Mike Myers

The Central Asia Roadshow

I’m sitting at an outdoor cafe in Istanbul with a cat under my chair and a warm piece of bread in my hand. The waitress pours hot tea into a small, tulip-shaped glass, smiles at the cat and politely leaves us to check on other customers. The last inch of table space has been filled by a small plate of cucumbers and tomatoes, the green and red her finishing touches to a piece of art known as a Turkish Breakfast. Tradition tastes like spiced butter, cherry jam, and Kaymak. This is the type of meal that makes a statement; one that you shut up and listen to. And then, without warning, the city turns the volume up.

The distorted sound of Adhan (the Islamic call to prayer) breaches the city, flooding the streets and echoing off ancient walls with an overpowering presence that, somehow, seems to go unnoticed. I look around, waiting for people to slide out of their chairs and migrate towards the voice. The unfamiliar cry shakes my conscious, as the religion I’m told to be afraid of massages my tension with the hands of reality: the couple to my left continues talking, the old man to my right drags his cigarette, and the cat keeps waiting for a piece to fall.

When it stops, the song of the city is as clear as my unjustified anxiety. Footsteps, vendors, conversations, street musicians, and traffic harmonize in imperfect pitch. Out of tune and unconcerned; the melody of life flows through a city like trees grow from the ground. My ears felt foolish for not hearing it all along.

This won’t be the last time I shake hands with the unfamiliar and learn something about myself.

The next day I board a plane to Dushanbe to begin a 6-week journey through the five Central Asian countries of Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Imagine standing at the edge of a dark forest, staring down a path that disappears just in front of you. I can’t see the lost luggage, under the table bribes, and terrifying cab rides that are waiting for me in the darkness, but I know they’re there. I know that I’ll be in places I’ve never been, teaching things I’m still learning myself, and asked difficult questions I won’t have the answers to. But I’m here, and I may never be again, so I push my way through.

Our lives are stories, with chapter headings inspired by the times we feel a profound emotional connection to what we are doing or what is being done to us.

The idea for this trip was born in a smoke-filled hotel bar, as a colleague and I celebrated finishing a training in Almaty, Kazakhstan. “What if we spent a week in each Central Asian country teaching the art of storytelling to USAID staff, helping them capture and develop their own stories, and in the process create a documentary of the work being done throughout the region?” Six months later the needs of a multi-cultural audience had been identified, the learning experience designed and tailored for each country, and we were walking into the US Embassy in Tajikistan with a notebook filled with plans and a hand ready to rewrite them all. You can create your own reality, but you can’t control it.

“Have a plan D. As soon as you hit the ground plan A, B, and C will go out the window.” -Bob Rice (my boss)

Here’s our plan – we’ll spend mornings in the US Embassy training USAID health sector staff on the techniques and principles of powerful storytelling and the afternoons at their project sites immediately putting those ideas into action. This gets us out of the training room and into the hospitals, clinics, schools, patient support groups, universities, and remote villages where beautify and misfortune coexist.

Each person is responsible for a specific step in the process – identify the best place to film, set up the camera, mic the interviewee and monitor audio, collect signatures on release forms, manage the environment, and conduct the interview. They are working as a team, learning by doing, and taking ownership of the quality of their work. We don’t provide them with fancy equipment that they will never see again, we didn’t bring any. Instead, we teach them how to use what they have and offer suggestions to improve their setup.

At the end of each week, the projects come together for a full-day workshop where we outline the story, identify the usable clips, and edit them together to create a first draft of their video. Then each project shows their video to the group and receives feedback from their peers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A variation of this training was implemented in each of the five countries, one week after the other. That’s Monday-Friday training, Saturday to explore, and Sunday on a plane to the next country. It got tiring, but never old. This was a perfect mixture of my passions: travel, training, storytelling, and multimedia development.

MY STORYHOW BEING A RAPPER HELPED KICK START MY CAREER.

