Please Sign Here

February 16, 2010

Signing for certificates of completion

My very first student my freshman year of college was a little girl named A, and my very first task was to teach her to write her name. A hadn’t attended preschool, so didn’t know the alphabet. Over the course of my first difficult semester, we played with letter puzzles and shaving cream, flash cards and picture books as I struggled to find the right strategy to help her learn. When all else failed, I wrapped her fingers around the pencil and placed my hand over hers as we sketched out the five letters of her name.

Four years later and a few thousand miles away, I was once again struggling to help a student write her name. Except now I had not just one student but 40, and my pupils were not bouncy Kindergarteners but señoras bearing their babies in their shawls.

The purpose of our visit to the Zona Reyna was twofold: to make arrangements for the commencement of classes in March and to meet with the women who completed last year’s process. P has literacy groups in three communities, and we scheduled meetings with all the participants in each one. Owing to communication confusion and nonexistent public transportation, I didn’t make it to the first community. But on Friday everything went according to plan, and when we rolled into the community of R.S. at 9:15 AM, most of the women were waiting for us outside the school. It was somewhat unclear why classes were not in session, but the mayor soon arrived to unwrap the wire holding the door shut and everyone filed into the dusty two-room structure.

The meeting flew by, a cacophony of two languages, crying children and clattering desks. At the end, we began to distribute the certificates of completion to the participants, and asked them to line up to sign our attendance record. Afterwards, they were instructed to file across the room to sign another form affirming that they had received their certificates. It was my job to oversee this step, and we all assumed it would be fairly straightforward. After all, names were the first order of business when classes began last June.

But before I went to claim my corner, I watched one of the two facilitators ask a reluctant young women to sign her name on the attendance sheet. When the girl shied away, E helped her to hold the pencil, guiding her hand to form the letters of her name. Like many of the women in the group, this participant spoke no Spanish.

For the next hour and fifteen minutes, I stood in the midst of a crowd of women and small children, trying to persuade each one to sign their name. Many seemed hesitant but eventually copied their names from their certificates. It was a collaborative effort. One woman began translating my words into Q’eqchí: a young boy named C read out the letters for his mother and aunts. The women bent over the small desks, some nursing their children as they waited. Two young men watched from the window, occasionally laughing at the women. I wanted to tell them to stop, but I know exactly one word in Q’eqchí, and “Please stop being a machista pig and tell the women who raised you where to sign” is not it.

Teaching always involves the  careful calibration of chaos and order. It requires complete awareness of the present moment and meticulous preparation. But sometimes the alchemic process of teaching surprises you, and a horrible situation suddenly crystallizes beautifully as teachers and students meet halfway.

In the end, all but two of the women wrote their own names, and everyone signed their first initials. The women were obviously embarrassed, ashamed, a fact they tried to laugh off. But it must have been terrifying for each of them to stand there, surrounded by their children and family and neighbors, all watching one another struggle to write each letter. In such circumstances, to try at all is a stunning act of courage.

After we gathered all the papers and the women moved to the church for another meeting, the mayor invited us to drink banana atole. As we sipped our drinks, we all agreed on the first activity for the next facilitator training: strategies for teaching names. If you know a good one, please let me know. We need all the help we can get.

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