Euripides and Pine Ridge

I first read The Bacchae, by Euripides, when I was studying abroad at Oxford University. It was a well-loved classic of C.S. Lewis, and I read the short play with enthusiasm. As I met with my professor, Dr. Kirkpatrick, to discuss the paper I had written on the topic of Dionysus, the god of the story, I mentioned that I did not sympathize with Dionysus in The Bacchae, and actually thought that Pentheus, king of Thebes, was wrongfully killed by the Dionysus’ supplicants, the maenads. My professor, a classicist, pushed me on this point, and I explained that I saw several problems with Dionysus’ conduct and thought the king right in wanting to know what was going on with his people.

I had written, “After giving Pentheus the opportunity to accept his divinity and is refused, Dionysus puts his own thoughts into the king’s head…” which led to the king getting torn limb from limb by his own mother.

I can see Dr. Kirkpatrick still, leaning back in his chair in the café under the Ashmolean Museum. His green scarf thrown over the back of his chair, wool coat tossed aside. Our small table was between two white columns of the café, cutting off my peripheral vision and making my world small. His eyebrows flicked up briefly, and I knew the expression well enough by then to know that I had missed something important.

“Were the thoughts in King Pentheus’ mind really just the ones Dionysus put in his head? Where does it say that?” he prodded.

“Oh, here, I think,” I mumbled, pulling out my notes and reading, “PENTHEUS (who during the rest of this scene, with a few exceptions, simply speaks the thoughts the DIONYSUS puts into him, losing the power of his own mind)[1] …” I trailed off, looking back up at my professor. Why would he suggest there was something else going on? I racked my mind for some other line of the text I had forgotten.

“Were the bacchants actually doing what Pentheus thought they were doing?” Dr. Kirkpatrick asked.

The king of Thebes had thought the maenads were having drunken orgies. The bacchants had pulled a steer apart, but were not, in reality, doing what the king feared.

“Do you think that Pentheus was projecting his own fears onto the maenads, even when there was no reason to think that?” He pressed, leaning in, his hands clasped on top of the table, our coffees forgotten.

This new possibility was opening up meaning to the text I had missed. If this were the case, then King Pentheus’ descent into madness was not only his own fault, but his death seemed justly deserved. It would mean that he had had full possession of his senses when he decided to look upon the maenads—which was forbidden for men to do on penalty of death—and see if they were truly mad. I sat for a few moments in stunned silence, realization settling in with understanding.

I had projected my own biases onto Dionysus. I was ready to believe with the king of Thebes the worst of the god. I had read much about Dionysus—from Homer to Hesiod, to Euripides, to commentaries on these texts, to books of Greek mythology. Yet, when presented with the text before me, telling me a new narrative, I brought in all I knew of the Dionysus and made my own assumptions, drawing a similar conclusion as Pentheus.

As I was discussing the idea of biases and preconceived ideas with my Teach for America mentor, Josie Green, she mentioned Chris Argyris’ Ladder of Inference, which is a way of synthesizing the cycle of interpreting and processing experiences that form the beliefs that we hold and actions that we take. It goes like this: I make an observation. I process what I see by selecting specific information I’ve deemed as important, and then add my own meaning to the information based on cultural and personal experiences. Assumptions are made, conclusions are drawn, and I am left with a belief that is now part of how I interpret what I experienced. The final step of the ladder is that I now act on what I believe. This interpretation of reality and the assumptions that are made in the process can lead to stereotyping and reinforcing what I already think is true.

I saw what I wanted to see in Dionysus.

The Bacchae might be a fictional story written thousands of years ago, but I just have to look at my own life to know that the nature of people and their biases haven’t changed much since Pentheus. How often do I stereotype people in the course of my daily routines? Even when presented with evidence that my impression is not true, how many times have I continued to believe what I want to believe?

In her book, “We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter,” Celeste Heedlee notes:

“It might be tempting to believe that all stereotypes are rooted in history and ignorance, but some are actually quite modern and new ones arise regularly. In fact, scientists have been able to reproduce the creation of stereotypes in their labs, which means we are capable of creating new stereotypes at any time, and the passage of time will not serve to destroy them. Stereotypes change and evolve over the years, which underscores an important fact about them: they are not based on fact or truth, but presumption. For example, it wasn’t all that long ago that pink was considered a masculine color. A June 1918 issue of Ladies Home Journal advised parents that “the generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is pretty for the girl.

Obviously, the opposite gender stereotypes prevail today. While the color of a baby blanket may seem like a frivolous example of stereotyping, its very silliness shows us how flimsy stereotypes are. When we enter a conversation, all of our preconceived notions—most of which have no basis in reality—will affect its outcome. No matter how right and true your opinion feels, consider that it may be a stereotype and not fact.”

My opinion of Dionysus, for example, felt right and true, but it was based on a stereotype, one that I had formed through reading and research, yes, but also from ideas that I don’t even know where they came from. Dionysus as the god of “wine and intoxication, of ritual madness and ecstatic liberation from everyday identity” as Jenny March says in Cassell Dictionary of Classical Mythology, had become in my mind, as in King Pentheus’ mind, the god of drunken orgies and excess. These were my ideas, my preconceived notions coming into The Bacchae. I found out that these stereotypes and notions were actually only a pale representation of Dionysus, who also represents new life and rebirth, a note on why he makes a cameo in C.S. Lewis’s Prince Caspian. I went from describing the Dionysus of The Bacchae as a “horror,” to seeing the whole story differently.

When I decided to join Teach for America and first started telling people I would be teaching in the Pine Ridge Reservation, people would ask, “Isn’t that the really bad reservation?” I didn’t know how else to respond so I would say, “That is what I have heard.”

I tried to research with the tool available while living in Guatemala: the internet. The people that lived in Pine Ridge were reduced to statistics. I read things like the unemployment rate is 80-90%; yearly income: $4,000; alcoholism rate estimated to be 80%; twice the national average suicide rate; three times the national average for infant mortality; life expectancy on Pine Ridge is the lowest in the entire United States and second in the Western Hemisphere only to Haiti[2]. In 2015, there was a suicide epidemic and 103 people between the ages of 12-24 attempted suicide between December and March alone[3]. I heard of bootlegging rings (Pine Ridge is dry), the controversy over the shutting down of the town of White Clay, which sold liquor to many folks in Pine Ridge, Mexican gang violence, methamphetamine addicts, fetal alcohol syndrome, domestic violence, and the list went on. I suppose based on this, people wondered, “Isn’t it really rough out there?”

And this is our bias. My stereotype. It robs an entire people of their humanity. And often it takes being there—here—to see the new narrative presented. Like the king of Thebes, I often let my own stereotypes get in the way of reality. The reality is, no human is reduced to a statistic. The complexity of the human narrative shows that no person is merely “unemployed,” “an alcoholic,” “an addict,” or “insert adjective here”. That sanitizes their story to a white-washed, one-dimensional reality. Every person who wears those labels is something more than those labels.

Take the students I have met as examples. It’s easy to tell you the “what’s” about them. But that is not who they are. If one of the student’s in my class were to tell you about herself, she would not even mention statistical details. She doesn’t know she is an “at risk” youth. We have conversations about wearing dresses and becoming scientists and how to do our hair. We laugh until our sides hurt about how her silly teacher (me) ran into a table in the hallway last week. She is eager to run errands and help in the classroom. She is aware of power dynamics and the pull of her influence. She is clever. She reads people’s faces and the stress in their shoulders. She loves dogs and her brother. She is protective and fierce. And she is more than a statistic.

Statistics miss the generational trauma of the students in “the system”, that unjust thing that has institutionalized oppression so deeply that the cutting it out may be fatal. They skip over history sanitized to be palatable. And they certainly don’t tell about the biases and stereotypes still in existence to this day, a small sampling of which is heard in a New York Times article about suicide on the reservations from 2015:

“When Mr. Janis, a longtime activist, talks about Santana’s death, he points to the “multigenerational trauma” inflicted on Native Americans by whites and the tensions that still exist between the groups. On an overnight trip to Rapid City over the New Year, a group of girls including Santana overheard a white woman call them “filthy Indians” as they passed through a hotel lobby, he said. “My beautiful Lakota granddaughter,” he said. “She had to hear that. Our kids today just want to die because they’re sick of all this oppression.[4]

The reality of stereotypes is this: they aren’t based on reality. And to say what the statistics miss, that is at the heart of recognizing and mending those biases of thought. There are plenty of stereotypes out there, and we all hold stereotypes we don’t even know we have. These affect our feelings and our knee-jerk reactions to situations, and in turn affect ideas that we hold to be true.

And the truth is, some days it is easier to accept these biases than it is to disrupt the Ladder of Inference—some days I don’t even know I am making assumptions and it takes someone else, someone who has stood where I stood before, and say, “Why do you think that?”

Reordering reality is disorienting, much like that shocking moment when I realized Dionysus was not the horror I imagined and it was the king whose fatal preconceived notions were in the wrong. It is not easy work, this laying bare. But it is worth it. The richness that arose from the text made Euripides a genius of nuance, something that would have been completely missed if an Oxford professor didn’t say, “Really? Where do you see that?” And it would have been completely missed again without my Teach for America mentor saying, “How does that affect how you think now?” But this time, the richness and nuance that were slowly being revealed were not in a text, but in my life. As Dr. Suess said, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” It’s another way of saying one moves from knowledge to action. And that is what I am left with: now that I know, what will I do?





[1] Euripides, trans. Gilbert Murray, The Bacchae ( Publishing, 2009), 50





Thin Places

January, wiótheȟika wi, the moon when the sun is scarce.

The weather app on my phone had a winter storm warning in a bright orange banner at the top of my phone screen: up to a foot of snow expected into Sunday night. As I washed dishes and cleaned my kitchen, I watched the dark clouds gathering in the southeast like night falling in the morning. By the afternoon, it looked like dusk. Deep stretches of bundling blue storm clouds with white ridges and grey bellies rounded over the distant yellow hills. Most of the snow from the last storm had melted, leaving the ground soggy, because the weather was warm and the earth had melted, too.

It has been a long time since I have published anything on the blog. I have written often and settled my thoughts while the snow settles outside, but there is a different quality to them than when I have written before. Each day I am learning something new and something in the deep-down core of my being shifts—perhaps it is the old things I’ve known in my head simply taking root in my heart. My patience is stretched until I think I’ve not known patience before. My temper flares, my frustrations mount, my exhaustion only seems to grow and I am worn thin. Yet, in the middle of this, there my students are, lovely, curious, full little souls.

And this ordinary, it’s holy. This eking out a living, this teaching, this daily toil of hardship and strife, these problems that seem too big to find solutions for, this very act of breathing in and out and facing the rising sun—it’s holy. Each new dawn brings new opportunities for grace, for seeing how God is moving, how His strength is sufficient.

There have been many people whose words have been like a basket in which I set my own thoughts. They have articulated what I needed most to hear, and it is like my scattered thoughts found a place in which to reside. Like the basket that sits by the door and catches the miscellaneous items that don’t have a place—buttons, pens, nails, a book that was once taken on a trip, papers—these are my thoughts. Half-formed things that wisp about. And then someone comes along and says, “You are not the only one who has thought this; let me put words to your thoughts and help you settle them into a place of sorting out.” My thoughts like having a resting place and the whole of my mind seems much more in order. One such person is Bethany Cok, a dear friend from Guatemala, as she wrote about Lake Atitlan. “One of my ‘thin places,’” she says of the lake, “where Heaven and earth seem to nearly touch, the border between them worn so thin that glory spills over, unapologetically, audaciously daring to touch the world I’ve deemed mundane and weary and flood it again with the sacred.”

