Handkerchief display at Museum of Drug Policy lobby. Photo credit: Open Society Foundation

Handkerchiefs and Hope

Great teaching is an act of social justice.

“Most people are on the world, not in it — have no conscious sympathy or relationship to anything about them — undiffused, separate, and rigidly alone like marbles of polished stone, touching but separate.”

John Muir, John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir

Deya Castilleja had been a member of Teachers Without Borders for several years before she inquired about volunteering to translate our course materials into Spanish. Two years later, she was changing lives and leading Maestros sin Fronteras, adapting our Certificate of Teaching Mastery to meet regional needs, and infusing it with relevant components of our Peace Education program in partnership with the Baja California Department of Education to create Zones of Peace for 12,000 teachers at 1,500 K-8 schools.

I met her in Mexico City for a conference where she was a featured panelist at Mexico’s most prestigious university, Tecnológico de Monterrey, about the power of building teacher communities that rely upon collective expertise.

As I have done hundreds of times, I asked Deya: “What do you see outside your window?” Her jaw tightened. “It’s not what I see outside my window that concerns me,” she said. “It’s what I don’t see.” Deya explained that she had once participated in a Mexico-United States Teacher Exchange Program in Beaumont, Texas, where she collaborated on the design of strategies to provide educational services to the migrant population. She had returned home bubbling about new ideas, but she faced indifference. “I asked my colleagues, ‘Where’s the energy for change? Why do people always volunteer to travel to Mexico to help the poor Mexicans? Our brains are here. Where are our own volunteers? Where’s our pride? Where’s our achievement?’”

She continued. “I think of your question often. Sometimes, in the late afternoon, a window catches the light and becomes a mirror. Suddenly, you catch a glimpse of yourself when you don’t expect it. I thought, sometimes when I’m looking at a mirror it shows the world behind me. At that moment I realized that windows and mirrors are two sides of the same coin. We have to look out. We have to look within. But always, we have to act.”

Indeed, Deya is a woman on a mission. Her work is about national and personal pride, a life worth living and a country worth saving. For me, her mirrors and windows are a reflection of her deep moral character.

The view she described outside her window is, indeed, not pretty. She had committed to memory a set of startling statistics from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development: “75% of teachers-in-training fail the exam that would have placed them in a job. Last year only 1% of working teachers passed a test that would have raised their salaries. What kind of picture is that?”

She explained that basic education enrollments in Mexico had doubled from 1970–2000, but Mexico’s pre-school enrollment was hovering at about 56% and that dropout rates upon completion of primary school remained unconscionably high. She had the statistics and persistent challenges committed to memory. The percentage of Mexican students were faring poorly (amongst the poorest in Latin America) on international examinations. The paltry number of students aged 18 and older in Mexico who hold a bachelor’s degree. The explosion in Mexico’s population and the acceleration of double-shifts at schools — a financial benefit for those teachers able to take on two shifts, but a liability for communities who could no longer use them for safe after-school activities. The mismanagement or extortion of funds distributed to states.

And, at the time, the elephant in every classroom: the intimidation of the teachers’ union, one of the most powerful political forces in the country. During the time I watched Deya in action, enrollment in the national teachers’ union (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación-SNTE) was mandatory, covering virtually every teacher, requiring dues of 1% of one’s salary. You’d think such power, in the right hands, could advance education. Elba Esteher Gordillo, the union president reputed to have been appointed for life, could make or break a presidency. No teacher believed that she had their best interests at heart. Gordillo’s window overlooked a different scene entirely.

Deya described how, inside classrooms and outside their windows, teachers and students did not feel safe on their way to, or at, school. A wave of drug-related violence grabbing headlines had led to closed schools. In several regions, Mexico had been subjected to a homegrown form of implosive terrorism, reversing gains in every area of education and destroying the tourist industry. “Teachers say they’re being extorted, kidnapped and intimidated by local gangs and they’re refusing to return to their classrooms until the government does something to protect them.”

She wasn’t buying the lofty goals of Mexico’s new national plan for education. For her, this was all trickle-down rhetoric and she expected little from the union. There was not enough teacher professional development in Spanish, not enough opportunities for conversation or collaboration, and far too few teaching coaches available to provide the consistent and steady feedback that new teachers crave and deserve.

In the face of this evidence, many would close their window shades. She flung hers open. Passionate about youth development, information technology, English as a Second Language, and inclusive education for students with disabilities, she formed partnerships so that she could extend her reach and impact. She supervised the translation of hundreds of educational resources. She created groups to discuss topics of deep concern to teachers. She made regular contributions to a webcasting community for Spanish-speaking teachers from around the world, spawning webinars in dozens of Mexican states.

