Monday, March 28, 2011

Yale Service Tour to the DR -- Day 6 ("Hay luz cuando hay luz")

Wednesday, March 16

Getting up in the morning was getting harder.  Our long days have been followed by full evenings.  Rousting the lad out of bed was becoming one of the hardest jobs of my day.  I finally succeeded in getting him going, so off to breakfast and then off to Las Charcas we went.

This morning was going to be good, we thought, because we were going to have the big piano.  And, we were going to have Darlene help us as a bit of a traffic cop.  There had been a few times the day before when things got a bit crazy . . . we had too many kids for two people to handle, particularly when the adult in the room lacked the Spanish skills to really keep everyone in line.  After some time, Darlene commented that she thought we sort of enjoyed the chaos that came about when we had more kids.  She was probably right, although we did get more done when she helped us keep order. 

We set the room up a little different, with the big keyboard off to one side.  We were going to get the kids all playing with two hands today.  We worked with them on the little keyboards and, when they were ready, took to them to the big keyboard.  It worked really well and the kids enjoyed showing their mastery on the big piano.  The big piano also let us teach them more about touch and tone -- because the keys were more sensitive, the strength with which you strike them dictates the loudness of the sound produced.  That was new for the kids, and they started experimenting with the sound.

There were a few piano highlights of the day.

First, toward the end of the morning, Tyler got on the big piano and started playing some merengue.  His novias were there, and they loved it.  They started teaching me to dance.  Then, they got one of their cell phones out and started playing a bachata tune they had downloaded.  Tyler became the subject of the dance lessons.  It was an impromptu party, with the kids dancing and laughing, teaching us how to dance.

Second, a couple of times during the day, Tyler played some classical music for the kids.  (The little keyboards weren't really suited for this.)  For one group, Tyler played Chopin's Revolutionary Etude.  About 10 kids walked out; they had absolutely no interest.  About 15 kids stayed to listen.  I couldn't tell if they were interested, or were just being polite.  About six kids stood awestruck, as Tyler's fingers flew around the keyboard.  Three little boys slowly crept up to Tyler as he played, transfixed by the music.  When they got right up next to him, they stopped and watched and listened.  This was not remotely like anything else they had ever heard.

Third, our friend, Lucy Pratt, joined us as a teacher.  Lucy is a nine year old from Denver.  She joined her parents and her brother on our trip.  On Monday, Lucy peeked into our room, to see what we were doing.  She picked a noisy time to check things out, and decided not to really venture into the room.  She was back on Tuesday, when she played some songs for some of the kids.  She didn't stay long, then, but she seemed to enjoy it.  On Wednesday, it was a whole new Lucy.  She came in and started teaching.  A nine year old stepping up to teach as she did was wonderful to see.  She seemed to enjoy it and the students really liked her.

Finally, we seemed to really connect with our boys in the afternoon.  They were our toughest group, partly because they goofed around, partly because some of them found it hard.  (I suspect the two were related.)  However, they kept coming back.  That afternoon, things seemed to fall into place for many of these guys.  The practice and persistence paid off, and they were able to proudly play for their gym teacher (who then got in a quick piano lesson when the boys weren't looking).

The one disappointment with the day is that we couldn't get electricity for the keyboard in the afternoon.  We had power in the morning, but couldn't find an outlet that worked after lunch.  I went to some of the teachers to see where I could plug the keyboard in.  "No hay luz," was their reply.  There was no light.  When will it come back?, I asked.  They tried to explain what I was already figuring out -- although some of the homes in the area and the school are wired for electricity, they don't usually have power and they don't really know when they will get it.  As their explanation went on, I was getting the picture.  One of the teachers asked me if I understood.  "Si," I replied, "hay luz cuando hay luz."  There is light when there is light.  Exactly, she responded, you are learning about the Dominican Republic.

In some ways, this simple phrase captured for me what the trip was about.  Hay luz cuando hay luz -- there are terrible infrastructure problems that hold this community back. Imagine what they could do with consistent, predictable power.  Hay luz cuando hay luz -- there are many moments of joy and happiness in this place which are not scheduled, so are savored all the more when they happen.  Hay luz cuando hay luz -- illumination in the form of help and mutual support come when it comes, and when it comes, it is welcomed and celebrated.

As our school day wound down, we packed up our keyboards a few minutes early and visited the other classrooms.  We saw one group teaching English.  We saw the remarkable murals that the Gould family had helped the children paint on the walls of the school.  We watched the dance instructors and art instructors do their stuff.  And, we watched the public health team give their briefing about cholera -- complete with a song they wrote about washing hands -- to the school children.  And we saw the map the kids had made of Las Charcas, with each child making a picture of their home and putting it proudly on the map.  The energy we had felt in our classroom could be felt in the whole school.  The education team had really put something neat together.