The gift and curse of a powerful storyteller is an amplified sense of empathy. My biggest challenge on this trip was learning how to train and produce at the same time, but a close second was the emotional tole of asking people to relive their most painful experiences. “Tell me about the day you learned you were HIV positive. How did it feel?” The hope that someone finds through a program sponsored by the American people is tied to the hope they lost when things went wrong. You can’t understand one without the other. As difficult as sharing can be, most people pushed through and walked away with a smile on their face. Being heard is empowering to someone who feels as if they lost their voice in society.

Our window into foreign cultures is often times narrow and unrepresentative. On this trip, I sat down and shook hands with the forgotten people. I walked through the back door and met the ex-prisoners, drug users, homosexuals, and tuberculosis patients who live in the shadows, nurturing the fragile hope of a long and healthy life.

In between listening to their stories, I created a few of my own.

Kyrgyzstan

On a five-hour hike in Kyrgyzstan, I passed a man walking two hours down the mountain just to grab lunch. He was kind enough to let me know I was going the wrong way and pointed out the path I was looking for. I sat on a rock at the bottom of a waterfall, looking over the misty valley of Ala Archa National Park.

Turkmenistan

In Turkmenistan, I took a four-hour cab ride into the desert to lay my eyes on the Gates of Hell – an enormous natural gas crater that has been on fire for 40 years. The highway to this bizarre site had no guiding lines and was littered with potholes. Our car would make a sudden jolt towards oncoming traffic to avoid one, swerve off the road for a few seconds, and then turbulently make it’s way back to its rightful place. One of these holes flipped an oil rig on the horizon. We slowed down to get a good look at the burning time-bomb before returning to an uncomfortable pace.

Watching the sun fall over this epic camp fire was unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

Our driver built a fire, made some tea, nonchalantly killed a scorpion, and drove us four hours back to the city. Now, imagine that ride in the dark.

Tajikistan

In Tajikistan, I stumbled upon a wedding ceremony near some ancient ruins. The wedding party was surrounded by a crowd of friends, family, and musicians. I was spotted and pulled into the circle to dance with the bride and groom, my presence apparently a sign the couple would one day travel to the US.

Uzbekistan

Walking around Tashkent, Uzbekistan was a treat for the eyes. Colorful fabric, street art, old soviet buildings, ancient mosques, and even a Carolina basketball billboard on the side of the road! I asked the driver of our armored vehicle to pull over on the curb, hopped out and crossed traffic to stand face-to-face with the lesson this moment had to offer.

I had wandered farther from home than I ever thought I would, just to be reminded that it's not a place I can wander away from in the first place.

I'm just a cloud drifting through a vast Carolina blue sky.

This work was completed under the GHPOD project, where I work full-time as a Blended Learning Specialist. Story First Design was not involved in this project in any way. These are just my reflections on the trip.

Pushing Through the Still Life

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Alma-Ata: Father of Apples

Everything I knew about Kazakhstan was a lie. No sane person would think a movie as stupid as Borat would be an accurate representation of a country, but sometimes the joke is just easier than the truth. The need to know often escapes us Americans when it comes to the culture and affairs of other countries, and learning doesn’t favor the content adult. Necessity began to sweep across me as I stared at my flight itinerary to Almaty.

I decided to read the book “Apples are from Kazakhstan: The Land that Disappeared” to combat this ignorance.  My imagination readjusted as I tasted truth for the first time, looking through the page at a country rich in natural resources and plagued by a history of soviet oppression. I learned that apples, tulips, and possibly even the story of King Arthur all originate from Kazakhstan; that hunters raise eagles from birth into giant, flying hunting partners; and that a sheep’s head is something I actually might see on a menu. It felt good knowing more than a fake national anthem, and despite my desire, I had avoided watching that damn movie. I’d soon be farther than I’ve ever been from home, nestled between Russia and China in a place that, despite my newfound knowledge, still wore a mask of mystery. I finished packing a few hours before I had to leave for the airport, made one last Moscow Mule, and turned the TV on to kill a little time.

