Monday, July 22, 2013

Sometimes, life has other plans.

A brief posting, and then more updates to follow:

After a brief weekend getaway to Bayahibe, which I will write about at a later date, we returned home to the apartment in Santo Domingo. As we got closer to the apartment, we recognized buildings and streets, and Maggie pointed out how cool it was that it felt a little bit like coming home. We knew where we were, and just two weeks ago the streets had been unfamiliar and new. Now they had become a part of our lives.

Unfortunately, upon return to the apartment, I learned of the passing of a very good friend of mine from high school. Unable to process how a twenty-six year old, talented, loyal, and incredibly warm young woman could suddenly be gone, I felt very confused and stuck. Steph, who had helped me understand what it means to be loyal to others and who had helped me learn to be good to myself, had died suddenly over the weekend. With Clare still visiting, I sorted through options, battling a sense of fear and a paralyzing sadness, and found that I could go home quickly to be with family and friends. And though it didn't feel right to leave, I knew I couldn't stay. Even today, now that I am home, I can't think of anything but her and I don't think I could have learned much Spanish in school, or focused in a little classroom in a little desk talking about basic level Spanish topics when I knew my heart was elsewhere. I struggled with the decision to leave, but Maggie came through.

"Isn't this what happens with our students? Sometimes they just disappear for weeks, or stop coming, and we wonder what it is that could be so important, and why they are missing what we think is more important, when really there are more important things? We think our school work is the most important work, so necessary and so vital, and we get annoyed when students disappear, but when we step back and ask what happened, what becomes clear? That life has other plans, sometimes, and we have to be understanding of that, too. Go home. Go be with your family."

For my last night in Santo Domingo, we went to our favorite restaurant at the Plaza Espana, and soaked up the evening. A sudden flamenco show took over our restaurant, giving me one last taste of the sounds and the spirit of the city. There was so much that I didn't see yet and I didn't do yet, thinking that I had so much more time. I'll have to return. In the meantime, Maggie and Alexis can send visual updates, and I will do what I can to support the rest of their journey from home. I remain tremendously grateful for the opportunity from Fund For Teachers to go to experience Santo Domingo. Below, pictures from our weekend in Bayahibe, and our last dinner together.

The beaches of Bayahibe
The beaches of Bayahibe
Pura Tasca

Flamenco dancer in action
Flamenco dancing

Team Santo Domingo

Thursday, July 18, 2013

On the night before the exam...

Tomorrow we have our first language exam, to see if we're ready to move on to the next level of Spanish. To me, the entire thing seems a bit forced: regardless of how you've progressed, you must take a test every two weeks. If you pass, you move on. If you fail, the plan is seemingly to repeat the exact same course through a review. The quality of education hasn't suggested to me that this will be a "re-teach in a new way" sort of situation, but a girl can hope. I will say this: teaching teachers must be the worst. We are demanding, critical, and always think we know more efficient and effective ways for students to take in information. The grammar classes at the language school are very traditional, even if the class sizes are small. We are explained a concept, told to try it in an exercise, go over the exercise, and then move on. Can you tell why I'm hesitant to imagine the re-teach will be effective? And why I think teachers are the worst to teach?

Because here I am, the night before the exam, completely unmotivated to study. I'm unconvinced I can absorb all of the information that I've been taught, and I'm genuinely unsure that I'm ready to move onto the next level either way. I don't believe all of the grammar tenses can be memorized in two weeks, even if they are understood, and I don't think cramming the night before will convey the real learning I am doing here.

