As an eighth grader, Eleanor Briana Molyneux ’04 went to Costa Rica with her mother—and was thrown into the Spanish-speaking world. In this latest edition of our alumni interview series, Ms. Molyneux explains how she went from her Williston Northampton experience to life in Mexico City: teaching middle schoolers, founding a polo school, and being a female athlete in a country where such roles are more surprising than common.
“I believe that one of Williston’s strengths is that is caters to a very diverse student body,” she explains, “and offers classes and extracurricular activities that support students’ development no matter where they are coming from or where they are going.”
How did a girl from Worthington, Massachusetts end up teaching in Mexico City?
Well, it’s true that I grew up in the complete middle of the woods where my parents once lived in a tipi, and now I live where there are more people on my city block that there were in my entire hometown. The journey that took me from Worthington, Massachusetts all the way here to Mexico City all started with a trip to Costa Rica in my eighth grade year. My mom, Penny ’84, accepted a study abroad project there, and bravely picked me up and moved us there for six months. I had never even heard the Spanish language before arriving and starting school in our little jungle community of Monteverde, but after that trip, I was hooked on travel and the Spanish language.
I entered Williston and started taking Spanish classes my freshman year—and I credit my excellent instruction at Williston for giving me the foundation I needed to allow me to eventually live and work bilingually. I traveled throughout my years at Williston, and then spent a summer on Martha’s Vineyard teaching horseback riding lessons, which is where I discovered a passion for teaching.
I majored in psychology and education at Middlebury, and kept up the traveling and teaching while working on those degrees. After graduating and teaching at in international boarding school in Connecticut for three years, I had the opportunity to follow my brother Matt’s example and lead a student group on an environmental service trip in the Ecuadorian Amazon, and this experience strengthened my love of travel and Spanish.
After three years of teaching in Connecticut, I decided to spin the globe and try teaching at a new international school, and things worked out for me to take a fourth grade position at the American School Foundation in Mexico City. It was an interesting experience to pack a suitcase for a city I’d never been to before, and I admit that the first time I checked out the greater metropolitan area on Google Maps, I could not begin to imagine what to expect from this super-city of over 20 million people.
Even though there have been some rocky stretches while shifting from farm life to city life, it’s turned out to be a fabulous adventure overall!
How did it come about to start a polo school?
Polo School Mexico came about completely out of the blue. After two years of teaching fourth grade in Mexico City, I was missing the Western Massachusetts lifestyle of open spaces and green grass a bit. A friend who has polo horses invited me out to ride at on of Mexico’s premier polo grounds, Club de Polo Tecamac. Even though I’d ridden horses my whole life back in Worthington, I’d rarely seen anyone play polo, which the oldest team sport in the world. When we first drove up to the polo ground, I was quite unfamiliar with the culture surrounding the “king of sports, sport of kings”.
I got on my horse and rode off around the grounds, and then one of the professionals from the club, who I later learned was Miguel Gomez de Parada, one of the country’s top players with over 20 years of international and world cup experience, came riding up to me and asked what I was doing riding around instead of playing polo. Right then Miguel offered to teach me my first polo lesson, and the sport became an instant addiction from the first time I successfully hit the ball.
Within a week, Miguel and I pooled our talents and formally launched Polo School Mexico, where I currently teach all levels of equitation and introductory polo, and he coaches the high-level players. We have 30 horses and about 30 students at the moment, and every day I learn something new not only about the sport, but about how to develop a business in Mexico.
As a foreigner and a female, was it hard to assimilate yourself into the Mexican polo world?
Being foreign, and being a girl, are both interesting facets to life in Mexico City. Because I speak Spanish, and because I teach fourth grade at a school affiliated with the American embassy, my role as an elementary teacher is very comfortable, as there is a lot of leeway for those of us along who fall along the North American cultural spectrum.
In general, I have found that if you are outgoing, have a sense of humor, and show interest in the local culture, the general attitude towards foreigners in Mexico City is very positive. However, I do notice that when I step off of the American School Foundation campus and into the Mexican arenas for business and sports, being foreign isn’t an issue, but being a girl certainly feels different than it did growing up in New England.
