For the last two months, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons you could find me at the beck and call of Seño (how they address the teachers here) Juana* and her 6th grade class. As a teacher’s assistant, I handed out vitamins, squeezed out dollops of toothpaste on the students’ outstretched toothbrushes, collected supplies from the library, helped with English pronunciation during la clase de ingles, walked sick kids to the clinic, and supervised the washing of cups and utensils after a snack of bread smeared with beans (sadly, not Nutella) or glasses of cereal.
Even after a few weeks, I hadn’t made much headway in befriending the 12- to 14-year-olds. They finally, finally, started to remember my name, or at least use the well-intentioned moniker Seño Juana had bestowed upon me: Elly.
I took the position as classroom assistant in hopes of improving my conversational Spanish. I hadn’t really thought through how it would feel until I’d reached the level of improvement I so desired. Acclimating to the new nonprofit culture and Guatemalan classroom norms while simultaneously deciphering a hefty dose of Spanish slang and an entirely new pronoun (vos) to conjugate left me with the uncomfortable feeling of never knowing exactly what I was supposed to be doing.
Mostly, I just felt silly walking 14-year-olds down the hall to the bathroom or slightly superfluous when asked to help out on an art project when the students obviously possess greater artistic prowess than I do. (Seriously, these kids embroidered and stuffed their own pillows while I struggled to cut their fabric in a straight line.)
I had grown accustomed to living the volunteer life of dazed and confused, when one day I was given an order that I hoped to God I would not have to carry through.
After lunch and table clearing and teeth brushing, my teacher said to me, “We’re going to have English class, then art and snack.”
So far, so good.
Then she broke off on a tangent about one of the students–let’s call him Luis.
“Luis comes here dirty sometimes. So he needs to bathe,” Juana told me. I was vaguely aware that the downstairs bathrooms had showers, but I was unsure what Luis’ poor hygiene had to do with me.
I would soon find out.
“Elly, can you watch him bathe? Don’t bathe him; he’ll bathe himself. Just watch to make sure he does a good job. Sometimes he doesn’t do a good job.”
Maybe it was one of those days when my Spanish brain malfunctions. Maybe I had misunderstood. She couldn’t have really said that, could she?
Heart beating in my throat, I swallowed and nodded my assent like an idiot, too scared that I had heard correctly the first time to risk asking for clarification. Too scared that she would explicitly tell me to go into the bathroom with him. At least this way I could pretend I hadn’t understood what she meant.
The students sat down for English class and I prayed bath time would never come.
You see, Luis is 12 or 13. And of the male persuasion. I think it’s fair to assume we would both be traumatized by my bath time supervision.
So I decided that, if bath time were indeed a real event that Juana was referring to, I would watch Luis go into the bathroom with his soap and towel and watch to see if he comes out clean. That must be what she meant, right?
The fateful moment arrived around 3:30 pm. My palms were sweating, I fiddled with my watch, my earrings, stared intently at the speckles on the floor. Luis grabbed the bath supplies–soap, towel, and, of course, hair gel–and scurried out the door. I followed him out like a prisoner forced to a cell. I’m not even sure he knew I was there. We rounded the stairs, him a few paces in front of me, and approached the boys bathroom–the multi-stalled, communal, boys bathroom. He opened the door, rushed in, and slammed the door shut behind him while I exhaled a sigh of relief.
I was left standing creepily outside the boys room replaying what I remembered of the teacher’s bath buddy request for the better part of an hour. After which, Luis finally emerged, if not certifiably clean then at least sufficiently wet and his hair freshly gelled.
And that was proof enough for me.
*Names changed to protect their privacy