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  • Somewhere along my teaching career, I fell in love with the Latin culture. There was something in the way the Latins laughed; There was something about the way the Latins enjoyed life; There was something in the way the Latins danced during classroom parties…together as couples in Ranchero-esque polkas…There was just something…

    And this something led me here, Bolivia SA to be exact, a land thick in Latins, thick with laughter, thick with enjoyment and thick with dance. Yet, while I have been here, I have found something else out…I don’t fit in. You see, my white culture has rendered me into a no meat eating, wine drinking, yoga doing white chick while the world in I live in now consists of a bunch of carnivorous, beer drinking, motocross loving Latins…we couldn’t be more different.

    Yet, I like it here; sure, it is mind-boggling lonely at times with me and my tofu, but I enjoy my job for the first time in my career and for anyone of you that also went down this teaching career path, you know that that is something.

    So, I have stayed to teach my Latin kids how to write. Now, teaching is tough as it is, but writing? Teaching writing is virtually impossible, because it entails thinking and thinking, I have found in teaching, is a very rare act performed by students. I know for the people who are not teachers that read this may be surprised, but students don’t really want to think and for the people who are teachers, you know that it sometimes takes electric wattage to jump start the average students’ frontal lobe just in order for the average student to take its drooling head off the desk.

    However, I am teaching writing in Bolivia where there is no cattle prod to shock the student into critical thought, so I have had to move to Plan B, which I like to call the shock and awe technique. The shock and awe technique consists of keeping students on their toes by making them think you are insane (which I probably am after being in this career for as long as I have). To feign (or not) insanity, I have resorted to all sorts of things…I have thrown myself out the window to demonstrate that I am willing to kill myself if I read another bad essay; I have pulled a fake bottle of pills from my drawer and poured them down my throat to make them think I have to take anti-psychotics every time I see a misplaced comma; I have sung the entire text of Call of the Wild as an opera singer would, standing on desks and belting out London’s words as if they belong to Pavarotti. Shock and awe, shock and awe…this has always worked when my workplace won’t give me permission to zap my students into submission.

    So, at the beginning of this year, I wondered how I was going to teach the first unit of the year, the writing unit, the unit where we revisit year after year the things that my students forget due to killing their brain cells over the months of June and July. As I wracked my brains, something came to me…food. Food, that was it, we all love food; we can all write about it. However, I needed more, as I knew I was heading into a classroom full of the criminally insane; I needed to have something else up my sleeve besides a snack or these little scoundrels would likely commit mutiny. So, I wrecked my brains some more…my mind raced through ideas, scenarios, educational theories and then it came to me…the latest National Geographic featured topic that claimed that the world population would grow to 9 billion by 2050 and because of this, the world would necessarily have to become vegan due to losing resources necessary for rearing animals for food.

    “Oh,” I thought as I read the article again, “This may heal their summer lobotomies.”

    So, I finished my unit plans, cleaned up my classroom and waited for the little beasts to enter. And enter they did…like the living dead with really good tans…slumping in their desks, using their writing utensils for anything other than writing and doing rude things to the classroom stuffed animals.

    “Good morning, angels,” I smiled a little big eyed just enough to make them wonder if I was insane.

    They barely spoke back instead they tried to hide themselves in their iPads.

    So, I climbed on a desk and said it again,

    “Good morning, angels!” I sung.

    “You’re crazy,” one scallywag dared to say.

    So, I walked on the desks until I arrived at his and looked down at him,

    “You’re right, Sancho, I’m loco.”

    This somehow woke the other little zombies up. All of sudden I could actually see all their eyes. Because this doesn’t happen often, I took advantage of this moment.

    “We are going to write about food in this first unit of the year.”

    A hand somehow managed to be lifted in the air,

    “Can we just eat the food and skip the writing?”

    Again, I walked on the desks to this hand,

    “Did you know that by the time you are 50, you are going to have to be a vegan?”

    All of a sudden, there was life in the room, life as if threatened in the most threatening of forms.

    “What the…”

    “No…”

    “I will never…”

    “Oh, but you will,” I stopped them, “ By the time you are 50, you are going to be a hippie vegan.”

    “Don’t mess with us, Ms. Gurley,” one student begged.

    “It’s true,” I claim as I pull the National Geographic Magazine article up on the LCD projector to read.

    As I read it, I could actually hear my little monsters listening. When I was done, I turned back to the class and I noticed that nearly all of them were paying attention and nearly all of them looked horrified.

    “Bolivian vegans?” one brighter kid asked, “Do you know why that is so insane?”

    I shook my head no.

    Then, in unison, nearly all the zombies spoke one word at the same time,

    “Churrasco!”

    “What is this?” I asked, “What is this churrasco? I have never heard of such a thing.”

    They all replied back, “You don’t know what a churrasco is?”

    I shook my head again.

    “Oh my god,” was all I heard, “You haven’t heard of a churrasco, Ms. Gurley? Are you insane?”

    I bug my eyes out again; they don’t ask that again. However, now that I have their attention, it is the time to deliver the assignment.

    “Okay, this is the deal…I want you to chose a food to write about and I want you to use story to support your essay and while you do this, I am going to write about vegan brownies and why everyone should eat them.”

    “Vegan brownies?” one kid said as if he had vomit in the back of throat, “What’s that?”

    “Brownies made without eggs or milk.”

    “What the..” some kid yowled, “ You can’t do that!”

    “Watch me,” I said as I wrote vegan brownies on the board; then, I turned and said,
    “These are brownies made of red beans and bananas.”

