Their Smiles are Real in the Batey Lecheria
Stepping off the plane in Santo Domingo, we were greeted by the most wonderful surprise. There, standing at the gate, waving fervently and beaming from ear to ear, was Sister Mary Alice. Her warm smile, generous hugs, and endless words of thanks, were momentarily enough to distract us from our trepidations about what the upcoming week would bring.
I was first introduced to Mary Alice through our school’s Spanish teacher, Lilian. A native of the Dominican Republic, Lilian had spent many hours volunteering with the children and faculty of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, a struggling Montessori school in one of the most impoverished areas of Santo Domingo, known as the Batey Lecheria. This past December, Lilian approached me to ask if we could donate our gently-used Montessori materials to S.H.C.J. When I received a letter from Mary Alice thanking us for the donation, I immediately thought of our next fundraising campaign and inquired as to how else we might be able to help her school. Her answer was the very last thing I ever expected. She did not ask for money, clothing, classroom materials, or even food. She asked for education. In that instant all thoughts of campaigns and collection bins came to a halt. Sister Mary Alice was asking me to help educate her teachers and I didn’t know where to begin.
We teach the children: “When in doubt, ask a friend.” In this case I asked forty-five. My faculty sat down with me to hear the details of this unexpected turn in our relationship with S.H.C.J. and their assessment was swift and unanimous: “Let’s go.”
So, there we were, the opening line of a corny joke, six New Yorkers and a Roman Catholic nun standing in an airport. Chulo and Jose, the drivers who would be our ground transportation for the week, quickly loaded up our bags. We were all weary from our travels, but fortunately the coffee in the Dominican Republic more than lives up to its reputation. Slathered in sunscreen and bug spray, we clambered aboard the van and were off on our journey into the Batey Lecheria.
Our more than hour-long ride to the Society of the Holy Child Jesus School was filled with anxious chatter about what the day might bring, but when we rounded the final turn into the entrance to the Batey, the silence in our van was deafening. Everywhere lay evidence of family after family, without even the most basic of human needs. As I looked on, my thoughts travelled back to one of my many conversations with Mary Alice. She said “Just remember, they have nothing, but their smiles are real.” At that moment I couldn’t imagine how. The few local residents who were outside their homes, quietly observed our arrival, but as we neared the entrance to the school we began to hear the excited cries of children’s voices. It was the children of S.H.C.J. shouting our welcome. Surrounded by abject poverty, there they were with open arms and huge grins, genuinely happy to greet us.
They swarmed our van, vying for hugs and anxious to grab our hands to lead us into their school. The littlest children in the village, too young to yet attend S.H.C.J., peered in at “los Americanos” through the barbed wire fence surrounding the complex. We had all done previous charitable outreach work in many different types of communities and believed that we were not completely unprepared for the Batey. We already knew that most of the children would not have had any meal this week, other than the cereal, bread and milk that the school is able to provide. We knew that for most of the children, the only clothing they own is their one school uniform, and we knew that for many of the teachers at S.H.C.J., an entire month's salary is what we spend on a Venti cappuccino at Starbucks. Now we were actually seeing it, and it was overwhelming.
We were brought to an upstairs meeting room for a merienda (tea and biscuits) while Mary Alice recapped the history of the area for everyone. Though located in the Dominican Republic, the Batey Lecheria is a Haitian village. During Rafael Trujillo’s dictatorship, ancestors of the current Batey residents were brought over from Haiti by truck-load, to work under slave-like conditions in the now bankrupt sugarcane industry. Their descendents have become displaced citizens, born in the Batey but with no documentation to be recognized as either Haitian or as Dominican. To our great benefit, Lilian’s brother-in-law, a renowned anthropologist, had joined us for our first day in the Batey. Pedro further educated us on the history of the island, and the myriad of different views of the relationship between the Dominican and the Haitian people. As we listened, the reality of our environment gradually began to sink in. Not only is S.H.C.J. a school voluntarily established in one of the most impoverished areas of the Caribbean, but its teachers are Dominican men and women, openly rejecting the adversity between the two cultures and working for literally pennies to bring Montessori education to the Haitian children of the Batey. We were speechless.
After our brief but fascinating tutorial, Mary Alice encouraged us to venture out and observe the classrooms. Through several months of dialogue we had all come to understand her biggest concern for the program. Over time, her few Montessori trained faculty members had left the school, leaving behind a very dedicated team of teachers who are attempting to continue delivering the Montessori curriculum without the formal education to do so. Her greatest hope, stemming back to her initial request, was to provide her teachers with the education necessary to properly revitalize the Montessori Method at S.H.C.J.
