Teaching English
In Guatemala

Laurie Levinger

Copyright 2005 by Laurie Levinger

                                    2005 Travel Contest Winner

Photo by Richard  Loller/.

"I don't really speak Spanish very well." Not exactly a lie, but quite an understatement. "Is that a problem?"

 The silence on the other end of the phone went on just a half-beat too long. Just long enough for me to imagine I'd been rejected, that the guy on the phone was trying to figure out a nice way to tell me.

 "Well," the man paused, "how's your English?"

 "My English is pretty good." Is he kidding me?

 "Well, good, then you can come."

 The man with the sense of humor on the phone was Bob Greenberg, a doctor recently retired from Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. He and Jane, his wife, were heading up a group of volunteers to Guatemala in December. The group would be sponsored by the Maya Educational Foundation of South Woodstock, Vermont which began in 1992, with the mission of promoting Maya education and culture. In the years since then, many Maya students in Guatemala and Mexico have benefited from MEF support of their education. Programs have diversified over time, now including scholarships, publications, women's weaving and crafts programs and theater.

Our group would be the English Language Project, a new program. Our focus would be teaching conversational English to Maya college students studying law, medicine, sociology, nursing, agriculture.

The volunteers all made individual arrangements to fly to Guatemala City. We were to arrive in time to meet our students at 9:00 Thursday December 2, 2004.

 There were twenty one students, mostly young adults from twenty-three to twenty-eight. We met that first morning, milling around, awkward. The women students were dressed in multi-colored blouses and skirts that we came to recognize as the traditional dress of the Maya. The young men could've blended in with any group of young men anywhere in the world. Except most of them were very short. The courtyard was filled with their greetings and laughter as we all eyed each other: Who will be my teacher? Who will be my student?

There was one older student who brought her ten year old son, Albertillo, to class with her. Maybe she didn't have anywhere else for him to go, maybe she wanted him to get an early start learning English. We started every day by greeting the students in English, slowly. "Good morning, Julio (or Flor or Carlos). How are you this morning?" Once he got the hang of it, it was Albertillo who'd get us laughing every morning by answering, "Hey, what's happening?" taught him by one of our "hipper" volunteers.

 We were twelve in all. Let me introduce you: one artist, one doctor, one epidemiologist, two psychologists, one grant administrator, four teachers, one speech pathologist, two writers. We ranged in age from forty-five to sixty-five, most, but not all of us retired, or starting second careers.

 Our students: Julio, Helida, Rigoberto, Ixkik, Blanca, Flor, Emilia, Carlos, Velsy,Victor, Ana, Fernando,Robin, Bartolo, Lorena, Jeremias, Elder,Esther, Mateo, Elena, Albertillo. They were Maya, the Indigenous people of Guatemala. Before I left my home in Vermont when I described the trip I'd say, "I'm going to Guatemala for two weeks with a group of volunteers to teach English to Maya college students." Quite a mouthful. It sure sounded exciting, but who knew what it really meant?

Certainly not me.

 Because that didn't begin to describe the sunlight, the cobblestone streets, the flavors, the ubiquitous firecrackers, the colors and textures--color exploding from every doorway--of the experience we'd have during the time we lived and taught Maya students in Antigua, Guatemala.

 And who are the Maya anyway?

 I had absolutely no idea, remembering little of the history of Central America, my knowledge skipping over the native people and starting with the Spanish who arrived to convert the Indians in the 1500's. I had some vague recollection of a recent civil war. Something to do with the United Fruit Company or the CIA? My ignorance of the country and its people was almost total.

 I did buy a guidebook, which I read in a relaxed, off-hand fashion. Still I was almost 100% unprepared for what we would find in this almost-neighbor only two-and-a-half hours from Miami. Another world.

 As I said, our task was to teach spoken English. All of our students had studied English in school but the emphasis was on reading and writing, so they had little experience actually talking. Most of us, including myself, were not teachers, and I must admit I didn't have a clue about how to teach a language that I'm fluent in. All I really had to fall back on was my own experiences trying to learn Spanish and French in high school (almost forty years ago now), and Italian in college. So with no background teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) and minimal (muy poquito) Spanish to help me out, armed only with a Spanish-English dictionary, I set forth.

