The Right to Grieve

“Lucy, do you remember the boy I told you about on the first day of class? The one who played guitar?” My co-teacher asked me. With his strong accent I couldn’t quite understand him. “Guitar?” I asked to clarify and mimed playing one. “Yes,” he said, “He died this weekend.” I stopped. And stared. Hoping that just like the word guitar the word died was lost in the confines of his accent. I didn’t misunderstand. I heard correctly. Daniel Felipe, one of the students I had gotten to know best during my time at school, was dead. He had been killed in the streets. I stood up, walked to the bathroom, locked the door and cried.

Colombia is changing, of that I am certain. It is no longer the murder capitol of the world nor the country ruled by cartels. Incidents such as this aren’t normal anymore. At least that’s what a friend here said. These types of killings, at this age, are rare, unless you live a lifestyle that invites it. Which he didn’t. So it was random. And for that reason even more tragic. There are so many times I have forgotten where I am because this does not feel like the ‘third world country’ that I was warned about entering. Much to my surprise, I have felt safe. And yet with this incident I was hit with a harsh introduction to reality.

While I have had a few encounters with death in my life, murder is something that is completely foreign to me. The thought of a ninth grade boy getting killed on the streets is something that I can’t fathom. Not in the bubble that, up until this point, has been my world. When explaining what happened to my fellow foreign teachers, I said, “This kind of stuff just doesn’t happen in the States.” And then I paused and backpedaled as my privilege smacked me in the face because it does. It is happening now in cities across the U.S. There is violence. There are murders. There are tragedies just as senseless as this one. It happens in the world, it happens in the States and it happens here.

One of my first weeks in Colombia during a cab ride, the driver, upon learning I was from the U.S., warned me about the violence in my country and passed on his condolences. My world was not that world. I have been sheltered from the violence and for that I am grateful. But now here I am exposed to my first tragedy, living side by side to the dangerous streets that I never crossed growing up and feeling uncertain as to how to move forward. I didn’t know how to react after becoming distinctly aware of my privilege or how to navigate a situation that is so unfamiliarly tragic surrounded by people who have seen it before.

I was uncomfortable admitting my sadness, hence the reason I locked myself in the bathroom and refused to leave until the last bit of red had faded from my swollen eyes. I didn’t feel like I had a right to the tears. I was not Daniel Felipe’s friend, nor his family. I had only been his teacher for a month. My tears hadn’t been earned by years of knowing him and yet it was clear that after only a month not only him, but all of my students had had an impact on my life. Outsiders couldn’t see their impact though. So as Don Orlando, the school coordinator, made the formal death announcement to the students during the last ten minutes of my final class, I tried to hold back my tears. This wasn’t my school, this wasn’t my country. I was a guest in all of it. Because of that, I told myself that I had no right to be impacted. And yet there I was, mentally willing my eyes to serve as barricades for the tears trying to burst through, afraid that my students, or my co-teacher, would see me crying and afraid that they would wonder why.

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One of my ninth grade classes

“El estaba una victima del violencia en nuestra pais,” Don Orlando said over the loud speaker. He was a victim of the violence of our country. His body had been found that morning in an abandoned street. He had been robbed and killed walking home the night before. He played five instruments and the rumor was that he was murdered for one of them. Around me some students cried, others were silent and some poked each other and made faces as if this was not a big deal. I still held back my tears. It was only when I rushed out of school at the end of the day and started sobbing on the street corner that I really allowed myself to let go.

In talking to friends this past weekend I told them that I adored my students. I told them about my students who had had babies and then returned to school. Their commitment to their education was impressive. I told them about the older tattooed boys who waited outside school to pick up my students, their girlfriends, on motorcycles. A foreign feeling of concern and protectiveness for these girls passed over me every time I walked past these unfamiliar boys. And even before he died, I told them about Daniel Felipe. One day in class he took me through his sketchbook showing me the beautiful drawings that he had spent months pulling from his head to put on paper. He showed me pictures of his instruments and told me about an upcoming performance of his in the city. I told him that I was planning to go. I am sad that we will both miss it.

What I told my friends was true. I adored my students. But it wasn’t until days after our conversation when this happened and one of them was lost that I realized that I really, really did care. Deeply. These kids, who I had been so hesitant and resistant to teach due to their age, were amazing. And I loved them. And I am so sad that one of them is gone.

And yet I still felt like I didn’t have a right to the sadness.

But who owns sadness? Who dictates who gets to feel what and, in bad situations, who shares what percentage of the pain? Unfortunately, in our world, there is more than enough sadness and grief to go around. Grief cannot be owned, divided or scaled. Sadness is just sadness. Grief is just grief.