At Williston, if I wanted to speak up in class and be share my opinion, I was heard and respected. If I was carrying my soccer bag, it was assumed that I was an athlete, not the water girl. In the world of Mexico and in Polo, the “sport of kings” (not “queens”), I have to work harder than I had been used to in order to feel like my ideas have been acknowledged.
Entering the business world, which is very different from entering my elementary school classroom, has been the first time that I’ve felt intimidated to say what I believe, due to a lingering level of machismo that still exists among many of my business contacts and teammates. These issues aren’t at all unique to Mexico City, but it is interesting to experience the feeling of having somebody doubt your authority or validity, and watch them look to your male business partner for direction on whether or not your opinion is valid or not.
When it comes to being an athlete, when I arrive to a polo match, people are often surprised when I start putting my gear on, since they assume I’m there just to watch the boys play. I’ve even had an adult male who was taking a lesson with me tell me he was frustrated because he felt like he was “playing and hitting like a girl”!
I love Mexico and I love the sport of polo, and instead of getting frustrated when I encounter others’ diminished expectations for me as a girl, I instead seek out ways to promote women in business and in sports, with the hope that change will come about. I am pleased to report that various big magazines and North American sponsors in Mexico have quickly gotten behind me and Polo School Mexico to help launch women in business and in sports into the public eye—and I hope to see this trend continue!
What is your funniest experience from playing polo?
My funniest experience playing polo happened due to a Spanish-English vocabulary mix-up right when I started learning to play. I am left-handed, but the rules of polo require all players to hold the mallet in their right hand, which took me a while to get used to. I was very nervous when I came to my very first group practices, and while I was fumbling to make excuses for myself to my teammates, instead of telling them I was “surda”, a lefty, I told them all I was “sorda”, which means deaf. I proceeded made the same vocabulary mistake for about two weeks, telling everyone it was hard for me to hold the mallet and hit the ball because I was “deaf”. You can imagine what kind of on-field communication was (or wasn’t!) happening with Ellie the “deaf” polo player for a few weeks, until a bilingual teammate kindly corrected me, and explained to everyone else that not only was I a lefty, I was a second-language learner.
What went through your mind the first time you played in a competitive polo match?
My first competitive polo matches were pretty terrifying. Polo is arguably the fastest and most dangerous sport you can play.
Imagine: two teams of four line up to start the match on a giant grass pitch the size of eight soccer fields. The ball is throw in, and immediately there is a clamor of hooves, whips, spurs, and mallets as eight riders purposefully knock their horses and bodies into each other, smashing the ball all over the field at over 100 mph.
Now, if you are a beginner in a sport like soccer, and you get out on the field in a high-level game, you’re just going to play poorly, and you won’t be able to help your team very much. In polo, if you enter a high-level match and you don’t know what you’re doing player, you can make one mistake and die—no joke (sorry, Mom, for not sticking with ballet). If you can picture the aftermath of a racehorse running into you head on, you can understand why you need to know the rules and be aware at all times during the game.
Although the game is very risky, when you play the game right, it becomes a beautiful experience of communication with your horse, your teammates, and with yourself. In my first match, I swear, I was thinking “did you call your family today and tell them you love them, just in case?”, because there’s always a chance for things to go wrong. The best player in the history of the sport, Carlos Gracida, died last year in a freak accident, and if it can happen to a legend, it can happen to anybody. You truly have to keep 100 things at mind in at once to keep yourself, your teammates, and your horse safe while going for the ball.
Like any sport, polo is all about practice and good coaching, and thankfully I have time for both. Polo is a sport full of international camaraderie, and already I’ve been invited to play around Mexico and in Colombia, India, and Spain. I’m hoping to continue to develop my game to be able to compete effectively in the years to come while also developing international exchange programs to allow more players to come in and out of Mexico while strengthening the sport overall.
