Things that didn’t come in my shipment
The days surrounding September 11th are tough for me. I’m aware that in no way does this make me unique. I spent three days this week in my classes talking to my students about the 9/11 attacks, the events of the 50 years prior that led up to that beautiful and terrible fall day, and some personal stories about what’s happened since. It’s a sticky week because, like everyone else who felt like their lives had been hijacked twelve years ago, I can go right back to all those feelings given just the right provocation. Grief is a pernicious creature; it wants to connect one awful episode of loss with the others we’ve endured. So, for me, 9/11 quickly ushers in sharp emotional barbs from the loss of my friend Erik, who was killed in the mountains of Afghanistan in 2005. That’s an easy connection, one that I was expecting to feel again, and other, non-war related losses come up as well. None of this is new to me.
I anticipated these rough days last weekend when I unpacked the remaining boxes (save one) of the 35 that I shipped from the other side of the world. Out of the wrapping and cardboard came clothes, books, and photographs, mostly. A few small knickknacks and keepsakes. Very few in fact. There was bicycle I wrote about. A bag of frisbees. The Buddha head I sculpted a few years ago. I purged a lot to prepare for this trip, so there wasn’t that much to unpack. It wasn’t until yesterday that I was acutely aware of the things that didn’t come in my shipment.
There’s a lot I didn’t pack — couldn’t bring with me — which I miss. My dog, Kali, for example, who I only adopted last October and became an important part of the last year I spent in Baltimore. Seeing all the street dogs here makes me think of her often. My mom’s roasted lamb and all the trimmings is missing, as is the perfectly comfortable bedroom setup I had in my place in Baltimore. My bed here is harder than a rock, but it wasn’t just the furniture that made my old room so comfortable– there was a way the light shone perfectly through the windows in the afternoon that made the room feel like warm nectar. I miss Baltimore Bike Party, which is more fun than I could ever describe. A few of the things I miss go back a few years — I still miss my Man Couch which I sold a several years ago and have regretted ever since, although it’s unlikely it would have made the trip. These are really about moments of comfort and joy which aren’t here physically but will always be with me.
What I miss most is being known, especially when feeling vulnerable and raw, like I have this week. I spent the first six months of 2013 savoring the time I had with the people I’d built into my life. These relationships are far more valuable to me than anything I could have boxed up. As those who were around me the last couple of days in Baltimore can attest, the final push to pack up my belongings was hectic, but it was the things I couldn’t take with me that was the most difficult part of leaving. And while it’s exciting to meet new people and make new friends, I really wish the last box left to unpack contained that familiarity of fellowship that makes me feel grounded, known and at home. Especially this week.
That last box in the corner of my new bedroom contains clothes, some hangers, a couple of oversized books, and, there, at the bottom of the box is a little bit of loneliness. I may never finish unpacking that box.
One of the earliest memories I have of my paternal grandfather is the time I learned he “made” his own bicycle when he was a kid at the junkyard near his house in Ogden, Utah.
I was young when I heard this — maybe 4 years old. I remember imagining him fashioning wood or scrap metal into the tubes that made up the frame and handlebars. I couldn’t figure out in my head how he would have “made” the wheels and tires. I was perhaps influenced by this children’s book where the main character, who was around my age at the time, “made” an airplane in the barn by himself from spare lumber. By the time I was 4 I knew Grandpa could make anything out of wood, and I naturally assumed he’s always been like that. So making a bike at the junkyard was a relatively easy act of creation for him — like God in Genesis (And on the Eighth day, the Lord made two wheels, handlebars, a frame and a seat, and it was good). It all made sense to me. My hero-worship of my grandfather started at this point in my life.
By the time I was done assembling my bike yesterday my fingers were covered with grease it occurred to me that I probably saw Grandpa’s hands stained with the same dark grey coating from working in his garage at least as often as I saw him with clean hands.
