Scott's Entry #12

"Expectations Transformed"

Guatemala is a land of expectations transformed.  Take, for example, my work life. 

I used to communicate by e-mail, web chat, and fax.  Now, I trust the indigenous woman who answers the community phone to relay messages to the village about my workshop schedules. 

I used to travel using upgrade certificates and bonus miles.  Now I board a Partridge Family-style school bus with scores of other Guatemalans hoping for an inch of cushion to call home.  

Teaching Music In A Church Without Walls

I used to receive direct deposit checks containing my daily bread, as well as withdrawals from government acronyms.  One day last week, my salary was a live chicken and a bundle of bananas.  As freaked out as I was to receive such a thing, I was humbled to learn that the average Mayan in the Guatemalan highlands works for an entire day to earn enough Quetzales to purchase a still-clucking bird.

(Note to clients:  Those of you now wishing to use our pay-by-poultry plan must fill out our form KFC-22.)

This list could go on for pages and pages.  However, the point is that the environment here forces a person to throw expectations out the window and adopt a new mindset.  In the U.S., I had grown accustomed to combing the latest trade publications and books to find the latest information on leadership trends and interpersonal dynamics. 

Here, my audience is largely indigenous.  They have never heard of Tom Peters or Zig Ziglar.    They have little interest in the latest management trends from the “industrialized world.”  Communication and negotiation in the U.S. and Europe are marked by a directness that Guatemalans view as offensive.  Instead, they prefer a softer approach.  They find their inspiration and direction in all things spiritual and musical.  This was not what I expected, but I have adapted.  Old lesson plans and program designs have been tossed out the window. 

This past weekend, I had an interesting opportunity.  A church in the village of Los Angeles had asked me to come and deliver a workshop.  (Not to be confused with Southern California) They wanted me to teach music with a positive message.  These songs would later form the foundation of a program on leadership and empowerment.  It was going to be a rather informal gathering.  Due to the size of families here (huge) and the lack of resources, I was told to expect that many people would be bringing their children. 

I had visited Los Angeles before, and noticed that the people LOVED music, and responded to it with tremendous energy.  However, most of their songs reflected struggle, pain, and hardship.  In fact, this is true of much of the Guatemalan musical tradition.  However, these depressing themes are not something you want to use as the basis for your development program.  So, I amassed a list of some positive songs.  Due to the time of year, I yanked the majority of them from Kasey Kasem’s Holiday Favorites list.  Songs of hope.  Songs of happiness.  Songs of joy.  I hopped into the back of the pickup truck with my guitar and a bag of materials and rode 90 minutes to Los Angeles.

When I arrived at the church,  I greeted everyone individually with a handshake and pleasantries, which is the custom here.  To just shout “Hello Everybody!” to the room is viewed as cold.   After the exchanges, I took a look around the room.  About 20 people had arrived.  Some were there as participants.  Others were there as tag-alongs.  Everyone was eager and attentive.  However, I noticed one boy in particular sitting by his mother, staring off into space.  He was probably eight years old, wearing a pair of brown, well-worn jeans and a hand-me-down plaid shirt that was mis-buttoned.  She would lean over and say a few words to him, but he was unresponsive.  He had a blank look on his face, and looked completely miserable.  I wrote him off as a lost cause and focused on the others there.

For the next two hours, we talked about joy, empowerment, fulfillment and relationships.  We used songs and spiritual passages to punctuate points.  There was a lot of activity.  Everyone tried their hand at playing the piano.   We belted out happy Christmas songs until we were hoarse.  Most sang loud enough to rattle the tin roof.  Still others offered opinions and insights.  Though many couldn’t read (including the boy’s mother), they participated by quickly memorizing songs (truly amazing to witness) and commenting on the words that were read and spoken.  The energy in the room was contagious. 

Still, the boy was a lump.  A complete void.  Never moved.

Once we had finished, I gave the floor to the leader, the pastor of the church.  As is customary in Guatemala, he was incredibly gracious and thanked me for being there.  There was genuine appreciation in his voice.  What’s more, he wanted the group to pray for my health and safety for my remaining time in Guatemala.  “It can be dangerous here for tall gringos like Scott” he said.  Everyone laughed.  Humbled, my face turned the shade of a rose.

Then, he motioned to the mother of the boy.  She took her son by the arm and led him to the front of the church to stand by me and the pastor.

The pastor then looked at me and said, "Scott, I'd like to introduce you to Josue. He fell down an incline four years ago and badly hurt himself.  Three months later, he lost his eyesight.”

He then pointed to a six inch scar on the boy's head, visible through his close-cropped hair. 

He continued, “The doctors in Guatemala City operated to remove a tumor that had formed, but that's about all they could do.  So... today, we would also like to pray for Josue.  If you would be so kind, we would like you to say a few words in your own language."

I was floored.  I finally realized why Josue was so miserable.  Poverty is hard on a society, but it is especially hard on the handicapped.   Here, because of the scarcity of resources, the expectation is that a handicapped person is a drain on society.  Josue had been tossed aside.   He had spent the past four years sitting around the village or being led around by his mother on her errands.

After we prayed, many people came up and touched the boy and said "God Bless YOU".  There was a lot of pity and compassion for the boy, but it was obvious that they didn't see much hope for him, save for some miracle from above that would give him new eyes.

The people continued to mill about.  In the crowd, a man invited me to join him for lunch at a his family's house.  Another asked for music.  A tiny women asked me when I would be coming back.  Through it all, I noticed Josue sitting in the corner by his mother.

I walked over to him and said, "Hi, would you like to play the keyboard?"

He didn't respond.  He wouldn't talk to me.  Then, his mother turned to me and said "El no puede."  (He can't)  Silence.

Normally, I wouldn’t challenge a mother.  However, this was different.  By pure luck, I was born in a country where Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles do American Bandstand and sing Pepsi jingles.

I grabbed the boy by the arms. "Tu Puedes!  Ven Acá!"  (You can!  Come here!).

So, I basically kidnapped the boy and carted him up to the front of the room.  There, the keyboard sat on a table.  Josue was still expressionless.  I took his hand and ran it around the perimeter of the keyboard.  Finally, his hands rested on the keys.  I said, "Tócalo"  (Play it). 

He was incredibly shy, but understandably so.  Finally, he pressed down on one of the keys and it made the sound of a pipe organ.  He giggled as the corners of his mouth turned upward. 

We spent the next fifteen minutes running his hands across the keys to learn the difference between the black ones and the white ones.  We learned where middle C was.   I asked, "¿Puede sentirlo?"  (can you feel it)  He answered me... "Sí!”    As the minutes wore on, he responded more and more.

Then, he started playing the keys by himself.  He was smiling and giggling the whole time.  I stood behind him with my arms around him, holding his hands in different positions so he could play the chords.  Finally, I asked him if he wanted to play and sing "Silent Night."  He agreed with a big nod.  So, with my hand over his, we played and sang the song. 

When I looked up, the rest of the group was watching us – silent.  

My ride motioned to me that we needed to leave, so I walked Josue toward his chair.  I asked him if he had a good time.  “Sí”, he said.  When we had found our way back, Josue’s mom was smiling with a tear on her cheek.  We sat next to her.   She put her hand on his head and mussed his hair.

We all have images in our head of what the future looks like.  Unfortunately, these preconceptions are often the wall between opportunity and possibility.   The promise of the human spirit has the ability to transform all of our expectations, if we only give it the chance.

So… what are you expecting today?