Wednesday afternoon we performed our first community service activity. After practice, lunch and a short break during which I flopped onto my bed and nearly fell asleep, we all piled onto a bus and headed into the town beside our complex to go teach at a school. We had been divided into nine groups earlier in the day, and I knew that I’d be going into a first grade classroom with my group. When we arrived at El Escuela de la Playa we were met by awkward stares from the young children. We filed into the fenced in campus
“Buenos dias clase, mi numbre es Maxx Tissenbaum. Soy un catcher de los Padres de San Diego, y soy Canadiense!” This was my introduction to the first grade class that my teammates and I taught in on Wednesday. I wanted to use as much Spanish as I could to let the children know that I could at least interact with them a little bit, in spite of the fact that I appeared American. I felt obligated for whatever reason to make sure I threw in the last part about being Canadian. All seven of the guys in my group were lined up at the from of the classroom and one by one we had to say hello to the kids. My group included four Dominican guys, and three American (there’s that loose interpretation of American again) guys, so naturally the Dominican players took the lead. Jorge Guzman, who you may know better as Pokey from Fort Wayne, lead the way, followed by Mayky Gonzalez, Miguel Severino and Ronaldo Contreras. They were all loud and enthusiastic, and even though I had planned on following with the same vigor, my introduction came out relatively paltry. I got it out, but it wasn’t loud or wonderful like I’d imagined, while we were on the bus headed over. Max Fried and Jake Buers followed me copying the “buenos dias, mi numbre es” formula, and before long Pokey took hold of the group and explained that we would be teaching them to write their names, count to 12 and draw.
We went around the room and asked each kid his or her name, and wrote it on a nametag that we had them stick on their uniform shirts. The kids were clearly intimidated by the relatively large group of us, and spoke very softly which sometimes made understanding them more difficult than it already was going to be. The professora walked around and helped us with some of the more difficult names like Rohelfris, and I made sure to communicate with her entirely in Spanish. Once each student had a name tag we split up and began to copy down their full names onto pieces of blank white paper, writing them three times. Each student was given a piece of rice paper, and the Dominican players explained that they’d use a pencil to trace their name. Once the kids started I began to walk around to some of the kids and asked them “dime las letras en su numbre,”Spanish for tell me the letters in your name. They quietly told me, and I repeated them in Spanish until they got to the end and I said their full name, which usually is four names long. One by one the kids raised their hands and told us “termine,” Spanish for I’m finished. I walked around and told them “bien trabajo” which means good work, and once all the kids were finished we moved on to our second part of our lesson.
Lesson two was about numbers, and we were given a set of bright colored numbers to post on the chalk board. Max and I quickly posted them, as Pokey handed them to me. Jake and I spelled out each number from 1-12 in both English and Spanish, looking back over our shoulders to Mayky, Miguel, Pokey and Contreras to check our spelling. Once we finished, Pokey lead the class counting in Spanish. After they finished in Spanish, Jake and I lead them in English. Once we felt like they had the hang of counting, we began to ask them questions that would make them count. Pokey asked “cuantas mesas son en esta clase?” The kids quickly began counting the number of desks, and all began to shout out answers. Next, Miguel asked “cuantos niños en este clase?” We learned our lesson from the first question and chose a specific kid to answer this time. He counted the boys in the class and shouted out “once” which the three Gringos translated back to eleven. Mayky followed by asking how many girls were in the class, and again we picked a student to answer. I asked the last question, again wanting to show off some Spanish. “Cuantos peloteros de los Padres están en tu clase?” They all were too quick and shouted out SIETE. We all told them bien trabajo, and began to pass out coloring sheets, each with a number and the corresponding number of a certain picture. I remember the page for 11 had ice cream cones. Each student had a number and they began coloring with the crayons and colored pencils we brought. As they drew I walked around and asked simple little questions like “cual es tu color favorito?” (what is your favorite color) or “te gusto el helado?” (do you like ice cream). When the kids answered my questions I wanted to try and give them a high five, so I asked Pokey how to say that, and his answer apparently was far to vague. He told me to hold my hand out and say “dame cinqo” as in “give me five” but when I did that, a lot of the kids thought I was asking for money. I had to actually show them what I meant using both my hands to get the point across. It was very cool for me to be able to interact with the kids, even if it was in a very small way.