We first set out to tour the entire facility. The campus actually includes a dispensary, where all residents of the Batey are welcome to receive medical treatment. The children of S.H.C.J. receive daily vitamins, and are regularly given medication to treat the never-ending problem of intestinal parasites caused by the unsanitary living conditions in the Batey. Our admiration for the amazing men and women of S.H.C.J. increased ten-fold as Mary Alice described, in far too much detail for a bunch of Americans, what that process actually involves.
Next, we toured the classrooms. The classrooms at S.H.C.J. exist on two levels and serve children from four to eight years old in the morning, and children from four to fifteen years old in the afternoon. As school in the Dominican Republic is only ever a morning half-day session, the afternoon session at S.H.C.J. is completely voluntary. Mary Alice explained that conditions for the Haitian children in the Dominican public school system are abysmal, and many of the children who attend her program in the afternoons choose to do so because they are at least assured a small meal, vitamins, and a hug. As we walked through the facility, the fans set about to cool the various rooms would periodically stop. It seems that electricity is more of a pleasant surprise than a staple for the people of the Batey. Mary Alice and her team go through most school days with no power at all, struggling to keep cool in temperatures well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
We stopped to spend a little time in each classroom, and were encouraged to take photographs during these observations. The children of S.H.C.J. were thrilled to oblige us. Recognizing that modern technological devices yield instant results, they would smile, pose and then immediately grab for our cameras, wanting to see their photographs. The first Spanish phrase we all quickly mastered was “con sus ojos”, which the children readily understood to mean “Look with your eyes, not with your hands.” It was nice to see that children are the same everywhere.
Despite our efforts to be non-intrusive, we soon realized that quietly sitting in the observer’s chair was not going to be an option. The children eagerly grabbed our hands and invited us to their work rugs and tables. Though they were anxious to demonstrate all of their math and language activities, the absolute favorite work was displayed on a classroom wall, where we were surprised to discover our own faces looking back at us. In an effort to prepare the children for our visit, the teachers at S.H.C.J. had separated documents with our photographs and names, and had turned our biographies into a matching work. The children took turns demonstrating how they would hold up a name card, read it aloud and then standing on tiptoe, reach up and carefully adhere it to the appropriate photograph.
We spent the remainder of the day observing in each classroom and working with the children who invited us to do so. Eager to record these memoirs in blog form for the parents and colleagues who were following back home, I excused myself to the back patio where I could sit and jot down a few notes. It was there that I encountered Esperanza. She approached me so quietly I did not notice her until she softly addressed me as “Profe” and asked my first name. I glanced up to see a sad-eyed, eleven-year-old girl. I greeted her and explained in very poor Spanish, my name and what I was doing. Glancing from side to side, she then mumbled something I couldn’t understand. Repeating herself, I realized what she had said was “un peso”; she was asking me for money. Having been instructed that this was strictly forbidden, I declined and without another word, Esperanza disappeared back into her classroom. Several minutes passed and, hearing my name spoken aloud, my attention was again drawn away from my work. Looking back over my shoulder, I saw Esperanza poking her head out through the doorway. She waved and this time I received a shy smile before she vanished.
Later, when the faculty gathered for a meal and small-group discussion, other staff members began mentioning Esperanza as well. The teachers of S.H.C.J. explained to us how they had seen a complete transformation in Esperanza’s behavior from when she first started at the school, and that they attributed it, in large part, to the use of her proper given name. We learned that, for reasons attributed to her erratic behavior, Esperanza first came to S.H.C.J. being referred to by a nickname “Fosforito”, which meant “little match”. It was only when her teachers began to address her by her proper given name, Esperanza, or “hope”, that she became calm, focused and more peaceful. It was heartwarming for us to hear such a clear illustration of Dr. Montessori’s philosophy at work. Captivated by this little girl, Esperanza featured in much of our conversation during the long, hot bus ride back to our hotel. She had approached some of the other M.S.M. staff members as well, but was most often noticed quietly observing us from a distance. Everyone shared the same ill-at-ease feeling, though none of us could explain it. This child’s extremely somber, and at times angry, visage was so unlike the overabundant joy we had encountered in all of the other children. Esperanza was a conundrum and much later in our trip we would discover why.