Can you hear that? That’s the sound of coincidence reaching out of the screen and slapping me across the face. In a twist of fate, Borat comes riding into my living room uninvited, behind the wheel of an ice-cream truck, throwing his fictional mockery in my face. Alright, the movie is actually pretty hilarious. But still, I mean, come on! I was so close. “Very nice” echoes in my head until the hum of the plane engine puts me to sleep.

D.C. -> Frankfurt -> Almaty

I walk into Kazakhstan’s U.S. Consulate twenty hours later, greeted by two burly Russian men who carry themselves with a timid authority. I couldn’t help but feel like a 007 agent every time I finessed my way through their gaze. Every morning I would go through this security check, and each day the guards would get a little more comfortable with my presence. By the end of the week we would be laughing at one another as we attempted to learn new words. Someone from the Central Asia Health and Education Office (HEO) pokes their head through the door and calls us in.

Working in the U.S. Consulate without a security clearance is a bit like being in a white-collar prison. It’s comfortable-ish, but I can’t go anywhere in the building without being escorted, including the bathroom. I spent a majority of my time conducting focus groups and one-on-one interviews in a small conference room buzzing with fluorescent lights. I’m not sure if it was the high altitude or the idea of traveling to the other side of the world to sit in a tiny room with no windows, but every other day I would get dizzy and ask for permission to get some water. Poor Inna. A woman who speaks as if words are a dandelion being passed around on a windy beach, whose internal strength radiates from her delicate frame, now played an integral role in my bodies reaction to eating large amounts of foreign food at odd times. “Aren’t we supposed to be sleeping right now?” says my stomach. “We’re in this together, whether you like it or not,” responds Inna. A gracious walk to the bathroom, followed by an apologetic walk back to the conference room. My first Kazak apple was baked, stuffed with dried fruit, and shared with a colleague inside this room.

let's get down to business

 

 

 

 

So why am I here? I’m a blended learning instructional designer, which means I create professional and organizational development opportunities that blend learning methodologies and delivery methods. My job is to understand what people need to know and how they prefer to learn, so I can create solutions that fit within the context of their environment. That might mean creating an e-learning course, webinar, job aid, podcast, video, face-to-face training, virtual learning website, or any combination of the instructional options that exist. The end goal is to help people internalize new information, turn that information into knowledge (or skills), and then use that knowledge to become better at their job.

I spent my days collecting as much information as possible about the HEO team’s learning preferences, work environment, and professional goals. At night I sat in the beer garden of the Intercontinental hotel watching a cuban band cover Elvis songs, sipping whatever was on tap, and developing learning tools. I made a few friends along the way, who were nice enough to show me around their beautiful city as soon as the work was done. I had four days to explore.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are two things I always try to do when in a new country: go to a church and ride public transportation. Both give you a window into everyday life and introduce you to real, everyday people.

 

 

 

textI spent the entire week wandering around the city, distracted by the beautiful, snow-capped mountains that sat just beyond my reach. There is something special about the Tien-Shan mountains. The highest point in the country, Khan-Tengri Peak (which translates to “Lord of the Spirits”), can be found here. A marble temple sits at the top, where I assume an old man with a scraggly beard can tell you the secrets of life. As the birthplace of apples, the foothills of these mountains could be the original location of the Garden of Eden (if one believed in said story). Either way, I was looking at a painting. There were no blades of grass swaying, no wind whistling, and no crisp air running through my nostrils.  I didn’t come all the way here to sit inside a conference room and look at a painting, but going into these mountains was against the law. No foreigner is supposed to get within 20 kilometers of the Chinese boarder, and the cable car ride that takes you into these mountains would put me in the red zone. This is where you should stop reading, mom.

