The Choice Between Digging Deep and Coasting
When I told people I was moving to Belize to volunteer at a Catholic high school, the responses were unique. Some people panicked at the thought of me getting Zika. My parents were shocked, but supported me. Friends were excited for me but also sad, and most of my friends’ parents asked me if it was safe where I would be staying. A select few still don't know where Belize is, or they still think I said Brazil.
After months of attempting to wade through the sea of opinions about my future, I got on a plane to leave last August after graduating college that May. I spent the entire flight listening to a playlist a friend had made me as a farewell gift, holding on tightly to how I had come to my decision to leave all that was familiar behind. After visiting Belize for the first time last March on a mission trip during my senior year, I felt called to return as a full time volunteer. There was not a giant moment of revelation, but rather a series of tiny moments that all led to me being drawn back to Belize. It just seemed to fit. I moved into a house with 10 other American girl volunteers, while another 8 American boy volunteers moved into a house around the corner. After two weeks of training, the school year began and I was launched into the new world of teaching without any previous experience. Needless to say, it was intense.
Fast forward to one Friday night last September. A group of us sat outside in the mosquito filled air on our second story porch. A few of us swung lazily in hammocks, others sat in old folding chairs that were huddled around a table covered in the wake of a game of Scattergories. It was early enough in the semester that I still felt as though everything was surreal. Until this point I had been in school as a student for roughly 17 years. Now I was grading papers and trying to enforce rules I used to always break. I was living in a foreign country with a handful of Americans and I often woke up still shocked to find myself there each morning.
Our conversation bounced from funny student stories to the strange affinity many of us had developed for beans. Eventually we transitioned into talk over the reality that we were living in Belize. Someone mentioned how crazy it is that we were on this huge adventure and how crazy it is that our peers were back home doing normal things. I remember quickly reflecting on my day, looking expectantly for all the events that proved this to be true.
Our days can definitely get crazy. Teenagers are, in my experience, the most unpredictable humans in the world. You can never really predict how a class is going to go. Some days they sit quietly and do their work. Other days they are sugar crashing from lunch or crying because of a breakup. A few weeks ago a student crumpled up someone else’s poster for a Spanish project and threw it across the room. Again, unpredictable.
At the same time, our days have an underlying order, a steady routine: wake up, go to school, teach, grade, go to prayer, go to Mass, go home, sleep. Though the details fluctuate each day, the basics really do not. That specific day I recalled waking up and being annoyed that I would have to repeat the skirt I wore last Friday, because I came to Belize with only two bags and that’s the way it rolls. As I walked to school I felt a twinge of unwarranted irritation at the fact that I was sweating at 7 am. How dare it be hot in Central America, right? I probably scurried around all day needlessly frantic and waited impatiently for my walk home in the sunset to cheer me up.
Spoiler alert—it didn’t. I realized that the day seemed pretty normal—pretty mediocre, actually—to me. A day filled with tiny crosses that I chose to grudgingly drag behind me. I have no idea what kind of sweetness I missed, because the day was over.
It dawned on me then and I have thought about it every day since, I could actually ruin my year here. No backdrop of the jungle or an adventurous looking Instagram post will be able to stop my free will if I should decide to retract charity from my everyday life here. If I let the semester go by and I don’t dig deep, I will know it. The students will know it. God will know it. Being in Belize does not give me a buffer to just coast. It does not matter where I am or where my friends are. If we retract charity, we damage the experience. We make something extraordinary into something mediocre.
The temptation is absolutely there to believe that I am living on a different planet, frozen in time. Older adults tell me that they are so glad I’m doing this while I’m young and how great it is to have a year to figure out what I want to do next. It is easy to mentally hold in one hand all the things my friends and family are doing in the States, and in the other all the things my community and I are doing here. It is easy to believe that my life is on pause while everyone else carries on. The term “gap year” gets thrown around so casually that I forget what it insinuates. Coming to Belize is not what I’m doing while I plan my next step. It is transforming me and challenging me and I’m not just collecting experiences so I can save up to buy a life. This is my life, right now. Today. I have choices to make, the most important one being the choice between digging deep and coasting.
My students have been my best teachers in this regard. Most of them go home to dysfunction. Some of them go straight to work because they support their family. Some of them won’t be eating again until the school gives them their free breakfast tomorrow. Most of their families are fragmented and they have little to no consistency from adults in their lives. So many of them have been forced to grow up too fast, and yet they are better at choosing joy than I am now, let alone when I was their age. Yes, they are wild. My students often leave the room without permission, they whisper Spanish swear words under their breath when I give them detentions and they openly talk across the room to their friend in the middle of a lecture.They think I don't see them eating nachos in the back corner of the room and they still move my coffee cup when I’m not looking. But they also throw every teacher and friend a birthday party. They don't believe in the idea of trading at lunch because they just share everything. They sit with you at basketball games even after they serve the detentions they hated you for giving. They ask you about what your parents are like. They want to make sure that your house is safe at night and they invite you to their homes on the weekends. They want you to meet their aunts and uncles who live in the house on the corner. They bring in homemade medicine from their mom when you get sick. It may be messy at times. But they have taught me how to keep going, to simply do what needs to be done with love, and what it looks like to win back moments of innocence and joy even when it seems like life is against you.
That night on the porch I realized that inevitably as post-grads we are all meant to be in different places, but putting love into the ordinary is what makes something extraordinary. I have friends in the States who also just graduated from college. Some are navigating new cities on their own. Some moved home and are putting in the work to mend what is broken in their families. Some of them are newlyweds and preparing to bring life into the world. Some have found healing and have fallen in love again. None of this is ordinary. When we love hard, all eventually blooms. It doesn't matter where we go, but it matters that we do it.
God seems to love irony, as it is in the simple routine of things that the most normal moments have been made so special here. They are made in staying that extra few minutes to listen to a student, even if they are just telling me silly stories and laughing at my attempts to speak Spanish. They are made when I choose to find the idiosyncrasies of my housemates endearing instead of annoying, because over time it distinguishes real relationship from small talk. They are made when I don't just keep myself busy and push through so that what hurts my students won’t hurt me as much. When I allow myself to be moved by their sorrow and hold it in my hands for awhile, sharing their joy is so much better.
I don’t know where I will be next year, nor do I know what will happen tomorrow. I was called to Belize. I came. Now I just need to love until I’m asked to move on.