Our cat, Nova

The me of me, or I don’t love *Serial*

In my former life, I loved This American Life. TAL, Radiolab, The Moth…. Give me a good story, sprinkle on some intelligence, and I’m yours. These podcasts accompanied my bike journeys between home and everywhere Portland. Engrossing enough to pass the time and learn me some new stuff, and light enough that half my brain could follow the narrative arc while the other half dodged cars, bikers, debris, humans.

I haven’t listened to any of them in six months. The moments with empty ear time, such as walking through town or taking a bus somewhere, aren’t moments I’m comfortable having technology exposed. Yesterday, however, I started a long-term project, making friendship bracelets for my 7th graders (desires of the heart don’t always make sense), and tuned in to the first episode of Serial, that much-hyped podcast from the TAL team. I liked the story well enough, but what grated was the nasally, detached, self-aware tone of the presenters and even the interviewees. I’d noticed this previously but my interest in the storytelling had been enough to override my distaste. Now, with clean ears, not so much. Couldn’t Sarah Koenig show a little bit of messy emotion as she analyzed the situation, in this case a man possibly wrongly convicted for murder? Rather than sounding impartial, Koenig seems superior to this messy gray-zone battle among truth, lies, and memory. The right words are there and passion is acknowledged, but it’s too pretty and detached to sound genuine. At least Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich of Radiolab get goofy and giggly sometimes and are genuinely excited about their topic whereas Ira Glass and family couldn’t be bothered.

After Serial I tuned in to The Moth and, again, was annoyed by yet another nasally, self-aware tone, now with a huge dose of self-aggrandizement, that of Dan Kennedy as he introduced a live show recorded in Portland, Maine. He opened with his appreciation of the city’s beauty while simultaneously making them aware of just how busy he was on his book tour—this was the most beautiful city he’d landed in after all his flights the past four days. He subsequently commented on everyone’s niceness by way of a New Yorker’s desire to protect the innocence of young stranger who greeted him warmly. Yes, Dan, we are aware that you live in New York City. The audience came to hear just how important you are.

Closer to (my temporary) home, my coworkers are women primarily in their late teens/early 20s. Every event is a story told in that stilted, somewhat valley-girl-but-not voice that is self-conscious, self-interested, detached. The storyteller laughs at herself—isn’t this ridiculous? Isn’t this all just so funny? Aren’t those other people idiots? Unintended but no less present is intolerance. Someone comments about an activity she’s done and another comments that he has never done that before…like never eating chicken noodle soup while sick. One of the girls then gets in that person’s face, OMG, really?! How could you have never done that?! Really?! as if we aren’t individuals with different backgrounds, with our own histories. As if this is something very important and the person is very wrong. This lack of compassion can apply toward the kids, in the teacher talk that happens after hours, laughter at the kids’ behavior in a way that isn’t loving and just…surprises me.

The detachment makes me think of reaction videos where someone puts an odd object somewhere or does something silly that startles a stranger. Then the video is put on the internet so we can all laugh at the stranger being surprised. What is this but manipulation for our own pleasure? The expression of some superior, heartless attitude toward others. Ha ha, I just scared someone with a stuffed animal; I just made someone react in a perfectly normal way; I engaged someone’s startle reflex.

I’m also reminded of backlash to the former chief executive of Abercrombie & Fitch two years ago after a 2006 interview in which he commented that he didn’t want ugly people wearing his clothes resurfaced. To protest this sentiment a young man bought A&F brand clothes from thrift stores and handed them out to people experiencing homelessness. Now the dreaded ugly people were wearing the brand. What was this but manipulating people for his purpose? His own desire to make some point about a revolting man. By all means, share with those in need…because they need it. The people aren’t props for you to use for a political statement.

This lack of compassion, this self-consciousness and detachment connects with the You’re Doing It Wrong trend in the media the past several years. BuzzFeed, Slate, Alternet, Huffington Post, et al, regularly, perhaps daily, feature articles about everything we are doing wrong. We are making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich wrong, we are putting on our shirts wrong, we are breathing wrong, and obviously we are having sex wrong. In fact, we’re just wrong all around. My way is not different—it’s wrong. It’s black and white, this world. We must follow The Way. Okay, the headlines are just click-bait (just like my adorable cat picture above), the messages are nothing new in the world of sales, the cosmetics industry is built on it, but with so many competing for advertising dollars the message has spread beyond product purchase to my innocuous daily choices. How can there be a wrong way to make PB&J? I like mine with banana. That’s probably wrong. Why not call it different? Why not let the me of me and the you of you be something interesting to learn about and adopt if desired? Why can’t we just exchange our points of view without there being a right point? This what the uber-religious and the Republican Party thrive on—who you love is wrong, what you want to learn is wrong, what you want is wrong. Perhaps this is just the (US) American way, a lingering Puritan value.

