I have been teaching psychology courses at night for many years. One semester I was teaching Experimental Psychology, and a particular student stood out from the rest. She was twenty-something, had dark hair, bright eyes, and always seemed to be smiling. She was a focused student, as well. For every class, she would arrive a few mins early, organize her books, open her notebook, write the date or something on the top of the page, put down her pen, and waited until the other students trickled in.
I like to keep the students engaged in my classes,
so I use ice-breakers and encourage discussion whenever possible. The main reason is that it runs from 7:30 pm to 10:20 pm , and I have to do whatever I can to keep them awake! In any case, over the weeks of sporadic discussions with the students, we learned that she was born and raised in the Dominican Republic and came to the US to get an education and a good job. She often spoke of how close she was with her family, how supportive they were of her coming to America, and how much they sacrificed for her to get here. In one class, we were all talking about childhoods and how that impacts our lives, and she told us a story about how she used to play outside most days until the sunset, and her parents would have to repeatedly call them in at bedtime. It was amazing to see how her face lit up when she spoke about her family and what a wonderful childhood she had.
Coincidentally, during that semester, my wife and I took a short trip to the Dominican Republic, and we thought of the stories my student told the class and wondered if she grew up anywhere near our where we were vacationing. I regretted I didn’t speak with her before we left but was looking forward to telling her we visited her homeland.
The next class after I returned, I mentioned to her that we were in her country and told where we went and what airport we flew in to. “Oh my god!” she burst out with such enthusiasm it was like I told her she won the lottery. “That is so wonderful! You saw where I grew up, it’s about 10 miles west of that airport!” While I was excited to learn we were close to where she lived, I remembered that the airport was on the outskirts of town and not in a good area. And 10 miles west was not any better, very rural with pockets of run-down houses, shacks, and lean-tos made of rusted sheet metal.
“Where exactly did you live?” I asked, thinking I may have missed an area.
“We lived in a trailer surrounded by woods and paths to the river. It was absolutely a beautiful place to live.” Her eyes were beaming as I could tell she was transporting herself back to when she lived there.
“Oh, a trailer home, right? Like a little house?” I was thinking that would be an upgrade from what I remember seeing.
“Oh, no, no, no.” She said, as her eyes shifted to the floor and shook her head. “It was a trailer, like what you see on the road, except no wheels, right on the ground.
The one long side was open, and one of the short ends, as well. There was a post propping up the corner. The kitchen and our beds were in there and a place to sit and play when it rained. But most of the time, we played in the trees, on the paths, and in the river. We had two dogs that would play with us too, they were very smart and our good friends. I can’t imagine how anyone could have a better childhood, it was like we grew up outside!” And then she paused, looking off into the distance, seemingly basking in all the warm memories.
I, on the other hand, couldn’t believe what I just heard. OMG! Her story was beyond anything I was thinking or could imagine, but yet, her experience as she conveyed was so positive. The contrast was hard to get my head around.
I think about her story every now and then as I ride through the New Jersey countryside looking at individual houses and developments of homes that would seem like mansions to many, many people. And at the same time, too, I think about this student’s life and the love, support, and amazing memories she had growing up. It points out that’s important, doesn’t it? The fact that some people can have a great home…outside!