The city that I’m in currently is Brasilia. Brasilia is the political capital of Brazil. It is where the president works and resides. Brasilia is where the different branches of government have their own office buildings and there is a long main thoroughfare where you can walk or ride a gauntlet of these buildings.
In speaking wit Brasilienses (people from the city of Brasilia) I’m consistently being told how dry and hot the climate of their city typically is. One woman was telling me that the heat can become so oppressive here the many people become ill during the dry season. I was speaking with a teacher yesterday who told me that they are just coming out of a drought that has lasted more than 6 months.
Apparently the drought ended and the rain began to fall heavily on the day I came to Brasilia. It has rained each day that I’ve been here in Brasilia and the locals are telling me that this is highly unusual. Read into that whatever you would like (BIG SMILE). I was joking with some teachers at the end of the day, sharing some of my “traveler’s perspectives.” I let them know that, without their information, if anyone asked me about Brasilia I would have told them that it is a lush green land where it rains everyday. They got a good laugh out of that.
Yesterday morning I had one of those magical moments that remind me why I chose this path. At around 6:45 am I was in the theater of the school when a young man walked in. He approached me timidly and spoke Portuguese. I understood a little of what he was saying as he handed me a small envelope. He told me to open the it and so I did. Inside was a small note folded in quadrants and a beautiful blue and white polished stone. The young man’s name was Johan and he had worked extremely hard to translate his note for me into English. Here is what the note read, verbatim:
This present (or rock, if you prefer) represents
the sky of Brasilia. The stone is from my
personal collection, and I just give one of them for
special people. You are one of them. I am from
the 8th year, 7th grade, and this presentation is just
for the 9th, but I am your great fan. Big successes and
a life with a lot of lights,
a big hug from your fan,
After reading the note I looked into the eyes of this young man and felt such a high degree of sincerity and humility in him that it left me feeling I was in the presence of someone whose maturity could not be measured in years.
Around my neck I sometimes carry a pouch filled with cowry shells that I bring back with me whenever I return from West Africa. These shells have become a signature of mine and I disperse them sparingly to people who touch my heart. I hugged him and asked if he spoke Spanish. Fortunately he did. We were able to communicate clearly then. I let him know that his gesture touched my heart. He hugged me. I told him that I felt sorry that he could not attend the presentation. He hugged me again. I had him wait there while I attempted to find some way of allowing this young man to stay and attend the performance. The administration explained they could not allow it because many in his grade level wanted to be there and, if they found out that he participated, it would create problems. The other students would demand to know why they weren’t able to attend. Both Johan and I understood this.
Before he left the room, I reached into my pouch and handed him 4 uncut cowry shells. I have my own reasons for distributing these shells (cut and uncut, in numbers of 1, 3, 4, or 7). He hugged me again.
As Johan was leaving he pleaded with me to return next year when he would be in the grade level that was permitted to attend my presentation. I could not promise him that but said that I would do what I could.
It was a very touching moment watching him leave the small, dark theater.
The students who entered ranged in age from 15 to 17 years. They were a large, very well mannered group. The program coordinator for the school explained that many were reluctant to come for fear of their inability to comprehend English.
I work with English language learning so often in the U.S. that I’ve developed my own little storytelling techniques to aid in comprehension. I also have my own assessments to know how I’m doing. Let me give you a few examples. A head nodding in affirmation is a universal sign of understanding and, if you see this occurring in your audience, whose language is not primarily English, then you know you are reaching some of them. Using humor to make people laugh is probably one of the single most valuable tools of assessment in my arsenal. If I can get the majority of the audience to laugh at something I say that requires them to infer the entire meaning, then I know I am, at least, dealing with an intermediate level of language fluency. I have a ton of these “on-the-fly” assessments that I use while performing.
Ooops… was that a tangent? Ok, I seriously hope I didn’t start boring you with all that “Art of Storytelling” stuff.
In yesterday’s blog I wondered, “what school has children assembled at 7:30 am for the start of a performance.” Well I found out.
This school is called CECAN/CLIC and the performance was optional for this grade level. The fact that it was at 7:30 am and optional gave me a little pause, which I should not have had. The room was crowded and the teens valued my artistry enough to be there on time with warm, welcoming, enthusiastic smiles aplenty.
The performance went extremely well and I found myself boxed in the middle of a huge throng of teens immediately afterwards on the stage. I had been warned by my tour manager that we had another performance across town and that I needed to pack up so that we wouldn’t be late. The crowd, and the love they were sharing, made this a little difficult for me. I don’t know about you, but, for me, when you are surround by 30 or 40 people and they all are showering you with praises and hugs… well… it is a bit difficult to walk away from that. Hey, come on, I’m human and that level of positive reinforcement feeds me in so many ways.
It went sort of like this, “Baba we love you, Baba that was a great performance, Baba can I have a hug, Baba you’re the greatest, Baba may I take a picture with you, Baba will you sign your autograph for me, Baba…”
So you see what I mean? Who would walk away from that?
I did. I had to. It hurt tremendously, but I didn’t want the next school I had to visit to have a bad first impression of me.
My tour manager and I raced across town in a cab to a school called, Thomas Jefferson. It is a language institute that serves many of the schools and colleges here in Brasilia. I had two performances in intimate settings with much smaller groups. Many of them had only been studying English for 1 year. My assessments worked just as well with them as with the older students I had performed for that morning. Younger children either are focused and enthusiastic or not. To capture their enthusiasm and get them to focus requires an entirely different set of performance tools, especially when dealing with lower levels of language fluency. I was ecstatic that the groups were kept to between 10-15 in attendance, with parents present. It is so much easier to illicit language comprehension when you can spend a good amount of time looking directly into the eyes of each of your each audience members. With 10 to 15 people this is easily accomplished. I could see that some of the children were having problems during my introduction so I used some of the techniques that I’ve learned from griot cultures in Africa (guided repetition, slow rhythmic speaking, elongating words, extended eye contact with those struggling to comprehend, etc.)
There I go again. Technique, pedagogy, process, methodology … blah, blah blah. Honestly I can’t help myself sometimes, I just can’t help myself.
Anyway those performances went equally well and I was able to return to my hotel room and relax. I love sitting in silence. I know that sounds boring but, after performing all day, one of my favorite things to do is just return to a space where I can sit in silence.