viernes, 17 de octubre de 2008

Native Speaker

I have a really serious case of tartingles this morning. “Tartingles” – a term coined by a friend of mine – is embarrassment felt for another person. This morning that person is Dani, a well-dressed young woman from Kansas. She wears all black except for a green, blue, and purple scarf; her hair recalls the style of Uncle Jesse from Full House. She is dressed in her job interview best because no one has told her that, as a native English speaker, she could show up in ripped jeans with an exposed thong and a marijuana leaf t-shirt and still get the job. The fact that she speaks English and wears clothes makes this guest teaching a mere formality.

I sit in the back and watch her teach my fifth graders. As the person she will replace, I am ostensibly here to evaluate whether or not she is a capable, qualified candidate. It's a farce. I know that unless she kills a student – or I tell her the awful truth – she'll be doing my job on Monday. I wonder if I have a moral obligation to say to Dani, “Run for your life! Save yourself!” Do I run back into the burning building for her? I'm not a firefighter. If the school can't replace me by Monday, will they return my passport? (The school's lawyers have been in possession of my passport, visa, and birth certificate for over a month as they try to make me a legal resident.) Which one of us do I save?

Should I tell her that we have no text books, no paper, and no dry erase markers because doing without them means more profit for the owners? Errr... I mean because we're a “green” school. Should I tell her that, even though we are an environmentally and financially conscious school, the classrooms are encouraged to make their Halloween decorations as obscenely extravagant as possible because the owners have declared a contest and the best class wins a trip to Six Flags? Should I calculate how many dry erase markers could be purchased for the price of the brand new iPhone that will be given to the teacher who wins “best costume”?

Dani teaches her trial class on the “global village” and fills the students with facts and figures regarding the world's population. To check the students' English counting ability, she writes the number one on the white board and points to it. “One!” Cries the class. Dani writes a ten and the voices call “Ten!” She writes again. “One hundred!” And again. “One thousand!” The students count all the way to one hundred million, at which point Dani pauses. “Or” she explains, “another way to say that in English is one billion.” She writes “one billion” next to 100,000,000.

I try to catch the eye of one of the two other teachers in the room. Did they hear that? Do they see the board? Am I making this up? No one says anything. I feel the onset of tartingles. Dani asks the class if anyone knows the population of the world. No one does. The guesses range from a few thousand to incredible invented numbers. Then the boy who waits to be called on when he raises his hand – which is why I still don't know his name – guesses six hundred million. Dani looks amazed. “Yes! Six hundred million... or six billion. Wow! Did you know that or was it just a good guess?” Now I look amazed.

Six billion and six hundred million are not the same number! Are you sure? Completely, one hundred percent sure? Yes, of course I'm sure. She sounds so confident though. And she's said it twice. I can't believe I'm even thinking about this. Am I going crazy? Maybe this is an act. Maybe she's not a real teaching candidate. Maybe the school is trying to make me feel so badly about abandoning the students to this new teacher that I'll stay.

Six hundred million people in the world? I've seen six hundred million people since breakfast. That's like half the population of Mexico City, right? As if reading my mind, Dani asks the kids if they know the population of Mexico City. For eleven year olds estimating the population of their home town, the students make surprisingly poor guesses. None, however, miss the mark as badly as Dani, who responds, “Nope. Good guesses, but the population of Mexico City is actually twenty-five thousand.” Twenty-five thousand? Greenfield, Massachusetts has nearly twenty-five thousand people. Mexico city has twenty-five million. I am so embarrassed for her I feel myself blush.

Do I interrupt to correct her? She would be mortified. She already looks nervous. Her back is touching the white board; her hands move like babies' feet the first time they try to support weight. But what if the students are actually paying attention? They appear mildly alert. What if this is the one piece of information they remember from my class? I see Sebastian climbing into his Hummer this afternoon and proudly showing off his new knowledge, “Did you know that twenty-five thousand of the six hundred million people in the world live in Mexico City?!” The chauffeur laughs so hard that he loses control of the recreational tank and causes a sixteen car pile-up in the school's parking lot. Various children are killed, and when the chauffeur explains to the authorities what caused the accident, they release him and charge me with involuntary manslaughter. The schools' lawyers represent me and agree to a plea bargain of ten years house arrest and community service, which I will serve by working unpaid for the school.