 What gave me the chutzpah to imagine I could do this? Well, before I retired and started a second career as a writer, I'd been a psychotherapist. I'd done a lot of listening and a lot of talking over my twenty-seven year career, and I figured (hoped) that's all I'd need to get started. Sometimes a dollop of ignorance is a good thing, otherwise, I never would've believed I could do it.

 The structure of our day: breakfast of eggs, plantains, and frijoloes at 8:00, the students arrived at 8:30. We milled around the courtyard of our hotel which served as our home, and classroom, for our two week stay. Then we convened as a group, all of us together in the hotel dining room or chapel, sitting in a circle, for greetings, announcements, and group games or songs. "Simon Says" and "The Hokey Pokey" quickly became favorites. Then each teacher went off with his or her students for four hours of class, with a short coffee and cookie break at 10:00. Some days after lunch we went on a field trip as a group, to a macadamia nut farm one afternoon, a coffee plantation another, a salsa class one evening. Most afternoons we were free to wander the colonial city of Antigua with our fellow volunteers or alone, taking photographs, sightseeing, visiting one of the twenty five churches or monasteries, some open, some in ruins, destroyed by earthquakes over the centuries. I must say, this Jewish woman went to Mass more times in those two weeks than in my entire previous life.

 Some of us had one student, most had two. We rotated after one week so students would have experiences with different American accents and teaching styles. I couldn't sit still to teach for the entire four hours, so I always went out into the town with my students for a long walk after the break. There are many teaching opportunities out in the real world: directions, architecture, traffic, weather, the open air market, even just buying postcards.

 That first day we teachers stood and introduced ourselves: What to say? Remember to use simple words. Speak slowly.

 Then we went for our first class with our students: I had Jeremy, a teasing twenty-four-year-old law student who insisted on calling me Mrs.Laurie, and Helida, a twenty-seven-year old who teaches elementary school and is finishing her law degree at night. It was immediately obvious that their spoken English was just about as poor as my Spanish. We sat around a white wrought iron table in the center of the courtyard which would be our "classroom" most mornings. I took out a photo album I'd brought with me with pictures of my two kids, our dogs, my garden, and my friend's goat farm. Pictures of animals, plants, kids hiking in the White Mountains--lots to talk about here.

 Then I asked them to tell me about themselves: Who was in their family? Where did they live? How old were they? What were they studying in school?

 The second morning in the big group, the students introduced themselves. In English. Think about it: it's not easy to stand up in front of a group of thirty people and talk about yourself, even for a couple of minutes. Even in your native tongue. And, I haven't mentioned that Spanish is their second language. There are twenty three native Maya languages, which are really distinct languages, not dialects, so the students talked to each other in Spanish, their second language, the one they had in common. English would be their third.

 Each student stood up in front of the room and said their personal variation of: "Hello, My name is ... I come from ... I have twenty-three years. In my family we have my mother, my brother next to me, and my little sister. That's all," sitting down to rousing applause.

 Until Fernando stood, said the usual, and then, "My parents were killed when I was five months old. I am a survivor of the civil war."

 It's a cliche to say my heart leapt into my throat, but it's true. That second morning I came to believe that I hadn't come here mostly to teach English. I'd come to learn something. I spent the next ten days figuring out what I was supposed to be learning from these people young enough to be my children.


 I was standing in Bernie's kitchen when he said that. What could he possibly mean? We'd been chatting with him, Christine, one of the other volunteers and I, in a getting-to-know-you kind of way. Christine used to teach elementary school and volunteers as an ESL teacher back home in Vermont. I'm a retired psychotherapist, now I write stories. Bernie was a friend of our student Emilia, who'd invited us to have a Guatemalan meal at his house. We jumped at the chance to get inside a real house, talk to a local person, not just people we met in the market where the focus was negotiating a good price (they always won in the end). We were telling Bernie about what brought us to Guatemala, and asking him about his studies at the university in Guatemala City. We'd had these same conversations with our students, with one major difference--Bernie studies international relations and speaks four languages. His English is close to perfect, and so we could have an in-depth conversation without having to pause to translate or search for a simpler word. I felt bad for Emilia who couldn't possibly understand everything we were saying, but it was too interesting to slow down. Occasionally Bernie translated for her, but mostly she ate her meal, obviously pleased that we seemed to be enjoying meeting the man she'd told us was her "tutor." I'd assumed this meant he was a professional teacher, an older man, but, in fact, Bernie was only twenty-four, and looked a lot younger with his slim build and clean-shaven face.

