La Madre Superior


I have been teaching, formally and informally, for over ten years, accumulating many interesting stories and experiences along the way. One of those experiences stands out from all the rest as a lesson and reminder as to why I teach. Unlike most of my teaching experiences this particular one was not planned nor was it in the United States.
Towards the end of a volunteering vacation at a boys orphanage in Guatemala, I realized that there was a sluggish pattern to the young boys’ school days — spend an hour watching an educational video, recite math to the nuns, play soccer for a couple of hours, then color in what were supposed to be educational coloring books. So when one of the nuns asked if I would like to teach the boys numbers in English, I jumped at the chance to bring some variety to the day.
I put together a quick game and we recited our numbers — 1-10 in both Spanish and English for about an hour, after which we went and played our daily soccer game. It was not until later in the day, during coloring time, that I realized the true impact I could leave the children, and, later I realized, an impact on the nuns as well.
I pulled out some blank paper and started to make Spanish to English number posters for the small room; Uno = One, Dos = Two, etc. As I went to tape the posters on the wall the boys started to read them out loud; they got louder and louder to the point where a nun got up and left the room with a look of indignation on her face. I was convinced I had crossed a line, committed a cultural offense and La Madre Superior was being summoned to ask me to leave.
As La Madre Superior entered the boys immediately quieted themselves as she looked up at the colorful posters with piercing eyes only Mother Superiors can have. In those eyes I saw a small tear and my apologies started immediately, “Lo siento, Lo siento…” She stopped me before I could say anything further, hugged me and in broken English said, “Thank you. We ask every volunteer to teach our boys English and when they leave both the boys and the nuns forget everything that was taught. Now they can remember and start to learn more.” It was at this point that I not only knew how to be but would be a teacher for the rest of my life.