I was sad to leave the school that day.  We would be coming back for a celebration, but not to teach.  Tomorrow, we would be going door to door to pass out information about cholera prevention.  We had come so far in just a few days.  I wondered if the momentum would continue, whether we had made a lasting difference.  The pianos and books would stay.  So, I left hoping we had planted a seed.  And, I left knowing I would miss our students -- Willie, Yunior, Roseanna, Alesandra, Las Novias, Juando and all the others.  They are terrific kids.

As our days were never really slow, we left the school to go play baseball.  This turned out, oddly enough, to be another important moment for Tyler.

Our softball outing was on a dirt field with a stunning backdrop of mountains behind it.  We were going to have two teams, each with Yalies and local Dominicans.  (We could tell immediately that a Yale vs. DR game would not turn out well.)  Our team was coached by Coach Griggs, who had been the Yale soccer coach for years.

When it was our team's turn to bat, Coach Griggs had Tyler bat lead off.  This would be tough for Tyler, I knew.  Tyler has a long list of things at which he excels.  Baseball is not on the list.  His swing was tense and awkward.  He struck out and was obviously and understandably embarrassed.  This is when I really saw the spirit of our group.  First, Coach Griggs came over to Tyler -- who was in no mood to hear encouragement from his Dad -- and said a few words that seemed to help.  Then, a coach from the DR came over and patiently gave Tyler an informal batting lesson.  When it was our team's turn to go back in the field, Tyler and I sat out (we alternated in the field).  Patrick (our photojournalist) and ET (an itinerant biologist and adventurer) came over to speak to Tyler.  Each, in their own way, helped Tyler relax and even got a smile out of him.

Our softball field
The combination of Coach Griggs, the DR coach, Patrick and ET got Tyler going again.  When it was his turn to bat again, he had a much better swing.  He connected with the ball, and hit it well.  He didn't make it safely to first, but that was because he had hit it directly to a fielder.  The team's encouragement made a big difference.  Tyler's willingness to get back up in front of the group to bat again also showed me something.

Softball done, we headed back to what we expected to be a relaxed evening with little planned and a buffet dinner at the Hotel Libano.  At dinner, we were entertained by one of students on the trip, Daryl Rothman, a voice and psychology student who had performed with the New York City Opera.  She sang a solo she had performed for the Opera.  Her angelic (and huge) voice filled the room.  (I was pretty surprised to hear such a big, beautiful voice come out of such a petite young woman.)  Daryl had been in the school, so I had seen her working.  I had no idea she could sing like that.  Wow.

After dinner, I was speaking with Daryl's parents and we discussed music.  Andy, Daryl's father, mentioned that one of his favorite classical music pieces was Chopin's Revolutionary Etude and he told a story about when he first heard it as a freshman at Yale.  Funny you should say that, I said, Tyler played that very piece for the kids this morning.  Would he play it for us?  Andy asked.  I don't know, I said, let's ask him.  Tyler was kind enough to play for everyone -- with a Beethoven encore to boot.  The conditions weren't perfect -- the keyboard sat on a rickety plastic table, so I had to try to hold it still.  Tyler played well and, as Daryl had before him, filled our space with music.  Then, one of the other trip members got a guitar out and started playing, too.  An impromptu music night unfolded, completely unscheduled, which helped people really enjoy each other's company in a very warm environment.  The music and singing gave light to our evening and was a nice, classical coda to the week's piano lessons  Hay luz cuando hay luz, indeed.

As the night drew to a close, we headed back to our hotel with Coach Griggs. "Tyler," he said, "you really showed me something today. Your piano playing was great, but that's not what I am talking about. You got back up to the plate at softball after that first at bat didn't go so well. You hung in there. A big part of life is just giving things a try and sticking with them. You did that today. That was terrific." Coach Griggs went on to explain this a little bit more, and Tyler listened carefully to what he said.  I thought Coach Griggs was absolutely right, and I was glad he had said it.

As I think back on the trip, that softball game - and the support Tyler got from everyone from our group and from the Las Charcas players during it - exemplified the spirit of this trip. Mutual support, fun, trying new and difficult things, not knowing if they would work. The softball game, and the walk back to the hotel with Coach Griggs, was definitely a highlight of the trip for me.  That night, I realized that Tyler and I were getting much more out of this trip than we had asked or hoped for.

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