Teachers were embracing the Spanish version of the Certificate of Teaching Mastery because it was theirs. Everywhere we traveled, teachers said the same thing: “We feel as if our voices are heard.” She created a blend of self-paced learning, peer support and mentor guidance that meet the culture and context of each community. She urged them to embrace social networks as a platform for professional development. If the government was not going to take up this challenge, she would. Besieged by enormous pressures to teach under sub-optimal conditions, they signed up to volunteer. She doled out tasks like playing cards.

Immediately following her talk, Deya settled in behind a table of brochures in the foyer. I stood back; a wedge of teachers formed, waiting to collect brochures and shake her hand. Other tables were staffed, but few frequented them.

The following day, Deya headed off for a family engagement and suggested that a colleague and I walk around Plaza Hidalgo in downtown Mexico City. Ringed by shops and restaurants and anchored by both an imposing municipal hall and a majestic church, the Plaza was alive with shoppers, lovers, and families stooping down to hand their children ice cream cones. Police paced about, their automatic rifles bouncing from their bulletproof vests. Pigeons typed on discarded cobs of grilled corn. A tourist waited patiently for a fresh churro to surface from a submerged fry basket. A mime tagged closely behind an unsuspecting passerby, the crowd giggling with the collective secret.

The public square was a soundtrack of public conversation, popular songs hand-cranked by strolling organilleros, baritone saxophones riffs from a free jazz concert, children chasing each other in their parents’ T-shirts smeared with paint.

It was the week before Día de los Muertos — the Day of the Dead. To commemorate the holiday, Mexicans mourn those who have passed. Some visit cemeteries, sweep away debris from a special plot, and leave marigolds. Families gather and eat a delicious, sugarcoated, doughy bread: Pan de Muertos. Neighbors visit each other, share meals, and talk. They honor La Calavera Catrina, “The Elegant Skull,” and make clothes for tiny skeletons, laughing wryly as they dress up contemporary political figures.

Here in Hidalgo Square, Día de los Muertos took on a different tone. As we rounded a corner, we heard strident pronouncements bleating from a megaphone at a Mexican version of “Occupy Wall Street.” Gang deaths. Unsafe communities. Drug wars. We navigated around tents and circled a carousel plastered with cardboard signs. Teenagers had constructed a makeshift library. Others were handing out water.

Close by, an assembly line of teenagers stapled and whitewashed crosses, tossing them onto a pile, while others spaced them evenly on the sidewalk to represent a two-dimensional graveyard.

We came upon a group of people sitting in an arc of benches. Most heads were bowed, as if praying, while others chatted. Handkerchiefs, each with hand-embroidered messages, blew gently from a clothesline, like a Mexican version of Tibetan flags.

A young woman approached us. We steeled ourselves for a solicitation of money or a lecture. She explained that they were embroidering commemorative messages of peace for each of the 5,000+ killed by senseless drug violence. She was a member of the organizing group: “Rojas Fuentes.” She encouraged us to sit with the others and sew one of our own. Her voice was kind, solid, accessible, forgiving.

She held up one of the linen handkerchiefs by its corners. A wooden hoop stretched the fabric in place, revealing a blood-red stitch halfway through a poem. She told us that her group would continue on every day through December, and then replicate it elsewhere. I began my own but asked for the name of the person I would honor. I struggled with the stitching. A grandmother came to my rescue. She made a comment to others on the bench, who giggled. One held her hand over her mouth in glee. I felt included, though I had little in common with them. I did not know, personally, of someone cut down in Mexico’s drug wars. It did not seem to matter. Over her shoulder, a sign read: “Todos Somos Juarez” (We are all Juarez). “Two major drug gangs rule Ciudad Juarez,” she said. “And the police? Corrupt. Meanwhile, the city faces over 8 murders every single day.”

We called Deya. “Get her name and phone number” she barked back. “I’ll talk to her and we’ll put this activity in our curriculum, maybe even put up a website to share pictures of the handkerchiefs.”

“Are you a teacher?” I asked the organizer. Some respond with: “How did you know?” Others are surprised by the question, having never considered the idea. “I’m not a teacher in the formal sense,” she answered affably. “But it was kind of you to ask.”

Over the years, I’ve tapped several strangers on the shoulder — truck drivers in Vietnam, Pakistani scientists, American sales clerks and servers at diners — because they embody the characteristics of great teaching: passion and compassionate, a presence and an acute sense of attentiveness, reflective, appreciative, engaged.

This young woman immediately understood the true spirit of its intention, for she had valuable information to share. The handkerchiefs were her lesson plan — a creative way in to captivate the heart and stimulate thinking, a delicate approach to building relationships in order to discuss issues both tragic and political (a way through), resulting in a tangible outcome (a way forward): a public display, an education campaign, a method for spreading the word about how communities can learn to protect themselves.

Deya understood. My colleague and I were the messengers. She would ensure that Mexico got the message.




Founder of Teachers Without Borders | fred@twb.org

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Fred Mednick

Fred Mednick

Founder of Teachers Without Borders | fred@twb.org

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