As a young boy I loved the Arthurian legends, particularly the search for the Holy Grail. When Lancelot or Gawain set out to travel to a rural chapel, their path, though simple at first glance, was always fraught with adventures and challenges which put unexpected obstacles in their way. A journey of an afternoon ends up lasting months. Hungry for the destination, for the goal, I was always anxious to move on with the narrative. Now I realize that the tests along the way are just as important as reaching the goal, that the slings and arrows of fortune are a necessary preparation. Sally and I are often very anxious before our mission begins. Making flight connections, checking shipping logistics, anticipating customs duties all seem like dragons to be faced. Yet as soon as we board our flight, it seems as if everything were happening by itself, as if some larger fate or destiny were drawing us forward. After 16 hours of relatively uneventful travel we arrived in San Pedro Sula to meet Linda, Richard and Natalia and to begin our quest for the Sangreal.
We returned to Santa Rosita on Thursday and it was like returning home. The long ride in the back of a truck.;the early morning mist still obscuring the steepest hillsides; the distinctive scent of ripe fruit, dew-drenched vegetation and rotting leaves; the cool draughts under the pine trees: all of these brought back very distinctive and very pleasant memories. The first school in Santa Rosita that we saw five years ago was a mud and wattle structure covered in mold and smelling of mildew. There were twenty ramshackle desks for the 50 students and 2 teachers. I’ll show you what we saw this time below:
The transformation was stunning. What was most changed were the students themselves. Instead of the shy, reluctant and hesitant participants of the past, these students were bright-eyed, confident and openly curious. They took to the tablets immediately. More later.
Somewhere Andy Warhol wrote that everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes. If he is correct then the eight of us are finished with our moment of fame. Last night after a glass of wine at the home of Dr. Oscar Gross, we were invited to be interviewed at a local television station. We imagined a hand- held microphone and a portable camera. Instead we went on live television on a set reminiscent of Good Morning America.
Sally and I had to sit on high barstools, making us feel like Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.at a night club. The moderator was a long-legged young lady in short shorts who spoke faster that I ever thought humanly possible. Linda acted as translator and Oscar Ochoa introduced us and gave a summary of the project so far. What was most off-putting was that we could see ourselves on several monitors. Sally got the giggles and soon we were all trying not to laugh aloud. Many of the questions were about our emotions, and how we remembered Owen as we visited the schools. Thank goodness we were so disconcerted and full of hilarity because I might have cried on live television. Instead it was a surreal experience worthy of Warhol.
Spanish conquistadors sought a fabled city of gold. They may even have been in Honduras in the central mountains where we were today. They were unsuccessful because they were looking for a treasure contained in rocks. We have been looking for a treasure found only in faces and smiles.
Here’s what we found in El Dorado:
The picture in the center of the collage shows what awaited us as we walked into the school. What it cannot show was the air of hushed anticipation, of welcome and excitement. There is a part of the Episcopal service that reads ” Let us join our voices with the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven who forever sing this hymn of praise and thanksgiving..” I now know what the company of heaven means after being greeted in this way. It was as if we were all part of something transcendental, full of mystery and meaning; of some endeavor that called us to be our better selves. It was so innocent and pure. I felt weightless and free. Natalia, Casey and Mimi were equally caught up in some mystery they could not explain. We all visited El Dorado today.
