7:59 AM: ONE MORE MINUTE until the alarm on my cell phone bursts into 16-bit tonal fury.
It begins to shriek, sending me frantically groping for the off button. I roll out of bed, trying not to wake my roommate Jon, who’s slumbering three feet away. Sharing a hostel room the size of a broom closet is a complicated affair. When we’re sleeping, the floor is littered with luggage and dirty laundry. During the day, we pile everything back on top of our beds.
I struggle to my feet as the lingering effects of alcohol stagger my step and fog my brain. As Chileans say, “tengo hachazo.” I have an axe in my head. The throbbing pain is all that remains of a riotous night in Barrio Bellavista, where poets, barmen, petty thugs and tourists collide to make one swinging neighborhood. I swear at myself under my breath for staying out so late, but that’s life in Santiago.
In a city this big, it’s easy to get swept away by the action.
When I received the call last September informing me that I had been hired as a teacher through Chile’s English Opens Doors program, I trembled with joy. My days passed with fantasies of being everyone’s favorite professor, the one who made a difference in his students’ lives. I wanted to show myself that I could forsake the American consumerist purgatory and become a globetrotting renaissance man. I needed a real challenge.
Now, five thousand miles away from home I’m doing what I had previously considered to be an unattainable fantasy. This is my first time teaching as well as my first time living abroad. The school year begins this week and I’ve been getting up early to ensure I’m at work on time with my lessons prepared. Returning to the States as a broken-hearted failure is a fate I refuse to accept.
After brushing my teeth and getting dressed, I head downstairs for the hostel’s infamous “breakfast.” Though it’s free, there are only so many times I can be excited about eating cornflakes with powdered milk and choking down another dry roll with a gelatinous substance purported to be jelly. Welcome to the luxurious life of travel!
When I’ve finished, I sling on my backpack, give a “chau!” to the receptionist and open the portal to my strange new world. A burst of daylight inundates my eyes. I breathe deeply to draw in the candied air of the pastry shop next door. Sober-looking business people march up and down the sidewalk; some stopping off to buy a paper while others run to catch the bus. Just as they reach for the door, it pulls away.
Walking along Avenida Vicuña MacKenna, the sun’s amber glow caresses my face and fills me with glee. Chilean eyes shoot puzzled stares, bewildered by the goofy gringo with the smirk. Is he on drugs? Why is he so happy?
Plaza Italia is in full swing. The intersection hums with life. A screeching parade of cars, buses, and scooters crawls through the city center. Stray dogs laze in the midst of pedestrian chaos. Old gypsies pester people for change. And here I am, just one instrument playing my part in the beautifully cacophonous orchestra of life.
I plunge into the underbelly of the city, pitter-pattering down the stairwell of the Santiago Metro.
On warm summer days like these, the air is heavy and infused with the heat and sweat emanating from the bodies of the rush hour crowd. The train comes whooshing in just as I wave my transit card across the scanner. I hurry to the platform. Swarms of people are jostling to get in. The buzzer signals the doors are closing. I run for it and narrowly force my way on board, the jaws of the subway car slamming behind me. The train heaves forward and we all angle backward, each at the mercy of those behind us – sardines in a can.
The mere thought of my schedule drains me. Today I have four classes in a row without a break: a six-hour marathon of talking. Walking to my classroom, I can hear the faint noise of chattering teenage voices. Though I have a conversational grasp of Spanish, they might as well be speaking Cantonese. Their thick accents and slang throw me completely off-track. The students quiet down and we begin.
First we review the alphabet and numbers. Good. Then I move to the verb “be,” assuming that drawing a parallel to the similar verb “ser” in Spanish will make this an easy topic to conquer. Gaining confidence, I delve into even more complex grammatical territory- interrogative questioning, and suddenly find myself the captain of a ship about to mutiny. Blank stares, open mouths and little brown heads resting on makeshift pillows of books and folders are all that return my queries.
I’ve lost them! What was I thinking?
I panic. It’s so hot I start to sweat on top of the existing layer of sweat. Recognizing my defeat, I do what any good general would: I retreat to the safety of home base. I spend the rest of the lesson licking my wounds while we work on days of the week and months of the year. I marvel at my masterful inability to teach.
My classes go better as the day goes on, but it’s too late. I’ve lost confidence. I can’t help but wonder if I lack the knack for pedagogy that teaching requires. All around me I see visions of my dreams smoldering. What once was tangible is now a plume of thick black smoke.
By the time I dismiss my last class of the day I’m all but crushed. I sigh as I sort my papers, markers and folders into my backpack for the trip home, wondering how I’ll find the strength to do it all again tomorrow.
I get up and turn to leave. A smiling face startles me. “Oh hey, Cristián.” I greet him awkwardly.
“Hi, Teacher. Thanks for the lesson. It was good!”
“You think so? I’m glad you enjoyed it.” He extends his hand to shake mine. “Chau, Profe.”
“De nada.” My heart lifts.
As I walk through the campus his parting words linger in my mind. “Chau Profe.” Yes, I AM a professor. This is just my first week teaching, after all. I wait for the bus, watching the glimmering lights of the Santiago skyline flow through the valley, splotches of color in an impressionist painting. The diesel rumbles to the stop and I climb aboard.
When I get back to the hostel it’s late. My feet and back twinge and all I can think about is the sweet release of a good night’s sleep. Entering, I stop at the foot of the stairs to observe every room buzzing with the activity of my program mates. People lounge in the living room watching a movie. Others are preparing food, some dining in the patio, laughing and mingling. This scene is too wholesome to ignore and I resolve to join in the merriment of my new adopted family.
I find Jon in the kitchen, cooking up a meager ration of pasta. He greets me with a warm smile, asking if I’m hungry. “I’m not gonna eat it all, and you totally have to try this wine I bought.”
“Sure man, I’d like that!” I help him carry out our dinner and we squeeze into a spot amongst the horde in the patio.
Sinking into the plastic chair I groan with relief. I loosen my tie, unbutton my collar and kick up my feet. After a long day of work, the noodles taste like manna from God. The wine is even better, rich and oaky. As I listen to others recount their teaching horror stories, I realize I’m not alone. Being a good educator is an aspiration that comes in time. It means so much more than one bad class out of one day.
This morning I left for work positively euphoric and by the afternoon I wanted to crawl into a wood chipper. Yet now everything is strangely all right. With the end of the day comes a sense of fulfillment and self-pride. Like a factory worker punching out, I know I earned my keep. Today I was a giver. Today I made a difference.