Written by Emilie Enke

After a monumental freshman year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I refused to go back to a minimum-wage, minimum-fulfillment job in Smalltown, USA. And having only four years at the university made it even more desirable to do something crazy, something unforgettable. That once-in-a-lifetime type of thing. In April of 2016, I had found my “type of  thing” in the form of a six-week exchange program to Bogotá, Colombia. I could speak Spanish, it was an adventure out of the country, and I was ready for whatever would come at me, even Zika.

Yet the adventure proved to be of another sort. Upon my arrival, I was informed that the project had been changed. I would now be working at Aconír, a government-funded cooperation with UNICEF which provided educational opportunities to youth with intellectual disabilities. Amazing? Yes. Unexpected? Very. The program in its nature was very well-structured, however the school system was not. Despite having no previous experience in teaching or interactions with students with intellectual disabilities, the educational inequalities were impossible to ignore. The location, resources provided and treatment of students administered nothing more than a temporary holding-house, continuing the cycle of poverty and inequality of opportunity.

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The “fundacíon” was located in Suba, the northwestern district of Bogotá. My host mother’s first reaction upon hearing that I would be spending the next six weeks working there was of shock, worry. “Is there anywhere else you can volunteer?” she asked. Not to be persuaded otherwise, I ventured there for the first time alone. In the 10 minute walk from the Transmilenio bus station, I passed by revolution-era murals, stray animals, stray children and stranded souls. The barrio of Suba had greeted it me with its un-manicured hand. Still, I couldn’t help but be inspired by the eight-year-old students, walking the same sidewalk, entering through the same intercom-controlled gate, knowing that was their only chance at prosperity, and independence.  

The “touring phase” took place during my first full week at the school. Each day, I’d shadow a different teacher in one of the six different levels. Levels were divided by age and “condition” as I was told. For instance, level one had 12-18 students, aged six to nine with autism, down syndrome and cerebral palsy among other conditions. Level six had more than 30 students, aged 16-62 with similar, more severe conditions. At age 18, each student is tested for career aptitude. Upon passing, they are interviewed for positions in other NGO’s or government programs which allow them to be monitored for growth. Failing the test results in two options: the student’s family paying for them to attend the institution or being thrown into the uncertainty of Bogotá unemployment, street-life.

One of the directors, a 30-something Bogotá native named Liliana, was so gracious to introduce each of the students to me at the start of each class. She’d call each one over, give them a hug and hold them in front of me, as if to present their physical characteristics while defining their intellectual “identifiers.”

Esto chiquito, se llama Juan David. Juan David tiene retardación de la mente. Tiene muchos problemas con interacciones sociales.” This little guy is Juan David. Juan David has a mental retardation which causes him many problems in social interactions.

And on to the next child. On to the next disability introduction.

In one of my last days of the touring phase, I worked in Level Three, which consisted of 14 students aged 12-18. Their identifier was “severe.” Severe autism, severe incapabilities, severe absence of motor skills. Daya, the sole teacher of this classroom, explained the day’s activities. We were focusing on motor skills that day. “Hoy hacemos esta puzzle de cuerda.” I looked at her in astonishment. Had she told me that in this whole nine-to-four school day we would be doing a string puzzle? It was soon I realized why.

Daya handed out all six of their puzzle boards to the class of 14. The lucky six stared at the contraption until Daya, or myself, would take their hand and string the cord through the pegged holes. The remaining students could be found staring off at the walls, out the windows, falling asleep. I had gotten around to two students when Daya tapped me on the shoulder and told me it was time for “onces,” the mid-morning snack. She passed me plate with a heaping portion of Colombian sour cream cake and hot chocolate. I passed it to a yearning-faced Juan Manuel on my right. Daya quickly retracted the plate and corrected the act. “This is for you. They’ll get their own in a little bit.” Appeasingly, I nibbled on the cake, sipped the hot chocolate and noticed every brown-eyed puzzle-stringing stomach watching mine. This didn’t seem to bother Daya, who stepped in the hall to socialize with the other coffee-sipping teachers.

I rode the bus home in such mourning, such disappointment that day. Why–in a government-run institution–were the students treated so poorly? It’s as if they weren’t even given a chance. I FaceTimed my older sister Beverly that afternoon. She has been a special education teacher–and now director–for more than 10 years. A bewildered response she gave when I told her of the past day’s events. Yet I ended the call with a much different feeling. I ended the call with a new purpose.

Beverly explained to me that although the conditions of the schools–such as a 15:1 student to teacher ratio, teachers feasting in front of students and unnecessary discipline–were absurd and negligent, global standards of education vary entirely based on location. She asked me what was on the 18-year-old’s career test and told me to teach them as much as I could. Above all, Bev reminded me that I’m not going to change their long-term situations, but I can give them the strength, love and support they needed in the short time I was there. By celebrating and praising their successes and even failures, I could empower them, give them a reason to come to school every morning.

The next week, I began working in Level Four with Ana, where I would remain for the rest of my stay. Level Four was a class of 16 students, eight-12-year-olds. We’d play soccer in the yard, make paper-mache masks and count to 10 and back until everyone in the class could do so in their sleep. Ana and I were a great team, making them feel wanted, loved and giving them worth. Throughout time, I learned to beat the system. When the time came, I would give them my snack or wait to eat until theirs arrived. Soon, Ana followed my lead. The students found out I spoke English and German, which evolved into extraterrestrial-level admiration. If they behaved, I’d teach them five new words every day; make sentences, point and laugh at the “window.” They loved it. One day they repeated a word from three day’s lessons before. The impact was now measurable, evident.  

My second-to-last day of working at Aconír, one of my students Brayan was misbehaving. Ana took him aside and he reluctantly calmed down, joining the class again before lunch. I sat by four teachers and one other volunteer. The 40-some students sat across the way, fed by the cafeteria staff. Suddenly, a metal plate was heaved, splattering rice and melon on the lap of an innocent Daniela. A tantrum ensued as Brayan accused Daniela of stealing a piece of chicken that didn’t exist. The storm was seemingly dying out when the Director–of whom I’ve only ever known as Director–dashed through the cafeteria, gripped the back of Brayan’s neck and thrusted the four-foot seven-year-old to the cement floor, before lifting him back to his feet and clawing him out the door and down the hall.

The teachers watched on, swallowed a long mango-juice sip and continued to talk about their sisters who spent a week in Medellín and the weather in Santa Marta and every irrelevant other topic this world has ever known.

A raw feeling often consumes my innards when I reflect on my teaching experience at Aconír. I have developed a new empathy for students of any “condition.” Especially the condition  we all suffer from at some point: the need for love, to be empowered and praised. So no, you can’t change the world, but you can change how you see it, and how you treat those in it.

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