The title of this post comes from Wittgenstein’s work the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. It appears at the very end when Wittgenstein says that there is much about life that is beyond the power of language to convey. I was reminded of this when we went to our first school in Siguatepeque. It seems that Honduras and Texas are experiencing heavy rains and flooding. We couldn’t get to our school in the mountains near Tegucigalpa because of washed out roads so we set up shop at the Zari Hotel in Siguatepeque and visited a special needs school nearby. Most of the students there were deaf ,which was initially a bit disconcerting. We were already laboring under language difficulties because of our basic Spanish. This seemed to complicate matters even more. I couldn’t have been more mistaken. The teachers at the school translated our lessons into sign language, moving around the classroom facilitating interactions with the children in an unobtrusive and effortless manner. Sign language is full of passion and beauty. Being an Italian, I talk with my hands, but their communication was of a higher order. The yearning to make contact with another human being radiated from their fingers. The register of emotions on their faces, the light in their eyes, the intensity of their gazes were more expressive and full of intent that any words might have conveyed. I suddenly realized that Wittgenstein may have been wrong about silence. Here silence was full of wonder and love. I can’t quite explain it but we all felt bathed in love. It seemed as if the students were surprised and gratified that we had come, that we had thought of them. When we started to move among them, to direct them to interesting applications, they reached out to touch us. Their touch was electric, totally vulnerable and trusting. Their enjoyment of the games and music on the XOs was just as innocent and heartfelt as everything else they did. Surely this is what Jesus meant when he said that only those who can become as children can enter the kingdom of God. Once again we came to teach, but it is we who are taught. I’m sure that I was not the only one moved by this special atmosphere. At first Casey and Mimi were a bit reserved, looking on and themselves the center of much interest. Yet very soon they too threw themselves into the experience, laughing and sharing; their eyes just as bright as those of the students. What a beginning!!!
While Boston and the Northeast dig out from under another blanket of snow, here in Texas Spring has sprung. There has been a generous amount of rainfall, so Seguin occupies a happy Texas medium, in between drought and flooding. There are meadows filled with wildflowers and the leaves of the pecans and live oaks are fresh, abundant and vividly green. A landscape worthy of Wordsworth. This will be our 5th trip to Honduras. We will land in Tegucigalpa on June 15th and stay with our Honduran director, Oscar Ochoa. On the 16th we will travel into the mountains near his birthplace of Oropoli. Unfortunately, the 175 XO3 tablets that we ordered months ago will most likely not be in country when we are there. We will use already-deployed XO3s to train the teachers and introduce the available programs to the students. We will have to assure them that they will be receiving their own tablets soon. In years past I would have been nervous about this delay, with a head full of negative speculations. Now I feel strangely calm and unworried. Mission work creates reserves of trust and patience; as does teaching! On the 17th we will travel to Siguatepeque to visit 4 other schools, including a special needs school in Siguatepeque itself. The other schools will be in the surrounding mountains. This year we will be joined by two high school students: Casey Smithey and Thuy Nguyen. Linda, Richard and Natalia Grey are coming again, as is Meredith Cockerell. With Sally and I this makes us a party of 8. Good things come in small packages, I’ve heard. There are some rumors that the government will provide WiFi to the 15 schools we’ve been to over the years, which will enable rural students to continue their education after the 7th grade without boarding at a school in some near bye town. The expense makes this prohibitive and most students go to the coffee fields. Access to the internet will fulfill the mission of One Laptop per Child by truly opening up the world to their curiosity and exploration. Honduran educational practices are still largely hierarchical and based on rote memorization. Access to all the resources of the internet may make rural education in Honduras more discovery-oriented and driven by problem-solving and critical thinking modalities. We can only pray. I’ll write again from Tegucigalpa.
There is a line in the Tao te Ching where Lao Tzu writes that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single first step. Now that I am back in Texas teaching, I’ve been thinking about the journey home, about the last step, the end of the journey. I wonder if the best kind of journey is the one that feels at its end as if you had never left at all. Might this mean that your experiences have changed you profoundly, that you are bringing back more than memories and photos? Could it mean that you can hold both places in your head and heart simultaneously? Can you be in two places at one time? Here I am stumbling around with words again. I found this in T.S. Eliot’s ” Little Gidding”: We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time. Much better! My year teaching went so well that the days passed as if I were a Buddhist pilgrim circumambulating around the same temple so often that I lost a sense of the motion. Perhaps I’ve caught a glimpse of that most rare of experiences: contentment. I’ll not tempt fate by resting assured that my current frame of mind will continue.
School ends this week and we leave for Tegucigalpa on the 15th, of June, returning on the 25th. More later.
With thanks for your attention,