The Magic Mountain

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. Many new books have been written and old classics from that time, like Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, have been reissued. I read The Magic Mountain in college and loved the contrast between the magnificent Swiss mountain scenery and the rather twisted characters of the patients in the sanitarium where the novel takes place. We left today for an extended trip higher into the mountains west of Siguatepeque than we had ever been before. We left in two trucks early in the morning and, because of the almost nightly rain showers, our path took us into a thick carpet of mist cloaking the mountain tops and  half way into the valleys. I thought of Mann’s book and felt a child’s sense of adventure and expectation. In Honduras, unlike in  Mann’s fictional Switzerland, the magnificent mountain scenery is reflected in magnificent smiles on bright faces, faces full of innocent wonder and trust. There is a biblical theme that warns against the moral corruption of cities and praises the salutary effect of living in isolated, small groups, immersed in nature, constantly in the presence of eternity. This was reflected in the children, teachers and parents we met in the first school of the day. Set in a pine forest, this humble school building seemed to recognize the majesty of its surroundings, making no attempt to assert a human presence, nestled into a bed of pine needles, tranquil and resonant. In the pictures below I will try to convey how this tranquility is reflected in the children’s faces as they listened to our initial introductions and instructions. Such beautiful faces full of innocence and absolute trust. They made me want to be a better, more loving man. 

The second school was even higher up in the mountains, at the very edge of the coffee fields, just where the original cloud forest takes over on the steepest slopes. This shift from geometric regularity to chaotic, riotous growth is quite striking. Sally’s grandmother was a quilter and we have one of her pieces. We use it under our Christmas tree, where its many folds and different patterns reminded me of the Honduran countryside on our travels. At this school the children had gathered pine boughs and spread them all over the classroom floor and in the area outside the porch where they greeted us with a performance of folk dancing and song. The resinous scent of the fresh pine permeated the performance and our time teaching. Somehow everything – the dancing and singing, the parent’s faces full of pride and our own enthusiasm and commitment- seemed fresh and pure. The thick carpet of  needles in the surrounding grove of pines gave the school a mysterious, hushed atmosphere, as if a secret were being whispered, and if one were quiet enough, one could sense the presence of God.

 

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With care,

Mark

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Glory

Today we decided to visit Santa Rosita, the very first school where we started the Owen Project four years ago. Marty Keil, her daughter Morgan Stautzenberger and Morgan’s friend Haley Short flew in Friday night and were ready to travel into the mountains on Saturday. It had rained heavily during the night so the mountain sides were shrouded in mist. The air was freshly-scrubbed,,clean and cool.We carried a stack of pizzas, two soccer balls and hearts full of expectation.The long drive on winding dirt roads brought back many pleasant memories, and the views from the mountain tops were every bit as memorable and breath-taking. There is a distinctive scent in the mountains, a combination of damp vegetation, decaying leaves and something mysteriously sweet, like rotting fruit. It seemed that the entire environment was a single living being with a peculiar aroma.

Our reception in Santa Rosita was warm and intimate. The children called out our names, remembering us all, embracing us as we departed our trucks. The original school was a dilapidated, mud and wattle shack and the new school , located farther up the hill, is a  wonderfully clean concrete block structure with glass windows, a metal roof and a separate bathroom under construction. We brought red bougainvillea given by Lynn Campaigne. Our Episcopal Diocese of West Texas has been very involved in supporting this construction. The hope is that Santa Rosita will become a model for other rural schools, including classrooms, a kitchen, bathrooms and a septic system all in one.

Even more beautiful than the new buildings were the laughter and bright eyes of the students. When we first met them they were shy, incurious and skeptical about us and the XOs. Four years later they are secure, assertive and bursting with pride and curiosity. We were shown essays, projects, art exhibits and journals. Some of the older students now travel to a nearby town to continue their education.Sally and I almost felt like parents again, reconnecting with young people we have known for a number of years, sharing dreams and hopes together. The pizza was shared and then we played soccer. After being humiliated for an hour it started to mist and then rain gently. We looked up at the sun and saw a strange atmospheric phenomenon: there was a rainbow that surrounded the sun, making a complete circle of delicate colors, taking up half of the sky. This is called a “glory” and all of us were taken by how perfect that we saw this at that particular moment. I have come to recognize the presence of grace in the most unremarkable events of daily life. How much more impressive is this gratitude and sense of wonder when grace comes at perfect moments. May you find your own moments.

 

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With care,

Mark

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Shangri-La

I confess that I am an unabashed idealist, child-like ( I hope!) not childish. I continue to reread Hilton’s Lost Horizon and I love the old, black and white film of the same name, starring Ronald Coleman. There is a wonderful scene where a group of travelers are high in the Himalayas, near death in a blizzard, roped together at the edge of a crevasse. They find a break in the rock face which leads to a hidden utopia, an isolated and protected valley full of cultivated fields, vineyards and forests. Ronald Coleman is full of wonder and haunted by a strange feeling that he somehow knows this place. This is the mystery of Shangri-la;. we are haunted, wherever we are,  that the world could be more beautiful and full of meaning.