Back in reality, the class is ending and I am standing up. There is Sebastian, obnoxious as ever and wonderfully alive. In the hallway, Mary Carmen – the supervisor of English instruction – touches my elbow to have a word with me. “What did you think? Do you think Dani can handle them?” No, of course not. Nobody can. But if she thinks she can, then hire her quickly before she knows any better. She might be the perfect person for this job. She seems to have some sort of delusional super power that allows her to magically reduce massive numbers by moving decimal points. Perhaps she looks at a classroom of twenty-five fifth graders and sees only two and a half. I respond to Mary Carmen with a question, “What does she think?” I think that the school will hire her no matter what I say and no matter what Dani says – as long as she says it in English.

lunes, 13 de octubre de 2008

Goodbye, Shepherd's Pie!

I hate shepherd's pie. I have always hated shepherd's pie. It's like the radio love songs say, “I've loved you forever. I loved you before I met you. I loved you before the beginning of time.” Just replace “loved” with “hated” and “you” with “shepherd's pie”. These pop music sentiments may seem impossible - outrageous hyperbole inspired by too many nights alone with too much to drink - but in the case of my aversion to shepherd's pie, I suspect there may be an actual genetic predisposition. They say that human beings crave sugar, salt, and fat because they have been scarce for much of our evolutionary history. Thus, in order to ensure that we eat them at every opportunity, our taste buds tell us that things like Ben & Jerry's, cheesecake, and chocolate covered pretzels are delicious. My forebears lived primarily in the British Isles, where shepherd's pie (at least the meat and potatoes part) was so abundant that my body weight is probably 75% water and 25% shepherd's pie. No wonder my taste buds tell me not to eat it. Given my genetic history, eating shepherd's pie in this lifetime would be like eating another turkey dinner the day after Thanksgiving.

Various people have tried to convince me that I should like shepherd's pie. Do you like ground beef? Yes. Do you like potatoes? Yes. Do you like corn? Yes. So what is there not to like? They're all things you eat. I like ground beef in hamburgers. I like potatoes as french fries. And I like corn on the cob. That doesn't mean that if you mix them all together I will like it. Give it a chance. Don't say you don't like it before you've even tried it. Of course you're going to hate it if you expect to hate it.

I wanted to give this beast a fair chance. I thought that if I scraped off one of the layers, the remaining two might taste better. Unfortunately, meat and potatoes taste like shepherd's pie without the corn. Meat and corn taste like shepherd's pie without the potatoes. And corn and potatoes taste like shepherd's pie without the meat. Trying to solve the problem of shepherd's pie with meat, potatoes, and corn does not work. As Einstein warned, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” The solution to shepherd's pie is not a little more meat, a little less corn, or a layer of ketchup. The solution might be shrimp, mushrooms, and tomatoes in a curry coconut milk sauce over pasta. The solution might be a salad of spinach leaves, walnuts, bits of apple, and dried cranberries.

The meat, corn, and potatoes all begged me to give their dish another chance. What if we make it with fresh corn instead of canned? We'll serve it with a “luna llena” stout from Beer Factory. It's delicious with a little bit of grated cheese sprinkled on top. Have you tried eating it with a spoon instead of a fork? What if you only had to eat it once a week? And what if you only had to eat half as much? And what if you ate it under a tent with fried dough for dessert? It would be like a carnival! You could wear a costume, whatever kind of costume you want. And we'll pay you to do all of this. How much do you want? We just want you to be happy and tell everyone how much you love shepherd's pie!

No, no, no! Don't you get it? I hate shepherd's pie. Call it whatever you want. Dress it up however you like. Tell me why I should like it, why I need to like it, why even if I don't like it that's actually a good thing because it will make me a stronger person. Give me less to make it more palatable and try to wash it down with beer and cash. It's still shepherd's pie. And I'm not eating another bite. I am old enough to know how to feed myself. I quit shepherd's pie.

Also, shepherd's pie = my job.

domingo, 5 de octubre de 2008

The Circus

Hey, Michael, you wanna hear a joke? I don't know. Is it a good one? Are you asking whether or not I'm a funny guy? Yes, of course, it's a good one. Ok, then, I could definitely use a laugh. What do you call a place where wild animals are tamed under a tent? Oh, I should know this. I'm pretty sure I've heard this one before. The circus is the obvious answer but that wouldn't be funny. It's not the circus, is it? Is that your guess? No, that's not my guess. I was just asking. Well, what's your guess? A place where wild animals are tamed under a tent? I give up. What is it? English class. Oh, ha ha ha, I get it. Very funny. English class. Because I teach under a tent and the students are like wild animals. Good one. A joke is like a magic trick. Trying to explain it ruins it. That joke was not at all like a magic trick.