You have a right to all of your emotions. To your happiness, to your joy, to your sadness and your pain. You have a right to feel. And to cry. And to experience whatever emotions you need to experience. Feelings are feelings and one of the few things in life to which everyone is entitled. But for some reason, I was having such a hard time allowing myself that right.

The next morning was surprisingly harder. I woke up fine, went for a run, ate breakfast and started to process in the only way I knew how: writing. And then I got a text from my mentor. My normal classes, with my normal students, were cancelled that day for the funeral. She asked if I could come in to work with the younger grades. Contractually, I was not obligated and emotionally I was not capable, however, I fell into my people pleasing pattern and was afraid of claiming the sadness that I felt but did not feel like I had earned so I responded, “Yes, of course,” even when every part of me was desperately yearning to say no.

For the rest of the morning I cried. Relentlessly. I kept telling myself that there was no reason for me to stay home instead of going to school. Clearly I was ignoring the evidence that was flooding down my face and drowning my clothes. I imagined myself riding the bus to school and sitting through five classes with students who I didn’t yet know all the while trying to pretend like everything was fine. It felt like torture. Despite that, I was still planning to go in because I was so used to stomping on my feelings while soldering on and, in this case, too ashamed to admit my sadness to those who I thought deserved it more.

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A poster made by Daniel Felipe and his classmates presented to me on our first day of class

In the midst of my resistance, I called Maureen who helped me realized that I was allowed to be sad, what happened was sad, and that I needed to take care of myself in whatever way I could. On my way out the door to school, still crying I might add, I ran into Rowan, another foreign teacher. He walked towards me and gave me a huge hug. Then, he told me what I hadn’t dared think myself: I didn’t have to go in today. With his words, and the coaching of Rob, another fellow, I called my mentor and shook as I explained that I was affected by what happened and needed to take the day off to take care of myself. Upon admitting my sadness and owning my grief, I melted onto the kitchen floor in a puddle of relief and tears.

My students are incredible. And if I love them, which I do, then I can celebrate them, worry for them and, in the most tragic of circumstances, mourn for them. And even if I didn’t have the privilege of knowing or loving them, I could still mourn for Daniel Felipe, the incredibly talented ninth grade boy who was senselessly and tragically killed in the street. Everyone has a right to that sadness.

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We’re Off to See the Minister!

Finally, I was healthy and my adventure was nearing its transition point from solely exploring to settling in a city and starting to teach. Pereira, Colombia, my home for the next five months, was nearly a week away. First I just had to get through the Ministry of Education teaching orientation.

Orientation was an introvert’s worst nightmare. Eight days of 10-hour long trainings combined with sharing a room and incessant small talk as I attempted to find friendship in a never ending crowd of new faces led to little to no alone time. The contrast between spending nearly a month isolated in a quiet apartment as I recovered from being sick to suddenly being surrounded by 250 people made it even worse. The first night, I sat at a table with strangers, looked down at my plate and ate. My social skills completely escaped me and even asking a simple question such as ‘what is your name’ seemed to be intrusive. I had no idea how to behave.

As the days went on my social skills returned and I went from silence at meals to starting conversations as I slowly re-immersed myself in society. The lack of connection became less daunting and, slowly as the small talk faded, friendships began to form. Once I hit that point, orientation became pure entertainment.

When signing my contract to spend five months teaching in Colombia, I never expected that I would be essentially signing my life over (in black pen, of course*) to the Colombian government. Obviously, that is an exaggeration, but during the first day of orientation I was shocked to see that a blood test was on my schedule. I knew I would be giving up a lot of my time and energy to my future school and the Colombia Bilingüe project but I had no idea that I would have to hand over a part of my body too. In disbelief, I prepared for yet another medical procedure in this country that already had so much of my blood.

Days were long. Really long. Training sessions were MANDATORY and went from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Breaks flew by and free time in the evenings felt essentially non-existent. Mid-way through the week long session all of the new English teaching fellows were scheduled to attend an event with the Minister of Education who was responsible for the Colombia Bilingüe program’s huge success. For those who don’t know, Colombia has set the goal of making the country bilingual by 2025. One of the ways they are trying to reach this goal is by bringing in hundreds of native English speakers to partner with Colombian English teachers in public school classrooms. We were huge part of this program and excited by the chance to leave the hotel and shake up our normal training schedule…until we learned that we had to leave the hotel at 5:30 a.m. At this point, we were all already exhausted from meeting hundreds of new people, full days, and long nights (for those who chose to extend their social festivities into the evening). As a result, the news of an early wake up call was not a welcome announcement. Breakfast started at 4:30 that morning and fellows congregated in the breakfast tent, lining up in unseen proportions behind a very distressed hotel waiter who controlled the coffee. At 5:30 we gathered outside with our groups and waited for the buses to come. That took awhile. Then we got to the hotel. And waited. Again. Upon arrival, we were locked in the presentation hall and prompted by an energetic MC to cheer when he called out the various continents from which we came and the placement cities to which we were going. As you can imagine, 250 young adults who had been dragged out of bed at 4:30 in the morning were not too enthused by that idea and so responses to his calls were hilariously non-existent.

