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The School Were I Learned to Speak
I followed my feet along the dirt road; they were all I could see. I kept my eyes down, refusing to look up and take in my surroundings. I heard my classmates' bubbly voices and smelled the stale dust, making my nose hairs tingle. Wrapped up in my own little world, I began to wonder how I was going to communicate with a school of young children who do not speak the same language I do.
My heart raced as we made our way to the tiny, rural school of El Hato, Guatemala. Each Traveling School girl followed the other into the main courtyard, where a blur of kids of all ages frantically ran around playing games. The colors captivated me and drew me into the scene. I timidly watched the swirl of energy flow around me. I notice some boys kicking around a worn out plastic ball, and thought of my old elementary school where we had an endless amount of playground toys. The atmosphere here at the school felt comfortable, homey, and inviting. Teachers casually monitored their rambunctious students, and everyone had bright smiles stretched across their faces. I felt relaxed and reflective. My earliest memories of school recall uptight, strict teachers adhering to rigid schedules. Though I had only just arrived, these kids seemed happy to be here, in no rush to grow up.
The bravest girls in our group walked straight up to the kids and began excitedly playing games with them. In return, the young students swarmed them with smiles and positive energy. Others of us took a more timid approach. I felt I did not possess the confidence to strike up a conversation with these high-spirited kids.
Suddenly, I found myself standing alone in the middle of the courtyard. Embarrassed that I had not yet moved, I felt my lack of confidence was entirely too pathetic. I took deep breath and walked up to two comical boys playing f'tbol (soccer).
'Hola chicos. ''Como est'n? ' I said in a shaky voice.
'Bien, ' they laughed. The barrier was broken, we had already made a connection. A light went on inside of me and inspired me to dive into conversation with my new friends. After learning their names, I realized they were more interested in playing f'tbol with me than entertaining my questions. I barely had the chance to kick the ball before I was mobbed by more kids.
A sea of smiling little heads bobbed around me. A few inquisitive children noticed the camera gangling from my wrist.
''Puedo sacar un foto? ' They squealed in unison as they grabbed my hand. I obligingly handed over my camera to a bashful little girl. As we walked over to some steps, she began rapidly snapping photos of everything around her.
''Como te llamas? ' I kneeled down and asked her.
'Marysol, ' she said shyly. Curious to know more, I asked her how old she was, and how many siblings she had.
'Tengo siete a'os, y tengo cuatro hermanos, 'she answered. The more we talked, the more comfortable we grew with one another. Words continued to pour out of my mouth. My conjugations and tenses might have been a bit off, and my non-existent accent butchered a few words here and there; still, she did not seem to care. I realized she felt genuinely happy to share my company. I felt honoured to be her new playmate. She was a kid, she did not judge me. She was not there to correct my pronunciation or make me feel inadequate as a Spanish speaker. To her, school meant fun and learning.
Learning a new language can be both challenging and entertaining. Yet in order to actually use a new language and truly learn it, you have to interact with new people. It can be awkward to wander outside your element of comfort and familiarity. Interacting with the children of El Hato not only improved my Spanish; it gave me a better understanding of people. I learned that if you put in the effort to authentically communicate with someone, they are most likely going to listen. By taking that first step, all you can do is get better.
I left my comfort zone in the U.S. exactly one month ago, and have since travelled through diverse areas of Guatemala and Mexico. With two and a half adventurous months left to go, I am enjoying every moment more and more as I shed my discomfort and bravely interact with the amazing individuals I meet along the way. I have sparked conversations with wise Alejandro, our raft guide down the peaceful Lancanja River; Mario, our humorous and good natured shuttle van driver to Lanquin, Guatemala; Koky, our boisterous guide through the eerie bat caves; and flamboyant C'sar, our energetic tour guide through the breath taking Mayan ruins of Tikal. Already having rapidly expanded my spanish skills, I know I have much more to learn. I am now able to maintain conversations that flow without holding back what I want to say. Every day I look forward to who I will meet next and the inspiring conversation to come.