Friday, May 18, 2012

An Afternoon to Cherish

The day began with a visit to a museum that was formerly a prison, the place where the Somozas had tortured and killed people. Now it was converted to a place to share some of the folklore and mythology of Nicaragua, but in one of the strangest justapositions I’ve seen. Alongside or behind or in front of the figures of mythology were the murals showing in graphic details the wonderful variety of tortures. Then the figures of mythology themselves leaned heavily to the witches who would stalk and torture cheating husbands or scare children or entice men to their demise with La Gran Teta, all the fears and scare tactics that lie in our psyches personified. But to be honest, 90 minutes of grotesque witches and haunted figures and real-human torture shared with 14-year-olds took its toll on me—and the kids too.

Not to mention the story of bringing the priests in so the prisoners could pray for help. I’m really trying to imagine how that worked. The torturers felt it their duty as good Catholics to offer solace to the people they were about to hang upside down, punch until they vomit blood, shock with electric wires, hold under water? Did the priest think he was just doing his job by praying with the prisoners before turning them back to the torturers? Would Jesus have felt proud of these acts done in His name? Just wondering. After the tour was mercifully over, all I wanted to do was sit in the field with Ferninand the Bull and smell the flowers.

But things picked up after lunch on our final trip out to the countryside. Two crews went off to work and my group went to the Cultural Center where the village kids come to do art, theater, a bit of dance and music to keep them away from drugs (Nicaragua is geographically in the center of the narco-traffic route from South to North America), actively deal with themes of the environment, gender roles, education and such and build character and community through small acts of collective creation.

The first two days, I did a few music games and songs and participated in the art projects, but today was the best. There was a demonstration of the two giant puppets we had seen in the museum, the giant colonial woman known as La Gigantica and the small big-headed (to represent intelligence) indigenous person called El Cabezon. The dancer gets inside and dances to different snare drum beats while a Coplera sings, speaks and sometimes improvises rhymed couplets that can move between general social commentary to specific things about people in the audience. The tradition is specific to this region of Leon and in November /December, they go around from house to house like Chirstmas carolers, much to the delight of the children.

We also got to see seven teenagers present their collective theater piece about the importance of education. Not exactly Emmy Award material, but fun and well-done. We all then gathered in the outdoor gazebo and I led a variety of songs (including the Banana Song which I learned really does come from Nicaragua, but from the East Coast where there is Black Carib population), a few clapping plays and a percussion piece with Snowball dancing where our kids coaxed the locals into dancing. Delightful!

From there, the mandatory soccer game on the small dirt field. Another group of our kids who had been working in the neighboring garden building a fence came over hot, dirty, sweaty and satisfied with useful work well-done and while the soccer game went on and the new-found friends where taking photos, there was a spontaneous reprise of the Cabezon/Gigantica dance and music.

Need I tell you I was in Heaven? These are precisely the moments I’ve searched out my whole life— in India, in Nepal, in Java and Bali, in Japan, in Austria, Spain, Brazil, Ghana and just about everywhere I go, these festivals blending music, dance, art, drama, ritual that somehow seemed so essential to human culture and that I tried in my own modest way to bring to our little school community in urban San Francisco. And it certainly is one of the things that sets our school apart—our welcoming Opening Ceremony, powerful Halloween ritual, moving Martin Luther King celebration, joyful Samba Contest (it’s today!) and multi-faceted Closing Ceremonies. Amidst the pushes and pulls of the “sit down, shut up and answer the questions” notions of schooling, we’ve maintained a four-decade commitment to such events and they only keep getting better over time.

While waiting for the bus, time stopped and everything just clicked. The kids were so happy. They had connected with the locals through the age-old practices of shared work, shared play and shared music and dance. They had spent an afternoon in the beautiful countryside, mangos falling on hot tin roofs, cows and horse ambling by, chiekens and roosters wandering around them, enjoyed the rhythms of drums and physical labors and kicking soccer balls. There we were, wholly in the moment, acclimated to the climate, the culture, each other. No teacher tricks to get the kids to listen, to cajole and scare them into good behavior, no distinction between adult and child, rural Nicaraguan and urban San Franciscan, teacher and student, just fellow humans sharing an afternoon together with laughter, awe and fellow-feeling. An afternoon to cherish and remember.

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