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Summer Lessons on Plantains, Merengue, and Teaching

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When 7-year-old Sheyla Escoto entered my classroom last September, all I knew about her was that she had just moved to New York City from the Dominican Republic. In fact, like so many other teachers in our school system, I knew little about any of my students' family lives. So, when Sheyla's parents invited me to spend the summer with them in Santo Domingo, I gladly accepted.

They were returning home to visit their family for the first time since they had come to New York; I was hoping to improve my Spanish and break down the barriers between me, the 23-year-old white guy from the Boston suburbs, and my students, the 3rd-grade Latino kids from the Bronx.

Our differences had created problems for me during my first year in the classroom. When I asked my kids to brainstorm a list of fruits, I had never heard of half the things they suggested. (What the heck is a guanÀabana, I wondered?) When they brought music to our end-of-the-year party, I still thought merengue and salsa were things you put on lemon pies and tortilla chips.

I felt left out. I had so many questions. What kind of life did my kids lead before they came to New York? How much daily preparation time went into the girls' seemingly impossible hairstyles? How do you cook a plantain? Why do so many people who love their country so much leave it in the first place? All year long I had collected kids' stories that began "When I was in Santo Domingo,'' read journal entries about "my cousins visiting from Santo Domingo,'' listened to kids talk about winning dance contests in Santo Domingo or, when we were studying China, had one boy ask me if Beijing is anywhere near Santo Domingo.

The family and I flew together to the Dominican Republic a few days after school ended. When we arrived and met their relatives on a humid July night, I was ready for some warm embraces and some help with the luggage. Before I knew it, Sheyla and her family were engulfed in a frenetic mob of cousins, aunts, uncles, grandmothers, nieces and nephews, screaming, hugging, dancing, practically fainting from the excitement. At least 15 family members had rented a bus to pick us up at the airport at 3 A.M. The closest thing I had ever seen to this loving mayhem was what happens on "Family Feud'' when families win $10,000, and even that hysteria ends on cue for a commercial break.

Sheyla's relatives chanted, sang, and laughed throughout most of the 45-minute bus ride. When we arrived at their small home, more cousins, aunts, uncles, grandmothers, nieces, and nephews streamed out to begin a second round of screaming embraces. They asked me to make a speech, but I was too overwhelmed by culture shock and too embarrassed about my Spanish to say anything. I imagined how Sheyla must have felt last year when I called on her during English lessons.

By mid-morning, the relatives had gone home and I began to settle into what would become my lifestyle for the next month. There were plenty of adjustments to make. I had to get used to sharing a small bedroom with Sheyla's 5th-grade brother, suffering through frequent power outages which rendered fans and refrigerators useless in the stifling heat, and learning to eat goat meat without complaining.

My difficulties with some Dominican foods made me understand a little better how some of the newly arrived students feel in our school cafeteria in New York, where they often eat nothing, staring blankly at Sloppy Joes and fish sticks during the entire lunch period.

Although I didn't eat everything, either, I learned a few culinary terms that have served me well in the classroom. A math word problem I used last year, "If Maria goes to the supermarket with a dollar and buys one turkey sandwich for 89 cents, how much change does she get?'' this year became "If Maria goes to the bodega with a dollar to buy yuca for 89 cents, how much change does she bring home to her grandmother?'' Or when we studied bar graphs this fall we measured how many people prefer their plantains boiled, mashed, or fried, instead of doing the typical "favorite kinds of ice cream'' graph that is in the teacher's guide.

Every evening after dinner the family moved some chairs outside, talked, listened to music, and sometimes drank beer with the neighbors while the kids played nearby. The way the neighborhood was built, eight families shared what you might call a backyard, so there were always plenty of people to talk to and plenty of friends for the kids to play with. After dinner became my favorite time of day and reminded me of the open, friendly atmosphere of a college dorm. It was a far cry from the Bronx, where people like the Escotos bolt their doors and don't let their kids play outside after dark, if at all. In Santo Domingo, kids as little as 3 years old run off with the neighbors; the only restriction is that they are not allowed to cross the street.

One night after dinner I made my initial attempts to overcome the greatest cultural obstacle that faced me--dancing merengue. I already knew by observing my students in New York that most Dominicans are already better dancers by age 2 than I could ever hope to be. In Santo Domingo someone was always willing to dance with me when the music came on (which, excluding power outages, was all the time). Everyone else was always willing to stop whatever they were doing to watch me make a fool of myself. They were also kind enough to point at me and laugh out loud, which certainly boosted my confidence.

Still, there was no way to avoid dancing in this merengue-intensive city. By the end of the summer I had danced in the morning, afternoon, and evening, in the house, in the street, at parties, at weddings, and on the cousins' porch. Although I never got to be very good, I couldn't complain; how could anyone complain about a country where the people are always dancing?

So I wondered, if these people dance so often here, and don't worry so much about crime here, and get to be with their family here, why do so many leave the country and end up in my classroom?

Before long it became obvious that New York is as much an obsession with Dominicans in Santo Domingo as Santo Domingo was with my Dominican kids in New York. All I had to do was mention the words Nueva York and I would hear: "My father is there.'' "My sister is there.'' "My husband is there.'' And often "I'm waiting for the papers to come through so I can join them.'' My student's 14-year-old cousin Betty told me, "I am crazy about going to New York and learning English.''

People barely acknowledge the often nightmarish stories their Dominican-American relatives tell them about crime and unemployment and violence in the schools, because in their minds the opportunities outweigh the risks.

I got back to New York eager to start the new school year. Last year, my students were mysteries to me. This year, I know more about why they are here and how they are feeling. I relate better to their parents. I can tell the difference between merengue and salsa. All in all, I am a better teacher, thanks to the generosity and openness of Sheyla and her family. If more families were kind enough to invite teachers into their lives, and more teachers were willing to accept, we could all learn a lot. The only problem is, pretty soon everyone might forget who was supposed to be doing the teaching.

Seth Kugel is a 3rd-grade teacher at P.S. 156 in the Bronx in New York City and a Teach For America corps member.

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