It is the beginning of the rainy season in Honduras and already the mountain sides are bursting with new, delicately- green growth, and the mountain tops are wreathed in mists and clouds. We drove from Tegucigalpa to Siguatepeque and were treated to a vision of central Honduras in all its glory. We set out for a new village school early the next morning. We were joined by the Vice-Mayor of Siguatepeque, a former teacher, who was accompanied by her body guard in a government truck. Richard, Natalia, Becky and I rode in back with the computers and a rifle-wielding soldier. We soon found out that the rifle was for show and that it didn’t have a trigger or bullets. It still intimidated us! We drove through Siguatepeque, down crowded streets full of dust and diesel fumes. The city itself is not scenic, in fact it has the character of a boom town. All of the buildings are make-shift and slip-shod and nothing seems clean or orderly. As we turned onto a dirt road into the mountains, we left the hustle and bustle behind us and entered into a central american Shangri-la. The school itself was stucco and cement brick, but the trees and shrubs surrounding it lent their beauty to the simple structure. Of course the real treasure hidden here is contained in the bright eyes and beaming smiles of the children. They waited timidly, hiding behind the open windows periodically braving a look outside at us. There was a hushed silence, the bated breaths of many excited children. Where there was joyous chaos at Oropoli, here there was happy anticipation and barely-controlled hands and feet. Because the Vice-mayor was with us, some formal introductions were made and then the speeches began, given by teachers, parents, students- essentially anyone who feels compelled gets a chance to speak. There was nothing forced or superficial in all this.  Owen was mentioned in a  remarkably sensitive and compassionate way, as if the speakers themselves knew the pain of losing a child.  Wrinkled, weather-beaten old women spoke with incredible humility of their prayers and hopes for their children, and a light shone in their eyes that reminded Sally and I of how it feels to be a parent. Very soon all the thank yous were acknowledged and we got down to work with the students. Here is where the real magic begins. None of the pictures I’m including quite captures the combination of wonder and hilarity that prevails. I can’t imagine a person hardhearted enough not to smile and laugh in the midst of all this  happy discovery. Maybe we do learn all we need to know in kindergarten!!

 

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Thanks,

Mark

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The Dance of Life

On our second day in Honduras we drove into the montains near the Nicaraguan border to oscar Ochoa’s home village of Oropoli. It is much drier in this part of Honduras, reminding all of us of Texas. This is our first school in the southern part of the country. We expected a quiet entrance into the village and maybe an embarassing game of soccer. Instead, we ran headlong into a whirlwind of activity, a moving fiesta that followed us up the main street, such as it  was, across a river and to the school itself. There were flowers, folk dancing, music and smiling faces throughout. Some biologists speculate that when life began in the primordial seas, amino acids began to dance, combining to form single-celled organisms. As you will see below, we too felt surrounded by dancing life, full of joy and satisfaction.

 

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This was also our first experience with the XO tablet and we were a bit apprehensive. This only increased when we realized that we had to charge the 60 tablets before teaching. All of the parents and village worthies looked in from the open windows as chaos swirled around us in the form of 60 very excited children. Four hours later we had everything in hand and no child left disappointed or frustrated. In many ways the tablets are more accessible than the laptops and the applications are more numerous and just as entertaining and welcoming. Once again many of  the students stared in disbelief and wonder when we told them that these computers were theirs to use. I wish I could convey the spell cast over these children by the XOs; perhaps it is more the case of watching their imaginations come alive. I’ll let these pictures tell the story.

 

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With care,

Mark

 

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Yeats Was Mistaken….

In a dark poem Yeats wrote that, “….the best lack all conviction, while the worst burn with passionate intensity…” I’ve been haunted by these lines for years and the current political and social environment seemed to verify Yeats’ somber prophecy. I can happily report that once again I have been saved by Honduras. We arrived in Tegucigalpa before noon on Tuesday, the 8th. We had a few minutes to gather our wits and then we met with the Undersecretary of Education. Richard, Linda and Natalia Grey were with us, along with Oscar Ochoa. The Undersecretary was quite approachable: a former teacher who has worked under several Honduran administrations. We were there to ask for internet access for the 16 schools we have supplied with laptops and tablets. The Undersecretary warmed to our presentation and became quite enthusiastic about the potential changes that could be made in rural areas. Very soon she was speaking more as an educator and less as an a politician. Her enthusiasm was infectious. We needed little prodding to tell of past trips into the mountains around Siguatepeque. With Linda as a creative and insightful translator, we were able to speak from the heart as well as the mind.

The excitement of our day was far from over. Later that afternoon, we met with a group of Honduran computer programmers writing code for a digitized curriculum that we could download into our XOs. The new XO tablets are android-based, different from the platform used in the laptops. For quite some time the conversation was quite technical and quite a bit over my head. Thankfully, Richard, himself a programmer, was able to carry on ably for our side. The atmosphere changed significantly when the topic changed to the underserved students in the mountains. These tech geeks where transformed into obviously passionate and idealistic teachers trying to change the lives of children who might not have shoes, but who might soon have a computer!

It was then that I remembered Yeats, realizing that I had just witnessed a reversal of his dark forboding. Here in Honduras, at least, it is the best who burn with passionate intensty.

More later,

Mark

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