I had to do it. After all, the worst thing that could happen is I get arrested and have to pay a fine. Getting there would be another adventure. See, every car in Almaty is a taxi. If you walk to the edge of a street and hold your hand out, a random car will stop and offer you a ride for a price you have to negotiate (in Russian). They call them gypsy cabs. So, I jumped into a strangers car and headed twenty minutes out of the city towards my unknown fate. When we arrived at the base of the mountain, I looked up at the cable cars and began to question myself. Those things were really high up, and well, I’m in Kazakhstan. Is this safe? I swallowed that fear and pushed forward. At the entrance stood two police officers, dressed in green uniforms and oversized, red hats. I kept my head down, waited in line for a cable car, and jumped in. The ride was breathtaking. We traveled for 30 minutes into the mountains, going over an Olympic-sized skating rink and flush green hills. I went back and forth between astonished and frightened, as our car swayed in the wind and got closer to it’s destination. As I feared, another two officers stood just a few feet from where we jumped out of the cable car. Their heads turned as I walked past them, fanning the flame of my anxiety. They had no quarrel with me being there, and why should they? It’s a tourist attraction and I’m a tourist. Or maybe I’m Russian, I live here, and I’m doing nothing wrong. Better not speak English just in case. We walked around the side of the mountain, had some juice, took pictures with strangers, and headed back into the city before night came.

I forced my way through the still life and gave the world to my senses. I grew, built, laughed, partied, got scared, made friends, ate horse meat, and returned home with a story to share with the people I love. “That’s it,” says the imaginary, scraggly bearded man perched on Khan-Tengri Peak. “That’s the secret.”

Negotiating My Way Through DR Customs

I recently traveled to the Dominican Republic to implement an audio program I helped produce called English for Latin America (ELA). This program uses songs, dramas, games and interactive activities to help teachers teach English in a fun and effective way. We were to spend a week training 185 teachers on how to use ELA, give them the equipment they would need to play it, and send them home to use it in their classroom.  But before I could make it to the teacher training workshop, I’d have to make it through customs.

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve been escorted by a few men to the back of the Santo Domingo airport, into a large, dimly lit room that looks as if it once was crawling with happy travelers coming and going. Now only a few overweight men and a middle-aged woman stand guard, waiting for someone like me to come through the double doors. My driver, Mauricio, spotted me at the gate and was able to follow me back to this point, although we haven’t done a very good job of understanding each other yet. Nevertheless, it’s comforting to have a local with me. As we enter the main room Mauricio is told he can no longer accompany me and is forced to leave. As he pushes his way through the door he makes one final turn towards me, pointing two times at a widened eye (the universal sign for watch out), and then vanishes. No phone, no internet, nobody… this is about to get interesting.

I’ve spent about thirty minutes letting my eyes wander from the fading yellow walls, to the ants roaming across the desk, to the bolt cutters leaning suspiciously against a chair. Bolt cutters? Really? There’s a large mirror that I can’t help thinking has a man behind it staring at me. The TV in the corner of the room is uncomfortably loud and has terrible reception, a horrific combination. I think they’re trying to get to me. The sign over the door reads “nogocio”. I’m not sure exactly how strong my negotiating skills are in Spanish or what exactly I’m going to have to negotiate for, so I’m shifting around in my chair like a kid at church. The door opens slowly and a woman enters, holding a stack of papers and wearing a numb expression. She sits across from me, folds her legs while pushing her glasses up her nose, and begins speaking in Spanish.

“So tell me, what do you have in your bags?” she says while nestling into her seat as if she expects to make it home for a while.

“Audio equipment to teach English in schools here in the Dominican Republic,” I reply. “About 200 speakers and MP3 players.”

She looks down at her stack of papers, then back to me. “Anything else?”

“No, that’s it,” I assure her.

“Okay, lets take a look.”

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The next few hours were spent taking every single item out of my three, 98 pound suitcases. It took me about a week to unbox, organize, and pack all of this equipment, and I cringed as an assembly line of men dumped everything onto an old baggage check conveyor belt. Every item came with a question, and every answer with another. I can’t blame them though, this whole things looked awfully suspicious. The mood in the room became even tenser as a mountain of a man came around the corner and cast his sober shadow over us. This was definitely the man in charge. He had one cloudy eye and the face I imagined Leroy Brown having. He stood there, hardly saying a word, watching me like a dog waiting to be told he can eat. I imagine when they do find something tasty in a bag he gets to take the first bite. But I’m no drug dealer, no smuggler, just a guy with a bunch of speakers. Easyyyy boy.

