I spend a lot of time talking about how Colombia is at (most) times crazy, disordered, and full of surprises. One of the biggest surprises to me, and possibly to you if you have been reading this blog, has been discovering a trait that it seems to me many, or even most, Colombians share: perfectionism. In a country where you hail buses from the side of the highway, students sometimes forget to inform you that they will not be showing up to their 7:00 AM class because they are all attending a protest, and “Let’s meet at 9:00” means “Maybe I’ll show up before midnight,” perfectionism is not something you would necessarily expect. But you would be wrong.
I first noticed this in my students. I have three separate classes, and they are all very different, but they have something very specific in common: a passionate love of erasing. They write almost entirely in pencil and have an aversion to using pens, even if they didn’t bring a pencil of their own; they will wait for their friends to finish the exercise, then they will borrow the pencil to do their own. Even when they do all have their own pencils, most of the erasers have been completely worn down to the point where they no longer exist. And God forbid they have to cross anything out; this is just not done. As a general rule, one or at most two students in each group will have an eraser, and this is the hottest commodity in class. Each time a student makes a mistake, he will inevitably (and with an expression of pure horror) locate the nearest classmate with an eraser and frantically yell, “¡BORRADOR!” until the eraser is tossed across the room and he can erase his mistakes, restoring the peace. I have tried to convince them that it doesn’t matter if they make mistakes or cross things out, because that helps them to learn, but they are not having it. They may not hear a word I say, but at the end of the day, their English packets will be copied out neatly and without any evidence of earlier mistakes. I am going to call this perfectionism.
But it’s not just confined to the students. I learned this recently when my shoe started to, quite literally, fall apart. Now, I have worn these shoes most days for about four years. I’ve worn them on four continents and in four seasons; they carry many layers of paint, the dust of the Israeli desert, and the mud of the Colombian jungle, among other things I probably shouldn’t speculate on. They might be the best $40 I ever spent. So I was fairly distressed when the sole of the left shoe began to come off. I tried my best to ignore it for a few weeks, stopping occasionally to pick the rocks out after a walk across campus, but I eventually realized that I had two choices: do something about it, or get new shoes.
Now, I have many faults, but materialism is not one of them. I had no interest in getting new shoes. So, I looked up the Spanish word for “glue,” and after class one day, I asked my students if they knew where I could find some. They brought me back through the industrial plant that is our school to the maintenance room, where I met my new heroes. I expected to ask for a bit of the Colombian equivalent of Elmer’s, slap it on my shoe, and carry on my way, hoping it would hold. But no, my new friend Henry would have none of that.
Henry sat me down and took my shoe. He produced an enormous tub of industrial-strength glue and spent about ten minutes carefully applying several layers of the stuff to my shoe. He then held the shoe in place for another ten minutes or so while we chatted. I thought that would be that, but no. Henry then put the shoe in his heavy-duty vise and cranked it shut, not leaving anything to chance. When I had been there about forty-five minutes, the maintenance crew had a brief consultation about the shoe. Henry informed me that I would need to wait a while longer for the glue to really dry, so that we could be sure it would hold. But there was no reason for me to have to sit there in the dusty maintenance room, awkwardly one-shoed, while I waited.
Henry unearthed a brand-new pair of workboots that were miraculously, exactly my size. He found some shoelaces and helped me lace them up, then sent me on my way in my borrowed boots. I galumphed around the school for an hour or so, thinking about what might have happened in a similar situation in the US. I imagined that I probably would have gotten what I had expected here: maybe some glue to throw on my shoe and hope they would hold; maybe a few raised eyebrows at the fact that I even considered my shoe worth saving. But here, no one questioned it or hesitated: they just helped.
And Henry made sure that he did as perfect a job as he could have. When I returned for my shoes, the left one was now perfectly sealed back together. I happily put them back on and skipped off, and I did not have to stop once to remove any rocks. And I was grateful for the weird and wonderful perfectionism of Colombians, and especially for Henry, the man who cheerfully saved my shoe.