Friday, September 12, 2008

el profe

Today I returned from a two-day trip to Santa Rosa de Quilo Quilo--a small town located about three hours from Carmen Pampa. UAC-CP volunteer, Mary Murphy, a visiting math lecturer from Smith College (and seasoned Bolivian-dweller), invited me to accompany her on this special adventure. Together, we went to visit Ruben Pari, a UAC-CP education student who is currently teaching high school math in Santa Rosa.

Santa Rosa de Quilo Quilo, a remote little town, is nestled in the mountains--a winding and gorgeous drive from Coroico.

Mary and Ruben share a special bond--Ruben once worked as Mary's teaching assistant when she taught math in the College's pre-university program. Which is why Ruben was particularly excited to have Mary visit Santa Rosa on the day of the high school's math fair--an event he planned and organized. The fair consisted of 26 booths--each one with a theme that students were required to explain, demonstrate, and apply to real-life situations.

Mary and I, much to our surprise (and protests!), were asked to judge the expositionists. With her math expertise as my guide, I listened as young, shy campo kids reminded me of math lessons long past. For more than three hours we judged presentations on logorithms, compound interest, geometric equations, etc. And it wasn't until the fair ended at 7pm, with the sun long gone, that Ruben explained the difficulties his students had preparing for the math fair with no text books and very few resources.

UAC-CP volunteer Mary Murphy listens as two students present their work

Watching Ruben interact with his students and hearing Mary talk about her experience of working with him in the classroom, I came to the pretty obvious conclusion that Ruben is one of those people who is a natural and gifted teacher. Which is why, I think, I was so struck by the story of how he ended up studying education in Carmen Pampa.

Though his life story is longer and more complicated, his Carmen Pampa story started when he came to work at the College as a mechanic. Inspired by his sister, he considered the possibility of studying at the UAC-CP and took the entrance exam. A couple of the other mechanics, he said, teased him that he wasn't smart enough to study at the college level. But when names of the students who passed the test were released, Ruben proved them wrong.

Ruben Pari, far left, poses with two members of the Santa Rosa de Quilo Quilo school board.

Choco, the head mechanic, encouraged him to officially register for classes at the UAC-CP. But Ruben didn't think it was possible. "I told him no. I told him it was too expensive and insisted that it just wasn't possible. And Choco finally just gave me this look and then said, 'okay.'"

But the next day, working off a tip from Choco, Sr. Damon called Ruben to her office. "She asked me why I was choosing not to study and told me that I received a really good grade on the test and encouraged me to reconsider." He told Sr. Damon that, because of his situation, he couldn't afford to be a full-time student. But Sr. Damon countered with an offer that he found hard to refuse--a scholarship. And in 2002 he began classes in the school's education program.

Today, Ruben is a dedicated teacher (two months ago, unable to catch a ride from Coroico to Santa Rosa, he walked--for 10 hours--to arrive on time for Monday morning classes). He lives in an extremely modest and sparsely furnished room off the main plaza; he hikes up to the high school to use the bathroom and shower facilities.

He told Mary and I that students often come by his room at night with questions about their math homework. And some evenings, he said, he sits in the plaza (which, with lights powered by hydro-electricity, is sometimes dark during the dry season) and talks with students.

Although it's a demanding job, he's happy in Santa Rosa, he assured me. And it seems his students feel the same way. "Any talk of him leaving," a sophomore boy told me, "and we will threaten a road block!" For now, they say, the road is wide open.

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