I have brunch on Saturdays with a new but close friend of mine here in Chennai. I’ll call him J here. J and I connect about a variety of things when we hang out, but there’s a constant theme that emerges each Saturday of the desire for personal improvement. For each of us, the move to Chennai was about inviting change into our lives and fully embracing that new energy. Both of us thinks it is important to establish here regular practices that invite more richness and opportunities for reflection into our lives. So, in partnership with J, we’ve borrowed several pages from Ben Franklin’s guide to life and are setting off in 2014 to live according to his 13 virtues.
Franklin established his thirteen virtues as a way to shape his life in pursuit of excellence while achieving balance and moderation. While he practiced all of them concurrently, J and I will focus on practicing one per week for the next year. It starts with Temperance: eat not to dullness and drink not to elevation. The next one was Silence: speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation. For me, these weeks were amazing.
During the Temperance week I was quickly aware of the challenge I faced: food. Despite not missing more than perhaps a dozen or so meals in my life, and never more than one in a row, I grew up thinking I had to eat as much as possible because I didn’t know when the next round of food would turn up. Not drinking is easy for me because I can think about alcohol as a special occasion sort of thing, but I eat at least three times a day. I was concerned at first, but I was doing great. I even recognized quickly how eating less at certain points in the day resulted in more energy at other times. “Hey, I like this,” I thought.
Then came Wednesday.
On Wednesday I decided that I needed to let go of something that I’d been holding onto tightly for a long time, and it was hindering me in a couple of noticeable ways that I couldn’t avoid any longer. I decided it was time to let it go, and I figured I needed to be somewhat ritualistic about it: I wrote a letter, reworked it a few times to get it just right, and symbolically put it out there. Although I didn’t like it one bit, I noticed a release. That night, I wanted to eat the world. Hello Temperance!
I was feeling lots of emotions, and I wanted to cover them up with delicious little (and big) bits of something that would make me feel better. Yikes. I don’t know if I’d have recognized all this if I hadn’t been following Franklin’s lead. Upon further reflection, it turns out that food is a crutch I’ve used more than I realized. This was an keen awareness to notice and feel in real time and to see in retrospect.
The weekend came, and the next up on the virtue list was Silence. I was slightly uneasy on the onset of this virtue of the week because I already knew that one of the few things I do more than eat is talk. The week was indeed a struggle — I constantly second-guessed myself about what I was saying. One example comes from a meeting I was in late in the week where I was evaluating a process at my school that involves both teachers and students, and I felt challenged in a moment I wouldn’t have even thought about previously. Normally, I’d strike like a lightning bolt at the main issues; this time I had to evaluate carefully what I wanted to say and whether it was going to benefit myself or others. I paused a long time — enough for the storm of thoughts to smooth out a bit in my mind. I’m still not sure if I got on the right side of Silence in that conversation, but a new pathway was formed, at least partially, last week.
I’m just over two weeks into this, but here’s what comes to mind right now: Franklin’s virtues were about striving for moderation. While I knew moderation was his goal coming into this practice, what I’m now feeling quite acutely is that moderation requires a level of mindfulness — constant mindfulness, in fact — that I’d completely underestimated. I’m someone who meditates a lot, I’ve been on a couple of lengthy silent retreats, and I even once traveled to other countries seeking meditation practices. I thought I was dialed into mindfulness. Following Franklin has invited a “walking consciousness” that I hadn’t expected when I started with this experience. One virtue a week has seemed to sharpen my awareness to little moments in real time where the shifting is occurring. Little moments, but the impact is anything but small. And as an added benefit, at the end of the week, I don’t want to let go of the previous week’s virtue. They naturally build on each other and stick around. That Franklin was onto something.
On New Year’s Day, my dad, my brother, and I launched Telemachus, a 17 foot bay kayak in Mission Bay, San Diego. We, with help from my grandfather, built this boat over the course of the past three years.
Telemachus’ namesake is the son of Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s Odyssey. He gets forgotten about a lot, but his story is important. The Odyssey is usually remembered the epic as the story of Odysseus’ return home to Ithaca. It’s easy to forget that it begins with Telemachus’s journey to find his father, a man Telemachus has always heard about, but never met. He outfits a ship and sets sail seeking answers.. Sometimes Telemachus’s journey, catalogued in the first three books of the story, is called the “Telemetry.”
