Columbia pupils get tastes, sights and sounds of foreign cultures


April 27, 1999|By John J. Snyder | John J. Snyder,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

INTERNATIONAL DAY at Phelps Luck Elementary School was a colorful, boisterous celebration of the cultures that make up America.

On Thursday, volunteer speakers visited classrooms to share stories, pictures and artifacts from Scotland, Guyana, Micronesia, the Ivory Coast and many other countries.

"The kids were ripe for imagination activities," said Mary Jane Sasser, who told folk tales and spoke about the function of folklore in Irish society. "They immersed themselves in the settings I put them in."

Sasser, the mother of Phelps Luck student government president Andrew, created the talk, "Irish Magic," specifically for the festival. She is director of theater at Hammond High School and in charge of stagecraft programs at River Hill High.

Steve Kramer, a network analyst, took time off from work to lecture on the history, culture and politics of national flags. His daughter Abby, 5, is a kindergarten pupil in Jodi Sacki's class.

Kramer became interested in "vexillology" -- the study of flags -- as a young man who couldn't afford to travel. Now he is a member of a group of more than 150 vexillologists representing 35 countries who communicate via Internet.

"I never knew there was so much history behind flags," said third-grade teacher Tammi D'Anthony, who looked on as Kramer quizzed her class. "One flag even represented two countries, Australia and Great Britain." The Australian flag includes the colors and design of the British Union Jack.

Most of the speakers were parents who volunteered to participate. Speakers included Larry Arrobo, Lily Bengfort, Ouanessa Boubsil, Jared Denhard. Steve Densmore, Tom Grobicki, Maria Martinez, Andrew Opoku, Jim Reiser, Gary and Gloria Serrao, Judith Todes, Bill Wheatley-Heckman and Bonnie Wylie.

Members of local organizations shared their experiences, including Ken and Eleanor Jennings from the African American Coalition of Howard County; Walter Rodriguez of the Foreign-born Information and Referral Network; Julie Shyrock, a native of Korea and proprietor of Victory Martial Arts, a business partner of Phelps Luck Elementary; Richard Rosenblatt, husband of first-grade teacher Randi Rosenblatt; and Howard County Public Library folk-storytellers Helen Beyers and Dione Mahoney.

Festivities continued into the evening, when the gym was decorated to resemble a village square. Almost 20 countries were represented on display tables that stood end-to-end around the room.

Children carried "passports" -- small blue booklets -- to be stamped as they visited each country. Most countries offered samples of a native food. Others had a craft for the children to try.

"I'm glad for this opportunity because people don't know much about my country," said Bengfort, legislative aide to state Sen. Christopher J. McCabe.

Bengfort had lectured about her native country, Guyana, during the day. She showed an attentive audience baskets, fans and colorful photos provided by the Guyanese Embassy.

In the evening, Bengfort, whose daughter Bethany is a fifth-grader at Phelps Luck, was serving bara from a steaming pot. Bara is a deep-fried delicacy made with spinach and split-pea flour mixed with garam marsala spices.

In the center of the room, a cluster of chairs became a place to gather with friends. Laughing and talking neighbors met newer school families just as they might have done in a village square.

On the cafeteria stage, music from around the world -- played by the popular duo Nada Brahma -- delighted an overflowing crowd.

Children and their parents clapped and swayed to the sounds of instruments such as the Australian dijiridoo and West Indian steel drums.

Several dance troupes performed, as did third-grade Phelps Luck pupil Pratibna Nagaraja in an exquisitely stylized solo Indian dance that earned thunderous applause.

Her performance was followed by one by a group from St. Theodore's Greek Orthodox Church in Beltsville and another from the Columbia School of Highland Dance.

Both performed complex and stirring dances.

The full-throttle energy of the Return to Gorree African Dance Company, a Senegalese group, will be talked about for days.

More than 20 dancers and djembe (drummers) brought the crowd to its feet to join in the Senegalese dances.

The event was organized by Krista Wheatley-Heckman, mother of fifth-grader Anni, first-grader Jeff and pre-kindergartner Shobha, all pupils at Phelps Luck.

Neighborly love

"Kisses and hugs are free today," exclaimed Louise Roche as she mingled with busy Christmas in April volunteers working at her family's house in Jeffers Hill on Saturday.

Louise is the loving wife of Bob Roche, a field coordinator for Catholic Relief Services who was struck by a car in December 1997. Bob, who is comatose, is being cared for in a Baltimore nursing facility.

The Roche family is looking forward to bringing him home after almost 1 1/2 years in care.

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