Cathy Liebowitz '15
Student Director of CCESP Nicaragua
Major: Environmental Studies
Hometown: Plainfield, NHRead the full interview
A friend recently asked me, "Do you feel you have an obligation to the rest of the world?" I quickly answered yes. Then paused and slowly corrected myself. "I believe I have an obligation to THE world." We-together as one-share one world, and I have seen another side of our world, one with people just like me, but who live differently. I have only begun to consider what it all means and how we, with all our differences, can and should all recognize this reality. I am now undertaking research alongside classes to help me understand children, no matter the culture. I am also learning about African societies, to understand the context of these children's experiences and learning. I want to know how we can construct educational environments that enhance existing culture, but at the same time do not deprive these children of dreams, suppressed by the monotony of daily survival.
More importantly, I must admit how much I learned about life-about having enough, about survival, justice, freedom, and progress. I experienced the happiness we can have when we have almost nothing, but just enough. Upon meeting my students I realized how little they had, soon to learn how happy they (and perhaps we) can be with so little. I shake my head thinking how sad we are with so much. After returning I would say everyday feels like thanksgiving, noting all the things we have around us. I now realize how much my students do have and how much we are missing, confined by our ideas of liberty and progress (I am still grappling with the question of if our way of life is more desirable). This experience shook the foundation of so many of my beliefs about the world-not to destroy them, but to make me aware and question all that is part of my life, from the foundation to all that is built atop it.
I don't want to lose these memories. These stories are reflections in and of themselves. Each story speaks of the bigger world we all live in and how I came to terms with our greater existence. It is not easy to recall many of the stories, not because of time or distance, but because of how close they are to my heart and my essence. I cannot claim I am a changed person now; I am still myself. I cannot claim I live in a changed world now; the world is still beyond my ability to fully understand. I can claim, however, I have a better awareness of our world now; I have lived what many have simply read about. With my new awareness, I hope I can promote social justice, some positive change, in the world in some meaningful way, not for myself, but for all of us as one world.
These stories are to be taken for their individual messages along with the combined complexity of the messages. We are all complex creatures and we can all identify with various understandings in each other-we must celebrate our differences by embracing our complexities. I have been unable to synthesize a single coherent message through all of the stories, except about the complexity of our world. I am not able to provide a fair background to these stories as a whole, as each story is already interpreted with preconceived notions and undesired prejudice towards people too much of society knows too little about or simply ignores. Any more discussion of the general scene will add judgment about the lives of real people. Do not sympathize. Sympathy makes it a fairy tale, not real people's lives. I recommend you read each story with empathy where possible. We are all real people.
They've heard of white men. Not everyone has seen one. And most certainly not everyone has had one stay in his or her home. But there I was. Sitting in the candlelight, sharing dinner with Madame, her brother, the Headmaster, and Shamara. She was the Headmaster's daughter and she was only seven years old. Shamara was one of those children who had seen and heard about white men, but had never shared dinner with one before. She sat with her shoulders crouched over her lap and her hands over her eyes. It was like a game of peek-a-boo. I wasn't there if she couldn't see me. She seemed almost to be crying about my presence. I'm not sure what her tears were for, but this was the beginning of an adventure for all of us.
Color me human, please. Unseen before. Scary. A freak. I was the boogieman. I suppose if I saw a purple person I would see it that same way. Well, I was a white man in a land where I was different, and visibly so. Little Sammy, probably no older than three, cried every time he saw me. At our first meeting, the headmaster gave me a small piece of toffee to give to Sammy, but it made little difference-he took the candy, than ran away. To complicate matters further, little Sammy's legs would often find something to trip over, so the fall would only reinforce his fear of the white man.
Thankfully, Sammy had his Mommy. Mommy was his five year old sister, but she
*Names have been changed.
was enough to take good care of him. When he fell, she would pick him up. When his dress would get dirty, she would clean it off. When he would cry, she would wipe away his tears. Sammy was lucky to have Mommy. After about seven weeks of smiles and waves to Sammy and Mommy, the image of Boogieman began to break down. Once Mommy would smile at me, little Sammy, too, began to understand that I was human just like him, just with a shade of difference. What a difference seven weeks made. Although Sammy could not speak English, we came to understand each other. My final night at the school, Sammy was brave enough to sit on my lap as I read a story to him and some other children. In our diverse society, I suppose we all serve as someone else's boogieman.