I do teach under a tent now. Or I will starting on Monday. This is the result of a failed attempt to quit my job. When I walked into Mary's office on Wednesday, it was to be for the last time. Had I needed any reminders of my dissatisfaction, they were all around me. The white office looked half-finished, half-moved-into, the hotel room equivalent of an office. An improv teacher once told me, “Never play in a white room. It's boring and lifeless. You have to create a space the audience can see.” In this case, the audience would have seen nothing but me and Mary squatting to create the illusion of chairs, whose white color – providing no contrast against the white floor, white walls, white desk between us, and white iMac upon the desk – rendered them invisible.

The only visible objects then were the tall case, like a grandfather clock with a glass door, which protects the Mexican flag within, and the school mascot – a stuffed, black Scottish terrier floating in midair. It was in this pretend office that I sat down to quit my pretend job. I had been hired to teach acting. I had assumed that meant drama, not teaching literature without books. I could not, however, accuse Mary of lying; my job was certainly acting. And I had grown tired of it.

Days before, in a full faculty meeting, Mary stood and announced that she did not intend to scold us – a clear sign that we were about to be scolded. “I am deeply concerned. We are only five weeks into the school year and we have already lost four students. This reflects poorly on our teachers. Your attitude, commitment, and professionalism are essential to our success. It is difficult to have parents come into my office and say I sold them a school that doesn't exist.” A school that doesn't exist. I had to wonder whether this was our fault for not living in her fantasy, or her fault for not living in reality. Who has the courage to tell the emperor that he is, in fact, naked?

The entire school is naked. And when the faculty gathered to watch the slideshow of a visit to another private school in Mexico City, I could clearly imagine the moment when Adam and Eve looked at themselves and realized, “Hey! We're not wearing anything!” This other school was the apple. Its beauty eclipsed and embarrassed us, made us suddenly self-conscious. Stunning artwork covered everything. An enormous purple dragon crept from the ceiling down one of the walls. And endless vine snaked its way across the halls, and from it sprang drawings of characters from the literature the students read in real books. The walls were hidden behind beautifully decorated bulletin boards. An awed teacher raised her hand and asked, “Can we have bulletin boards like that?” To which another – not at all under her breath – turned around and replied, “What would you put on it? We don't have any paper!”

In the center of the playground – a small, fenced-in square covered in astroturf – stood a tree. “Oh! The tree!” Someone gasped. The auditorium gilled with murmurs of wonder. “The tree!” It was the scene in “Wall-E” where the robot returns to the spaceship with a sprout growing in a boot that he discovered on the otherwise dead planet Earth. This is how disconnected my school is from the planet it aims to save. No wonder it's so hard to separate the recycling. It is fall in New England, and here I am working at a school where a photo of a tree that looks like a houseplant makes a room full of teachers gurgle and coo like babies. If only we had a tree!

This is the life I was more than ready to leave behind when I walked into the pretend office. “I don't want to do this,” I told Mary. I chose my language carefully – not “I can't do this” because I didn't want to be convinced otherwise. It's hard to argue with “I don't want to.” Not impossible, though, as Mary proved by interrupting me to ask, “What can we do? How can we make this work? Tell me what would make the situation better.” I had not even yet told her what was wrong with the situation. Mary's m.o. is to skip information gathering and go straight to problem solving – the old “measure once, cut twice” approach. This is perhaps why I found myself squatting over that imaginary chair for the second time in eight days. Solutions that don't bother to understand the problem tend to be short-lived and moving me from 8th grade to 2nd and 3rd (in addition to 4th, 5th, and 6th) had been one of those solutions.

“Please don't try to fix my problem before you understand it,” I said. Would I have spoken so boldly if I weren't so certain of my departure? “There's nothing wrong with what you're doing” – it's important to balance boldness with restraint – “but my vision and your vision...” I made that gesture of hands passing from opposite directions without meeting. “For me, relationship, knowing the kids, is fundamental to good education. I teach thirteen groups of twenty-five students once a week each. It'll be Christmas before I even know all their names.” This was only one of the many reasons I was quitting and I chose it as my opener because it seemed the least disputable. I had expressed a fact and my personal opinion. Mary's brow furrowed as much as possible given how taut the slick, black bun pulled it, and her eyes narrowed like bird of prey ready to dive. “Now wait a minute.” She said this is the voice that she calls “not scolding”. “There isn't any class larger than twenty-three.”

My piece of evidence had been defeated, invalidated, thrown out. The fact that trying to quit felt more like a legal proceeding than a conversation only strengthened my conviction to do so. Mary then used that most odious of all tactics; she played the “when I was your age”/“you don't know how good you've got it card” card. “I routinely taught classes of fifty or more students. So believe me when I say that these are small classes.” I told her of a school where I taught classes of ten to fifteen students – a school I love but never dreamed would attain the near-utopia status it now enjoys in my delusional reminiscing.

