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School Behind the Mangroves: On Causing No Harm


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.”

I swear by Apollo, the healer … the following Oath and agreement:
To consider dear to me as my parents him who taught me this art…
I will… never do harm to anyone.
            – Hippocrates

We are heading out to a distant point where the surf breaks along a long, clean punta, and all the way along the shorelines look like impenetrably thick, green brush. Steering closer to shore, we eventually begin to notice occasional dark spots in the mangroves and, closer still, they appear as tiny, green, creek mouths, slight inlets big enough for a few dugout canoes. And now closer still, perhaps a small dock, maybe a few little ones doing flips off the ends of them, running and chasing. The Ngöbe kids of the Bahia Honda off Bocas del Toro on the northeastern corner of Panama are waiting for a ride to school.

Behind the mangroves protecting the shore, with machetes, the Ngöbe have hacked thatched-roof, stilt house, extended family clearings of usually less than one hectare into the bush. Surrounding each clearing is wild and twisting, tropical overgrowth reaching to a high canopy and the best way you could describe this is a word I had thought was outmoded: jungle. Comical sounds come out at various times of the day and you can hardly tell the forest canopy sounds of the monkeys from the birds or cicadas. There are eight-foot leaves and nearly microscopic bugs. Savage rains. Some strawberry poison dart frogs (red frog) crawl around the base of a ficus tree, while a three toed sloth hangs up top. Chocolate and cinnamon grow on trees. Back here even the little ones begin learning the skills of hand fishing. At five years old they learn kayaking, at seven machetes. The elders don’t know much about the alphabet, they can only stand by in faith as their indigenous languages give way to Spanish, and even English as a third language.

Neil picks me up at the dock at Bahia Honda in a panga filled with grinning, coffee, indigenous kids. We are headed to the schoolhouse he built. Three years ago, Neil quit his job as a medical device salesman in Southern California, was cruising the cays looking for surf, when he was drawn to some of these hidden inlets. Looking closer, he met one local, then another, and soon fell in love with the life, but noticed the locals were cut off from one another. They live on foot, travel by raft, reside purposefully apart from mainstream culture—after all, sustainable, independent living is best practiced off the grid. They share ancient ethnicity, but they rarely need a shared marketplace, and they have no community center or gathering place. Hence, their community is only loosely connected. Foreign investors or sweeping government projects threaten the culture, spiritual life, and existence of virtually every indigenous group on earth. Intuitively, Neil understands that, disconnected, the people could never face up to the challenges headed their way.

What force drew him into the first tiny dark inlet, to dock his panga, to wander into the bush? Neil Christiansen was born and raised in New Jersey, went to prep school and college, son of a corporate lawyer. His childhood friends are bankers and business owners. What called him into the jungle? “I didn’t have a real plan,” he says. “But if you have a plan,” I say, “can you be truly open to what is needed, and what you might discover?” I say.

“Exactly.” He met one local, then another. As he discovered more locals, he resolved to help them experience community through schooling. Unfortunately, getting to school entailed expensive, hour-plus panga rides into Bocas town and those serious about schooling for their children would sometimes have to move to town. Neil envisioned school as a gathering place, as a way to knit together the sense of community. “I wanted them to grow up feeling like they are part of a group and really knowing their neighbors,” Neil says. He learned of some nearby land in Bahia Honda where the World Bank has set up a restaurant for area volunteer workers, and knew he could fix up some of the abandoned structures for a schoolhouse. Soon, he founded Give and Surf as a non-profit corporation out of Bocas del Toro, and it funds the Bahia Honda school.



Give and Surf’s main expense is gas for the pangas, the only way the Bahia Honda kids can get to school from all points along the island archipelago. Winding through the cays, the children wait for the school bus panga, which picks them up, family by family in the dark little openings in the mangroves. Starting in pre-school and going up through middle school, Neil and his teachers and volunteers gather every morning they can at the schoolhouse.

Why not just petition the Peace Corps or an existing non-profit to get volunteers in here? I want to know. But that’s bureaucracy, and I start to discover what’s essential about Neil, what drives him. “Those bureaucracies don’t interact with kids, they don’t know kids,” he says. “They would put layers of paperwork between me and the families and they are not teachers.” Big bureaucracies, sweeping systems changes, government imposed regulations, and standardized outcomes can turn real people into victims. Neil imposes nothing. He is on the ground, ducking into the little creek mouths and explaining to the locals that their kids can be safe at school and learn to know one another, and grow up connected to the ones up and down the cays, their people. If they agree, and so far Neil has been irresistible, he and his team shuttle them to school. They repair and paint the schoolhouse, teach Spanish and English to them, teach them songs to share, hand out their toothbrushes for brushing after school every day, and teach them the logic of the schoolhouse: listening, sharing, appreciating. They have not yet considered teaching native language, a fact that gives us pause and reminds us of the scope and scale of responsibility today’s global educators take on.