Grandpa died at age 93 a little over 2 years ago. He was both a very humble, quiet man and a terrific story-teller. I did an oral history project with him several years ago where he told me about the cars he owned through his life. I recorded several hours of these stories on tape. These conversations were by far the longest stretches I’d ever heard him talk. One of the things that was so great was how clear the details of his memory were. He had picture-perfect details in his descriptions — the colors of the trees and sidewalks, the location of shops and houses on the street, the direction the creek (pronounced crick) by his childhood house flowed. His articulation of his first car — a used Model T that he bought when he was a senior in high school for 25 bucks — was so vivid I could almost hear it running as he talked.
It’s funny to me how memory works. The smell of steel wrenches and grease. The tacky feel of the gritty texture on my hands. Suddenly I’m thinking of Grandpa hitchhiking to California in 1935. He left Ogden the day he graduated from high school.There’s a John Steinbeck sort of quality to his journey in my mind — the faded colors, the urgency to find work anywhere, the resourcefulness that was perhaps matter-of-fact in that era but feels far away now. I see some parallels between my grandfather’s journey to a new place and a new life, and my own journey here, but I think he confronted much more uncertainty going West than I did coming here.
There’s a slum near my house that I decided to explore on my way back from meeting a friend for coffee. I wondered what Grandpa’d make of what I saw. Some of what I passed is outright disgusting — the open sewers, the river lined with garbage of every conceivable incarnation, water emitting a smell that defines fetid. But it’s not all gross. There are also small stands selling fruit, jasmine, electronics, and — here’s what Grandpa would like — repair shops. Over there’s a place that fixes bicycle wheels. Right here is a place that fixes motorbikes. Down there is a car mechanic, and I just passed a bunch of tuk tuk skeletons, stripped for parts to fix newer versions of those funny vehicles. The smell on this street would get to him, and there’s no way he’d be down with the food in this country, but he’d get a kick out of watching these men work. If he could get a tuna salad sandwich on wheat bread with a slice of iceberg lettuce he’d stay all day. I’d enjoy seeing him interact with these guys. Not talking really, but instead showing them some pointers and learning how to do things he’s always done with tools he probably never thought of using. He spoke the language that men who create with their hands speak, and I think it transcends barriers the rest of us run into.
It’s funny what memories a little grease will spark.
Yesterday I did a somersault in my class. It’s all part of the show here — you should stop by. There are 13 performances a week.
I hadn’t planned on the acrobatics when I started class, but I preach to my charges all the time to “know your audience”; in the middle of my act yesterday I realized that I just needed to do a somersault to make a point. Bam! I even stuck the landing. I’m a little bit of a everything-including-the-kitchen-sink sort of teacher, so it’s fortuitous that there are two sinks in the back of my classroom.
Stay with me here for a moment: The majority of my students are non-native English speakers, and about 40% of them have been speaking English for less than four years. The biggest chunk of them are from Korea, but I also have students from Japan, Jamaica, Russia, India, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, Spain, Malaysia, Australia, and a few from the U.S. The range of English proficiency is quite vast. I have one student who moved here from Seoul three months ago. Including class yesterday, she’s had 30 days of English instruction in her life.
I am surprised everyday by the things that my students know and what they don’t. Yesterday we were reading a short story that takes place on the day JFK was assassinated — only four students had heard of JFK before, and one thought he was a one of the steel industrialists. I expected this — most American culture references are total curve balls and I’ve tuned in enough to expect that I need to explain all references to American culture to them. What got me was when the narrator in the story — a girl in the 9th grade — describes how nervous she is about talking to a boy she likes. She tells us that her stomach “was doing somersaults.” I interrupted the reading to ask the class if this was a simile or a metaphor. Someone quickly assessed there was no like or as, so it wasn’t a simile. Nice, I said, and as I glanced around at the puzzled looks it occurred to me that a few kids couldn’t place the image. So I asked if anyone knew what a somersault is.
“Oh, c’mon, someone has to know what a somersault is,” I carped.