Telemetry is usually associated with space exploration in modern western culture — it loosely translates to something like “collecting data or information from remote places.” A more literal translation of the Greek roots comes out as “far from war.” Both are fitting: Telemachus grew up during the time of Trojan War, but he was just a boy during all of the fighting that took place so far away from his home, where he lived with his mother — both waiting for Odysseus to return. Telemachus attempts to live up to the honor of Odysseus, and his grandfather, Laertes — two icons of strength and achievement in the Argive world. Telemachus’ journey is ostensibly to find his father, but it’s also to discover himself. I wonder if he knew he was searching for his own identity when he set sail, or if he imagined his journey would change him forever.
The story of Telemachus the kayak is not nearly as dramatic in reputation and action, but it served a similarly defining purpose for me. I named it specifically to evoke the context of the right of passage that comes from learning more about one’s patriarchs, and thereby, learning about oneself. Originally seen as a cool project for father and sons, this boat quickly emerged as an important symbol. It is the only project that had three generations of Ransons working on it, my grandfather, my father, my brother, and all had a role in turning this pile of materials into a swift-hulled boat.
Telemachus took a long time to complete, sort of like how long it took Telemachus to seek his father in the story. There were successes and setbacks around each turn. The additional time was in the end a gift, for it offered more opportunity for connection and time with each other than was originally planned. The accidental developments in the end were the most valuable parts. The boat is beautiful, and it handles so smoothly in the water. We’re all proud of the work we did, happy the way it turned out. I’m most pleased though that I get to say, “I worked on that with my dad, my grandpa, and my brother..”
Telemachus set out to discover what happened to his father, and in the end he found himself. That’s just how it goes.
My first semester teaching in India is in the books. In a few hours I’ll be headed back to San Diego for the holidays. Visions of tacos dance in my head.
Christmas Eve will mark the five-month anniversary of my arrival in Chennai. It will also be the one-year anniversary of the day I accepted the position. [Insert pithy comment about how quickly time passes here.]
Time, in it’s basic sense, is a measurement of distance traveled. The past year has been a long, cathartic journey for me, while the past five months feels like such a short, intense blip of a memory already. Five months from now I’ll be wrapping up the end of the school year here. I hope it goes as well as the past five months have gone.
Reading the last sentence is strange for me. I know that the past five months have been really challenging — some of those challenges have appeared in the entries of this blog. I haven’t forgotten how much I’ve given up to be here. If anything, finishing the semester has helped me see some of the challenges I faced a little more clearly. One example: I am teaching three different preps this year, and I’ve only taught two readings — a poem and an essay — that I’ve taught previously. When I recognized that I felt an intense no wonder I’m so tired jump out of me.
The past five months have forced me to grow in ways that I imagined before I got here but couldn’t have really understood or specifically anticipated at any point over the last twelve months. I’m reminded of Socrates, who talks in “The Meno” about the different ways of knowing. He uses knowing how to get to a city called Larissa as an example. He says you can learn from hearing the directions and experiences from someone who has been there, or you can go yourself. Both ways represent a certain type of knowing, but in my opinion, the differences are so great that there are hardly any similarities between the theoretical and experiential knowledge. When I started my own journey I expected to be challenged personally and professionally, and yet when I finally arrived I was often surprised to feel so completely unprepared despite thinking about it constantly for months and months. But then there were other times, such as when I’ve driving through the chaos called traffic on my way home from school, when I think “This place is a piece of cake.”
Maybe it is a piece of cake, Indian style. It’s a bigger piece than I imagined. And it doesn’t come when I expected it. And it tastes different. It’s good though. Really good.
(Disclaimer: if “bathroom” humor offends you, please stop reading here — and pass your computer to the nearest 10 year old.)
I’ve been working really hard lately. I’m not saying that to brag or to make it sound like others don’t work hard, but rather to indicate a sort of base line for what comes next. Most of the in-the-classroom stuff all stems from one question: how do I meet the needs of my students? The outside-the-classroom but inside-the-school stuff reduces to questions like “how does this meet the needs of our community?” and “what’s the next right thing that I or we can do here?” The questions are easy to ask; the answers are bears to wrestle with. I was wrapped up in complex conversations trying to solve all the problems in the world last week, more than normal. There was a GoGoGo! pace to things that left me flattened by Friday and into Saturday. And Sunday.
