The Path of Arthur Pontes from Somerville to Sturgis with Side Trips (Spring 2012)

Faculty Profiles provide an opportunity to learn more about the lives and previous work experiences of Sturgis faculty.

The Path of Arthur Pontes from Somerville to Sturgis with Side Trips:

(a 3,622 word Extended Essay minus footnotes or citations of any kind)

By Arthur Pontes, Lead Teacher, Sturgis East English Department

 “Why do you want to work there when you could come to one of the best school systems in Rhode Island? We pay more, and that place will not let you grow professionally.  Nearly half of their kids quit school at sixteen and they aren’t interested in learning. Make a rational choice and come and join us instead.”  This was the reply I got when I called the Lincoln, Rhode Island school system to tell them that I had decided to take the job in Somerville, Massachusetts.  I had just finished my B.A. and had been offered both jobs within days of each other.  This was the start of my life full of “irrational choices” in education.

In cleaning out my cellar, I found my grade book from the second of my eight years at Somerville High School.  My five classes ranged from my “small” class of 27 students to my biggest one of 38 students with an average size of 33.  The prime directive of the administration was somewhat Germanic: “Keep Order”.  You must always be in your classroom, even as students filed into and out of class but you must always be in the hallway of this 3500 student (grades 10-12) school at the same time in order to keep order during class changes. The solution?  Stand in the doorway of your class with one foot in the corridor and the other in the classroom.  I learned about the realities of teaching in what was then a large, poor school with a working class base.  “Do not hand out books until the second week of school!”  This directive was because, at that time, some students showed up at the start of the school year in order to qualify for state assistance programs and they stopped coming once they were officially listed as being enrolled in school.  If you gave them the books, they were likely to disappear with the students.

Arthur Pontes
High School Graduation Photo

In spite of the needs of the system, learning did take place and some students did go on to good colleges and successful lives.  Teaching was a challenge and violence was an issue in the school.  The key element I learned as an English and History teacher at Somerville took place after my first teacher evaluation by the administration.  I performed brilliantly, in my mind, and was shocked to hear that I probably would not be rehired for the next year after such a disastrous performance!  I was told that I was so busy teaching material that I forgot that my job was to teach kids – not stuff.   If I did not get in tune with how my students were responding (or not responding) then I should begin looking for work elsewhere.  I worked in Somerville for eight years and learned to teach kids there.  I will always be grateful for the advice given to me at that first evaluation and I have since held the belief that we teach things to kids and it is the student who is and should be at the center of what it is we do as teachers.

Because of a plague of drug use -Angel Dust- we had several teacher assaults some of which resulted in lengthy hospitalization.  I was stabbed in the hand when breaking up a fight in the hallway (Advice for any new teachers reading this:  one should lead with one’s voice when breaking up a fight and not lead with one’s hand!) and decided that teaching overseas for a year might be a good break from the difficulties of working in a big city system.

Academia Cotopaxi – Quito, Ecuador

A View of Quito, Ecuador

“Daddy, are we in Ecuador now?”  My first grade son asked me this as we wandered around the Miami airport after hearing so much Spanish being spoken.  My wife, Jo Mary, and I had started on what was supposed to be a one year job in an American-International school in Quito. I was teaching English and History, she was teaching science, computer science, and math.  We ended up staying for four years.  Quito was a lovely, pristine city located in a valley 9,200 feet above sea level making it the second highest capital city in the world.  The air was clear and crisp and the city was surrounded by even higher mountain peaks one of which is an active volcano.

The student body was made up of thirds:  One-third U.S. nationals, one-third Ecuadorians and one-third a mix of students from more than a dozen other countries.  During these four years in Ecuador, I learned that teaching could be seen as a respected profession. I learned that students actually could complete homework assignments and that many had a deep thirst to learn something and then more still.  I learned that the elites gave their children the best education possible and that the rest of the population attended sub-standard schools if they attended any school at all.  I learned to adjust to seeing a big class size as anything over twenty students!  Teaching so many students for whom English was a second or even a third language made me adjust how I taught my subjects and made me aware of how important a command of  language is for student learning.

