCA and the RDH succeed with their learning that I was lucky to impart on them for a year, and transform their country. For all the problems that Honduras suffers, without proper education social change will be unlikely. I arrived in Honduras without many expectations. While crime dominates the country’s international reputation and is ever present, the desire for peace and a better life is a palpable sentiment wherever one goes. Decent jobs all require knowledge of English, and if young people decide to look elsewhere for work in order to sustain their families, they will undoubtedly go to the US where English is a valuable asset. In this light, I would not deter anyone from going to volunteer and I am very thankful to you for supporting volunteering projects such as my own because the acquisition of English language skills offers children in Honduras enormous opportunities in life.
As for myself, recollecting this experience now, I feel stronger. I now know what I had got myself into. I had made mistakes which affected not only me but, more importantly, other people to whom I had a duty. Yet, as failure is an unavoidable fact of life, how one masters and overcomes failure is what matters.
Goodbye photo with my 3rd grade class at the República de Honduras school.