Sunday, November 21, 2010

Paradoxes in my Students

So, first I should preface this story by saying that we have some really great kids at my school. Their parents are some of the richest and most influential people in a third-world country (some, possibly in all of Central America), and many of them are expected to take over the family business regardless of how they do in school. Some of their parents are away from home all the time because of work, and they are raised by maids and drivers. Yet, despite all of this, about 90% of the kids are really kind. In various circumstances, I've seen the way they treat the kids who are less fortunate (ranging from orphans to poor kids to disabled kids), and their kindness is always genuine.

So, yesterday Geoff and I went to chaperon a volunteer trip to build houses in San Vincente for the victims of Hurricane Ida last November, who are still displaced from their homes. We took a group of 6 juniors who voluntarily met us at school at 7am and who helped to carry rocks and to paint houses in a remote village/work site from 8am to 3pm on a Saturday (getting back to school ~4:30pm). Geoff and I worked on the metal foundation of a house for that time, to improve its earthquake-preparedness. All in all, the kids were fabulous. They really enjoyed the experience, especially because they got to meet the families whose houses they were helping to re-build. The families said some really powerful things, like they've had the strength to go on (after losing everything in Hurricane Ida) only because they have seen the help that God had sent them via all of the international and local volunteers. (I'm not religious, but my kids certainly are, having grown up in a conservative Catholic country. So, I'm sure hearing this is even more moving for them.)

But, there were strange things I observed that were characteristic of even our best kids that I wish were not. For instance, during lunch, our kids went into the school van, turned on the air conditioning, and slept in the AC while every other Habitat for Humanity volunteer sat in the dirt and hung out. Or, at 3pm, they came to me and asked if we can stop at a gas station on the way back, so that they could use the bathroom, because they couldn't stand using the outhouse. I was pretty embarrassed for them; I told the kids (because it was what I was feeling and I've taught more than half of those kids) that they were re-affirming the impression that the American School kids were too good to use the same bathroom as everyone else. I also told them that in some countries/places, those kinds of bathrooms are all people have, all the time. After I said that, a couple of the kids chuckled in embarrassment and half of the group went to use the outhouse. I took the rest up to a "nicer" bathroom up the hill, because I figured it was better for them to use another bathroom than to hold their need in the car ride. But, I couldn't help being awed by the irony of it all.

There they were, volunteering their entire Saturday to sweat under a ridiculously warm sun in order to help out people who had lost everything a year ago in a flood. Yet they couldn't bring themselves to use an outhouse. Amazing.


  1. I spent a year building houses in the South after Hurricane Katrina and I definitely saw some strange behavior (but let me be clear - for the most part, amazingly awesome behavior). I think it's often an issue of causing personal discomfort when helping others. The scale from least discomfort to most discomfort goes 1) donating money 2) donating time and labor 3) using an outhouse.

  2. I guess to be perfectly fair, there are lots of regular people who would refuse to use outhouses. (And some of the same people who would probably prefer never to go camping.) But still, it seemed like a strange concern to me, given the situation.

  3. I get it though. To me, time is way more precious than money, so I find it much easier to donate to a cause than to volunteer for a cause. I'm betting your teenagers value their time less than, I guess, personal comfort?