I learned that some people are prisoners of their own cultures and have trouble adapting to someone else’s ways of viewing the world and of organizing life’s everyday tasks.  I learned, at least back then, that the U.S. was efficient, not very corrupt, and socially democratic contrasted with the inefficient, corrupt, and class based society in which I was now living.   I also discovered that you cannot eat vegetables or fruit unless you have soaked them in iodine first;  that water from the tap must be boiled for half an hour before drinking;  that toilet paper must never be flushed but must be put in a wastebasket instead;  that a sign of having intestinal amoebas is when you have sulfur smelling burps; that it is easy for kids to get hepatitis in a poor country; and that parents are expected to sleep in the same room with their children during their entire stay in a hospital.

By my second year I became a teaching principal at the high school/middle school and by my third year I was given the additional job of International Baccalaureate (IB) Coordinator and Assistant Superintendent.  In all these jobs, I still taught at least one or two classes – most often Theory of Knowledge. During this time I became familiar with, taught courses in, and became an examiner for the International Baccalaureate program.   My final lesson learned was how valuable it was for an administrator’s awareness of the realities of school life to keep one foot in the everyday challenges of teaching a class or two.

The American School of the Hague, The Netherlands

The Hague, Netherlands

After four years in Ecuador, I had the opportunity to take a job as a Middle School and Arts Center Principal in the Netherlands.  In addition to learning more about the emotional and educational needs of middle school aged students, I gained a deep appreciation for the arts as a crucial component of a person’s development.  I saw how often individual student’s lives were changed by their participation in the arts.  I came to realize that the arts were arguably the most transformational program in a secondary school and regretted that I had had so little exposure to them in my own education.  So often the quiet, introverted, sometimes poorly spoken student was suddenly transformed by a performance in theater or showed they could communicate far better than I can when they played or sang a solo at a concert or painted or drew a picture as only an angel could do.

I came to see theater, music, sculpture, as well as painting and drawing as fundamentals and not as just “nice” minor additions to student’s lives and development.  I also came to appreciate that what I saw in my classroom was not the whole student.  These children had lives and talents outside of my academic fields.  Perhaps this is common sense,  but for me it was a revelation.

I left The Hague, after two years, to take a new job, mainly because administrators were forbidden by the school board to teach any classes. They did not believe in the efficacy of teaching principals.  These two years were the only ones in my professional life when I did not teach at least one class.

The Florence International School, Florence, Italy

The Florence International School

The new job as School Head in Florence proved to be a challenge in many respects.  The school was very small with fewer than two hundred students in grades pre-kindergarten through grade twelve.  The graduating class numbered fourteen students. In spite of its size, the school had a reputation such that prominent Florentines sent their children there.  Family names such a Gucci (fashion), Ferragamo (shoes), Ferrero (chocolates) and Cechi (wine) sprinkled the class lists.  Much of the Florentine Jewish community sent their children to the school as well the children of American scholars and artists visiting Florence a year or two.  The head of the kindergarten was the former nanny to the children of the former King of Romania and the Gucci family bought and donated the villa in which the school was housed.

“Beware what you wish for” became a reality for me.

Yes, I was able to teach two classes – IB English and Theory of Knowledge – on top of being the school’s only administrator.  My job was to rescue the new IB program at the school, to “legalize” many of the teachers, and to increase student enrollment.   Trying to do the aforementioned, teach two classes, run the bus schedule, supervise the gardeners, run the alumni association, do fund raising, and deal with the teachers’ union tended to interfere a bit with correcting quizzes and preparing lessons.  By the way, our teachers’ union was part of the Italian Communist Party’s trade union confederation with whom I had to negotiate contracts by Italian law.

I learned that Italians were the kindest, most hospitable people among whom I had ever lived as a foreigner and that Italian food was extraordinarily tasty – somehow I gained fifteen pounds while in Italy.  I learned what a role history can play in a culture and in people’s views of their place in the world. I learned that art, music, and the “bella figura” (looking good and acting with a certain bit of “class”) are parts of everyday life for Italians.   I came to describe Florence as a beautiful museum with streets – it  is a stunningly beautiful place.

