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by Seraphima Karbo

I recall preparing myself to move to Mexico – not just physically but gearing up mentally as well to begin that chapter of my life. What I did not realize – looking back on it – is that even when I got down here God set me into a long stage of preparation. I started out the year last fall as something of an academic aid to the woman in charge of the Classroom (we call it “el Salón”) – I was a homework helper with a lot of extra time on her hands for afternoon games of hide-and-seek and finger-painting. I was even fitting days helping out at the office in San Diego. In the mornings while the boys were at school I would help the Mexican ladies clean or cook or do laundry; in the afternoons I would help some of the boys with their homework, and then assist with whatever else needed to be done, such as make dinner or get everyone shampooed and showered. I collaborated with other members of the community to expand the Church school program; I was able to focus on some of the boys who had key learning disadvantages – four of them, for instance, had arrived at St. Innocent’s never having been taught to read by their parents or in school.

Then, suddenly in February, after a series of unforeseen events beginning in December, I found myself the person in charge of the elementary school department. I can’t even imagine what a shock that would have been to receive had I been placed in that position back in August; being responsible for the academic success of seventeen grade school boys is a daunting task.  Out of sheer necessity, I dropped the model for the daily routine we had previously followed for homework – I was literally incapable of keeping seventeen 7-10-year-old boys quiet and focused in a room at the same time -- and began to work with them in smaller groups of two or three at a time. I found this to be much more effective; the boys not only enjoyed the small-group setting but made a surprisingly fast upward swing in progress and productivity. I began to think about changes that could be made to the academic program that would make it both more productive for the boys and less hectic for me.

We celebrated the end of the school year with two elementary school graduates and a solid B-average between the seventeen of them. Two of the four boys I worked with on reading made a complete turnaround and were now some of the best readers in their class at school (the other two are still making great progress). The week after they finished school I began meetings with the Mexican staff about changes to be made the following year, and in July launched a summer program designed to focus on individual boys and their specific needs.

Working one-on-one with the boys, when I have the chance, is important to me and essential to the boys. As Mother Teresa says, “I believe in person-to-person contact.” As humans, we thrive off of individual attention and feeling like someone is genuinely interested in who we are and how we are doing. The boys here have been deprived of the individual attention they deserve for most of their lives. Trying to meet those needs for fifteen young boys consumes time and energy faster than I can sometimes believe, and, of course, there’s never enough of you to go around. They eat the same food, sleep in the same bunk beds, play with the same soccer ball, and all manage to be so completely different from one another that it still catches me off guard. In this work there is no easy lumping boys together in similar groups; it is rare that the reward or the discipline that speaks to one boy will have any effect whatsoever on the next. Learning to take note and take advantage of such a wide array of personalities has been one of the biggest challenges of my work here. It is one thing to observe that while giving stickers to Adrian will assure his good behavior and unfailing loyalty for the next week, they provide no incentive whatsoever to José de Jesús; it is another thing entirely to invest the time in discovering what will incentivise him. One boy cares about quality time, another thrives off hugs, the next just needs to be congratulated on his losing a tooth for his day to be made.

People sometimes expect me to be able to rattle off excitement and happy stories, glorious report cards and tales of progress made in leaps and bounds. Most days all I have is third-grade math homework that nobody wants to do and my hair standing on end as I tell Jesús Brayan (again) that no, he cannot smuggle the kitten into the classroom. Life is lived day by day. Sometimes I catch myself worrying about what the next semester is going to look like and how it will go, or panicking that I can’t seem to ingrain proper grammar fast enough into their little heads, and how will they ever survive middle school (let alone high school) if it takes such a massive amount of effort to memorize the Pledge of Allegiance… Life is lived day by day. If there is any singular lesson that I have taken away from my experience here, it is that – my work is to be in the present, and let God provide for the rest.

When all is said and done, my work in the Salón is important, but secondary.  Called to be witnesses to Christ, it is our primary function to be a tool of God’s love in our every day lives. “After a long while,” I told some group members the other day, “you come to truly recognize, in a tangible way, that God’s love for each and every human being is incomprehensibly infinite. And there is nothing I can do, nothing I can say, no way I can either enhance or diminish that love for that human being. You come recognize how small you are.” That being said, if I love that fellow human being as well, what else can I possibly add to such boundless love? Nothing, of course. It doesn’t matter to God if my boys know their multiplication tables and do well in school or not; His love is and always will be limitless. I can, however, offer up of myself – my time, whatever skills and talents I have, and my love – to be used in that limitless love. This, however, entails abandoning everything that I essentially consider “mine”:  my goals, my ambitions, my sense of accomplishment, my successes… in favor of something much more grand and much more beautiful. And that, I think, is truly the aim of our Christian life.

Seraphima is one of three young ladies from our Diocese serving as long term missionaries at Project Mexico.
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