It was around this time of the year in 1977 when I was finishing the sixth grade with my teacher, Mr. Canales, a gentle and quiet man who supplemented his income by picking up a few students near his house, in the poor neighborhood of Zacamil. I was one of the students he picked up in the fourth grade. He picked me up on the curve, at the end of the passage that led to my small house. He drove four other students: his son, one year younger than me, among them.
I enjoyed talking to profesor Canales about the solar system, freedom, and the history of pre-conquest El Salvador. Now, as one of his sixth grade students, I was failing. My grades were poor. I didn’t do my work, and didn’t socialize with other kids. I was suffering from insomnia, depression, suicidal thoughts and a few hallucinatory episodes. I had already been held back one grade in the fourth grade, and there was a concern that I wouldn’t make it this time either. I was sent to the school psychologist for therapy, and even had sessions with Superman (our nick name for the Jesuit who served as the school principal).
I thought, then, that the solution to my problems was to change schools. I didn’t want to be with privileged kids with their talk about shoe brands, cars, and penis jokes. I didn’t want to hear one more time how they wish socialists were dead, how stupid indians were, or why the poor deserved their fate. In retrospect, I see that this was not the prevalent talk of all the kids, but a vocal clique that acquired colossal proportions in my mind. I wanted to go away to what I thought would be a more simple and pleasant environment among my peers. I found myself slipping into the habit of talking to everyone about my angst, my situation, my unhappiness, my depression, and how I wanted to be somewhere else with someone else. Unconsciously, I found out that this strategy put grown ups in a state of disquiet silence. I learned to invoke my suffering to justify my performance.
It was around this time of the year, with only a little over a month left to the school year––which, in El Salvador, goes along with the calendar year. Canales was reviewing my grades with me. He looked at me in silence for a while. He looked at the papers in front of him. My mind was reeling in its usual mode of self pity and covered with the familiar veil of suffering. He looked back at me, and said: “You are about to fail this grade.” Then he fell silent again. He seemed to be looking inside himself. In that moment, he made a sweeping motion with his hands, and with that he swept away the expertise of the psychologists, and all the reasons, all the whys, and all objections. With the clarity of a simple mind he said then, “Stop all talk about not being understood. Leave aside all those thoughts and talks about how you feel and what you want. Stop all thoughts and work. You have no more time.”
With that, something in me broke through the cobwebs of the mind, recognizing a truth I could not yet voice. Without knowing why, my mind was silent, and I worked resolutely and purposefully. I passed the grade successfully and, for reasons that belong to another story, I stayed in that Jesuit school.
Canales was assassinated a few months into the next year by a Death Squad, the first of almost a dozen teachers that would fall throughout the duration of my school years. He died for his ideas and work toward social justice. He died, like many others, because they thought that teaching was a noble profession that went beyond putting hours in the class room. During his funeral, I told myself to remember the last words I remembered from him. They didn’t change me immediately––the tendency to indulge in my own suffering is too strong for my Cancerian mind––but his words gave me a moment in which the chaotic world of my mind and its objections would stop and I still now hear his words and see his arms dispelling cobwebs saying: “Stop all thoughts, and work. You have no more time.”