South Dakota has perhaps begun to be a “thin place” for me. I’ve deemed it wearying and mundane, frustrating and arcane, yet my heart is flooded with awe and wonder at God’s grace—why I see Him more clearly in hardships than in good times, I don’t know—but it’s most plain when I’m thin. My patience, endurance, fortitude, vision: when they’ve run thin, the border between Heaven and earth gets thin. I look out at the pine trees scattered across the buttes like sentries against the skyline and breathe deeply the frosty air and get a whiff of wonder. I look back on the decisions, the things, that brought me here, and I know that God’s hand makes me ready even when I am not. When I am worn thin, God says, “My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).  And this place gets thin, instead of me, glory spills over, and the world is flooded again with the sacred.

On To New Adventures

IMG_4727The past year has been a whirlwind. I moved from Texas to Guatemala to South Dakota, moving to South Dakota almost exactly a year to the day after I moved to Guatemala. There are no active volcanoes on the horizon, no misty mountains jagging across the skyline or valleys so deep people stack houses ten high up the sides of them and still don’t reach the tops. There are, however, buttes and plateaus, rolling hills, rocky outcroppings, rivers, prairies, and a land so dense with white canyons, it is called “The Badlands”. I haven’t seen a single brightly painted concrete house, but I have seen trailer houses and prefab houses sitting like lone sentries atop the yellowed hills. Rusty cars sit in the yards or are lined down the long driveways that wind over the prairies. The houses are spread out–they have breathing space between them. There are no long walls hiding houses shoulder-to-shoulder. The clouds that billow up from behind the buttes are not made by ash and the thunderstorms that roll in are not from volcanic eruptions. There are pine trees and grass just out my door. When it rains, the earth smells fresh and not merely settled. Guatemala has its fierce mountains, South Dakota has its expansive wildness.

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The landscape is not the only thing different. The culture, the language, and the background of my students are all vastly different from last year’s and each has their own challenges. Thinking back on my first weeks in Guatemala, I remember feeling overwhelmed and inadequate. Those feeling lessened as the weeks and months wore on and I felt rhythms happen and real joy in teaching develop.  “The second year is always easier,” I had heard from experienced teachers, and I was looking forward to having a year under my belt. There were so many things I was going to do differently! So many things I could do better! I had ideas for everything from poetry time to math centers. I had done this before, I thought, I am going to have so much fun this year!

Enter the first day and my kindergarteners.

No one could have prepared me for what I encountered. I went home and regrouped. The next day, I did the same. Half-way through the following days, I would find myself saying, “Abort! Abort!” and would go home when the day was done and replan again. New students were added each week for the first four weeks and each week I felt I was covering the same ground as the week before. I have students who can already count to one hundred and spell words, and students who don’t know what a number or letter is. There are nineteen students in my class, but because many students miss class, there is an average of sixteen to seventeen students on any given day.

I am about to begin the sixth week of school and am still learning to navigate and teach students with traumatic pasts and emotional hurt. There is much for me still to learn and I have hardly begun to teach.

As sappy as it may sound, I love Hallmark. My dear friend Autumn got me hooked on a Hallmark series called, “When Calls the Heart,” about Elizabeth Thatcher, a woman who leaves behind everything she knows to teach in a Canadian coal mining town out West at the turn of the century. As much as I love Elizabeth’s grit and determination, I also admire her vision. She says:

“When my father saw me off on my journey west, he told me he hoped I would find what God had shaped me for and then give my whole heart to it. I thought I already knew what that was. As a teacher, I would be a molder of young minds and an encouragement to their mothers and fathers. But in trying to give my heart to that purpose, I’ve learned it’s been much more than what’s in a book. One sometimes has to go against his or her nature to dig deep into the dark trenches of life. One has to be willing to lose everything in order to gain what God has shaped them for because there’s a cost to the things that matter most in life. And it’s in that sacrifice that we find our true treasure.”

I sat down to write a blog post many times over the past few weeks. Thoughts wisped through my mind and across the page and off again like the billowing clouds that sweep across the prairie hills of South Dakota.

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The chilly autumn air this morning made me want to walk, and I ventured to the hills behind my house. There is rugged beauty in the deep canyons and miles of prairie land here that makes me feel small, and all I can do is stand still and stare; then there are broken down trailer houses sitting in those hills with rusty cars dead in the yards, and that makes me feel small, too.

There is much I would like to say, but I don’t know how to say it. I don’t know how to capture how hard life is here for those in the Pine Ridge Reservation, which includes my students. I was told that teaching on the reservation would be hard, but nothing could have prepared me for the trauma my students have experienced or the difficulties of being their teacher. I know that God’s heart is here among the oppressed, and that, too, is where my heart is. It doesn’t make it any easier to deal with, but it certainly makes it worth it.

A Year Gone By

The other evening as I was pulling out my Bible and journal for quiet time, humming softly as I settled on top of my bed, I realized I was singing, “Q-u says kw kw kw kw kw kw.”

In that moment, I had crossed some invisible line that I don’t think I can return from: I am officially a kindergarten teacher nearing the end of my first year teaching. I have passed into a different realm altogether and it becomes alarmingly clear when I find myself humming the alphabet song or explaining a word like ‘mystique’ because it was in a ‘qu’ song I played in class.

Before I left for Guatemala, I received some invaluable advice from one of the ladies at church who had been a kindergarten teacher for thirty years. Her piece of wisdom was to keep a notebook nearby to record the stories of the day. I took her advice and have had no end of laughter and smiles as I reread these stories. Thank you, Mrs. Roden, for those words.

Here are some stories from my classroom:

One of my students asked, “Ms. Cowan, can we look at pictures of airplanes on your computer?”

I said we could, and I took my computer to his desk. I wanted to know what kind of airplanes he wanted to look at? Big ones? Jet planes? Or just airplanes? He had been into spaceships and rockets the week before and I wanted to know if perhaps he wanted to look up spaceships?

“I want to look at the Airbus A 3-8-0. That is what it says on the wings. It is the biggest airplane. It holds 108 people,” he said, enunciating each word in his deliberate fashion. “Airbus A three-eighty,” he repeated when I blinked at him in surprise.

We looked up the Airbus A380. It was big. Double decker, blue and white. He giggled in delight as we scrolled through pictures.

“Why does it have such big engines?” was his next question. I looked up a video on how plane engines worked in Airbuses.

“Ms. Cowan,” he declared in the middle of the video, “Airplanes use airplane gas. You cannot put car gas in them.”

“Oh,” I agreed. “I see.”

He nodded sagely and went back to watching the video. We looked up how jet engines worked after that and that had him giggling again at how the air went through the turbines.

“May I bring my airplane to school?” he asked when we were done. I told him he could and the rest of center time he told everyone he had a secret he was bringing to school—but it took no convincing at all for him to tell it was an airplane, his very own Airbus A380.

One of my students broke another student’s heart today.

“She was my best friend, but now my heart is broken,” he said.

“My heart is…” she started but didn’t have the words. She took her hands in the shape of a heart and wrenched the two sides apart, “He broke it.”

There is nothing like the seriousness of children to match their silliness.

In the span of a single afternoon, there were discussions of broken hearts, death, who would be king (only to find out I had been dubbed so), stuffed dogs named Princess and baby cobras with baby cobra teeth. I am forever fascinated by the thoughts of children. They have an uncanny ability to accept certain things, like the death of a grandparent (who are with Jesus now, they told me), while not being able to accept others, like that there can be two stuffed dogs named Princess.

The class was sitting in morning meeting when one of my students yelled, “I’m a meatball!”

I said, “You’re a what? A meatball?”

He said, “Yes,” with the funniest shy smile.

I said, “You’re a meatball! All this time I thought you were a student and you’ve been a meatball! When did this happen?”

One of the other students offered seriously, “Five years ago he turned into a meatball.”

I asked if it was pretend, like in one of their favorite books where the character pretends to be a frog.

One student said yes; the other said no.

One of my students had a nosebleed today. It just started bleeding when we were standing in line. He got a paper towel and stopped it up.

“My blood is strong,” he informed me, “I have my mother’s blood. It is red and it is strong blood.”

Sometimes I don’t know what to say.

I gave my kids a huge lecture about being kind one day. At recess, I checked in with my kids and asked some of them who they were playing with and how it was going? One of the girls told me, “I’m playing with my best friend.”

I asked who that was, thinking it was one of the other girls in our class.

“Sophia,” she informed me.

I didn’t know any student with that name and asked who that was.

“She is invisible,” she told me happily and held out her hand to her invisible friend. Apparently, her friend Sophia took her hand because she closed her hand like someone’s hand was in hers and went skipping off towards the swings.

On Valentine’s Day, I walked to the top of the little hill that goes down to art to pick my kids up from their art class. As soon as my students saw me, they charged up the hill and swarmed my legs, knocking me off the sidewalk.

“Ms. Cowan!” they all cried, “we love you!”

I was trying not to be bowled over by the ten little bodies clinging to my legs and yelling that they loved me. I looked at Malinda, the art teacher, in confusion at my students’ sudden devotion, but she just laughed.

Later, she told me she was asking who all the kids loved since it was Valentines.

“I love my brother,” someone would say.

“I love …” someone else would say and name another student in class.

Malinda asked, “Doesn’t anyone love Ms. Cowan?”

“Yes!” they all agreed as if it were obvious.

“Have you told her?”

She said they all went wide-eyed, “Noooo…”

“You had better tell her,” Malinda informed them.

Hence the sticky, paint-full hands of ten children so full of love that I couldn’t move.

Last week, several classes had standardized testing to finish, which meant kindergarten didn’t get their computer special. Instead, I took them to the playground for a bit. While they were playing, one of my students found a half-dead moth that had been crushed. It was missing the scales on its back and an antenna along with part of its wing. He had just learned about the difference between moths and butterflies and was very interested in this moth. I told him to take it off the play-set and to a tree. He said, “Ok,” very seriously, as if I had just imparted to him a job so important he couldn’t waste breath on unnecessary words. He took it to a tree and took one of the other students to go and see it. They got a paper towel and made a habitat for it. They put dirt on the paper towel and made the dirt damp for the moth. They put leaves and twigs in the dirt and put the moth on their habitat.

“We must take it to the hospital!” the little boy told the little girl, and they bounded off across the playground.

During quiet time, they told me they had left the moth sleeping under a tree.

The moth died during second recess. Or at least, they pronounced it dead. I didn’t see the funeral they held for it under the Line Up Tree, but I later saw the grave they had dug and covered with carefully arranged rocks and sticks. The first student told me that he said a prayer for the moth and the other student sang a song for it before having to line up to go back to class.

One Wednesday, I told my kids about Hump day—except they didn’t know what a hill was so I used a mountain as an example since they are in abundance here.

“The first days of the week are like climbing up a mountain, but Wednesday is when you are on top! You made it! Yay! And the other days of the week are going down the mountain.”

One of my students thought on this before raising his hand. “Ms. Cowan, Saturday and Sunday are the valleys?”

“Yes, I suppose that makes Saturday and Sunday the valley.” I agreed.

