I learned the most impactful lesson of my teaching career while serving in the impoverished, sea-side Peruvian village of Pachacutec on a relentlessly sunny, summer day. I wore a garbage bag over my clothes as I painted the exterior of the Christian school where I had been volunteer teaching for the prior semester. The plastic garbage bag kept my clothes clean, but it also intensified the heat. My skin was soaked with salty moisture—my own personal sweat lodge.
However, it wasn’t the sweltering heat or the regret I felt for agreeing to paint the building that occupied my thoughts as I worked. Instead, my mind was consumed with a deep dissatisfaction over the way my English class had gone this past semester. It had been a challenge, to say the least.
Most of the trouble had been caused by one student, a 16-year-old named Sergio. During one of my first encounters with him, I had instructed Sergio to go to the principal’s office after he kicked a classmate. On his way out of the room, he angrily punched one of the flimsy classroom walls. The force of his strike combined with the shoddiness of the wall caused it to fall over while the class watched in shock!
Left with a partially-enclosed room full of giggling and rambunctious teenagers, I hastily herded the distracted teens into one of the remaining corners while also directing a pair of helpful students to snap the hinges (that once held our classroom together) back into place.
Sergio wasn’t very tall. His hard life and diet of ceviche and salchipappa had made what there was of him all muscle. He was built like a prizefighter and often acted like the classroom was his personal boxing ring.
At times, Sergio displayed some better qualities. He apologized profusely after his outbursts. He loved to compete in games in class. He even completed his classwork and projects from time to time.
But, at other times, Sergio’s behavior shocked everyone . . .
One day, a stray puppy wandered into our classroom—a fairly regular occurrence in Pachacutec. Sergio got down on his knees, whistled, and beckoned with his fingers until the little furball ran over to him. Then, with one of his powerful arms . . . he socked the poor puppy in the face so hard that it rolled over three times before yelping and running away. The students in the room recoiled in disgust as Sergio flashed his wide grin, delighted at what he had just done. Yes, Sergio was capable of shocking us all.
I confess that I was not sad to see Sergio leave at the end of the school year. He’s nothing but trouble, I had thought. Even painting the outer walls of the school on a sweltering day was preferable to dealing with him.
Since the impoverished school didn’t have a ladder for me to use, I settled for a metal chair on top of a stool. As I painted the top of the wall, I felt my makeshift platform squirm underneath me in protest every time I made an upwards stroke.
Suddenly, I sensed a person standing on the street behind me. I turned to look, which caused my MacGyvered stepladder to once again wobble beneath me. I successfully maintained my balance but realized an even greater danger when I saw who was on the dirt road below. It was Sergio.
“Teacher! Teacher!” Sergio called.
He yelled quite a bit more at me in Spanish. I couldn’t translate his shouting quickly enough, so I assumed he was explaining his plans to shove me over and advising me to increase my travel insurance premiums.
Then I noticed a small woman standing behind Sergio dressed in traditional Andean clothing. I surmised she was his mother. She wore a brimmed, straw hat and a full-length white dress with a flowery shawl over her shoulders, and she carried a wicker basket.
Sergio continued, “Teacher! Peligroso!”
He pointed at the stool/chair combination beneath me, and added, “Espera! Voy a traer . . . ”
I didn’t catch the rest as he ran off and disappeared through the front gate of the school complex. His mom eyed me in a shy but friendly way as she shifted about gathering nearby tree fronds to place in her basket.
Sergio returned with the top of a six-foot-long table. I wondered where the legs of the table had gone. He dumped it onto the sand behind me. Dust kicked up onto my fresh layer of paint.
“Mira!” he commanded, motioning with his hands that I should come down. I obliged by deftly falling off of my perch. Quite a few snapping sounds accompanied my landing.
Sergio leaned the table against the wall I had been painting, revealing the wood frame underneath that held the table together. Sergio scrambled up the table’s beams, indicated that he wanted the brush and bucket of paint, and then smeared some of it against the eight-foot-high top of the wall—leaving drips of white rolling down towards the blue trim at the bottom.
“Es facil!” he informed me, jumping down with the bucket of paint still in his hand—which resulted in more white splatters on the blue trim. He then gestured that I should follow his example.
Sergio seemed unaware that what comes easily to an athletic 16-year-old is potentially life-threatening for a near-sighted, middle-aged adult whose only exercise is flipping the pages of a good book. His mom placed rocks under the bottom corners of the rickety tabletop in an attempt to level it.
So there I was—a bucket of paint in one hand, using my other hand to pull myself up Sergio’s makeshift ladder. The beams of the frame I was intended to use as steps were about a-foot-and-a-half apart. My knees protested the entire climb. As I moved upward, I realized that each two-by-four was held in place by rusted nails. Each step alarmingly bowed under my weight. I savagely lunged with the paintbrush towards the top of the wall, slathering paint at a furious pace in the hopes that I could win the race with gravity.
Then, I paused and looked below me. There I saw Sergio eying me. His mom stood behind him beaming proudly at her son’s helpfulness.
“Esta bueno, no?” Sergio asked, looking up at me as if waiting for a response.
I wasn’t sure how to respond.
At that moment, I saw beyond my dark resentments. Instead, I saw a child creado por Dios.
I looked down at Sergio’s face, at the face of a youth who was desperate for me to recognize his possibility, to acknowledge his worth in this world, to regard him as a masterpiece created by God.
“Todo esta bueno—esta mejor,” I haltingly replied, “Gracias, Sergio.”
Chris Panell currently teaches in the Kennewick, WA public schools. In addition to prior publication in Teachers of Vision, his writing has been published in numerous magazines and journals, including Literacy Today, Education Week (online), EFL Magazine, AMLE Magazine, and The Voice of the National Writing Project.
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