What is the real learning then?
The moments of coming out of my shell, trying to explain to the cashier in the little market that I'm looking for a soda, and yes it comes in a green bottle, and yes it is made by Canada Dry, and no it is not Sprite (all because I do not know the word for ginger).
The moments of listening to the women in the nail salon switch between Spanish and Haitian Creole, welcoming customers, catching up on local gossip, complimenting each other's clothing, congratulating each other for big news, and observing as the entire salon watches the little girl (who could not have been more than 4) who came in silently to observe, touch a few things, look at women's nails, and sneak away with an unused plastic box for her two pesos.
The opportunity to show Clare, who has safely and happily arrived here, around the Zona Colonial, and show her where I like to eat lunch (although I've been on a purely white rice diet since Monday.... I could write a guidebook to the best white rice in SD), and which streets are the prettiest, and how you must not accept a first price in a tourist shop because they think you don't know how to bargain.
The sense of joy that I feel in a taxi, while the driver is blasting a song that I don't know or can't understand but he is singing along so fiercely that I too want to sing.
The sense of familiarity that is growing in me with the phrases I can use, the questions I can ask, the streets that I walk, and the space we call our home.

So I justify it to myself that I came here to not just to learn Spanish inside of a school, but also to take in a scene, take on the challenge of expressing myself in a new language in a new place, and take on new opportunities. All of this has led us as a team to take on a new opportunity that has been presented to us by a teacher at our school: a weekend trip to Bayahibe, to explore Taino caves and get some sun. A new adventure awaits us when we get back, I am sure, and all of the lessons will come with it.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Saying "Si"

Without going into too much detail, I've been suffering from some stomach trouble for the past 36 hours. We were warned of this by our doctors and our friends; although I've done the best I can to not drink the water and not eat anything too adventurous, it was bound to happen at some point. As a result, I've been pretty cranky.

I woke up this morning unable to fathom going to school; Spanish seemed too hard, and school seemed too far, and I had a pounding heading that was certainly symptomatic of my dehydration. I stayed in bed and tried to sleep while Alexis and Maggie went off to school. However, the noise of the road and my natural restlessness forced me out of bed in the late morning. I decided that even though I couldn't really imagine myself taking in much Spanish, I really couldn't waste an entire day in bed, sick or not. So I dressed. I walked myself to school, warming up my brain in Spanish to try to prepare for class. When I arrived, I was greeted by a private tutor, who took me into a small classroom and began to speak to me. I emphasize speak to me rather than with me, because my brain couldn't process anything. When she first greeted me, I needed everything slowed down and I explained I had been sick and would need extra time to think. Patient and warm, she agreed to go slow, asked me about my ailments and then began the conversation questions.

"What do you think is the difference between the Latino family and the European family?"
"What do you think is the difference between Latino youth and European youth?"
"What do you think about single mothers? Are their lives hard?"
"Should women work equally as men?"

And so today, apparently, was large sweeping generalizations day at our school.  While there's certainly merits in discussing cultural differences, I was uncomfortable (and not just because of my stomach). I'm not sure if the nuanced ways to discuss these matters are impossible with such low-level Spanish, or if there's an agenda of answers that the teachers expect from us, or if it's just that these conversations never feel like they can create a deeper level of cultural understanding (perhaps it is all of them).

But I stuck it out, trying to stick as closely to my beliefs and explain them as well as I could while also trying to keep my stomach in check. The further into the conversation I got, the more exhausted I felt. My teacher would patiently repeat a question, try it in a new way, and eventually I'd stumble through an answer. It felt like I had taken three steps forward and nine steps back. By the end of class, I was just ready to be done.

Before we left, my teacher asked me a question and I couldn't understand. She gestured to my stomach, and I nodded and said, "Si." I didn't know what she was asking but I thought that she was asking me how I was feeling. Before I could respond, she held her hands up towards the sky and began to pray aloud. "In the name of our father....May Jesus Christ bless this young woman, Katharine, and relieve her of her pain..." And so she continued for a minute. I sat there silently, trying to show respect, but feeling a little shock. I had agreed to it, not knowing what I had said "Si" to, but a lesson was learned: it never hurts to clarify a question. The teacher's warmth and generosity did make me feel cared for, though, and so this "si" brought with it surprise but also gratefulness that someone so new to me could care.

