At 8am, I step onto the sidewalk in front of my house and squint into the sunshine. Mototaxis rush by, humming their familiar tune. Cars are rarely used in Moyobamba. The tiendas on either side of my home are already filled with customers bargaining for a better price. There’s a breeze cool enough for a jacket, though the city will warm another twenty degrees throughout the day.
I walk down the street and take a left at the Plaza de Armas. I see mountains in the distance, covered in an abundant deep green. After a few minutes I reach my destination: a station for combis, or glorified minivans with limited seating that serve as the primary public transportation between towns.
I find my people, the other students and teachers who are deaf. I greet each individually by signing buenos días and leaning in for a kiss on the cheek.
I greet Talita, 9 years old. She tugs at her ears and points at mine. I’ve forgotten to put on earrings again. She narrows her eyes with the gravest of expressions.
“I forgot,” I sign.
“You forget everyday!” She makes the sign for angry and puts her hands on her hips. My morning routine now includes asking myself whether I’ll see Talita and choose jewelry accordingly. I must’ve forgotten this morning though, because here I am, earringless. On days that I remember to wear them, she tells me she’s proud of me.
I greet Luz Clarita. She smiles when she sees me, but she quickly raises her eyebrows. She’s about to sass me. I smile back in anticipation and surrender to the moment. A few weeks ago she pulled on my blonde arm hair, a puzzled expression on her face. Blonde hair is a curiosity here (I’ve seen on other blonde in Moyobamba in the six weeks I’ve been here). She then made the sign for monkey. But even if she thinks I look like a blonde monkey, I know she trusts me. She turned 19 last week and has a 4-year-old daughter who is blind: a deaf mother raising a blind daughter. On the day her father had beaten her mother again, she leaned her head on my shoulder and cried. I don’t mind the sass.
There’s Gerson, about 15, who has already ridden on a horse for an hour through the mountains and taken a taxi just to get to Moyobamba. Somehow he still arrives at the station before me, the person who lives less than a quarter mile away.
I greet Victoria, who screamed the first time she ever saw me on my first day (because of my nose piercing). Needless to say, I’m still working on connecting with her.
I greet Jhaenina, who along with Luz Clarita is a teacher on Tuesdays and Fridays for the younger children and a student with the other adult students who are deaf on Wednesdays. She recently told me that her boyfriend, in his mid-20s, died a few months ago from an aneurysm. The continued grief is palpable in my interactions with her.
There’s Abigael, about 16 years old. I’m especially excited to see her today. On days when she’s absent from school, she’s in the hospital because of a heart condition, so I always feel relieved when I see her.
I greet Clara and Erika, my supervisors. Clara is deaf and the primary teacher at the school. Erika is with all of us at the station, but she won’t come to the school with us. She’ll probably spend the day at a regional government office, advocating for the right to an education and money to build a school for the 10,000 people who are deaf in the region of San Martin (a disproportionately high number of the population here is deaf, though no one tells me why).
We pile into a combi. We leave Moyobamba for the 50-minute drive to Nueva Cajamarca, where we currently meet for school. When we reach the highway, we pass moto after moto after mototaxi at what feels like reckless speeds. Here, it doesn’t matter if someone is driving toward us in the opposite lane. The combi driver will honk to signal the person in front of us that he’s planning on passing. The driver in front and the driver on the opposite side of the road will veer to the right while we straddle the middle line to pass. My heart used to stop a dozen times during this journey, but I’m either learning to trust the drivers or I’m becoming desensitized to the danger. Probably both.
The students take the last few rows of the combi, signing animatedly with each other. Unless their parents know sign language (many don’t), there are no other spaces where they can communicate in their own language. Clara lies down on someone’s lap while they pluck the gray hair from her head. Sometimes I chat with Jessy, my best friend in Peru and one of the teachers, in Spanish during the ride. Sometimes I write. Or sleep. Or try to guess what the students are signing to each other. Or take pictures. Or simply marvel at the fauna of the jungle, the people working on the rice farms, the small towns we pass by on the highway, the homes constructed with boards and tin roofs painted with the logo for their preferred presidential candidate, and the clouds hovering between the mountains’ base and summit.
We arrive at the school (San Juan Bautisto Colegio) around 9:15. We walk through the gate, passing many of the beautiful and clean classrooms filled with uniformed students (all of whom can hear) chattering excitedly with each other.
We finally reach the two classrooms for the students who are deaf. Our classrooms, constructed with cracked and dilapidated boards, was once San Juan Bautisto’s shed. We don’t have lights, which only becomes a problem when the sky darkens during the daily thunderstorm. The rooms are small and insufficient, yet the walls are covered in materials the teachers made at Paz y Esperanza. We use donated materials for our books and posters, made to teach Spanish, which we appropriate to teach sign language. Everyone has learned to make do with what’s available.
We greet the people who live closer to Nueva Cajamarca than Moyobamba who have already arrived. This school is open to anyone in the Alto Mayo region, which means some of the students might live hours away from each other.
I greet Jannet, another teacher at the school. My interactions with her almost always involves her correcting a sign I’ve made. When I ask another teacher, they tell me she was wrong. Her frequent confusion of signs reminds me that this program has only existed for a few years. Most of the adults are still learning as well.
I greet Jhon, who taught me how to sign Pokemon, Ben 10, and the Avengers. He asks me if I’m friends with Spiderman in the United States.
There’s Ian, one of the happiest kids I’ve ever met. He has an infectious laugh and loves copying my actions or sneaking up behind me to try to scare me. He’s usually successful.
