By Jen Ramos
As I wake up in the dark morning, a rooster crowing somewhere below our temporary twelfth floor apartment, I’m glad I’d the good sense to marry someone with an exceptional knack for beginnings. He greets the first days, assembles a plan, summons energy to take on each obstacle, each energy-depleting errand, each multi-step task. The time is 5:45am. The heavy baroque furniture of the bedroom obstructs my path to the bathroom and I feel a disorienting exhaustion. In the hallway, I find the switch for the tiny hot water heater that sits behind a closet door outside the bathroom. I hear the whoosh as the propane ignites.
I want a coffee but in my stomach sits a brick. I am no good at beginnings. Three days of new food, new microbes, the nerves and tears of each of my children are swirling about in my insides and I know I’ll need to purge it all before I can step into the shower. In 45-minutes these sleeping, disoriented children, only 4 and 8, need to be awoken, fed, dressed, and somehow convinced to go to school in this new city, which their mom has elected, which is nothing like home, which has dirty streets and honking traffic and people who look different, speak different, and meld into a life which is foreign, which is, they would come to find, Dominican.
Eight months prior I had been notified that I had received a Fulbright TEFL grant and had been assigned to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, where I would work on curriculum design for the Ministry of Education’s English Language Program. I applied with little faith that I’d be chosen, really, after having lived in Gainesville, Florida for over a decade. My husband and I moved to Gainesville shortly after we were married and in that decade we became full- fledged adults. Not only did we get a job, a new car, a mortgage, but also a baby. And then another. And a puppy. And then another. A camper, a new kitchen, a garden, a life full of work and short on sleep. In ten years I only left Florida a hand-full of times. And then a surprise—another baby on the way, and excitement and hope, which was suddenly dashed, in a night of pain and bleeding that just wouldn’t stop despite my calls out to God.
Some women say that when they lose a baby they are immobile, unable to get out from under the weight of grief. I wanted to flee before it caught me—to run away before it could pull me under. “Can we just get away from here?” I asked my husband when I got back from the hospital. The thick old walls of our little cracker cottage seemed to be radiating loss, trapping me inside with my own pain.
I couldn’t, of course, run away. I had two beautiful, healthy children, and a home and a job and the heaps of responsibilities that come with each. The grief dulled but the wanderlust did not. I sought alternatives. We put on our house up for sale. I had to at least get out of those walls, off the street, out of the neighborhood. When the house sold I did feel some relief, but not completely, and when the Fulbright application came my way, that itself was therapeutic. In addition to your professional bio, what do you have to offer the world in terms of English teaching? where would you like to go? The world? Or more narrow—a region of the world? Two or three countries in particular? You pick. I picked 3: Costa Rica, Uruguay, and Dominican Republic. When the answer came back from the State Department, months later, I had my way out. My application had been approved. Somebody in the Ministry of Education in the DR saw my application and requested me. We were going to Santo Domingo for a year.
And so here we stand, huddled, at half past seven on this Caribbean morning in late January, the new day’s sun softly illuminating the city streets. The kids are dressed in their new school uniforms, white short sleeve shirts, navy blue pleated pants and stiff black shoes. My youngest, Susu, feels sleepy and sweet in my arms in her too-big school clothes. “Where are we going, Mommy?” she asks, again. “To your new school, baby, your new colegio,” I tell her, kissing her soft hair. Children from the apartment complex start to file out of the gate onto the corner and load themselves into small vans that pass. Some vacantly stare at us, others ask where we’re going. Marco, my oldest, stands between stone-faced and sullen. He doesn’t understand Spanish, though he’s been around the language his entire life. He’s never given Spanish the time of day. It’s getting late My husband phones the taxi service again. In a minute a Toyota mini-van pulls up. It’s plush inside and we set off for our first stop, Instituto Montessori, set back a quiet street in an older, slightly more venerable side of the city.
The taxi driver, as I will soon find of so many others during our stay, doesn’t speak unless spoken, is pleasant without being personable. The mini van fights its way onto the malecon, the avenue that runs along the sea. For being ocean-front, it’s a shabby, hard scrabbled race-track of an avenue. The sea wall that separates it from the sandy shore is low and broken. Sea grape and almond trees, hibiscus, and bottle brush cover the loamy soil just behind the sea wall. The ground is littered with bottles and refuse strewn from the road all the way into the sea itself.
The sun is moving slowly up the sky and sends out its glitter onto the gentle waves. The chill of the morning is gone; warmth enters the opened windows of the minivan. The kids laugh and play around in the taxi—especially Susu, who does not understand what lies ahead of her this day, or every day to come, for that matter, for the next year. She doesn’t know that she’ll cry in the afternoons when she comes home from school and only the housekeeper is there. Or that she’ll have adventures with dolphins and ride horses on the beach. She doesn’t know that she’ll learn to speak an adorable Spanish in which every verb is in the third person. She doesn’t know how immensely guilty I will feel about uprooting her at such a tender age, or the friends she’ll make, the park she’ll play in, the rhythm of life we’ll grow to accept over time.
In a mere twenty-minutes, the mini-van taxi arrives at school, just as the principal, an older, stylish woman directs the chaotic horde with a microphone to line up and stop talking My kids cling to me. I can barely make out a word the principal says besides Silencio! as the old PA system booms and the smell of coffee and fried pasteles float from the cafetin on the far end of the courtyard. A lump grows in my throat as I give them both a little push to propel them forward into what we call, in my field, the “immersion experience.” “Go ahead,” I tell them. “Go to your teacher.”
I cannot cry, I tell myself, as they walk alone into their respective lines, because they need a model of strength. I cannot cry because my own students do not cry. Unlike me, they come without the cache of speaking English, earning in dollars, contacts in the Embassy. They come with a religion and nationality that is not well-received, that is liability in theses times, do not cry. I cannot cry because the mothers who show up at Matherly Hall to pay their tuition, to take their placement exam, are turned away because they come with infants in strollers—not having anyone to leave them with, and they do not cry. And yet I want bury my head in my hands and sob.
I scan the crowd for my son and the look of betrayal on his face sears itself into my soul in an instant. My husband takes my hand. “Mira Susu,” he whispers. Susu stands with her class under the flagpole. It’s their turn to raise the flag this morning. The teacher helps Susu pull the rope and the red, white, and blue Dominican flag rises up the pole and stretches out in the breeze. Music crackles over the speakers and I shift my gaze from the flag to my little girl. There she stands, sleepy, already disheveled from the morning commute, singing. She is singing, trying to sing, the Dominican national anthem. There is another one of us, I recognize, exceptionally good at beginnings.