So it’s against this backdrop that I got sick. Maybe I was working too hard and not taking care of myself well enough. Maybe I just got unlucky with something I ate and that’s all there is to it. At any rate, I’ve been a prisoner to my apartment and the little plastic and porcelain toilet for much too long now. I had food poisoning about a month into my tenure here, and that came and went within 24 hours. There was another week when I had a mild case of something not being right — I felt icky enough to be slowed down but not bad enough to stop and be still. I labored through school for several days, finally took some antibiotics and was right as rain in a flash.
This is different. I have full-throttle Delhi Belly. The kind with loud music and dancing. Unfortunately, it’s not entertaining. The music is the sounds coming from my body in the echo-chamber of my bathroom, and the dancing are the gyrations I’ve been going through to get from the couch or bed into the bathroom while taking off my shorts at a sprint with less than a moment’s warning. Yikes. You know how it is — going from groaning stillness to Flash Gordon fast just like that, hoping you make it in time. It’s always awful, but somehow this is the worst. How bad could it be? Funny you should ask. Guess which one of these is NOT true of me over the last day.
– I’ve done a Google search for “pee coming out of butt”
– I’ve researched to see if there’s a Hindu god of the toilet or the scatological.
– I decided to visit the food shop seeking yogurt and bananas on the first floor of my building only after calculating how long it would take me to get to the shady toilet in the pool locker room on the same floor in case I have to make a mad dash for it.
– I prayed for an old-time, cold, glass bottle of 7up, the kind I was only permitted baby-sips from when I was sick as a kid, in hopes that between the substance or the nostalgia it might bring some relief to my innards.
– I celebrated the noxious burps that quickly followed drinking soda water. My goodness, the release of that gas is so great.
– I’ve considered only eating rice and warm milk for the rest of my life.
– I’ve looked into jobs in Denmark, France, and Luxembourg, because the idea of eating only cheese sounds like heaven compared to going back to whatever curry dish did me in.
Okay, they’re all true. I’ve had a lot of time by myself and my imagination may have run amok. Interesting note though: There isn’t a clear Hindu god of the toilet, per se. But there may have been a Roman god of flatulence (Crepitus). Seems a little like fiction: Romans didn’t have that kind of sense of humor, did they?”
Having to “run” to the toilet 10-15 times during the day evokes a certain way of seeing things. It’s hard not to laugh a little at the pure grossness of having such vile matter projecting itself from your body. It’s like this stuff has an attitude of “I’m so repulsed by you that I’m getting out of here, fast.” Note to disgusting mess in the toilet bowl: you weren’t invited! I also find my moments of gratitude stacking up like cars, buses and motor-bikes waiting to make a right turn on the highway outside my house: I’m grateful for the soda-induced burps and the harmonies of flatulence (there’s a few select individuals reading this who I know are into fart noises — it’s really quite amazing). I am grateful for the inane and the particular corners of the Internet, for they have helped me find this video, which gave me hope to one day move again with joyous abandon without fear of leaking. I’m happy that I’m not alone (according to Yahoo! Answers) in my symptoms but that I’m also very much alone in my execution. I’m also so grateful that this isn’t happening on a Indian train, because that would truly be the worst thing I can imagine right now. The worst.
“Mr. Ranson, I think one of the goals of our rafting trip should be to wash away our sins in the river.”
When a 10th grader goes deep like this, you sorta have to pay attention. I was standing there in the front of a group of 18 students representing all four grades in high school, facilitating a brainstorming of goals for a rafting trip we were all going on together for the annual “week without walls” adventure, which for us, would take us river-rafting down the River Ganges.Most of the goals the students offered were about having fun. Then Priya, a rock-star 15 year-old reset the tone. Suddenly in that room it was cool to be deep and spiritual. This was a moment you only see in John Hughes films.
I’ve chaperoned a lot of great, and edgy, student trips but none of them included students who proclaimed the desire to cleanse themselves of sin. (In fact, most wanted to commit sins.) And this was how I began my river rafting trip on the Ganges.
A little backstory: all the high school students and teachers go on a 4-5 day trip in the fall to a different part of India — there are a dozen different expeditions. The goal is to learn more about the political, social, and environmental diversity of India while doing something physically challenging. There’s some service work as part of it, too. I was co-chaperoning the Khoj River Rafting trip. Khoj in Hindi roughly translates to adventure.
