Upon entering Principal Najarro’s office I am greeted with huge smiles, hugs, “Miss Kristin, welcome back, when do you wish to begin, perhaps this afternoon?” He laughs, I giggle. He continues, “When did you arrive? We have been waiting for you!” I reply, “we just arrived yesterday, this is the first school we’re visiting, we just walked over from Bullet Tree Falls.” Vice Principal Antonia laughs, “You walked all the way from Bullet Tree, you ARE crazy!” We laugh, hug again and I reply, “how about we begin first thing tomorrow morning?”
And so it starts. Enthusiasm, support and collaboration, this is why I return to Bishop Martin every year and it is usually my first destination. Principal Najarro has a reputation for being bluntly honest, a tough Principal who has high expectations and this is why we get along so well. He understands the importance of preserving Belizean culture, the pride that Valuing culture instills in the students. AND he understands the need for literacy; in fact their school motto states, “promoting literacy.”
My crew is ready to start. Robin sets up the camera, Eva takes a seat with the students and I begin:
“Who can tell me something about Tata Duende?” Hands shoot up in the air, “Miss! Miss! He is a short man who protects the forest.” “He wears a humungous sombrero.” “He has no thumbs!” I write their responses on the board encouraging stronger vocabulary. “yes, that’s right, let’s think of a more interesting adjective for ‘short.’ The students call out, “midget!” “Dwarf” “Miniature!” “Puny!” I scribble their answers in chalk.
We continue dialoguing about Tata Duende, La Llorona, Xtabai and el Cadejo, the shape shifting canine. Students become more animated as they recall detail after detail about these spirits. I ask them, “Do you believe they really exist?” Nearly unanimously, they respond, “YES!”
I point out how these legends exist all throughout the indigenous peoples of Belize; Creole, Garifuna, Maya and Mestizo; and in fact, the details of the stories intertwine though there are variations region to region and culture to culture. Often the students are surprised to hear that Tata Duende is not only Mestizo, that the Creole and Garifuna have versions, and the Maya call him Alux. I explain that Duende is also prevalent in OTHER cultures throughout Central and South America. We talk about how these legends, these stories connect us; we are not so different after all. It is important to show this connection, to value Their culture while also showing the interconnection outside Belize, too.
I teach basic story structure, how to write a strong introductory paragraph, explode a moment technique; describing second by second what would happen if one met Xtabai face to face. I include lots of examples and I share a “true” story of my experience with Xtabai on a bus in San Jose. Students listen attentively as they write their own stories… What Would Happen If You Met One of these Legends Face to Face?
Most of the students seem to enjoy the writing experience. They definitely enjoy hearing about Their cultural stories. Their grammar and spelling may not be perfect, ok, it is not even close to perfect, but their creativity is amazing. Their ability to let their minds go and simply spill forth ideas is really inspiring. And of course, these are not simply stories, in their experience, these spirits are REAL.
We do four 1.5 hour sessions for 140 students, by the end of the day, I am tired, but fulfilled and encouraged by the students’ response. Robin has done a great job filming, I look forward to seeing the footage. Eva has provided much needed support and participated in the lesson herself.
The day is only half over, I will spend the next 6 hours editing their stories; as always astounded by their creativity and slightly saddened by their grammar and spelling. I remind myself, this is Why I am here! They are fortunate to possess such deep creativity, the grammar and spelling can be taught. I edit the stories until 11:30pm, my mind swirling with images of el cadejo, “his firey red eyes, gleaming with the evil of hell.” La Llorona and her “long white gown covered in mud, her tangled hair covering her face.”