Falling in Love with my Habitat

Students of Colegio Miguel Pro stand on the second floor and look down at a gathering group of students on the patio. Each grade is dressed to represent a certain country and their soccer team.

“I’ll tell you now: YOU. CAN. NEVER. HIDE.”

My worksite, Colegio Miguel Pro, is about three blocks from our house. On an average day, if I leave at about 7:53am and am not stopped by any neighbors or students, I arrive with a few minutes to spare before the bell rings. It’s a unique privilege to live and work in the same neighborhood, called Habitat. I know the faces I pass by on the street not only as my neighbors but the parents of the children I work with each and every day. 

A photo taken from the distance that shows Colegio Miguel Pro, next to the local marketplace. A taxi waits at the curb.

It’s sometimes hard to explain how intertwined Miguel Pro and the Habitat community are. It’s a unique experience to have at least one of my alumnos (students) living in every house on my block. This closeness between my work-site and home usually means that my quiet afternoons are interrupted by the pounding of little fists on my door, hoping to come over and play a game of Uno. If I leave the window open in the evening I will no doubt have a small head poking through the bars to ask what I’m cooking for dinner (meals inspired by U.S. cuisine remain a mystery to Peruvian children). I also can’t necessarily leave the house for anything without some child waylaying me to ask where I’m going or when they can come by the house. Parents too, have a habit of stopping me and asking how their child is doing or what upcoming events there are in the school—unfortunately as the volunteer I am often the last to know any sort of details at school, so I remain helpless in that area. 

Two neighbor students, nine years old, turn and look at the camera as they knock on our door.
Our neighbors showing us how to properly knock on our door.

If I wander out in my PJs to the local tienda to buy milk and bananas, I will no doubt run into some of my alumnos who are happy to call out to their disheveled profesora. If I leave the house dressed up in something slightly more attractive than my usual frumpy teacher-chic, some neighbor will no doubt share their curiosity in my destination, allowing their observations to float out into the open air from across the street. And if I leave my house and go running along the highway I will have at least one person in the community stop me to let me know they saw me.

Sometimes it feels as if I cannot “turn off”. If I hear a knock on the door in the afternoon, I have to be ready for whichever student or parent will be waiting on the other side to talk to me. 

A shadowy view from my bedroom, the door and window both open. There are plants in the patio.
Where I normally can be found when a neighbor comes knocking

And sometimes, I’d really prefer not having witnesses to all the embarrassing mishaps in my life. A perfect example would be the view of the crazy volunteer and a fellow teacher sprinting five blocks to catch the school bus that left without them (the only adults accompanying the students were the two running as fast as they could). It can occasionally feel as if I am the daily entertainment to all my watching neighbors as I walk to school—or more accurately: trip over myself as I cross the sidewalk.

It may seem like an absolutely claustrophobic experience to live and work within one small community. My fellow community mates bus to their jobs, some a little nearer, some all the way in the center about 45 minutes away. As the only volunteer here at Miguel Pro I have commented more than once to my community mates that “I need to get out more.” I’ll often have days where I go from my home, to work, then back to my home. And within an hour of arriving, someone is knocking. So not only do I not leave Habitat, sometimes it feels like I don’t leave Miguel Pro at the end of my work day. 

Yet in all of this, I don’t consider this a burden: being “stuck” in my neighborhood. 

There’s something magical in these children who grow up with such strong childhood roots. Miguel Pro takes students in from age 3 and sends them out at age 16, and many of its students attend the school from start to finish. The school takes on the form of a second mother, a place that provides lots of love, that scolds, that forgives your mistakes, and guides you through the process of learning and growing up.

Teachers and students live in deep symbiosis. The teachers know every tidbit of information on these kids and that attention to detail allows the teachers to walk alongside these kids as best they can, serving as mentors and friends to them in times of joy and times of need. Not only do the teachers know a lot about the kids, but the kids know a lot about the teachers. The stories that students can tell about these professors, some who have been in this community since the founding of the school is amazing and entertaining. I look at Miguel Pro on an average day and the school takes on the presence of a living tree: the teachers the roots; the school a beating heart, the two working to hold everything together; the students the branches and the fruit of the tree’s labor, reaching up to the sky and the stars above year after year after year. 

Two nine year-old neighbors work at our kitchen table, drawing and coloring different pages.
Our nine year-old neighbors, getting comfortable at our kitchen table.

Miguel Pro is the heartbeat of the Habitat community. Because of this intermingling of work and personal life, I have a chance to deepen my relationship with these students. Such closeness means students get to see their teacher going about her everyday life, and that I in turn get a chance to see them out of uniform, racing down the street on foot as they enjoy their afternoon freedom. 

I have spent a number of afternoons looking out at the sand dunes from the third floor of the secondary school, the gathering dusk clearing up the clouds and allowing me to glimpse snow covered peaks in the far distance. I usually look out from the doorway for a few minutes then have to turn back to the chaos inside as an especially rowdy group of students struggle to focus on their English lesson, ready to be released from school for the day. I haven’t learned all their names yet —it’s a work in progress— but they know mine and will soon no doubt call my name to crack some joke about the US, my age or my accent. And that’s perhaps what strikes me the most. These kids who have grown up together, who know the ins and outs of Habitat, are so used to having Jesuit Volunteers in their lives that they wrap me, a newcomer, up in their blanket of reality and accept my presence as one more part of their growing up.

A neighbor's small dog lies down on top of an old wooden crate on our street, and stares at the camera.
One of the many dogs that make our street their home.

The role of a Jesuit Volunteer in Colegio Miguel Pro may not be integral, the school no doubt would survive without a volunteer present. But there is a rich beauty in how deeply the community cherishes this relationship between a Jesuit volunteer and their children. I am so grateful to have this privilege to be woven into the tapestry of Habitat’s identity, to be a member of a community that cares for its own. I have trouble recalling a time before living in an interconnected community, one where I never walked to school with my 9 year-old students, knew the stray dogs that roam our streets so well, or was treated to the sound of cumbia playing loudly from our neighbor’s backyard. I hope I can learn to cherish community life as deeply as the people of Habitat and carry this theme into my own life, no matter where my travels may take me. 

A house in our Habitat neighborhood, painted to resemble a Peruvian soccer jersey with a portrait of player number 9, Paolo Guerrero.
Some of our neighbors are pretty excited about the world cup. Viva Peru!

Originally published at www.jvcwithcamila.blogspot.com

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