I’m a Control Freak


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Matt and Jose

Matt and his teacher, Jose, in our one-room Palapa classroom.

We’re back in the States after 6 weeks in Guatemala; what do I think about the adventure? The biggest thing I learned is something about myself and while many of you that know me may already know, I learned that I’m a control freak. I like to be in charge, to know what the plan is, to be able to actively evaluate progress, and make changes when it seems like things aren’t working according to plan. I learned all this about myself because this adventure was largely lacking in these areas and it challenged me in ways I haven’t been challenged before.

I love to cook, and I love to eat. I love to buy groceries, to think up new combinations and to use spices from around the globe. As part of our home stay, we received three meals a day, six days a week. Maria was a great cook and made vegetarian food for us throughout, but it was always a surprise and if I was in the mood for hearty mac and cheese to fill me up for the night, and Maria was cooking vegetables and tortillas, that is what I ate, not mac and cheese. There was no say in the matter and we went with what she was cooking. We also went with the schedule for mealtimes too. After living independently since graduating high school, it was back to set meal times at 7:30 am, 1:00 pm, and 7:00 pm every day. So if we were out with friends, busy in a book or homework, or taking a nap, we had to be sure to be home at meal time if we wanted fed.

And then there was school. This is where I really learned about myself. I am somewhat of an alpha male type of guy, probably the Type A personality category. And they put me with the most Type A teacher in the school for 4 hours a day of one on one lessons. It was cool at first and I totally jumped into the program without thinking much about it. I bought into the program and let Jose lead the show. But after a few weeks, I started thinking and evaluating. What was the plan? Why were we doing it the way we were? What was Jose’s plan for me continuing after I left the school? Were we doing it the best way?

I tried to bring these types of questions up to Jose but he wasn’t very keen on these types of discussions. Plus, I wasn’t very eloquent in my Spanish to actually discuss them. So we pressed on through more tenses and more lessons and I became increasingly unsettled by the lack of an apparent strategy and a lack of concern for my feedback (meanwhile, Julie’s teacher asked nearly every day how she felt about their progress and he shared the long term strategy for her learning with her).

It wasn’t that the school or the home stay were bad. The challenge was simply that I didn’t have much say in either matter. I didn’t choose the menu and I didn’t have any say in what I was learning. And I think that for me, I do better when I am at least part of the decision making party. I don’t have to be in charge, but I stay more motivated and enjoy the game more when I feel as if I’m shaping my destiny a bit more than when I’m blindly following, doing so only on hope.

So now what? What do I do with this new knowledge about how I like to do things? We still hope to improve our Spanish skills but now we have a means for comparison and we have a better idea as to how we’d like to structure our next learning experience. For example, I’d like a more structured, challenging school environment. I may not need 4 hours straight but maybe 2 and I want to lay out a plan for my time so I know what we’re working towards. It’s like training for a big race. You have the big race and then work backwards from the race to come up with the best perceived path to get where you want to go. If I can see the path, it’s much easier to keep pushing down the path, even if it’s long and difficult.

There is so much that could be said about the Guatemala experience, be it the schooling, the family time, the time spent with new friends, the running, or the little bit of traveling we did. But coming back from a world that is very foreign from the comfortable life in the US that we’re accustomed to, I realize how much of a feeling of security I have with knowing my environment, the rules, customs, and ways of getting what I want each day. Guatemala tested my sense of control. It’s like Julie learned on the PCT, there is only so much we can control but we can always control our reactions to what goes on around us. And I got a solid reminder of that these past couple months. I am glad for the experience but I’m also glad to be back with the feeling of being in the driver’s seat once again.

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