When I was 10 and a few weeks before I would start 4th grade, my parents proposed an outlandish idea to me and my siblings: what if as a family we moved to the Dominican Republic? “To the what?” we wondered. “The D.R.,” they said. “That must be, like, a new theme park in California or something, right?” we responded. Uhh, not quite. Soon enough we would know that for ourselves.
So instead of doing our traditional school shopping over the new few weeks, we started to pack and prepare for one of the most impactful experiences we’ve ever had. We kids had little idea of what awaited us in the Dominican Republic, but being young and adventurous, we were all pretty excited about the decision. The saddest moment came when we said goodbye to our grandpa and grandma on our way to the airport. We lived just down the street from my grandparents and saw them all the time. In fact, they lived just across the street from my elementary school, and during the school year I would go over to my grandma’s for lunch regularly, usually tagging along with several of my cousins.
I still remember that morning as we stopped to say goodbye how my grandma had set out a cold cereal breakfast for us with our favorite cereal choices. While we cried as we hugged and kissed them before we left, soon enough we were again distracted and excited by our curiosity and excitement over what lay ahead.
While my dad had lived in the Dominican Republic for two years when he was a young man, and my parents had visited the country again to celebrate their 10-year anniversary, I don’t think even they had a good sense for what awaited us. I still remember my dad’s recollection of the first morning after we arrived. Having flown in very late and arrived at the apartment where we were staying in the very early hours of the morning, we were all exhausted and sleeping in. But he awoke to what sounded like chaos down on the street–horns honking, people yelling, even chickens bawking and goats bleating. He slipped on a ball cap, hustled down to the street, and, taking a minute to process where he was, wondered, “Where have I brought my family?”
Later he and my mom confessed to us that had there been a flight leaving that morning back to the United States, they might have just put us all back on it and called it quits. But, fortunately for our family, there was no outbound flight, and thus began one of the best year-and-a-half long experiences our family ever shared.
While we experienced difficulties and challenges in the D.R., those experiences came together to provide us with so many positive, memorable, and lasting lessons: gratitude for our opportunities and resources, appreciation for reliable utility companies, learning that you don’t need a lot to be happy. But I think that of all the impactful lessons and experiences gained from our time in the D.R., a love of reading was one of the most important.
For the 18 months we lived in the D.R., we didn’t have television. No after school sitcoms. No Saturday morning cartoons. No movies. Nada. Nothing. (This was also the day of dial-up internet, so there was no Netflix either.) Somehow, very wisely and yet perhaps unaware of how lasting the impact would be, my parents helped us replace all that TV time, and more, with reading! We read all the time. Eventually we were reading so often that we had to implement a no-books-at-the-table-during-dinner policy, because otherwise we would all come to the dinner table reading a book. Even when the power went out (which it did regularly and for hours at a time), we’d read by the light of Coleman lanterns. We made weekly trips to a small, English library in the capital city, Santo Domingo, where we returned last week’s books and checked out a new pile to be devoured in the upcoming week.
I think it’s difficult for us to measure the impact all of that reading had on each of us. But I believe without a doubt that it was extremely positive. Don’t get me wrong–I enjoy a good movie as much as the next person. But to have had the opportunity to spend so much time reading, basically because our default alternative (TV) was not available, was powerful and life changing.
So am I inviting you to throw away the TV and cancel your streaming subscriptions? Not necessarily. But I would enjoy hearing what you do to nurture a love of reading in yourself and in your children. We’ve been back from the D.R. for almost 20 years now, and with tablets and smart phones, the alternatives to reading are more convenient and enticing than ever.