Week 17: Three Schools. Three Days. One Tired (But Happy) Introvert.
[I have so much to share from my intrepid trip to Nicaragua. Check out this short primer on the country and the story about making the intrepid decision to go, as well as my account of the three slices of life I experienced while I was there.]
Nearly twenty years ago, my mom was one of the original volunteer “schoolmarms” who launched the Pittsboro One Room School. With a grant from the local community foundation, a team of people relocated an old one-room schoolhouse sitting empty on a farmer’s property to the grounds of Pittsboro Elementary School. They renovated the building to restore it to its 1883 glory, replacing windows, redoing the floors, fixing broken bricks in the masonry, and they also added subtle upgrades like electricity. To set the stage, they installed antique wooden desks, a chalkboard, and pot-belly wood stove.
The school became a living-history destination for schools across the state. Students take a field trip and experience a day of school as it was in 1892, taught by a schoolmarm or schoolmaster who is dressed for the time period and remains in character throughout the day.
I thought about that one-room school and its amenities several times while I was in Nicaragua, because one-room schools are not a quaint living-history experience in that country. They’re the norm today.
School in Rural Nicaragua
Over the course of three days, our Alianza Advocates volunteer group visited three different schools in the campo on four occasions. One school was held in a standard building provided by the Nicaraguan Ministry of Education. One was a new facility built by the Project Alianza team. One was a private building provided by the farm owner himself for the kids living on his farm.
The three schools shared some similar characteristics: open walls and windows (without glass) provide both air circulation and allow natural light for the school day. Electricity was limited, if it existed at all. And restrooms were latrines placed a few yards away from the building itself.
Each building was divided into two rooms and was outfitted with old wooden desks and chairs, and a chalkboard or whiteboard occupied a wall at the front. As sparsely furnished and equipped as these schools were, though, children’s artwork, crafts, and lessons filled every surface—exactly what I’d expect to see in an elementary classroom.
None I saw had playgrounds, but kids will always find a creative way to invent games and play: circle games indoors and out, tag, Red Rover, keep-away, you name it.
Though if you’re playing Red Rover, as we did very briefly, this rather dangerous game comes with an added element of risk: don’t break through your opponent’s defenses too eagerly, or you may find yourself running straight into the barbed-wire fence providing a rough barrier between the schoolyard and the road.
On that note, our guides from Project Alianza gave us a cautionary cultural heads-up at the start of our trip: recognize that safety standards in Nicaragua are different than they are in the U.S. (I would argue that some of our safety “standards” are ridiculous and in place more for insurance companies and lawyers than for common-sense protection, but if I were Nicaraguan president for a day, removing barbed wire from schoolyards would be an easy thing to prioritize.) Children walk alone for great distances throughout the country. To school, to play with friends, to the river, anywhere. We laughed about being in a country of “free-range kids”.
It would be easy to be hit with a sense of nostalgia, picturing children playing games together outdoors year-round… until you realize that these children take on adult responsibilities much too early in their lives.
While the Ministry of Education technically provides a teacher for every 40 students, teachers placed in rural communities are often overworked, do not receive regular salaries, and are unqualified. They may not even show up for work each day. The public school system isn’t reliable or trustworthy, so parents aren’t motivated to send their children to school.
What do the kids do instead? If at home, they take care of housework: make tortillas for the day, wash the family’s laundry, and care for their younger siblings. Or, they go to work with their parents, especially during the coffee harvest. For a family living on less than perhaps $2.00 per day, an extra worker in the household can mean the difference between regular meals or starvation.
Project Alianza is working to address several of these needs: Consistent education. Reliable, qualified teachers. Food security for the children. A safe place to be while parents are working. Basic medical attention.
And an occasional sprinkling of joy brought by foreign visitors.
How Project Alianza Fits Into the Equation
Before I left for this trip, people asked me if I was going to be building a school. Building schools, building homes, or building churches are common voluntourist and missionary activities. Thankfully the answer was no for two reasons: One, I’m not a skilled construction worker. Two, Project Alianza uses a locally focused approach to providing better education in the coffeelands—an approach I really like.
When the Project Alianza team identified a school site whose one-room, Ministry-provided building was not suitable for serving the 96 children of this particular community, they hired a local architect to design a new facility to be built next door. When the plans were ready, they hired local, experienced contractors to build the school. They sourced local building materials. And when the time came to hire teachers for this school and others they support, they interviewed local, qualified teachers who are a part of the community and are committed to it.
In a country of such deep poverty, providing employment for a few days, a few weeks, a few months to build a school, or give a good teacher a long-term position makes a tremendous impact. Purchasing materials from local businesses also stimulates the economy. Small measures go a long way. Think about this: a grant or donations adding up to $10,000 to Project Alianza enables them to pay three full-time teachers’ salaries for a year.
$10,000 for three teachers. And that’s a fair, competitive wage.
The school year in Nicaragua runs opposite the coffee harvest: kids are in school February through November. During the coffee harvest time, children are at the highest risk of participating in child labor. Project Alianza provides summer camp programs that give families an alternative to the kids going to work: they get a safe place to spend the day, regular meals, learning activities, and their teacher stays with them from 5:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. or later six days a week.
Playing with the kids, sitting in their classrooms, walking through their communities, experiencing just a sliver of their lives... The respect I have for Kristin as the founder of this organization just compounded with every passing hour I was in the country. To not just start an organization but to run it in such a conscientious, sustainable way takes a level of dedication and heart that few people have.
The Volunteer Experience: Brightening Days and Inspiring Curiosity
With the understanding that small measures make a big difference, our volunteer time with the children at these schools had a simple purpose: we were there to make their days brighter. We were role models from a life very different from their own. And we hoped to inspire curiosity.