Our khoj took us to the foothills of the Himalayas, fairly close to the city of Rishikesh. We camped in tents on the sandy river bank, the mighty Ganges rushing past us day and night. Our first day of rafting required us to drive around 50 kilometers up river, along a narrow, sometimes dirt road that was cut into the side of the mountains. A friend-colleague on the trip with me described the road this way: “I’ve been on narrow mountain roads in South America and in South Africa, and I’ve never seen anything as scary as what we drove on this morning.” The drive offered plenty of khoj by itself, thank you very much.
There’s a lot of talk, when one goes rafting with high schoolers, about who is going to fall out of the boats first. There were a lot of first-time rafters in our trip, and if they weren’t nervous before we left on the trip, they all nearly shit their pants when they first saw how fast that river was moving. During the safety briefing there were plenty of faces that were white with terror. I could almost feel them muttering “please don’t let me fall in the river.”
Their prayers worked: I was the first one to fall in. And the second. I got pitched out of my boat — a rubber, two-man kayak called a “duckie” — for the first time in some rapids of distinction. My struggle with the river to stay afloat with my head above water rattled me. Pointing my feet down river, holding my paddle and fighting the rapids that seemed to smash into me deliberately was stressful. I was seriously rattled and banged up when the rescue kayak scooped me up — although I tried to hide it from the students who I could feel watching me closely when the guides transferred me into one of the 8-person rafts. My second splash into the river came about 3 minutes later when I tried to get back into my duckie boat from the 8-person raft. I leaned down to grab the far side of the duckie, and just before reaching the galvinized rubber someone shifted the duckie closer to the raft, and I missed — airballed really, and hit the water again face first. In a second I was swept back down the next set of rapids. By the time the rescue kayak got to me the second time I was a total pro at being hauled out. Piece of cake. Except that when I got back in my two-man duckie I was afraid. Really afraid. I did not want to be on that river any more. And a moment later we shot another set of rapids, and I got three big waves in a row right in the face. I drank enough river water that morning that I think I have to start my series of hepatitis shots all over again. Mercifully, we stopped on a sandbar for lunch after emerging from the froth. I coughed up water for most of the break.
Time passed slowly with the sun directly overhead. The events of the morning set in. My shoulders and back throbbed from the stress that comes from hitting that edge of “something bad almost happened.” My head was still a little soggy, and I very clearly had one thought: I do not want to get back in that boat. Or that one. Or that one over there. And definitely not that one, either.
One of the facilitators of the trip talked about a definition of khoj which means not just adventure, but moving through fear with confidence. How appropriate: I was afraid of the river. I felt like I had come close to being in a really bad situation, and it was only the morning of the first day. I still had three more days of this shit. There was no way out – no option to let the bus pick me up, for the road was 800 feet above us in the side of the mountain. The only way out of this was down that river, in the boat. Through the fear. Into the raft I went. Quiet. Tired. humbled. “What’s next?” I thought.
Next was the Ganges.
The glorious river of the ages forms at the confluence of the Alaknanda River (on which we had started and on which I had gotten intimate with the water) and the Bhagirathi River, which starts way up in the craggy peaks of the Himalayas at Gangotri Glacier. Where the ice melts into water is called Gaumukh — the “Cow’s Mouth” — and then soon that water forms the Bhagirathi. As frigid, torrential water, the Bhagirathi descends rapidly from the snowy regions down to the jungles where we were. Where the two rivers meet, brightly colored buildings jutt abruptly up from the rocky shores, and the two rivers — one blue and one light green, smash into each other, forming the Ganges.
This confluence is a holy place — there’s an ashram with pilgrims in white and bright orange robes on one bank of this intersection, and there was a funeral pyre with men donning newly-shaved heads — the sign of mourning — on another. This is the place that Siva has visited back in the days of yore. Countless devotees have followed. And I’m rafting, with a bunch of high schoolers from six different countries, right in the middle of all of it.
Somewhere between the meeting of the two rivers and the brightly painted buildings and the devotiona rituals, I forgot my fear. The river widened, and slowed down. With it, time slowed, too. Ahead of us rafters slid from their boats into the water. I remembered my fear for a second and I hesitated. My students showed me the way, throwing down their paddles and splashing with screeches into the water. Priya’s words caught up to me in the breeze: let’s wash away our sins. At first I thought that I’d already been in the water plenty that morning. But the idea persisted, and I knew that I needed to go in intentionally this time.