The sense that this city made the modern world through its role as the birthplace of the Renaissance was a widely held belief.  The sense of history sometimes took on a somewhat strange aspect especially for someone who came from the immigrant culture of the United States where, once you speak English, you are considered to be pretty much American and if you are born in the States, you certainly are American.  We had a family in the school that was referred to by many of the Florentine parents as “i Greci”, the Greeks.  I assumed that this is what they were until I had a conversation with one of the “Greek” parents.  He explained that they were considered to be new arrivals by the old Florentine families because his ancestors had only come to Florence in the early 1500’s and, as such, were still seen as not quite Florentines.   There is something about living in a culture whose sense of historical time is computed differently that made me understand what a new country I came from;  one that the Florentines would see as a place with little or no history.

After having been threatened by a terrorist group after President Reagan bombed Libya and killed one of Ghadafi’s children, I learned the joy of living under police protection with armed carabineri in front of my house and the school.

Professionally, I learned that one person cannot teach everything and that a school really is greater than the sum of its parts.  I also learned that there is a minimum size needed for a high school to be able to offer a well rounded academic program.

The Antwerp International School, Antwerp, Belgium

Antwerp, Belgium

Antwerp is a special place.  It is a business center and a cultural and political center for the Flemish speaking residents of Belgium.  The international diamond trade is centered in this city and that trade is dominated by two ethnic groups, Utra-Orthodox Jews and Indians from Bombay.  Many of those Indians attended the Antwerp School.

The school had just had a large influx of U.S. military children and was undergoing a bit of culture shock as a result.  From about a quarter of the enrollment, the U.S. dependent part of the student body had just jumped to over half.  The Belgian, other European, and Indian students had little trouble adjusting to their new comrades.  The teachers, however, were not as flexible.  Half of the teaching staff was British, a quarter American and a quarter Belgian.  Some of the staff were not used to teaching a whole range of student abilities that the military kids represented.  They were accustomed to classes made up of the children of the financial and cultural elites.  They were used to teaching stuff, not kids, and my time in Antwerp was filled with a series of cultural and academic misunderstandings between part of the staff and the new American students.

In matters of culture, I learned about how arranged marriages worked among our Indian students.  Every June, the junior and senior female Indian students wondered if they would be back or be in college because it was during the summer vacations that parents sometimes arranged marriages for their daughters.  Most went more or less willingly but some, who had absorbed “too much” western culture, rebelled and wanted “love marriages” or even careers requiring a college degree.  I witnessed several incidents of tears and angst but no successful rebellions.  Being cut off from family was more than the students could bear and that would be the result of defying parental wishes.

It became clear to me that most American teachers think very differently about children than do more traditional teachers.  We see them as repositories of endless possibilities and we never give up on a student.  We see ourselves, as teachers, responsible for what students learn and if they do not seem to be learning, we change what we do in an attempt to help them learn.  It became plain to me that traditional teachers often believe that it is the student’s responsibility to learn and the teacher’s responsibility to present material – if a student does not learn, it is her fault and she deserves to be failed.

Academia Cotopaxi – Quito, Ecuador – Second Time

Academia Cotopaxi, Quito, Ecuador

Jo Mary and I never thought we would return to Ecuador but here we were.  We were “recruited” back by the Head of School and would end up staying for six more years.  It was a bigger school than we had worked in before and the city had grown exponentially.  The air was not quite as clear due to all the cars but the people seemed the same.  I taught IB History, TOK, and Expository and Creative Writing and my wife taught math and science – we were having fun.  Unfortunately, the head of school became ill and I was plucked by fate from most of my classes and, once again thrown into the role of school head for four years.