Neil would never come to school. I learned of him when one day he came to school during break to play soccer. Not quite the right reason, I suppose, to come to school, but he came to class after break was over. All he did during class was talk to the boy next to him. I asked that if they were going to continue to talk, they both stay after school. They stayed after that day. Peter, his friend, didn't seem to mind staying late and told me he was sorry. I allowed Peter to go home, but Neil wouldn't even talk to me. Instead, he cried. I didn't know how to handle his tears. He was a teenage boy, older than anyone else in the class. As I talked to him about why I didn't want him to talk, he seemed lost, ashamed, not of what he had done, but that he could not understand the white teacher in front of him. He seemed distant from my English words; I lived far removed from his reality. I could only ponder why he was crying, but nothing seemed to make sense. I had a challenge in front of me-creating dialogue with Neil-a task that would not be resolved that day, or that month, but I hoped before I left.
How do you get a teenager to come to school when his parents don't care, society doesn't care, but he cares enough to hate school? I asked my mom over email, although she never had a good answer. I considered what we do in the United States. At risk students need mentors, I thought. I would try to find a "big brother" for Neil. Maybe I knew the answer all along or perhaps I wanted this particular answer, but finding him a big brother proved impossible until I realized I would do it, even if only for the month until I left.
I didn't see Neil again until the following week. I don't know why he decided to come back to school. I was told he didn't come for many months until I came. I guess he wanted to give me a second try. I was ecstatic because I wanted to give our relationship a second try. I tried being positive having Neil back, but then after break, one of the students blurted out, "Neil ran away!" I yelled to him, asking him back-but yelling was not motivation enough to change his mind that day. He came by on Saturday, however, the perfect opportunity to focus on building the mentor relationship. I wasn't bound to a class and its room. Neil loves soccer, so that is how we communicated. There was a promise to return, for Neil to try my love, education. Monday came and went without a sign from Neil. Tuesday morning arrived, still with a missing body in Neil's seat. Then, during break, he appeared on the field, playing soccer. As the students returned to the classroom, someone noted again, "Neil ran away!" I could only express my frustration, "If Neil doesn't want to learn, he can stay stupid!" I didn't know what to say; it wasn't these students' fault. Neil had left his books on a desk and quietly I wished that meant he would return.
Some wishes come true. Neil came back, saying he went home for lunch. I told him how happy I was to have him back. He returned to school on Wednesday and Thursday that week. It was my silly little game to make school attract Neil. Friday may have disappointed me, but three out of five days was certainly a victory. I sealed my victory on Sunday. Neil came by the house where I lived as I was preparing to wash my clothes. As soon as he saw what I was doing, he quickly asked, "Can I wash your dress?" I was excited, if not shocked, that he would ask me this. I told him he could if he WANTED to. Well of course he did.
That Sunday, Neil became my brother. It was just the beginning of a transformation. We began to communicate better through English. We both learned so much from each other-about childhood and the world; about families and life; about education. I asked why he never came to school. He answered, "I don't want to go to school when they cane me." Though perhaps not my smartest, Neil was my wisest student. He asked if he could read with me. I said of course. He asked if we could play soccer. I said of course. I asked if he could come to school each day. He said of course. For the remaining month, I taught Neil at school nearly every day.
Cancer affects the lives of so many people, around the globe. We all wish we could do something about it. When the headmaster learned his brother had a brain tumor, the headmaster turned to me asking what we do in America. Alone we feel so hopeless, but when we share tragedy and triumph, we are strong. I was his hope. I made him feel strong. I was not prepared for this role. I could only claim the truth-I have had friends survive and return to some sense of normalcy and I have had friends pass away, as friends and family seek some sense of survival. He seemed to listen. I cannot stand complete deference to God, but the headmaster knew this. He would pray but he would make it his work to take action. We wrote to his whole family seeking financial assistance to make surgery possible. I was at the crossroads of justice and modernity. The headmaster believed he could make things right, pursue justice, but only with the help of modern know-how. The headmaster had a heightened sense of injustice, enhanced by his belief in progress, that things can be better. This view, however, also requires he believes things need to be better because at present there are problems that can and should be solved. I do not know if his brother will survive. I do know that with all the work and compassion shown by the headmaster, he is no different from those in my own family, who only want the best for everyone. In the end, I fear he will view death as in the hands of modernity and success as in the hands of God; I hope he will view both death and survival as the fruits of his faith in God through the work of good people.
Last Updated: 12/1/08