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Connecting Through the Absence of Stuff


Dr. Stuart Grauer is a teacher, the founding Head of School at The Grauer School, and Founder of the Small Schools Coalition, and a regular essayist for
Community Works Journal.

I was almost late getting to the vans as they loaded up to take us across the border to Tijuana International on our first leg, bound for Havana. I had taken a right rather than a left, to swing by one of the three, jumbo, chain drug stores in my neighborhood so I could get some Alka Seltzer. I wanted to be ready for whatever food and water came my way. Trouble was, when I got to the jumbo chain drug store, even with the clerk’s assistance, I could not find a box of Alka Seltzer. I could only find ten boxes. In a glaring assortment of colors. There were new Alka Seltzer types to cover every crazy condition you could imagine and I grew muddled and irrational as I scoured the five rows of shelves. I suppose it often feels like that when you are trying to depart on a journey. But where was the powder blue and white box? In Cuba, only cigarette boxes would have this kind of variety in the shops.

We departed on time, soon crossing the border, switching our smartphones to airplane mode. We would be almost unreachable for eight days. This was to be an historic trip, as not only was access to Cuba very limited, but we had petitioned extraordinarily to enter their schools. Cuba was loosening up with Raul as head of state, and they were starting to do a bit more for tourist dollars than they would have under the ideological, lock-down days of Fidel.

The first night in Havana, we walked down Las Ramblas, past people from toddlers to aged hanging out together, playing games along the side of the street, past the gritty pool hall and the corner bar with three dollar mojitos. We reached the drug store, a shop with glass cases running fore and aft down both sides. At first we weren’t sure it was really a drug store. There was an absence of “stuff” and an absence of colors beyond white and powder blue packaging. Two thin rows in the whole place, and a soda cooler in the corner. One brand. Or was it no brand? We wondered what Encinitas Boulevard would look like if there were not a single advertisement on any shopfront. What if there were a single, huge billboard entering the village saying: “To the revolution, always!” and a picture of either a rock star or God, since some blend of these is the only way we could describe the way Cubans talk and feel about Che Quevera. No other messaging. Maybe some flags.

After three nights in Old Havana, we were getting acclimated to a certain absence of we weren’t entirely sure what. America? Of course, Cuba is America, too, as well as the largest Caribbean island, by far. At our nightly journaling hour, Claya (eleventh grade) observed, “I’m really enjoying getting to know everyone in our group. I like not having the cell phone with me. I’d be here texting and checking it every second.” Cameron (ninth) added with a hint of attitude, “Yea, I actually have to interact with everyone in the group and try to be friends.”

Everyone was nodding. I sure was. We found Cuba to be one of the increasingly rare places where our United States cell phones would not function. It was peaceful to proceed all day without the niggling feeling that there was something going on in that pushy, electronics netherworld that now resides permanently in some tiny corner of my brain. It felt like … freedom. “All of our input came directly from our own senses, and I think that's a fantastic way to experience a place,” said our trip leader (and Spanish teacher) Mimi. Jonah, sitting in the Park View Hotel lobby across from the old Presidential Palace (now being converted for use by the “Party”), said the same thing, using other words: “I think I’ve learned three new card games.”

In this non-commercial, non-connected, non-disruptive world we had unplugged, uninterrupted time to check in not only with others in our group, but with ourselves. I wondered if our students understood the cause of this: In 1959, western business and the whole of capitalist and corporate ownership was deposed in what is known the as the Cuban Revolution, but across Cuba is devoutly referred to as the “triumph of the Revolution” (Triunfo de la Revolución). Fidel had been safely in prison and this whole revolution might have been avoided if Cuba’s President at the time, Batista, had not been persuaded to let him out. And who did this persuading? It was Fidel’s childhood teachers!

Our 11 students experienced all this triumph and the accompanying ironies through the stark lack of consumer goods and merchandizing, and a growing sense of what that felt like. But there was live music at every single lunch and dinner, all of it played better than you could play it: salsa/timba, tango, Afrobeat, cumbia, nuevo flamenco, Criolla and reggaton. Music playing, instead of streaming. (Note to Fidel: for the kids, both nations, it was all about American pop stars Beyonce, Shakira and Justin Bieber.)

