I came back a better person. I wasn’t 100% sure what I was getting myself into, I work at a large urban high school as a nurse, not even as a classroom educator. I was traveling to Medellin, Columbia by myself, going to meet an unknown group of other educators. My heart wanted to learn about the culture, the language and engage with others who work within their community. I honestly wasn’t even thinking about the educators who were also attending the retreat. Little did I know, but everyone I encountered on the trip, was going to be part of the change within me.
It was a rough academic school year, I ended it feeling negative and frustrated. Impending cuts again to our already slim urban school budget, feeling discouraged by the negative attitudes of fellow colleagues and the display of true disdain for the community some of my colleagues were displaying was all too much for me. Violence was increasing in the community, the number of homeless students seemed to keep rising, several families within my school had loved ones recently deported. It was an emotionally and mentally draining year that left me questioning if I even belonged in the school system anymore. It sounds foolish to say that a one-week trip to Medellin washed away a school year’s amount of weight on my shoulders and mental stress. While it didn’t cleanse me of all of that, between Lindsay, our in-country coordinator, Meg, an intern, and the rest of our group, I was cleansed from the negativity, and found within myself strength to be the positive voice that I was looking for.
Lindsay had organized our days to be full; full of conversations, experiences, cultural knowledge and relationship building. She had even arranged for Meg to take those of us who had arrived early to the Botanical Gardens. From day one, we were exposed to the beauty of Medellin and its culture. As a group we went on a tour of Communa 13, a barrio put on the map because of drugs and violence. Initially, I was hesitant because people still live in Communa 13, and I was concerned they might have felt some sort of way with tourists coming in to hear about how horrible the area used to be. I was so wrong. The tour was given by a volunteer from the Medellin YMCA, whose family moved there in the 1980s. The volunteer gave use such great history, of how the barrio came to be, the conflict, the turnaround, the use of graffiti as storytelling, and the government’s attempt to help the community. It was a lot of walking, uphill and riding up escalators, but it was a great way to learn more about the homelife students were coming from, and the educational needs of the community.
Lindsay had also arranged for us to visit Fundacion Huellas, which I was super excited for. It is an organization nestled close to the top of a mountainside barrio. I was excited because Fundacion Huellas had recently begun holding classes for the Venezuelan children who had recently been arriving with their families after a long walk from Venezuela. After seeing how our country was handling undocumented individuals and families, I was interested in seeing how Columbia was handling a new group of immigrants. I was prepared with my bags of school supplies and my walking shoes. I wasn’t prepared for the cable car ride.
Let me just say, Medellin has an amazing public transit system. I truly enjoy public transportation. However, I have an odd fear of heights coupled with openness. I had watched Youtube videos on the cable cars and had tried to mentally prepare myself. I felt so confident, until I actually got to the highly elevated landing where we had to get into the cable car. It was then that I realized, I can’t do this and my whole body began to sweat.
As someone who doesn’t like to be vulnerable, I now was freaking out internally, about the heights and about people seeing me scared, sweating and crying. I am an ugly crier. Going up I had 3 people from the group with me. They spoke softly to me, while I kept my eyes tightly closed. They allowed me to grab their arms when I needed to feel something real, and they guided me gently off the cable car, down the stairs to the flattest side of the mountain. It was really amazing because we still had another 10 minute uphill walk to meet the volunteers of Fundación Huellas, and 2 more educators from the group walked with me, blocking me from the view of the side of the mountain. All was great once we got to Fundación Huellas, it was a small building in the midst of apartments and neighborhood stores, with volunteers out in the street ready with games and activities for the kids. It was then that I saw how much some of the educators on the trip loved kids. 3 educators jumped in on double Dutch with the kids, one was playing ball in the street and 2 more were dancing with the kids. Language was not necessary, just a smile and a pure heart for simple old-fashioned fun.
All too soon, though, it was time to head back to the hotel. It would be getting dark and while we had a great time, the area was not the safest after dark. We made our way back to the cable cars, all of us bubbling with the fun of truly being relational with the kids, seeing kids just playing and not worried about adult issues was what we all needed. Then we arrived back at the cable cars station. If I thought going up was bad, going down was worse. Climbing up the cement steps should have been reassuring, but there was spaces in between the stairs, where walking up them you could see just blue sky. I froze on them. Again, my vulnerability opened me up to more friendships, one of the educators had me hold onto her arm as we slowly and shakily ascended the stairs. Now I’m 100% sure that it wasn’t as bad as my mind was making it out to be, yet all I remember from getting to the top of the platform was only being able to see blue skies and hearing voices from the communities below us. Getting back on the cable cars was a challenge, but again educators supported me in my time of need. This time, despite Lindsay and some others’ soothing words and allowances for me to hold their arms, I was worse than going up! My body was physically shaking and sweating and despite my eyes being shut, I was crying, again. How utterly embarrassing! Me, depending on people I just met, and crying in public, my worst nightmare!
Being vulnerable is so hard, but it was so worth it. Over the next few cultural events; coffee tour, cooking class, a trip to downtown Medellin to purchase book for the YMCA , a fruit tour and a local cooking class, I bonded with each one of the educators on a deeper level. People shared personal things that were happening in their life, whether it be a professional move, a family situation, or even just an internal struggle, with me. I felt connected and my eyes were also opened. Here were 13 other people who chose to work in the education profession and chose to travel to Medellin, sharing their heart with me. Regardless of the area of the United States that we were work in, or the age groups that we work with, the theme of more similarities than differences kept popping into my head, and it was so encouraging and refreshing.
While our week was peppered with amazing cultural activities, our main focus was to observe some classrooms, speak with some of the administrators, and have some panel discussions with the local educators. I was able to first observe a class filled to the brim with 6th grade boys. The lesson was all about what they, as young people, could control; their actions, their choices, how they could improve their community, their country and the planet. The second class was a 4th grade class of girls who were in an English lesson. They were so excited to show us what they were learning. Both of the teachers were able to engage their classes with minimal technology but hearts full of passion, passion to help improve the future generation.
The secondary school we visited really was my favorite, given that I work in a secondary school and I love the sassiness, independence and curiosity of teenagers. The geometry class I observed was taught by an extraordinary male teacher, who was able to use real life situations to explain a concept. His students were a little chattier, but he maintained great class control, and was able to pull the kids focus back up to the lesson without yelling, threatening or kicking anyone out of the class. He would stop and allow kids to take a picture with their smartphone of the steps on the chalkboard before moving on. During that visit, we as a group, were able to sit and talk with the school psychologist. Her role is similar to a School Adjustment Counselor, where it is not so much about academic progress, but about the social and emotional issues that affect students behavior and ability to learn. It was so eye opening to hear her talk about her day to day, because it parallels my own day so closely, except as a nurse we also have some medical issues to deal with also. It was after hearing the psychologist speak that I realized that there were more similarities between the high school in Communa 13 and the high school that I work at. The idea of having more in similarities that unite us over differences that separate us only intensified for me when we held our panel discussion with the primary and secondary teachers we had previously observed.
I felt so strongly about our similarities that I shared that during our panel discussion. The local educators shared their hopes for the students, the struggle to engage parents, the challenges to spark creativity with limited resources and the difficulties in seeing your students’ home environment while trying to maintain hope. These also are issues educators in my district face. The local educators were not blaming a lack of money, department heads, large class size, rather they were seeking tips, tools and strategies to improve their daily interactions with their students. Their eagerness to be a transformative presence in the lives of their students was truly inspiring. They caused me to ponder if I blaming other educators and thing I couldn’t change within my work environment, rather than look at what I could do to improve the school that I work in. Would I return home and continue identifying problems, or would I be a solution, finding creative ways to improve myself and my interactions. I am truly working daily to be the later.
Spending one week in Medellin was not enough for me! It was like an exploratory bite that left me wanting more. I want return next summer and bring more supplies to Fundaction Huellas, I want to return with more strategies and a toolkit for the local teachers. I want to study more Spanish and speak it with more confidence. I can’t wait to have more coffee from Cafe Revolution and a coconut lemonade from Cafe Cliche. I want to continue associating myself with people who are being the change they speak about wanting. I left with a new awareness and a more positive outlook. Just like the educators from Medellin, I am going to do my best to improve what I can with what I have, and I will seek out times to refresh or rejuvenate myself when I feel negativity creeping in. This week long educators retreat was the refreshment and rejuvenation that I needed to start this upcoming school year in a positive light. I am so thankful for this experience, I can not express it in works. Hopefully people who know me will see it in my actions and interactions.