Dispatch: Teaching and Learning with Fathom
Photo by Barry Kaufman
I’m on my final day in Puerto Plata as part of Fathom’s inaugural trip to the Dominican Republic. The news broke this morning that Cuba had blinked in the high-stakes game of chicken with Carnival Corp., electrifying an already celebratory atmosphere as the line finally takes its week-delayed first cruise.
But the news had not yet reached us as our bus pulled past the tall gates around the George Arenzo Brugal Fe y Alegria public school. The name jumped out at me, as Brugal is the local rum brand and seemed to be an odd choice for a school. Turns out it used to be a sugar production facility for the distillery, and was donated by the rum magnate for use as a school. In gratitude they named it after him. I wondered for a moment if there was a Jack Daniel’s High School in Tennessee somewhere.
We were there today, on our final impact activity, to teach English to 11-year-old students at the school. I approached this activity with trepidation, following my disastrous attempts to teach English to a family the day before in the village of San Antonio, a clutch of houses perched on a hill just above Puerto Plata.
A warm and inviting woman named Esther was our host as my daughter and I walked her and her family through the English words for each letter of the alphabet. While a collection of sons passed in and out of the lesson, Esther listened intently, soaking up every bit of instruction my horrible Spanglish could convey. In the end, with all 26 letters more or less in place, we hit an impasse. My awful Spanish and her good but broken English weren’t quite enough to do much more than cover the alphabet, so I was stuck trying to teach anything else.
But this time we’d be teaching in slightly larger groups, so I was hoping someone’s Spanish capabilities might make up for my horribly accented gibberish.
As we entered the classroom, the children began singing “La Bamba” to us, substituting the lyrics “Bienvenido travelers.” It turned out there would be quite a bit of singing and movement on this trip, with our guides from Entrana guiding us through a few warm-up dances that allowed me to truly add “professional dancer” to the list of things I am not.
Finally, we met our kid. My daughter and I were in the purple group, which did not actually have any children assigned to it, so we pulled aside a bright-eyed 11-year-old by the name of Starling. Fortunately for us, Starling not only had an outstanding grasp on the English language, he was an energetic, enthusiastic little man.
We tore through the basic greetings (Hello, my name is Barry. And you? What’s your name? Nice to meet you) as well as the basic responses to the question of how you are doing (Sad, Happy, OK, So-So, etc.) so fast that we found ourselves with extra time.
And that’s when something awesome happened. Starling, seeing that he wasn’t going to be learning much more from us, decided to teach us his secret handshake. Fortunately, he kept it simple so we could understand it. When we screwed up a part, we just shrugged it off and it became part of the handshake.
Then, having learned the secret handshake, we learned all about him. In between flashcards (“I’m feeling Happy.” “I’m feeling Super”) he told us of his life. He has a hamster named Doris, who is black and white with a tan spot by her eye. He has four younger sisters and two older brothers, both of whom are grown. He had a Chihuahua, but it died.
I’m still not entirely sure how I figured all this out, as he didn’t really tell me any of this in English, or in Spanish. Like the handshake, it was a secret way of communicating, created in the moment as this child tried to learn from two complete strangers while inadvertently teaching way more than he’d learned.
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They talk a lot on this ship about impact travel, and how what we do here actually matters. For my own part, I can’t help but feel like I’m creating an impact deficit. They say I was part of a group that planted 1,373 trees, of another that created 100 sheets of recycled paper and 80 candles. That I taught a family the alphabet, and a child how to tell people how he felt.
But this impact was definitely a two-way street. I can’t quantify the impact this trip had on me as easily, but I can only hope I did enough here to compensate for the amazing things this trip did for me.
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