During the second half of the day yesterday, the director, Camille, Julia and I went to Trujillo's Central Market to buy rope which would replace the previously dangerous garden fence. We purchased the rope with a chunk of the money that everyone in the 'VEN-Peru' program raised. Today we finally put it up, marking our first tangible contribution to the school.
Unfortunately, it didn't go quite as I had hoped. Today, while Julia was out sick, Camille and I found ourselves experiencing the familiar feeling of not understanding the director's decisions. Instead of the three of us putting up the rope, the director pulled FIVE boys out of class to come help -- and generally take over. The task entailed draping rope across fence posts and nailing it in place with nails and hooks. It wasn't something that required eight people. Thus, Camille and I were less useful than we could have been and five boys missed their morning classes.
After recreo, I went to work with Julia's class. It may have been the change in teachers or the particular day, but her kids behaved quite well. They payed attention to ''Head, shoulders, knees and toes'' as if it was the most interesting thing they've done all year and copied the names of shapes into their notebooks as if it was information that their lives would depend on. It was fun. Towards the end of the day, however, one of the teachers pulled members of the volleyball and soccer teams out of class for practice, leaving only about a quarter of the class still there.
Understandably, this left the remaining kids feeling antsy and excluded, resulting in a less focused and harder-to-control class room. The kids probably got the feeling that it was the end of the day and that they should be able to play outside too. I probably could have restored order by putting some math problems on the board or asking the class to repeat English words after me. But the truth is, I didn't think that would be fair. If I were in their shoes, I'd want to go outside too, and I don't think that some kids should be entitled to more physical activity than others, especially at a young age.
I thought that I was once again running into a conflict between what I thought was right and what the authority figures at the school thought should be done. However, giving it some more thought, I realized that I was presuming a conflict that might not exist. In that situation, as in many others, the teacher gave me control of the classroom and exited without giving me any specific instructions. The teachers may be absolutely fine with additional time for physical exercise but don't have the time or energy to supervise it. They might prefer that the students stay in class while their colleagues are outside playing sports on practice days, but that preference hasn't ever been communicated to me. So with ambiguity and innocence at my side, I took the kids outside to play.
I don't know whether or not that decision was expected of me, but I know that playing with the kids was incredibly fun. First, I would hold their hands and spin around in a circle, lifting them off of the ground as they laugh and scream. This is a favorite of theirs, so I was quickly surrounded by kids extending their arms towards me and saying, ''A mi, a mi!!'' I got them to teach me the Spanish word for dizzy: ''mareado.'' It's generally hard to remember all of the many new words that are thrown at me every day, but after saying ''Espera, espera, todavia estoy mareado!'' so many times, I'm sure to remember that one (Wait, wait, I'm still dizzy!).
Later, we went over to a small concrete building that consists of six or seven steps up to a ten foot by ten foot platform with four pillars and a roof. I'm not sure what to call this thing, but the kids like to play on it. Not sure what to do, I decided to do a quick beatboxing demonstration and workshop. A lot of people get a kick out of my beatboxing, but these kids' reactions have to take the cake. They looked confused and incredibly fascinated at the same time, and couldn't stop giggling when they tried it for themselves. They wanted me to dance, but I insisted that they do so first. So there I was, on some kind of concrete stage, beatboxing just like I do in the states, surrounded by dancing Peruvian schoolchildren. Eventually I danced with them.
On Thursday, my English class went better than it has yet. I came prepared with worksheets that I had printed out and a new game to play between review and worksheets. Still tedious at times, I managed to maintain the class's attention most of the time and allow the class to flow from one activity to another without many problems.
The second part of the day became an interesting application of something I've been thinking about while I work. The school has plenty of just the kind of posters and pictures that you'd find in any elementary school -- posters that exhibit snippits of history, pictures of children doing various activities, lists and pictures of good values, pictures of Jesus and Bible stories (something you wouldn't find in public schools in the U.S.), etc. What bothers me is a problem that is just as severe in the United States: that there are only pictures of white people. The only exception I could find are pictures of dark and tan-skinned people who, of course, are dancing and/or wearing tribal clothes.