Then Mary did something I had thought impossible. She suggested that we split the classes in half. I could work with eleven or twelve students for forty minutes instead of twenty-five for eighty minutes. And I could do whatever I wanted. “It doesn't have to be literature,” she said. “What matters to me is that they speak English with a native speaker. That's it.” This change would drastically improve my life but win me no friends with the colleagues who would now be forced to do something with the other half of the class. “Don't worry,” Mary began with her favorite words. “We'll say it was my idea. We'll call it differentiation.”

“Differentiation” is the buzz word that permeates the school's pedagogical jargon. While it refers in theory to a complex educational model, it seems to function in practice as a convenient justification for any decision. And because “differentiation” is such a sacred cow, arguing against any decision based on it could be grounds for immediate dismissal.

It was at precisely this moment that I realized how badly Mary wanted or needed me to stay. And though there was a voice in my head, which I'll call “integrity”, that complained, I decided it was also in my best interest to stay. One problem remained: where to teach my class. There is not one empty classroom or space in the entire school. Mary suggested various hallways – the one outside her office, the one across from the art room. I refused. She suggested dividing the classes but keeping all the students in the same room. Again I refused.

For a moment it seemed that she was out of ideas and I would have to quit after-all. And then she suggested the tent. We could have class out in the playground under a tent to protect us from the sun. (Remember that there are no trees.) “I know just the corner,” she said. “No one ever goes there. And it's far enough away from the basketball courts that it should be pretty quiet.” She watched me expectantly. “If the owners don't approve the expense, I'll buy it myself this weekend. So what do you say?” I say when you're living in the circus, it makes sense to work under a tent.

martes, 23 de septiembre de 2008

Psycho Dancer

For two weeks I’ve been anxiously waiting to write an entry called “Psycho Dancer” - ever since I first stumbled upon the course “psicodanza” on the university website. The mere title of the course intrigued me so deeply that I paid my $160 for the semester (an unbelievable bargain by U.S. standards, right?) without any further information. There was no description of the class, no bio of the professor, no testimonials from past students. Just the one word: psicodanza - apparently a registered trademark. Was that really necessary I wonder? Registered trademark? Is there a lot of competition for that name? I haven’t been able to tell anyone about it with a straight face. And frankly I bet the name scares off way more people than it attracts. Psico + danza = the opportunity to delve into painful, embarrassing, and scary parts of ourselves + the possibility to look utterly foolish while doing it. That’s not my perspective, of course. To me, psico + danza = jumping, screaming, and hitting the floor (while imaging one of my co-workers), and calling it dance. That’s what I was hoping for anyway.

The class was partly what I had imagined. I did scream and hit the floor. However, the ratio of "psico" to "danza" was pretty high. We cooperatively recreated a supernova explosion and individually re-enacted our births while the rest of the group sat in a circle and watched. And the teacher talked and told us what she saw. She critiqued our births, told one student she was trying too hard and another that she wasn’t trying hard enough. I guess it’s a good thing that our mothers did most of the work for us or we’d all still be stuck in wombs somewhere. It’s no wonder really that we struggled so much in birthing ourselves. If I have a choice between the womb and a makeshift dance floor in a rundown gym in one of the most polluted cities in the world, I’m choosing the womb. Better get another dancer to play doctor and drag me out of here because I’m not coming willingly.

Julia, the teacher, claims to be eighty years old, and, while her physical appearance makes the claim seem dubious, her resume is so long that, if she’s only eighty, she can’t have slept a night in her life or ever taken a vacation or even once called in sick. The resume reading was a highlight of the class. Julia, presumably to preserve her modesty, did not read the two page document herself but rather passed it to the woman to her left. The woman in the brown corduroy zip-up onesie (which was a tail short of a halloween costume and footies short of pajamas) delivered the information with a reverence and solemn intensity that made me feel underdressed in my little blue shorts and my “May the Forest Be With You” t-shirt. The proceedings were interrupted often by Julia cutting across her sycophant to correct a typo or a mispronunciation, which were frequent as Julia has worked with some of the greatest unpronounceable names in the world.

Julia then asked us to introduce ourselves, which immediately divided the room into two categories: those for whom a self-introduction would suffice, and Julia. It went something like this: we told her who we think we are and then she told us who she thinks we are. My introduction was too short, insufficient. “How are you feeling right now? A bit of nostalgia? It looks like you might be missing home, no? Is this your first time outside your country?” She asked all at once. “Oh no,” I answered. Like a sandwich that needed to be cut in halves if not quarters, her question was too big to even know where to begin, but I knew that the answer was basically, in a word, “no”. “I lived in Santiago de Chile for five months and I’ve spent much of this year traveling in Spain, Chile, and Peru before coming here.” She needed to know more before she could make her proclamation, her decision, her diagnosis.

