On Thursday at 2 pm, it was time for Robin and I to give our autoestima (self-esteem) charla to our youth group. Charla is just another word for “talk”. Out of other life skills topics we presented to our group, autoestima was the most popular. It was interesting to chat with Robin about the ways in which one can gain and lose confidence in oneself. I ended up realizing that the times in which I had low self esteem was because of people close to me at the time. Because I trusted them, I allowed them to control my perception of myself. When I thought of the times in which I was the most confident, I realized that those were the times when I traveled alone. When I studied and traveled in Europe, I became much more confident in my abilities because I had no one close to me to either shoot down or validate my decisions. It was almost time to start, so we taped our t-chart and venn diagram papelógraphos on the walls of the café, and waited for our students.
Since 2 pm really means 2:15 in Nica time, that is when we started. I was excited to be able to speak to them in Spanish, since we usually only speak to them in English during class. We asked our 8 students (all of whom are in their very late teens/early twenties) to think about a person they know who is very self-confident. We asked them to write their “calidades”, or characteristics. Our students just looked at us as if we were still speaking in English to them. They weren’t writing anything down, so we gave them examples of what a confident person looks like. They tend to walk assertively and with their head held high. Then Julio, one of our students, mentioned that the word “calidad” was not the same thing as “cualidad”. We had given them the wrong word! Once we made that distinction and gave exampled, they started jotting down examples. All of them but one wrote something down.
I collected their slips of paper and dropped them into my baseball cap. We each read off different characteristics. A confident person is able to get through difficult times in an emotionally consistent way, someone said. Another said that a confident person is extroverted. As we took the time to write down what a person with high self esteem and low self esteem has on the venn diagram, I took the time to end their misconception that an introverted person is timid and antisocial. “I’m introverted”, I said. I explained to them that being around others drains my energy. I am an intent listener, and I only contribute my thoughts when I consider them important enough. I hate talking for the sake of talking. Yes, I’m a teacher and love my students, but when I come home, I need alone time to recharge my batteries. Extroverts, on the other hand, gain their energy from others. I see this as an enviable superpower. They realized that no, I wasn’t shy, and that I could still be in introvert. They said that introverts get nervous at parties. I just said that I like parties, but sometimes I’d rather just play with the cat or the dog at a party instead of having to make small talk. Shadae, my roommate in France, knows that I have also been known to take naps at my own parties. I love people, but sometimes, you just need some good ol’ introvert time to process what’s going on in the world and to make sense out of it. Or, you see meowing at a cat just as much of a productive activity as making small talk with humans.
We compared the factors that can hurt or improve one’s self-esteem. I talked about how in our digital age, people’s self-confidence is determined by how many “likes” their selfies get. We’ve all been guilty of wishing our photos would be liked by as many people as possible. The fact that the picture of your Starbucks latte gets 1 like or 10 likes shouldn’t affect how you viewed that experience, but humans feed off of a sense of validation. The students then mentioned that family matters affect self-esteem. How you are raised has a large impact on how confident you are, especially as a child. Marvin also mentioned that motivation affects self esteem. If you aren’t motivated to achieve a goal, then you don’t have much to base your self-confidence on. These were all interesting thoughts that I hadn’t thought too much about. When I thought about self-esteem, I just thought of particular moments where I felt insecure and when I felt confident. I hadn’t really asked myself why I felt that way until recently.
Although the charla was completely in Spanish, there were still some lulls in the discussion. I’m used to Americans having something to say for every issue, but here, when I ask a question, I’m getting used to the longer wait time for a response. Nicaraguans love having passionate conversations in informal settings, but when it comes to classes or workshops, it seems as if they are quite as used to giving their opinion. I assume because they are used to receiving information in the form of lectures. At least that’s how it is in schools.
In order for our students to feel more comfortable discussing these very personal topics, I realized that a little vulnerability could go a long way. I mentioned that, just like almost every middle school girl, I had struggled with body image. As an awkward twelve-year old with braces, I remember crying to my mom after my Dad told me I needed to lose weight. “Why can’t I just look like Jennifer Lopez?” I asked my mom. She comforted me and told me that it was her job to look that good, and that I was fine the way I was. Instead of listening to her no-nonsense advice, I instead began running and dieting. By the time I was 14, I was 5’4’’ and weighed 109 pounds. I was all muscle, but eventually, I had to stop running for the cross country team in high school because I was injured, most likely from the dramatic weight loss that happened when I should have been nurturing my body as an early teenager. I told my students that because I wanted to please my dad, I ended up having to stop doing something I loved. I’m sure that wasn’t his intention, but when you are a teenager, you try your best to please the people you care about because you not exactly sure who you are yet.