And, really, there’s only one way to get idea of a somersault across, right? The feeling moved me and I tossed my paper, pen, and other teacherly accoutrements over my shoulder, and went for it.
The gasps I heard were followed by a smattering of applause (it’s a rough crowd — I have no doubt that 10 of the 18 students there had no idea what I was talking about before I went tumbling across the floor in front of them). I was happy I made it through unscathed. That slate floor is really flipping hard.
Working here is a tough, but glorious, assignment. My skills as a teacher are pushed daily. I am constantly re-evaluating my expectations, trying to sort out how to meet the native English speakers in a place that challenges them while also finding a place where the kids who are new to the language can catch on. There are other challenges too — this population of students is so transient that it’s common for students to have been in 3-4 schools over 6 years in different countries on different continents. Not all international schools are the same, so what they have learned varies and there are often very big gaps that surprise me. I have a class of 11 senior boys who have lived all over Asia and Europe and gone to different schools. None of them had heard of the literary term “voice” before I brought it up yesterday. I threatened to get the 10th grade teacher from across the hall to come in and give them a talking-to (she teaches the bejezus out of voice) and they pointed out that none of them had her because they weren’t at the school in 10th grade. Then there’s an American girl in another class (she has not lived in the U.S. since infancy) who was last in Africa at a school that didn’t even offer English lit classes. She’s a senior and has kept up with American-style English reading lists on her own for the past 5 years. Everyone has a story here. I stopped counting the students who are tri-lingual because there are so many that it’s not a phenomenon any more. And I only have 78 students this year.
My school’s enrollment has doubled in four years, so we are implementing new strategies for a much bigger population on the fly. I like the challenge of developing systems to serve the kids we have in front of us. I like the challenge for its own sake, but I also like doing it for these particular students — they’re great young people. Tomorrow is the end of the third week of school, and I already know that most of my students are tougher than I was at this age, especially the non-native English speakers. I can’t imagine moving to a new school freshman year in a language that I only have a tenuous grasp of and attempting to perform on an academic level. Their needs force me to find new ways to do old things. Their strengths and weaknesses and questions make class go in all directions at once, so there’s never a moment when I can take for granted what I’m doing. It brings me right into the present and forces me to stay there. I’m certain my expectations and act in class make them focus on a minute-by-minute basis, and it probably makes their heads spin.
The least I can do is a spontaneous somersault
I had lunch with my boss and two other colleagues yesterday. Of the four of us, I am the newest to India with only 17 days under my belt compared to 8 years, 5 years, and 1 year, respectively. They asked me how I was adjusting — what was hard, what was easy, what surprised me. This is a challenging question to answer at this point.
I’ve been surprised about how easy it has been to be here. Now, I recognize it’s not yet been three weeks, and I’m still in a honeymoon period, but even so, it’s been relatively easy. The things that have been hard or stressful have been school things, but the start of every school year is hard to some degree with all the meetings and prep stuff that happens all on top of each other. It’s more difficult if it’s your first year at a school — I’ve felt a lot like a first year teacher again as I wrote in my last post. Once I got in front of my students, however, I was back in the saddle again, and able to lead my steed off into the sunset. Hi-ho, Silver, away! I’m lucky in that I came in with a huge class of new teachers, so there’s a solid core of people going through similar wonderings as we try to figure out the unknowns together. It’s a safety in numbers thing. The returning people at my school are really great, and the local staff is the most hospitable group of people I could ever hope to meet.
I think I’m most surprised by how easy it is to make all this work. There’s a strange dynamic here because while everything my senses take in tells me I’m somewhere unfamiliar. The extreme contrasts that smack me in the face on a minute-by-minute basis include the gentile cows and skanky street dogs, the sweet smell of jasmine wafting from a flower stand and the Shakespearean foulness of decaying garbage, the orderly chaos of cars, buses, motorbikes, push carts, tuk-tuks, and pedestrians jockeying for space on the narrow roads, the unending racket of rasping engines spewing exhaust so thick that it stains light colored clothing. But somewhere in all of this sensory overload is a world of English. I can read the signs of all the stores on the roads. Most of the drivers of cabs and tuk-tuks speak and understand enough English to take me where I want to go. All the clerks in shops interact with me with English language nuance. The first three songs of piped-in music played at the new mall in town today were by Beyonce, Michael Jackson and Stone Temple Pilots. How can this be?
