June 3, 2013 by jiejie768
(Editor’s Note: Keegan Hamilton is one of my oldest friends (see intro paragraph below for details). Over the last few days, I’ve been chronicling his visit to Ayacucho and Peru in this space. Today, I turn the reins over to Keegan himself. Try not to think less of my writing after reading his. Keegan is a very accomplished journalist who has worked for the Riverfront Times in St. Louis, The Seattle Weekly, and has had freelance pieces published in such lofty locales as the Atlantic.com. Enjoy, and, no, we did not pay him to say such nice things about us.)
I have known Ryan for a long, long time. I saw him smack home runs and punch the wall crying in frustration in youth baseball games (Note from Ryan: Not on the same play). He was on yearbook staff in high school, and I was editor of the school newsmagazine. We studied journalism together and shared many drunken escapades at the University of Washington. I served as the best man at his wedding, and he returned the favor when I tied the knot last year. But in all the years I’ve known the guy, I have witnessed few things as inspiring as the sight of he and his wife Meg humbly receiving goodbye hugs and kisses from dozens of Peruvian children on the way out of their classroom.
Ryan and Meg, for those who aren’t already familiar, have spent the last nine months volunteering at Kids at the Crossroads, an after-school tutoring program in the central Andean city of Ayacucho. Their school is located in a hilltop neighborhood called Carmen Alto, an area that affords a sweeping view of Ayacucho and the surrounding landscape but is also home to some of the poorest families in town. Many roads are still dirt (though I did see some paving in progress) and some homes lack electricity and running water. This is not to say Carmen Alto is dangerous or lacks charm. I never felt even remotely unsafe, and the local soccer fields, “recreo” beer gardens and restaurants (including a makeshift “Country Club”) are lively.
Kids at the Crossroads is the brainchild of Ryan’s aunt GeGe, an affable Oregon native who has been visiting Peru since 2002 and living there year-round since 2007. Approximately 100 boys and girls ages 6-12 attend free classes that run from 2-6 pm on weekdays. Three Peruvian teachers hired by GeGe offer basic reading and writing lessons in a traditional classroom setting, while Ryan and Meg work individually with kids that need special attention.
Ryan had talked often in the months before I arrived about some of his favorite students, but nothing could quite prepare me for little Isak. The youngest of three brothers, Isak is a tad too young for school but he has the run of Kids at the Crossroads because his mom helps GeGe take care of many chores. He uses his free time to terrorize his older brothers (preferred tactics include gouging, kicking and shirt-tugging) and sap as much of Ryan and Meg’s attention as possible. Often wearing a tiny cream-colored suit jacket, Isak was also perhaps the best-dressed person I saw in Ayacucho.
Isak’s older brother Abrahan is one of the eight or so kids who get one-on-one help from Ryan and Meg. They worked mostly on reading, poring over a Spanish copy of “The Velveteen Rabbit.” They traversed the story of the “conejo terciopelo” together syllable by syllable, and then Ryan quizzed Abrahan on some details to check for comprehension.
Abrahan seems pretty sharp — he was eager to show off his limited English vocabulary (“Good afternoon!”) and teach me a few words in Quechua — but he struggled with some answers. Afterward, I watched as he took the book downstairs to read outside with Isak and their older brother Lucas. Little Isak was engrossed at first, but eventually lost interest and started covering his brother’s eyes and trampling on his back. Still, the older brothers studiously sat reading. I snapped a picture of the family book session that seemed to melt their mother’s heart when she saw it on my camera.
During the four days I visited Kids at the Crossroads, one of the most consistently entertaining activities was watching Ryan hold flashcard competitions between two students, Nelson and Fidel. Each practiced individually with Ryan for a while, pronouncing Spanish syllables to help them learn to read phonetically. These are syllables of just a few letters but the kids still had a hard time keeping the letters straight in their heads. Nelson in particular tended to rattle off several correct pronunciations before mangling what seemed like easy answers. The silent H in Spanish (like “helado,” the word for ice cream, pronounced “EL-lado”) was his biggest stumbling block.
One day when Fidel and Nelson went head-to-head in a flashcard showdown, I was enlisted to judge who had the faster response when Meg displayed the cards. The kids kept each card they read correctly and counted up their piles at the end. The winner received a grand prize of two pieces of fruit-flavored hard candy, the runner-up just a single piece. Fidel jumped out to an early lead as Nelson tended to simply repeat the mistakes made by his opponent. Ryan’s competitive streak kicked in and groaned in frustration. Nelson, meanwhile, seemed mostly unperturbed. The final tally was close: Fidel won by just a single card, taking his candies and gleefully skipping down the stairs to the play area.
The other fixture in Ryan and Meg’s classroom (actually GeGe’s kitchen; she rents two floors of a building with the classrooms just outside her bedroom door) was Yohan. This little dude was always among the first to arrive each day and the last to leave. Yohan is deaf, a relatively rare disability in Peru. Ryan and Meg took it upon themselves to start teaching Yohan sign language to help him communicate. Meg has some sign language training but Ryan was learning on the fly, relying on a website to demonstrate the proper gestures. Yohan clearly loved his daily lessons and took special care to make evocative facial expressions to accompany his signs for emotions (the accompanying picture shows him and Ryan practicing their angry faces). Every day after his time with Ryan ended, Yohan sat at a laptop watching the movie “Milo and Otis” and practicing the signs for different animals on screen.
What ultimately struck me most about seeing my friends in action was how familiar it all seemed. They have always been creatures of habit, and they had their Ayacucho routine down pat. They regularly ate the same meals, jogged the same route, and visited the same places and restaurants. At school, the highlight of their daily routine was what I dubbed “the closing ceremony.” After class, the kids gathered in a large room to receive a quick pep talk from GeGe before heading home. An assistant reads each student’s name, and they grab a snack before filing out one by one.
It is Peruvian custom for women to greet and say goodbye to men with a peck on the cheek. The massive gringo Ryan — nearly twice as tall as every Peruvian child — seated on a stool receiving a steady stream of adios kisses is a sight I will not soon forget. Ryan also worked out a few special handshakes with some of his favorite students, including a complicated routine with Abrahan and Lucas that wouldn’t have been out of place during an NBA pregame ceremony.
My friends both seemed somewhat astounded by the fact that they were able to land teaching jobs in Seattle during their time in Peru. Upon returning home this fall, Ryan will start a Master’s program at UW and work at Seattle public schools; Meg will teach Spanish at University Prep Academy. (I must be their good luck charm: Both received the good news about their future while I was with them in Ayacucho.) Their genuine surprise at getting hired is further proof that these two are among the most down-to-Earth people on the planet. There is no conceit or arrogance in their joint decision to spend a year of their lives helping kids in a random South American city. It simply seemed like the right thing for them to do.
And, best of all, it looked like they had fun doing it,
Catch up on all our adventures with Keegan:
- Adventures in Ayacucho
- Voyage to Vicas Huaman
- A Layover in Lima
- Huaraz Day 1
- Huaraz Day 2
- Lima Revisited