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Convivencia: How a Team Building Activity Brought Me Closer to My Students

Convivencia, a Spanish word which translates to “living together,” is often used in Colombian culture to describe how groups of people get along and understand one another.

Jon Hugo Davies
June 18,  2019

You know those moments you sometimes have in life, when you look around and think “how the hell did I get here?”, those moments you could never have foreseen yourself being in, a year, or even six months beforehand? Well, sitting on a beanbag, in a carbon fibre tepee, in a field in Bogotá, surrounded by twenty cross legged teenagers with red and blue paint daubed on my face, revealing some of my deepest regrets and most personal hang-ups, I realized I was having one of those moments.

So, I know you are dying to ask: how DID I get here? And… where can I find a carbon fibre tepee of my own?

Well, here goes. Being burned out from working in the state sector in the UK, I decided, a year and a half back, to try my hand in Colombia. I had travelled in South America before and I like the approach to life here. I like the weather, the language, the absence of the Brexit conversations… So I thought- why not? What have I got to lose? So I got on a plane and headed for Bogotá.

Four months later I’m in my bosses office, here, on our beautiful green campus in the north of Bogotá. I’m now an established international schools teacher. It’s been tough, uprooting and making it happen in a foreign country – different language , different routines, different culture, away from friends and family. But I made it happen. And I’ll say it. I’m proud. We’re having a meeting about something or other and for the first time, I hear the Spanish word “convivencia” mentioned. Being an English teacher, I love the way in which some concepts are culturally embedded and kind of untranslatable. The whole idea of “Language and World View” is what I’m getting at – the idea that the way we use language determines the way we see the world and our place in it. Convivencia is a prime example. It means “living together”, but not in the way you might expect. In England it brings to mind strange, folklorish associations: unsanctified marriage, common-law husbands and wives, “living in sin” as my grandma used to call it, but in Colombia it’s something else altogether. “You might find the convivencia process a little unusual Jon” my American boss, Wallace, tells me. “I don’t think you guys really have anything like that over in England.” Truth be told, I had no idea what the word meant. I was soon to find out.

For starters, Colombians have a reputation for being friendly people. You can find yourself quite easily chatting along with anybody and everybody. Old, young, any kind of background or social strata…people are pretty open, warm and curious about who you are and what you’re doing in their country. They quickly want to tell you about how great it is here and where you should visit, what food you should eat, where to get the best tinto, fruit shakes, ajiaco, empanadas, buñuelos, papas rellenas, and to find out which football team you support (being English, this is a bit of a sore point after the World Cup). I’ve been told a number of times by my Colombian friends that friendships here are established early, and are quite often for life. It’s entirely likely that the kids you hung out with in little school will stay with you through university, your career and on into dotage. To a guy like me, who has what can at best be described as a distant Facebook acquaintance with three or four of the people I went to school with, this seems pretty unusual to say the least. I mean, don’t you outgrow them? Get tired of them? Feel a little uncomfortable about the fact that they saw you cry during that thunderstorm? Or that you had a crush on Helen Glover in year 6? Or that you peed your pants once in art class?

Er… anyway… maybe that’s just me. Back to the whole convivencia thing.

Our convivencia activity took place at a local "finca," very secluded and surrounded by nature.
Our convivencia activity took place at a local “finca,” very secluded and surrounded by nature.

Ours is a small, intimate college. The kids pass through year groups without changing classes. That may seem a little too close for comfort, but that’s the way it goes here. You better get along together, because you could be sitting with these guys for the next seven years. Also, Colombia has had a sketchy recent history with some pretty serious social divisions emerging. Convivencia, is, I have come to understand from some of my Colombian colleagues, also an attempt to get us all to listen to each other; to open up; to trust in one another just that little bit more. There it is: the convivencia process. So what does it involve? Bear with me, you might find this interesting.

First off, you all get on a bus to somewhere green and quiet, which is fairly easy to do near to Bogotá. The city itself might not be very photogenic (it has some interesting spots) but anywhere an hour outside is pretty much beautiful. My homeroom group are year nine, who can always be an interesting year group to oversee. Personally I love nines. Loads of attitude, but just enough childish enthusiasm and playfulness to balance it out. So we’re on the minibus, and they’re singing, playing songs, messing with their phones, and teaching me to say “chevere”, “tan bacano”, “mamar gallo” and explain concepts like “hacer vaca” which literally means “make a cow” (I’ll let you work that one out on your own).

