I hate limits. Does anyone ever put a limit on your thoughts? How many words you can say? I didn't think so.
Which is why I was incredibly distraught, to say the least, when I found out that "250 word minimum" didn't come without "500 word maximum" for college application essays. After working for 2 hours to beef up my mediocre essay, I had to spend the next 5 hours - not an exaggeration - getting rid of 744 words. So here is the real essay, the real me, all 1244 words. Before the ugly revision.
The sound of stridulating crickets filled the humid, stagnant air. I reached down and swatted a bug from my leg, sticky and glossy from layers of insect repellent and sunscreen. I stepped down onto the path and watched as the powdery, pebbly dirt rose in small clusters and off into the grey of the sky.
Our group shuffled towards the school, a large sea-foam green building with a corrugated metal roof. For the most part it was open in layout; perhaps to alleviate weather-related damage. The building was only temporary, the government’s attempt to bandage a glaring problem. Their school was destroyed last year in a flood that left the school in ruins.
It took less than half of a second to comprehend the circumstances. This was not my school, with cloud-white columns lining the entrance like a great monument of ancient Greece.
A mother calling her children, a faint sound of laughter. Shoes shuffling in the dirt.
Against the wall and through the chain link fence we saw children – boys, girls, preschool-age, teenagers – and we walked nervously to the classroom. I couldn’t help but smile at their beautiful, youthful, olive-skinned faces and their dark, eager eyes. They smiled back and waved. Some mumbled to each other in Spanish, but I had not a clue what they were speaking about.
The headmaster showed us a classroom, and motioned for the children to come forward. I put the butcher paper I had carried on a small beaten-down desk and eyed the room. Concrete floors. Chain link fence walls. A faded black chalkboard with a thin film of chalky residue. A single teacher’s desk with nothing on it. No books, no pens, no paper.
We invited the children in and we began to introduce ourselves. I sat next to a small boy holding a red marker. The fine lines in the palms of his hands were coated with dirt, as were his small fingernails. His deep brown eyes caught mine and he smiled.
“Hello. I am Megan.”
He sat silently, smiling back at me with his glowing bronze skin, his deep brown marble-like eyes trying to make sense of someone who looked so different from himself.
I pointed to myself. “Megan.”
He tilted his head in confusion. I was speaking plain English, and I knew I spoke clearly enough. But it had never occurred to me that none of these children had ever left Playa Copal, or even La Cruz, in their entire lives.
I ransacked my brain for just an inkling of Spanish. “T—tu . . . nombre?” I managed to say, realizing afterwards that it rang like French in my ears.
Born and raised in America, I have grown up speaking English every day since I was a little over a year old. I think, write, dream, and talk in English. And here I was trying to do the same to someone who, like me, grew up speaking the same language for most of his life. Unlike me, that language was Spanish; a verbal code I had not yet deciphered.
“Megan,” I repeated, pointing to myself. “Megan.”
I gestured to him. “..Nombre?”
Nothing. I waited with bated breath for a response.
I pointed to him again. “Antonio?”
He nodded with satisfaction.
“Bonj—hola, Antonio!” I caught myself just before I had completely confused him with French.
I lifted my hand and picked off small pebbles that had stuck into them. I picked up a marker and started to draw a figure that I knew we would both recognize.
“Sun,” I declared. “Sun.”
“Si, si. Sun.”
He sat intently waiting for me to draw something new. I racked my brain and decided to stay simple.
“Dog,” I said clearly as I pointed to the drawing.
“Si.” But did he really understand what I drew?
“Umm, en español por favor?” I prayed that he understood.
A pause. “Perro.” One of the only Spanish words I recognized.
I sat there completely in awe. I drew a dog. He saw a perro. But we know them as the same.
“He got it!” I exclaimed to some of the other people in my group. “I can’t believe he got it!”
Antonio looked back at me, waiting for more.
“I am happy,” I said as I smiled.
“Hahppy,” he smiled.
I asked him what that meant in Spanish. “Yo..yo soy contento.”
I am happy in French is Je suis contente. Contente, contento. I am happy. He understood more than just a picture on a dirty piece of butcher paper. He understood an emotion. We had established a connection. He understood me and I understood him. We had communicated.
I started beaming and I gave him a high-five, an American tradition that all of the students would keep with them even after we left. It was then that I knew he understood.
After this initial breakthrough, a lot of picture-drawing and acting out, I learned from Antonio the Spanish words for monkey, snake, cow, brother, and sister. I discovered that he was ten years old, just like my brother, and that he lived on a farm with cows, chickens, ducks, and dogs. He lived with his mother, father, and three brothers, both older and younger. He was surprised when I told him that I didn’t have cows at my house.
I left the school that day with dirt on my hands, sweat on my forehead and a new perspective in my mind. And in fact, I learned more from the students, especially Antonio, than I had taught to them. I learned that day that communication comes in many different forms; words are simply an easier mode of communication. I thought that the only way to communicate was to talk to people, and that while it was fun to play charades or Pictionary, gestures and pictures typically proved ineffective at communicating. But this day at the school, I was proven wrong.
Language used to be a barrier; something that prevented me from entering the lives of another culture. If I could not speak their language, I could not communicate with them. They would be speaking in a code that I could not crack. But now I have learned that communication manifests itself in different ways, through not only words but pictures, gestures, laughing, and smiling.
I had a breakthrough that day. And I know it has changed me because I can understand the way people communicate even better. We might not think we use anything but words when we communicate, but in America, we communicate in ways we didn’t think we could. The way we shift our weight to one foot can say more about our mood than simply saying what we feel. The way we can express words through motions and acting says as much as the words themselves. The way the skin by our eyes creases and folds when we smile can say everything about what we feel without uttering a word.
These simple nuances in human tendencies are etched into our minds like pictographs engraved into a cuneiform tablet. We all might carry different dictionaries in our minds, but we all have the capability to communicate without words. Words stitch cultures together, but nonverbal communication stitches humanity together.
We boarded the bus back to our house. All of the schoolchildren surrounded the bus, waving and smiling, waiting for us to come back next week. I couldn’t help but smile the whole way back.
Dear Spanish speakers, sorry for the lack of accents on a few words. They are added in the new version. And dear college admissions directors, please read this one instead.