He nodded, “I like the valley.”

In Social Studies, I was talking with my kids about what people did in the past without electricity—and what about before silverware?

“What do you think people had to use to eat?” I asked. I held my hand like a bowl and wiggled my fingers over it.

One of my students immediately raised his hand and shouted, “Magic!”

Not quite, but close.

I have a student who is the sweetest tempered child I have ever met. He is kind, he is so very smart—he can retell a story nearly verbatim—but he is so slow at doing anything. He can read and he can write, but it takes him three times as long as everybody else because he will be staring at the ceiling for five minutes instead of working. Sometimes he will be wandering around the room in circles like a crazy airplane, silently spinning. I will have to come up to him and remind him he needs to work. Last Monday, I laughed to keep from crying. He had been playing with the blocks when center time was over and they were supposed to pack up. I told him to clean up his blocks. He began to clean and I turned around. Soon I saw him wander into my line of sight near the cubbies, his hands in his pockets doing his signature waddle-walk.

“Mario,” I called, “what are you supposed to be doing?”

He turned to me with a smile, “Waahhg!” he cried, sounding like a duck or a horn, I didn’t know.

He went back to the carpet and I went back to monitoring the others. Soon, I realized he was sitting at his desk putting his papers in his folder. Normally a good thing, except there was still blocks all over the carpet.

“Mario!” I said, a little more exasperated this time. “Go clean up your blocks, please!”

“Wahh!” he made the noise again and went back to the carpet to clean, ambling in a walk/run pace that looked like he should be skipping, but could never quite break into it.

The third time, he was going in circles around the cubbies.



I didn’t even need to say more. He went to the blocks and finished.

Every other student was packed up and standing in line. He had two minutes before the bell rung. He was putting each individual sheet of paper I had given him to take home separately in one single page protector. Only, he couldn’t get them in very well. He would slowly stuff one half-way in before it wasn’t right and he took it out again to try again.

“I will show you a better way,” I said, watching the clock. One minute. I gathered up the papers he had in his hand and put them in his folder on top of his page protector and shut the folder.

“There you go.”

He took it to his backpack and I realized there were several pieces of paper that were his that he didn’t put in his folder.

“Mario, these are yours, too.”

I handed them to him. Instead of putting his folder down, which he still had it in his arms, along with his scarf, his water bottle, and his name tag from his desk, he tried to hold the papers between his fingers. Things were falling as he tried to take the papers.

“Let me help,” I said as the bell rang.

I sent the rest of the kids with Mrs. Fuentes’ class as Mario and I packed his backpack. He tried to put his lunch box in on top of everything else, but it wouldn’t fit and he had to take it all out and put the lunch box in first. I helped him put everything in his backpack, zip it up and get him out the door only two minutes past the bell. It was only when I got back to the classroom that I saw he had left his sweater in his cubby.

On Monday, we read “No, David!” A book written about David, who gets into all kinds of trouble and his mother is always telling him, “No! No! No!”

As a writing project based on the book, I assigned my kids to write their own mini-“No, David!” books, only they had to write, “Yes, ______!” and draw themselves doing good and helpful things.

In one part of the “No, David!” book, David is running down the sidewalk naked, his bare back and bottom making the kids laugh until they held their sides. The caption reads, “Come back here, David!” David’s behind was drawn like two circles stuck together on spindlyIMG_7351 2.jpg legs.

One of my students took this idea and wrote, “Yes you can go too serf” with an illustration of himself with spiky black hair like the picture of David—despite the inconsequential detail that his hair is very light brown. His head is turned over his back so his smile is visible, as is his naked rear. He is surfing, with his surfboard riding a giant wave.

“Of course. That’s how I surf,” one of the teachers commented with dry humor when I showed her the picture he had drawn when we were on the bus.

As we were eating lunch, one of my students asked, “Ms. Cowan, can I ask you a question?”

“Of course,” I said, wondering what he would want to know.

He chewed a few mouthfuls of his sandwich and asked thoughtfully, “Why are leaves green?”

How do I explain that to a kindergartener? I wondered. I gave him a mini-lesson on how plants make food and how chloroplasts have green pigment, which makes the leaves green.

He stared at me in open-mouthed wonder, his eyes crinkling in delight as I told him about it. When I was done, he gasped and giggled. During recess, he examined each blade of grass, trying to find the breathing holes.

He is going to be a scientist yet.

As we were walking in line heading to the classroom from recess, I looked up and saw one of my students was marching back up the sidewalk in the opposite direction.

“Where are you going?” I called.

He grinned at me and kept marching. “To the library to read!” he declared.

I saw he had his book in his hand. “You need to read in the classroom,” I said, motioning him back to where we were standing.

He sunk his head down in disappointment.

“It’s quiet time,” I pointed out, “C’mon and I will read your book to you.”

He suddenly threw his arms out like an airplane, threw his head back, and started running back to the classroom, screaming at the top of his lungs.

I suppose I should have reprimanded him for running and screaming, but I was too astonished and amused, and I am afraid I did little more than tell him to use walking feet and a quiet voice and then we went in and read his book for quiet time.

For literacy, I have been teaching parts of a story: beginning, middle, and end. I wanted the kids to make their own books using one sheet of paper for the beginning, one for the middle, and one for the end. I had them write their story on these sheets and illustrate it. The last thing we did was add a cover to their book. I didn’t edit them, and I tried to help as little as possible. Some of the stories are barely readable, but I wanted them to be as independent as possible and have something that they could be proud of that they did themselves. I thought they would get discouraged if they had to rewrite and edit, so I didn’t make them edit at all.

The stories were hilarious. Some were very sophisticated. One student’s story had word bubbles with his illustrations and was about wanting to get ice cream and getting a hot dog at the park, too.

IMG_7163.jpgAnother student was very creative with his story. His book was about a parrot who wanted to get treasure from the forest, but—plot twist!—had problems and couldn’t get out of the forest. The parrot finally got out of the forest with the treasure and lived happily ever after. His illustrations had ships and pirates with buckteeth (but no parrots). I didn’t know the Spanish word for treasure, and my student didn’t know the English word for treasure. We had a game of charades trying to figure out what he was talking about. I looked up the word he was saying in my Spanish dictionary, but the word he was saying didn’t make sense at all. He drew picture for me of the word he was saying. It looked like a square with an arch above it.

“You put money in it,” he said.

I stared at the picture. “A purse?” I asked, but I knew the word for a purse in Spanish and that was not what he was saying—and I didn’t know why he wanted to write about a purse.

“No!” He exclaimed, “Ms. Cowan!”

Miguel tried to help, “You take money out of it.”

“A wallet?” I tried again, hopeless.

“Ms. Cowan!” they both cried shaking their heads.

One of my other students, with a very mature voice, piped in, “It is treasure. I know. It is treasure.”

The boys agreed. Once I realized it was treasure, the drawing of a treasure chest looked great. It was a good drawing. But it could have been a purse.


Another student’s story was about praying mantises fighting their enemies. The praying mantis friends all were waiting to fight and some fought more strong. The story ended by the enemy praying mantis getting eaten by a shark (another plot twist!). The illustration showed a praying mantis on a leaf with red guts handing out to where a shark waited with an open mouth below.

They were so proud of their stories that they wanted to read them to anyone who would listen. They read them to the other kindergarten class, they read them to their own class during quiet time, they read them to their 4th and 5th grade reading buddies on Friday, and they read them to Autumn—who came to visit at the end of the day—and every break they had where they were supposed to be reading in our classroom library, they got their own book and went to a corner and read.

In art one day, the students made leaf rubbings. One of my students was especially fascinated. As we were walking back to class, he was very thoughtful.

“Ms. Cowan?”


He had a concentrating frown on his face and looked up at me, “How come Ms. Rains (the art teacher) knows all the secrets of art?” he asked.

I told him that she had spent a lot of time practicing.

He nodded. “She knows all the secrets,” he whispered.

On Wednesday, most of my students got to Super Star on the behavior chart and chose little disguise glasses with fake noses as their prizes.

The girls were delighted. They felt their large plastic noses.

“Ms. Cowan!” they exclaimed, “These noses are as big as yours!”

Yes, girls. Yes, they are.

Before spring break, it seemed like someone had cried every day for no other reason than they just needed a good cry.

The day before vacation, they were especially funny. They must have realized they wouldn’t be coming back to school for a while. As we sat in morning meeting, one of my little girls raised her hand and told me that she liked my clothes. The other girls agreed. The boys told me they liked my hair. It soon became a competition about what they could like the most and they told me they liked my everything and that I was the best teacher ever. I told them I thought they were trying to butter me up. And then I had to explain what that meant.

For science, we have been studying clouds. I found water cycle projects on Pinterest and we made a water cycle in a bag. We made rain gauges out of bottles, but half my kids told me that their parents threw the water bottle rain gauges away. Wednesday was a half-day and we made cloud dough. I got flour and baking soda (we were supposed to have oil in the flour so that it wouldn’t make such a mess, but I didn’t have any and we improvised without it) and put it in pans and then had the kids pour vinegar over it to make it fizz. They loved playing in the dough more than they had liked any other project. They told me that they didn’t like half-days and wanted to come to school all the days.

I had my students do self-evaluations for Parent/Teacher conferences so I could show them to parents. Each student reflected on how they felt about the subjects in school and how well they thought they did in certain areas. I loved hearing their perspectives on schoolwork. I asked one student what he thought the hardest thing was for him in school. He thought for a minute and declared, “Nothing can stop me!”

I tried not to laugh at him right then, but when I showed it to his parents, I don’t think any of us could stop laughing for several minutes straight.

The three girls in my class had to go see the school counselor because they were not getting along. I was in the middle of literacy centers when they came back from their meeting.

They swarmed me and told me the good news: “Ms. Avila said we can be friends.”

One of the girls told me with a very serious face, “Because one time I was sad and I had to play with a tree and then the other girls were happy.”

“I see,” I empathized. “That can be hard.”

Whatever had happened, they had resolved it, and were hugging each other incessantly for the next fifteen minutes until art.

I read a book to my kids with a few Spanish words in it. They were really excited to have Spanish spoken in school and wanted to say everything in Spanish. I told them that was not going to happen (since it is required to speak English at school), but we could say the words in the book when I read them. One part of the book used the phrase, “Feliz Cumpleaños!” They told me I wasn’t very good at Spanish. Apparently, I didn’t pronounce it well. Either that or when I said, “And what does that mean, class?” Not as a question, but as a, ‘Lets all say this together in English!’ they thought I didn’t know what it meant. I am not sure which it was, but I was pronounced Spanish deficient.

As we were going to recess, one of the students in the other kindergarten class had her hands up by her head like pinchers and was walking sideways, her feet toed out. I asked what she was doing.

“I’m a carb!” she announced.

It sounded like she said ‘card’.

“A what?” I asked again.

“A carb!”

It took Sharde and me both to decipher she was trying to say ‘crab.’

One of the first times one of my students got to Super Star on the behavior chart this year, he did a happy dance and hugged his classmates while jumping up and down.

“Thank you, God!” he shouted.

I told him that God helped him make good choices, for sure, but it was the choices that he made to follow directions that got him to Super Star, and he shouldn’t just rely on God’s mystical powers to magically get him to Super Star everytime.

For chapel one week, the other kindergarten teacher and I talked about Ruth.

“Who was Ruth? What did she do?” Sharde asked.