The second day of our journey, we arose at the crack of dawn for the bus ride back into the Batey. Arriving at 7:30 am, we were able to observe the morning routine at S.H.C.J. Well before the commencement of the school day, the children were already gathering outside in the street, clinging to the fence and peering into the school complex. Mary Alice encouraged us to “Go on out and just give them a hug. This is the only place they will get one today.” We were happy to oblige. Children who had met us only yesterday threw their arms around our waists, beaming and speaking so excitedly that it was difficult to follow much of what they were saying. Fortunately, for those of us whose familiarity with Spanish began and ended with our ninth-grade language requirement, actions speak louder than words. Taking pity on “los Americanos”, the children took our hands and led us to the main gathering area where they proudly stood to sing the national anthem, have morning prayers, and raise the flags.
After spending the morning again working with the children and observing in the classrooms, we were invited on a tour of the Batey Lecheria. Stepping outside the now familiar confines of the school was a little unnerving. With two teachers from S.H.C.J. serving as our guides, we began to make our way through the inches of wet mud and garbage that form the rudimentary streets of the village. Occasionally vermin would scoot through our feet as we passed the long rows of dilapidated, makeshift housing. Everywhere curious residents came out to greet us with “buenos dias”, a smile, and a wave. The triumph of the human spirit was overwhelming as these people who have nothing, warmly welcomed us into their homes. First, we were invited into the home of Elizabeth. It was literally a 9 ft. by 9 ft. room, which she shares with her own children, her mother, her sister, and her sister’s children. Though it was difficult to follow her explanation, Elizabeth was essentially saying that she shared 81 square feet of space with at least seven other people. Homes in the Batey are constructed from any and all available materials. Structured around the original concrete buildings erected during the 1930’s to house the sugarcane cutters, the subsequent housing branches out on all sides. The floors are primarily dirt and many of the walls are fashioned from old road signs, pieces of fencing and scrap metal. Elizabeth explained to us that all of the families in the Batey Lecheria live under similar conditions. Some make a small living making jewelry, cleaning, or driving public transportation, but with no documentation and because the adults of the village are all illiterate, most residents are unemployed. With little access to birth control, families continue to grow every year and poverty continues to escalate.
Next we were introduced to Gladys. Gladys immediately took us to the small yard behind her house where she proudly showed us “her invention”: a stove constructed from slabs of stone stacked upon one another, surrounding a fire. Though it sounds simple, this was actually quite different from what we had seen so far. In many of the other homes food was cooked on the ground over open embers, surrounded by what appeared to be half of a large tin can. Not surprisingly, the most common injury sustained by children in the Batey are burns to their legs, hands, and feet, either from accidentally stepping on the embers or from tripping and falling into them while at play. Gladys’ pride was understandable. Her construction allowed her to cook standing upright and offered a level of safety as the stones formed a barrier between her body and the open flames. Taking us inside her home, Gladys pointed to a few water-stained photographs displayed on the single support beam and told us about her five children. She showed us the floor where her three older boys were sleeping, introduced us to her infant son in her arms, and gesturing upwards told us about his twin sister “in heaven now.” The ever-growing number of children born each year makes childhood mortality a fact of life for the families of the Batey Lecheria. In an effort to combat this almost unfixable problem, S.H.C.J. now hosts a “well-baby” program. Batey mothers are scheduled for regular clinic check-ups with their infants where their growth and developmental progress is tracked. Despite this effort, many of the mothers in the Batey simply cannot leave their homes. In addition to their infants, most are also caring for several other children and elderly relatives. Dinanlly, a teacher from S.H.C.J., explained how she and some of the other staff decided to form an outreach group. At the conclusion of their work day, group members volunteer their own time making home visits in the village, in an effort to help Batey mothers learn about nutrition and early-stimulation. Dinanlly was very eager to learn more about the Montessori Infant curriculum. She peppered us with questions in the hopes that one day she and the other volunteers might be able to apply Montessori lessons to the work that they are doing with the Batey mothers.
