The Quito Classroom

The range of human experience is on the syllabus for CBB students living and studying in Quito, Ecuador.

Story and photographs by Phyllis Graber Jensen

Crossing a busy thoroughfare in Quito, Ecuador, a group of college students from Maine jumped back onto the median as a city bus sped toward them.

A local pedestrian across the avenue, an elderly woman in a hurry, was less nimble. As the students watched in shock, she rushed into the path of the passenger-filled bus.

Andrea Noyes, a junior from Bates, didn’t see who was hit and in a panic thought it might be one of the students, who were in Quito on that October day through the Colby-Bates-Bowdoin (CBB) off-campus program. Nate Notis-McConarty ’04 saw the woman’s expression flicker from hurried concentration to horror as she realized she couldn’t beat the bus. Later, a student told his Bates history professor, Lillian Guerra, that he thought he saw the woman’s spirit leave her body.

“She’s dead,” said Bill Spirer ’04, speaking English for the first time that day. The bus backed up to uncover the woman crushed under its front wheels: a bloodied Quite-a dressed in the sort of skirt, sweater, and hat frequently worn by indigenous poor in Ecuador. The North Americans stared in horror, then looked away. Some began to cry. Spirer clutched his head with his hands; then he and Notis-McConarty sprung into action, hailing a police cruiser moving down the Avenida 12 de Octubre.

The bus accident was certainly no lesson anyone would sign up for – a Colby student in the group was too distraught to continue with the morning’s plan – yet it had a horrid pertinence to the lessons of the day and, more profoundly, Bates’ entire fall program in Quito, part of the Colby-Bates-Bowdoin Off-Campus Study Consortium, now in its fourth year (see sidebar). The students were en route to a museum tour with an Ecuadorian professor teaching them about his country’s indigenous movements. One key theme for the Ecuador program is the country’s struggle with many notions of national identity, such as whether, 500 years after the Spanish conquest, indigenous people can have the same rights as Euro-Ecuadorians. “Ecuador is an eloquent example of a Latin American country re-creating its national identity,” says the Bates course catalog, “as it straddles the forces of tradition and modernity, unity and diversity.”

Fine words, but as always, the reality is more gritty and painful. In places like Ecuador the distance between the worldviews of the haves and its have-nots, to say nothing of visiting North Americans, is as great as a gulf and as treacherous as the gap between curb and roadway. “Was she an Indian?” a local would later ask a Bates student. “They’re the ones who get hit.”

For the 25 young people based at ACLAS, the Andean Center for Latin American Studies, the accident provided, tragically and ironically, a connection to life in Quito. A weeklong visitor from Bates would also see students doing outreach work with prostitutes in the El Centro Hist-rico. Struggling to teach an overcrowded classroom of 8-year-olds. Blowing off steam playing pickup soccer with the locals in the park. Embarking on field study at the timberline in the Ecuadorian Andes. Speaking Spanish almost all the time.

“It is really intense,” said Lillian Guerra, the charismatic assistant professor of history at Bates who directed last fall’s Quito program along with Russell Johnson, associate professor of biology at Colby. (Colby and Bowdoin also oversee a program each, in London and Cape Town, respectively). “We’re not surfing in Australia,” she adds, a dig at a typical study-abroad experience U.S. students often seek during a winter escape from campus.

That afternoon at ACLAS, Guerra – who had not been on the outing – gathered her history class for a special meeting. “You live in an unjust world,” began their professor, her voice breaking. Then she began to weep. “We need to mourn the fact that a human being died in front of us today. As soon as I heard about it, I thought it could have happened to any one of you.” That possibility had jolted each one of them, too.

The history of Ecuador is filled with the death and suffering of millions of indigenous people during the Spanish conquest, declared Spirer. And look how traumatic it was to witness just one death, he said. He guessed that the pedestrian’s death was without meaning to many of her fellow citizens. “These women are a dime a dozen to a lot of people in Quito. I just couldn’t help but think how different it might have been if it had been a businessman.”

Each day, in some way, offers a jolt to the CBB students. The bumpiest day of junior Ben Clements’ life began at 7:30 in the morning, 3,000 miles from the Bates campus in a small schoolroom in Quito.

