Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Little Things

Well, it has been a while since I've updated this! Yes, I am still alive and well in Jerusalem, and the last few weeks have been a wonderful blur of three days in the Negev, four days in the Galilee (this past weekend!), a number of midterms, a paper on the role of women in the Israeli Defense Force, live music in the Old City, a trip with my archaeology class to the remains of where the Jewish priests most likely lived in Jerusalem, and the land bursting into colors of spring before my eyes...Yes, it's been a wonderful last few weeks. I hope to post some pictures of those experiences soon, but for now I want to share a bit about this morning:

On Tuesday mornings, I volunteer at a school for handicapped children on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. It's one of several volunteer opportunities that JUC students have to pour some positive energy into the lives of others while we're here. I signed up at the beginning of the semester to be a 'teacher assistant' of sorts, and it's hard to describe how emotionally difficult -- yet wonderful -- the experience has been so far. School is conducted entirely in Arabic, so the language barrier is a constant challenge and, despite my deep love for foreign languages, often a discouragement. The teacher whose classroom I work in knows enough English to communicate tasks to me, and I've learned just enough Arabic to ask the children their names, share mine, teach them English numbers and learn theirs, etc. From the beginning, then, my time at Princess Basma (the name of the school) has been a journey of figuring out how to best interact non-verbally with those around me. It's tough to know less of the language than the pre-schoolers around me, and I often wish I could communicate in more than just crayons and puzzle pieces and hand motions. The children are so fun, though, and I have a good time being creative with my time with them. One thing that never fails to make us all laugh is high fives -- if I offer my hand for a high-five, they all rush over, pushing past each other to give the high five first, and then again... and again... and again...

This morning, my teacher handed me some foamy paper, scissors, and a stapler, and asked me to make some flowers, scrunching up the light green foam as an indication of what kind of 3-D creation she preferred. I said I would do my best, and got to work cutting out and stapling together flower petals. She liked my flowers, and I learned that the goal was to create spring-time objects and animals that would be strung around the room to celebrate the season. She asked if I would make butterflies and rabbits, and seemed thoroughly impressed with my little cut-outs. "Very good!" she said, and then, "Not 'very good' -- excellent!"  The other teachers came over to examine the colorful creations, and spoke quickly in Arabic to each other. One of them tried to take a butterfly, and was quickly shooed away by my teacher, who was guarding them for her own classroom. The other teacher asked if I would make a butterfly for her, and as I completed it, she took it and, teasing my teacher by waving it in the air with a grin, left the classroom. 

My teacher sat down across from me, wanting to learn how to create a flower, and gave it a try. Despite my encouragement and her concentrated efforts, her model lacked adequate petals, and when I told her it was okay, she simply burst into laughter, shaking her head, and handed the scissors back to me. Another teacher asked me, "Why did you not tell us you have a good hand? You could have prepared many things for us!" I didn't think the world of my creations, but their enthusiasm was such an encouragement to me; with the language barrier perpetually inhibiting our communication, sometimes it's difficult for me to feel useful or helpful at all. I've spent many a morning at Princess Basma cutting out crafts or creating English alphabet games for the children, feeling -- admittedly -- a little lonely and useless, and that the best service I could offer them here was what anyone else could do with their hands. But this morning was a reminder that the ways that we get to serve others are not always what we would expect, or hope for. As much as I'd like to help through words, here I am, working in other areas -- humbling ones -- and being surprised that things like my artistic tendencies could play a little role in lessening the challenge of the language barrier between me and those around me.

As I prepared to leave to return to JUC, the teacher who I'd made a butterfly for strode into the classroom, headed to the craft table, and declared, "I want butterflies!!" My teacher responded with a "No!" and rushed to the table, shielding the little creatures with her arms. "Yes!" said the other, and "No!" said my teacher. "Yes!" "No!" We all laughed. I have never seen them act so silly before. Usually they are so composed and serious, conducting their classrooms and keeping the energetic children under control. Such a fun morning.

As is so often the case, then, the 'little things' were really the 'big things' -- i.e. seemingly trivial moments like laughing about foam cut-outs of flowers and turtles were the most beautiful moments, the ones that mattered most and had things to teach me; the ones that I will remember.

Final thoughts: if I can keep myself accountable, photos of my Negev and Galilee adventures are soon to come!