One of the first-graders raised her hand, “Her friend wanted to go adventuring and stuff and even though Ruth didn’t know anyone, she went with her friend anyway.”

Naomi the adventurer, and Ruth, her adventuring buddy. Exactly.

On Friday, one of my students fell and hurt his leg. He sat with his leg to his chest, holding it and rocking back and forth and howling. He didn’t say, “Ow!” or “That hurt!” He howled. Like a wolf. A long, “Awhooooo! Awhoooooo!” with his head tipped back towards the ceiling.

There are many things I say in kindergarten that I hope to never have to say anywhere else. Things such as, keep your hands out of your pants, young man, and go wash your hands; keep your fingers out of your nose and certainly out of your mouth afterwards—go wash your hands; don’t pour juice in your eye, please, and go wash your sticky hands; no, I already told Juan he could not have Maria’s roly-poly—and wash your hands after digging the dirt; shut the door to the bathroom—you forgot to wash your hands; yes, I will help you undo your pants—no, you have to zip them up yourself and then go wash your hands. I can just imagine some poor soul years from now getting The Teacher Voice and a raised eyebrow as I ask the rhetorical question, “And what are you doing?”

During center time (end of the day play time), a student who loves to draw came up to me and asked, “Ms. Cowan, what can I draw?”

I told him anything he wanted.

“But what?” he asked again. He said he still didn’t know what he wanted to draw.

I told him to close his eyes and imagine something that made him really happy— something he just loved.

He opened his eyes and grinned. “I know!” he said, and went off to where the girls were sitting.

I could hear him ask, “Maria, can you stand there for me? Just a little bit this way.”

These have been a few of the stories from my first year teaching kindergarten. It has been a wonderful, challenging, rewarding year. I am and will be forever thankful for my time with each one of these little people.

*I changed the names of my students to protect their privacy.

Reasons Why

For not the first time in eight months, I wondered at how I had ended up here in Guatemala.

I wondered at God’s faithfulness.

I told the story to my family—the why’s that didn’t make sense and the tug on my heart. I wrote it down and emailed it across countries last October. And this is what they heard:

I used to run in the mornings when it was still cool in Texas. The afternoons would warm up to heat that no person would run in unless they had a death wish, but the mornings, when it was still a bit foggy out and the sun was just barely there, was perfect weather to run in. I would get my headphones and head out to the back pasture where the cows and horses would watch as I made laps up and down the part of the worn cattle-trail I had figured was half-a-mile and which was actually runnable (minus a few low places that would fill with water and cow prints), making the trail a mine of ankle-breaking places to jump over and avoid. I would occasionally play 50’s and 60’s rock music, but my normal routine was sermons from Village Church and Breakaway.

I blame these morning runs for being now in Guatemala.

One morning last May, I listened to a Village Church sermon titled “Source and Surface Idols”. I was prepared for a sermon that would challenge me, but not change my life completely. Matt Chandler started out the sermon defining idolatry as something we value more than God. Chandler says, “When you value something more than you value God, regardless of what it is, you will simultaneously suppress God’s truth and question God’s character.

“Let’s take whatever it is. In fact, one of the crazy things about idols is, more often than not (and this is what makes them so insidious), they’re good things made ultimate. They’re not bad things; they’re good gifts. Instead of taking them for what they are, we’ve elevated them to be more than they should be. When we begin to worship a good thing as an ultimate thing, what ends up happening is we suppress the truth of God and we question his character.”

Chandler addressed source idols: idols that are deeply rooted in our beings and create surface idols. The first one he addressed was the idol of comfort. He said this:

“The person with a comfort idol seeks comfort. They want privacy. They want lack of stress. They want freedom. What they’re willing to pay for that is productivity. They do not care about productivity. “Just give me comfort.”

They’re more than willing to not be productive at all as long as they can be comfortable. Their greatest nightmare is stress and demands. Now don’t think I don’t know some of you are like, “I thrive on that.” We’ll get to you, bro, in a second. We got you. We’ll get to you. But for the comfort worshiper, stress and demands is their greatest nightmare.

Others often feel hurt by those who worship comfort. Why? Because laziness always has collateral damage. The problem emotion of those who worship comfort is boredom. They’re people who are constantly bored. Boredom haunts them, because they have not been designed by God to sit around and do nothing. To worship comfort is to enslave yourself to boredom.

Worshipers of comfort see other people, even those closest to them, as potential obstacles to their comfort. Not surprisingly, then, authentic relationships do not come easily and, as a result, the person is only invested if the relationship provides an adequate layer of insulation. Think about it. If you worship comfort, all of your relationships can’t get deeper than an inch, because relationships require work.

Deep relationships, not the “Hey, how are you doing; I’m fine” kind but the deep kind, require effort. They require us to get into uncomfortable spaces, to be exposed at times, for our weaknesses to be made visible. The one who worships comfort can’t have that. It’s too much work. So they just bounce around and never go deep with anyone.

See, the funny thing about the promise of the comfort god is it never delivers what it promises. For all the comfort you pursue and seek, you simply make yourself more uncomfortable, because the heart was created to abide in community and fellowship and work. Though comfort is not a bad thing, comfort makes a terrible god.

This was where I saw myself—the only difference was that boredom was never in my repertoire. I was never bored, but I was restless. I wasn’t doing what I should be doing with my life: I wasn’t serving and I wasn’t making a difference. I desired to make a difference for the Kingdom of God and the words that haunted me were that I was in the supply line when I wanted to be on the front lines. But I wasn’t sure how to be on the front lines where I was because I loved my comfort. Relationships required work and being vulnerable was uncomfortable. Getting outside my comfort zone was one of my greatest fears. These things I had recognized in myself before, but I had never put it down to an idol I was serving.

I was in the midst finishing up my undergrad online at home and I loved it. I was comfortably able to wear sweatpants all day, drink tea to my heart’s content, I could write, I could go on walks through the woods, I could ride my horses, work my cows. But I looked back on the last year and couldn’t name anyone I had helped—really truly served. I had lived the year for me, comfortably doing school and nothing else. I felt my life was a self-reliant one and I was restless to make a change that would grow me spiritually—I wanted to serve and be in a situation where I would have to rely on God’s provision and rely on a community. The harder thing for me to do would be to stay where I was. I meditated on this option. There were plenty of people to serve if I opened my eyes, but I knew my heart would revert to tendencies of self-reliance and comfortableness if I did. It was the harder choice because it would require more diligence. I wanted to go to a community where serving was its mission, an already established mission that I wouldn’t have to build and where I could live and breathe service. I thought if I could train my body in serving, my heart and mind would follow.

Self-reflection on my life of non-achievement during my morning run brought with it a desire for spiritual growth. My heart became a pendulum between the need for routine and the urge to run, as a Pinterest quote put it. I was struggling with the ability to know if these desires to go were simply restlessness on my part that was rooted in my inability to find contentment where I was or was it a God-ordained willingness to leave? Was I being selfish to want to go somewhere else and experience new cultures and serve away from home? Was I running away from the opportunities where I was? I could volunteer more, I could serve in the church more, I could do so much more right where I was, I kept telling myself. But there was an undertow pulling me somewhere else. I read about Syrian refugees and wanted to go. I read about African poverty and wanted to go. I read about nations that were so deep into Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, Islam and mysticism that if someone doesn’t tell them there is a hope and a future named Jesus Christ, they would not know. I compared it to my own culture, which has made intellectualism and materialism a god and thought of how many opportunities I have to witness and minister to them, too. Yet, I felt that the difference was that in the United States, there are people to fill the gap being raised faithfully every day. In a place like Haiti, if volunteers don’t step outside their comfort zones and leave, the work wouldn’t get done. I prayed about it and wanted a clear sign that told me to leave. But all I had was a willingness and the ability to go. Nothing more.

I looked at a few places to teach abroad, still unsure if I should go. While I was in the midst of this struggle and search, my sister told me that her best friend was going to teach in Guatemala. I asked for some information and thought I was going to add it to my list. I had contacted a few mission organizations about teaching, but I really liked the sound of the Inter-American School in Quetzaltenango. I decided to apply. But I was still struggling to decide if I should go or stay. The sermon that week at church was on making disciples and going unto all nations. But there was fear holding me back. I didn’t apply then because I was afraid of leaving. I was afraid of going, even though I felt the pull to go—I liked the comfort of home and this was not inside my comfort zone. I dragged my feet about applying.

For a month.

I made excuses and didn’t get my paperwork together because what if I get accepted? And, What if I don’t get accepted? I felt I should apply, but I resisted.

A few weeks later, was Lady’s Day at church. Laurie Vanderpool, a missionary in Haiti, spoke of being the Bride of Christ. She said that being the Bride of Christ was to be his hands to the least of these. Jesus bound the brokenhearted and we too are to serve those who are orphans and widows. I listened and felt a heart-pull. I sat in the pew listening to Laurie talk about serving and I felt very small—the sort of small that you feel when you stand on top of a mountain peak or beside the ocean. It was a moment of near panic when I felt like there was clear assurance I was going to be in Guatemala this fall.

That’s ridiculous, I thought, trying to shake off the feeling, I haven’t’ even applied.

It took another week before I applied. Once I did, I still wondered if I had misinterpreted my desire to go and the struggle I was having—if this was what God wanted me to do, I wouldn’t be having these doubts, I was sure.

I got word back that all the positions were filled and they didn’t have a place for me at IAS.

I felt like I had missed an opportunity because of my feet dragging and, yes, it felt like disobedience. I was afraid and didn’t apply in time. I kept wondering what would have happened if I would have been obedient when I first thought I should apply—how would my life have been different and how many people would I now never come to know or treasure?

In the midst of this, God dropped in Matt Chandler and his sermon on idols. Even more convicted—had I not applied originally because I was afraid?—I searched out a place to serve outside my comfort zone with mission organizations overseas. I thought of Guatemala often and it seemed like a reminder of my resistance to where God wanted me—I loved comfort more than serving God, my thoughts always seemed to say.

I decided that perhaps God was going to use my resistance to serve at home and I had just had it settled in my heart that home was where I would be and serve when I received an email from IAS director Michael McNabb informing me that a position had opened, was I still interested and did I want to interview?

I can still say no, I thought.

I would only have three weeks before I would have to board a plane for Central America. It was crazy to even try to get ready for a years-worth of life in three weeks, right? There was so much I needed to do at home—and what about serving at home?—I was surely being hasty even considering this. Yet, I kept hearing in the back of my mind: sounds like excuses. I had wanted a place to serve where I would be forced out of my comfort zone, I wanted to lay my idol of comfort down on the altar of service—at least in theory. I yearned to go, but I also kept thinking that it was rash. And because I wanted to go, maybe it wasn’t what I was supposed to do—it seemed the easier thing to do than trying to live a life of everyday courage at home and perhaps that was running away. I wanted to serve God, but I kept being reminded that I could serve God right where I was and I didn’t need to go to other countries. There were orphans in the U.S. and what was I doing about them?

At my dear friends Kate and Nate’s house a few days later, their small group leader came over for late night tea and blueberry scones Kate and I made. I told him about the opportunity to go and how I was struggling with knowing if it was my own desires or really something God wanted me to do. Andrew retold the story of Abraham.

“What was the very first thing that God told Abraham to do?” He asked me.

I thought of the story, “Move. Leave his home and go.”

