Girls Group Breakdown

Yeraska by Janexci
Yeraska. Photo by Janexci

After 4 years of working and playing (let’s be honest) with neighborhood kids we’ve had a drastic contraction in numbers. For a couple of years we had a steady eight to ten kids, mostly girls, show up for art and English and extracurricular activities. Sometimes the number would well to nearly twenty. More kids showed around parties and field tips or after rumors of gifts. Last year tension developed between two factions in the group. The tweeners (10-12 year olds) started picking on each other and lines formed between a group of kids in our immediate vicinity and a group of kids from further away. It was annoying to mediate between the two groups. This year I wondered what would happen. I really didn’t want to deal with a pack of boy crazy girls learning how to get their nasty on with each other. In Spanish.

It all started out pretty easily. The group of further away kids naturally stopped coming. They were older and had newer interests. They drifted off. No big deal. Now all I had was my immediate neighbors and a few ‘cometas’. Cometas are people that come occasionally to standing gigs. Like that woman you see in your yoga class three times a year. They streak by and get a little attention because they are so rarely seen. The group was reduced to essentially four kids, a pair of sister pairs. It seemed a little sad at first but it was so much more manageable. For an instant.

The eldest girl has been disruptive for three years. She has stolen. She has lied. She has inappropriately touched other kids. Even though she was now one of only four and they were next door neighbors she still couldn’t stay out of trouble. Now that she was 11 and we’d been working with her for more than 3 years I was starting to lose hope that we could get through to her in a positive way. Mid-winter she intentionally but secretly damaged a piece of art in our home. We had a meeting. A written agreement was drawn up. A contract on behavior. A chance to formalize the many second chances we’d already given this young girl. This girl is so smart, lovely, and troubled. She breaks our heart. We all (not just Burt and I) want to see her succeed but she can’t escape her negative behaviors.

Last week she orchestrated a scam where she convinced the other kids to tell me there was no school on a certain day and then get me to agree to do something fun with them. It was a brilliant and spontaneous lie. She said, “We don’t have school tomorrow.” The other kids merely backed her up. Two are so young I’m not sure they even knew they were lying. The next morning as I drove to yoga I noticed a bunch of kids going to school as usual. Uh oh. Well surely they parental units didn’t let the scam go through. I texted the neighbor that takes the gang to school and I asked her what was going down. She said, “Nobody showed up for their ride today. I was wondering why.” I knew why.

I got to the driver’s home and I told her the kids were ducking. So I went to one house and asked if the kid went to school. The mother told me her daughter had begged and cried to skip school so she could do something with me. Mom relented. Note, this kid didn’t lie to mom. I explained to the mother I would never knowingly schedule anything on a school day. The next home was the home of the criminal mastermind. I asked the grandma where the kids were. Grandma said, “There’s no school today.” I had to tell her that there was school and that her granddaughter had lied to her. From inside the house I hear the mother’s reaction as she realizes we’ve all been taken by the kid’s lie. Meanwhile the mastermind comes outside to great me, laughing at her success, and I in a fit of anger say, “You will never come to my house again. You’ve had all your chances. We had an agreement and you lied to me, your grandmother and your mother.” I gave a very dramatic but grammatically flawed speech on lying and the importance of school. I could here mom yelling inside. I feared a beating was coming. I left feeling sad for so many things. I was struck that her caretakers didn’t know the school schedule.

Rumors reached me that the girls were grounded. They weren’t seen for two days. I softened a bit and have agreed to meet with the troubled kid and talk with her about the road ahead. I’m pretty certain she won’t be welcome in my classes but I want her to know we can still be friends and can still talk. I worry about her but there’s nothing I can do by myself. She may learn to live another way or she may not. So far the lying and cheating and stealing are working for her.

It’s been over a week. The girl is still banned from classes and another has chosen not to come in solidarity. The two youngest are leaving their older sisters behind and coming to class on their own. I am so proud of them. Today we went to the beach. I think it’s important to remember I have been working with these two kids since they were four years old. In so many ways it was already too late for the older kids to trust me.

Janexci by Yeraska
Janexci. Photo by Yeraska.
Hair twirl by Yeraska
Hair twirl. Photo by Yeraska.
It's not Judo by Janexci
It’s not Judo. Photo by Janexci.

English class contracts and expands

Digestive system
Digestive system

This kid’s group thing we’ve been doing is full of so many complications I never imagined.  There’s been the usual attendance and attention issues. There’s been petty jealousies and cliquishness. And most recently vandalism to our personal property. Minor vandalism but the kind of thing I just feel powerless to deal with constructively. The other day I discovered someone had drawn a black dot about an 1.5″ across on a painting on our property. The dot is in black marker. I suspect the same marker we use for the white board. I know exactly who was using that marker so I have a pretty solid idea who our culprit is and it is an 11 year old child that has been caught stealing and defacing property in another friend’s home. We’ve been trying to manage this child and help them learn a better way to behave in people’s homes. It’s all easy for me to say until it’s my home that is damaged.

