At 8:30 this morning Sarah and I walked up the street out of Santiago and toward Tzanchaj to visit the Escuela David LaMotte, which is mostly known to us and local friends as “Nino’s school.” It wasn’t long until a passing pickup truck let us climb in the back for a ride up the road, which is a common mode of transportation here. Generally, people stand in the back of the truck and hang on to a metal rack, and young men often just stand on the back bumper while the trucks fly up the road.
As is the custom, I banged lightly on the roof of the cab when we got to Tzanchaj and we hopped out and paid the driver three quetzales for the two of us — about 40 cents. When we arrived at the school, preparations were still ongoing for the day’s activities, and I helped hang a sign in the trees while Sarah talked to a couple of teachers and some students.
We happened to be here on an auspicious day, when the girl students compete to be the ‘madrina’ of the school. I’m not sure how to accurately translate madrina, but Nino explained it to me as the ‘school representative.’ She, along with the student body president, also a girl, give speeches on official occasions, and formally welcome visitors.
The event to choose her takes the form of a competition, which I would almost have to call a pageant, though it is unlike any I have seen in the United States. Parts of the event made me a bit uncomfortable, in the same way that pageants in the U.S. often do, but parts of it were quite beautiful. Unlike U.S. pageants, this one featured traditional dress, which continues to move me, even after all these years of visiting. Most women and many men still wear traditional dress in this part of the country, but it is clearly declining. These young women obviously were proud of their ‘traje’, and I loved seeing that.
The best part, however, was the speeches. There were six girls in the event from ages 7 down to 3, and all of them gave memorized speeches. Yes, all of them. That includes the two three-year-olds. Maria Fernanda Pablo Choy, the girl who won, spoke with passion and conviction about the pollution of Lago Atitlán, which she referred to as “our lake,” and the need to care for the environment in local and tangible ways, including putting trash where it goes. Litter is a huge problem here, and I very much appreciated her presentation. Even the tiniest girls, though, spoke well. It was truly impressive.
After the presentation, competition and award, the kids had lunch provided by the school. PEG pays the salary of the cocinera (cook), and the Sparks Foundation provides food three days a week. This is important work, since about half of the children in the community show signs of malnourishment. Providing healthy food not only helps with the general health of the children, but it gives their parents another reason to keep them in school.
Nino’s school has been in operation for ten years now. Here we are a decade in, and it’s both an exciting time and a challenging one. PEG helped Nino get it started by building the first part of their current school, which allowed Nino to move their existing preschool into their own building.
We have continued to support the school in the decade since, as have several other organizations. Now we are in conversation with some of those organizations about moving the school forward in significant ways. Stay tuned for more news as these ideas continue to take shape.
One of the things that excites me most about the school is that the teachers are taking monthly classes in Santiago at the Puerta Abierta, where we visited yesterday (see the blog). Melchora and Bety, as well as their teaching assistant, Maria, are training in subjects like classroom management and effective education techniques, with a focus on developing critical thought. PEG is also supporting the salary of an early childhood education specialist who is conducting those trainings this year at Puerta Abierta, and it is clear from their observations and evaluations that the trainings are having a positive effect.
The school has a new logo, and I love that too. It includes three small children in traditional traje and backpacks, with doves on either side of a book containing letters and numbers, and a Mayan character at the top, honoring the tradition of the area.
It is hard to believe that it has been ten years, but it’s incredibly moving to see the effect that those ten years have had. Now, with more coordination between the various organizations, I have high hopes for the effect that the school can have in the future. Thank you for being a part of this, whether by donating or simply spreading the word. Though I sit a bit uneasily with pageants, when young Maria’s tears began to flow as she gave her acceptance speech, my own tears joined hers on the ground. As she thanked her teachers and Nino and me and the others, I was sincerely moved. She finished her speech with dignity, and I walked over to the edge of the stage to give her a hug. She came right to me. When she finished and left the stage, I was moved again that she came straight to me for another hug before walking on.
This year we will support this school by paying a teacher’s and the cook’s salary and will pay for some other expenses as well, but the real work being done here is not quantifiable. Like good education everywhere, it’s about lifting these children up, showing them their own value, stretching and celebrating their capacities, and sometimes just giving them a good hug.