“Exactly. And what was the last thing? It was sacrificing his son, wasn’t it? God created rapport with Abraham by simply asking him to move. Then as Abraham learned to trust and learned that God is good, God asked him to sacrifice his son. Sometimes we have to take the first step to cultivate our trust in God and all God asks us to do is move.”

Andrew went on to say that it isn’t always a choice between a good thing and a bad thing. “Serving at home is a good thing,” he pointed out. “Sometimes it is a choice between a good thing and a better thing.”

I interviewed and was offered a contract a little before 4th of July. I accepted and was set to leave July 31st.

I had moments of panic and moments of giddy excitement. Had there been no contract, I would have turned around at the airport and gone home. I was in sheer terror as I forced myself to walk through the airport security line and watch my mother and Nassandra get smaller and smaller until I moved behind a wall and couldn’t see them at all.

“What are you doing?” My mind and heart were screaming at me. This is a year of your life you are going to miss! You aren’t even a teacher! You are leaving everything you have ever known to follow some silly desire to make disciples and serve and be uncomfortable—aren’t you just being selfish in wanting to go?

Some of the teachers had stories of God’s clear direction and they kept saying, “I am right where I am supposed to be.” And “I was called here…” and such things. I kept thinking, “I wanted to, so I did.” No clear voice. All I had was the willingness to lay down my comfort and try to help bind up the brokenhearted.

During orientation the first week in Xela, the director, Michael, said, “I take the Great Commission seriously in making disciples of all nations. You guys are on the front lines here. Some people want a clear calling to serve, but all I think you need to fill the gap is being willing and able to go. Just being willing and able.”

And I knew this was where I was supposed to be.

Coming Back

I can easily imagine myself sitting at the airport in June wondering where the time has gone. I can still see myself last July, packing for the year. Christmas break came and is gone and it seems like little time at all.

Many people over Christmas break asked me what exactly it was like living in Guatemala: what was the city like? What did I eat? What were the houses like?

Quetzaltenango is 150 some thousand people. It looks like someone took European influences and tossed them together with Latin American culture to create solid walls of multi-colored blocks of cement with window boxes under intricately wrought iron bars. Inside the solid line of wall are the houses. Most doors open to a courtyard for the car or cars. Some have rooms around the courtyard like a fort, and in others, the houses stand behind and rise up narrowly but some two to three stories tall. Supermarkets are not a universal necessity, and markets and tiendas wait around every corner. Tiendas are small shops set into one room selling anything from hangers, canola oil and jewelry to chocolates and cigarettes—some even put minutes back on your phone. There are fabric tiendas selling quilting materials; snack tiendas selling drinks and bagged food; there are miscellaneous tiendas selling most everything else. The stores often have barred counters with openings cut in the iron wide enough to put money through and get your knickknacks backs. The markets remind me of what I imagine medieval markets would have been like, except in the largest markets, they sell not just food, but modern conveniences like household goods, as well as shoes and clothes. The women put tarps down—sometimes—and lay out burlap bags of vegetables and woven baskets of fruit. Or they stack red and blue plastic crates on top of each other and to make the produce higher off the ground. Often a sample of a fruit like papaya or avocado is cut open and arranged on top of the rest of the pile to entice customers to buy the ripe produce. Some ladies have large yard umbrellas in beach-ball colors wedged among the fruits and vegetables to give shade. Others are shelling peas or weighing out produce in hanging scales counter-weighted by more fruits and vegetables, and then there are the ladies who are washing carrots or radishes in dirty water in a bucket or the dirtier water of the street. The dark hair of the women is often braided in two braids down her back with ribbon woven throughout and tied together at the bottom. Most wear the indigenous woven skirts and the huipil of the Mayans. The clothing booths are normally more elaborate. Tarps enclose the booth and the clothes are on racks or on mannequins or hanging from grids. Other times, the clothes are thrown in a pile on a table or the ground, occasionally folded. You can buy silk curtains and used shoes; new phones and pirated movies; Hollister sweatshirts and cheap trinkets. People walk by selling belts or scarves from where they are hanging from an arm, or carrying a cotton candy holder selling candy and Santa hats. There are fish in tanks and birds in cages under heating lamps. The streets are chaotic with microbuses and people and cars bustling about through the markets.

The city has lovely Greek architecture in the theatre, intricately carved wooden doors down the streets, beautiful courtyards full of flowers and trees, the fanciest Taco Bell I have ever seen, tall and stately churches, and also houses that have the dirt walls exposed under the cement façade, streets full of trash and potholes, tin shacks next to ornate cinderblock houses, washed-out dirt roads shooting off from newly laid builders-stones. It is a city of contrasts.

Our house mom, Ana Maria is a very good cook and we have tamales and lots of tortillas, eggs and beans, tostadas, rice and meat, and cooked vegetables. Ana Maria told Autumn and me that the city had just tested the water and found three parasites in the city water supply. As of that night, I have been using filtered water to brush my teeth. No one drinks the water in the city, but most people who have been raised here have immunity to the parasites. Not so for those who have only been here for a few months.

Last week, several of the teachers and I hiked an extinct volcano called Chicabal with a lake in the crater at the top. The lake is sacred to the Mayans’ and on our way out of the crater, we were in the midst of a procession of brightly clad women and men in dress pants and shirts who had just come from some sort of ceremony. The lake was a deep blue; clouds would roll over the edges of the crater suddenly, snake among the trees and over the lake like mist and just as quickly, would clear away again. Once we hiked to the top of the volcano, there are so many steps down into the crater and to the lake that my legs were shaking by the time I reached the bottom. The crawl out proved more difficult and quite a bit slower, but well worth the effort to see Laguna Chicabal. We rounded off the day with ice cream from a tienda at the bottom of the park and considered it a pretty good day.

Classes these past weeks have been a lot of fun. I can watch my kids mature and learn right before my eyes. One of my students asked me what lightning was. As I was pulling up a YouTube video about the weather, he conjectured, “Maybe all the electricity of the earth evaporates like water and goes into the clouds, and when there is too much, it gets heavy and comes down!” Lightening impressed him and we watched the video on how it was formed twice through.

My class has also been obsessed with cheetahs lately. Instead of reading, I will catch them growling at each other, the book about cheetahs in the middle of the circled mob. I have read them the book several times by now, but they are never tired of it. They like running like a cheetah, growling like a cheetah, making claws out of their hands like a cheetah and apparently reading like a cheetah. This week, they have switched to wolves and I have decided the call of the wild must be universal. I got a story of wolves from the library that had an audio recording with it. The background of the story had wolves howling as the book was read aloud and I played it during snack time last week. My kids would be eating or playing around until the wolves started howling. As soon as one wolf started, my kids joined in, dropping whatever they were doing, until my class was a pack of howling children.

January 30th was the 100th day of school. My class and I dressed as 100-year-old people. I did my hair in a messy old-lady bun. One of Sharde’s kindergartener’s walked by me going to the cafeteria and informed me, “Miss Cowan, you are lazy!” Sharde asked her why and she said it was because my hair was a mess. One of my students had a cotton ball wig and another had fake grey bushy eyebrows pasted on. Other students had hats they told me were for old men, and most wore glasses. We had a parade around the schoolyard before starting class. It was hard to have the proper seriousness for subjects like math when a grey-mustached six-year-old would growl like a cheetah at his friend across the carpet.

It doesn’t seem possible that I am starting the fifth week of teaching since getting back, and to think that next month will be the end of the third quarter of the school year is hard to grasp. I appreciate everyone’s thoughts and prayers and continued support of my Guatemalan journey. Until next time, Buenos Noches!

The Four-Month Mark

On Thanksgiving morning, as I listened to the Chipmunk’s version of “Christmas Don’t Be Late” and wrote, “I am thankful for so many things, not the least of which is the box of chocolate truffles one of my students brought to me yesterday,” a small earthquake shook the house. Like many other things in Guatemala that have ceased to be of too much concern, minor tremors are part of living near tectonic plates that have created massive volcanoes across the Sierra Madre mountain range. From walking past bougainvillea and poinsettia trees hanging over from behind someone’s walled home, to the normalcy of sidewalks cracked, uneven and so narrow only one person at a time can walk on them, to the unconcern over earthquakes, I am learning how quickly a place can become ordinary. It is no longer strange to walk past the brightly painted houses or listen to Spanish being spoken everywhere. I now hardly give a thought to the things that once caused me to stop and stare, like goats being herded down the street among the cars. In many ways I am thankful for this, and I wrote in my Thankful Journal: “I am thankful the city is no longer a strange beast I don’t understand. While I am still baffled that in all of Xela there is not refrigerated crescent roll dough, I am thankful for the homemade meals. I am thankful that the bright houses are no longer hideous and an overwhelming assault to my eyes. I’m thankful that the houses have become places where people live, and the city, too. I am thankful for the familiarity of the streets and Wal-Mart.”

While many things have become more normal here, there are still things I am not used to and things I have realized that I took for granted in the States. Like trash. In Texas, I put my trash in a trash bin at the end of the road, the truck came and took it away, and it went to a landfill or sanitation facility. Not here. There are no fifty-gallon trash bins at the end of the driveway. On Wednesdays, trash goes to the street sidewalks. There will be piles of trash bags and things that don’t fit in trash bags like bougainvillea tree limbs and mattresses. Dogs dig through the trash and scatter it. The smell of rotting vegetables and meat is overwhelming. I haven’t seen landfills.  What I have seen is that the trash goes over the side of the mountain in a river of white plastic bags and the wind carries off candy wrappers and plastic cups to be strewn through the trees and down the highway. There are few recycle facilities. I’ve never seen the trash burned. There are no trashcans among the light posts in the city and as a result, the trash is tossed on the street. It is dirty. There was a trash strike not long ago and the trash piled up in places several feet high. There would be spots along the streets where people would dump their trash and it would be in torn-apart bags where dogs would be ripping up trash bags. Last month, there was a man digging through the trash in the street. Even though I am still dismayed, I am no longer shocked. Even this seems more normal than it did four months ago.

Into this budding sense of familiarity, came Dia de los Santos, a holiday new and completely foreign in this foreign country that has become my home. November 1st is Dia de los Santos, the day after Dia de Muertos, the day of the dead. Dia de Muertos is full of skulls and spooks, but Dia de los Santos is full of family and fiambre.

 The tradition is to go to the cemetery for Dia de Santos and repaint and arrange flowers at the crypts of the family member who has passed away. After spending hours at the cemetery, while the children play hide and seek among the graves and fly kites from the tops of the tallest crypts, the families gather for a huge meal of fiambre.

Everyone says, “Oh, you will love my family’s fiambre!” And everyone’s family makes it the best and you are sure to love their version of it. Some fiambre is white, some is pink with beet juice. It is made in a huge pot. All kinds of vegetables and meats are cooked separately and then put together and mixed with beet juice. It is like a cold salad. This base is piled high on a plate and cold meat—sausages of every kind, including blood sausages and chorizo—and cheese and onions and tomatoes and pickled asparagus and pickles and olives and lettuce and radishes are all put on top to make it like a volcano of cold meats and vegetables. It is eaten with a tostada. The normally small Guatemalan portions are nowhere to be found, and the plates are filled to overflowing. Most people have seconds along with the huge portions.