Back in I went. With intention.
The gorge was wide in this part, so the water moved more slowly. I floated with most of the others in my group, shivering a little because, damn, that water is still really cold. And I was laughing. Others laughed, too. I looked around. Some laughed at being stuck in the little eddies that spun swimmers around like a washing machine. Some laughed and shrieked as they pulled their friends out of the other rafts into the water. I laughed because, well, I was thinking maybe my sins are actually being washed away. If not my sins, then at least my fear, and that’s a pretty good start.
A few weeks ago I attended a ceremony called Ganesh Chaturthi, which was described to me like this: “It’s a really big festival at the beach when Ganesh gets immersed in the water.” I was curious: Ganesh gets immersed in the water, then what? And who is doing the immersing? This, I gotta see.
The description was just a tad short of the reality. Like so many of my experiences here so far, I was wholly unprepared for what I saw. This was after all a religious celebration. And no one does religious festivals like India.
This annual celebration brings hundreds of elephant-themed icons of all sizes to the beach in heavy-duty rigs built for hauling huge payloads. There’s one road to the beach, and these vehicles are bumper-to-bumper for two or three miles, all lined up for the same purpose: delivering the beloved Remover of Obstacles to the sea. Hundreds, maybe thousands of people are lined up on the beach to watch. The statues are carried to the water line where prayers and dancing ensue, along with lighting ritual flames. Eventually dozens of hands grab a hold of each of these huge ceremonial sculptures and one-by-one they’re flung into the crashing waves and stiff current. The statue sinks and is swept away. This process gets repeated hundreds of times in one afternoon, all with the coordination and choreography you might see when the doors at Best Buy are open to the hordes at 3:00am on Black Friday.
The idea of this all-day ceremony is to commemorate Ganesh’s mythological death and return (he offended his father, Siva, who cut off his head. Ganesh’s mother made it so he would be resurrected — he was reincarnated with his elephant noggin soon after). Accordingly, he must be flung into the sea annually in order to facilitate his return. The theme on this wonderfully strange day is letting go.
My experience on the beach that day was so fuzzy it’s taken me three weeks to write about it. I stumbled through the sand in a daze among the teeming and unpredictable crowds for a couple of hours. Waves splashed on me. Trucks nearly clipped me. The backswing of a few cops’ bamboo crowd-control sticks swooshed past my head. Watching and taking photos, trying to process all that was happening exhausted me. There was too much to take in. Too much to process. An afternoon of perpetual paradoxes and conflicts. Moments of clarity were as rare as order and explanation. Stillness within this malestrom was nonexistent, yet I felt isolation among these thousands of other souls.
For nearly all of the afternoon on the beach I was physically uncomfortable. The worst headache I’ve ever experienced in my life emerged quickly. If you’ll forgive the pun — it felt like an elephant was stepping on my head. I was confused by the crowds, the music, the shouting, the horns from the trucks, the cheering and dancing. I was out of sorts, and I knew it, which made it slightly worse.
It’s not lost on me that I was physically uncomfortable during the ceremony of letting go.
I have not been able to let go and be fully present here — I’ve touched on this before. I think about the life I left behind in the U.S. and I conceive of what my life after India will be. I’m not alone in feeling this — my newly-arrived colleagues, especially those who are single have echoed similar awareness and processing. I’ve gained so much by coming here, and I’ve given up almost everything that was most valuable to me. I’ve let go of all the ways that I felt connected in my old life, and when living in a place that is so experientially rich and overwhelming, All human things take time, I’m told, and I know it will take time to feel comfortable and connected. I knew this would be the case when I decided to come here, but even as I knew what I was doing there was no way I could have really prepared myself this experience.
Be Here Now is a mantra that a friend offered to me recently. I don’t know for certain if Ganesha ever said anything like this in his adventures. As the mythical scribe of the Mahabharata, I imagine a scene where someone would have asked him after a long day of work about the theme of the epic. In my mind a fatigued Ganesh trumpets out: Be here now, and wanders off to get some food. Maybe that’s what the solemn statues headed for the surf are singing to themselves beneath the banging of drums and loud chanting of his devotees. If so, I missed it. I get it now though: Be Here Now. It’s just for now. Not forever. Just for this breath.
For now, in this minute, I can be here.
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.