Saturday, June 18, 2016

Study Abroad 20 Years Later: USA, 1978. By Belle Badell

I am abroad, but I am home!

Belle Badell grew up in Venezuela and came to the U.S. for her college education. She has been here ever since! Belle lives in Miami and is a high school teacher of ESOL and Computer Science. Here is her story...

I was born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela. I started kindergarten at 4 years of age, which was standard, and attended all-girls catholic schools until I was 14 years old. I remember going from short bus/back of covered station wagon rides, to tedious, but sometimes-fun 2-hour bus rides each way. I remember long days, getting up at 5 am and getting home at 6 pm to complete homework (if I did not finish it in the bus - lots of traffic, so steady enough to write). I remember masses on Fridays, mean nuns, arguing in religion classes, stealing mangoes from the trees in the back of the school, and eating some delicious toasted cream cheese sandwiches during my higher elementary and early middle school years.

When I moved in with my dad, I was allowed to use public transportation to get home - both my parents lived far from the school, and I had a private bus ride to get there. I had to walk about 10 long blocks to get to the bus stop. My daily walks were filled with pedophiles lurking around. I learned to identify them and recognize their cars, to take back ways for detours, stand my ground and sometimes have the courage to knock on someone’s door or pretend I was home. As I think about it now, I realize how normal that was not! (A little Shakespeare syntax there!)

Oh yeah, and then there was school! We sat in alphabetical order and in long rows. I remember sitting in the back against the wall for a couple of years. I was a good student, but bored with the system based on repetition and memorization. I remember algebra being easy; I did not mind the mean-looking nun who taught it. She was actually a good teacher. I remember learning discipline and order with my algebra teacher. It was easy to show my work, and it made clear sense to me. I enjoyed geography, biology, physics and chemistry. I also liked English, which worked out very well ;) Literature and history were not so interesting to me. Now, I love teaching literature and include tons of historical information to make connections. Life has a sense of humor!

After I finished middle school, I attended a private Italian-Venezuelan (very small) school down the street from my house. I consider this my first abroad experience… For the first time I shared a classroom with boys! That alone was a huge deal. Also, my classroom only had 24 students, as opposed to 50 crazy girls wearing hideous skirted uniforms in my previous school. We wore jeans and a white polo with the school’s logo - pretty cool; I could choose my own jeans! We also sat on chairs and had tables as desks, an upgrade from the wooden student desks we had at Maria Auxiliadora; and the best part was that we did not have to sand them down at the end of the school year!
My small class at the Italian high school
I succeeded academically, cheating my way through World History and chemistry 3; this is the year when I realized that chemistry was no longer that interesting. I also learned enough Italian that I survived a trip four years later relaying solely on my skills learned through these two years. I adapted to having boys as classmates. They were so different and so much bolder! I loved the small setting and the fact that we were the second graduating class of that school.

I ate the best Italian food at my classmates’ homes, learned that patriarchy was not only exercised in my house, I tried broccoli for the first time and convinced my stepmother to incorporate it in our menu. I learned that pasta is not the main dish and that you do not “pass” on a food offer. I learned the nastiest of cuss words in Italian, and I enjoyed it all!
Once, during algebra 2 class in my junior year, the teacher was explaining something that most did not understand. I spontaneously rose from my seat and began explaining a concept to the whole class. Professor Castro (white jacket above, beige suit below) was impressed and used to call on me to clarify, as needed. One day he asked me if I could teach an algebra concept to the sophomore class. I did, many times and realized, after lots of encouragement from my teacher and classmates, that teaching was a natural ability.

I am behind the principal's right shoulder- the man in the gray suit

It was July 1976 when graduation culminated my basic school journey. I was ready and excited to attend the IVAL (Instituto Venezolano de Audición y Lenguaje), but after only one semester, there was a change of (my mother’s) plans. So, I completed two years at the engineering school, enough to realize that this was not the field I wanted to pursue.

My dad always insisted that I move to the US for a better future, but I refused until 1978. My sister was already in Florida, finishing high school in a catholic (a common theme here, isn’t it?) boarding school. My dad and Belinda decided that coming to visit might convince me to move to the US. So, my dad planned a trip to south Florida to attend my sister’s graduation and spend a few days in Miami. That did the trick! We traveled in June and I was back ready to attend Miami-Dade College (MDC) in August.

This began my real abroad experience. Everything was new and exciting. The streets so clean, the traffic so civilized, the stores so big, and the schools had central air conditioner! Loved having a color TV set (first time watching color TV beside once before), having my own record player, and most importantly, having freedom to choose and be.

In English, I could read and write better than I could speak, so I struggled through my first year in college. I bought a paper for English class out of frustration. My professor made a huge difference by not only not turning me in, but by sitting down with me after class one day and teaching me how to create an outline and the structure of a 5 paragraph essay. Then, he guided me through the process so I could complete my essay. I am most grateful to this kind man who made a difference; I always remember this experience as I see students struggling.

I received my bachelor’s degree in Education from FIU and my masters in Computer Science Education a few years later. I became a great (honest) student and an even better writer. I began my teaching career as a substitute and then transitioned into a full time classroom teacher. It has been 26 years!

When I was growing up in Venezuela, I suffered plenty of stomachaches related to school, I was embarrassed and bullied by teachers, I struggled with insecurities, I did not understand the system, and I always felt as if I did not belong. As I grew older, I embraced circumstances in which I was challenged to grow; I encountered people who helped me along the way, and faced plenty of abroad experiences to open the door to an expansive set of ideas and perspectives. Coming to the US helped me further realize that there are many ways to think about anything, that opinions should be respected, that setting boundaries is an important part of self-love, and that we are all important.

One of my mottos is, “I am the teacher I wish I had.” Throughout my years in the classroom, I have always seen students as people: complex, thinking, feeling, loving, sometimes scared human beings, who are trying to figure out this thing called “life”. I never forget what it was like to feel out of place, even in my own homeland, and how much I needed guidance and understanding. Coming abroad taught me how to be home. I bring that feeling together with kindness and patience to my classroom every day. I am abroad, but I am home!

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