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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Community Meetings

A couple weeks ago I was sitting in my house riddled with an illness brought on by the plethora of rain we experienced seemingly out of no where, when the sun decided to finally come out. My reaction to this miracle was not unlike a man coming out of 2-weeks of solitary confinement stint in prison. The best news about the sun coming out was that school was going to happen that day for the first time in days. That bad news was that the afternoon classes were cut short to finally have the long awaited parents commission meeting.
            In previous ramblings I have discussed the features of the parent commission meetings, but for some reason this one stood out in a way that left me with a sense of awe. It wasn't that this meeting was really any different than all the other ones I had been too, but more because of how incredibly important the meetings seem to me now after having been to over 6. While meetings are usually different in one way or another they all seem to share several traits. For starters, they never start on time. If the meeting is suppose to begin at 3 you can bet that will be the time when people will start to arrive or prepare to leave their homes. They never, ever, take less than an hour and a half,. They are always overly dramatic for reasons that I hardly grasp. I am never told about them in advance, and often time find out about them when I am on my way to the school to teach or talk to the teachers. It is common for someone to break down emotionally, and I catch about half is what is said not because of language, but rather because of how boring the topics of conversation are. I hate going to these meetings, but as I start to wrap up my service I have sort of developed a soft spot in what they are and what allegedly accomplish especially after the most recent one.
            It would be iniquitous to classify all meeting that take place in Paraguay as poorly run, but in the limited experience I have, that is always how they seem to go down. I think the reason for that has a lot do with meetings at community institutions are one of the only ways neighbors get together in groups to discuss things. People here have opinions and rarely express them in a public format. Most of the time news travels through word of mouth of gossip. A perfect example of this is when my water pump got stolen. It seemed as though everybody knew about before I did, and brought it up before I could when I went to talk to someone. At one of these meetings, the tone of the room was eerily similar to the plot of some children’s mystery novel like the Hardy Boys. I think I would titled it The Sagrada Familia Parents Commission in: Thomas Schultz and the Plight of the Pilfered Pump. The climax took form in a gradually increasing and progressively intensifying 20-minute discussion about community responsibility to protect me and make sure I looked after. Everyone had to have their say except for the people who actually perpetrated the crime who were either silent, not at the meeting, or didn't really care. Basically it is opportunity to talk about anything, but usually we stay on task with topics related to the school.
            About a month ago I found myself walking to the school with the hopes of opening up the library for the kids. As I was rummaging through the principal's desk searching for the key that wasn't in its usual place, I poked my head out the office to inquire where it was? The teachers told me to sit down for a minute. As I slowly sat down trying to avoid defecating in pants out of fear that I had done wrong, they informed me that someone had stolen all of the school's money when one of the students asked to use the key to open the library. The library key was on the same chain as the key for the school's lock box About $125 was stolen, and the trust to give the students control of the library had been broken. This was pretty frustrating for me to hear because of how much I have encouraged the students to use library independent of my presence. It was big step back in making the library a self-sustaining institution managed by the students. I have to say that my reaction to the whole situation wasn't anger or frustration, but rather sadness. I was told that one of the students, I still don't know whom, was in such a dire situation that he or she needed to steal the money or they would of probably gone hungry. To make the story even gloomier, the child's father isn't in the picture, and the mom doesn't work. I was told that the student was greatly pressured into taking the money so his or her mom could pay of her debt from a store and make trip to buy things in Cuidad del Este. It was not a good situation, but I sort of felt honored in weird way because the teachers sat me down and said "Tom├ís you are a part of our community, and it is important for us to tell you what happened to our school." That incredible gesture, however sweet it was, didn't resolve the fact that the money was gone.
            A few weeks later I went to the school to find out that a good chunk of the money had been recovered. I have no idea what happened whatsoever, and to be honest I don't think I want to know, but about 75% of what stolen was returned. It felt good that the money was back, but something didn't feel quite right. I felt pity for that family even though I didn't who it was. I found myself looking at the students and their families over the next few days, and during the meeting that took place the week after, a bit more distrustfully. This was especially true considering this was the second incident of theft, including my water pump, that had taken place in the last month. My feelings towards the whole situation were stronger than I imagined, and even though the money was returned I felt a lot melancholy about the family and the child that was put in that position to steal. It seemed to me that I was the only person that felt that way, and I think that was were the skepticism came from. My tone, however, was completely changed the second the meeting began. Being jaded from having become used to the overly dramatic nature of the meetings themselves, I went in with a bit of a bias in how the issue concerning the stolen money would be addressed. Given that it was returned, I believed that it would be more of a dodged a bullet type reaction rather than what actually happened.
            Iris, my host mother in O'Leary and principal of the school, stood up and began to address the stolen money issue. I have never in my time here seen Iris cry. I have seen angry, I have happy, and I seen almost every other emotion in between, but I had never seen sadness that brought her to tears. From the time she opened her month to the time she left the room unable to continue talking about it because of how distraught she was, I sat there stunned by her sympathy for child who was unfairly put that position. She wasn't angry even though she had every right to be. She wasn't blaming anyone because enough blame had already been thrown around. She simply commenting on how sometimes people are put in impossible circumstances that force them to contradict their sense of right and wrong. I am sure that the child in question and his mother got a lot of flack for the situation, and rather then add onto that mountain of guilt, Iris decided to make this incredibly emotional appeal to the parents sitting in the room that while this child made a mistake, the incident says a lot more about the challenges Paraguayans face in a rapidly developing country that they have only just begun to grasp. I'll concede that this my own personal interpretation of what she wanted to express. It entirely possible that her display of emotion was in her mind less profound than I interpreted it, but something tells me that isn't true. I think beyond doubt that she stepped out of the meeting, that meeting that happens every month, for the first time genuinely saddened by this family's act of desperation that she had never quite seen in her over 20 years of teaching.
            What made this moment so poignant for me was that less than 5-minutes passed before the meeting continued and people were arguing about why they didn't make money at a fundraising event that was entirely a result of a lack planning. Iris seemed totally fine, and an hour and a half later everyone was heading home. For pretty much my entire service I have unenthusiastically gone to these meetings, but after seeing what Iris did at the last meeting something finally clicked in my mind about why they do those meetings they way they do. It is chance for people to show how they feel in front of their community, and while more than often than not I feel like I would rather be getting a tooth pulled than sitting through one of them, I now feel like I understand there importance of them as a symbol of community strength rather than something I have the unfortunate responsibility to sit through.

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