Autumn and I went with Ana Maria and Manuel to Ana Maria’s husband’s family’s house in Acetanengo. Ana Maria told us we were leaving at 6am, but then changed it to breakfast was at 6, but when Autumn and I were up at 5:30 and ready to go by 6 and no one else was stirring, we both realized it was Guatemalan time. We left at 7:30. Acetanengo was very small and the people were even less used to foreigners than here in Xela. They stared at two tall American girls walking around with a group of short Guatemalans. The whole group we were with hardly came to our shoulders.

There were coffee bushes everywhere, even on the edge of the cemetery. Fields of coffee plants would stretch down into the valleys atop freshly weeded rows or in vast green swathes that looked like a wild part of the mountain, save for the green and red seeds hanging in clusters from the taller, nearly-tree bushes. We went with Ana Maria’s family to arrange flowers on her husband’s crypt. It took hours and Autumn and I were not very helpful. We had reached the point of counter-productivity with so many people wanting to help and after we plucked off wilting rose petals from five bunches of roses, Autumn and I walked around the cemetery. There was a poinsettia tree growing from a low grave. Much of the cement of the crypts had been freshly painted a brighter shade of whatever had been underneath. The graves that were not covered in cement had been freshly weeded and the raw earth stacked back on top of the grave to remake a grassless mound. Many had been covered in pine needles. On the far edge of the cemetery, over the wall, there must have been a trash dump. Vultures flew in large circles overhead and the smell was nearly unbearable. Autumn and I quickly retreated from that end of the cemetery and back to the smell of fresh paint and fresh dirt. Small children and older children stood on the roof of the cemetery entrance and flew kites, careful not to get them in the tree nearby or the electric lines overhead. A frizzled kite was in the electric line already, and another already in the tree. After the ladies had finished flower arranging, we all went back to the family’s house for fiambre.

The doors to the driveway opened to a courtyard in Ana Maria’s family’s home. Around the courtyard were rooms—all with the doors open and lace curtains creating privacy without stifling the breeze. The rooms were painted in mint green with Christmas tree green painted on baseboards. There were three kitchens. The first we went into was a pantry and two stoves with a small table where Ana Maria and Manuel had a second breakfast of banana leaf wrapped tamales. The second one that we saw had an old scale that looked like it might fall apart at the next use, a thick cement table which Ana Maria explained was for butchering pigs, a wood-burning stove in the corner and huge furnace-looking contraption. The next kitchen was light and airy. The mint-green walls were decorated with rooster clocks and Holstein cow ornaments. There was a long table and chairs next to a china cabinet. This was the room that seemed to be the heart of the home and this was where we ate fiambre. Autumn and I went first, and it was only after everyone else went through the line that we realized we didn’t make our fiambre properly volcano-like or nearly tall enough. We just put meats and cheeses on the side and not on top. After fiambre—and seconds—they served nisperos, which are small orange and fuzzy fruits like apricots, only smaller. We peeled them and spit out the seed. They also had jocotes (another small orange fruit) cooked in honey, and it was really good. The nisperos were addicting and everyone around the table had piles of peels and seeds around their plates. Everyone sat around and chatted and laughed, except I couldn’t understand what they were saying since it was all in Spanish. We left around six and arrived back in Xela around nine.

Cynthia, the music teacher, told us that the reason why it is a tradition to fly kites was because of an old Mayan legend where evil spirits had haunted a town and the town’s people consulted a Mayan oracle on how to get rid of the spirits. The oracle told them, “The spirits leave happy.” They decided to fly kites and make the spirits happy—I suppose they fly with the kites—so they would leave. Someone else told us that it is just good weather for kite flying and it didn’t have any significance.  I don’t know which one is true, but kites were everywhere for Dia de los Santos.

A few weeks ago, the kindergarten class’s letter of the week was “Z” and the theme was the zoo. Sharde and I decided to take the two kinder classes on a field trip around Xela and end up at the zoo. I was a bit disappointed in the Xela zoo. It was tiny, which was not bad, but the thing I didn’t like was that they had a raccoon in a huge enclosure all by itself and the jaguar was in a tiny little cage. I wanted to tell them they just needed to let the raccoon go and let the jaguar have its pen. There were plenty of raccoons in the world, they didn’t need this one to live like a king! They had a huge sign up to see “SIMBA!” but when we got there, there was no lion. I don’t know what happened to the lion, but I am suspecting it died. One of my students wanted to know where the zebras were and I had to explain that some zoos don’t have zebras, but look! aren’t these rabbits cute?

We took a trolley around the city and went the natural history museum in Parque Central, which was filled with poorly mounted animals like lions with popped out glass eyes, red felt tongues and cracking noses, a two-headed calf, and two-bodied lamb. The kids loved seeing the stuffed peacock and snakes, though. The kids got to feed pigeons among the huge trees near the park’s central pillar.  We went to the library, too, and the librarian gave a lecture on the importance of reading books—and I think she was saying that teachers like to use the Internet, but a good book is better, but since I don’t speak Spanish well, I don’t really know what she was saying. After the zoo, it was off to MacDonald’s, where the kids played in a huge indoor playground while the moms that came with us ordered twenty Happy Meals.

I tried to make Connelle Peace’s Apple Dew rolls for the staff meeting at school this past month, and had quite the adventure trying to gather ingredients to make them. The recipe calls for crescent rolls, but I could not find refrigerated crescent rolls anywhere. I was told you can’t find things like that here.

 “Oh, I’ll just make some, then,” I decided and set off to Pias, the grocery store that would most likely have what I would need.  I began by searching high and low for yeast, but to no avail. I asked the lady in the store if she had yeast and after having to repeat what I wanted, she said, “No.” I looked up substitutes for yeast while standing in the baking aisle that should have had it, and found a recipe for baking soda and lemons. I got baking soda—which I had to look up what I was buying because it was in Spanish. But Pias did not have lemons. They have limes but no lemons. And no lemon juice. I thought maybe limes would work and got a bag of limes. And then I read that I could possibly use lemon/lime soda and got some of that, and also found that I could even possibly make my own yeast with yogurt, so I got some of that, too. I got home and did the next best thing to having yeast: I called my mother and told her all of these things I had gotten and what did she think?

“Why don’t you just make pie crust?” She wanted to know. “It’s flour, salt, and Crisco.”


Since I had already bought a pound of butter (nearly), I substituted the Crisco for butter and made pie crust while eating the yogurt I had bought and wondering what I could use a bag of limes for. Ana Maria did not have a pastry blender or rolling pin that I could find, and she was gone to work when I was cooking, so I used a fork and knife to cut the butter into the flour and rolled the dough out with a Mountain Dew can. I couldn’t find a cutting board or measuring cups or measuring spoons, either and I used a teacup for my one-cup measurer and an actual teaspoon for my teaspoon measurer.  After school on the meeting day, I went to the middle school building and made the sauce of sugar and butter and vanilla and cinnamon and Mountain Dew and baked it in the middle school building (the building with an oven). I put it in at 11:50 and set my timer for 40 mins, ran up the hill to the administration building to grab dish towels to use as hot pads right off the towel rack and made it just in time for the staff meeting at 12:00. I hoped desperately it went for only 30 mins like it was supposed to, because my timer was set to go off at 12:30 and I didn’t want to have to leave the meeting and be like, “Sorry, I have to go check on some apple rolls at middle school…” I hardly heard a word of what was said. The meeting ended at 12:28 and I shot out the door and back down the hill. Sharde came with me and we made it down the hill in two minutes. The apple rolls were not quite done and I put them in for another ten minutes and we decided that we needed to bring the car down so we made it up the hill, got the car, and made it back down in six minutes. I sat in the back seat with the apple rolls like I had a child and Sharde drove slowly up the hill. I ended up holding one side of the pan up the whole time because the hill was so steep. It was a revised version of Connelle’s Apple Dew, the Guatemalan version with pie crust instead of crescent rolls, but it turned out just fine, and the revised recipe has now been passed around to teachers at school and my Spanish teacher.

My kids constantly surprise me and make me laugh with the things they say. This week in class we’ve been talking about planets. The biggest planet in our solar system, Jupiter, is 2.5x bigger than all the other planets combined, according to the book we read in class. As I was telling my kids this, one of my students wanted to know how big that actually is. I told him to hold out his hands and make them into a circle like he was holding a ball, “If earth and Venus and Uranus and Saturn and Mercury and Neptune and Mars and even Pluto is inside your hands,” and I put my hands around his and held them out twice as big, “This how much bigger Jupiter is.” On Friday, he told his 5th-grade reading-buddy about Jupiter and held out his hands just like I did, “If all the planets were in here, Jupiter would be this much bigger!” And he held his hands out twice as wide. I was surprised he remembered, and it made me laugh. As did when I walked by a group of pre-K and 1st-graders during recess last week. “Ms. Cowan,” one of the 1st-graders told me, “I am faster than all the pre-K-ers.”

“You are also older and bigger,” I informed him.

“Yeah, and faster!” he exclaimed and ran off.

In two weeks, I will be home for Christmas break. It is hard to believe it has been four months since I boarded a plane to Guatemala City. Many things have changed and I have learned much. Four months is not long to get to know a place, but I am thankful for the journey so far and the growing familiarity of this city and these people.

Santa Maria

“How was your hike?” The teachers I passed on the way down from Santa Maria Volcano asked as they went up.

“We all survived!” And that’s how my hike went.

The teacher for the _mg_8759community service class for the high-school students at IAS set up a hike to the top of Santa Maria, a volcano with an elevation of 12,375 feet, to pick up trash along the way. Dr. Fox, the science teacher, offered to take a group of teachers the night before the Saturday morning hike to spend the night at the summit and see the sunrise from above the clouds.

The other five teachers that agreed to such a venture, Dr. Fox and I were hauled in the back of a pickup to the base of the trail to Santa Maria. The dirt road we had been driving on narrowed to a cow path and the houses disappeared for corn fields. Molly went over her first-aid book as we drove from school, and by the time we disembarked from the pickup, we knew theoretically how to diagnose hypothermia and elevation sickness—although we wondered at what point we should be worried, because we were sure we would all have “unusual fatigue, racing heart and shortness of breath” after climbing a mountain. About that, we were right.

As we started up, ladies in skirts and sandals came down the trail in front of me driving cattle, and men followed horses with stacks of firewood tied on their backs. Over my shoulder, Xela sat cupped by mountains. The cornfields ended at a meadow, and so did the (relatively) easy walking. When I was informed that the past hour and a half had been the easy part, I was tempted to turn around and go back to my own bed. I wondered breathlessly what I had gotten myself into.

At the meadow, Dr. Fox handed out flashlights and it started raining. The moon was nearly full, but the clouds blocked it out most of the time, and the rest of the hike was in the darkness of mist and moonlight as we went up into the clouds. There were times when the clouds would roll away at just the right time and the lights of Xela were visible from a switchback. The trail was slick with mud and at places it turned into a nearly hand-over-hand scramble up wet boulders. There were trees that had fallen over the path to duck under and roots like stairs we had to climb up. The clouds were thick and by the time Katie, Kyle and I were climbing in them, it was cold. We could see the mist in front of our flashlights and our breath in puffs. Our sweat was now chilling and we put on coats and hats and gloves. Condensation fell like rain from the large canopied trees, which changed to thin pine trees as we went higher. The rocks grew bigger. The trail grew harder. The moon was not quite full, but gave pale light to the mist as we climbed. When the trees didn’t cover the trail, I could see Katie ahead of me and Kyle behind me without the flashlight. Parts of the trail had washed away to a thin ribbon of slick mud giving way to a ravine that we had to carefully maneuver over. We looked up into the misty horizon and found all at once there were no more trees. There were huge boulders and nothing more. “Dare we hope this is the top?” I asked, as we had hoped before only to be disappointed and the disappointment to our weary bones was worse than the hope.

