Handkerchiefs for Hope

Handkerchiefs for Hope

I had traveled to Mexico to meet with Deya Castilleja, a Teachers Without Borders member who had initially volunteered to translate our course materials into Spanish. Two years later, she was changing lives and leading Maestros sin Fronteras. She had already found ways for teachers and organizations to embrace and adapt the Peace Education program. Discussions were beginning with the Baja California Department of Education, who had initiated a plan to work with her and Teachers ­Without Borders to create Zones of Peace for 12,000 teachers at 1,500 K-8 schools.

The moment I met her, I knew she was a teacher and the kind of leader who understands the community and looks beyond it to improve it—passionate about the subjects she teaches and compassionate toward her students and fellow teachers. She is gentle, though it is easy to see a fire in her heart. She holds tenaciously to her views about education, but when she listens, one feels heard.

And here she was, speaking with dignity and strength to 1,400 teachers gathered at Mexico’s most prestigious university, Tecnológico de Monterrey, about the power of building teacher communities that rely upon their own expertise, but reach out globally to colleagues around the world. “Where does all this come from?” I asked her. She looked puzzled, rarely having given herself time to reflect. I filled the silence with the question that stirred me: “What do you see outside your window?” As soon as I told the story, her eyes had a doleful look. Her jaw tightened.

“It’s not what I see outside mywindow that concerns me,” she said. “It’s what I don’t see.” In 2001 Deya had participated in a Mexico-United States Teacher Exchange Program in Beaumont, Texas, where she collaborated on the design of strategies to provide educational services to the migrant population. She had returned home bubbling about new ideas, but she faced indifference. She kept asking her colleagues, “Where’s the energy for change? Why do people always volunteer to travel to Mexico to help the poor Mexicans? Where are our volunteers? Where’s our pride? Where’s our achievement!”
I let the silence speak for itself.

“Sometimes, in the late afternoon, a window catches the light and becomes a mirror. Suddenly, you catch a glimpse of yourself when you don’t expect it. Maybe we should be looking out from a window and in a mirror at the same time. When that happens, you have to act with a conscience.”
Indeed, Deya is a woman on a mission. This was about national and personal pride, a life worth living and a country worth saving. Either way, she would not be stopped.

Outside her window, the picture is not pretty. A recent study conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, reported in The Los Angeles Times, reported that “75% of teachers-in-training failed the exam that would have placed them in a job, and last year only 1% of working teachers passed a test that would have raised their salaries.[i]

Basic education enrollments had doubled from 1970-2000, but Mexico’s pre-school enrolment hovers at about 56% along with high dropout rates beyond primary school.[ii] Mexican students are also faring poorly (amongst the poorest in Latin America) on international examinations, such as TIMSS: International Mathematics and Science Studies. “Slightly more than 8 percent of the population aged 18 and older in Mexico holds a bachelor’s degree.”[iii]

Growth in the population has led to double-shifts at schools, a financial benefit for those teachers who could take on two shifts, but a liability for community development; the cost-savings slowed school construction, and sites traditionally used for safe after-school activities were no longer available.
Plus, there was an elephant in every classroom. And the teachers were there to wait behind each one, shovel in hand. The teachers’ union is the most powerful political force—and a monopoly.

Enrolment in the national teachers’ union (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación-SNTE) is mandatory, covering virtually every teacher, and requires dues of 1% of one’s salary. You’d think such power, in the right hands, could move education forward. Elba Esteher Gordillo, the union president reputed to have been appointed for life, “carries $5,000 Hermes purses and can make or break a presidency.” No teacher believed that she had their best interests at heart. Gordillo’s window overlooked a different scene entirely.

Teachers and students do not receive protections and do not go to school expecting peace. A wave of drug-related violence grabbing headlines has led to closed schools. In several regions (tourist or rural), Mexico has been subjected to a homegrown form of implosive terrorism, reversing gains in every area of education and destroying the tourist industry. “Teachers say they’re being extorted, kidnapped and intimidated by local gangs and they’re refusing to return to their classrooms until the government does something to protect them.”[iv]

She wasn’t buying the lofty goals of Mexico’s new national plan for education. For her, this was all trickle-down rhetoric and no action. There was not enough content for teachers in Spanish, not enough conversation or collaboration, and far too few teaching coaches available to do the hard work of giving consistent and steady feedback to colleagues and new teachers.

In the face of this evidence, most people would close the window shades. Deya’s windows are wide open. Passionate about youth development, information technology, English as a Second Language, and inclusive education for students with disabilities, she formed partnerships so that she could extend her reach and impact. She supervised the translation of 200 resources and created groups to discuss topics of deep concern to teachers. She made regular contributions to a webcasting community for Spanish-speaking teachers from around the world[v] and mastered Cisco’s videoconferencing tool, Webex, spawning webinars in dozens of Mexican states.

Teachers were embracing the Spanish version of the Certificate of Teaching Mastery because it was theirs. Everywhere I traveled with her, teachers said the same thing: “We feel as if our voices are heard.”

Here at the conference I was attending, she had engaged the Organization of American States, the oldest regional association in the world, convening 35 independent states in the Americas, in a collaboration designed to engage teachers throughout Latin America.

Immediately following her talk, she sat behind a table of brochures. I stood back; a wedge of teachers swarmed, collecting brochures and shaking her hand.
Deya has created a blend of self-paced learning, mentor support, and colleagues—high-teach, high-tech, and high-touch. Deya knows how to build a classroom, and it includes the rural teacher all the way to Ministers of Education.

The volunteer spirit in Mexico is alive and well.