We arrive, and our young, funky, theatre studies student type coordinator gets the kids doing warm up activities: walk in a circle like this, when I bang the tambourine, do this. Stand on one leg, walk in slow motion, pretend you’re a chimp. The kids love it and he’s good. Naturally, I join in. I’m a sucker for this kind of stuff. This goes on for an hour or so, then we all sit around Jacopo (I think his name is) and he gets out two pots of paint. He proceeds to describe what he’s doing in Spanish, and I kind of get it. For the next five minutes he tells us about his job, which he loves, his company which he’s founding (doing cool stuff like this with young people), acting (which he must be great at, I’m thinking), his amazing friends… in short, all the things he really likes about his life. And the kids sit and listen. And I mean, they really listen. Not in that nudging your mate in the ribs, picking your nose, checking your phone, looking vacantly around the room with your mouth agape type way. They are giving him their undivided attention. Every time he tells us something good, he dabs a blue spot on his face. A “cielo”. Then the lid comes off the red paint and he begins to tell the kids about… guess what?… The “infiernos”. His dad’s illness, his difficult school life, other things I won’t mention.

I’m starting to get what’s happening. It’s like group therapy. And part of me is growing a little uncomfortable. Do the kids want to hear this? Isn’t this a bit too personal? Do they have the level of emotional maturity to process it? But they seem like they do. They listen, and they concentrate. Some of the girls hold hands. The boys are leaning on each other’s shoulders, their heads cocked attentively. A strange kind of focus settles on the tepee. And I’m thinking: this is surely what tepees were originally made for, with a fire in the middle, a medicine man and maybe some kind of local herbal brew being administered.

After a couple of minutes he’s done. And he asks for a volunteer. And kid who won’t be named (let’s call him Miguel) who can be pretty surly and a bit difficult at times, assumes his position on the bean bag. He proceeds to be do the same: unfold the sources of pleasure and pain, pride and awkwardness in his teenage life, in front of his classmates, with what I can only describe as impressive bravery and frankness. I didn’t expect this. And I watch with growing fascination.

One after another student takes their turn, each nominated by their predecessor, and each speaks openly – about parents, brothers, sisters, family pets, grandparents, sports, friendships… nothing out of the ordinary, but what is it of the ordinary is that they can do it, and it’s not unusual to them. And they listen. English teens would surely be twisting and writhing in spasms of abject humiliation at this amount of exposure to their peers. My year nines offer respectful, quiet, attentive focus. They nod agreement, murmur encouragement. Some tears are shed. And my appreciation for my homeroom group grows: my suspicion at this collective soul searching turns to admiration. And, I have to say, I really feel for these kids.

And then what? I’m nominated. “Mr. Davies”. Momentarily the spell is broken as I realize I can’t say no, and if I really am going to cement the bond with my tricky nines, and become once and for all their homeroom teacher, there’s no getting out of this. So I take my place on the bean bag, and pop the cap off the blue paint pot…

And I can’t hold back. And really, I don’t want to. I talk about my mum first, naturally. My mum: my inspiration in everything I do – back in England, on her own, being strong, keeping occupied, missing me and our conversations about books and culture and travel. I talk about my difficult relationship with my brother, who I love intensely, but who it is sometimes difficult for me to be around: my only brother who supported me through the difficult times I went through before leaving England. The same for my dad, who I owe my appreciation of jazz and photography to, but who I’ve never in my life been able to have a frank conversation with. I mention my girlfriend, who I miss beyond telling, and who waits for me in England, and who I might not be able to work things out with. There are blue spots for making music – the guitar, the drums, singing. Blue spots for rock climbing – the mountains in the Alps, the Himalayas and the Andes I have climbed; for my love of nature, and books; for my four greatest friends: Tony, Ian, Harvey and Alex: my brothers to another mother, spread out in different corners of the world.

Finally I thank my year nines for being great kids, and I tell them that I love teaching, and always have, and couldn’t do anything else. The job drives me on, inspires me, keeps me fresh and alive every day I do it. And I can’t stop the tears. They help me to realise how far I have come. How far away I am from home. What I have given up. What I might not be able to get back. These are things I haven’t allowed myself to examine too closely, for fear of them luring me home, across the water, to England.

And then I’m done. And I feel exhausted, like I could go to sleep, right there on that beanbag, in that tepee, in that field, in Bogotá. And I realise that I have shared things with my students that I haven’t readily admitted to anybody, even to myself. I can see the respect and the shared understanding in their faces. I’m humbled and quiet. That was intense. That was convivencia.

Jonathan Hugo Davies is an Englishman originally from Barnsley, England. After working in the public school system in Sheffield, England, Jonathan decided to pursue a career teaching overseas and currently teaches Middle and High School English at an international school in Bogotá, Colombia.

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