Friday, March 31, 2017

Recommended Reading

The most striking thing about reading to a class of four year olds at Opportunity School was seeing their eyes on me. Ten pairs of clear, bright, hopeful eyes; looking up at me from where they sat on the floor, waiting to see and hear happens next.  I’m not used to it.  I’m used to being here, tucked away in the shack, by myself, unnoticed.  Those twenty young eyes took me back.

They took me back thirty years ago, when my two kids looked at me like that.  What’s for breakfast?  Where are we going?  What are we doing?  Such innocent questions.  Such hopefulness.  Only four eyes in my house, but they saw everything.  I was constantly reminded of my responsibility as the adult.  The parent.  It’s important how you answer.   

It took me back to when my kids went to this school.  In fact, I was a visiting Dad in this very room.  So many kids have gone to this school.  It started in 1968 as the brainchild of a thinking woman from the church where it is still housed.  Put kids in groups.  Let them play together.  Guide their energy more than teach them.  Make school a positive experience.  My kids were once sitting cross legged on that floor.

The teachers of course were in charge from the time I walked through the door Wednesday until I left.  The kids were already in their places, marked by tape on the carpet, sitting quietly.  One of the teachers introduced me and they greeted me with smiles.  Most volunteered their name.  It was a chorus of names and engaging smiles, trying to get my attention.

I sat down on a bench by the wall.  That’s when the impact of their eyes hit me.  I was on.  I asked them if they liked listening to people read.  They nodded.  One smiling kid said his Grandpa read to him.  I said I sometimes liked to listen to books being read through ear buds.  We were underway.  I had begun.

A talkative boy in the middle, busting to say something, said he had new shoes.  He extended one leg and pointed.  He demonstrated how they fastened with Velcro.  A girl on the edge of the group, not to be outdone, announced that she had new boots.  The group was pretty interested.  I was losing it quickly.

You forget so easily that phrases like “off the subject” represent adult concepts.  I think to the four year olds we were simply engaged in a talk.  And if you said something, that was indeed talking, and it fit right in.  My discomfort that we were suddenly talking about shoes rather than the topic I had introduced, listening to people read, didn’t register in those twenty eyes.  The teacher reached over and touched the boy on that new shoe he had shown me. 

“Let’s see what book Mr. McClure has picked out for us to hear.”

Thank you, I thought to myself.

And I launched into Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.    As soon as I began to read they settled in.  They listened very well for the most part.   At one absolutely random point the kid with the new shoes began talking about his new video game.  I realized I had picked a book with a lot of words for four year olds.  I began to read faster, and pointed out the illustrations.  I had to work to keep their attention.

I like the book because it is built around an outrageous concept.  Grandpa is making pancakes for his grand kids, recklessly, and flips one through the air.  That inspires him to tell the story of the town of CHewandSwallow, where it doesn’t rain rain, it rains food.  The people of ChewandSwallow don’t go to the store to buy food.  Instead they carry plates and cups, forks and spoons, and napkins of course, with them as they go through their day.  And when it is time for lunch, for example, they go outside, hold out their plates, and catch a hamburger that falls from clouds, usually followed by ketchup and slices of onions, with French fries blowing in from the east.

There is enough food for everyone.  City workers clean the streets after meals like bus boys and dispose of the leftover food in an ecologically friendly way, and life in the small town of ChewandSwallow goes merrily along.

The kids sat rapt, their attention on the growing amount of color in the illustrations.  I pointed out the syrup falling in perfect drops on nicely rounded pancakes, and milk filling glasses held outside of umbrellas. 

“If you lived in ChewandSwallow what kind of food would you like it to rain?”

A chorus of responses resulted.  The teacher quickly announced they should hold their hands and wait till I called on them.  They obeyed.  I pointed to the girl on the outside of the group with the new boots.

“Salad with ranch dressing.”

“Oh yeah,” I said.

“How about you?”

I called on the quiet boy in the first row.  He was sober and thoughtful.  Finally he decided.

“Spaghetti with the kind of sauce that has hamburger in it.”

A murmur of approval went through the small crowd.

“And you?”  I had called on the boy with the new shoes. 


The very thought of pizza falling from the skies brought the house down.  One girl jumped to her feet.  It took a while to establish decorum after that.  Thank god for the teachers.

Conflict, which is needed in every book, is created in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs when the weather turns violent.  Huge porterhouse steaks crash through skylights and windows.  Mashed potatoes pile up in the streets like snowdrifts and city crews can’t plow through them.  They abandon their efforts.    Pancakes become so big they cover the houses.  One covers the school and the students can’t get out.

“What if a pancake covered this school?” I asked.  I pointed to the window beside us.  “We would look out and all we would see was pancake.”

