We’d been in Chile for five days and I was really missing communicating with ease. Negotiating the language barrier was exhausting and I was sure I was beginning to lose my mind.
As our neon yellow bus pulled up to the school, it was clear that the people riding in the monstrosity were not locals. I saw through the rectangular windows the eager faces of the schoolchildren and I repeated to myself the mantra I had left home with: I’d change someone’s life.
“Group One: Kindergarten,” my Spanish teacher, tour guide and fill-in parent said. We were left to fend for ourselves in the large classroom filled with forty pairs of eyes, all focused intently on us. Just the night before we’d learned that this group of mainly five-year olds had been victims of different forms of abuse.
I found that there was one thing more difficult than having to speak fluently to native speakers in a language I had only studied for two years – speaking it to a crowd of children. They fired questions in rapid succession, expecting me to not only understand what was said, but also how to respond.
Doubt had begun to creep in and a girl with innocent eyes began moving towards me. What are you going to do? You’ve only got about 600 pesos on you and I doubt they’ll know or want to hear you badly sing the SpongeBob theme song. Think Brittany, THINK! As commanding as my inner voice was, I remained at a loss for ideas.
“Hola,” I said as she touched the paint splattered sweatshirt I was wearing, trying to determine whether this girl from the E.E.U.U. was just a figment of her imagination. “¿CÃ³mo estÃ¡s?”
The response seemed to be beyond anything we’d learned in Spanish class. I panicked, unsure if what I’d say would make sense or if I’d fail at this whole exchange thing.
I tried to decipher again, my heart wounded from thinking that someone could possibly hurt this angelic creature. How was I to comfort her when I couldn’t carry on a simple conversation?
“TÃºesbonita” she said quickly smiling at me, probably thinking that this time I’d understand, yet I was still clueless as to what she was saying or how to comprehend.
“¿CÃ³mÃ³?” I asked for the last time. Her blond eyebrows knit together in frustration, and she folded her arms in defiance.
“TÃº es bonita” she said sharply but, I understood her! I couldn’t believe I hadn’t understood such a thing but, ultimately I was grateful for her sweet words.
“Gracias, chicita,” I smiled. “TÃº es muy bonita tambiÃ©n.”
In America, nearly everything is based on looks and the easiest compliments to make are ones that involve how much you like the sequins on someone’s sweater or the stylish cut of their hair. Yet judging by the way her eyes lit up, I sensed that it could’ve been the first time she’d received such a compliment.
As she hugged my waist, I knew I’d forged a connection with this beautiful girl and gave her something that I wasn’t sure I had much of myself – self-esteem.
Going into the experience, I thought that changing lives involved a monetary contribution that would be substantial enough to achieve my goal. However, what ended up happening made me feel infinitely better about myself than giving money ever could. It turns out that a few simple words and compassion are invaluable. I had done something so minor, so second nature to myself and had given someone something that would hopefully last a lifetime.
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