What was most revealing during these six years was the work that Jo Mary and I did outside of school with the residents of the Zambiza garbage dump.  Two hundred families lived alongside the municipal garbage dump and earned their living by recycling cardboard, metal, and plastic bottles.  They could earn up to the equivalent of $35 a month this way.  Most of the children either did not attend school or were pulled from school when they were nine or ten years old and could then begin working alongside their parents.  We set up a food program for the younger children who were then cared for in a newly built day care center.  This way they no longer had to be strapped to their mothers’ backs while the mothers picked through trash but could be kept in a safe place.  Later we were able to set up a scholarship program for the children to attend school.  In Ecuador, the government provides the buildings and the salaries for the teachers.  Uniforms, books, and school supplies of all kinds are paid for by the parents.  The cost was low by our standards but very high for the poor.  The average cost was about $30 for each child.  This was nearly one month’s pay for each child in school for the Zambiza parents.  I learned that with the availability of scholarships, these poorest of the poor were eager to send their children to school.  They did not want them to repeat their own lives.

I learned that poverty is not just the lack of money; it is a lack of knowledge, lack of food, lack of hope, and a lack of self worth as well.  Poverty is the presence of violence from others and a feeling of helplessness in the face of life.   I learned that there is no dignity in poverty.     I learned that poor folks and I were the same in the most fundamental of ways but that I was a privileged human being.  Whenever I see a child throwing a tantrum in a supermarket or a child being choosy about what they like or do not like for food, I think of the dump children who never threw tantrums and never refused any bit of food of any kind at any time.  Constant hunger does wonders for one’s choices about what tastes “good” to a person.

I learned a great deal more but this is not the place for it.  All I can say is that my perceptions about what a person “needs to have” in life were changed because of my experiences with the wonderful, hard working, desperate souls on the garbage dump that I came to know and love.

The American School of the Hague, The Netherlands – Second Time

American School of the HagueThe American School of The Hague, The Netherlands  – Second Time

If I seem to be repeating myself it is because I am.  After a serious illness, I returned to being an IB English and IB History teacher as well as IB Coordinator in The Hague.  This time my wife and I would stay for ten years.

I learned that teaching was what I loved doing more than anything else and that teenagers are much more reasonable, kind, and likable than are many adults.  They are also much more willing to question their own beliefs and to argue with evidence rather than just with emotion.  Shocking, isn’t it!

Living in a lovely place like Holland was a nice change from the poverty of Ecuador.  Here old people lived with dignity and were cared for by society.  Few, if any, children lived in what one could call poverty.  I learned to appreciate the Dutch form of capitalism whereby business and free enterprise were supported but where there was a very high social safety net.  I appreciated the state medical system which I have since found to be more efficient than my current coverage. (I wait longer here to get an appointment than I ever did in Holland.) I still remember my sign-up interview at the agency for medical insurance when I asked if my pre-existing condition from my illness in Ecuador would exclude me from some coverage.  The woman looked at me as if I had two heads and said that, of course not; full coverage for any medical issue was my right as a human being and as a resident of Holland.  She found my question to be a very strange one.  I appreciated the child allowance check every three months for the additional expenses involved in bringing up children.  I appreciated that attendance at college was free for students as part of your taxes went to cover these costs.

I learned that to arrive on time was a key part of Dutch culture.  The insult period was a matter of just a few minutes in Holland so it was not unusual to see people sitting in their cars in front of your house for ten or fifteen minutes awaiting the 7:30 time that you set for them to come for a visit.  Promptly at 7:30 all would leave their cars and ring the doorbell.  I learned that to the Dutch, World War Two happened yesterday, and that it would be a very long time before they forgot what it meant to have been conquered and occupied by a foreign power.

Sturgis Charter Public School, Hyannis, MA, U.S.A.

Arthur and Jo Mary Pontes
Sturgis Hallways – April 2012

Sick parents, growing grandchildren, and a wonderful chance to teach the IB to all comers finally led us to return to the U.S. after twenty five years abroad.  We returned in 2004 to join the Sturgis staff and to take up residence in Hyannis. Jo Mary taught and continues to teach math and I had the joyful experience of being the school’s first IB Coordinator and a History teacher.   I would eventually come to teach IB English.

Except for every once in a while, we have not looked back.

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