When we wrapped up our portion of the day in the classroom we again lined up in front of the class and thanked them for their time. We gave a quick wave and walked out into the yard to meet up with the guys that were all in different classes. As I stood outside waiting for everyone to leave a young boy came up and tapped me on the arm and asked me “tu estas un catcher?” I was surprised that he chose to try to talk to a white guy, but I turned around and said “si, me llamo Maxx. Como te llamas?” We began talking and I found out his name was Adrian, he was 12 years old and he was a RHP. I asked him what pitches he throws, he said all of them. I began to rhyme off the pitches in Spanish, recta (fastball)? Si. Curva (curveball)? Si. Esláider (slider)? Si. Cambio (change up)? NO! I was a bit surprised that this 12 year old threw all the breaking pitches but not a change up, typically a pitch that is easier on a young arm. I was intrigued so I asked him why? “Porque tu no tira un cambio?” His answer blew me away, not because it surprised me, but because it surprised me that the prevailing thought down here reaches all the way down to 12 year old school kids. “Es el pitch mas lento,” he explained to me, meaning it’s the slowest pitch. Having been around so many young Dominican pitchers I’ve come to understand that the only two things they really care about early in their careers are speed and strike outs. It’s very normal for a Latin pitcher to finish throwing and immediately after the game ask whoever did the pitch chart how fast he threw. They seem to base their success off of strikeouts, rather than simply on outs. When Adrian told me a changeup was too slow a pitch it shocked me that even before they’re looking to be scouted, or ready to be signed that these kids know what scouts look for, big numbers on radar guns. I laughed a little, and wasn’t sure where the conversation would go, but his friend came running over and jumped in to tell me he was a third baseman. Here I was, a Canadian kid standing in the middle of a Dominican school yard, holding court with a bunch of 12 year old peloteros. I told the friend I was a second baseman and a shortstop before becoming a catcher, and they both seemed a little confused (I wasn’t sure if they were confused as to how a big lumbering gringo could play the infield, or as to how a middle infielder becomes a catcher). We exchanged a few more quick baseball questions and answers and then it was time to leave.
As I walked back to the bus I felt so incredibly happy that I had been able to go in there and feel comfortable with the native language. I was extremely proud of all of the guys for putting in a really great effort with the kids, because going into the day I wasn’t sure how many guys were totally committed and on board with the idea of community service. Hell, I wasn’t really on board before I left, but when I got here and started to hear about the different activities I started to warm up to the idea. It was awesome to see the English and Spanish speaking players really come together to help a common cause, the school kids. It was very cool to see guys who normally exist in almost two entirely separate universes interacting to try and help one another figure out just how to get the job done.
As I sat down on the bus I thought back to a conversation I had at the end of 9th grade at Crescent with my friend, and at the time, line-mate Robbie Mitchnick. We were going through our course selection for 10th grade and I had the choice between taking French and Spanish. I had always been good in French class so I quickly “bubbled” it in on the selection card. Robbie saw me do it and immediately stopped me and told me “you’re a baseball player. What are you going to do when your middle infield partner is a Spanish speaker and you can’t communicate. You’re taking Spanish with me.” I laughed and semi ignored the advice at first, but he insisted and eventually I erased the bubble beside 10th grade French and colored in the bubble beside 10th grade Spanish. Having been on teams with over 50% of the guys being Spanish speakers I can’t thank him enough for making sure I took Spanish. It has truly been a blessing to be able to communicate with those guys, and the kids at that school earlier this week. I’ve been able to trade stories and make friends with my Latin American teammates in a way that a lot of other guys haven’t. I’ve learned a lot about their lives, and the total difference in the two worlds we live in when we aren’t together on the baseball field.