I don’t know what to make of the fact that so much about India doesn’t make sense. The logical foundation of this city and province and even country is not one I’m accustomed to — I sorta knew that would be the case. But I didn’t realize that it would be relatively easy to get what I need on a daily basis. I’m starting know what’s a reasonable tuk-tuk fare. I’m learning the names of the villages, or neighborhoods, where my friends live — which is big because when I first got here I looked a map and thought, “oh, I’m never going to be able to learn all the names of these places” (there are a lot — most of the drivers I’ve encountered don’t know this city very well).
There’s a lot that isn’t quite the same, but isn’t totally different, either. I teach three classes of 9th graders, old hat to me, but over a third of my students are English language learners, meaning they are not yet proficient in writing, speaking or reading English. That’s a big change. I went paddleboarding — something I love doing with friends — with my boss yesterday before we had lunch. We had a great time. I haven’t done something like with someone I worked for since I played beach volleyball with the owner of the pizza shop where I worked when I was 19. There’s been a lot of talk about committing to making this place home quickly, which I’ve done before in several new cities over the past ten years. This time, though, that involves hiring people — a cook named Isabel, and possibly a reliable driver in the weeks to come. Isabel is giving me a run for my money already — she and I seem to have differing views of who is really in charge. She scolds me for buying the wrong trash can, the wrong sized pots and pans, and the wrong rice. She laughs at me for wanting fresh jasmine in my house. She may be right.
It’s early, I get that. But so far, I really like it here. I adjusting, one small moment at a time.
Tomorrow is the first day of school
Tomorrow is my first day of school. Finally.
I decided to take this job on Christmas Eve 2012 — over seven months ago. Only in the past few weeks have I really wanted to get in front of my new classes. Before then I was saying goodbye to friends and prepping for my move. In the last two weeks I’ve been overloaded with meetings, information about the new classes I’m teaching, the particulars of my new school and department, and all the other things that go into starting all over again. When you start at a new school it’s a lot like being a first-year teacher again — and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. Being a first year teacher is tough. So, in a few words, these past few days have been rough.
What makes it rough is that I’m teaching some courses I’ve never taught before, and there isn’t a lot of precedent for what I’m doing. My expectations of myself are quite high, and coupled with the natural stresses of learning to work with all new colleagues has pushed me significantly. I can take solace in the fact that all of the new teachers who arrived here are in the same boat. This is a very good school that aspires to be a great school. It has the leadership in place to get there, and the teachers who are here this year, both returning and new, all came here to be part of this big push to be great. It’s exciting, but it’s a lot of work.
So I’ve been stressed out more than I can remember being before the start of any of my previous years. I’ve had enough of the planning. I want to be in front of my students. I want to get in there and start making things happen. A guy can only take so many meetings.
As I think about the work over the past two weeks, and the anticipation I have for tomorrow, what strikes me is that there is very little about “India” that has gotten to me so far. I’m not bothered by the men who were pooping on the beach in front of me yesterday; the cows in the middle of the street hardly catch my attention. There’s so much noise on the road, and the traffic is what you might imagine in a place where there are only suggestions for how to navigate around other vehicles. None of these things get me worked up. I’m sure there will come a time when all that surrounds me finally provokes some sort of meltdown. But not tonight.