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Somewhere between 6:30 and 9:00 a.m. – do we look like crossing guards?

Another hour past and it was clear that there really was no set time for the Minister to come. She would arrive when she felt like it. In the meantime, we would continue to be ‘distracted’ be the extremely caffeinated MC. To top it all off, we were all dressed up in grey t-shirts and matching neon green Ministry of Education vests. Are you picturing 250 irritated and sleep deprived crossing guards? Because I’m pretty sure that’s what we looked like. In addition, we were supposed to have memorized a song to sing during the Minister’s entrance. I’m not sure if anyone actually looked at the sheet of paper with the lyrics but I’m certain that no more than 10 people were singing during the opening processional once the Minister finally arrived.

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Finally, minutes before 9:00 a.m. (four and a half hours after we left the hotel) she arrived. From there, the celebration was wonderful and it was inspiring to see Colombia’s steps towards change.  With the recent peace agreement with the FARC, Colombia has ended its civil war that has been going on for over 50 years. Its education budget is also, for the first time, higher than its defense and military budget. It is clear that Colombia is not the Colombia of the past and the one that so many Americans, and people around the world, are scared of. Colombia is changing.

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Pereira, Dosquebradas and Santa Rosa fellows meet Gina Parody – the Minister of Education

Despite the early morning festivities, the afternoon continued on as usual. Clearly it was more important to fit the training in than to take care of the wellbeing of the fellows. So before we knew it, we were back in class.

Days went by as usual, chock full of training sessions that were interesting and helpful but coupled with little to no breaks, completely useless. As the week went on people started to get sick, and tired, and just fed up in general. Attendance at the sessions started to waiver as people realized that once you signed in for the morning or afternoon sessions you could just disappear to the bathroom and never come back. Those who stayed in the sessions essentially tuned out (or at least I did). In class activity times turned into social sessions and during lectures, phones decorated the room like Christmas lights, completely bright and totally shameless. I, along with at least one other Orange Group member spent one session setting up Pokemon Go. Imagine my disappointment when I realized that the whole point of Pokemon Go is that you actually have to go…my plan to sit and play during class was quickly squandered. Unfortunately, the regional coordinators got wind of the skipping habits and, on the second to last day of training, decided to put their foot down.

By the last few days of training, we were all tired and desperate. Desperate times called for desperate measures. In the middle of another endless session one fellow attempted to leave early and, upon realizing that for the first time there was a regional coordinator sitting in the hall ensuring that no one left, decided to brainstorm a more creative exit strategy. So what did he do? He jumped out of the window. In the middle of class. I’m not kidding. Despite having very unsuccessful decoys that included me and two other girls in class, the teacher never found out. Moments after he successfully climbed up and squeezed the last of his body out of the very small window, we burst into laughter. At that point, there was nothing to be done, all that was left of the boy was his zip up jacket hanging on the back of his chair. To be fair, he wasn’t just bored of class. He along with two other fellows had tickets to a big soccer match downtown that afternoon. Unfortunately for the window boy, though, five minutes after he disappeared, we broke into groups and were allowed to spread out around the hotel to make lesson plans in groups. As a result his two partners in crime were able to walk away from class completely unnoticed and escape to the game.

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The amazing Orange Group consisting of fellows who will be working in various cities in Colombia’s Coffee Region

Excitement to finish orientation, leave the hotel and settle into our placement cities built up throughout the week. Soon enough, it was nearly time to go. 24 hours before we were supposed to leave for our placement cities, no one had been told what time their flight was, where they would be housed upon arrival or the name or location of their school. Welcome to life in Colombia.

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Out celebrating the end of a long week!

When the departure times were finally announced they were once again unwelcome news. Busses left the hotel at 4:00 a.m., 5:30 a.m. or 6:30 a.m.. Fellows in Pereira were assigned to the 5:30 a.m. bus even though our flight didn’t depart until 8:55 a.m. Despite the early wake up call, people didn’t hesitate from celebrating their freedom from orientation and their one chance to explore Bogotá (training ended at 4 p.m. that day rather than 6 p.m.). The next morning, people dragged themselves out of bed at ungodly hours, took advantage of the chairs and floors at the airport for nap time and boarded planes to start their new next chapter in their placement cities.

*In Colombia all documents need to be signed in black pen or else they are invalid. You also need to write legibly and can’t make mistakes as anything crossed out also invalidates the document. We were reminded of this countless times during orientation.