“And what did you do in Spain?” I had noticed the golden crucifix around her neck, so I took a smug pause to build suspense for an answer I expected would please her, “I walked for two weeks.” I watched a smile form and let her have the satisfaction of saying, “ah, el Camino de Santiago.” I nodded. Still she asked, “And what did you do in Chile?” Given that I had lived there, I thought this needed no explanation. “Well, I have friends there.” With the exasperation of explaining something incredibly obvious to a child, she said, “yes, but what did you do there? How did you fill the hours of the day?” I tried again, “I wrote.” That was the answer. “Ah, you’re a writer.” She said it as if she had been the one who had known this all along and was, in fact, telling me.

“Yes,” I said. “I’m a writer. Not a published writer yet.” She wanted to know what I write. “I write about my life.” It sounded awful, too small, too self-interested. “I mean, I write about life, from my perspective.” Ah, that’s better. All the difference in the world. Life from my perspective. I loved the sound of that. I was busy turning the phrase over in my head to make sure it was as brilliant as it first seemed, and to store it for later use, when Julia interrupted my self-satisfaction by declaring, “You think ‘I’m young, I’m good looking, I’m writing.’ Do it. Write something already. What are you waiting for? To be eighty?” I broke like a dam. My self-importance spilled onto the floor around me, leaving behind nothing but a red face. Julia asked me about my blushing. I blushed so many times during the three hour class that she began to call me “my red-faced friend”. It was endearing in a way but also a vicious cycle because I blushed every time she said it. By the end of the class, my body felt great but I had developed a headache from all the blood coming and going.

I’m afraid that in my attempt to exploit the humor in the situation I may be giving the impression that psicodanza is dreadful. Yes, there were uncomfortable moments, frustrating moments, and “you want me to do what?!” moments. But I actually enjoyed it. If I try not to label the emotions or experiences as “good” or “bad”, and instead simply ask myself whether I felt more or less alive at the end of the class than I did at the beginning, the answer is clearly more alive at the end. I’ve been complaining and blaming a lot recently, and - as recently as Wednesday - checking for the price of a one-way ticket out of Mexico. The fantasy of going home appeals because Mexico is hard and I like home, and because fantasy is, well, fantasy. The home of my daydreams is not so much better because it’s not here but because I’m not there. To break the power of the fantasy, I now consciously choose to be here every morning. I can choose. I could leave tomorrow if I wanted to. So I let myself choose. Not fantasy but a real choice. Do I want to be here today? If the answer is yes, then I can’t very well complain about being here, can I? I’m not a victim; I’m here of my own free will. I wasn’t dragged out of the womb and onto the floor of the Mexico City airport. I signed up for this psycho dance.

domingo, 14 de septiembre de 2008

Don't Worry

At 12:12 pm on July 21st, I received the e-mail that confirmed my hiring and my subsequent move to Mexico. At 12:13 I began a daunting “to do” list of everything that would need to happen before my flight on August 24th. I’d need to sell my Subaru, cancel my cell phone service, get out of jury duty on December 17th, purchase international health insurance, plan a 7th & 8th grade drama curriculum from scratch, find a place to live in Mexico City, purchase plane tickets, obtain an FM3 work visa, say goodbye to friends and family, pack my life, and then the scary part: do all the stuff that I didn’t even know to put on the list. It was the vast expanse of unknown that really worried me. My “to do” list was Columbus’ map to India.

I expressed these concerns in an e-mail, which I hoped would come off as proactive and professional, rather than paranoid. “Mary” (to protect the true identity of my boss) answered my 463 word missive with a mere 86. Apparently I had come off closer to paranoid because the gist of the message was don’t worry; “I have lots of work to do before the teachers training week start, but do not worry I have asked the Kindergarden Headteacher to look for an apartment near the school,and tomorrow I will ask our lawyer about the visa and the contract.” This quickly became the overriding tone of our online communication. On July 23rd, “I forgot to tell you that someone will be at the airport, don't worry.” On July 30th, “I have asked our lawyer, he says you can come to México,using a tourist visa,and here, the school would do what it is necessary. Do not worry. We are looking for the apartment.” On August 14th, “Do not worry, we had to do some changes due a teacher who resigned. As soon as you arrived, we´ll let you know, exactly, which grades you´ll be teaching.”