“I think it is!” Katie agreed, and it was. The volcano ended in giant rocks and gusty wind and nothing more.

My muscles were sore and I was cold. We went by a herd of free-range cattle with tinkling cowbells sleeping and chewing their cud near the edge of the summit. The wind was nipping and we passed over the pinnacle and to the other side of the mountain where the wind was blocked by boulders. There we waited for Molly and Bek and Malinda. They arrived fifteen minutes later and we changed from our sweat-soaked and cold clothes to dry and warmer clothes. It was moments of freezing exposure as we took off our wet clothes, but we all felt better to be dry. Dr. Fox arrived an hour and a half later and we set up the tents and unpacked sleeping bags. After a dinner of peanut butter sandwiches and Gatorade, we all settled in for a freezing night on the hard, cold ground.

_mg_8726I took my Thankful Journal with me on the hike (the school handed out pocket-sized notebooks to write things we were thankful for this month). I had visions of sitting on the mountaintop like an Instagram photo: the sun rising, pen in hand, blanket draped over my shoulders, vistas of grandeur dropping away before me and beautiful words of thankfulness inspired by the breathtaking and happy view flowing effortlessly from my pen onto my little notebook. Instead, I wrote that night in the dark of my tent huddled shivering in my sleeping bag, one hand shakily holding the pen, the other holding the flashlight as I wrote, “I’m thankful I made it up Santa Maria alive.” Truer sentiments of gratitude I am sure have never been uttered.

The light from the nearly full moon made it seem like there was a lamppost outside our tent. I shivered inside my sleeping bag, pulling my coat hood over the hat and earmuffs I was already wearing. I tried to shut my eyes and think of fireplaces and hot chocolate, but I opened them wide when I heard bells.

There are not supposed to be bells at three thirty in the morning at twelve thousand feet up on top of a volcano.

The pounding of feet reverberated through the hard rocks I was trying to sleep on. A dark shadow crossed in front of the moon and stopped in front of the tent door. Two small horns and the large ears of a cow were fully outlined on the door as it sniffed our tent.

I immediately thought of what our cattle at home would do. It will knock our tent down from curiosity and probably step on us while doing it, I thought. It’s what I was sure any nosy cow would do.

To the side, I heard chomping and plastic being rustled, and a sound I was sure was a cow-tongue being scraped over backpacks. I imaged the cows ruining my new backpack and unzipped my sleeping bag. The cold was like a tangible thing and I was enveloped in shivers. I tried unsuccessfully to maneuver so I didn’t wake anyone else up and put on my wet shoes.

_mg_8837The cows were surrounding the pile of backpacks like conspirators, Katie’s bag of bread in the middle. I just assumed that with deafening cow-bells hanging around their necks, they couldn’t be anything but gentle, and waded among them, shooing left and right. Two scattered down the mountainside where they should have been in the first place amid the boulders and bushes, but the other jumped behind me and stood looking smug between the two tents of sleeping teachers. I am sure had anyone been watching, it would have looked like a circus act as I chased the cow around the tents, with him always just a few steps ahead and determined not to go down the mountain. He made a loop around the backpacks, and around we went like a merry-go-round until he ran down the mountain. My lungs were freezing as I took my shoes off and crawled back in the tent.

The other teachers were laughing hysterically at my antics. I pulled the sleeping bag to my chin and tried to warm up. Even with thermal long underwear, leggings, my hiking pants, wool socks, a thermal shirt, a sweater, a coat, a hat, ear muffs, a scarf and gloves, I was cold.

I had just closed my eyes and was listening to the deep breathing of Malinda and Bek when I heard the cowbells again. The cow’s hooves echoed as they trampled over boulders and back to the packs.

I unzipped my sleeping bag with a vengeance and didn’t even put my shoes on as I grabbed Molly’s walking stick (an old and, as I found out, not very sturdy broom handle)  and started chasing the cows in wool socks. This time they didn’t scatter, and I put my shoes on as they fell on the backpacks again.

With the wrath of being forced out of what little warmth there was to be had in my sleeping bag for stubborn cows eating my friend’s bread and walking on my new backpack, I went to whacking the cows that were closest. One cow didn’t think I was serious and I broke Molly’s stick over his rump when he wouldn’t move away from the bread. I herded them down the mountain and over boulders and got burs in my hair until they were nearly to the other side of the summit and I hoped they wouldn’t think it was worth it to come back for bread. Katie’s jacket was filthy where the cows had licked it and her bread bag had holes in it. I moved the bread and rearranged the packs and crawled back in the tent for what little sleep there was to be had before the alarm went off at 5:30am to see the sunrise.

The next morning I explained to Molly how her walking stick came to be broken: “Yes, it was the cows, but not in the way you are probably imagining…”

_mg_8736The sunrise was worth battling range-cattle and shivering all night for. Volcanoes stretched from Santa Maria to Lake Atitlan, sixty miles away. The clouds would blow in and out below me as far as I could see, obscuring and revealing the surrounding cities of glowing lights.

The view was breathtaking.

After watching the sun rise, we four girls got back in the tent, unzipped our sleeping bags and piled them on top of us and all snuggled under them for another few hours until breakfast, when Dr. Fox handed us pork he had warmed on his stove. We didn’t even get out of our warm bed. My feet tingled as they thawed out. It was the first time all night any of us had been warm.

The morning crispness was intoxicating once I made it out of the tent at seven-thirty. It also might have been the elevation. I was delighted to have climbed to the top, made it through the night, and now to be surrounded by mountains for miles.

Then we headed down the mountain and my delight quickly dissolved. It was slick and slow going. The muscles I had just thought were feeling good began to ache. My knees ached and my ankles ached. I got blisters on my feet and my toes hurt from being jammed in the front of my shoes as I went down. It took us just as long to get down as it did to get up. We passed the crew of students and teachers with the community service group as they climbed to the top, and got trash bags to gather trash on our way down. We picked up the trash that was about shoulder level so we wouldn’t have to bend down for fear of tumbling over from the weight of our packs. We stopped on at the same meadow where we had gotten out our flashlight the night before and had lunch. Everyone stretched out and enjoyed the sunshine and the rest for about twenty minutes before we ambled on towards the very bottom. Katie and I walked very slowly, taking small steps and many breaks to rest our knees and feet. It rained a bit and made things even slicker.

_mg_8769When we finally made it down, Dr. Fox bought us drinks from a little tienda, and a dad of one of the IAS student’s gave us a ride to Calvario. It was about 3:30 in the afternoon when I arrived home. I slept the rest of the afternoon and didn’t unpack my backpack until Wednesday.

Yet, for all that, it was worth the aching muscles and the cold and the cows to climb the volcano. As Molly kept saying, “Choose adventure.” And I am glad I did.


The last update was published a month ago. That is a month of teaching, traveling, doing, and being in Guatemala that I haven’t written about. There are several moments over the past month that are most vivid to me now, like traveling to a hot springs bubbling out of a volcanic mountain, visiting a village hosting San Simon, a Mayan deity turned Catholic saint, seeing vegetable markets and centuries-old churches, and the daily freshness of my students and their growing little minds.

As I was contemplating this past month of teaching, I read an article by Heidi White that put into words my abstract thoughts. She and her family journeyed through England in a house boat. The trip didn’t turn out as she expected and she and her family were discouraged by the experience. The moment her perspective changed was when a woman told her to watch for kingfishers along the bank of the river. After that, her family would look at the trees and blackberry bushes with expectation, watching for the birds. She realized how much beauty she had missed before when she was only looking at the things that had gone wrong instead of watching with expectation for the lovely things right before her eyes. White penned these words in her article, “Watching for Kingfishers: Moments of Mercy in the Odyssey of the School Year” for the Circe Institute:

“A few weeks into our school year, I see kingfishers ignite. Kingfishers are mornings on the porch doing math in the autumn sunshine, a cup of coffee alone while my kids are at martial arts, my daughter mastering a new scale on the piano in spite of her bitter complaint, and the affirmation of a student announcing, “Mrs. White, I used to think poetry was boring until I took your class.” These moments may be rare, but when we notice them, they transform the mundane into glory. Like the unexpected swoop of a brilliantly plumed bird, these flashes of grace adhere our souls to the odyssey of teaching, which rides ceaseless rhythms of the universal pattern of chaos, creation, fall, redemption.”

“Yes,” I thought as I read those words: “These moments may be rare, but when we notice them, they transform the mundane into glory.”

For me, these are the small, ordinary moments of when my students sit in red plastic chairs side by side reading a Piggie and Gerald story—“reading” meaning that I have read it to them so many times they have the pages memorized. Their bent heads nearly touch and I hear small voices say, “Are you ready to play outside?” as they point to the page. It is their waist-high heads bobbing in line as we march to the cafeteria and label grass and trees, and their shining eyes as they bring me rocks and twigs or dragon eggs. It is when my students create math problems of more, less or equal to with their afternoon snacks or lunches and look up from their empty lunch boxes and say, “Look Ms. Cowan! I have zero!” These are the mundane transformed into glory.

White concludes her article:

“As we embark on the odyssey of another school year, we can expect that it will fall short of our ideals. Instead of waiting for experience to match expectation, we can watch for the goodness and beauty that permeate the journey. Our vocation endures, and God’s mercies will light it up with flashes of grace.”

This past month has been full of flashes of grace. From the laughs I share with the first-graders that I tutor to watching the personalities of my ten kindergarteners unfold, watching for these glimpses in the mundane has shown me how full of God’s mercies each day truly is.  It has been a good journey watching for kingfishers in Guatemala.

Adventures and Rhythms

It rained again last Thursday as the teacher bus ambled slowly up 6 Calle. The wet streets looked like a mosaic of colors reflecting the brightly painted houses. A woman carrying a blue umbrella down the sidewalk was like a living watercolor. Her yellow skirt swished around her ankles and made the brown street water and cobblestones look as if someone had taken a splash of bright paint and streaked it down the sidewalk. The cars parked on the side of the road were mostly red, the houses stacked against each other tended towards orange and blue. The window of the van kept fogging up and I would wipe the condensation away with my sleeve. The sky was a deep, dark, ocean blue. The rain was a chilly rain, carrying with it the wish for wool socks and hot tea.

It has rained nearly every afternoon, occasionally waiting until after elementary’s second recess, but sometimes the kindergarten classes take chalk and blocks under the eaves of the kindergarten building and build towering castles and draw sunny skies while the thunder rolls off the mountains and the clouds pour.

The Sunday before last, Autumn and I had our first experience on a microbus. It was raining, but only a light drizzling rain. Anna Maria took us to Wal-Mart, showing us the proper way to flag down a bus (hand out, palm down, slight wave) and taking us all over the mall with no success finding a computer charger for Autumn’s computer. On the way home, Anna Maria flagged down a microbus, a small bus with an always open sliding door and always-full hard bench seats. There was a girl with one foot inside the bus and the other foot on the running board who was directing passengers when to get off and taking money as they did so. Anna Maria, Autumn and I all crowded in the already full bus. Autumn and I had to double over to fit inside the bus, and essentially squat while the driver bounced over speed bumps and sped around corners. One of my feet was about out the door, and Autumn and I were both trying to hold onto the doorframe to keep from falling out. We rode doubled-over and hanging out the door until a few passengers left the wood-topped bench and we could fit onto the edge of the seat, along with the five other people who were already there. At the next stop, Anna Maria decided we had had enough of that bus, and we got off and walked the rest of the twenty minutes home in the misty rain.

