Bailey Whitman '20
Germantown Academy, Fort Washington, Pennsylvania
Change is revolution and evolution; it's a big moment remembered forever and a lifetime of small forgetting; and it's the sudden cackle of glaciers calving as well as the slow sublimation of the icecap. As the youngest of seven, I've watched each of my siblings declare adulthood by sporting a wolverine beard, by visiting a lover before coming home, and by homesteading dilapidated first apartments with IKEA optimism. Spectating growing up is fun, but I didn't move quickly through my own childhood because I loved "the baby benefits" of being the cutest the longest, getting the last piece of cake first, and being talked to like a grownup long before deserving it. Besides, I imagined adulthood as a defeat by nature: I'd cease to exist, sucked down by time's undertow, kicking and struggling against being dragged away from the shore of my ideal childhood. Little did I know that real adulthood would feel like those gentle pretend waves on a Gulf beach. But unlike their lazy predictability, adulthood caught me by surprise.
My older brother and I travelled to Honduras to work with Chorti Mayan children in three scarily poor little mountain schools in the summer of 2013. Before departing, I lost myself dreaming of a magical place and mystical people. I practiced Spanish conversational language while Popol Vuh, travel books, maps and books on Honduran culture covered my bed. My thoughts were drunk on visions of exotic Latin American culture, but by the morning we finally left, fear had replaced fantasy. As the plane climbed sharply up into the Philadelphia sky, I told myself the nausea was airsickness, but I knew it was really fear sickness. What the hell had I gotten myself into?
When I heard the customs agent say "Welcome to Honduras, sir," that "sir" struck me as ironic because it implied maturity and I felt far from being an adult. Then as we drove out across the country, my admiration for Mayan culture and South American Kerouac narrative shimmered together in the heat of the Honduran sun. Pulling into the schoolyard, the car was swarmed like a fish school rising to food by about sixty little kids—it felt like 300— dressed in what would be rags in the US. My brother and I were introduced as their new English and math teachers from America. In response I stood there muttering sounds I naively thought were Spanish before sinking into the hell heat of embarrassment. But the kids' laughter lofted my spirit like an unexpected cool breeze.
The mountain footpath I walked daily to small huts made of hay and mud to teach the children felt literally narrow, but it also felt figuratively narrow: like the thin ribbon of numbers, art, and language that connected us. I enjoyed every minute of their attention while learning to include them by listening to their views. Questions I would have once felt trivial now intrigued me. Their almost giddy love of class rekindled my own love of learning. I was teaching the kids but also re-learning from them what a fun world it is when you're curious.
On the last day I dug a hole and nailed boards to a wooden pole. I then painted the kids’ hands and had them imprint them on the basketball backboard. The net-less hoop stood high on the baked clay hill. The kids shrieked with joy. As I watched, the basket was so perfectly silhouetted on a gaudy sunset that I had to squint to see what one of the children had written above the handprints. "FAMILIA." For the first time, I was in charge of my own family, and even though I played basketball with them like a kid on a summer night in a city playground, I was the adult in my family.
I didn't go home again; I visited as an adult for the first time.