Suburban Macondo

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Club Jóvenes del Futuro

Since the end of January, when our friend Jessie left for Guatemala, Brooke and I had been in charge of an after-school youth club that Jessie started a year ago as part of her Fulbright project. The idea started out as a way to give middle-school girls an after-school activity and at the same time give them a space to talk about adolescent issues like sexuality, peer pressure, nutrition, drugs, etc., but it quickly included boys once Jessie realized that they needed that sort of education, too.

Brooke had been working with the club before Jessie's departure, even before she spoke much Spanish. She would teach art to the club, and she first would write out her entire lesson plan in Spanish and then basically read it to the class. It went without a hitch, and we figured we'd have no problems taking over for Jessie while she worked as an anti-AIDS street performer in Central America.

Well, our final club was Friday. Just one student, a shy, painfully quiet seventh-grader named María, came to the club, even though Jessie was back in town. It was the second week in a row María was the only one there. As the four of us sat outside the school, munching on cinnamon cookies and drinking orange soda, Brooke and I were left to wonder how the club went from 15-20 students to just one in three months.

We knew from our first post-Jessie meeting, which only half the club attended, that it would be hard to keep the group, as it was, together. I went to the school one morning and recruited, going from class to class with an adviser named Yoly (our alleged contact at the school; she gave us the keys to a room one day and never contacted us again) trying to drum up support and pick up some new members. Two new kids, a brother and a sister, came to the next meeting, but only the boy came back.

We tried to keep the clubs interesting and fun for the kids. If Brooke sometimes struggled to communicate with the kids, I struggled to prepare for the club and connect with the kids. Still, we did good things. We talked about racism in Venezuela and the rest of the world and used a translated "I Have a Dream" speech to explain MLK and the civil rights movement. We talked about communities and drew our own conceptual maps of our mental and physical spaces. We cut out a bunch of newspaper and magazine advertisements and talked about body image and the unrealistic goals advertisers set for society.

All of these ideas were well received, and we had a steady following of about seven or eight students. Then we decided, near the end of February, to challenge the club to do something for the community. At the beginning of the month the Mocotíes Valley in the western part of the state had been ravaged by flooding, and people all over the country were collecting money, food and clothing for the relief effort. In the United States, this would be a perfect time for a group like Key Club to step in and help at the collection centers or in the affected communities, babysitting or helping to rebuild or whatever. Here in Venzuela, though, there is no sense of community service, especially not for middle-school kids.

So after a club in which we talked about doing something, the kids decided to go to their town's collection center that Sunday to help out in whatever way they could. After we talked with the center's director and even the mayor, Brooke and I were assured they would have something to do. Twenty minutes later, one of the workers explained to us that they would love it if Brooke and I helped, but they really didn't want the kids around. "You know how kids are," she told us. "They're just going to run around and get in our way. You understand."

Well, we didn't. The kids, sadly, did. Adolescents are just in the way here in Venezuela; they aren't valued and they aren't given any sort of real responsibility. They aren't really punished, either; during our last club "meeting" there were kids painting the school, and María told us that if a student were failing a class all he or she would have to do was help paint the school during one weekend and he or she would pass. Oh, and they had a party for the painters, too. A great lesson, really.

We tried, though, to rally our kids around this cause, to get them to plan service activities outside of the government-sanctioned activities. Over the course of two meetings we brainstormed, planned and voted on activities that we could do, including a school soccer tournament fund-raiser and a puppet show for the displaced children of the valley. The kids wanted to prove to the adults that they could help. At the end of that second meeting, after we had planned out everything, Brooke and I urged the kids to go out and start preparing outside of the club. They would have to talk to teachers; they would have to get sponsors; they would have to find people to donate balls and make lemonade to sell.

At our next scheduled meeting, no one came. They were dodging us, and could you blame them? They didn't know how to go about doing the things we'd asked of them, and we didn't want to do it for them. If they wanted to help, they'd have to do the work. It was a tough situation for us, but we just didn't understand that they needed more than a push. There's a reason older Venezuelans don't engage in community service: There's nothing in it for them. We needed to show these kids the intrinsic value of helping someone so that they would want to do it in the future, so that they could understand how to do it in the future. Instead, we pushed them into the pool and told them to meet us in the deep end.

The club sort of deteriorated from there. We had a couple of good clubs, but we missed two meetings when we were in Colombia. During that time, someone from the funding organization led the clubs, and no one came the second week. When we returned, no one came again. The next week, we made the 45-minute trip to Ejido again, this time to find the school locked. There had been a teacher's strike, and no one had bothered to call us.

The week after that, only María showed up. Brooke and I were so sick and tired of it, of the lack of support in the school, of the kids' disinterest in the club, in our own inability to keep Jessie's momentum going, that we hung out for 25 minutes and left. When we asked María what we could do to get kids to come, she said: "Well, tell them Jessie's coming next week. That should do it." Ouch.

Well, we talked to Yoly, and she told us she’d tell the kids that Jessie was back in town. Unfortunately, it was Young Hoodlum Painting Day at the school, and no one was coming in just to go to the club. Except María, again. So we sat outside with her and talked about her recently dipping grades (a competitive smart kid, her average dropped a point on the 1-20 scale), about her English (limited to "My name is María" and "How are you?") and about the unjust way in which bad students were allowed to erase their bad study habits and avoid failing.

When we walked back to the Mérida bus afterwards, she asked us when we’d be back. "That's it, María," I said. "We can't come back anymore." I explained our trip to Cuba and about having to write an article after returning. She looked back. "So you're not coming back at all? Brooke neither?" No, sorry. "Oh." She hugged us, smiled her mousy little smile, and walked away. At least one of them cared.


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