Take A Glimpse Beyond The Gates

The doorbell rang.  It was my neighbor, Beatriz. Venga conmigo! Ahorita! Come right away, as she gently pulled at my sleeve.

We both live in downtown Ajijic, close by Saul Rodiles Elementary School, a government-run school for grades 1 through 6. And that is where we rushed. Beatriz remembered that I’d tried to volunteer there years earlier, when we first moved to town. Knowing that teaching English is mandated in public schools here, and having some fluency in Spanish, figured I’d be able to assist in some way. Although the staff was cordial, no one acted on my offer back then. 

When we walked into the director’s office, Beatriz introduced me to a young woman who was newly placed in charge of the afternoon classes. She thanked me for volunteering to assist.  But there’s been no funding to hire an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher for the past three years, she said. Would you be our volunteer ESL teacher? 

Oh dear. I’m not that fluent in Spanish. How would I know what the students are asking me? But after a day’s thinking, I decided to give it a try. Limiting my commitment to 5th and 6th grades, I learned that many of the children are eager to learn English. And thankfully, they’re patient with me!

What do you see in your future? I asked (in Spanish) one day. What dreams do you have? Their answers amazed me. I want to travel to France!  I want to be a lawyer, said another student. To be a teacher. A doctor. I wish you could have seen their eager faces.

These children are not wealthy.  They haven’t traveled far, certainly not outside of Mexico. But they have bright dreams. I kept thinking, how can I help them?

A few weeks after my volunteer work began, an earthquake rocked our town, the same one that hit Colima.  Saul Rodiles School suffered severe damage to three large classrooms, and the school was temporarily shut down by the government. (One classroom remains unusable.)

Hold on a second, you might say.  Where is this school? It’s on Calle Hidalgo, two blocks west of Ajijic’s central plaza. It’s not the better-known downtown public school, made famous by the murals created by our local artist, Efren Gonzalez.  

Efren is working on the outside walls at Saul Rodiles right now. He’s partway through, and we know it will bring pride and some welcome attention to our neighborhood. 

Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll find beyond the school’s outside gates:

– Before the first class, you’ll see children carrying huge pails, lining up at the single working outdoor faucet, outside of the bathrooms. They fill the pails and pour the water into the toilet tanks. You’ll also see that children bring drinking water from home, as the school’s drinking fountains don’t work. The entire “tinaco” system needs help.

– The roof leaks and mold grows on some of the walls. Chunks of wall have fallen. Would be even worse, if not for the tradition of the “padres” – fathers of the students – who volunteer once a year to climb up and clear the roof of debris. 

– The “computer lab” consists of 40 desktop computers that run on Windows 97. A computer expert needed little time to assess that nothing was reusable, except maybe the keyboard and mouse. If these computers were people, he joked, they’d have reached drinking age!  We all know that learning to operate a computer is key to success in the modern world. You won’t acquire those skills in this lab.

– If we only had projectors in the classroom, teachers could be showing educational videos of high quality. Hmmm… then we’d also need new blackout curtains. Many are literally threadbare, and can’t block out enough sunlight for a projector to be useful. 

– From Board markers to Workbooks, the lack of classroom supplies is pervasive. Teachers bring some of their own supplies from home. I pay attention, and can see their initiative, dedication to teaching, and the mutual support. A colleague is absent?  I’ve watched them jump to help one other, and to make sure the students are safe and continue to learn that day.

Now here’s the best news! As I’m writing this article, all the deficits I’ve outlined above are accurate. But after a few friends and I decided to hold a fundraiser last December, we secured enough money to begin addressing these issues. We formed an oversight committee of active local community volunteers to set priorities. And the work is about to begin! 

Then I won’t ever hear a child whisper “tengo sed” (I’m thirsty), just because he forgot his water bottle.  We’ll be working with a plumbing company – the dad attended Saul Rodiles decades ago – whose bid was generous to us. We’re negotiating for roofing and other needs. 

Much as we were blessed with money, that fundraiser also brought interest in volunteering from the Lakeside community.

The ladies from Needlepushers at LCS bought blackout curtain material at a low price, in part reflecting the fabric store’s generosity. They’re about to begin measuring, cutting and sewing panels for all the classrooms.  And we’ll be able to buy one or two projectors to show the best educational videos!

Repair of the rooms affected by last fall’s earthquake is scheduled to be undertaken by the Jalisco government. Another priority, acquisition of modern computers, is beyond our ability at this point. (Note to local funding organizations – we’ll be asking for your support!)

The December fundraiser and all that’s happened since just confirms the ‘rumor’ that our Lakeside community is extraordinary. Talent, initiative and generosity. And I hope that reading about my experience at Saul Rodiles encourages you to “take a glimpse beyond the gates” of a public school near your neighborhood.

For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com

Judith Labadie
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