Aside from feeling grossly underqualified for the job, here’s my other concern: is it possible to make a difference in anyone’s life in two meager weeks? CCS maintains you make a difference just by showing up. In poorer parts of the world, parents are more likely to send kids to school—instead of to work—because foreign volunteers give a school cachet.
I’m not sure how much cachet we’re bringing to Escuela Cuestilla. After two days—we teach three classes in the morning and develop lesson plans in the afternoon—we’re desperate for ideas. Help arrives from teacher and fellow volunteer Cherie, who suggests a variety-show approach. “Make things active and funny,” she says. “Sing songs. Give them cards with words on them, and have them put the card on the object.”
So we crank up the entertainment factor in our lessons. I do flash cards with the kids, making a huge production when they’re right: applauding, sighing, oohing, aahing. We’re now the Martin and Lewis of educators. We give them puzzles—Karen creates a terrific word search—and hold a rousing game of bingo that fills the room with squealing kids.
“Twenty-seven!” I shout, strutting before the blackboard, doing my best Groucho walk. “Who has a 27!”
The raucous room erupts in noise, then grows silent as the kids wait for the next number.
We may be getting the hang of this.
I fall in love with the kids. Karen does, too. Many of the children come from single-parent families—the fathers are often gone, some working nomadic farm jobs, some on drugs—and I’m warned that kids may call me papa. That never happens, though a boy named Jose hangs on to me constantly. It’s a little disconcerting. He also likes to pretend he’s a dog. I’m talking with the principal one day, and Jose is behind me, arms around my stomach, barking into my back. The principal keeps chatting. I assume this is normal.
An always smiling little girl, Anabeth, becomes one of our favorites. Karen and I had written some numbers on the board, and Anabeth asks me how old I am, one of the few sentences I can quickly translate. I groan and whisper it. She giggles, shakes her head no, and points at “30.” Smart kid.
Many of the kids ask if Karen is mi esposa—my wife. I always say yes, sigh dreamily, give them a look like Ryan O’Neal in Love Story. One day, after class finishes, Anabeth asks me in Spanish if Karen and I have children.
No, I tell her. I force a smile.
Anabeth says that if we ever have children, and we have a girl, we could name her Anabeth.
I’m surprised by how comfortable we feel after only one week. Our biggest challenge now is the hyperenergetic first-grade class. Unlike the older kids, who are all business—when a few fourth-grade boys get too loud, one girl yells,“Silencio!”—the first graders zoom around the room, screaming and jumping on furniture. So we sing songs that make them use their high-octane little bodies, starting with “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes,” an English ditty they all know. As you sing, you touch the body part mentioned in the song. We stand in a circle, and each time we sing the song we speed it up, ultimately to ridiculous proportions. It’s so hilarious it increases their energy levels.
Karen and I now unveil a new tune to Escuela Cuestilla: “The Hokey Pokey.” We put our right hands in, we take our right hands out; we put our right hands in, and we shake them all about. We also do feet, elbows, chins, hips, and—the ultimate in first-grade comedy—butts! As we’re hokeying and pokeying, a group of bemused older students stand outside the windows of our room to watch. As for our energy-burning efforts, they’re successful. Karen and I are exhausted.
Weekends are volunteers’ big chance to leave town and see the country, so we travel with nine others to Monteverde, an isolated mountain town. The highlight is zip lining—whizzing Spider-Manlike down cables at speeds approaching 45 mph, soaring over misty rain forest trees—though it’s not nearly as wild as the bumpy ride on crater-filled roads to Monteverde itself. Imagine a four-hour earthquake on wheels.
Given the quakelike nature of the entire two weeks, I ask Karen if she’d do it again. We agree it’s more work than we expected, but I’m sure—once we recover—we’ll make a second volunteer plunge. We’ve never experienced a foreign place on such an intimate level, both through CCS’s cultural programs—history lessons, local rice-and-bean meals—and the connections we make with the kids.
Our most touching moment comes on our last day, at an outdoor assembly. Alexander, a sweet, pudgy kid who could star in a Costa Rican version of The Little Rascals, hoists the national flag up a pole. Some kids present a science project, the principal makes a speech. Karen nudges me. “I think he’s talking about us,” she says.
The principal calls us up to the porchlike area in front of our classroom. One of the girls hands Karen a small gift wrapped in tissue, and Johan, a smart kid and first-rate soccer player, hands one to me. It’s a key chain with photos: on one side is the school; on the other, a picture of Karen and me with some of the kids. They all applaud. Karen wipes a tear.
When the van arrives to pick us up, we are engulfed by smiling kids. There are kisses, handshakes, hugs.
The van rumbles down the gravel road, the waving hands behind us grow small. Back home, Karen and I will again discuss children. Little will change. But we have become closer, she and I. We’ve seen each other play and work in a new way. Summer at the school, I find, has created a touch of spring in my heart. Seeing the joy in those kids, I’ve come to believe in possibilities. We were in Costa Rica trying to give, but we have been given much more, and for that we say gracias.
Ken Budd is a features editor for AARP The Magazine.