Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Closer than you think

The phrase "Estamos en crisis" is a constant refrain in Spanish life. The economic crisis is on everyone's lips, as an explanation ("We can't take the bilingual kids on their exchange trip to Holland this year because of the crisis"), an excuse (for everything from why this particular bar is empty tonight to why the kids didn't get the PS3 they wanted for Christmas), even a New Years' goal (particularly poignantly, several of my 9 year old students said they hoped the crisis would end when I asked about their hopes for 2013.)  There's no question that Spain is having a rough time of it right now. Aside from the constant talk, new unemployment statistics are published seemingly every week, the most recent number quoted as near 40% under age 30. Walking downtown, at least a third of the shops are empty.

But, conversely, that means 70% of the shops are occupied, and they're often full of shoppers. The tapas bars are hopping most nights, and the trains sell out on long weekends. For a foreigner living on a modest but sufficient stipend, it's easy to feel like the crisis is a mythical creature, something difficult but abstract and distant. No trip to Holland, no PS3, the occasional empty bar-- sure, things could be better, but that doesn't sound that bad, right?

The same can be said for the school where I work. To my untrained eye, everything and everyone appears comfortably middle class. Sure, I was advised to ask students where they'd like to travel instead of where they've traveled, for fear of making them feel bad about their life experience. Sure, there are limits for photocopying, and whiteboard markers are meted out like gold bars. But everyone appears to be doing okay; not too rich, not too poor.

Except then there's today, at a meeting with the music teacher to discuss our classes for the coming weeks. We sat down and were about to begin when there was a knock on the door. He excused himself; I waited 5, 10, almost 15 minutes. I admit to looking at my watch, fidgeting, getting impatient. As an auxiliar, it's easy to feel that people don't respect your time and effort. Many fellow auxiliars have expressed their frustration to me about classes changed at the last second, negating hours of preparation; about classes cancelled without warning, rendering lengthy commutes unnecessary.

But when the teacher came back inside, he had a perturbed look on his face and explained that he was talking with some of the other teachers. "You know," he said, "There are some kids in this school with families who are doing really poorly under the current economy. I mean really poorly-- including students that go some days without eating. Imagine that you have to pay 380 euros rent every month and you're making 400 euros. What are you going to do? What are you going to eat?" He shook his head.

"You think about people going hungry in Africa or in India. But right here? Right next door? It's a terrible feeling to know people are living this way here. So we're thinking about trying to come together as teachers to at least give the kids a meal at school."

I finished my meeting and went to the grocery store behind the school, and as I filled my cart I couldn't stop thinking about those kids. I'm sure they're trying so hard to seem like everything is "normal"-- and, by and large, it's working, at least to my uneducated eye. I decided right there in the produce aisle that the next time I get irritated with a daydreaming student, I'll check myself: maybe he or she has a growling stomach, maybe he or she slept poorly last night with no heat. The crisis is here, now, and no assumptions and appearances can take away that reality.

Of course, maybe that distracted student is just a teenager being a teenager. After all, kids don't need any help getting distracted. But I figure, did a little extra compassion ever hurt anyone? I think that's what I can take away from this: there isn't any good way for me to directly help these kids and their families (although if this school meal plan materializes, I'll probably participate), but compassion and an open mind are some things I can bring to the table.

It had been awhile since I'd gone grocery shopping, so I was loaded down with food walking home, so much so that I had to stop a few times to rest. I often think about how lucky I am to be here, but I don't think about how lucky I am, period.


A L said...

Really good post!

Alissa said...

Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it