The Pope tweeted recently, “connections facilitate communion.” Unfortunately, as you can learn for yourself on any online network, connections are not the same as real connectedness. The current age is teaching us the strength of our urge for warm connection. In the American schoolhouse, about 50% of all people “directly involved,” rarely if ever have live conversations with the students they create programs for. The policy makers are oftentimes not even educators. Back home in the U.S., the line between mandatory public education and indoctrination or even incarceration blurs beneath our $64 billion a year U.S. Department of Education as it “races to the top” of who knows what. “Everyone in Give and Surf works with the kids,” says Neil. “It’s about the connection.”

So Neil is motoring the panga full of students through the cays, on the way to school, and gets sidetracked. A dolphin is playing along the shore, chasing some early morning food. Soon enough, we pull up to the small dock, and a few dugouts are already docked in the mangroves. We walk up the dock and onto the clearing, maybe one hectare in size. Off to the side, Neil has cleared space for a grassy baseball field and up the hill he’s built a playground with swings. The kids are gathering into their classrooms. The elementary and the middle school ages are in the other two schoolrooms, dressed in white cotton shirts, black pants or skirts, and black shoes. A few stay barefoot.

In Bahia Honda, the little ones of the Ngöbe find Neil and the teachers magnetic, clinging to our legs and waists, and grinning freely and happily. Today, they have plentiful paper and crayons for drawing dolphins and lettering. In the older classes, Neil deftly has students arrange desks into various formations for singing, group and team building games, circles and writing. This is not charity. It’s different. It is reciprocal, as Neil’s early-career teachers develop themselves while coexisting in a vanishing ecosystem of astonishing natural beauty. They can unplug, as well, something becoming a gold standard in the anxiously hyperconnected, developed world. This is simple connection. Nothing separates Neil and his team from what the World Bank or the Peace Corps might regulate and refer to as sustainable empowerment. Way down here it is called hugs.

After school, we head out in the panga for the point. We anchor up and paddle in, including the local pangadero, Eddie, whom Neil has taught to surf. Neil is a surfer of astonishing ability, taking off in critical spots, and moving up and down the face of the wave with precision while generating impossible acceleration. Surfing in paradise is a perk of significant draw to Give and Surf volunteers and benefactors, myself included.

Development has normally meant one culture pushing unsustainable practices upon another, often with false promises of wealth and modern luxury, yet Neil’s approach appears born of mutual respect. Two-way empathy is in evidence. Still, I know community education scholars who would aim for increasing reciprocity, and ask harder questions: What do the Ngöbe know that we don’t? To what extent should westerners be studying the Ngöbe teachings rather than vice versa? Will our schooling help them have more control over their destiny? Things are falling apart all over the world before our very eyes. Is it our job to stop it?

These oceanic questions have not penetrated the mangroves. The Give and Surf teachers have, though, and with no strings attached as they develop the school site with their own hands. Just one building on the Bahia Honda school site is left empty, sitting in corner like a question mark. It is the largest, best built structure on the site and no one seems to know much about it. Peering in through the slats of the padlocked door and into the grey light inside we see rows of pews leading up to a pulpit in the front. From an historical perspective, this emptiness is probably the most significant facet of Give and Surf’s work.

The next day we share plastic recorders for making music, form circles, play clapping games. The teachers do all this teaching with no apparent pretense that they are solving a problem or making better people, and this could be some kind of miracle finding for me to bring back to the experts and scholars and to my own school. First, do no harm. Like skilled surfing, real teaching is an act of nature, intrinsically good. We do not try to change the wave. No one has offered the Ngöbe religion. Nor have they been offered better lives or even jobs. Like Gandhi’s “oceanic circles,” all over the world, the new missionary offers a hand to the willing, no strings, no allegiance to the Church or Apollo.

Friday morning. We skim along the cays collecting students in the panga. The elementary students are not coming. Their two teachers, we learn, are attending a government meeting. No matter, it would be a bad paddle for them today in the rain. We arrive with the little ones and, in the corner gathering area of Bahia Honda a group of pre-med students (Yale and Stonybrook) is convened, getting instructions for vaccinating the locals and dispensing vitamins and parasite medication. (Why are they almost all female?) Seeing opportunity, we quickly arrange for a couple of them to come into the schoolroom and show the little ones some medical tools. The rain is bearing down so hard on the metal roof that it is hard to hear anything else. No matter, we gather around and the kids are captivated. (Is it possible that women carry an innate sense of communion that we all seek?) I watch from the teacher’s desk and try to take notes but the termites are excavating the wood all over the writing surface and leaving piles like sawdust. One co-ed has a song about washing hands and we all sing along. The Hippocratic oath is playing out before my eyes, and all these students, from preschool to pre-med, are filled with purity of intention. I wish not just physicians, but global aid teachers and every teacher on earth would understand this oath. It sounds so simple.

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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