Being told “not to worry” again and again and again produced quite the opposite effect. In fact, her relentless insistence that I not worry served as my first clue that I ought to be very worried indeed. As if the complete denial of worry weren’t enough to freak me out, there was the news that a teacher had resigned before the start of classes, and that I could no longer cling to even the illusion of an idea of what I might be teaching. What if I got to Mexico and the school had not found me an apartment? What if they asked me to teach quantum physics in Spanish? What if I too wanted to resign after one week? What if I packed in such a hurry that I forgot all of my pants? There were so many “what ifs”, so many disastrous futures to imagine, so many ways to be unprepared. So I worried. And a little validation would have been nice. Where was the e-mail that said, “You should be worried. Your worry tells me that you understand the magnitude of the challenge you are undertaking. Your anxiety speaks highly of your sanity. Clearly you take your responsibility as an educator seriously. In fact, that’s why we hired you.” I never received that e-mail.

Instead, my worries have been validated by my experience. The school has not put me an ideal position for success. We don't have or use textbooks because text books are the old paradigm, which promotes top-down knowledge and rote memorization. We don't have photocopies because it's a green school. There is one photocopier in the library which I can use, if I can find paper. To discourage photocopying, the paper is kept locked in an office on another floor on the other side of the building where one must first stun the troll who stands guard, then whistle the Mexican national anthem - perfectly pitched - to open the door, then present a requisition signed by the Secretary of the Environment and Natural Resources. So without textbooks, without photocopies, we've got the computers. The MacBooks are our primary (and only) pedagogical tool. And if the system were fully operational, that might be enough.

Unfortunately, students - and their parents - demanded that they receive their computers immediately; preparedness be damned. One day, when “Remote Desktop” is ready, we will be able to monitor the use of the computers in the classroom and efficiently deliver assignments and educational resources. In the meantime, I spend most of my time and energy asking the students to close the computers, remove their headphones, and look this way, please. If I’m lucky enough to find a dry erase marker, whose scarcity makes paper seem abundant by comparison, I write a note on the board, “Class will begin when your computers are closed”, and I wait.

Frustrated, I wrote an e-mail to Mary. I bemoaned the lack of foresight required to distribute computers before having any means to put them to productive use. And she told me, “Don’t worry.” Don’t worry? I’m not worried. I am upset. Worry is what I felt a month ago when I lived in an imagined hell. Now I walk into a very real classroom, where the only things imaginary are paper, makers, and the much heralded “platform”, which will convert these sleek, white weapons of distraction into laboratories of self-discovery (in the words of a co-worker, “so that the monitor is no longer just a monitor but a mirror that reflects how each student thinks.”) Somebody please pinch me because I seem to be stuck in Steve Jobs’ wet dream. But maybe I should have more faith in the school. All of the worries that afflicted me a month ago were quickly resolved. They did meet me at the airport, they did find me an apartment, and they did inform me which grades I’d be teaching on my very first day at school. So why should I doubt that a month from now, I’ll be able to teach something?

lunes, 8 de septiembre de 2008

Independence Day

Why do we celebrate Independence Day? The cynical - ok, very cynical - answer is that we love beer, burgers, and sales events. Have you ever noticed the size of the flags flown by car dealerships? If it weren’t illegal for the star-spangled banner to brush the ground, you could drape one of them over a Hummer and make it disappear. In fact, this might be the perfect celebration of America: buy a Hummer on credit, cover it with an enormous flag, and drive it blindly into traffic - daring everything to get out of your way. Sometimes, with our vision obstructed by the stars and stripes covering our windshield, we forget that we USers are not the only Americans. The Americans of the United States of Mexico celebrate their independence on September 16th, and, as I walked to school today, I passed a luxury car dealership and discovered how very much we have in common. The showroom was full of Hummers and Cadillac Escalades wearing enormous sombreros with the words “Viva Mexico” painted in red across the brims. Apparently, buying American cars is patriotic in Mexico too. Somehow this doesn’t make me feel any closer to home.

And home is, for me, central to Independence Day. I have never celebrated the fourth of July by imaging all the ways my life would be worse if I were a subject of the British Empire, instead of a citizen of the United States. But I do try often - and not only on the fourth of July - to remember all the reasons for which I am grateful to call my country home. Twelve days ago I unpacked my suitcases in this new apartment, and nearly every item I pulled out brought a fresh wave of tears because each belonged to some other place, some place that was home, and to bring them into this foreign space of bare lightbulbs and not-quite-dry carpet felt wrong.

