By Nora Lowe
For many students, Mr. Gilbert’s Global 9 class not only connects students to other parts of the world in an educational sense, but in literal sense too! This is in part because of his friendship with a priest from Uganda named Simon. How this affiliation grew into a full-fledged Pen Pal project is an extraordinary story.
Mr. Gilbert was introduced to Simon through his nephew in the fall of 2016 on Thanksgiving. Upon discovering they were both educators, Simon and Mr. Gilbert formed a connection. Simon is actually a familiar face at BHHS, because Mr. Gilbert occasionally arranges for Simon to come in and speak of his experience living in Uganda.
Some background on Simon’s life and experiences is essential to understanding the profound impact that teaching us about his life has had. He was one of the only members of his village to have left Uganda, let alone go all the way to America. Recently, Simon was living in Yonkers. Early on, he couldn’t easily visit the high school because he didn’t know how to drive yet. In fact, Mr. Gilbert comments that “I actually helped Simon get his driver’s license, which is another story.” Before coming to America, Simon lived through a civil war raging in Uganda, coping with tribulations like economic hardships and near-death experiences that many students from Armonk have only encountered in movie theaters.
The objective of the Pen Pal program is to connect students at Byram Hills with the children from Simon’s school in a meaningful way. This exposes both BHHS and Simon’s students to the similarities, differences, and nuances between where we live. Mr. Gilbert shares that the inspiration for this program originated in the hope that “students could make a personal connection with someone from a different culture.” Furthermore, it is an eye opening experience because “kids from Byram Hills know that there are kids on the other side of the world that are taking an interest in them and vice versa.”
Callie Higgins, a freshman and member of Mr. Gilbert’s class, notes that “receiving a penpal letter can help students understand the life of someone their age who lives a different lifestyle.” This can be very important for students in Armonk, who do not typically get to learn about these topics. She continues that “Pen pals allow students to see similarities and differences between two cultures.”
Gabe Bogart, a BHHS sophomore and past participant in the program, shared that he “felt … connected. I enjoyed knowing that someone across an ocean in Africa was getting a letter and hearing what I had to say.”
There are some difficulties in maintaining this program. First of all, English is not the students’ first language, so some letters present ideas that have been somewhat lost in translation. Simon has also now returned to Uganda and it is difficult to contact him on a regular basis. During last year’s government shutdown, Simon’s visa application couldn’t be processed and he was effectively trapped in the United States, but now he has opted to go back to his village, especially to see his family (this is also why I was unable to contact Simon for a comment). Although Simon does have a cell phone, establishing a decent connection has proven troublesome.
Something unusual about the project is that initially the letters were not transported by the mail system, but rather Simon would shuttle them back and forth as he travelled. So now that Simon has returned to his village, Mr. Gilbert will have to mail the envelopes in one package. In addition to the letters, Mr. Gilbert launched a Donors Choose Project. In the first year of the program this provided “school supplies like pens and notebooks. What was unusual about that was Donors Choose fundraisers are usually geared towards helping underprivileged kids.” Mr. Gilbert, on the other hand, was able to “structure it in such a way where they collected money for the pen pal program.”
Ultimately, the most significant impact that the project can have on students is to allow them to peer through the infamous “Armonk Bubble”, and develop an understanding and empathy for people around the world. It has highlighted our similarities while also making us conscious of both subtle and profound differences. Morgan Aronsky, a Byram sophomore, notes that receiving her letter taught her “how education and society could differ drastically in another location, especially another continent.” The importance of establishing this connection cannot be overstated. Mr. Gilbert summarizes the essence of the project when he reflects that “the walls of the bubble are really thick, so if we can even get a crack in that wall, it’s awesome. But the walls are thick.” And what better place could there be to start than this?
Simon and his associates receiving the computer and projector Mr. Gilbert sent them.
A teacher using the new computer.
Students holding BHHS letter.