To succeed is to fail, fail, and fail, and in-between failures, stand back up, learn from the dust, rest, and try again. To be wrong a lot of the time so you can occasionally be right…. Wait, no, failure isn’t wrong. Wrong smacks too much of morality. Failure is a key to learning (Oops, I made my chocolate cake without chocolate. Next time I’ll use chocolate.), but if we’re constantly chastising, teaching people to not trust their efforts and points of view, how can we expect our kids to Just Do It if they’re bound to Do It Wrong? I’m afraid of failing. I’m afraid of messing up, and I grew up pre-internet, when messages had fewer means of reaching and corrupting my tiny mind. My kids are slightly less connected than those in the US but they are still terrified of failure, and why wouldn’t they be? When parents get angry over 90% grades, when kids laugh at peers that mess up, when The Church looms over most of their lives, that doesn’t create an environment where kids are ready to try new things. So they turn off their brains, wait to be given the answer, and pout, whine, and get angry when the answer isn’t clear.

And now to go full circle, how does this relate to my criticisms of Serial? Failure means putting yourself on the very edge. It means having all the feels—the sadness, the pain, the extreme joys, the laughing out loud when no one else is, the crying in the corner for no good reason at all and letting the snot run out of your nose. It’s not always pretty and cool. So the vocal detachment sometimes seems a barrier to the sharing of experience. I suppose the idea is to, in reporter fashion, remove the teller from the story, to not influence the listener’s perspective, to allow space for independent opinion, but I don’t hear that. I hear hiding and judgment. I hear apathy. Sometimes. They’re doing it wrong. Or they’re doing it differently, in a way I don’t understand.

But I’m probably wrong.

And that’s okay.

theresa

P.S. The above is our new cat Nova. He wandered into our house on Valentine’s Day and hasn’t yet left.

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Table

Privilege and Poverty

I missed last week’s post and another in January because I tried writing about a topic that concerns me, but about which I’m completely unqualified to write. I try to, either directly or run into it unknowingly while beating away at another idea, and end up just digging a hole into my own ignorance and unearthing embarrassment. That topic is poverty, both here and in the US.

I see it daily. Across the road from the school is a settlement of homes made from scraps of wood and metal sheeting. A few of the nicer ones are made of dark wood 2 x 4s. Most, perhaps all, don’t have electricity. While I think there is a central faucet, there is no running water in the homes. Some of our students live here.

The story of its settlement once made me happy. A man owned this large piece of land. Then, for some reason, it was taken away from him, perhaps for not paying taxes. A year ago people started moving in with tents. Over the year, witnessed by last year’s teachers, these tents grew into more durable dwellings, the ones I see today. I imagine they would eventually grow into small cement block homes, the ubiquitous style down here, with pilas, electricity, and running water. Other areas have been settled in this way and are now flourishing colonias, areas, as best I can understand, that aren’t incorporated into a city. So while the settlement is at first glance the picture of extreme poverty, its history gave me hope for the people’s future. With a semi-secure living space, moving forward and creating a livable future is much easier. Why shouldn’t fallow land be occupied by people without homes? How could there be a loser in that situation? I thought it comparable to Dignity Village, a semi-permanent encampment in Portland created by a small group of people experiencing homelessness. It now, according to various articles I glanced through, is home for over 60 people. It has non-profit status, a CEO, and rules to ensure a secure community for its residents. While not ideal, it is a place to sleep at night, to find community, to work toward something better. It is hopeful. I realize this is a gross oversimplification of Dignity Village and that it is far from perfect, and it is something better than no cover in the rain and no community.

The settlement story changed this week. The land is still owned by the same man, he just didn’t have all his paperwork in order. Paperwork involves rolls of red tape, the knots in which I can guess by the length of time it’s taken for the school’s attorney to process our volunteer visa paperwork (BTW, that tape was too tough; it’s not going to happen.). The residents who thought they owned their little plots of land, in fact, were ripped off by land sharks who sold what wasn’t theirs to sell. The police are now involved and, if the rumors are correct, are removing the residents. I am reminded of The Grapes of Wrath and people moving West with deeds to non-existent property. Humanity will probably lose this time around.

Two weeks ago I was at the local coffee place with a former substitute math teacher from our school. She is a young woman, nascent 20s at most, studying at a university in San Pedro. She wants to improve her English, I my Spanish. Our goal is to meet weekly. She asked me about the States, as many Hondurans do. The States is often their mecca for finding work and material wealth, for escaping the violence and poverty. It is hope. She was surprised to learn that poverty and homelessness are a problem in my home country. That I would see people sleeping in parks, under bridges on my commute to work. I’m not sure why I brought that up, maybe because I was talking about the widening divide between rich and poor, North and South, liberal and conservative. Maybe because it is difficult for me to listen to people idolizing and idealizing a place that is not worth its reputation. But I’m sure their idealization is not unlike mine of Sweden and Denmark, those socialist leaning societies with healthcare, paid ma/paternity leave, higher education, unemployment compensation. What I experience as a morass of decay, sickness, and greed, Hondurans see as their country on a hill. Most I’ve talked to, anyway. I have spoken with a few returnees, those who worked up North for a period then returned, who prefer the laid back lifestyle and affordability here to the busyness and stress and pressure there. Those comments fill me with schadenfreude, delight in outsiders seeing through our facade of excellence. If outsiders wonder why many US citizens dislike their country so much, consider that we’re raised to think anything is possible, that we all can become President, that riches are around the corner for all who try. All we have to do is work hard and happiness is ours. It’s in our Declaration of Independence, after all. Of course, it isn’t true and the antithesis to the American Dream is shown to us everyday, by our own media, by the politicians in power who care about anything but the citizens.

