Do you remember your first day of school? I remember my first day of school in bursts: in Miami, Florida, where I went to my first day of preschool, we mixed paints; in Buffalo, New York, where, when looking around the room, I immediately knew there was not a single person who looked like me; in Rochester, New York, on my first day of college, I met some of my forever friends; and in Washington, DC, the first day of grad school, my peers all told stories about their aspirations, and I cracked a joke…and was forever known by it. Every time, it has been my peers who stood out the most to me. My first day at my placement school in Medellín was no different, but it was also so much more.
On my first day at my placement school, the students were already outside listening to an assembly. To my surprise, the school had roughly 2,000 students, and about 400 of them were my students! I had never been in a class larger than 30 people as a student, and now I was in charge of teaching 45 at a time. That assembly, however, was where I experienced my first unexpected alliance. As I was introduced to the crowd, and was told I had to introduce myself, my insides were quaking. But the kids were excellent. They listened to me. They laughed when I made a joke. They clapped as I spoke to the crowd.
That week, as I struggled to keep track of my schedule, I met more allies. Students would giggle sometimes as they pointed me in the right direction, but the best of all were the students who would physically lead me to a room. It is easy to imagine high schoolers and judge them based on their age (especially if you, like I do, remember myself at that age). Yet at my school they did not judge, so it was easy to not judge them either.
Then there were my attempts at sharing culture and religion with them. I belong to both a minority religion and culture. While the topics are not easy, there have been more and more reasons to share them. Few of my students belonged to a minority religion or culture, but they loved learning about mine, and were fascinated by the similarities between our cultures.
When I arrived early one July morning in Medellín, a city I barely knew, I felt a combination of awe and anxiety. I remember thinking how clean the metro was, how I expected there to be more palm threes, and how the heat stuck to my body. I arrived with a strong Spain-Spanish accent, a Pakistani appearance, and a US way of approaching most interactions. All of these characteristics and preconceived notions left me feeling vulnerable, yet I found the most unexpected allies: My students.
Tara served as a teaching fellow in Medellín, Colombia, from July through November 2017.