When people talk about traveling far from home for an extended period of time, it’s often described as ‘finding themselves.’ I consider myself extremely lucky for being able to take such a journey, and in the month I’ve been in El Paso so far, it’s been quite the whirlwind game of lost and found.
I’ve gotten lost, physically. The Brothers don’t own a car GPS, and I realized, while wandering solo along a cliff-side at high noon, that the lack of a shoulder might not work out in my favor. But I’ve also learned to orient myself with the landmark of an electric star on the face of a mountain and to spot the Cathedral spire next to my home from anywhere this side of town.
I’ve worried about losing touch with people I love at home and frantically posted my address on Facebook in a plea for letters and gifts. I write my own blog frequently as well, in the hopes that keeping people updated will mean I won’t be forgotten. And I’ve found reassurance on this front as well! My birthday was this past weekend, and an outpouring of cards and well-wishes made me remember just how much I am loved.
I have lost my formerly unshakeable sense of self, the confident college girl who knew exactly her place in the bustling university life, and turned into some foreign individual addressed as “ma’am” who high schoolers seem weirdly intimidated by. I’m a small fish in a big pond once again, but I’m learning to love and embrace ‘Ms. Buck.’ I’ve caught on to the ‘teacher knowledge’ about how all the work is worth it for ‘the kids,’ teenagers who I never thought could be so vulnerable, important, confused, ridiculous and immensely admirable at the same time.
In my role as a campus minister and through living in an intentional religious community, I have found a better grasp on my own spirituality. This hasn’t always been the easiest part of myself to express, but it’s making more sense and coming more naturally with each progressing week.
It’s the little things, too. I have lost control of a blender in a kitchen but developed a newfound love for TV cooking competitions. I’ve let go of my naïve notion that ‘grown-ups have all the answers’ but found a higher respect for educators, especially those who have shaped my own academic career.
One of the ways that I like to view my own transition into adulthood through this volunteer year is in the idea of being translated. I’m still the same me, in meaning and essence, but portrayed in a new and different way to reach a new audience. Words and translation have always been really fun concepts for me to play around with, but living on the border they are elevated to another level of importance.
The reality of El Paso is that it is, in every way, a dual city. It’s paired with Ciudad Juarez, just a few minutes over the nearby border bridge that a large percentage of Cathedral’s students cross every day. I’ve been across once so far, which was fun and exciting, but I’m mostly struck by the absolute blending of cultures found on this side of the border community.
Conversations overheard in the hallway are in English and Spanish but mostly a mix of the two. I’ve been able to hold my own when talking to those who only speak Spanish, and I’m forever grateful for the time I spent this summer brushing up on my rusty skills. I’ve had to learn to handle spicy foods better, and I’ve completely fallen for aguas frescas, fresh fruit juices straight from heaven. There are the fun aspects of living on the border, like the gigantic church carnivals and popular mariachi music, but there are difficult ones too.
When I ask students to come in early or stay late to meet about a service project, it’s not uncommon for them to decline because they have no idea how long it will take them to cross the border bridge. Violence in Juarez has abated in recent years, but it hasn’t disappeared, and students are scarred with memories of kidnappings, economic instability, and more than I ever had to deal with at 16. Stories of brilliantly qualified kids missing out on scholarship opportunities because of their nationality are common, and I’ve run into roadblocks trying to communicate with parents because of the language barrier.
In the past month, I’ve just scratched the surface of border life, and I’ve only begun to ‘find myself’ as it were. This translation is a work in progress, but with each new page and experience I am certainly finding out more about me, our world and how to make sense of everything in it. Even at this beginning stage, I know that this is absolutely the right place for me this year, and I thank the Lasallian Volunteers so much for making it possible.
Catherine is a first year LV serving at Cathedral High School in El Paso, Texas and is a 2014 graduate of La Salle University.