Sep 20, 2016
By Catherine Fancher
The Wonder of an Optimistic Child in Peru
The smarty-pants Spanish majors were getting on my nerves.
I dawdled in the back of a ramshackle classroom in a girls’ orphanage in Cusco, Peru. After two weeks as a volunteer, I was a complete flop.
I had signed up to be an assistant to an English teacher in a school for girls. But when I arrived, all the schools were on holiday. To fill the gap, a team of Spanish majors on their semester abroad had descended on the girls’ orphanage. They organized an elaborate, substitute curriculum of English lessons, but they didn’t need an assistant. And my limited Spanish language skills were not up to the task of managing a whole classroom of young girls.
So I cleaned erasers. And I tidied bookshelves. And I wondered whether I should just go back home.
Suddenly, the chief Spanish major summoned me with a wave. “Can you do something with Sonia?” she asked. “She’s bothering the other students.”
Sonia was the littlest of all the girls in the orphanage. No one knew her age, exactly, but she was clearly two or three years younger than the rest of the girls. She could not yet read or write in Spanish, and she was predictably uninterested in structured English lessons.
Cast out from the group, Sonia wandered to the back of the classroom with me. How was I going to entertain her? We had no toys of any kind. How were we going to communicate? My Spanish was lousy, and she didn’t know any English. So we sat at a tiny table and stared at each other for a little while.
Then I remembered the crayons in my backpack. In the months before I left for Peru, my young niece and nephews had collected dozens of freebie restaurant crayons with their kids’ menus. They sent those crayons to Cusco with me, but I had forgotten about them since I’d been expelled by the Spanish majors.
I pilfered an academic notebook and presented it to Sonia with my whole zip-top sandwich bag full of miscellaneous crayons.
Her eyes widened. She poked at the crayons. She smiled and she giggled, but she didn’t start to color. Instead, she picked up the bag and held it to her cheek, squeezing it like a balloon. Then she tucked the bag into the folds of her sweater, as if she wanted to hide it. At first I thought that she just wanted to keep the crayons to herself, so she wouldn’t have to share with the other girls.
And then it hit me.
Sonia had never seen a zip-top plastic bag.
She wasn’t coloring with the crayons because she didn’t know how to open the bag. And she wasn’t even sure if she was supposed to open it. She looked up at me for guidance.
Carefully, I took the bag from her hands and showed her how to unzip the top. Then I encouraged her to zip and unzip it herself. She positively squealed with delight, and I blinked to hold back my tears.
For the next month, Sonia treated that single zip-top bag as her own personal treasure. Each day we sat together in the back of the classroom, coloring and communicating in our own special brand of Spanglish.
The crayons eventually got broken or lost, but the bag was never out of Sonia’s vigilant care. She filled it with tiny items like buttons and hair clips and bits of ribbon. We laid her trinkets on the table and created silly vocabulary lessons with them. I taught her English words, and she taught me Spanish words – plus so much more.
From Sonia I learned that I didn’t need to fit into the Spanish majors’ curriculum to be a good volunteer. I just needed to pay close attention to my opportunities, to be willing to work independently, and to appreciate the wonder of a child.
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About the Author
Catherine Fancher is a Dallas-based attorney who decided to take some time off in 2012. She sold her house, put everything in storage and traded her high heels for hiking boots. More than 30 countries later, she is still traveling. Catherine’s photographs and stories about the places she has seen, the people she has met and the things she has learned along the way are collected on her website www.tinysoapcollector.com.