This past weekend, several of the teachers decided we should adventure outside of Xela and decided on Lake Atitlan as our journey’s end. Lake Atitlan is located in the Sierra Madre mountains and surrounded by three giant volcanoes: Atitlan, San Pedro, and Tolimán. The first part of the venture was to find a way to get to Panajachel. One of our options was a chicken bus, which is like a school-bus type bus, only instead of putting two people to a regular sized seat, they put three or four to a seat and it ends up being six to seven people across the aisle, completely blocking the walk-way and making it impossible to move. It is not recommended to take a chicken bus out of the city, as they have been known to get robbed and foreigners pickpocketed, or they go too fast around the curvy roads in the mountains and right off the edge of the road. But as it was the most inexpensive way to travel, and very authentic, we left our valuables at home, packed lightly, and hopped on a chicken bus. We missed the direct bus to Panajachel, which was supposed to leave at 9:00 am, but in the most untypical Guatemalan way, actually left at 8:40 am. Instead, we found a bus whose driver said it was going to Panajachel, and got on. It was a really nice greyhound-type bus and for the first two hours, we were comfortable and the bus was roomy. But when we passed a sign that pointed Panajachel to the right and the bus kept going left, we immediately asked the driver again if he was headed to Panajachel, to which the bus driver told us that we had to take another bus at the next stop to get to Panajachel. We got off the nice bus and crossed the road to catch another bus towards Panajachel. This one was a regular chicken bus and we were three to a bench as we started again. A man on the bus heard us discussing Panajachel and told us that Pana was were he lived and we still needed to get on one more bus after this one. After a half an hour, he showed us were to get off and back on another chicken bus. This one took us directly to Panajachel.

The view from the bus along the way to the lake was breathtaking. The mountains would fall away to reveal deep valleys full of small squares of crops. The clouds would cleave to the mountaintops and fill ravines in wisps of smoky-looking mist. Houses would be atop hills and down the side of the mountains. Horses and cows would be staked out near the road. Near the lake, we passed a crevice in the mountain above the bus full of green vines and goats. The shepherds were waiting near the road, watching the goats above their heads. Waterfalls would spring from the mountain’s side and flow under the road and off the mountains.

Once in the lakeside town, the man on the bus gave us the name of a good hotel not far from the bus stop and we ended up staying in Hotel Nimbo, a bright green hotel down a small street off the main road through Pana. Panajachel is a small town full of tourist attractions. Stalls of vendors lined the main road to the lake and we were bombarded with offers for boat rides (for free!), food, table runners, blankets, clothes and jewelry. Once past the vendors, the lake was quiet and tranquil. After eating lunch in a small café, we hired a private boat and set off across the lake towards Santiago. The water of Atitlan was deep blue and the waves were choppy. It was raining a bit, but we all sat in the open front of the boat in our rain jackets so we wouldn’t miss a single sight. The grey sky covered the tops of all but the littlest volcano. The lake narrowed and we were close to the volcanoes rising out from the water. As we rounded a corner, Santiago came into view, a vibrant contrast of bright buildings surrounded by green mountains and dim clouds. When I first stepped off the boat onto the pier, I thought it was my own legs that were unsteady, but I realized as I walked towards the various vendors set up near the water’s edge that it was the pier that was moving. It was a floating pier and was slowly rising and falling with the lake. The main street up Santiago from the pier was full of more vendors shouting outrageous prices at us, only to drop the price to half or even a quarter of the original price as we went by. We turned off the main road and explored down a less populated street. The houses along the street went from solid wall-to-wall homes, to yards and gardens and space between houses, to a banana farm with people using machetes to harvest huge banana bunches. Past the banana farm, the street disappeared into the lake. There were lines of wooden canoes with rotting bottoms tied up on the lake’s edge. A huge volcano sat just across the lake. Massive boulders jutted out of the water and several men in canoes rowed by us. We even were offered a ride for twenty-five quetzals, a little more than three dollars. We declined and headed back to our own boat.

On the way back to Panajachel, our boat captain would stop the boat, crawl over the roof from his steering wheel in the back of the boat to where we sat in front, and tell us about the volcanoes around us. It was in Spanish, though, and I only picked up bits and pieces. He let his son steer the boat a few times as we crossed the lake and the boy had to straddle the supporting poles to reach the wheel and see over the dashboard. Once, his son decided to sit down beneath the wheel—which had an open space so he could see below the dashboard—and his hands were high above his head with just his fingers reaching the steering wheel.

Dinner that night in Panajachel was in a restaurant that had little tiki-shack like dining areas. There was the main restaurant, and through the restaurant, there was a table set under a little house with a palm-leaf roof. It just fit five people, which was the number of our group, and was cozy and perfect. We all split a giant pizza and enjoyed the single candle our waiter lit on our table. It was chilly and we enjoyed hot tea and chocolate. After supper, we went for banana splits back down the main road. While waiting in the ice cream parlor, three little boys who looked to be around eight came in and wanted to shine our shoes. We all had tennis shoes on and didn’t need our shoes shined, but Malinda asked them where they were from and we found out two of them were brothers and they really wanted ice cream. Their hands were stained black with boot polish and each on carried a small stool and a wooden toolbox of cleaning supplies. They told us they were five, but we didn’t think they were quite that young. We wondered where their parents were. After ice cream and a late night of eight-thirty, we went back to the hotel and went to sleep. We set the alarm for five-twenty to see the sunrise, but it was raining and no one wanted to get out of bed. Yet, our teacher habits of getting up early wouldn’t let any of us sleep in too late, and we were up by seven-thirty and off to breakfast by eight. The town was very different by morning. The streets were quiet. No one tried to hassle with us about buying things. The tourists that were packing the streets the night before were nowhere to be found. It was pleasant and peaceful. We had a big breakfast of eggs and beans and tortillas from a cute little café and went back down to sit by the lake when we were finished. We sat on the lookout wall and Bek climbed down near the water’s edge to try to skip rocks (unsuccessfully) and give us observers a lesson on rock skipping. After enjoying the peacefulness of the lake and smell of water, we took a bus back to Xela. We had to switch three times again, and the last chicken bus was packed as full as it could possibly get. Every time someone had to get off, we all had to stand up and let him or her by because we were sitting in the aisle, lucky to get one leg on a seat. The guy collecting money grabbed onto a handrail at one point and jumped over people to reach the back. They played Disney’s White Fang in Spanish on the bus, which was a different experience, and we nearly missed our stop in Xela because we were watching the movie. Autumn heard someone shout, “Diecenueve!” and she went, “I think we got on the bus at 19th… This is our stop!” And that is how we made it from Xela to Panajachel and back again safe and sound.

This Thursday we celebrated Faria Chapina at school. Guatemala is getting ready to celebrate Independence Day and this was the school’s version of the massive fair that arrived in Xela this week. Most of the schools in Guatemala get the whole week off to celebrate Guatemala’s Independence, but ours takes three days off next week. The fair is one of the most famous in Guatemala. My host family told Autumn and me that people come from all over central and south America to go to the fair—it is like the State Fair in the US, only it’s a country-wide fair. Our school’s Faria Chapina celebrated with traditional Guatemalan food from vendors and lots of games and socializing set up by the student council. For one ticket, you could vote on what teacher got pie in the face, or for four tickets you could get amazing garnachas, which are little tortillas fried on a flat stove with meat and vegetables added on top. The students could hardly wait until early dismissal so they could celebrate at the school fair. During Bible class, the last class that day, and in which I had a combined class of both kindergarten classes, the kindergartener’s starting chanting, “Feria Chapina! Feria Chapina! Feria Chapina!” while they were supposed to be doing an activity about Abraham and Sarah. It was humorous to see those little bodies gathered on the rug spontaneously bursting into thrilled excitement. I thought, “This is how community works. It is solidarity brought on by similar circumstances, or even a uniting point of reference, and all of the sudden community is twenty papers that get put down and twenty voices that take up the same song, and there it is: Unification.”

Each week during collaboration groups, our mentor asks us our highs and lows of the week. The word “rhythm” kept going through my mind as I thought of the one-month mark of teaching kindergarten. The first week was like trying to herd cats. The second week was like swimming where I could tiptoe and juuuust touch the bottom. But the third week was like magic—someone flipped a switch and all the sudden I had a rhythm to follow. Things started to have a predicable pattern than I could plan for and try to improve in. I knew by the third week which students needed only a quick verbal reminder to behave and which students needed much firmer reminders with much stricter consequences. I figured out how to set expectations up for my students so that they would be more likely to succeed—small things, like telling them not to use markers to draw on the carpet or each other before handing out the dry-erase markers during math sessions.

This. Is. Huge.

I took for granted the things I expect people to know, even little bitty ones, such as how to pass pencils and whiteboards to another person, or what to do with a glue stick. I forget sometimes, too, because they are so quick to pick up on so many other things, that they need reminders about how to walk and not run to the bathroom, or how we certainly don’t use the tables as objects to swing between, or even that we raise our hand before speaking—or once we raise our hand, we have to wait to be called on before shouting an answer. They are eager to share and have yet to learn the robbing self-consciousness of adolescence where the unabashed sharing of an opinion is contingent on if that opinion is the right opinion. I read on a blog about a method of saying, “Me too!” without interrupting the speaker during class sharing time. It is essentially the ‘hang loose’ sign or as my kids call it, ‘the telephone’, and the student can make the sign with their hand and move it towards the people who is speaking and back towards themselves. It has taken practice, but the students are finally getting the hang of just using the sign and not shouting, “Me too!” and interrupting the original sharer.

Michaela, the counselor and elementary’s mentor teacher, talked about logical consequences in the classroom this week. Logical consequences work so that if a student can’t use the markers correctly, he or she doesn’t get to use the markers. Michaela talked about giving students a choice between two things you want them to do where they are the one choosing if they are going to behave. I can say, “You can either finish your work now, or you can stay with me during recess and finish.” The students become responsible for their actions by having a choice. I have been trying to implement it more thoroughly in class this week. Yesterday, I told one student I would give him a choice when he didn’t want to eat his snack, and couldn’t think of a good choice to give him because we were having 4th and 5th grade reading partners come in to class in five minutes and I knew sitting him out of reading time was not going to be particularly motivating for him. I couldn’t think of anything at all, so I told him he could either finish all of his snack, or finish all of his snack. He make the cutest confused face and the whole class started laughing—they are sharp!—and he started laughing, too. Then the whole class wanted choices, and I told them they could either eat their entire snack, or eat their entire snack, and they thought it was great fun. Next time I am going to have to have a choice in mind before I tell them they can choose! I have been learning each day new ways to interact with my students and to change lessons and grow as a teacher as one thing works in class and another does not. It has taken time to reach the point where I feel like there is even a rhythm to follow, but I’m beginning to be able to put my feet in the right places and find some semblance of a path.

I am thankful for each of my students. They are precious little eternal souls soaking up life, and I am thankful that God saw fit to put me in their lives just when he did. They have taught me much, and I can only hope I teach them much as well.