A World of Experience

A World of Experience

He is struggling to understand what is being said around him.  He gets some of the conversation, but some is flying over his head.  I jump in and stop the conversation for a minute.  “Hold on,” I say in Spanish, “let’s check where he’s at.”

I look at my oldest son, his 6’2″ frame dwarfed in the majesty of the Andes mountain range all around us. We are in Ecuador, outside of Quito, literally on the equatorial line.  The interpretive guide offered to give us his prepared speech in English or in Spanish. 

(It’s hard to mistake a very tall, very blond young man, accompanied by a very blond woman, as native Ecuadorians.)  My son cautiously opted for Spanish, as I cheered him on mentally.  

The guide very slowly explains his work.  There is a research facility here, where scientists are investigating the lines the shadows of the sun make at specific times of the year. These shadows line up with various temples established centuries ago by the indigenous people, although the Spanish conquistadores built churches over the same spots, he tells us.  “So now their altars have the sun hitting the cross perfectly,” he smiles.  

It’s our last summer before he graduates, and our family becomes more and more aware of the college entrance process.  (Note that I used the term “aware”; I couldn’t possibly say that we are “confident” of what this really means.)   In the past few months, we’ve heard that all the experiences a high school kid has are valued and evaluated.  Beyond the test scores, the grades, the community service hours, the clubs, the sports, the leadership positions… these colleges want to know about the “life experiences” a young person of 18 years brings to their majestic college campuses.  

Yet again, I am sure there was an instructional manual for parenting that someone, somewhere, has forgotten to give us.

One of the colleges even specifically asked about international experiences that an incoming freshman might have.  We’ve done one other trip together, with friends to their home country of Spain. So now, we are adding on.  This time, we have gone south to Ecuador.  Planning the trip became an exercise in finding a balance between tourist fun for him, and work opportunities for me.  

My work involves dairy cows, farms, and university students who would like to learn about dairying in other countries.  This is not the field that my son would like to study; he’s leaning towards architecture or engineering, not agriculture.  But he is enthusiastic about Spanish, and, happily, he’s been exposed to that from birth on.  (A group of Latinos even sang a song about cows to him when he was only six weeks old, attending the first orientation with me.  Perhaps that was the birth of his language interest?)  

So we’ve balanced the trip with visits to universities, dairy farms, rose growers, and pizza suppers with travelers… and zip-lining, thermal pools, volcano craters, butterfly exhibits and horseback riding.

The main point is the language.  I want him to hear it.  Feel it.  Watch it.  See it come alive, to know that he must study more, speak more, listen more… to understand more.  But mostly, I want him to believe that he can accomplish this, to not feel so overwhelmed that he gives up entirely.  It’s the same approach I wanted when they learned to swim: go in gradually.  One of my swimming teachers didn’t believe in this method.  She took us all into deep water, and repeatedly dunked us when we refused to enthusiastically put our heads in the water at her command.  We came up half drowned, spitting up water and choking and gasping, crying and terrified.  To this day, none of my family swims, nor even likes to go into the water.  This is the approach I wish to avoid.  I want to give him gentle support, but nudge him along.

We go to the market in Otavalo.  It’s not too large, not too small.  These are experienced vendors, ready with a few words in English (and more).  Negotiation is expected; haggling is all part of the fun, in their view.

I am easily distracted, and wander between stalls.  He stops at a vendor with knives made of jade, and I push on, unaware that he has been left behind.   He chastises me as he catches up.  “Mom!  You left me!  I didn’t know what he was saying!”  I apologize, but point out that he did manage to communicate what he needed to, right?  He nods cautiously.

We continue on, he on a quest to find the perfect bracelet or earrings for his special friend, while I peruse all the options, running through a mental list of options for each family member.  I am lost in thought when he suddenly appears, all smiles.  “Look what I found!” he says, a note of triumph in his voice.  He shows me a lovely bracelet, one I had not even seen, all packaged up.  “I bought it.  I negotiated down and we agreed on a price, and I have it.”

Success, I think to myself quietly.  Mission accomplished.


Jill Stahl Tyler is a parent to three children involved in the local schools, at the high school and elementary school levels.  She firmly believes in all education, and currently sits on the board for the Brattleboro School Endowment and the Brattleboro Town School Board.  She is also a member of the Study Committee for Act 46. Contact her at jill@globalcow.com.


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