It’s 11 a.m. on a Tuesday and I’m standing in a cement block classroom with no door in Cabarete, Dominican Republic. The room is sparse, sweltering, and spic-and-span clean. There are a few books, a colorful alphabet marches above an ancient chalkboard (no new-fangled marker board here), and a bucket of broken crayons sits beside a neat stack of fresh artwork. I stand, ukulele in hand, soggy-haired and salty from surfing, before a group of some of the most beautiful children I have ever seen. They are four- and five-year-olds, wearing matching white t-shirts and serious expressions. They are quiet now (this won’t last long) because I am a stranger, glaringly white, and it’s a total mystery why I am here.
“Buenos dias,” I sing out in my awkward Spanish, struggling to remember the phrases I have rehearsed a hundred times. “Mi nombre es Jen. Soy tu maestra de teatro.” Translation: “My name is Jen. I am your drama teacher.”
Before we set sail as a family, I was a full-time theater director and playwright for children. Leaving my job at the Sheridan Opera House, where I had poured 17 years of my love, sweat, tears and goofballery was, bar none, the absolute hardest choice I had to make when we traded “normal life” for our sailing adventures. A year into traveling, I found myself missing my work. Mine is a magical profession; if you’ve ever watched a bunch of kids make up a story out of their own wild imaginations and bring it to life, you know what I’m talking about. At this point in our travels we were spending the hurricane season in Cabarete, and we liked it so much there we extended our stay to six months. I set out to find a place to teach drama. I knew practically no one, spoke just a little Spanish (poorly), and I had no idea of how, if I did find a place to volunteer, I would teach children with whom I did not share a language. I ignored these minor details and forged ahead.
A small school, run by a nonprofit called Charlie’s Foundation, said yes and welcomed me eagerly when I made my “Can I be your drama teacher?” pitch. In the DR, public school kids only attend for half the day. Classrooms are overcrowded, staffing is limited, resources are few. The school run by Charlie’s Foundation gives kids a place to go and continue their learning for the other half of the day, and also provides snacks, activities, life skills and English language education. “When can I start?” I asked. “How about today?” was their reply.
I had no freaking clue what I was doing. The kids didn’t know about drama or theater, so I explained. “Drama is pretending. Theater is telling stories. Who can do these things?” Somber faces erupted into smiles, a dozen hands shot up. This was a good start. But then I tried telling them a story. Epic fail. My Spanish was so bad they couldn’t understand me and they started running around the room, rolling on the floor, chasing each other and screaming. I dripped sweat, my heart pounded. I was losing them already and it hadn’t even been five minutes. I had to think fast. “Escucha, mira!” Listen, look!” I called out, grabbing the broken crayon bucket and quickly drawing three colored circles: red, yellow, and green. “Nosotros autos!” “We are cars!” Grabbing my imaginary steering wheel, I began vroom-vrooming and beep-beeping my way around the room. The children stopped running and rolling, watched me with incredulity. Then, one by one, they joined me on the road. Pedal to the metal. We raced down a highway with no speed limit, taking corners on two wheels, narrowly missing a few collisions. I thrust the paper with the red circle into the air. “Rojo! Alto!” “Red! Stop!” Brakes screeched, traffic came to a halt. Drivers waited patiently for the light to change. The green circle went into the air. “Verde! Vamos!” “Green! Go!” And the race was on.
Over the next few months, every class I taught was an exercise in winging it, shooting from the hip, or any other idiom you can think of that implies “fake it ‘til you make it.” I’d bring my ukulele and we’d sing songs, in English and in Spanish. I taught them some nursery rhymes and we’d act them out, “Hickory Dickory Dock” and “Little Miss Muffet.” But most of the time, we simply let our imaginations guide us. My students transformed effortlessly into roaring lions, scary monsters, or rushing rivers. They knew exactly how to sprout leaves or grow instantaneously into towering palms. Of course, drama was inside all of them, and it was the language that connected us with ease. Their vast abilities as storytellers were intrinsic, innate. I had known this, but they had reminded me.
For our final class, my daughter (who had begun accompanying me) and I directed the children in a short play, a story of our own devising. Vivian costumed them with a ragtag assemblage of her own play things. “But this is all girls’ stuff, Viv, the boys might not like it,” I cautioned. “Mom,” she gently disagreed, ”They won’t care.” She was right. In crowns, beads, scarves and butterfly wings, my class whirled and danced and grinned as they performed for us, awash in the joy of pretending, the power of performance. They glowed with pride.