Despite being in a prosperous district, the Escuela San Francisco (an elementary school) is poor by any U.S. standard – overcrowded classrooms, overwhelmed teachers, few resources. Clements arrived to begin his weekly community service assignment as a teacher’s aide. Introduced to 50 8-year-olds and a fourth-grade classroom teacher, Clements joined in a 40-minute exercise with buckets of soap and water. Student desks were emptied and scoured, leaving the floors flooded and filthy.

Cleaning concluded, the teacher ordered Clements to “teach us something.” Unprepared but game, the English major from Ligonier, Pa., described his own country. “I tried to draw it on the whiteboard, and a bunch of children shouted that it looked like a cow.” Undaunted, he discovered that the children had no idea where the United States was, so he sketched Mexico, Canada, and Latin America. Continuing in Spanish, Clements told them about his life: He had attended a boarding school, Episcopal High School, in Washington, D.C.; he was a student at a small college, Bates, in Lewiston, Maine; his homeland had 50 states with various climates.

At 8:30 a.m., the teacher got up from her desk to inform “Benito” that she was going to a meeting. “I’ll be back by 10,” she promised.

Bells rang throughout the day, but Clements didn’t know why. Nor was he sure how to discipline the children when they misbehaved. Consulting briefly with Colby junior Jason Koch, stationed elsewhere in the school, Clements tried playing Hangman, singing school anthems, and drawing animals with the group. Eventually, another bell sounded and students began to cheer. “I jumped up and down and started cheering with them,” Clements said.

Recess had arrived, the Bates varsity lacrosse player discovered. Outside, more than 1,000 children played in the packed courtyard, balls flying everywhere, kids colliding in glee. Some time after recess had ended, around 11:30, another bell rang. Clements saw students lined up outside. What now, he thought with a certain measure of desperation, a fire drill? “Go! Go! Go!” he yelled, and his charges grabbed their backpacks, shook his hand, and departed.

It was simply the end of the school day, he realized. The teacher had never returned; he later learned she probably left for a day of job hunting.

Students need a safe haven after such a day, and during the week the CBB students gather for classes and solace at ACLAS, which is located in a pretty white house behind an iron gate on El Dia, a quiet residential street in the heart of modern Quito.

Among the things that worry college study-abroad officials is the phenomenon known as “the American ghetto,” where U.S. students abroad sometimes live, study, and socialize exclusively together, blocking out the very culture they’re supposed to experience. So in Quito, CBB students don’t live together in dorms or apartments but in local homes. Because consortium policy requires that students have access to hot water and a private bedroom – luxuries in Ecuador – students tend to live with middle and upper-middle class families. The CBB students, in town to learn about different lives, do see the irony in their comfortable living situations. Over the course of the program, several students encountered painful prejudices about race and class displayed by their home-stay families. For example, a student was ridiculed for having an Asian boyfriend.

Kate Marshall ’03 of Bethesda, Md., moved in with a retired newspaper executive, Gonzalo Feijoo, and his wife, Wilma. Served by a maid, Maria, the couple inhabits a spacious, gated home with a private driveway just blocks from ACLAS. Their unmarried son, Pablo, 27, lives with them and works in a family printing business, while their older son, Javier, 34, and daughter, Maria Fernanda, 32, visit each weekend with their young children.

Marshall, with only two semesters of high-school Spanish under her belt, arrived a month before the rest of the CBB group to immerse herself in the language. Enjoying the additional time to get to know her home-stay family, she also confronted immediate culture shock. Most people didn’t wear seat belts. Eggs weren’t refrigerated. Newborn puppies were left to go dirty (she got a chance to bath her home-stay brother’s litter). People were chronically late (though they drove like lunatics to get there). Child labor laws weren’t enforced. The culture of machismo prevailed.

Raised in a Jewish household, Marshall was now living with a devoutly Catholic couple whose social life revolved around their extended family. There was the 14-hour birthday party for one of Wilma’s sisters, who had turned 50. A professional soccer game she attended with Pablo and Javier featured the police tear-gassing rowdy fans. “It floated over to our section,” remembered the Latin American history major. “I’d never experienced tear gas before.”