Well I was pretty mad but I knew that would dissipate. Burt and I talked. We were both torn. Neither of us wanted to single out anyone. We remembered all of us did stuff like this and any one of the kids could have done it and might do it still. So we had this plan: We’ll just let the group know what happened and we’ll set a new limits. No unattended wandering on our property and no visits to our friends homes as our guests. The message would be simple. If we can’t trust you in our home then we can’t trust you away from home. That would mean no pools, no art galleries, no restaurants. Maybe peer-pressure would change behaviors. If sufficient time passed without further incident we’d  start venturing out again. We hoped it would be enough stick and carrot. So I had it all planned but I still felt heavy.

Yesterday was class day. I walked down to get the kids. My meeting them at their homes to escort them up to our place has dramatically helped attendance. Scary dogs and no watches made on-time arrival sketchy and it’s an easy fix. They only live two blocks away. My two youngest kids (7 and 8 years old) were ready for me. They announced that the 11 year olds had decided not to come. The rumor is class was boring and they didn’t want to do it anymore. Meanwhile an older girl (post high school) was escorting them for he second time. She was not bored. I told them great. We could have fun just us three. And I was relieved. My problem kids had self selected out. Since we’d made an agreement two weeks ago that regular attendance was a requirement for participation unless they had another activity (not merely boredom) I could cut those kids loose. We’d had a group meeting on goals and logistics and they’d agreed to the terms of participation. No pressure on them or me.  Of course, they can change their mind but I have a feeling guilty hearts are the cause of the boredom. The future is hazy…

So the three of us headed up hill and picked up another regular and discussed what we should do. That’s where I learned Edre is studying to be a paramedic. So we hatched a plan to study the human body in detail and in English. Hence the digestive tract below. Just as class got started several long lost students showed up and I was delighted to have them back. Vikki, their adult escort, has been swamped by work for months and she finally was free enough to bring her daughter and nephews. So instead of class being a hard talk it turned into a nice reunion of new and old students on a new subject. We drew the digestive tract, practiced first aid for bleeding, finding a pulse, and sang some songs. The future is still hazy but class was fun.

Working hard
Working hard

English as a Second Language pitfalls abound


I fell off the journaling and drawing wagon. First, I ran out of paper in my journal. Second, I ran out of drive. Third, I’ve been very busy. Add that all up and you get nada.

This week some kid drama finally got the writerly juices flowing. We have one group of kids formed by two distinct factions. Some kids come from an extended family group where they are loved and generally accompanied to all classes by an adult. Other kids are free roamers that live nearby. These free range kids are less well supervised and rougher around the edges but they have their own cohesiveness. They look after each other. All of the kids are kids and prone to testing limits. All of them are mixtures of devils and angels. They are each unique individuals.

My neighbor April and I consult regularly on the topics I teach and the group dynamics. April knows all the children and is fully fluent in the language and the culture.  She’s a mother and wife. I could not succeed without April guarding my back and propping me up. She’s never in class but always knows what’s happening. It’s nice that she’s neutral. Kind of like the school principal.

This week a spat between factions may or may not have happened. One member of one group texted me to complain about treatment by the other group. According to the texter faces were made and bad names were tossed around. This all happened in a bit of a melee when my attention was in one place and the kids had swarmed around the yard. Vikki (my usual enforcer) was absent this day. The kids were pushing the limits. Sawdust was thrown. There was yelling. There was running. Mostly everyone was smiling. I stopped the sawdust throwing when I wouldn’t let them in the bathroom to clean up. They complained of being itchy and I said, not my problem. You want to roll in the dirt you’ve got to like being dirty. Anyway, that all passed. The kids were only mildly chagrined. We ate cake and fruit and everyone went home.

The next say I got the text saying the more well off group had started the fight and that they were teasing the other kids because they never brought food to share. Now the texter is a known manipulator. She conned me into taking her cousin to the beach and then tried to develop a successful cover story for the cousin when they returned. The cover was blown. Perhaps the suntan, sand, and dampness were giveaways? Ten year old kids can be quite inventive but hiding widespread evidence is hard. Everyone (but me) got in deep doodoo over that one. Despite this I was concerned with the underlying element of truth that was obvious. The ‘richer’ kids were lording their slightly better circumstances over the poorer kids. I had seen it myself in the condescension in class.  One group always has pencils and paper. They leave home with supplies because someone is taking care of them. The other group I provide with pencils and paper. Nobody reminds them to bring their supplies. Having grown up under this type of kid on kid oppression it made my stomach churn.

