Originally, I was slated to spend the semester in Bogota, Columbia. Unfortunately, at about that time, there were a number of American tourists who were kidnapped and killed. My program was cancelled and I was left in the wind.
What I wound up doing was probably more dangerous.
I had a whole semester I didn't need to graduate, so I did what any impetuous 21 year old would do: I moved in with my boyfriend in the nearest big city and made up something to do with myself.
All I had to do was find the school.
Now, this was a while back and there was no convenient smart phone in every pocket. Most school districts were just beginning to create their first websites. I got out this old timey marvel you may remember called a telephone book. It had lists of all the Chicago schools.
I called every high school on the list until I got someone on the phone who could talk some sense.
You would not believe the range of ridiculous responses I got when I informed the administrative assistant who answered the phone that I wanted to arrange an unpaid internship at the school.
At least three people just hung up on me.
A few more put me on hold and left me there. Getting hung up on was faster.
I was told by one person that their school didn't engage in such foolishness.
There was a lot of blustery nonsense aimed at me while a suitable response was sought...and never found.
Finally, I called a school where the administrative assistant said briskly, "You'll want to talk Mr. Johnson about that, let me transfer you." And she did! And he talked sense too! He asked me to fax him the appropriate paperwork and set up an interview type meeting.
I had NO idea where this school was or what I was getting myself into. That was probably for the best.
The first time I went to the school, I got lost. It was clearly not a good part of town, but I was basically too ignorant to feel nervous.
I drove around in circles in the shadows of what I later learned was the Robert Taylor housing projects until I saw a what looked like a school.
As I pulled up, I realized that the building was a school, but it was boarded up and obviously not in use.
There was really no one around and I was at a loss.
After a few minutes, I saw a man walking down the sidewalk, so I pulled up next to him, rolled down my window and politely asked "Excuse me, do you know where XYZ High School is?"
Hand to God, that man fell down on the ground laughing at me. He laughed so hard, I thought he was going to have a hernia or something.
Eventually, he crawled back up to my window and pointed me in the right direction.
I spent the next four months getting an amazing first hand education. I learned more about culture and poverty and hope and struggle and learning and building relationships than anything I had done before or have done since could teach me.
It never fails to amaze me how much perspective that experience gave me and how much I am still shaped by those few short months spending three days a week in a high school I chose for no other reason than that the secretary could answer a simple question.
When I am frustrated or worried or overwhelmed, I think about that experience:
the metal detectors, the armed police officers, the 16 security guards, the locked doors, and fenced off (yes, fenced off) portions of the building to keep students out, the same day detentions, the principal dressing down teachers during faculty meetings, the required escorts to and from my car, the lack of supplies and books, the students who spoke an English I didn't understand, the girls who had never met a 21 year old without babies or at least an abortion, the teachers wearing holstered weapons under their blazers (there were 3 I knew of)...
I think about laughing with those kids, learning their language, enjoying their conversation, hearing their dreams, seeing their fear, and joy, and anger. I think about how little I taught them and very much I learned from them.
And my petty problems don't seem so big or scary.
So even though it is incredibly embarrassing to recognize my own naivete and even though I got laughed off the farm, so to speak, it was a good thing.