English Opens Doors

Today was my first day volunteering at Liceo Bicentenario para Niñas, a public all-girls school in Santiago. I had absolutely no idea what to expect as I took the metro over to the school- all I knew was that I would be working with a professor to teach English to Chilean girls for 5 hours every Wednesday. I had no clue what I would be expected to do, or if there were other volunteers working in the school as well. I didn’t even know what age children I would be working with- in the Chilean educational system, the word ‘colegio’ is used to refer to elementary, middle, and high schools indiscriminately.
So I arrived at the school, met the teacher, and went with her to the English classroom, where class was already about halfway through. Walking into that classroom was one of the most bizarre moments of my life. The professor opened the door of the 7th grade classroom and walked in before me. Everyone in the class was busy talking and laughing loudly to their neighbors and didn’t even seem to notice that the teacher had returned. Then I walked in. All I saw was a sea of dark brown hair and dark brown eyes as every single girl in the room instantly turned toward me, gasped, and fell completely silent for a split second. They stared at me, I stared at them (how many of them could there possibly be??), and all of a sudden it was like the curse was lifted- everyone instantly began pointing and yelling and talking super excitedly to their neighbors. You literally would have thought I was some type of extinct species come back to life, that is how shocked they looked to see me! So much for the professor giving them advanced warning about my arrival…
So after we got over the whole stare-dumbfounded-at-the-new-American-girl game, I started to introduce myself. I guess I forgot that at age 12, you really do not know much English, even if you have studied it since 1st grade. So even though I was talking in what I thought was a really slow pace, the girls started looking at me with even stranger expressions than before I had started talking! I asked the teacher if I was going too fast, and she said, ‘Well, maybe a little’, which I took as an outstanding YES!
After that, I started speaking painfully slow, and things picked up considerably. I found out that when I speak at the pace of a snail, the girls can understand what I say. It is hard to say if the main problem is that they just don’t have the vocabulary or grammar knowledge of English to understand me, or if my accent is what is messing them up. It is one thing for them to listen to their Chilean professor who sounds like she is practically speaking Spanish, and a completely different thing for them to listen to me.
But anyways, the crazy thing is that every single girl in this school is completely fascinated by me! They are so interested in my life, my hobbies, my favorite musicians, my family, my boyfriend, my school, my home, my pets… you name it, they want to know about it! The girls are actually super cute about their curiosity. One girl held up a note for me during class telling me I had pretty eyes. Others kept raising their hands and pretending to have questions so I would come over and they could ask me more about myself. Still some other girls invited me to come watch their dance performance coming up this weekend. They were also apparently very shocked when I told them I am 19 years old, which in their opinion is super jóven (young). Turns out there has been one other American student (from Alaska!) who volunteered at the school a few years ago. I don’t know how old she was, but I guess she was considerably older than me!
Probably the highlight of the day was when I was walking with the professor to the break room in between classes. We had a mob of about 10 girls following us, who started questioning me about where I was from, etc… When they found out I was from the United States, they got really excited and one girl asked ‘Do you like Justin Bieber?’ Well, it was fairly obvious what the correct answer to that was, so I pretended to get really excited and said ‘YES! Of course I do!’. I felt like I had an instant fan club when 5 girls started jumping up and down, screaming for joy!!! I did not know telling someone you like Justin Bieber could make you that popular in any type of situation, but I was apparently mistaken…
Most of the day I spent working with small groups of kids or individuals, helping them with exercises and worksheets while the teacher tried to retain some type of order in the classroom. I definitely understand why she wanted a volunteer to help her out- she normally teaches 5 or 6 English classes a day, each with 45 or 50 students! Trust me, after spending just one day in the class, I can tell that trying to keep a room of 45 12-year-olds focused and speaking in English is no easy feat. It was odd to see a foreign language class from the opposite perspective—taught in my native language to speakers of my ‘second’ language. It makes me laugh when people try to tell me that the picture of a clock is a ‘clook’, and they say that I should put the cake in the dishwasher!
All in all, this was one of my favorite experiences in Santiago so far. Not only was it fun and entertaining, but it was also something that I can see is definitely going to help out these kids. They are just so much more motivated to learn English when they are genuinely interested, and just the fact that I speak English and am from the United States is enough to get them excited about learning another language. I expected this to be difficult, and I have no doubt it will be, but I am 100% positive that teaching every week will be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Good thing, too, because I need some serious inspiration to make the trek to Liceo Bicentenario every week- turns out it is next to the second-farthest metro station from my house in the entire city of Santiago! Guess I have some serious nap time/ music listening time in my future!
Well, that’s all for now, folks! Although, I do have to write a shout-out to Brent for the AWESOME package I received last weekend. THANK YOU X 1000- it definitely made my week!!! And trust me, that is saying something- it is not every day you walk into a room of 45 girls and instantly become everyone’s best friend!