    Barfing sounds came from the back of the class; giggles followed.

    I challenged, “Okay, write about something better!”

    “Oh, I will,” claimed one.

    “What will you write about?”

    Nearly half the class answered again, “Churrasco!”

    I made a barfing sound, “That sounds terrible! What is that? A big meat pile?” Then, I added a massive barfing sound to show them that I could feign barfing better than anyone in the ninth grade because I have been stuck in ninth grade for nearly two decades.

    The barfing stopped at the bell and the walking dead exited my room equipped with homework I doubted they would do.

    Yet, the beauty of teaching in a private school, a school where kids with parents go is the most of the parents actually make their kids do the homework…it is a phenomenon not seen much in the States. The quality isn’t always the best; however, after years of assigning assignments to kids without parents in America’s public schools, I take what I can get. So, I gathered the booger and sweat covered papers, took them to a local coffee shop and sat down to read them. As I read them, I found most of them to be shit…cliché with such masterpiece sentences such as “Pizza good because it crunchy, hot and cheesy.” However, as I read the many essays, a story began to develop, the story of the Churrasco. This story wasn’t just in one essay…in fact not one essay quite captured the spirit of Churrasco as a good essay does; however, put together collectively and skipping the bad parts, a true tale of food and culture began to arise.

    Churrasco. One student explained buying the meat for their family Churrasco was the only time during the week that he got to spend with his dad; Another student told the story of when needing family advice, members of her family would bring these concerns to the family churrasco to discuss. Another student shared that churrasco was when she cooked with her mom and watched as her brother joined her father by the grill to learn the cutting of the beef. As I read and read, I found that the churrasco had actually more to do with familia rather than with beef although all my students made it clear that beef was an integral part of every churrasco.

    When I was done with the grading in which very few got A’s, I passed them back to the class and began to share what I had found.

    “I have to say I learned a lot about your churrasco.”

    “What did you learn?” shouted one of the less living dead.

    “I learned that it is a huge part of your lives.”

    Many of the kids eagerly nodded their heads.

    “I learned that the churrasco is where many of you are able to spend time with your family on a weekly basis.”

    Again, they nodded.

    “This is quite different than where I come from…most families in the states don’t have a weekly meal to gather at unless it is a quick burger at McDonald’s.”

    “We don’t even have a McDonald’s in Bolivia,” yapped another student.

    “One of the reasons that brought me here,” I replied, “I also learned this is where you learn the feminine and masculine roles in the family.”

    “What do you mean by that?”

    “Well, the girls write often about cooking with the women in the kitchen and the boys often write about how much they have learned from the men in their family by gathering at the grill and preparing the meat.”

    “Don’t you do that in the States?”

    “I suppose some people do but most people are too busy to prepare a meal, so much of our eating socialization goes on in places like Chuck E. Cheese and In and Out Burgers. So many girls do not learn the recipes of their grandmothers, nor do the boys get any kind of male instruction which has rendered American men quite lost…just watch American movies…the lost modern man is a common theme…we will read the Gatsby, you will see.”

    A hand raised in the air.

    “Yes, Enzo,” I allow.

    “You’re going to make us read also?”

    I bug out my eyes again, head for my window, open its panes, jump out and feign my death by stupid question. It is about this time that the bell rings and the living dead somehow rise from their dirty little desks to go on to the next teacher to terrorize with their nonsense.

    With the monsters gone, I return to what I am, a no meat eating, wine drinking, yoga doing white chick who has found herself stuck in a bunch of carnivorous, beer drinking, motocross loving Latins. It is a strange place to be, this Bolivia place; it is a place I am not sure I will stay as the isolation from people with a similar point of view has blown my mind a time or two; however, I love Bolivian kids and I love my job. And no, I will never love a good churrasco, nor will I partake; however, through my students stories, I have gained a lot of respect for the churrasco as I believe the results of the churrasco is one of the somethings that grabbed my eye with regard to the Latin culture; it is a culture that weaves a tight knit around the people they love and a lot of this net consists of churrascos and other family feasts.

    I tell my students this the next day in class as we begin our reading unit, a unit that one kid commented,

    “Seriously, Ms. Gurley, Bolivians don’t read. Why should I?”

    “Do you think Santa Cruz is a trash heap?”

    They all nod yes.

    “Well, one day you are the people that will run this town, so I heavily suggest you read to get ready for the issues you may face.”

    “What do you mean?”

    “I mean issues like our population is growing to 9 billion people by 2050. If you think of this and consider that Santa Cruz went from under a million people to over 2 million people in less than 10 years, then by 2050, Santa Cruz may be a super city consisting of over 10 million people. Imagine that.”

    This actually gets the students attention.

    “And when this happens, if we don’t’ do anything about it, you, my little friends, will probably be forced to be the hippie vegans I already told you that you will be.”

    One kid actually stands up, “No, Ms. Gurley, my family will kick me out if I go vegetarian.”

    “Well, Luis, you may have little choice.”

    “What can we do, Ms. Gurley, we don’t want to eat vegetables!”

    “Okay, then, you will have to fight.”
    “But how?

    “You will have to come up with a game plan, a strategy to keep that beef on your plate.”

    “But how?”

    I put The Jungle in front of them.

    “Read.”

    The kids actually crack the pages; their eyes scan the pages of words they don’t understand but they are at risk of becoming hippie vegans, so they plod through. Soon, they actually grow quiet and they actually do what I have rarely seen a student do…read and when they begin to do this, I know I am on to something.
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