Students created and read rich journal entries of their observations and reflections, entries that may have been stifled within twenty words and engulfed by the abyss of Facebook back home. They wrote stories of entering the elementary school on the Plaza Viejo, hearing the children in their red bandanas singing, “Fidel en la vanguardia de la juventud, Fidel multiplicado, Nuestro Partido Comunista!” The Grauer School’s renowned expeditions program was designed for just this, designed so that students and their teachers can go off on their own and explore. “To not need,” is our expeditions manifesto. Hasta no necessito! As is obvious, the constancy of today’s “interruptive technologies” menaces this independence and erodes it.

Nationwide, the specter of mom and dad “looking in” all day electronically invites a false sense of security. We think students are tethered to technology, but to just what does technology tether them to? “I thought that tracking my daughter was just part of responsible parenting,” one mom wrote. Now, far from home, in a communist country, an unknown new land, we can imagine the sudden absence of electronic connectedness subjecting well-intentioned parents to a gamut of lucid and sometimes dark imaginings—I know, I am a parent, and an imaginative one, and I know what this is: anxiety.



At the same time, I was rebelliously joyful. I’ve seen cellphones infiltrate more than one expedition as they creep their way into the culture like moles. Children coming of age need wild, unlimited hours, but this time is in short supply until we journey, untethered. In this most-plugged-in, supposedly connected time in the history of the world, American teen anxiety rates are skyrocketing to epidemic levels, now even surpassing depression. Have you ever had serious anxiety? I don’t wish it on anyone.

“Listen” to this vibrant story, by Jay Griffiths, a true gypsy among educational researchers: 

A few years ago I spent a day with children of the sea Gypsies, the Bajau people who live off Sulawesi in stilt houses set far into the water. The children were swimmers and divers, boaters and paddlers, rinsed with seawater night and day until they seemed half-human, half-otter. I asked what their childhood was like. The answer was immediate: "Children have a happy childhood because there is a lot of freedom." If happiness is a result of freedom, then surely the unhappiness of modern western children is caused in part by the fact that they are less free than any children in history.

The kids across Cuba struck us as focused, non-complex, intelligent, and sweet. In our travels, we visited three schools and actually played baseball, the Cuban national game, with youths across Cuba. We connected easily (even got a few hits), especially when compared to encounters we’ve had with kids from repressed, urban economies around the world. In some of those more “depressed” cultures, students seem guarded and nervous by comparison to the Cuban kids we met.

Upon returning, one follower, who sees things more politically than I do, wrote me to ask what it was like spending time with “people who lack individual sovereignty.” Answer: I don’t know! The kids we met in Cuba were kids, straight up. As Holocaust survivor and Grauer School emeritus faculty member Dr. Edi Eger has attempted to teach me well, how astonishing is the ability of humans to create their own internal sovereignty or fail to, transcending tyranny and pure freedom alike!

I mentioned this liberating effect of low-technology to our Cuban tour guide, Abel. He cited the great German pedagogue, Froebel, who invented the word kindergarten, and whose investigations showed how children learn more when they are adventuring, not tied down. Singing, dancing, game playing and gardening were all part of his methodologies.

After journaling, we retired to our rooms and the bomping and thumping of conga drums came drifting in through the balmy Havana night air like Santeria secrets. For our teens back home, technology tethers them into a world not unlike surveillance. “In Europe and America alike, many kids today are effectively under house arrest,” says Jay Griffiths. But Cuban cell carriers don’t cooperate with AT&T or Sprint, or virtually any U.S. corporation since 1959, so it was just us and the music. Hence, as our guidance counselor, travelling companion Tricia noted, “Our senses were heightened.” Could this be … the triumph of the revolution? For eight days, it was good spending days with kids out-of-range, Cuban and U.S., facing out into the post-Soviet communist, millennial world, feeling free. 

1. Jay Griffiths, Why parents should leave their kids alone. The Guardian, Friday 3 May 2013       

Dr. Stuart Grauer is a teacher, the founding Head of School at The Grauer School, and Founder of The Small Schools Coalition. He consults with schools worldwide and been awarded the University of San Diego Career Achievement Award, plus various international educational exchange fellowships including a Fulbright. Stuart is one of the nation's top authorities on small schools education. His work has been covered in The New York Times, Discovery Channel, and frequently in the local press in his home town of Encinitas, California, where he has been named “Peacemaker of the Year.” A regular essayist for Community Works Journal, new book is Fearless Teaching, “a rare book about education that is both beautiful and critically imperative,” is available at email Stuart

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