Every once in while I check out the blogs of other volunteers. I’ve noticed that after a year of service, bloggers start their entries with an apology. “It’s been 2 months since I wrote. I’ve been busy but it’s time to catch up…” I’m no different. I used to try to post a blog once a week and now weeks, a month or more, go by and no urge to set it all down. The compulsion to write diminishes for some reason. Why is that? I think because we are so used to being here, so in the Nica groove, that we don’t see as well as we did when we first got here, or maybe that things seem usual, less demanding of comment. Or maybe it was, in my case, two months of fine vacation. But I went back to school this week and am back in writing mode.
Two things stood out in the first 3 days. Teachers got their assignments yesterday. Up till then they did not know what classes they were going to teach. Surprises came with the announcement. One English teacher found herself with eight preparations; another had none—she was taken out of the classroom and made a “helper”, not a promotion—I don’t know what it means. These dramatic assignments are accepted without public comment or complaint. (My counterparts complain to me.) Teachers just do what they are told. No one asks for an explanation. If this happened in the states, the union would be in evidence.
For the week before school begins the teachers are there getting ready. But that consists largely in making murals, so far at least. The murals are large (6’ by 4’) posters. The two under construction thus far employ the attentions of 6 or 7 teachers each. They preach the government ordained motto for the year, “2013-- Year of productivity, blessings and prosperity—in victory!” My Nicaraguan teachers display not a bit of cynicism about the motto contents or its appropriateness in the school. They set about the mural-making task with good and cheerful heart. I was at school and there was nothing else to do so I helped out. On the first day I watched as the letters for the slogan were made out of a foamy kind of paper. For models, we dug through a pile of letters of all different sizes kept from prior murals. One person shouted out the letters we needed and 3 of us looked for them—a process that took some time. I was wondering why we didn’t just pull out all the letters of the same size and then from them pick the ones necessary, but no, that’s not how things are done, we had to find the letters in the right size and shape and in the order in which they would appear on the mural. Then one person traced the letters—again in the order in which they are needed for the motto--another cut them out, a third supervised and the 4th person, me, held the cut out letters. The norteamericano in me was impatient as hell. Why can’t 2 people trace letters and 2 cut them out? Do we really need a supervisor and a holder? But no one else was offended and everyone bent to their task with careful attention and lots of joking and chatter, everyone working but kind of enjoying the super-simple task and the fellowship. That we ran out of one color of foamy paper in the middle of a word bothered no one at all: we just continued with another color.
That process took the better part of the morning. The next day it was time to assemble the murals. With a lot of discussion and some disagreement, the letters were placed on the mural itself, cardboard covered in sheets of glued-on white paper. Then strips of colored paper were cut to form a border. Finally three people laminated the thing by placing strips of wide cellophane tape edge to edge until the whole mural was sealed and protected. This work took the better part of the morning. Teachers in another part of the school were working on the other mural—same slogan—and by noon of the second day both were hung up outside to the universal critique, “Es bonito.” It’s pretty. Two mornings’ work: two murals.
What strikes me is how everyone gets along during projects like this, and generally here in Nicaragua. If one person has a strong opinion of how the mural should be, people back off and let them have their way. No one seems put out that another assumes the boss roll. Neither does anyone think they are too good for cutting out letters or dabbing their fingers in white glue to affix borders or sheets of white paper. Everyone wants to help. When a teacher was called away from an arguably more important task to hold the end of the cellophane tape, she didn’t complain at all or ask someone else to do it. She was glad to help. You can’t be a notreamericana and not wonder what happens to all the ego we assume must be sublimated to make a mural—or any other project for that matter, like a school or a family. But there is no sign of hidden resentment or hidden fury. Makes you wonder if maybe the huge ego isn’t a Western invention. Gives credence to that theory that maybe competition isn’t the greatest contributor to the survival of the fittest, but co-operation is. Getting along just works better. Being resentful sets you apart from the group. And that’s not where you want to be.
Footnote: Today’s La Prensa, the liberal newspaper which refers always to the president as the “unconstitutional” president (I guess there’s some free press here) ran a story mocking the first lady’s initiative for this year to change attitudes to one’s more positive in order to counteract a conclusion held by many that things are pretty bad in Nicaragua (see unemployment rates, poverty, inadequate health care, etc. which is why it’s a third world country and Peace Corps is here.) Themes to be stressed are that we are to live beautifully, live clean, live healthy and live well. This initiative is to be implemented by the schools and it appears that the murals are just the beginning. I expect we’ll be hearing a lot about positive thinking this year. There are two views on this effort. La Prensa thinks it’s just another attempt at mind-control, trying to make it so by insisting that everyone says it’s so. But one person I talked to thought it was a great attempt by the government to get everyone to live a better life. I tend to go along with La Prensa, but then I remember how people made fun of Ladybird Johnson when she told us to ”Beautify America” by getting rid of billboards and stopping the dumping of trash out of car windows. Nicaragua needs a first step like that and maybe this is it.