She’d never experienced a seizure, either. But a bout with altitude sickness (often suffered by flatlanders in Quito, 7,500 feet above sea level) caused Marshall, an asthmatic, to faint while dancing in a crowded Cuban nightclub.

As Marshall made the necessary adjustments – physical and intellectual – her family had something to learn about her. She was the 20th foreign student they’d hosted in the last seven years, yet it was with surprise that Wilma noted the long line of books Kate placed on her bedroom desk. “Seria?” her mother asked. “Yes, I am serious,” answered Kate, “and so is my professor.”

Lillian Guerra – born of Cuban parents, raised in Kansas, educated at Dartmouth and the University of Wisconsin – is the Latin America specialist in the Bates history department. The intellectual connections Guerra makes for her students burst forth like eruptions from the network of Ecuador’s active volcanoes. “Teaching is a religion, she says, “And in Quito I have 12 disciples.”

“She pushes us really hard,” Spirer says. “All of us are really capable of doing good work and she expects it.” Her students are speaking Spanish all the time, in class and out, because she demands it. As a result, they want to.

Whether she’s outfitted in jeans, silk, or leather, a dash of color – red lipstick – always punctuates Guerra’s appearance. A rapid, passionate speaker, she is as comfortable making an historical critique as she is firing off a sarcastic joke, and the students respond. Guerra moves as quickly as she talks. As she lectures in the classroom, her left hand, followed by her right, chops the air. Often, both hands join to make a point. Writing on the board, she’ll suddenly drop to the floor, legs delicately crossed, to mime an irreverent parody.

Here near the equator, tropical metaphors come to mind, and it’s easy to see Guerra as the eye of an intellectual hurricane. She seems to be at the center of whatever’s happening: classroom discussions, on a tour to the San Francisco Museum, or while hosting a dinner party for her students, offering dancing tips on salsa and merengue.

The constant energy Guerra spins forth is part personality, but it also reflects how she wants to teach history. “If students can empathize with the motivations and emotions of historical actors long vanished,” she says, “the experience may not only make them better historians, it may also make them more willing to care about the concerns, events and people of contemporary Latin America.”

Being on the scene in Quito, she says, makes the experience far richer for her students.

“There are no distractions from the material we are studying because we are living the material,” she says. “I don’t think that students hearing about things in a classroom get even one-fourth of the jolt that you get from living in the place you’re studying.”

A weekend trip to the pre-Columbian ruin of Ingapirca and the colonial city of Cuenca provided students with another such jolt. During a visit to a Panama hat- making factory, a guide directed the group’s attention to a worker, weaving silently while seated on the floor. Calling the woman a chola, a racial slur referring to her mixed Spanish-Indian heritage, the guide said she weaves so well because hat making is in her blood.

The epithet startled the students, who would later discuss what happened at length. Indeed, such a comment wouldn’t be part of a factory tour guide’s spiel in the United States. But in Ecuador, institutionalized racism against indigenous peoples – Indians – permeates society. “To look on it as tourists and then process it academically is amazing,” said Clements.

Bates also combats the “American ghetto” phenomenon in two other ways. Invited by Guerra, Ecuadorian students participated in the Quito program for the first time this fall. Guerra also pushed for another change that improved the community-service component of the Quito program. “It was disconnected from everything else they were doing, so it became burdensome,” Guerra said.

So she plugged the students’ volunteer work into an academic course called “Development and Social Change in Quito.” The result was service-learning, where hands-on community work is invigorated by the academic component, and students have a collective opportunity to make an intellectual connection to their emotional experiences.

Volunteering at Mar’a Droste, a Good Shepherd-run convent dedicated to working with a community of 60 prostitutes and their children, Colby junior Grace Becker and Bates students Kim Kavazanjian ’04 and Andrea Noyes ’03 watched a small girl, unaccustomed to having much food in her stomach, vomit her lunch. Spoon-feeding youngsters who didn’t know how to feed themselves, the trio realized that these 4- and 5-year-olds were probably consuming their only meal of the day. Emotional? Yes. But only a small part of their day.

