Leave of absence equals world awareness for Springfield couple

For 32 years, I’ve lived on the corner where a half-dozen block stretch of Garfield Avenue “Ts” into Roosevelt Drive, in a kind of settled existence that, from time to time, makes me feel like a Bilbo Baggins who never left the Shire for his great adventure.

So it was with pleasure two Saturdays ago that I ventured south half a dozen blocks near the corner where Garfield “Ts” into Cecil Street to talk with Derek Alvarado and Teresa Troyer about the latest leg of the great adventure that is their lives.

With sons Yosef, 10, and Max, 8, in tow, the two are beginning what’s commonly called a leave of absence. She is taking a break from her job as supervisor of English as a Second Language programs for the Dayton Public Schools. He is a teacher at the Greene County Learning Center in Yellow Springs, an alternative school.

Their absence will allow them to feel the presence of the wider world.

For the next 10 months, Troyer will be working out of the American Embassy in Bogota teaching Colombian teachers how to teach English as a second language to their Spanish-speaking students. It’s the result of what she calls “a great professional opportunity” she was granted by the English Language Fellows (ELF).

A couple of years back, awkward timing required the Alvarado-Troyer Traveling Troupe to turn down an ELF position in Cambodia. The offer for fall placement came just after their plane had touched down in China for one their two summer stints, teaching English to students who had just finished their freshman years at Wuhan University.

Troyer applied to be a fellow again, and when a second offer was proffered, the Traveling Troupe was able to work out the logistics of the move to Columbia at the end of yet another summer teaching ESL abroad, this time in Indonesia.

Troyer, who specializes in logistics and details, and Alvarado, who specializes in boundless spirit, seem as well-matched for this kind of life as their ages, both 42.

“We feel more alive when we’re in a different country,” said Troyer, who was with the Peace Corps in Slovakia from 1994-96, after graduating with degrees in art history and creative writing from Ohio Wesleyan University.

Although she’d started her college career as an education major, then rejected it, she’s found a niche there for a reason that will surprise many educators in test-driven times.

“There’s a lot of freedom in teaching,” she said.

Because language touches on every aspect of life, “through themes and the stories you read, you have a lot of opportunities to open discussions” about a variety of things in life.

“You get to know people through your teaching, and you learn a lot as well,” she said. “I take a lot from teaching … about how people see me and how I want to be in the world.”

A more day-to-day aspect of traveling particularly appeals to her husband.

“One thing I love about traveling is that you really have to think outside the box as far as getting your ideas across,” he said.

While his work life as a special education teacher has taught him about the need for different approaches using the same language, it took some experience to adapt those skills to another college.

For instance, initial attempts to communicate in China’s tonal language “did not go over well” and required a more practical approach.

With help from others staying at a hostel, they created a flash card with the Chinese words “I eat the vegetable food” for Troyer to present when they stopped to eat.

Troyer said that as an English as a Second Language teacher, this kind of humbling experience “helps you have empathy for the students.”

And just as traveling has helped their teaching, teaching abroad has been a boon to their travels.

Whereas many travelers get a sense of seeing the sights but merely skimming the culture, as teachers “you get invited to people’s homes and to (local) festivals,” Alvarado said.

With a familiarity of culture established through friendships, they find themselves more able to take in the unfamiliar world around them. This can happen even during 20-hour rides through Inner Mongolia on trains in which everyone seems to be smoking, no one’s worried about seat assignments, and it’s possible to wake up in the morning to find someone sleeping underneath the table you’re seated at.

Like the time a lower-tract problem prompted nature to call on Alvarado repeatedly during a scheduled six-hour hike in Nepal, this kind of adaptability requires a can-do attitude and a positive one — the attitude they hope to instill in their boys.

“And having the kids travel with them opens up door after door,” Alvarado added. “We’re kind of trusted right off the bat, so we get to have some interesting experiences.”

Some came at the Great Wall, where their two blond-haired boys became an attraction to Chinese travelers and young Max wondered whether the Chinese market for pictures with American children might earn the boys a few yuan.

Although Alvarado will be teaching the boys Ohio curriculum during their time in Colombia, the use of the term “away schooling” somehow seems more appropriate than “home schooling.”

Troyer’s assignment will require her to travel about one week a month in Colombia, “and we’re going to tag along,” Alvarado said.

An experiential learner himself, he plans to make sure the boys have educational experiences.

They’re also planning a trip to the Amazon in Brazil, where Max wants to try fishing. The Inca ruins at Machu Picchu in Peru will be part of the itinerary, just as a visit to the orangutans and a three-day boat trip in Borneo were part of the visit to Indonesia.

Alvarado plans to connect with more common Colombians by volunteering his English as a Second Language skills in the public schools of a country in which most people of means send their children to private schools.

The move to one salary for a year will require certain sacrifices, although “assess and adapt” is by now as deeply ingrained in the Alvarado-Troyer Traveling Troupe as it is in most military units that travel the world.

More than that, what sacrifices there are seem worth it for lives they believe are greatly enriched by both the experiences in other cultures and what they’re required to do to make it work.

“It’s a passion, it’s an art, it’s creative — it feeds all those needs,” Troyer said.

Alas, though, while seated at their welcoming table, they found themselves faced with an adventure-less Bilbo who asked them how it’s possible to feel grounded in a life of such wanderings.

Rootedness “is not about place,” Troyer said. “It’s about a connection with people.”

The people they’ve connected with are those that they have met in travels or travelers they’ve met in their everyday life — people seemingly scattered but still connected in a deep way.

Alvarado put it another way.

“All of us travel in a circle of like-minded people, and you’re always in that circle wherever you go.”

Then it struck me: Their circle is the globe.

And this adventure-less Bilbo says: More power to them.

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