The photographs Jamie took of my M.A.S.K. figures belonged both to the apartment in Macy where the prints first hung and to the duplex in Newark, Delaware where I first watched the cartoon that inspired the toys. The lavender-scented eye pillow belonged to the hardwood floors and high ceilings of Green River Yoga studio where my tired body, mind, and eyes escaped the adolescent hum of Eaglebrook for an hour and a half on Thursday nights. The boxy black sunglasses belonged to 91 Sanderson Street and Greenfield Middle School. The first pair of sunglasses that I purchased with the intention of making myself cooler, they are only cool if you wear them with an air that says “I know how ugly these are and I don't care”. Confidence is cool. That is not how I wore them in sixth grade. The point is that every item I pulled out my suitcase was a memory that reminded me of what I'd given up to be where I was standing, in a box of thin white walls daring me to make it home, while cars that didn't care drove past and beeped because they were in a hurry to get to houses where people and pets and food might be waiting for them.

Today I moved in. For nearly two weeks, I've been sleeping in this bed because Felipe Villanueva 12a is the door my keys open, and I'm exhausted at the end of the day. Today I decided to live here by choice. I hung Jamie's prints in the kitchen. I hung the water color of 146 Buffalo Bay over the toilet. I taped “Peace: it does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble, or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.” to the mirror. There's food in the fridge and dish-soap by the sink, and there are things in this apartment that have never known any other home – the French press that will help me survive mornings that start in the dark, the lamps that dull the edges of my bedroom with soft light, and the teapot that ends each day with chopped ginger, honey, and boiling water. A year from now or five or ten, I'll pull something out of a box, hold it to my chest, and remember when Mexico was home.

lunes, 1 de septiembre de 2008

Building Character

Do you ever have that dream where you show up for the first day of school, and the teacher gives you the final exam. And somehow no one else is even fazed by this; all of the other students reach calmly into their backpacks and pull out recently sharpened number two pencils. This dream is my life in Mexico, except that those sitting in the chairs around me are equally clueless and unprepared. My Belgian friend, Dominick, for example, found out upon arriving at teacher training that he had been hired not to teach English – as he had thought – but to teach in English. He had already resigned from his English position at another school when he discovered that he would be teaching history, math, and science – all foreign subjects – not English language.

I was hired by e-mail. After missing three weeks of teacher training and a week of classes due to non-negotiable commitments, I arrived at the Mexico City airport where I found a man in a tan suede jacket, his jet black hair slicked back, looking for “Myke Sweeny”. I figured that meant me. I had never referred to myself as Mike – nor Myke - in my negotiations with the school, and, as far as I'm aware, I'd never misspelled my last name either. Considering that we'd been in touch almost exclusively via e-mail and my address is michael.e.sweeney, it struck me as unimpressive bordering on suspicious that the name scribbled on a ripped out piece of notebook paper only vaguely resembled mine. Of course, when I told friends that I'd been hired by e-mail and didn't yet have a contract, they suggested that I bring the ransom money with me to expedite the whole process. So I did wonder for a moment if perhaps a telephone call regarding my pickup at the airport had been intercepted by a kidnapping outfit. I gave the man a firm handshake and a big smile; I hoped that he'd see the likeness of God in me and turn away from his criminal past, or that he actually was an employee of the school. Fortunately for my safety but unfortunately for new professional life, the latter turned out to be true. As we climbed into a metallic beige SUV with black leather interior, Sergio explained that he was glad that my flight had been delayed because he had just received the call to pick me up about an hour ago. As Scooby would say, “Ruh-roh”. Bad sign, right? They almost forgot I was coming?! I immediately had to wonder what degree of chaos could cause a school to forget a new faculty member showing up four weeks late. I would soon find out.

I had assumed that I would not be teaching anything on my first day in Mexico. My request to spend the first day getting acquainted with the school, staff, and students seemed reasonable and had been well-received. My teaching duties would begin on Tuesday then. I quickly found, however, that a body with a pulse in its wrist and a tie around its neck will teach classes no matter how recently it was a passenger on an international flight. It started out as “observation”; that's how they got me into the classroom. There was no turning back. Maricarmen, who had also missed most of the teacher training because she insisted on giving two weeks notice at her former position rather than leaving immediately as the school had proposed, was more than happy to let me get some experience under my belt. You could introduce yourself, she suggested. And then tell them a little bit about where you're from. And then maybe they'll want to ask some questions. And then hopefully the class will be over, I could almost hear her thinking. For a few minutes I was a novelty, interesting enough to distract the students from their cell phones, nail polish, and rubber bands with paper bullets. But fifty minutes can be a long time. In Terry's class, he suggested – as we walked through the door – that we reduce the entirety of a movie to a two or three minute dialogue that we could perform for the amusement of the class. Did I have any ideas? He wanted to know. Yes, I did. If I leave Mexico right now, I bet I´ll be home in time for dinner.

