In early June, two Blair faculty members led a group of eight Blair students on a tour of Cuba, marking the second time teachers and students have visited the island nation since the United States government first lifted restrictions banning direct travel between the two countries in 2011.
All of the students who signed up for the trip saw the experience as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit what they saw as a “forbidden” country with which they were largely unfamiliar beyond the way it is portrayed by the media in the United States. Given their curiosity about the country’s history and culture, as well as the uncertainty that travel restrictions wouldn’t be reimposed—which proved a valid concern given that the U.S. government issued new restrictions the day after the Blair group arrived in Cuba—students jumped at the chance to learn from its people and to experience the Cuban art scene firsthand.
An Art-Focused Itinerary
As Blair fine arts teacher Tyson Trish and language teacher Timothy Devaney planned the itinerary over the course of the spring 2019 semester, they had one goal in mind: to give students a better understanding of the world and how to interact with its different cultures, while also showing them just how much art has the power to bring people together.
“It was fun watching our group develop an appreciation for a different culture and for their own ability to communicate in Spanish, even when they were nervous about using it outside of the classroom,” said Mr. Devaney, who has taught the language at Blair since 2010. “They also got to see firsthand how the Cuban government differs from its people.”
The chaperones also appreciated that students witnessed Cuba’s many positive cultural aspects, which are not always portrayed broadly by the media. “In many ways, Cuba is a place stopped in time, and it is fascinating and comforting to be able to walk through a bustling urban environment and to feel so safe,” Mr. Devaney added. “You see the ingenuity of the Cuban people in small things, such as how they keep their cars running, despite the U.S. embargo.”
Similarities Trumped Differences
The fact that Cuba is right off the shores of the U.S. makes the contrasts between the two countries even more poignant, added Mr. Trish. But, perhaps not surprisingly, Blair students were most startled by the many similarities between themselves and their Cuban peers. “My favorite part of the trip was getting to know kids our age and the many opportunities to create art in this rich country,” said Linda Thomas-Galloway ’21. “I got along really well with the kids and even connected with them about our similar interest in music and entertainment. It made me realize that, although we are from different countries, we are very similar. Getting to see the world from a different perspective was very humbling and I am even more appreciative of all the things I have in my own life.”
Michael Richardson ’21 also embraced the chance to make new friends with local teens. “Just being able to create a relationship within a short period of time is amazing and they were terrific people,” he said. “I also connected with our teachers and fellow Blair students, and we felt like family by the time we came home.”
Likewise, Ava Nothshine ’21 was struck by the cordialness of Cuban locals and embraced the opportunity to delve into conversation with her peers about light and serious topics, ranging from the subjects of day-to-day chatter with best friends to thoughts on Cuba as a Communist country and gender roles on the island nation. “Everywhere you go, strangers will say ‘good morning’ and ‘how are you today?’” she explained. “I built new and meaningful relationships with people I never could have imagined meeting. I am confident that I made friendships in Cuba that I will carry into the rest of my high school career.”
Music Education & Artistic Collaboration
Among the group’s favorite experiences was enjoying the music of Vocal Clave de Sol and Orquesta de Guitarras, Havana-based teen musicians who visited Blair with chaperones in 2017 to perform for students and faculty after being introduced to one another during the Blair group’s first trip to Cuba earlier that spring. “We were once again in awe of their musical talents and Blair students enjoyed learning a few guitar chords during our visit,” said Mr. Trish, who also co-chaperoned the 2017 trip. “Several of their students also joined us for our final dinner, where they played music and danced with us!”
Another popular attraction was the ballet performed by Pro Danza and a full day workshop with local artist José Antonio Díaz Peláez at the Experimental Center for Visual Arts, where students learned painting and printmaking techniques and collaborated on paintings with Cuban high school students. For Beverley Da Costa ’21, the trip’s focus on the arts was what stood out most. “The way different countries create their art is fascinating to me,” she said. “I’m always looking to improve my creativity and seeing others’ thought processes encourages me to think outside the box.” In addition to enjoying the Clave de Sol group and the community project Patio de Pelegrin, Beverley loved visiting the revolution art museum and a Havana art school. “This really helped me to understand the culture more,” she explained. “It showed me how hard the Cuban people work with what they have and it was very inspirational.”
Returning as a Tight-Knit Group
Specific excursions aside, the trip to Cuba brought together a group of Blair students and teachers who, at the outset, did not know each other well and had them returning to the U.S. as good friends. Having forged such meaningful relationships during their Cuban adventure made saying goodbye difficult.
“I am typically a reserved person and was surprised by how well we all connected,” Linda said. “We were like a family, looking out for each other, sharing a lot about ourselves and having a ton of fun. I came home with strong friendships that will continue far beyond our trip.”
Beverley agreed. “I became closer with people with whom I was already friends and also the teachers and students I didn’t know as well before we left,” she said. “We all saw and experienced the same things, which made it easier to relate to each other and have deep conversations.”
Teachers and students look forward to sharing their photos of the trip with the Blair community at the start of the 2019-2020 school year.