INTERNATIONAL EDUCATION: Education Update's Interns Travel Abroad
As I read through my volunteer paperwork while lying in bed on a quiet January evening, I could not imagine why foam earplugs were on the packing list. I was soon to travel to the Dominican Republic to volunteer with Orphanage Outreach, an organization that coordinates teaching projects for groups and individuals who want to serve the students of the world’s developing communities. While still in my own room, I stared in consternation at the list. I had planned to pack sunscreen, sturdy shoes, and my camera, but I could not imagine why I would need earplugs.
However, my bewilderment was instantly assuaged as I stepped out of the airport in Santo Domingo. Before I had the chance to appreciate the mid-80s temperature, or catch a glimpse of the aqua ocean glistening on the horizon, I was struck by the startling pounding of drums, the rhythmic sounding of brass instruments, and a surge of Spanish words that moved far too rapidly for my learning ears to comprehend. Contrary to what preconceived notions of the Latin American world might have led me to believe, the source of the music was not a melodious crew of cheery minstrels clad in traditional and festive garb. Instead, the sounds exploded from a faded white and teal microbus, which seemed to risk spontaneous collapse with every pound of the music’s baseline. I soon recognized this resonant bus as none other than my ride to Monte Cristi, the small rural town where I would live in an orphanage and teach in local schools. For the next seven hours, I bounced in this vehicle along earthen country roads, all the while developing a headache from the Dominican music that sounded at unprecedented volumes, and trying to decline politely each time the driver encouraged me to sing along. I can’t remember many moments in which my eardrums so desperately begged for quiet. It was then that I realized I had forgotten the earplugs. I felt unsettled and uncomfortable in an unfamiliar world.
This feeling was exacerbated when I walked into my first class of students, and I found my voice could hardly rise above the din of excitement, in a language I was struggling to understand. I thought my task would simple — I only had to teach the students numbers in English. But after several futile calls for “silencio,” the job began to seem impossible. I wondered if I was destined to fail at the work I came to do. I couldn’t even achieve the quiet I had always thought necessary for a classroom setting.
However, as my co-teacher and I walked back to our home base at the orphanage, I started to understand that “quiet” was hardly a necessary step toward my goal of teaching, for quiet was neither a value nor a rule of these students’ world. Constant noise and action was one source of the unbounded energy of this culture, whether it was of the children yelling on the orphanage’s lawn, the donkeys screeching with the rise of the sun (the real reason the earplugs are on the packing list), or the beat blasting from the town’s “discoteca” at 3 a.m. I realized that in order to work with the students I had to start listening, and moreover, contributing.
So the next day, we passed the same colorful houses constructed with every material imaginable on our trek to the same one-room schoolhouse, but this time, we had a new plan. It involved yelling, running, and dancing…and, incidentally, learning to count in English. I now look back and understand that listening to the sounds of the community, and not being afraid to add to them, was what allowed me to teach successfully. Furthermore, this experience emphasized that listening to and producing noise just might be pivotal in every classroom, whether it be a giant elementary school in New York City, or a remote schoolhouse, with a dirt floor and no running water. Noise can only intensify the energy that propels ideas out of minds and into action. Silence might only suppress. Good thing I forgot the earplugs. #
Grace McCarty is a student at Columbia University.