After our tour of the Batey, many of the children gathered to walk us back to the school to see their end-of-day routines. At the conclusion of each session, the children of S.H.C.J. again line up in the main outdoor gathering area. Unlike the morning, this end-of-day gathering is not for ceremony, but for sustenance. As the children depart, they each receive a tablespoonful of peanuts. Today, our own Profe Mona was invited to be the guest giver-of-the-peanuts, and she could not have been more thrilled. Throughout the exercise each child would approach, extend a hand to receive his or her peanuts, and conclude by acknowledging Profe Mona and giving thanks before eating. Mary Alice explained that this daily peanut practice is the only way to assure the children of S.H.C.J. receive any protein at all. Listening to what Mary Alice was saying, my thoughts immediately turned to our own schools and I just had to shake my head. In the midst of ever-growing anaphylactic allergy awareness, on any regular school day Mona would be diligently reading labels on our snack items for cross-contamination risks, making sure that her students were not going to come anywhere near a nut, not scooping them directly into the children’s hands. Here in the Batey Lecheira, peanuts are relied upon as an inexpensive staple to supply their children with a few grams of protein. Back in New York, peanuts are not even allowed through our front doors.
After spending our final afternoon in the Batey, we invited the faculty of S.H.C.J. into Santo Domingo for dinner at a local restaurant. Seeing Mary Alice and her staff out of uniform and enjoying this rare social opportunity was a pure delight. Unbeknownst to us, her staff had been secretly rehearsing a song that they had written for us. During dinner they surprised us by performing it, complete with instrumental accompaniment and dancing. Under their tutelage, a few of us even managed to learn a few basic steps of the Bachata. We enjoyed hours of laughter and wonderful dialogue, and it was only then that Esperanza came up in conversation again. Mary Alice explained her entire story. Esperanza’s father had recently died from complications due to untreated AIDS. Her mother, likewise afflicted, could be of little help to her family as she had lost one of her arms and was now battling end-stage cancer. At eleven years old, Esperanza was left to care for her father through the final stages of his illness. Defiant, he refused treatment of any kind and died at home in agony and covered with parasite-infested boils. Now, Esperanza is left alone to do the same for her dying mother, as well as to fend for herself. It was as if a switch had been flipped and the air was suddenly sucked out of the room. We listened in stony silence as the staff took turns sharing tearful details about the unfathomable horrors Esperanza had seen in her short lifetime. We glanced nervously at one another, too afraid to ask the question now on everyone’s mind. The answer came like a lance through my heart as Mary Alice explained that Esperanza had been born with HIV and now, like her parents, had full-blown AIDS. Though she does not fully comprehend the disease, Esperanza is keenly aware that she is sick like her father was, and that she will eventually die. The dispensary at SHCJ once housed an HIV and AIDS treatment program, but due to lack of funding and government support, it was forced to close in 2011. As all of the AIDS treatment programs in neighboring areas are over-filled and unable to take on more patients, Esperanza and the hundreds of other Batey residents just like her, no longer have access to AIDS medication or treatment. None of us touched another bite. I sat for the rest of the evening with a sickening lump in my throat. Esperanza’s story was a far too sobering reminder of life for so many in the Batey Lecheria and I have wished every day since that I had just given her that peso.
During our final meeting with the staff of S.H.C.J., we began to plan the next steps in what we all hope to be a very long relationship between our two schools. We will return in August with a larger team and begin to deliver workshops for the teachers to assist them with their greatest areas of concern. In addition to providing the teachers of S.H.C.J. with peer-mentoring, we have also decided to focus our long-term fundraising efforts into two areas: ongoing financial support, and continuing education. We intend to raise the funds necessary for Mary Alice to have a full-time, Montessori-certified consultant on staff; to raise funds necessary to continue supporting the children of S.H.C.J.’s educational costs, as well as provide for their food and medicine; to raise the funds necessary to start a toddler program for the 2-year old children of the Batey, and finally, to create a professional development fund which will allow the teachers of S.H.C.J. to enroll in an accredited Montessori training program.
I cannot begin to imagine the many different ways in which our future together will unfold and I look forward to continuing to document our progress. This journey will be a long one and we will all be different people at its end. Before departing, I was asked if I could leave the faculty of S.H.C.J. with a final thought, or any words of advice. In all my years as a public speaker, no assignment has ever weighed on me as much as this one. Stuttering over what to say, I paused for a moment to consider if there were one thing the world could better understand about Montessori education, what that thing would be. Then the answer came easily. Montessori education is not about the lessons and it’s not about the materials. Those things come in time and with practice. Montessori education is about the intention. Dr. Montessori took in some of the poorest and most neglected children in Italy and she dedicated her life to changing the world through education. The work the faculty of S.H.C.J. is doing with the children of the Batey Lecheria is the closest thing I will ever see to what Dr. Montessori did in her lifetime. I will be forever grateful to know such wonderful people, whose hearts are so squarely in the right place.