Eventually every bag had been opened, every item examined, and there was nothing left to do but let me go. They tried to make me pay a fee, but I came prepared with a letter from the Ministry of Education saying I didn’t have to. They tried to take one of the speakers and MP3 players, but I insisted that we had none to spare. They stood there unsatisfied as I piled my three bags back onto the cart and rolled out of the building with a posse of young men hoping to get a tip. Over three hours had passed and it was 6 pm when I saw the Dominican sun for the first time, with an empty stomach and adjusting eyes. What a welcome party.

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I finally made it to the teacher training workshop, stuffed my face with pork and rice, and jumped into the mix of showing teachers how to use ELA. Their reaction to it was everything I had hoped for. They were dancing, singing, laughing, and visibly excited to go back to their classroom and use it with their students. They made a Facebook page on the first day to connect with us and eachother, wrote and shared poems about how much they enjoy the program, and one even went home and produced a song about how teaching with it is so much fun. Imagine you spent two years baking a cake and everyone at the party loved it. Now imagine everyone at that party gets to go back home with their own cake and share it with another 30 people. I’m one happy chef.

 

 

 

The Day English for Latin America (ELA) Was Set Free – August 18th, 2014

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Today was the first day of school in the Dominican Republic and a very exciting day for my team. Our audio program (English for Latin America) was used in classrooms for the first time today, and will be used throughout the entire school year in 185 schools from all regions of the country. If you averaged 30 students per class, that’s 5500 students learning English using our program every week. The 4000 minutes of audio we produced (100, 40 minute programs) are out there helping students learn and teachers teach. As our VP told me, “today the DR, tomorrow the world.”

Once the work is done, the exploring begins

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An afternoon in Santo Domingo:

the whole town throws dominoes down
slapping a table to the offbeat rhythm of competition
we watch from the shade of a fading wall
as kids walk back from somewhere
wearing baseball gloves as hats
dirty streets and clean uniforms
drums echo off the church walls
the preacher takes the stage
screaming a prayer as if ridding himself of a burden
cars race to the horizon
street lines are just suggestions
merengue is a passenger in every vehicle
we crack our presidentes
the clink of company
everyone is playing something

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I like my adventures coupled with my achievements, and this is one of the sweetest marriages yet.

Opportunity: The Honduran Lens

My cab will be here in 4 hours and getting any sleep is starting to look unlikely. I’m staring at the ceiling, holding the woman who holds my heart, imagining the adventure in front of me. I’ve received numerous calls from my parents in the past few days telling me what they’ve seen on Google, that scary place where a fear can become a fact if you look long enough. I play it off- “bad things happen everywhere, ma”- but I’ve been to the same websites, seen the same glaring statistics of the highest homicide rate in the world, and part of me is questioning this move as well. My mom fears for me due to my genuine trust in people and social nature, and she’s right to be afraid. I’d end up putting myself in a few sketchy situations, but at least I left with the full experience.

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I’m above the clouds on my way to Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, in a plane that sounds like a lawn mower being pushed through tall grass. The old lady sitting next to me is quiet but I can tell she shares my dislike for turbulence. Something about being shaken around in a metal box, 3000 feet in the air, by Mother Nature herself is, well, unsettling.  I close my eyes and talk to all the loved ones I’ve lost on Earth and found again in my heart. I hate when I catch myself praying for the first time in months and only doing so to ask for help.

I haven’t had a chance to eat and my stomach is singing a duet with the planes engine. The old lady holds out a bag of Cheetos and smiles. I refuse politely but she insists, reaching the bag out a little farther and opening her eyes a little wider. Her eyes are kind and her smile warm. Her daughter offers to trade seats with me so I can see the view as we land.  They both seem to be amused by my lack of certainty, offering advice for places to visit and things to avoid. I miss the kindness you find in people while traveling to an unknown place they call home. They sense my vulnerability and see it as an opportunity, not to take advantage of me, but simply to help a stranger.

