Death in El Refugio: A Teacher’s Emotional Response

Lindana Guissel Amaya 04-07-10

To be a teacher is to receive a double, maybe even a triple blessing.  For two and a half years I was a volunteer English teacher in the now defunct Colegio Lidia Valiente of Primera Iglesia Bautista Nazarea in El Refugio, Ahuachapán in El Salvador.  I had previously been a teacher of special education and a bilingual 4th grade class in the U.S.

The first blessing comes from watching young minds develop and knowing you had a hand in it.  The second blessing comes from the special relationship that develops over the course of a school year.  If you’re a teacher worthy of the title, you share a unique love with your students and their families.  It is easy to think of and treat your students the way you treat your own kids and feel about them in a like manner.  You are concerned when a mother calls to tell you her child is very sick.  You take a kind of parental pride when a student succeeds in some challenging task.  Your reward is not in your relatively meager paycheck but in the fruit, cookies, or little gifts your kids bring to school from time to time.  You treasure their Valentine, birthday and Christmas cards as you do from your own kids.  You wish you had a refrigerator big enough to post them.  You get invited to weddings, get to hold the new baby, and sometimes you find yourself at a funeral.

When your students are promoted to succeeding grades or move out of your district you’ll lose contact with a few.  But most will greet you the next school year or in the super market with a warm hug and some news about how well they’re doing in the next grade.  Some are sweet enough to tell you that you’re still their favorite teacher.

Here in El Refugio, it isn’t much different from how it was in the U.S.  My former students now attend the public school or the Catholic school on the next block.  Some are in my own children’s classes.  I see many when they file out of the one door by grade after school.  Some are in kindergarten and others in 9th (and last) grade.  From the younger kids I still get a wonderful hug.  With the older kids I exchange handshakes and a few words on a more adult level.  They are all my family.

Last night we had a death in the family.  The mother of a kindergartener passed away apparently from a combination of prescribed or hospital injected drugs given her at two different national hospitals.  She leaves a husband and two young children.  We passed the house taking Adriana to school and saw a bunch of people and the front door open.  Margarita, who knew of the woman’s medical problem, figured out she had died.  This was the first I’d known about it.  I’d passed the woman a couple of days ago and we exchanged greetings.

On our way home from the school, the daughter, a niece, and a girl cousin, all my ex-students, were on the front porch smiling and watching kids passing on their way to school.  I was still trying to digest the death of the young mom.  Margarita told me that the mom had been her instructor when she worked in the factory in Chalchuapa.  But there was little Guissel with Sissi and Karlita smiling as if it were just another day off from school.  I couldn’t imagine what might be on her mind.  How does a seven-year old girl respond, adjust, deal with the sudden death of her mother.  Overnight she becomes more than the big sister to her four-year old brother, she is the lady of the house.

As Margarita was scooting around the corner, I reached up to the porch to take Sissi’s hand, then Guissel’s, and finally Karlita’s.  There was the usual love that passed between us.  Nowadays, I’m more than just the old teacher.  I’m the father of one of their compañeras, Adriana.  Still, I saw no sadness in Giselle’s eyes.  No sign of tears having fallen on her cheeks.  Nothing but a little girl’s joy at being a little girl among her cousins.  I only greeted them and moved on to catch up to my wife.

I don’t think the body has come home from the hospital in Santa Ana where she left us.  Maybe then this little angel will begin to understand what has happened.  Maybe it’s the stoicism people here exhibit when there is tragedy.  And there is much tragedy in El Salvador.  Maybe my gringo emotions are churning my stomach solely because of my death culture.

There will be a viewing and wake at the house as is the custom.  The funeral will follow.  Our dead don’t get embalmed and are buried as soon as possible.  I don’t know how this will conflict with Margarita’s pressing schedule for making and selling her tamales this afternoon.  I may go alone.  My gut just wants to make sure my kids are alright.  Meanwhile, I’ll put aside some time to pray for the whole family–and to ask the too common “Why?”.

Lindana Guissel Amaya 9-15-09
Independence Day Parade


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