I had a lovely evening at Mylapour — one of the bigger temples in Chennai. Fortuitously, I ran into one of my new colleagues who is from Chennai. She and her husband were there for his birthday they quickly dropped everything to show me around. It’s a huge temple — one of the oldest in Chennai, and probably the country. I read that Ptolemy was rumored to have visited here. Marco Polo wrote about this place, and St. Thomas the Apostle was buried here before his body was exhumed and moved to Edessa. So it’s an important place historically, and it’s still an active place of worship. I got a terrific tour and description of the various altars and traditions practiced here. We ended up being right in the middle of a ceremony performed by brahmin priests who led the chanting with drums, bells, and lots of incense. I did a little pooja to Ganesh and his parents, Siva and Parvati. Together the three represent destruction, creation, and wisdom. I prayed for an enriching school year. It was the perfect place to be tonight.
Tomorrow is the first day of school. I can’t wait.
What’s it like there?
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So, Andrew, what’s it like there? The whopper question. I’m not really sure yet. Here’s what I know so far — I’ve been here for six days, and my new school’s orientation schedule for us new teachers, of which there are now nearly 40, is jammed with trainings, tours, workshops and receptions. Each of the […]
Holy cow, I’m in India
I woke up laughing this morning.
Why? – because I’m in India. In my own apartment, about to start my first day of work, in India. How did I get here?
In December I took a big step in a new direction when I accepted a teaching position for the next two years in an American school in Chennai. I’d never visited the country; I hadn’t met the leaders of the school in person. A few emails, a couple of Skype calls, and that was it. They offered and I accepted.
Since December I’ve tried to imagine what it would look like, smell like, feel like once I got here. I’m still in a bit of a trance — 26 hours of flying has bent my mind a little — so I can’t really describe yet what my senses are absorbing. Officials picked me up at the airport, and at around 1:30 in the morning, let me into my furnished apartment, handed me the keys to the front door, showed me where the mid-night snack of chicken tikka, rice, and dahl was, and said they’d see me in the morning. I unpacked my bags, took a few quite moments to myself, and went to bed in my new bedroom.
The morning light came quickly today, and I needed to see the neighborhood in the light to believe that I’m here. I couldn’t stop smiling on my way to school this morning. Smiling, because, hey, I live here now. My face was pressed to the bus window as we drove to school. It’s a short, 10 minute ride from where I live. My apartment and school are on the coast — not in the downtown area — so the traffic is not bad. At least not yet. There’s a major highway that we’re near, and there don’t seem to be any traffic lights. Driving on the sidewalk is an acceptable practice but everyone slows down for the cows. Shocker.
Today was mostly orientation, and there were lots of reasons to keep smiling — each new teacher (about 25 of us total) were greeted by name by the administrative assistants when we walked in the main office. The admin assistants had each memorized the names and faces of every new teacher before we arrived. That was cool. They fed us a traditional south Indian breakfast in the cafeteria — which is served every day — and then took us on a tour of the campus. The highlight was the 80,000 square foot new theatre space, which seats 850. I’ve never even heard of a space like this in a school. More smiles and laughter.
Just a bit about the school — AISC has around 900 students preK-12, and there are over 200 people who work here in different capacities. We were introduced to the staff who run various departments of the school. All of the non-teaching support staff positions, and two of the seven director positions are held by Indians who are from this province (Tamil Nadu). I want to know what vitamins all the directors are taking because they each seemed to have more energy than the next.
There was a lot to take in today, but perhaps the last two things that are worth mentioning here for a laugh are that “beef” is available in this part of the country for sale. Note that “beef” is actually water buffalo.
Another fun fact: AISC has a QRT, or a Quick Reaction Team, as part of its campus security team. The only context in which I’ve heard about QRT is in the military. A Quick Reaction Team is usually a heavily armed squad of soldiers who sit at the ready to provide rapid support to comrades under attack. This QRT is a team of twelve retired soldiers who were commandos or special forces during active duty in the Indian Army. They have a cell phone number. It’s now in my phone. So, in other words, I a team of commandos are a phone call away. Again, more laughing.
I can’t believe I’m in India. Somebody pinch me.