Curiosity is one of my favorite traits, so I’m always game to stoke that fire!
Our three days with the three schools were packed with activity. Our mission for our first stop at the newly built school at Santa Enriqueta, on our first full day in Nicaragua, was to help the kids finish painting a mural on the side of their old building. The kids had chosen the theme, “On My Way to School”, and in the scene were green mountains, a blue and white school building, carrots growing in a field, and a smattering of friendly farm animals. We painted, taught them the words for primary colors in English, and finished the day playing games (including that risky Red Rover) between brief rain showers.
I couldn’t understand a word they sang, but with a few rounds for observation, I was able to figure out the basic rules: when thirty faces turn to you and stop singing, jumping into the middle of the circle to do a silly dance is nearly always acceptable.
We spent the whole afternoon with the kids at that school, and I think I got a hug from each and every one of them when it was time for us to call it a day.
After a walking tour of the community, we ate a simple dinner at the one public eating establishment in town. To call it a restaurant would be a stretch. The word used there was comedor, which translates to “dining room” or “cantina”. In a room lit by a single bare bulb with seating for perhaps 12, we all ate the same meal, typical local fare eaten at every meal of the day: eggs, gallo pinto (rice and red beans), fresh cheese, and tortillas. The ever-present chilero (a hot chile and onion blend in vinegar) added some flavor, and a couple slices of fresh avocado were a treat.
Satiated, we walked up the hill to the rustic ecolodge at La Fundadora, using the flashlights on our phones to avoid twisting an ankle on the rocky terrain. For a couple hours before bed, we prepared activities for the following day’s school visits.
On our second full day, we took a truckload of activities to two Project Alianza schools. At our first stop, Escuela Palestina, the students welcomed us with traditional dances they’d rehearsed and prepared for the occasion. In the second dance, called “The Old Woman and the Old Man” (catchy title, huh?), the two wore traditional masks that fully hid their faces and creeped me out. The “old man” carried a stick and slowly chased the “old woman” around in a circle for a solid three minutes.
(In later days, I saw similar masks for sale in market stalls in Granada and León, and they were just as creepy hanging alone as they were on children.)
At this particular school, the standard Ministry of Education building serves more than 150 children with five teachers. About 70 students were there that day ranging in age from preschool age to grade six, including one young girl who was caring for her toddler sister all day. We divided the kids into four groups and did activities and crafts with them in rotation: balloon animals, face painting, friendship bracelets, and either handmade cards for Nicaraguan Father’s Day or, for the youngest kids, bubbles. Lots and lots of bubbles.
I’ve come to believe that bubbles are magic no matter your language or age. And the bigger the bubble wand, the greater the magic.
With so many kids and activities going on in one room, it was chaotic and noisy, but we had no doubt that the kids had enjoyed the departure from their daily routine. We took a break for lunch (and to recharge a bit), then we drove to another school, one run fully by Project Alianza.
School at La Aurora is held in a small building provided by the farm owner directly. The lead teacher, Elizabeth, manages a classroom of about 15 kids of all ages in one room. She grew up in a similar community but had the dedication and good fortune to go all the way through school to get her teaching degree. And even while she teaches all grade levels, lives in a home next door to the school, and is available to her students nearly 24/7, Elizabeth is working on earning her second bachelor’s degree with a scholarship from Project Alianza.
We repeated the same activities with the kids at this school, and they, too, particularly loved the bubbles.
My introvert-energy tank was low by the end of the day, but knowing we’d given the kids such a fun day was a truly rewarding way to drain it.
We spent our first of two nights in Matagalpa (stories of that city to follow in my next post), then we went back to Santa Enriqueta School for one last activity on Saturday morning. The kids greeted us by name and were clambering onto our trucks before we could get out. We came bearing tablets to work with the first- and second-graders, courtesy of a technology partnership that Project Alianza created with another organization.
Kids of this age are at a critical point in their education: if they’re not inspired to keep learning and find it fun, they’ll drop out of school and go straight into the workforce. When so few children continue past third grade, getting them excited about learning before that turning point can make all the difference.
What I’m Still Thinking About Today
While this trip was packed full of new experiences, it was volunteering with the kids that will most stick with me.
On the one hand, I saw with my own eyes that kids will be kids no matter the circumstance. They’re resilient, they take joy in new and simple experiences, they love interesting visitors, and bubbles are reliable magic. They like hands-on activities, and they can invent a game in any environment with just a little imagination.
I don’t think we give them enough credit for these innate characteristics.
When I turn the lens back on myself and my environment, though, it made real for me the tremendous good fortune and privilege I grew up with and continue to have. I write down three things I’m grateful for at the end of each day, and the nature of these gratitudes changed when I got back from Nicaragua. While I’m still grateful for everything I was grateful for before, it taught me to appreciate the smaller things, like indoor restrooms, running water, air conditioning, and a school environment that had all the crayons and books and pencils and school supplies I could have wanted.
And it taught me to appreciate the big things: like the fact that going to school five days a week from kindergarten through four years of college—sixteen years of my life—was my number-one priority. I didn’t have another job. My other responsibilities took second place and were minor by comparison. And at the end of that formal education, I had hundreds of possible directions I could go.
The kids I met over these three days in rural Nicaragua may have a very different life today and ahead of them. But I hope that our visit sparked a little curiosity in them and may inspire them to pursue a little more for themselves. They deserve it.
Photo credit: Any photos where I'm pictured (generally wearing a bright pink shirt) were taken and shared by a member of the Project Alianza team.