"It looks like a jail," I mutter underneath my breath to my traveling companions as we enter the school. We walk into a concrete courtyard surrounded by classroom windows, bars on the windows and fortified doors. The doors have locks on them, the concrete is dirtied and waters seems to dribble from an unknown source. As we go upstairs, it's more of the same. On the third level, the classrooms open to a vista. We look out across the rusted tin roofs and on into the lake, the city of Atilan Santiago crammed up in front of us.
Downstairs, we begin in the first class. 19 year old Juanita leads the class. I walk into the dreary room filled letters and numbers.
Perhaps through commercials for the Feed the Children or U2 music videos, I am trained to see poverty. I look at the dirtied clothes, the small box of crayons and the worn shoes. I glance over the rusted, shaky chairs that form desks. My eyes dart back and forth from Juanita to the barred windows. I start feeling depressed sitting in this elementary chair with the fortified door closed.
But then Juanita starts teaching. The children are entranced as she discusses the forest. Asks them, "What do you find in the forest?" Then, she asks us for our help in passing out brilliantly colored green paper, leaves for tracing and scissors for cutting. Soon, from a focus on the dirt I see their smiles.
It's hard to believe we are even learning Spanish, but Juanita has a clever plan.
One girl asks if I can help her cut. Little does she know, I won best tracer and leaf cutter in third grade! I am ready for this task.
We help the children cut the leaves the best we can. Use of gesture and broken Spanglish (they speak a dialect of Mayan, and I speak English) seems to somehow get us to understanding. We meet in the middle with smiles, gestures and lots of "muy bien-s!"
The children pile around, glueing leaves to the trees and hug my legs. We sing songs together in a circle. "Adios," shouts Senorita Juanita in a sing-song voice. We follow her lead and on into the next classroom.
A little tear hits my eyes as I realize I don't want to leave these kids I've just met. My eyes were trained to see poverty, but my heart has been trained to find wealth. I look at the beauty of the little paper tree in the corner, the smiles on their faces, and my own smile now.
Juanita has taught two lessons today. I've learned "trunco" means trunk of a tree and that justice grows from a heart that first knows the wealth worth saving.