Thursday, May 28, 2009

Happy Birthday, Sergio

When I was living with his family for the first two months in Palacaguina, Sergio and I would eat dinner together. There was a small, wooden table that sat in the central patio of the house and we’d sit on either end of the table facing each other. Everyone else that lived in the house would serve themselves and eat sitting in a chair or along a bench, but Sergio and I were always seated and served at the table. Oftentimes, the family would even set the table with a tablecloth and a white cloth placemat outlined with doily-esque gold designs. I received nothing but the best hospitality. His mother or grandmother would serve us. A fork, a plate of rice, beans, scrambled eggs, and a plastic, Winnie the Pooh plate with two tortillas for me. A spoon, a bowl of rice, beans, scrambled eggs, and half a tortilla on top for Sergio Luis. After one meal about two weeks into my stay with his family, I finished my meal, put my fork down, and looked at Sergio Luis. He was still finishing up his tortilla. I smiled and said, “I beat you.” He quickly finished his tortilla but didn’t say a word.

The following night, we again ate dinner together. A fork, plate of rice, beans, scrambled eggs, and a plastic, Winnie the Pooh plate with two tortillas for me. A spoon, a bowl of rice, beans, scrambled eggs, and half a tortilla on top for Sergio Luis. I ate my meal normally but watched horrified as Sergio lifted his bowl to his mouth, slightly tilted his head back, and shoveled the food into his mouth. It wasn’t pretty and a lot of the food ended up on the table and down his shirt but it was very efficient. He didn’t say a word during the meal until he slammed the bowl down onto the table, raised his arms, and screamed “I beat you!” I struggled to keep from laughing and when I had composed myself, I calmly said “You beat me because I do not eat like a dog. You shouldn’t either.” At that moment, smiling at a four year old boy covered in food, I realized I had a student that was paying close attention.

I had come to Nicaragua to teach a high school business course, but truthfully I was never very good at teaching at the high school. I was just never great at teaching a group of 50 teenagers. I struggled to get them focused. I hated dealing with discipline problems. I had few resources besides a blackboard. I had no formal teaching experience and was easily frustrated or overwhelmed. Even after classes that went particularly well, my momentary high of a job well done was coupled with an exhaustive feeling of “I can’t do this tomorrow.”

Teaching smaller groups or individuals was a better fit. It allowed for more interaction; it was less overwhelming and more rewarding. It was possible to change activities quickly and easily within a small group. But most of all it was simply less formal. In smaller groups, I was seen more as a facilitator than a teacher. Students were more willing to ask or answer questions and have fun when I was seen as a friend and not a teacher. And the most informal and enjoyable teaching I did was with Sergio Louis.

We started with colors. Blue, green, red, yellow, orange. I’d buy two small packs of candy and reveal the bags to a delighted, squealing Sergio. The pieces of candy were similar in size to Skittles, though not as tasty. I’d fish one small piece from the bag and ask Sergio to name the color of the candy. If he got it right, he got to eat it. If he got it wrong, I got to eat it. It was, perhaps, a cruel way to teach a four year old the standard colors of the world, but Sergio was a quick learner. The first time he named every color correctly he danced with joy. Blue, green, red, yellow, orange.

We didn’t stop with colors though. Over the course of two years, I helped Sergio learn how to write, how to tie shoes, how to swim, how to eat ice cream, how to sing Hail! To The Victors, how to whistle, how to apologize. He posed curious questions like “Why don’t you have earlobes?” and learned that everyone is different. He jealously asked “Why don’t I have a beard” and learned that children can’t grow beards. Our class time was informal, spent swinging in a hammock or hiding from the piercing sun under a tree, but the learning was serious and quick. And it was unusually enjoyable.

After a long day of struggling to get all my students focused on vocabulary, formulas, and homework assignments, it was always refreshing to return to Sergio’s curiosity. He soaked up, as fact, anything I threw his way. I didn’t have to struggle to get his attention, and rather than wasting time trying to teach percentages I could focus on teaching what was really important. Like how to appropriately greet me.

We’d start with closed fists. I’d bring my fist down, knocking his fist, and as if it were a direct result of my blow, his small fist would swoop above mine and come crashing down to knock my fist. This happened rapidly, and without hesitation we’d finish off the two initial knocks with a standard fist bump. There was some confusion when we were first learning, but when I started to call out the steps “Mine! Yours! Middle!” he was an old pro within days. Like any good teacher who senses his students are ready for more, I introduced a more challenging handshake; one that can be best described as the Eight Mile greeting.

We’d shake hands normally, pivot our wrists around grasped thumbs, shake while grasping each others' thumbs, slide our hands away, grip our fingertips together, pull and snap our hands back and finish with a snap of our fingers. The Eight Mile greeting proved to have a lot of steps where a beginner could get lost or confused, but we broke it down into manageable parts and practiced diligently. With time we perfected each step and slowly put them all together for the full greeting.

The final step was an easy one. We combined the fist bumps and Eight Mile shake into one, long, beautifully choreographed, impressive greeting. I’d enter the house and without word Sergio would hold his fist out giving me the queue to bring my fist down on his to start the fluid chain reaction of moving fists, hands, and fingers. After the final snap of our fingers, we’d casually move along with our conversation as if nothing extraordinary had just happened. As if we didn’t notice the jealous looks from our audience. As if a four year old and a twenty five year old hadn’t just greeted each other with an elaborate secret handshake.

After mastering the handshake, it was clear: we were an awesome teacher/pupil tandem. As a team, I could teach him anything and he could learn everything. Spending time with Sergio was the most enjoyable and successful teaching I did in Nicaragua.


On my last day in Palacaguina, I went over to Sergio Luis’ house and we greeted each other with our handshake. He sat on my lap and I explained to him that I was leaving the following day. He asked why I couldn’t stay. Why are you leaving? Why can’t I go with you to the United States? And as I struggled to come up with replies, Sergio and I learned that we had our limits. The awesome pair was fallible. We learned that I couldn’t teach him things that I didn’t quite understand myself. We sat down to dinner that night and I worried –as any teacher does – that Sergio wouldn’t remember anything I taught him. That in a few short months he wouldn’t even remember his teacher. Consumed in thought, I looked up and noticed Sergio’s side grin from behind the bowl he was holding up to his mouth. He slammed the bowl down, raised his arms, and said “I beat you.” I smiled. He’d remember.