Success Story

It began 9 months ago, last June, when I recieved a box of amazing childrens’ books from the teacher with whom I student taught.  The box included some of the most amazing kids books in existance, among them Where the Wild Things Are, The Hungry Catapillar, and New Shoes for Silvia.  The box arrived last July, and as soon as I got them I started reading like crazy, in all of the grades at San Blas School.  The beauty of books as deep as Where the Wild Things Are is that you can read them in Kindergarten up through sixth grade, and arguably into college if you want to go very deep on the themes of imagination and detachment/attachment that the book presents. 

I diverge.  The point is that after reading the plethora of classic children’s literature in classrooms in San Blas school, I could see a switch flip in the kids’ mentalities.  Reading came to be seen as a fun activity, a reward, as opposed to a form of punishment.  Some people that anybody can write kids’ books.  That may be true, but not anyone can write GOOD kids’ books.  I swear to you, when I read New Shoes for Silvia to fourth grade (a story about how a girl is gifted a pair of shoes that is too big for her at first, but as she grows up she grows into them), I was on the brink of tears because that the fourth graders related so well to Silvia, they reacted emotionally to every page and then begged me to read the book to them again, even the very low acheiving kids.  BEGGED.  And now they beg their teachers to read them more books from the school library we have set up.   It is impossible to quantify what developing an interest, and I hope eventually passion, for reading can do for students in an area where they have no books in their homes.

And I can tell you: we had some books already.  But they were books that were so far from the kids’ interests, often full of foreign Spanish words never used.  Imagine your kindergarten going to school and trying to read books in English, but with Australian slang: “Ace!  Those ankle biters are grinning like a shot fox!”  Did I lose you?  Unfortunately, this is how a book with Spain Spanish might sound to a Paraguayan.

(Translation: Excellent! Those children very happy.)

The parents, teachers, and kids were so enthusiastic about the books that I submitted a Peace Corps Partnership grant, which allowed friends and family from the U.S. to donate money that our parents’ commission could use to buy more childrens’ books of a similarly high quality.  I asked for $360, a relatively small sum, because I wasn’t sure how many people would donate.  Within a single weekend, the quota was filled and I still had relatives emailing me wanting to give more.  I have to thank all of you for that.

The community raised another $100 USD through various fundraising initiatives.  With that money, I bought a selection of culturally appropriate books from bookstores in Asuncion.  By culturally appropriate, I mean the books were written by reknowned Paraguayan children’s literature authors. The books had references to very Paraguayan things, like chipa and terere.  The pictures were great.  The Spanish was on the students’ level. 

Last week, the teachers of San Blas and I hosted a parents’ meeting, in which we presented the new books to the community, and explained that they are now available for public use.  Meaning parents can bring books home to read them with their young children, and kids in 3rd grade or higher can bring them home all by themselves for two days to practice reading at home.  My friend, colleague, and guest speaker, Director Nelson, then spoke in Guarani to the parents about the important role of the parent in a child’s education.  He explained the importance of the bedtime story (his kids read 5 grade levels above their peers).

Towards the end of the meeting, Nelson made me very uncomfortable when his speech took an unexpected turn, and he thanked me personally for ‘sacrificing’ 2 years to live in San Blas to help this ‘humble people.’  I tried to explain why this was more of a personal experience, for me, not a sacrfice at all in my eyes, but he kept on.  It was sufficiently awkward. 

What’s more is that, what is a success story today might not be sustainable in the long run.  Sustainability, sustainability, sustainability, thus is the mantra of the Peace Corps development work these days.  I find myself asking these questions: Will the teachers continue to read the books in the school?  Will the parents continue to take the books home to read with their kids?  Or will they collect dust once I leave?  This is my fear.

In the end, though, it’s out of my control.  If there is one thing that I have learned these last two years, it is that you can never force anyone to do anything that they don’t want to do.  People must be able to see the immediate value of an action in front of them.  Investing and money in elementary education may be one of the toughest things to   What we invest now in children’s books for five year olds, we won’t be able to reap for 20, 30 years when those kids end up as smarter, better developed adults because they became literate and developed a love for books at an early age.

At least, this is the idea.