 "Bernie, some of the students told us about what happened to their families during the civil war. Can we ask you about what happened to you, or is it too hard to talk about it?"

 "Well, I must talk about it. Otherwise, it stays inside. We Maya, we look normal on the surface, we look like we're okay, but we're not really. We have to talk to get it out of us."

 He paused, and that shadow I'd noticed when our students weren't laughing and telling jokes, brushed across his face.

"My father was killed during the war," he said. "They called all the men in our village together, and when my father understood what was happening, he tried to run. They shot him in the back. My mother ran away with my older brothers. She left me behind."

 "She left you?"

 "Well, I don't think she really meant to. Everyone was confused, they just ran wherever they could to hide. My grandmother grabbed me. We were taken to a concentration camp and kept there. I got so sick, I nearly died three times. I didn't have any milk to drink, I was malnourished, that's why so many of us are so small."

 "How long did you stay there?"

 "My grandmother was tough. She kept asking them to let us go, that I was starving and needed food and medicine. Finally, they got sick of her asking, and I was so sick they thought I wouldn't survive. They just let us go..." here he made a dismissive gesture, meaning get out of here, you scum, you vermin, "and we went away into the forest. My grandmother saved me."

 "Bernie, what is it like for you now? How have you gone on with your life? Did you ever see your mother and brothers again?"

 So many questions. But we didn't really know him, and how personal could we get? We'd just been invited to lunch, after all.

 "Do you talk to other Maya friends about what happened to you?"

 "Sometimes, but mostly people don't want to talk about it. We tell each other stories and joke about what it was like. Emilia," gesturing to her across the table, "she was just telling me about how her family hid underground for six months from the soldiers. They had all sorts of games they played underground--they thought it was fun to play in the dirt--but they had to be quiet all the time, so the soldiers wouldn't discover them." He translated for Emilia. She smiled and nodded.

 "We need to tell what happened to us," Bernie said it again. "Because when we don't, when something else bad happens, like a love affair goes bad, or something like that, everything comes back, and we sink down into ourselves, and we think our life isn't worth living. This is a country that needs a million psychologists," he said.

 "Bernie, would you come talk to the other volunteers? We all need to hear your story, to understand your experiences. Would you be willing to give a talk to our group?"

 He nodded. And came. He talked for more than two hours, barely pausing to catch his breath, starting with history, recounting his personal story, answering questions. That's how our group of middle-aged volunteers got to hear a first-hand account of how a Maya boy, only two years old, survived the terror and desperation of war.


 7:30 a.m. The girl sitting next to me on the plane leaving Guatemala City is obviously from the States, tall and pretty in that fresh-faced American way, wearing jeans, a black tee-shirt and red sneakers. She looks about seventeen, and is traveling with a little boy, probably her brother, who has bright, impossibly-orange hair that's falling into his eyes. Eager for a conversation to help pass the time to Miami I ask her, "Were you visiting in Guatemala?"

 No, she lives there with her family.

"Oh, where? I've been volunteering in Antigua, teaching English."

 "I live in Antigua. Have my whole life."

 "Are you applying to college in the States?" I'm right, she is college-age, applying to Macalester College in Minnesota. Will hear soon if she's been admitted.

 Now, the question that's been on my mind since that conversation with Bernie. "So what was it like living in Antigua during the civil war?"

 She's well-brought up. I'm a middle-aged, grey-haired woman asking her a question, she's trying to be responsive. She pauses, thoughtfully, before asking politely, "What war?"

Contact Laurie

(Messages are forwarded by The Preservation Foundation.
So, when you write to an author, please type his/her name
in the subject line of the message.)

Laurie's Story List and Biography

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher