Thursday, August 13, 2009

Celebrating Education

On Tuesday of this week I had the privilege of a trip to Tamshiyacu for the official opening ceremony of a new school for handicapped children. The SCOTA School (Special Children Of The Amazon) meets the educational needs of deaf and blind children, as well as children with significant physical and mental disabilities. A host of local celebrities, including the Governor of the Region of Loreto, and our own beloved Engineer/Architect Jorge Foinquinos, who is also a Congressman, attended the festivities. Eight students were present, along with their parents and/or other family members. From what I understand, the word has spread to the surrounding jungle villages about this school, and enrollment is expected to increase rapidly. Though both the government and educational systems in the U.S. can often be a royal pain in the behind to deal with for families with special needs children, at least there is a system that tries to provide opportunities for them. In Peru, unless a private organization provides the facilities and necessary materials, the government is generally not interested in the well-being of those who cannot speak for themselves, agreeing only to compensate (and I use that term loosely) the teachers. Regardless of my personal feelings about the Peruvian government and the total lack of importance it places on education for the masses, there was an air of excitement surrounding the festivities and I couldn't help getting caught up in it, mainly due to the attitude of the teacher who has agreed to move to Tamshiyacu (an hour away on the river - on a fast boat - a 'we'll see you whenever you manage to get there' on a slow boat/river taxi) to live in the school in order to work with these children. Her optimism, enthusiasm, and dedication are contagious; she is living her call and it is obvious.

Ironically, Monday was the first day of the 2009-2010 school year for faculty members in Spartanburg County, SC. While sitting in the screened porch, sipping my second cup of coffee, pushing away a stray strand of hair blown forward into my face by the early morning breeze and watching the sunbeams stream through the trees here at El Jardin, I pondered the opening of school. I have to admit that there was no part of me whatsoever that wanted to be rising with the alarm clock once again, heading off to brain-sapping in-service meetings, but there was a piece of my heart that felt empty. You see, I knew that I wanted to be an English teacher as a mere 11 year old in the spring of my 5th grade year at Ware Shoals Elementary. Unlike most of my classmates, whose professional ambitions changed with the wind throughout elementary, jr. high, high school, and even college, my career path never waivered. One of the most exciting days of my life was about a week into my student-teaching at Woodruff High School; I passed a student in the hall at the end of the day who said to me, "Have a good afternoon, Ms. McAbee; see you tomorrow." I walked out the door that day with the biggest smile on my face (and a glow that was still to be observed more than 30 minutes later when I got out of my car at Wofford and walked into my dorm) because I felt like I had 'arrived.' I was finally fulfilling my heart's desire; I was born to be a teacher. Until a few years ago I could never imagine myself doing anything else.

God has a sense of humor - at least He does in my relationship with Him, and He enjoyed a large chuckle at my expense on Wednesday. Many of you know that a point of frustration for me in moving to Peru has been not really knowing what my life would look like and exactly what my work would be. As this job has never existed before, it is really up to me (with the guidance and supervision of both the Medical Missions and Amazon Mission Fellowship boards) as to how it all shakes out. I've known from the beginning of this venture that I would be involved to some extent in the business of MMI and wholly in charge of the ministry of AMF, which would include working with the pastors regularly, as well as developing relationships with their wives with the prospect of becoming part of whatever women's ministries exist and eventually writing and leading some Bible studies of my own. But the Big Man upstairs threw me a curve ball that I didn't see coming. As I was going about my planned morning activities (doing laundry, studying Spanish, making sure Villa was working vs. wasting time), a banging on the gate ushered in Pastor Santiago from a church here in town that is not currently affiliated with AMF, but perhaps will be in the future. After a very brief round of small talk (abnormally short for Peruvians), he got right to the point of his visit. He'd come to ask me to consider coming to his church one day a week to teach English. Well, knock me over with a feather! In the back of my mind I'd harbored the thought that one day, when I felt very comfortable with my Spanish, I might begin tutoring some individuals in English, but never in my wildest dreams did I think the opportunity would literally knock so soon. I stuttered and stammered and searched my brain for every possible Spanish word that might be hiding there to explain why I couldn't do this. He countered all my arguments by telling me that doing this would help me with my Spanish (which it will, dang it - so much for that excuse), but more importantly, it will attract teenagers to the church first, because they want to know English and second, hopefully, for matters of a spiritual nature (holy cow - using teaching as a means of potential evangelism - meet the young people where they are and earn the right to be heard - sounds familiar!). When I told him that I taught literature and grammar to native speakers, not to second language learners, and that doing this would be very difficult he played the 'God Card' saying, "In Him all things are possible," (yeah, yeah, whatever - we all know the verse), and further drove his point home by saying that the announcement that I would be living here for 3 years was an answer to prayer, because God was providing some of the poorest people of Iquitos with another way to become educated - at least as far as learning English goes - and that might ultimately be a tool to lead them to Christ and to a church family.

I responded as a good missionary (and a good Christian for that matter) should and told him that I'd pray about it - which, in Peruvian Spanish, means "Yes, I'll do it." I had already mapped out the coming 5 weeks and set them aside for some intense Spanish studying. I informed Pastor Santiago of this and that I would be making a quick trip to the U.S. in late September/early October, but when I returned to Peru I would talk with him again and let him know what I believe God is leading me to do - which, in Peruvian Spanish, means "We'll get started as soon as I get back."

It seems education, in some shape, fashion, or form, is the theme of the week. And it seems this old teacher may not have handed in her chalk just yet. I'm not sure where this is going; I do need time to pray about it and talk it over with my trusted advisors. What is clear is that God has a plan for me here, and every day He hands me another little piece of this giant jigsaw puzzle I like to refer to as my missionary journey.

To all of the teachers around the world, particularly my friends at Spartanburg High School, thank you for living life in the trenches. Thank you for your dedication to the job that many critics believe they could do better than you (though you'll never see any of them actually giving it a try) and for sacrificing your time, money, and countless other resources in order to offer the children a fighting chance. The reality, however, is that whether we claim the field of education for our chosen professions or not, we are all teachers. This topic of many devotions throughout the mission team season here this year is that someone is always watching us, therefore we are always setting an example, good or bad, whether we know it and/or want to or not. And so this question should haunt us all: What kind of teacher am I?

Recommended Reading

  • The Bible
  • Serving with Eyes Wide Open - Doing Short Term Missions with Cultural Intelligence - David A. Livermore
  • Cross-Cultural Servanthood - Serving the World in Christlike Humility - Duane Elmer
  • Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It) - Robert D. Lupton
  • When Helping Hurts-Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor...and Yourself - Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert
  • Shadow of the Almighty - Elizabeth Elliot
  • Messy Spirituality - Michael Yaconelli
  • The Irresistible Revolution - Shane Claiborne
  • Peace Child - Don Richardson
  • If God Should Choose - Kristen Stagg
  • In the Presence of My Enemies - Gracia Burnham
  • Inside Afghanistan - John Weaver
  • Same Kind of Different as Me - Ron Hall and Denver Moore
  • Through Gates of Splendor - Elizabeth Elliot
  • End of the Spear - Steve Saint