They looked at the window incredulously.  I went back to the text.

“And then one day they heard a loud sound and what did they see but a tomato tornado!”

I pointed to a large red funnel cloud with tomato stems and seeds flying around inside it.  The mere sight of the tornado produced a chorus of comments.

“”We saw a tornado too and my Mom took us to the basement with our cat.”

“My Grandpa went to the basement but he left the door open upstairs and when he came up everything was blown all around.  He can’t find some of his stuff.”

The stories continued.  Unlike before, the teacher and I looked at each other and silently agreed to hear them out.  It seemed cathartic.  I had forgotten all about the tomato tornado.  Just a month ago a tornado hit our community.  That there was a tornado reference in the book I picked was a fortunate coincidence.  

And then I closed the book and the teachers directed them to thank me which they did profusely.  Loudly.  Especially the kid with the new shoes.

“Mr. McClure can we take your picture?”


The kids crowded around me where I sat on the wooden bench.  I was hoping I could get off that bench gracefully.  She needed them to get closer.  They crowded in.  I felt a tiny hand on my calf.  It was the quiet guy who wanted it to rain spaghetti.  I looked out of the corner of my eye at him.  He smiled. 

“Look at the camera.”

We both looked straight ahead.  The teacher took the picture.

Try reading to kids.  I recommend it highly.  They will enjoy it and so will you.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Agua Escondida

From San Lucas Toliman we went up the mountain another 800 feet or so in an old school bus over bad road  to Agua Escondida where the clinic was set up in an old hall next to a church.  It was a steep climb.   There weren’t enough seats so some of us stood.  Each morning the bus was filled with conversation and laughter.  As we gringos crowded into the bus and drove up through the forest it was clear we enjoyed each other’s company and looked forward to the work.

I started volunteering for these clinic trips in 1985.  Each trip has found me among old friends and new acquaintances.  It is always someone’s first mission, and those of us who have gone on many all hope it is not our last.  This trip found me with my wife on her second mission.  I don’t know which mission it is for me.  I have lost count.  Every trip and every group of volunteers is different.  We were blessed with nine optometrists in Aqua Escondida, an unusually high number, which allowed us to use doctors for more than eye examinations.  We consistently had a doctor in the dispensary, where we choose the best match of the prescription a patient requires among the 6,000 some used glasses we brought with us.  Having a doctor in the dispensary meant the volunteers selecting the glasses learned a lot and made better choices.  By doing that we were able to give a higher quality service.

Being a small town, Agua Escondida became the host site for others.  Busses arriving morning and afternoon brought villagers from the surrounding towns.  Families often came together so there were a lot of children in the clinic.  Because the volume of patients was not crushing and their movement through the clinic was not rushed we were able to spend plenty of time with each person.  That’s not always the case.  The newer volunteers may not have realized the difference but I appreciated it.  We offered eye exams to the school children of Agua Escondida and they took us up on it.  That’s how I first knew I needed glasses, the third grade eye test by a visiting nurse to our farm town.  Like my classmates, most of the school kids saw just fine.  Notable exceptions were discovered young, as I was, and glasses were provided them.  That we had the time and provided those exams pleased me a lot.

We were staying at an old hotel on the shore of Lake Atitlan, a giant crater lake, technically a caldera, formed when a volcano erupted violently a hell of a long time ago.  It formed the largest freshwater lake in Guatemala, and became home for Mayan people who settled into a ring of villages around the lake.  On this trip all the patients could speak Spanish to us, although often they spoke Kaq’chickel to each other.  In an earlier post I mistakenly describe their language as K’iche.  Wrong dialect.  Both existed before white men came to the new world and continue being spoken daily in Guatemala and elsewhere yet today.  I hope the languages and its dialects endure.  They are unique.

On the third morning of clinic, a Monday, I paused as I walked up the steep cobblestone street to the clinic because I heard singing.  Across the street was a barred open window looking down on an auditorium.  It was the town’s public school students. They were having an all school assembly, presenting the flags of their state and country, Solola and Guatemala, and singing the Guatemalan national anthem.  Their voices blended nicely.  They were well behaved.  Their teachers stood among them.

Knowing the history of the region I thought it remarkable the students were so enthusiastic.  From 1960 to 1996 Guatemala’s government was at war with its own people.  The socialist government in Nicaragua was seen as a threat not only to the U.S., under President Reagan, but also to the U.S. aligned and conservative Guatemalan strongman leaders.  Guatemala’s resistance to the movement known as the contras morphed into a belief that all Mayan villagers were enemies of the Guatemalan state.  Among the Mayan villages, where we were operating our clinic and elsewhere, it is estimated that between 40,000 to 50,000 people simply disappeared.  The International community considers the actions by the Guatemalan government on its indigenous communities genocide.  Mayans were not only killed they were also conscripted into the army and forced to turn their guns toward other Mayans.  And yet there were the school children, in 2017, twenty one years after the war’s end, singing the anthem and waving the flag of the country that had so divided them. 

