What Dr. Ari Kohen lacks in girth, he makes up for in vast cognizance. For my last two semesters in college, I sat in the front row of his political theory classes terrified out of my mind but drinking up his every word. He had a way of gracefully pissing every one of his students off by his ability to adapt every angle of an argument as if it were his own; it was his art form. No student left Dr. Kohen’s classes with the same world view as when they entered. He didn’t just teach us facts, he taught us how to think.
One thing that was clear to all political science students was that one did not take Dr. Kohen’s classes to boost one’s GPA. He set his expectations high, fostered an environment for healthy debates, and changed how we saw ourselves and the world around us. Those who took his classes did so because they forced us to yearn for a greater understanding of our own humanity.
So, in December, when I began my Acción Juvenil class, I tried my absolute best to model it after Dr. Kohen’s classes. That is to say I wanted my students to have a space for critical thinking and trying out new ideas.
Accíon Juvenil is actually a Peace Corps manual of lessons designed to motivate youth to take action in their community. I taught it as a Monday, Wednesday, Friday course during the month of December. The themes in this class ranged from self-esteem, leadership, communication, teamwork, human rights, social responsibility, and we ended by brainstorming ideas for community projects.
In addition to these concrete lessons, we also touched on other more informal lessons such as why Alecia doesn’t buy your excuses regarding your supposed inability to achieve your goal. And how telling Alecia you will be in class and not showing up is much more disrespectful than just letting me know ahead of time that your brother’s 3rd grade graduation this Friday conflicts with class. Cultural literacy lessons, if you will.
Now, one cannot model a citizenship class after Dr. Kohen’s political theory courses without addressing human rights (and as it just so happened that was one of the class options in the manual). So, as we sat in our 6th class the pending assignment at hand was, “This class just discovered a new country and is now the government of the country in question. Each government official [aka. student] must come up with three rights they think everyone in the country should be entitled to.”
After each student wrote their human rights on different pieces of paper, we presented them. Their answers were impressive to say the least.
Once they presented, I told them to prioritize the rights. This lead to one of the most intellectual and fulfilling conversations I have experienced since arriving in Paraguay (never underestimate the abilities of teenage girls).
They debated between whether health or education was more important; one girl arguing if you don’t have health, you can’t function properly, including attending school to get an education. While another pointed out, “yes but without education you have no doctors which means you have no way to improve your health.”
They debated the meaning of equality; which ranged from socioeconomic, to gender, to age, to language (a problem in some areas of Paraguay).
They got frustrated at me for making them prioritize the rights. To which, I am proud to say, that in complete Dr. Kohen fashion I just smiled, said nothing, and they had no choice but to continue their conversation.
In the end they decided each of these rights were crucial to live in a society and they refused to prioritize them.
As selfish a comment as this may be, I have never been so proud in my life.
Their debates were mature and educational; so much so that I recommend the Fox and MSNBC news anchors come to San Salvador to take some pointers on maturity from these teenage girls. They were able to recognize the importance of such topics in which even an accredited US university can’t seem to find the full value. And, to top it off they landed on a completely out of the box decision by refusing to place the rights in order.
After our class on human rights, we had four more classes and each proved just as educationally stimulating as the last. The students seeming more confident in voicing their opinions, as I mostly sat silently with a quirky Kohen smile on my face.
I recently took a quick vacation to Uruguay and was asked by another PCV what it would take for me to leave Paraguay feeling successful in my Peace Corps service. I am not sure what my answer was at the time, because when you spend an evening drinking wine with close friends in a beach house in Uruguay, you start to lose count of how many glasses you’ve had. But I have had the time to think about this and I now have a soberly thought-out answer.
I will feel successful if I can prove to the youth of San Salvador that they don’t need me.
Or any Peace Corps volunteer for that matter.
I have gotten to know many of them well enough that I know they don’t need me. But I also have had enough conversations with them (and the adults) to know that they think they need me.
I want the youth to discover their own capabilities and view their weaknesses as opportunities. I want them to own their identity with confidence. I want them to hunger for a purpose, and boldly attack every obstacle along the way. I want them to think critically and try new things. But more than anything I want them to never question the possibility of acheiving their dreams.
I want to change their way of thinking so that they set their expectations high. I want to foster an environment for healthy debates, and change how they see themselves and the world around them. I too, want them yearn for a greater understanding of their own humanity. Only then will they be able to change their community, their country, and their world. Only then will they see me as no more than just a silly Peace Corps volunteer who runs around town taking pictures of cows while the youth do all the work.