But I stayed. And thank goodness, because if I had left right then, I would have missed out on the best reason for leaving: the faculty meetings. I'd estimate that I spent about ten hours of the first week in faculty meetings, but that's only a rough approximation because my internal clock shut down at least once or twice out of boredom and so I lost all sense of time. I was revived by the words of Veronica, teacher of civic and ethical formation, who urged us to end the last class of every day 5 minutes early to straighten up the room a little and to be certain that students not leave any possessions in the classroom. At that point the meeting was over two hours old and I was ready to stand up and cheer for the first sensible words that I'd heard. The disastrous state of the classrooms had already begun to alarm me as this excerpt from an e-mail I wrote last week clearly illustrates:

"As wonderful as the facility is in some ways - they didn't spare any expense here - it's not... organic, if that makes sense. Nothing is natural. No trees, no plants, no life - nothing that even looks like a derivative of life - no wood, no brick, no stone (I know that bricks and stones were never alive but they somehow feel more alive to me, warmer, more real). I love the school's emphasis on the environment and recycling (the printer paper is 100% recycled, it looks practically homemade which is cool), this space doesn't do anything (in my opinion) to foster a "sense of place", a meaningful connection to the earth. We're spending hours in a parking garage with classrooms and computers. Who wants to take care of a parking garage? People piss on the walls in parking garages and throw their gum on the ground. That's how the kids treat the classrooms here. It's embarrassing to see the custodial staff in their red and blue jump suits scrubbing the classrooms at the end of the day. The floors are just covered with pencils, pens, erasers, shredded notebook paper, wrappers, food scraps. It looks like some animals have been collecting scraps to build a nest. But I don't blame the students. This is the building we've got and our philosophy is apparently that the custodial staff take care of the classrooms because we're too busy saving the world. That's why saving the world sucks. It's a great idea, but it's too big. Let's start with the goddamn classrooms."

I was greatly encouraged to think that in Veronica I had found a partner in my crusade. We get each other, I thought. We'll make posters that say, “Think globally, clean your goddamn classroom.” Then, however, she continued to explain that while most of the custodial staff is probably quite trustworthy, leaving valuable possessions like jackets and markers in the classroom presents an unnecessary temptation. So... we need to take care of our things and our space, not because it's the right thing to do, not because it will help the custodial staff, but because, if we don't, they'll probably steal all our stuff? Huh. I mentioned that she teaches civic and ethical formation, right?

The highlight of the weekend – amidst stiff competition – was Friday, which turned out to be parents' day. I came here to teach drama. If only my students could have seen me on Friday – alas they stay home on parents' day – they would have learned more than I could possibly hope to teach them in ten months. I'll let you all know when the Mexican Oscars – that'd be the Óscares – are broadcast because I'm pretty sure I'll be up for one. Without having my final teaching schedule yet – it's tricky to coordinate because I'll be teaching 4th, 5th, 6th, and 8th graders and they have different class lengths and times – I introduced myself to the parents and presented my plan for turning their children into daytime television stars. Then, knowing full well there'd be no question I could answer nor any concern I could alleviate, I boldly asked if any parent had questions or concerns. I still don't know what I'll be teaching to whom, nor when I'll be doing it, and I offered to answer their questions. I smiled my biggest, most American, native English speaker smile, and composed myself with a mantra - “butt, belly, breath” - my massage therapist taught me. I stood solidly on my feet, with my hands resting confidently at my side, and my elegant tie in a perfect knot. Look at me. I am competent, confident, and capable. Ask me a question. I dare you.

A few parents dared. Most asked simple questions, presumably to hear more of my gringo accent, but one mother wanted to know why we did not rearrange the English classes based on skill. Sitting in a chair, she gave the impression of being in a great hurry without moving at all, and her eyes said, “There is no right answer. Nothing you can say will satisfy me. But you must try, oh yes, because I am paying lots of money to send my son here. I own you, gringo.” It was somewhere in the middle of my meandering and meaningless answer that my boss snuck into the classroom behind me and interrupted me. While I was grateful to be off the spot, the defensiveness with which my boss said, “He's a great teacher. You'll see. He's very qualified.” did not improve the situation. Though I doubt she did it intentionally, Lucia had shifted the focus, the problem from the schools' placement practices to my ability to teach, which had not previously been in question. I took solace in a daydream that has supported me all week – the image of Calvin's father patting me on shoulder and saying, “Don't worry, Michael. You're building character.”