After putting myself out there, I could feel that I’d gained more of my students’ trust. They began sharing their opinions more easily, and they elaborated more. We then gave them two scenarios to talk about. Our first was about Mario and José, two best friends. José told Mario that Mario wasn’t a “real man” because he hadn’t had a girlfriend in a while and he didn’t cat call women. What should Mario tell José? When I wrote this story, my goal was for us to smash the patriarchy. Just kidding! Well, kind of. I wanted to talk about how men pressure each other in this machista culture to act a certain way because if they don’t then their masculinity will be put into question. Right after reading this, the men shifted uncomfortably in their seats, and they thought about it. “Well, he should just get a girlfriend!”, one of them said. While shaking his head, he asked “Who wouldn’t want a girlfriend?”. I thought it was funny that to them, having a girlfriend is like going to the market. If you want one, all you have to do is get one. “What if the girl doesn’t want to be his girlfriend?”, Robin asked. I laughed. It was a funny situation, yet still a little tense. They kept thinking.
Then another one of our students offered two different possibilities. Mario is either dealing with some form of homosexuality since he is not able to or interested in having a girlfriend, or, he is not confident enough to get one. The men were reading into this situation differently than the way I thought they would, and it was interesting to see their point of view. Finally, Marvin mentioned that Mario could just be motivated to focus on his studies. He might like girls, but for the time being, his attention is called to something else. That was the answer I waiting to hear. I’d like to continue having these kinds of conversations with the group, because they listened to one another and offered different responses for each point of view. They did so in a respectful way as well. Looking back, I wish I’d set an expectation that we were to respect each others’ points of view, but luckily, we had a group that was on board with that.
The female scenario involved Maria and Carla, two best friends. Maria is insecure about her body, and she won’t accept Carla’s compliments. Maria thinks her clothes don’t look good on her. What should Carla do to help her friend? Since there were only two women and 6 men in our group, the men dominated the conversation. One of the men said that Carla should find other people to compliment her, so Maria doesn’t think that she is the only person who thinks her body is fine. Our female student replied that it wouldn’t really work because receiving compliments from strangers isn’t as meaningful as it is from people you know, and it might seem more fake. Marvin then gave a “practical” solution to the problem, saying that Carla should just show before and after pictures of herself to see how far she’s come. I noticed that the men wanted concrete solutions to problems, but the women in the group were more critical of the implications of these solutions. It felt good to see the men admit to the women in the group that they don’t think women should be anorexic. The feminist inside of me was so happy for these little victories. We didn’t come to as much of a conclusion during this scenario, so I suggested that Carla should just push Maria to ask herself why she isn’t accepting compliments. That’s what Maria needs to focus on, since self-esteem is usually more genuine when it comes from ones’ self. How people get to a certain level is just so contextual.
By the end, we asked everyone to share something that they like about themselves, and something they’d like to change. Some of their answers were:
1. Not being so trusting of people when sharing personal information
2. Focusing on being less of a perfectionist
3. Being more humble
4. Not being as insecure and being more willing to take risks, since confident people are more willing to take risks
5. Being even more open to what life brings.
Then they asked me to share. I paused to think, because I couldn’t think of anything that I wanted to change about myself aside from what was already mentioned. Instead, I just talked about how much I’ve changed in the past two years. After graduating from college, I felt as if I had to live up to this expectation of being a Wellesley grad who had it together and who had the perfect job after graduating. Instead of accepting life for what it was, I continued to think about how life should be. I was trapped in a job I didn’t like because I wanted to feed the perception that my friends had of me that I was successful. If I quit my job, then I would be another post-grad failure. The year after college was one of the toughest of my life, because I lived for other people, hoping it would make me happy. Now, I realize that I could have quit my job and that I would have had nothing to lose. When you hit bottom, the only way to go is up. Instead, I just toughed out the year until my contract ended. I learned a lot as a tutor in San Antonio, but I realize now that working in education in that city could have been a lot less painful. The only thing keeping me from quitting education was the year I spent teaching in Boston. Every day, my students and coworkers challenged me to continue learning.
This was my favorite youth group meeting. I’m still processing everything that happened. I remember telling my friend Raquel (who teaches in Granada), about how much I actually learned from everyone, and she said “Isn’t that the best? When the teachers become the students?”. Indeed. At the end of each youth group meeting, I usually clap and pull my hands apart to signal that it’s finished. It’s been a running joke that people don’t listen to my cue and stay to chat. This time, everyone dashed out of the room. I thought it was funny that they all actually had somewhere to be right after class. Two minutes later, they reappeared, singing Happy Birthday to me in English. Elena was holding the most gorgeous cake I’d ever been given. It was decorated with green and blue flowers and it said “Felicidades Charleen”! on the side. Even the Nicaraguans who have known me for a month can spell my name correctly. America, take notes. Right before I blew out the four candles, I struggled to make a wish. I’d say that’s a pretty good sign.