After an hour break, I said my second, "Si" for the day. I was feeling exhausted and couldn't imagine going on an excursion, or even leaving our block. But encouraged by the others, I made myself go. It was the best "Si" I said all day. With one of our teachers, we went to Los Tres Ojos, which are a part of a national park located inside Santo Domingo. The three eyes are actually lakes, deep underground in caves. Although the name implies that there are three, there's a fourth that is perhaps the most beautiful of all but can only be reached by "boat." (I put boat here in quotations because it was more of a wooden raft that a man pulled across a lake and into a cave via a set of ropes....even my teacher put the word boat in quotes!) We went to each lake, where we discussed the origin of the lake's name, and avoided aggressive but friendly men who were trying to sell us tours and necklaces. I wish that I had the words to describe the beauty of these underground, inside cave lakes. The stunning blue of the water, the spotting of turtles and tilapia, the echoes of tourists gasping in awe, but I don't....Los Tres Ojos really just has to be seen. Below, a few pictures.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Guest Post (A story from Alexis, woven by Kate)

"Let me say this to you before you write it: I'm loving my experience here so much that I get sad when I think about ever having to leave. I feel moments of being at peace, happy, when I'm walking down the street listening to music playing, especially in the neighborhood where I've been going to the gym. I feel part of it here." - Alexis

The following are the words of Alexis, re-told as a story by Kate (the speech-language pathologist doesn't know how to write, apparently)

The streets of the Zona Colonial are touristy. In the neighborhood where I go, it feels slightly more authentic. Street vendors sell salami and tostones, children play basketball on the courts, and people sit outside the restaurants and corner stores talking at all hours. The streets are alive, and active, and slightly more authentic than anything we experience where we live. It's not real, and it's not authentic, and even walking down the avenue listening to the blaring bachata, I can both know that but also enjoy it for its vibrance and my peace with it, my piece within it.

At the gym, I feel like I'm doing a real life thing. I go, regularly, and speak in Spanish to my trainer and his other client. I communicate only in Spanish, becoming to some small extent part of some type of community here, a near impossible feat in such a short period of time. I feel like I am becoming part of the scene. I recognize faces. I am starting to make connections outside of our school's walls. Such little differences make all of the difference. If I lived here, I'd have a regular salon to get my hair done, and a regular gym to exercise in, and fall among all of those people who live and breathe those spaces every day.

What I love when I leave the gym is hearing music on the streets that is music I love, feeling comfortable and familiar with the location, and it all gives me a sense of joy (although, author's aside: that's probably the endorphins, too).

Tonight, I literally stood in the stairwell, looking down at the Zumba class and the instructor, for five minutes before joining in today. I was worried, not sure how to get in there and wondering internally if I could move the way any of those women could move. Already exhausted from personal training and cardio, I knew that I'd be even more stiff than usual but a friendly face beckoned me to try. I took a deep breath and fell in line. This was my opportunity to be a part of this class, which was relatively unfamiliar as a work out and also as a location. I can't say that I had all of the moves, but my feet were correct and I will take that as a win for the day.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

El Domingo

I think you can tell a lot about a city based on Sundays.

In Boston, my Sundays are filled with the stress of finishing lessons, grading papers, entering grades, and grappling with the idea of launching myself into another week of school, so much that I hardly enjoy them. Living in the North End, in the summer and early fall, I at least get to enjoy the weekly parade, the marching band, the festival, and the occasional funnel cake.  In Paris, when I was a student and then as a teacher, too, Sundays were the days for the market visits, the picnics, the long family meals and the most quiet early morning city streets. I coveted Sundays in Paris. Time with my wonderful host family, time to visit the best markets and relax without deadlines or pressure, Sundays meant time to just take in the city and the scene. I've never loved Sundays more.

