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