The following day, Deya headed off for a family engagement and suggested that a colleague and I walk around Plaza Hidalgo in downtown Mexico City.
Ringed by shops and restaurants and anchored by both an imposing municipal hall and a majestic church, the Plaza was alive with shoppers, lovers holding each other close, and families stooping down to hand their children ice cream cones. Police paced about, their automatic rifles bouncing from their bulletproof vests. Pigeons typed on discarded cobs of grilled corn. A tourist waited patiently for a fresh churro to surface from a submerged fry basket. A mime tagged closely behind an unsuspecting passerby, the crowd giggling with the collective secret.

It was a soundtrack of public conversation, popular songs hand-cranked by strolling organilleros, baritone saxophones riffs from a free jazz concert around the corner, and strident calls from a megaphone at a Mexican version of “Occupy Wall Street.” We navigated around tents and circled a carousel plastered with cardboard signs, as if the organizers had prepared hurriedly for a storm. We pointed out particularly evocative slogans, turned our heads to make out the titles of books donated to a makeshift library, and snapped pictures with our camera phones.

It was the week before Día de los Muertos – the Day of the Dead. Mexicans will mourn those who have passed. Some will visit cemeteries, sweep away debris from a special plot, and leave marigolds. Families will gather and eat a delicious, sugarcoated, doughy bread, Pan de Muertos. Neighbors will visit each other, share meals, and talk. They will honor La Calavera Catrina, “The Elegant Skull,” and make clothes for tiny skeletons, laughing wryly as they dress up contemporary political figures.

In Plaza Hidalgo, the Mexican people have been commemorating Dia de los Muertos all year long. In front of the carousel, children wore their parents’ T-shirts as smocks and painted cheery pictures on plastic easels. Close by, an assembly line of teenagers stapled, whitewashed, and tossed crosses on a pile, while others spaced them evenly on the sidewalk like a two-dimensional graveyard. It all felt festive, yet deeply serious – both political demonstration and day-care center, circus sideshow and serious drama, the engine of commerce and a democratic impulse. Regular folks, along with a few ghosts—Emiliano Zapata and Marcel Marceau perhaps.

We came upon a group of people sitting in an arc of benches. Most heads were bowed, as if praying, while others chatted. Handkerchiefs, each with hand-embroidered messages, blew gently from a clothesline, like a Mexican version of Tibetan flags.

A young leader approached us. We steeled ourselves for the solicitation. She pointed us to the impromptu group of volunteers (of all ages), who have been gathering, she explained, to embroider commemorative messages of peace for each of the 5,000+ killed by senseless drug violence. They were making progress, she said without hubris, a self-organizing group without members, “Rojas Fuentes” (Red Sources), but growing just the same. She encouraged us to sit with the others and sew one of our own. Her voice was kind, solid, accessible, forgiving.

She held up one of the linen handkerchiefs by its corners. A wooden hoop stretched the fabric in place, revealing a blood-red stitch halfway through a poetic tweet. She told us that her group would continue on every day through December, and then replicate it elsewhere. Here on the bench, I sensed, one may begin as a stranger but leave as a friend because they all share a common bond. No one is untouched by Mexico’s drug war. Over her shoulder, a sign read: “Todos Somos Juarez” – “We’re all Juarez.”Two major drug gangs rule Ciudad Juarez. The police, according to the people, are corrupt. Meanwhile, the city faces over 8 murders every single day.[vi]

It matters, she explained. It matters very much.

The “it” to which she referred suddenly seemed both Mexican and global, small and profound. “It,” as the young leader implied, is an emerging, Mexican-style volunteerism, centered in human dignity despite the odds, that confronts force with faith, violence with vigilance. “It” is an undeterred belief that humanity’s better nature will, indeed, prevail.

She never asked us for money.
“Are you a teacher?” I asked.

I’ve asked this question many times because I know one when I see one. Some ask, “How did you know?” Others are surprised by the question, having never considered the idea. Some are annoyed or repulsed, as if I have demeaned them.

A United Nations colleague once defined a teacher as “anyone with valuable information to share.” Key words: anyone, valuable, share.
“I’m not a teacher in the formal sense,” she answered affably. “But it was kind of you to ask.”

Over the years, I’ve tapped several strangers on the shoulder—truck drivers in Vietnam, Pakistani scientists, American sales clerks and servers at diners, a Palestinian cab driver who, I must brag here, eventually became a teacher. After hearing a breathtakingly clear, scientific description of water pressure and sink hair, I followed a plumber underneath our home and popped the question. In that last case, he stopped his clanking and turned to glare at me. I get it right, most of the time.

But this young woman immediately understood the true spirit of its intention: anyone with valuable information to share. The handkerchiefs were a lesson plan – engaging people creatively (a way in), then building relationships and discussing issues (a way through), and finding a way for it to culminate (a public display, an education campaign, a method for spreading the word). She may have viewed is as a campaign or even political theatre. I regard it as great teaching and review her as a great teacher. I collected her phone number and email address.

[i] Campaign puts Mexico teachers union leader back in spotlight. L.A. Times, July 31, 2011.
Tracy Wilkinson. http://lat.ms/mS3T9o
[ii] López Acevedo, Gladys. 1999. Learning outcomes and school-effectiveness in Mexico. The PARE program. Washington, D.C.: The World Bank, Latin America and the Caribbean Region, Mexico Country Management Unit
[iii] Ibid, pg. viii
[iv] Education is the Latest Casualty in Mexico’s Drug War: NPR (Sept. 2011). http://n.pr/pe6Jza
[v] Puentes Al Mundo: http://bit.ly/awhWMT
[vi] An attempt to save the Mexican borders town of Ciudad Juarez, January 3, 2011: http://bit.ly/KUGcV5





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