But Santo Domingo offers its own wonderful flavor of Sundays, too. This morning was the quietest I've heard the city since we arrived. I probably didn't notice it last weekend because I had only just arrived. But this morning, the only noises that I awoke to were of pigeons cooing outside my window (not as nice as it seems....). As we dressed for Catholic mass at the Cathedral of the Americas, we noticed that few people were out. Those who were out were clearly dressed for church, quietly making their way down our street. Cars, usually blasting music and honking horns, drove quietly, as if respecting what is Sunday mornings in Santo Domingo. As we strolled to mass, quiet neighbors nodded and said, "Hola," but kept conversations low and private, a marked contrast from the lively conversations we'd seen before. The city didn't feel asleep so much as in agreement of the quiet respect that a Sunday morning deserves.

We attended the Catholic mass, which tested our Spanish both because of its speed and the beautiful gothic cathedral's acoustics. Although we understood almost nothing, even with Maggie and Alexis both knowing the routine of mass, all of us felt the warmth as our neighbors shook our hands and kissed our cheeks and wished us, "Peace be with you." After mass, the city began to come alive. Women, almost all in white, flooded the streets in search of lunch, and family, and parks to sit in. There were so many women dressed in white that we began to wonder if we had missed a memo somewhere. Tourists filled mini-trolley cars, bustling through the streets while listening to explanations of sights. We ate lunch on a patio until rain threatened, returned to the apartment for a rest, and when we awoke, the city had become even more alive.

Here was the pièce de résistance for the day: At night, at the site of ruins that were once a monastery and then a mental institution, a dance floor is put down on the cobblestones facing, a stage is set with live music, and a dance party begins. Locals and tourists (although far more former than the latter) fill the street, turning a residential street into a dancing plaza, as live bachata, merengue and salsa are played. There's drinking, dancing, joking, greeting, wonderful music, and so much laughter. There's no typical attendee: dancers and attendees were young children, young couples, older adults, entire families, and the elderly, filling the streets with plastic chairs and watching the dancing and the evening unfold. It was a contrast to the Sunday morning we awoke to, and a great one. How a city can go from so quiet and private to so warm, welcoming, and loud, is such a beautiful thing. I can definitely see how Sundays here should be coveted, too.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Day in Pictures, Courtesy of Alexis

This blogger needs a day of rest from writing and reflecting. Thankfully, Alexis captured the day in photographs. Below, a day in Santo Domingo. Many more photos to come but the electricity has gone off so many times today, I want to get these up while I can!
El Conde

Maggie at the "world museum of amber"

Maggie learns about amber
Strolling by the fort

"Where the Devil cannot go, he sends a woman." 

Friday, July 12, 2013


A very short post, because I am so tired from the week, but a quick reflection on a moment today.

Alexis and I stayed at school for an extra hour today for a dance lesson in merengue, bachata and salsa. Anyone who knows me knows that I can dance my tail off at a wedding, and I can let loose when needed, but when given actual, reasonable, specific dancing steps, I'm lost. I cannot move that way. My brain hears the beat, but my feet won't move to it. My ears understand and catch the music's waves, but my legs can't keep up or stay on it. It's a kind of movement that I have never mastered, or even approached mastering. I'm not sure my feet are teachable.

But watching my teacher move today, and listening more deeply to the music, I was reminded that what I can do is feel the beat. I don't completely understand all of the words to any of the bachata songs that we listened to but I can tell you this: I felt them. I could recognize them instantly as bachata, and I could feel something inside of me stir. As someone who knows emotions and feelings all too well, something about bachata moved me inside. And so maybe, with time, my legs can move to it, too. In schools, we set standards and require that all kids meet them all of the time. But what about the kid who cannot get her legs to move to the music, but can feel it ringing in her ears and moving her heart? Does she understand the bachata any less? What about the student who sees it as a puzzle, or a painting, or can't move to it but can weave a new piece of music from it that represents herself? How do we make room for these students, and recognize that they too can be moved by dancing, even when it is not their feet that move?

Maggie, Alexis and I sat around talking tonight about how we create great middle schools, and how so much of adolescence is about helping kids articulate who they are as individuals. Participating in the dance class today was a good reminder to celebrate the kids who move to the beat and the kids who are moved by it in some way, too. An even better reminder that, at least to me, one option is not necessarily better than another, even when a standard says it is.