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This word gets to the very core of the reason I’ve traveled to a country plagued by violence. The old lady offered me a snack because she had something to share and could sympathize with my discomfort. But what about the kid who was raised with next to nothing, never coached to strive for more than what his arms could reach, who lives either trapped in or surrounded by a life of gangs and violence? The kid whose hunger runs deeper than mine might see vulnerability as an opportunity as well, not to share, but to survive.

I am here to work with Proyecto METAS, a project that focuses on improving the lives of young people by creating new and strengthening existing opportunities for alternative education throughout the country. The METAS office is a place where people walk around to say hello in the morning and goodnight in the afternoon. Stop and think about that for a second and you’ll come to appreciate it like I did. Everyday your colleagues walk around to see how you are, shake your hand, and welcome you to the day. I really felt like I was part of a team, one made up of extremely talented and motivated players. In fact, many of the employees in the main office are young people who enrolled in a METAS sponsored program, worked harder than you could imagine, and ended up getting certified and employed. A handful of young men and women whose lives were dramatically changed by the project they are now contributing to. Their stories shake the walls of my reality, reducing my problems to a rubble that I walk upon with privileged feet and a heavy heart.

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Tegucigalpa is a city where people take pride in their culture and the beauty of their surroundings. It’s a place where people acknowledge each other in passing, if only to say hello or excuse me (for a southern boy moving to DC, it’s been challenging getting used to people living in their personal bubbles all the time). The city sits in a valley surrounded by mountains, much like Medellin, with brightly colored houses running up the mountainside creating a mixture of colors like a painters pallet as he searches for the perfect shade. The mountaintops break through the lowest lying clouds, giving just enough room for a yellowish-white light to shine onto the lush green mountains; A spotlight showing me how far I’ve come. From one of these mountaintops you can watch the sun set behind the great city walls, slowly pulling a line of light across the city as houses turn into stars that flicker in the darkness beneath you. I’m sitting on one of these mountaintops imagining myself as a young boy, climbing above the clouds to get a glimpse of the heavens.

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I’m staring out the window as we drive down the winding mountain roads on our way back to the city. The driver thinks I’m tired and turns the music down, but I’m really wide awake, attentive, taking in everything I can. This is one of my favorite things to do in a new place. It’s amazing how much I get out of seeing a few seconds of a strangers life. I see kids celebrating after a score; a mother getting off a bus, pulling her son by the hand and fighting her way through the exhaust; and a man trying to sell a few more flowers before it gets dark. They’ll probably forget the moments that I witness after a few hours, but the small window I get into their life builds memories that will connect me with them [and their country] forever.

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The last drop of light vanishes with the setting sun but the mountains continue to cast a shadow of violence over the city and all it’s beauty. It would be unwise to see one and not the other. After all, I’ve come here to confront this violence not ignore it. An example of its effect on the community can be seen when you walk into the stadium that their local soccer team, Olympia, plays in. Two sections on opposite ends of the stadium are blocked off by walls with barbwire fences, separating the two local gangs from each other and the general crowd. The people who I worked with during my two week stay told me they’ve never been to a game because they don’t feel safe, just like they don’t ride public transportation or rarely do any outside activities for fun. This is a hard truth for me to swallow, as I imagine my own day-to-day life living behind the self-made and community-built walls meant to protect me from my own people.

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The gift of perspective is what I love the most about traveling.

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This was one of my first opportunities to design and produce an e-learning course/website outside of my masters program. The website that I built for Proyecto METAS is a community of practice site, where 11 local NGOs that each work with youth in a different way (sports, music, ect.) can communicate and strengthen their capacity through courses on topics such as M&E, Communications, and HR. It was also my first opportunity to conduct a user analysis in a professional setting. I’m blessed to have a job that allows me to practice the skills I’m studying, travel to new corners of the world, and most importantly, help improve the lives of others. I have always thought it wise to value the opportunity to gain experience over the income that I generate at this point in my life, and this trip only strengthened that belief.

