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Merengue, Plantains, and Teaching

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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, a 23-year-old white guy from the Boston suburbs, and my students, 3rd grade Latino kids from the Bronx.

Our differences had created problems for me during my first year in the classroom. For example, 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 guanabana, I wondered?) When they brought music to our end-of-theyear party, I still thought merengue topped lemon pies and salsa went on 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 do you cook a plantain? Why do so many people who love their country so much leave it in the first place? All year, I had collected kids' stories that began, "When I was in Santo Domingo,'' read journal entries about "my cousins visiting from Santo Domingo,'' and listened to kids talk about winning dance contests in Santo Domingo. When we were studying China, one boy asked me if Beijing is anywhere near Santo Domingo.

The Escoto family and I flew to the Dominican Republic a few days after school ended. When we arrived on a humid July night, I was ready for some warm embraces from a few relatives and some help with the luggage. Instead, Sheyla and her family were engulfed in a frenetic mob of cousins, aunts, uncles, grandmothers, nieces, and nephews, all screaming, hugging, dancing, and 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 on Family Feud when a family wins $10,000.

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. It occurred to me that this is how Sheyla must have felt last year when I called on her in English class.

By midmorning, 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 that rendered fans and refrigerators useless in the stifling heat, and eating goat meat without complaining. My difficulties with some Dominican foods helped me understand a little better how some of my newly arrived students must feel in our school cafeteria in New York. They often stare blankly at sloppy Joes or fish sticks, eating nothing during the entire lunch period.

Although I didn't eat everything either, I learned a few culinary terms that have already served me well in the classroom. A word problem I used in math 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 yucca for 89 cents, how much change does she bring home to her grandmother?'' And, when we studied bar graphs, we counted how many students prefer their plantains boiled, mashed, or fried, instead of doing the "favorite kinds of ice cream'' exercise suggested in the teacher's guide.

Every evening after dinner, family members moved chairs outside. They talked, listened to music, and sometimes drank beer with neighbors, as the kids played nearby. This became my favorite time of day; it reminded me of the open, friendly atmosphere of a college dorm. The neighborhood was built so that eight families shared what you might call a backyard. There were always plenty of people to talk to and plenty of friends for the kids to play with. It was a far cry from the Bronx, where people such as the Escotos bolt their doors and don't let their kids play outside after dark, if at all. In Santo Domingo, kids as young as 3 run off with neighbors.

One night, I made an attempt to overcome the greatest cultural obstacle--my fear of dancing merengue. I already knew by observing my students in New York that most Dominicans are better dancers by age 2 than I could ever hope to be. In Santo Domingo, someone was always willing to dance with me when music was playing, which, excluding power outages, was all the time. Everyone would stop what 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 was nice and certainly boosted my confidence.

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

So I wondered: If people dance so often here, don't worry much about crime, and get to be with their families, why do so many leave the country and end up in New York?

Before long it became obvious that New York is as much an obsession with Dominicans in Santo Domingo as Santo Domingo is 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 they would add, "I'm waiting for the papers to come through, so I can join them.''

People barely acknowledged 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 feel. I relate better to their parents. I can tell the difference between merengue and salsa. If more families were kind enough to invite teachers into their lives and more teachers were willing to accept, we would all learn a lot. All in all, I am a better teacher, thanks to the generosity and openness of Sheyla and her family.--Seth Kugel

The author is a 3rd grade teacher at P.S. 156 in New York City and a member of Teach For America.

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