Monday, April 21, 2008

Elementary School

In my free time I have been working on a photo documentary of Ciudad Bolívar, the largest and poorest region of Bogotá. Since my students canceled our English classes today, I decided to go to the southern part of Ciudad Bolívar because I have never been there. I woke up early and in an hour I was at one of TransMilenio’s final stops, Portal del Tunal.

I had taken a photo of a map I had and printed it so I wouldn’t have to carry a big map of the city. It was easy to follow, using the mountains and Tunjuelito River as landmarks. Along the way I stopped in a bakery and bought some pastries. I ate them all, but saved some pound cake for the dogs. In Ciudad Bolívar there are many stray dogs, many of which have chased or tried to attack me. I have learned my best defense is food. It turns some of the meanest dogs into my friendly companions. Anyhow, I eventually wandered past Avenida Boyacá to a neighborhood called Lucero Alto. It was around here (it’s hard to determine exactly where I was because there are so many neighborhoods close together) that two policemen on a motorcycle asked me what I was doing. I explained to them I was a journalist. They told me to be careful because someone might shoot me for my camera. One of them lifted his hand toward me as if it was a pistol to emphasize his point. He was a bit more dramatic than a few other people who I met who simply said there were a lot of thieves and to watch my camera closely. I respect their concern, but sometimes danger is a part of the job. Personally, I’ve never felt this way in Ciudad Bolívar ... knock on wood.

I then walked in the opposite direction of the police, down a steep hill to a basketball and soccer blacktop. In Bogotá, most of the basketball courts have soccer goals in front of the baskets, and are virtually always used for soccer games. When I arrived there was a teacher standing near the center court with a group of young students around her dressed in matching dark green uniforms. I walked up to her and asked if I could take some photos of the students. She seemed to act as if she had expected me to arrive. She said sure, and then proceeded to ask the children to describe me... He is tall... He has a beard... They were working on their descriptive vocabulary. They seemed well behaved and attentive to their teacher’s instructions. Then she told them that I wanted to take photos of them. That one sentence was like a shot of adrenaline. They began jumping around, grabbing and tugging at me, and pleading for me to take their picture. It was a big challenge. I have photographed children before but never so many at once, or so wild. Getting a large group of excited children (ages 8 to 12) to follow directions is something beyond my control. After high school I had wanted to be an elementary school teacher. Maybe this was why it never happened. As I took some photos, there were a few students sitting down and studying, but just a few. The teacher, Fabiola, was very kind and she recommended other places I might like to photograph for my story. She then escorted me to the school.

It was a big room inside a normal-looking building. You wouldn’t know it was a school unless you walked inside. I never found out the school’s name. It was an elementary school. It had one room, one bathroom, and one blackboard. There were two classes of students. One class was working outside on the soccer court while the other students had a lesson in the classroom. There were more than 30 students in each class. The teacher inside seemed to have an endless supply of patience. I guess you have to when you’re alone. When it got too noisy, she raised a fist in their air and all of the students followed suit in silence. Some students stood in front of the class and read what they had written in their notebooks. I was so focused on the photos I was taking that I didn’t have a clue what they said. I did, however, walk around the classroom and read the papers they had hanging on the walls. They had a common theme for respect for nature and others, as well as a desire for peace and love. Some students wrote about freedom for the kidnapped, and one paper had a small photo of Íngrid Betancourt.

A while later the other class came in and it felt like total chaos. I feel partly to blame. A group of boys jumped around and tugged on my arms, yelling, “Gringo! Gringo!” I don’t think they had ever met an American before. In the mist of the commotion they asked me how to say various words in English such as car, chair, teacher, and several curse words that I won’t repeat. They were supposed to be eating their breakfast, which had been delivered in two large crates. Fabiola gave me a breakfast pack, too. It included yogurt, a muffin, arequipe, and peanuts. Several students wanted to give me their package of peanuts. Others were jumping around and hitting each other.

I decided to leave. I was too big of a distraction. I walked back to the blacktop and watched some young guys play soccer. A few minutes later all the students were outside, running around on the playground below. I took a few more photos, but they were too hyper and several boys wouldn’t let me take a photo as they kept jumping in front of my camera. Two girls asked me for my autograph. I found it kind of amusing since nobody has ever asked me for that, so I gladly signed on the small grocery receipts that they handed me. I don’t think they receive too many visitors. As I left, I thought about what it would be like to be a school teacher there. Whatever they are paid, it isn’t enough.