This is a serious problem in the United States, but it's more surprising and tragically ironic when it happens in Peru, where whites aren't the dominant presence and don't occupy most positions of power. To give you an idea, Trujillo isn't much of a tourist center -- it's nine and a half hours away from Lima in the opposite direction from Macchu Picchu, the largest tourist attraction in Peru. I seldom see foreigners here that aren't other volunteers. To me, that it doesn't strike the children or teachers as weird to have nothing but white people displayed on the walls, when it's very likely that many of them don't know any white people, illustrates well that white supremacy is far reaching. The depiction of Jesus as white -- once again, something that's just as common in the states -- is infuriating to me, since there isn't even the slightest chance that Jesus was a gringo. To falsely associate the son of God with whiteness is to subtly say that brown skin is a deviation from the ideal, a powerful association in a predominately Catholic society.
This is why I was so excited to help create a brown skinned Jesus for one of the classrooms. Julia was recently tasked with creating a new poster of Jesus, a replicate of an older one that is made out of different colors of rolled up foam. She's been working on it for a few days. The last one was white, but neither of us hesitated to find a way to make this one brown. We couldn't find a good color for dark skin, so we decided to color over the skin with the pastels we were using for details.
As I see it, this is another attempt to passively demonstrate something subversive. While no one is being lectured or pressured into doing anything, Julia and I just chose the color brown for Jesus's skin. This might strike people as strange or unsettling, but ultimately, even if it's uncomfortable for anyone, it won't do any lasting damage. We're from a far off land and don't even quite speak their language, so if the brown Jesus is objectionable to anyone, it might be blamed on the fact that we're strange foreigners that just do things differently. His brown skin isn't deep brown, so it might just sit on one of the walls without much notice.
I still think what we did was important. I can't help but think that there is a connection between the fact that whites are depicted as the default person, that the kids are constantly bombarded with idealized images of whites (like Jesus), and that the kids are fascinated and enthralled by me and the other white volunteers at their school. I wonder how the white-as-default-person phenomenon empowers my image, actions, and authority. And without doing any damage, I wonder how to subvert that privilege or do something useful with it. Brown Jesus, however modest the effort, is an attempt at that. I am reminded of a section in Malcolm X's autobiography in which he more aggressively attacks the issue of the white Jesus. After a Bible lecture in a prison class, X asked what color Paul was. ''He had to be black...because he was a Hebrew...and the original Hebrews were black...weren't they?'' The teacher awkwardly paused and said yes. ''What color was Jesus?...he was a Hebrew too, wasn't he?'' An earlier bored class was now sitting ''bolt upright.'' Finally, the teacher quietly stated, ''Jesus was brown.'' Julia and I aren't anything like Malcolm X, but I think that in a way, we replicated his method of counter-hegemonic action by drawing the school's first Brown Jesus. We're not starting a revolution or converting people to join the Nation of Islam, but in a slight similarity to X's prison class, we're (less outlandishly) planting seeds of thought, of subversion. I like to think that we're hinting at the problem of hegemony.
Long before I knew what a feminist was, my Mom referred to God as ''she'' in an interview I conducted with her for a 5th grade homework assignment. My teacher found that funny and I remember thinking she shouldn't have. Then in middle school, probably as the result of similar experiences as I grew older, the song that moved me most was ''Both Human'' by Thulsa Doom, a gritty hardcore punk song that calls for equal respect between the sexes. The tiny little experiences that challenge our notions of hegemony as children can resonate in our memory for a long time. Kids can notice these issues and they can grapple with them.
It's really difficult to figure out my place in this school. Sometimes it's hard just to communicate simple ideas. And sometimes I really doubt whether I'm contributing anything to this school or to these kids. These kinds of actions, tiny as they are, give me hope that I am.