I will probably never use organic chemistry again in my life, and I’m sure I’ll never need to know what enzyme catalyzes the reaction that turns glucose 6-phosphate into fructose 6-phosphate. I don’t think I’ll be needing Malebranche’s theory on occasionalism in the near future, nor will my knowledge of convex mirrors come in handy soon. However, no matter how much I hated learning all these things that I considered useless in high school, I’m still glad I did, even if it’s just for my own benefit.
That being said, the things I learned in high school that will stay with me for the rest of my life are not things you can take a test on. When I think of such things, what really stands out for me, as cliché as it is, is my community service experience.
In my country Panama, in order to graduate from high school, you must have completed 80 hours of community service. Many schools spread the hours over junior and senior year, and kids do stuff like reading to kids, or painting houses, or spending time with the elderly. Not my school. The summer before my senior year, I spent two weeks in the middle of the rainforest with the rest of my classmates.
We weren’t exactly in the middle of the rainforest, though. I guess you could say we were in the villages that are spread out throughout the valleys in the rainforest of Bocas del Toro, a province in Panama that is at least 10 hours away from the city (depending on where you’re going exactly). We were divided into 7 groups, each one headed to a different village with a different project to complete. I was in a village called Nueva Estrella (“New Star” in Spanish) and we built a preschool classroom. These are seven things I learned during my time there.
1. You never know how much you have until you meet someone who has nothing.
Super cliché, yes, but very true. I always knew in my brain that I should be grateful for everything I had, and that I was lucky for having many things others could never dream of. And yes, I’ve always been grateful, but spending time with the people of Nueva Estrella taught me so much. Being there made me realize how small my problems really are. I’ve never gone to bed hungry and I eat three meals a day. If I’m ever cold at night, I can just get another blanket. I have hot water at my house and a toilet. I don’t have to walk miles through bad roads just to get to school. Appreciate what you have.
It’s not just about appreciating things, though. Our mentality, our culture, and our education are our results of the opportunities we’ve had in our lives. One of the sweetest girls in Nueva Estrella, Valentina, surprised me when she asked why we were always wearing pants. I told them they were comfortable, and she said girls had to wear skirts, so boys could look at your butt and decide to marry you. Ever since I was a small girl, I knew I was valuable all by myself, and it was heartbreaking for me to see that Valentina, who was only five, thought that her goal in life was to get a husband. Building on that…
2. Education is a gift.
We stayed in the community’s school. It had two classrooms and teachers there taught kids from first grade through sixth grade. After that, to continue their education, kids had to walk through a very bad road up a mountain for several miles.
We went during the summer, so I really don’t know how this worked for them, but I think that few kids decided to go to school after that. And if they did, they didn’t stay in school for a long time. I’m also pretty sure most of these kids were boys and most girls stayed home. Needless to say, these classrooms didn’t have AC or any of the commodities we were used to. To put things into perspective a little, a couple months ago, there was an energy shortage in Panama City and schools were instructed to turn off their AC for the last hours of the day. A couple days after, they just started sending kids home early because moms would complain that their poor kid was going to die.
3. Luxury is relative.
To many of us, luxury is represented a fancy restaurant. Or maybe luxury is getting a new car. Or a new TV, or allowing yourself to take a vacation. One of my favorite kids in Nueva Estrella got two tiny piggies for his birthday, and he would show them to us all the time. To his dad, spending $15 to buy each piggy was a luxury, and he was proud of the fact that he could afford it. Just like I said before, appreciate what you have. One of the ladies of the community told me that the only time she had ever left the village she did to go to the big hospital in the town. For them, it’s a luxury to even leave their town.
4. Sometimes, the scariest part of a new situation is not knowing anyone. But you’ve got to give people a chance.
Cold showers? I can handle that. Latrines? Not exactly looking forward to this, but at least it’ll be a new experience. Different food? Guess I’ll have to deal with that. I was fine with all of these things, but I was TERRIFIED of being placed in a group with none of my friends. And that was exactly what happened. I knew everybody in my group but no one was exactly my friend. But, I left with so many good friends, and one of the girls I met during that trip I still consider her one of my best friends. This applies for college as well. At least for me, being away from my parents was not nearly as scary as having to make new friends.
5. Change is inevitable.
During life, change is inevitable. We can control our actions, and we can plan everything out, but at the end of the day we don’t have full control of everything that happens to us. We can only control how we react to everything. My community service ended abruptly after a strike in the town of Bocas del Toro broke out, and all the roads were closed. Since we didn’t have a fridge in our camp, one of the fathers from the school had to bring food to us every day. And when the roads were closed, water and food were scarce. We were only left with non-perishables, and it is NOT fun eating out of a can every day.
After that, we had to leave sort of undercover to the port in Bocas, where we took a boat to the AMAZING island of Bocas del Toro (super touristy and super pretty place!). I had never been there before, and it was amazing. Afterwards, we took a plane to Panama City. None of this was expected, but it ended up being super awesome.
6. Always be ready to try new things.
Whether it be milking a cow, or catching a fish with your bare hands, new experiences, as scary as they might seem at first, are usually very rewarding. Whatever it is that you want to do but are too afraid to try, I promise it’s going to be okay. Just take a deep breath and dive into it. If you don’t like it, that’s okay too. You had the courage to try something new, and you won’t be left wondering what if.
7. Kids are amazing.
Okay, maybe this isn’t exactly a lesson, but I wanted to share what I learned from these tiny humans in the village. I love kids. It’s just amazing the way kids see the world. I even was nicknamed “mom Clarissa” because I spent all the time I could with the kids in the village. They were just so sweet and full of love and full of life. I even had people tell me I was going to get lice from spending so much time with the kids. Well, I thought, if I do get lice (and I didn’t) there’s a medicine for that, but nothing is ever going to replace the amazing memories I made with them. One of my teachers told us that after this, we would go back to our lives and maybe sometimes we would look back on the memories we made. But, for them, this was their lives. This was all they knew, and they would definitely remember us. I hope they remember me.