 Lake Atitlan sits at 5,125 feet above sea level.  Agua Escondida is higher.  I don’t know if it is the elevation or something else but we encountered a high number of myopes, those afflicted with myopia, commonly known as near sightedness.  As the days went on there was increased pressure on our stock of glasses with minus prescriptions, like mine, the antidote for near sightedness.  Some also had astigmatism but many did not.   After 25 years my Spanish has gotten quite good in these repeated and limited conversations about glasses.  Put me in another environment and I’m practically illiterate.  I always try to remember I am a visitor in their country and there to serve them.  It goes like this.  I do a simple thing over and over.  It’s my way of being useful.  I call their name as written on the intake sheet and direct them to a chair.  I sit directly opposite them, our knees almost touching.  I confirm their identity.

“Juan Gonazalez?”


“Agua Escondida?” (or their age, or their occupation, just to confirm it’s the right person.)


I extend my hand. 

“Buenos dias/(tardes).  Como esta usted?”  (Good day/afternoon.  How are you?)

They take my hand.  I look directly at them and smile.  They invariable return my smile.  I ask them if they have had glasses before and nine time out of ten, perhaps nineteen times out of twenty, they say

“Nunca.”  (Never.)

And so it begins. You do a lot of things in your life.  This I enjoy immensely.  If I am giving them bifocals I give them a bifocal explanation rap.  If they are old, or simply concerned about the concept, and I can see the bifocals confuse them, especially after putting them on their head, I often change our approach on the spot and give them a pair of glasses for distance and a pair of glasses for reading.  I explain the lenses, nearly all of them now, are plastic and should be cleaned with soap and water and a soft cloth so they are not scratched.  I babble a little.  But my job is to determine if the glasses work for them.

Reading their face, looking at it intently as they look through their new glasses for the first time, is the best gauge of the lenses suitability for their individual visual problem.  Often the technically correct prescription, especially for a middle aged or older person who has never has glasses and requires a lot of correction, is simply too much.  In that case we cut the prescription.  If we are confident their vision will be greatly improved we at times give them a weaker pair to begin with and urge them to use the stronger pair later after they are accustomed to glasses.  But presenting glasses to myopes, minus prescriptions to near sighted people who have not seen distances crisply for a long time or ever, is a joy.  I know because I benefitted from those same glasses when I was ten and continue to this day to function because of such help.

I put the glasses on their face, often for the first time, and say

“Mira alla,” (look over there) while extending my arm across the room.  When I could I would seat those myopes with strong minus prescriptions near the window overlooking a school yard and a view down the mountain.  After they looked across the room I would extend the other arm towards the window. 

“Y alla tambien” (and over there too).  I often asked them to stand.

When they stood and looked out the window across their town and down the mountain I got the biggest smiles.  I distinctly remember walking outside the Gailey Eye Clinic in Bloomington on a summer day, looking down Main Street at a maple tree in summer, and seeing not just green but every leaf on the tree.  It was wonderful.

I did that over and over in Aqua Escondida.   I did it for this ten year old boy.

My wife had found just the right pair, -3.00 in each eye with a touch of cylinder for his astigmatism, from our supply of glasses.  She was sitting beside me as I put them on him for the first time, and after he looked out the window she took the picture.  Like me when I was his age I don’t think he’ll be going without his glasses often.  I told him this

“El mundo eres mas grande con lentes.”  (The world is bigger with glasses.)  He laughed.

That boy and his laugh is why I go on these trips.  I’ll go next year if I can, as I have gone whenever I could since 1985.  Where we go doesn’t matter nearly as much as whom we serve.  We serve people who need glasses and lack the means to acquire them.  Our challenge is to keep finding those people and getting ourselves there.  So far it continues to work.

P.S.-I’ll take your old glasses.  A number of my friends find used glasses laying around their home, or their relative’s homes, and give them to me.  People with bad eyes feel safer having old glasses just in case.  The truth is “just in case” never comes.  We wear the same glasses every day.  Give your old ones away, to me or to the Lion’s club.  You can send them to me at the shack, 2110 Caton Road, Ottawa, 61350 or drop them in a Lion’s Club collection box.  Most of the glasses I Care International distributes are supplied by the Lion’s Club.  Old glasses are not worth much to gringos personally.  But to the people of Agua Escondida, like that ten year old boy, they are priceless.