There’s Jhosselyn, who is the youngest at the school at about 6 or 7 and hasn’t learned many signs yet. She screams and screams and screams to get attention. This method gets her attention from people who can hear and has been reinforced her entire life. I’m told to ignore her cries. I cringe from her piercing shrieks at least once a day. I thought working at a school for people who are deaf would be fairly silent: one of many false assumptions I brought with me into this year.
(Note: never use the term “deaf-mute.” Most people who are deaf can still vocalize but choose not to because speaking is not their method of communication. It’s a choice not to vocalize and it doesn’t mean they can’t)
There’s Isaias, a 17-year-old who’s just entered the program a few months ago. When I first met him he was moving his hands rapidly, so I assumed he’d been in the program for a while and was already fluent. He makes up all of these signs. This is common; before people who are deaf discover this program or if they don’t have access to an education in sign language, they make up rudimentary signs to use with their family. They can communicate with their family, but no one else. Part of our work is to help new students unlearn the signs they’ve created with their family and learn to use official sign language so they can participate and be integrated in the larger deaf community. The hope is that family members will learn as well, either from their deaf family members or the classes Paz y Esperanza offers for people in the community who want to learn on Mondays or Thursdays. I work one on one with Isaias on the alphabet, colors, and animals. Every time he successfully signs a handful of letters or spells the name of an animal, he signs, “I understand! I’m learning! I’m smart!”
Then there’s José Luis, also a teenager I work with individually, who doesn’t learn as quickly despite repeating the colors over and over and over all morning. Part of me worries that we’ll be working on colors all year.
Alay, another one of the adults, is also still learning sign language. When he greets me, he gives me a huge hug and starts recounting the story of a little rat that found an egg and embarked on a search for its mother. We covered this story during our last class and he is eager to show off what he remembers. He draws, colors, cuts, and glues in his journal very carefully and deliberately. Once, I cut a paper hastily, and he told me it was ugly and wouldn’t put it in his journal. His art is careful and exacting, showing me the many beautiful drawings of words he’s learning to read and write.
When I step outside, I noticed the mountains in the distance are hazy.
“Is that a cloud?” I ask Jessy.
“No,” she replies, “It’s smoke. The jungle is burning.”
We can see the destruction of the rainforest from work.
I’ve been researching games that are inclusive for people who are deaf and compiling a list to use as a resource. The games themselves are inclusive, but I hadn’t anticipated how difficult it would be to actually teach the games in a language I barely know. I charade the games with the occasional sign. I try to teach capture the flag, sharks and minnows, elbow tag, and rock, paper, scissors with varying levels of success. In the end though, they find a soccer ball and play for an hour. No game I teach them will be as fun as fútbol.
Around 2pm, it’s time for the afternoon lessons to begin. Four students come with me to work on math. One of them is Teilor, about fifteen years old whose parents are farmers and lives in an extremely rural community. He knows signs, but doesn’t change his expression when he uses them. Facial expressions are crucial to understanding meaning; your face is your third hand.
However, he’s brilliant at math. The four students and I begin to work on a worksheet. I’m explaining how to calculate 2 + __ = 7. The other students all guess 9. By the time I finish explaining how to get the correct answer, Teilor has already finished the worksheet. I turn his paper over and write 14 + 39. He’s got the answer in a few seconds. I write 649 + 818. He’s got it again. I write bigger and bigger numbers, then use the same numbers for subtraction, and he answers every one. When I finally begin throwing multiplication at him, he’s unfazed. Eventually I give him 875 x 294. It takes him a bit longer, he makes a few errors, but he eventually gets it.
Teilor makes me wonder what he and all the students at this school would be capable of if they’d had access to an education from the beginning. If he’d been able to learn his own language and learn in his own language. I wonder what opportunities will be available to him beyond this school. Will he be able to go to a university? Another adult deaf student, Liliana, goes to a university and just received her teaching certificate, but she can’t read Spanish and doesn’t know numbers. When her professors learned that she’s deaf they immediately lowered their standards. They let her pass class after class despite not understanding anything. They aren’t doing her any favors, sending her out into the workforce totally unprepared. She is capable of learning and doesn’t need people’s pity to be successful. But she needs to learn in different conditions.
Teilor is the same. He could excel if he wasn’t trapped in a context where he can’t learn in his own language. How many scientists, engineers, poets, or artists are trapped in a context that can’t provide them an adequate education? I know he is capable of so much, but doesn’t have access to the education he deserves. Many of the students at this school sit in a classroom the other days of the week with students who can hear. Teachers talk at them all day, and the students who are deaf sit in silence, learning nothing.
The amount that I can challenge students like Teilor is severely limited. I remember nearly nothing of the math I learned in high school. The efforts of individuals can only go so far. How can we work toward a society that reflects every person’s right to an education, despite disability or language differences?
It’s time to leave. The bus has forgotten us again. We wait for twenty minutes while Jessy calls bus companies to come pick us up.
The days are long. There’s so much to unpack and process. I witness so many new things everyday that lift me up, tear me apart, confuse me, frighten me, and fill me with joy. Every day I leave the school feeling both full and empty, and I haven’t quite figured out how that’s possible. That’s the paradox of my work I’m learning to live into. My hope is that one day I will, as my site coordinator Jenny recently told me, learn how to “love others in response to their context. This means that in order to love a person I need to first understand their reality.” There is so much about the context of this community that I don’t understand. My heart is breaking open, and I can only hope that love and light will fill the empty space.
May we learn to pay attention to our context, immerse ourselves in the reality of our neighbors, and allow ourselves to be transformed by grace in love.