Rather than dig deeply into the he said/she said I assured the complainant that I heard her and told her not to worry. I told her the food wasn’t important or her responsibility. Meanwhile I forwarded the texts to April to confirm that I had read them correctly. Burt and I discussed the situation. We agreed to set some actual rules of behavior and debated the food issue. Burt was for banning food from the kids and I was ambivalent. We also agree only one activity at a time. Chaos had ensue when some kids did origami, some threw sawdust, others went sightseeing on the roof. Everyone would do whatever the activity was together. No more wandering off to amuse themselves.

April and I met up and we were in agreement. One group was lording over the other but we could handle it by teaching and insisting on respect and tolerance. No name calling, no faces, blah, blah, blah, the whole you don’t have to like each other but you have to respect each other speech. Meanwhile April would help the other kids gather together some fruit to bring so they could participate in the very important cultural ritual of sharing food. That issue was quickly put aside when I mentioned that I was teaching ‘I am…’ and I said the kids said. Soy morena, and I said I am latina, and the kids said we are not latinas and I was in the linguistic racial quagmire of identity politics. What was the right thing to do? In that instant it was nice that my pupils are children. They quickly dropped the subject of skin color. So I asked white April and her brown friend. What is the English translation of I am brown. The guy said to use brown. It’s how Mexicans describe themselves. So that’s decided, I think, and head off to teach the next class.

Boom. Yo soy gorda. First sentence of the day at the next class. I am fat. The girl saying this is indeed overweight. The word fat in English has become so laden with political and social implications that I was again, stunned. How to traverse the nuanced world of body image? Even in Mexico, where a zaftig figure is appreciated, there is a point where a person is simply fat. But where is that point? Where is it on a 11 year old girl? A girl that is noticeably less fat than the year before? In the moment I decided to simply translate and be nonchalant. After all, there’s nothing wrong with being overweight. It’s a state of being for most of the US and Mexico. So we moved on. Then I got what’s the difference between being big and being fat? Ahhh…euphemisms for obesity are in the works here too, I thought. I failed to adequately explain this and obfuscated. Feigning a loss of language is helpful in many circumstances. Meanwhile we will continue to encourage an active lifestyle and healthy snacks.

There. What do you think?

Yamileth y Beto




The Hokey Pokey is what it’s all about

This was just one class. They lined up to 'play' each instrument.
This was just one class. They lined up to ‘play’ each instrument.

The Gypsy Carpenters and Tom Moran did three solid hours of music enrichment yesterday at the Palapa Society in Todos Santos. I am not sure who was enriching whom. The three hours were split into three age groups and the main goal is the development of English language skills through a variety of activities. For our first class we showed up open minded and sans agenda. What developed was fun and hilarious and physically draining. I led the Hokey Pokey in two classes but a total of four times. Once to show. Twice slowly (it is not native to Baja culture) and third time with the kids calling out the body parts. The last time was with a group of teenagers so embarrassed we couldn’t make them do it again. So with a goal of using music to teach music appreciation and English what do yo do? What we did was sing nonsense phrases to the youngest kids in a call and response format. With Burt and Tom beating out a rhythm Burt, Serena (the teacher) and I rapped about Blue hair and pink toes and one apple, two apples, three apples, apples grow on trees, my dog has fleas…we were down with the rapping until finally the coup d’grace: my dog is made of spinach. Yes, that winner of a lame phrase of absolutely no use came out of my mouth.  Spinach dog killed the vibe and the song. Such is the life of a beginning rapper. I recovered myself with a rousing call and response of nonsense sounds used as vocal exercises.

By the last class Tom had run off to an adult gig and Burt and I were facing the manifest disinterest of a wall of teenagers. Teenagers are the same everywhere. Adults must be brave. I decided the Hokey Pokey would be done and with Serena’s fortitude added to my own we gave them the Hokey Pokey. Strong arm tactics were employed.  Most of the kids did some semblance of the dance and all of them were laughing by the time I was sticking my hips in and out of the circle and shaking them all about. After that we demonstrated rhythm (el ritmo), melody (la melodia) and harmony (la harmonia). The kids named various styles of music they liked and we played some reggae, jazz, rock, and folk for them. They kindly gave us their attention. Bad Moon on the Rise, Three little Birds  and Let it Be were chosen as songs to be sung as a group in future gatherings. We also ended this group with the vocalization exercises we used on the wee kids. They liked making funny noises.

So our goal this year is to develop a list of songs that are age appropriate and can help teach English. Any ideas are welcome. Please, send them in. We’re even thinking of a performance of some kind of musical, maybe something with a mishmash of tunes to tell a simple story. More ideas, please. Pat Owens! Wake UP! You and your Portal buddies are experts at this stuff. Next year we might start an instrumental education program. We’ll see how the singing classes go.

You can read more about this great organization here:

Burt and Tom dress alike wherever they go.
Burt and Tom dress alike wherever they go.