Stepping out from the locked gates of the convent, Becker, Kavazanjian, and Noyes joined recent graduate Nissa Gainty ’02 (living and working at the convent while also teaching at ACLAS). The group paused on a dramatically steep sidewalk lined with Spanish colonial architecture. Anxious by their assigned task, they were about to prowl the district’s narrow cobbled streets, trying to recruit prostitutes for a workshop, “The Power of Women,” to be held at the convent.

The foursome approached their first possible recruits half a block away. “It’s not for me,” responded one prostitute, whose stretched stomach revealed her as a veteran of childbirth. Bemused, but polite, the sex workers, seated on the corner of a whitewashed plaza busy with pedestrians and lounging men, were trying to attract johns. Here were earnest, young gringas – speaking in halting Spanish – interfering with business. Back in the classroom, the three students described the street scenario, which didn’t play out like a Hollywood hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold script. Upon reflection, their mistakes seemed ludicrously obvious.

In her students’ complete failure, Guerra saw a lesson. “There is nothing more liberating of your U.S. values than to work with and get to know people who have never experienced your values and don’t share them,” she says.

After class, Guerra sat with her students for two hours, brainstorming ways to approach the challenges they faced: hungry children, a disorganized and demoralized convent staff, and cynical streetwalkers. Their initial methods, Guerra agreed, were “very bad. But it’s not your fault. These problems are enormous. You have no bricks and you are going to build a bridge.”

Any kind of volunteer work, especially in Latin America or the Third World, at first seems abundantly hard for the sheer absence of resources, the lack of structure, and the unpredictability. But this is the best part of the CBB program, says Guerra, who doesn’t mind at all that the out-of-classroom experiences in Quito overwhelm her students to tears.

“They are overwhelmed by everything. Sometimes they are overwhelmed by me!” she says. “But it’s not too much for them to handle, because they are not handling it as individuals.” As she counseled them during a crisis of morale, “We are all one family, whether we like it or not, because we have to deal with a unique experience that nobody is having. It bonds us.”

So the CBB students figured out a new plan that eliminated the convent as the first meet-and-greet location for the prostitutes to talk. Instead, they suggested gathering on neutral ground, over a cafecito, as a prelude to friendship. “These women need a place to consider safe,” Kavazanjian reports, “where they can relax and have some other women to talk to and confide in.” A sense of community could replace cynicism, she hopes. “They need to feel they are an important part of the Ecuadorian society.”

The next time Ben Clements ’04 returned to his school, Escuela San Francisco, he had a plan. When the teacher who had abandoned him his first week tried to leave the second week for another “meeting,” he gave her notice to return: “I’m a helper, not a teacher.” His home-stay father provided him with prizes to award the students for lessons and games he had planned for them. Clements found other teachers in the school to mentor him and learned through trial and error to move from class to class where he was needed. He characterized his second week as chaotic but wonderful.

He telephoned his father, Larry, who is head of the Upper School at Valley School, a small, private K-9 school in Ligonier, Pa. Father and son discussed ways to provide more resources for the poor school.

They came up with an idea to create an exchange between Valley School and Escuela San Francisco, where Valley students would send their favorite children’s stories to Escuela San Francisco, accompanied by letters explaining why they loved the books and asking questions about Ecuador. The director of the Quito school embraced the idea and hoped his students could reply, creating a pen-pal situation. Ben sat in the ACLAS computer lab for two hours, writing an e-mail to Valley School about all he had seen and read in Quito. “I asked them to help out,” he said.

One Monday afternoon, classes concluded, Spirer, Clements, Notis-McConarty and Bowdoin junior Brienne Ahearn headed to El Parque La Carolina for a pickup soccer game. The national pastime, soccer entices countless players each day to the dusty pitches of the city’s tree-lined park. Much to the delight of Spirer, the local players were regular guys, employees from area restaurants and stores – the kinds of young men CBB students won’t meet through their home-stay families or ACLAS.

“The streets of Quito are where everyone comes together,” Spirer says with satisfaction. “You can’t really avoid one another in the streets.”