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Write the word “opportunity” on a sticky note and put it next to your computer. Anytime you feel down about where you are in life just look at that word and remember what it means, not just to you, but to all the other people in this world.

How Much It Means: A Small Light

I walk into a small, hot classroom to twenty or so turning heads. All eyes on me. It’s a familiar stare they dish out- long and curious, filled with whispers that move secrets; shy smiles that hope to be, yet never are, unseen; and restless bodies that are itching to get out of an uncomfortable seat. Who am I, and more importantly, why am I here?

The first time I walked into this situation I only knew enough Spanish to say my name and ask a few basic questions. “Hola. Como estas? No hablo espanol.” A year and a half later I’m a little more equipped and can hold a conversation when given the opportunity. It takes a few days for some students, a few hours for others and a simple second for that child who reminds me of myself at his age (minus the cool haircut and school uniform). By the second day I’m unable to leave their classroom without giving each child a handshake. Not a, hello Mr. Myers, type of handshake. A, que mas compadreeee, style dap. Each child has their own variation and it takes me 10 minutes just to walk out of the door. It’s important that they become as comfortable with my presence as possible or I wont accomplish what I traveled so far to do.

In DC I spend everyday going from studio to studio recording and mixing audio. Eating is our only break and sometimes even that is hard to find time to do. I work with a team of 5 people to design and manage the program and coordinate a team of 10 to turn those ideas into a product on an impossibly tight schedule. Actors, musicians, producers, scripts, master plans, corrections… gasp… class, papers, car is totaled, metro, bus, coaching a U14 girls soccer team… gasp… call your parents, you miss them!

When I walk into this classroom it all comes back to me. What I’m doing is amazing. It’s worth a little stress, a little sacrifice. Every corner that I cut degrades the experience for these kids. It’s something they wake up and look forward to; something they go home and talk about. It’s an opportunity that makes them feel special and puts them on the path to good study habits and ultimately a grasp of the English language. Who am I to deny them of that opportunity?

I stayed at a hotel that was just a few giant wooden doors down from the school I was visiting. At night everyone from the neighborhood sits around the church courtyard and sings a song called community. The little kids play soccer inside the circle, the teenagers flirt and vanish in and out of the shadows, and the old men drink until they fall asleep in their plastic chairs. I went to that courtyard every night, had a few aguilas and played music with Julian and anyone else that was outside with an instrument. The kids from the school would come running up to me, with a smirk like a kid on christmas that knows what’s inside the big box, and say “these are my shoes”, pointing to their shoes. It was the language objective of our program they had listened to earlier that day. It works.

I went to evaluate our programs in one school in Cartagena, Colombia. By watching a classroom using it we can determine what the kids enjoy, what they find boring and what ideas are lost in the noisy chatter of a busy room. My ears pick out every mistake and my notebook fills faster than it used to when Larry would send me a beat sampling some classic motown song. Being there in the corner of that small, hot room puts a face on the other end of the speaker we make a living from. A ministry official came one morning to watch the programs being used and was instantly sold. “We want this throughout Colombia! Send us a budget and lets make it happen.” We are invited to present at a meeting next month as a best practice for English language learning? The president and secretaries of education from every area of the country will be there? Fantastic.

I looked out the airplane window on my way back to Washington, DC and felt like my view was a little clearer. Somehow, we will get this done, and come November it will be playing in thousands of schools across Colombia every morning. But our reach doesn’t stop there. We go to the Dominican Republic in October to begin testing the programs there. After that, who knows? Honduras? Bolovia? Use the structure of the program and switch languages to French and move to Africa? A small light shines into my future and I melt in the possibilities it reveals.

To learn more about the program we are producing, English for Latin America (ELA), visit http://www.englishforlatinamerica.org