What is it like to teach fourth graders in Mexico City? Any differences to teaching in the US?
Teaching fourth grade in Mexico is one of those examples of how when you love your job, you don’t actually work a day in your life. I absolutely loved teaching the Mexican students who came to the boarding school I used to teach at in the states, and having a classroom of 24 9-10 year-olds in Mexico is a non-stop joy. In many ways, fourth graders here are similar to fourth or fifth graders in the USA: they are enthusiastic sponges who want to get their hands dirty and their curiosities fulfilled. They want to be loved and heard, just like everybody else.
Mexican families who attend my school tend to be very loving in their words and actions, so hugs, endearing nicknames, and then more hugs again are part of the daily classroom routine. It’s always a blast working in a bilingual environment, and it adds to the humor and richness of the classroom when we are stumbling over cultural and linguistic barriers in our quest for mutual understanding.
One major difference that I have noticed between the teaching in the USA and in Mexico has to do with the expectations around NOISE! Parents will answer their cell phones during a school meeting and talk through my parents’ night presentation without a second thought, and while at first I thought it was disrespectful, I now see that it is relatively common. When kids come in and are excessively noisy by my USA standards, I understand why quieting down is not necessarily the norm for them, given the cultural model.
The hardest part about teaching in Mexico City has been that despite my affluent students’ worldly experiences, they have limited exposure to outdoor play and the natural world. I have to augment my curriculum substantially to help them connect their own lives to lessons about about sharing the planet’s resources, making responsible consumption choices, and conserving biodiversity, because they don’t have much contact with these topics within such a big city. Thankfully, we have space for class gardens and internet-based ways to connect ourselves to the world beyond Mexico City, and with these resources, I see my students developing a more holistic understanding of global issues.
What is your favorite memory from your days at Williston?
I have MANY cherished memories from my time at Williston. While having dinner with two former classmates, Chris Maller Jr. and Axel Cosio, in Playa del Carmen a few weeks ago, we all got talking about how well the school served each of us in different ways.
I believe that one of Williston’s strengths is that is caters to a very diverse student body and offers classes and extracurricular activities that support students’ development no matter where they are coming from or where they are going. A serious highlight from my years at Williston was winning the soccer championship in our final season, which was a great accomplishment for my team and coaches. We had some pretty excellent cheerleaders for those big games, and I thank the ringleaders, including Josh Kauffman and Brian Bolte, for getting those sideline groups together.
I remember being very proud to receive the AP Bio award around graduation, because I have a deep passion for science, and it felt good to know that my strengths and interests were helping me to make real progress in academics (I went on to teach AP bio for two summers and am working with the Mexican government on school greening projects—thanks, Mr. Ketchum!).
Overall, I still feel that the friendships I made were one of Williston’s greatest gifts to me. High school is inevitably a weird time for many students, and I credit my friends and my teachers for being the levers of a pinball machine that kept bouncing me forward in a positive direction. Sitting on a porch swing last summer and chatting over memories with Jeff Wilga Jr. and getting to call Katie Coffey to wish her congratulations on her recent engagement are things that have brought me great happiness, and I am grateful for the experiences and connections that have come from my years at Williston.
Why did you go into teaching?
I initially got into teaching as a horseback-riding instructor, and then I stayed teaching because the classroom gives me the perfect venue to exercise my passions for science education, environmental conservation, and global transformation through respectful cooperation. It is hard work to go out alone and take on the global issues of today, and while I am not able to solve the world’s problems solely as an individual, helping students develop their own potentials to make change is a powerful way to equip the world with more and more problem-solvers that, in a collective effort, can work together to have an impact.
I consistently teach from an inquiry-based perspective within the framework of AWARE-ABLE-ACT; by helping make students aware of the world around them and equipping them with skills and systems they need to be able to be the best global citizens they can be, they naturally take actions that benefit the world community. I am endlessly optimistic that education, like that which I experienced at Williston, is the key to unlocking the human potential for making the world a better place, which I’m confident is what it’s all about in the end.