But I rant. I dislike rants filled with blanket generalizations. Let me avoid making this post unreadable.

How do you talk about the poverty of a wealthy country to a resident of an impoverished one? Is it possible for her to truly believe that people in the golden country live in cars, on the streets, under tarps, that there are many who go hungry, that millions of children are without homes, that we can have clean streets and despair and anger and sadness? This is where I always lose myself in the maze of ignorance and embarrassment, as I did in our conversation. She was quite obviously skeptical and I too aware of how my world view is colored by my own privilege of comfort and education. How exactly is poverty different here than in the US? A few ideas, and please forgive the oversimplifications and be gentle with my ignorance:

  • Services: It is skimpy, holey, ridiculously difficult to qualify for, and underfunded, but a social support system does exist in the US. There is unemployment insurance, for a time. There is subsidized housing, food aid, health care, and, by law, you can’t be turned away from the emergency room (though you can be billed for it). While a person can still hit bottom, there’s a thin cushion. Honduras has none of these things. Now, I did ask my young friend if a person in trouble could expect support from his/her community in times of trouble. I’m unsure, but I think she affirmed this. I’m don’t know that the same can be said of the States. Community and US aren’t words that frequently appear together.
  • Education: Based upon my discussions with some of our teachers, most of whom also teach at public schools, those school are little more than holding pens. Class sizes are a minimum of 40 kids; chaos, beyond what I complain of, is the norm. CBS, where the largest class is in the mid-20s, is a heaven. Education beyond grade 6, approximately age 11, is optional. However, I see far too many children younger than this selling snacks on the highway. Public education in the States is wildly variable, with poorer districts having crowded classrooms and minimal resources, but free lunch is an option for those who qualify, books, while not guaranteed, might be provided, and those with special needs are more likely to get help. There are no definites, but there is hope.
  • Scope: The World Bank says that 64.5% of the Honduran population lives in poverty; the US Census Bureau says that 14.5% of the US population lives in poverty. It’s unclear how many impoverished US citizens are children; I’ve found estimates of 3% and 20%. The problem with this comparison is that the definitions of poverty are different, with the definition of poverty in the US being ridiculously low (~$23,000 for a family of 4). Also, $1.25 a day, the definition of poverty to The World Bank, can buy you monotonous if sufficient food for the day in Honduras, but not in the US. I’m sure I’m not understanding the calculations, but, numbers aside, the scope of poverty in Honduras, a country the size of Kansas, is much more pervasive by capita.
  • Bribes: Bribes happen in the US, but if you want anything significant done here, if you want the law to be enforced, bribes are a requirement, I’ve been told. Now, this can work in your favor. If you need to renew your visitor’s visa but don’t want to hop borders all the way to Belize, you can bribe an immigration official and receive a 90-day stamp. The bribe is far less costly than transportation and exit/entrance fees. When my bus was pulled over by police—not unusual—for a papers check, some slipped lempiras into their passports. They were allowed to reboard and continue their journeys. Perhaps they had questionable legal status or were perfectly legal residents but knew to suspect trouble.
  • Transportation: Transportation is cheap here and decently connected. A bus from here to San Pedro, approximately 45 minutes away, costs $0.50. My rapidito to La Ceiba, about 4 hours away, cost less than $10. While it would take some time, I could travel across the country quite affordably and easily. Tuk-tuk taxis wait at the major bus stops and if one weren’t available, hitchhiking is a norm. The same cannot be said of the US. Granted, the country is substantially larger, but good alternative transportation is the exception, not the norm. It’s infrequent, limited, or non-existent in non-major areas, which is most of the country. More often than not, you need a car.
  • Internet: Most, though not all, of the States is wired, and it is too expensive, yet, internet access is much more likely to be found than here. Internet is a requirement for social advancement.
  • Employment: Unemployment hovers around 6% in the US right now and in Honduras, around 4%, but it’s unclear how the numbers are gathered here. No doubt, as with the US number, it doesn’t take into account underemployment, ability to live on earned income (see: service industry), and those not counted because they’ve dropped out of the market or are working under the table.
  • Awareness: Wealth does exist here. Honduras is one of the most unequal countries in the world (not that the US is far behind in the rankings). The mall carries major designer brands; you can purchase an iPhone at full price; billboards show people enjoying life with perfect skin. Some people have servants, drivers, guards, pools, etc. Yet, none of this is constantly glaring at you outside of the major cities. I never see billboards, most of the clothing is resale, and until the arrival of Maxi-Despensa (a Walmart family owned chain), I’d never seen a store with shiny big screen televisions. All this to say that if you don’t have a television and have no reason to travel to the mall in San Pedro, you can believe that your way of life is the best it could be Perhaps this is better for the spirit.
  • Potential: Because of the above mentioned differences between Here and There, the likelihood of crawling out of poverty is probably greater in the US. I speak from complete ignorance, but I have to believe that the little layer of padding we do have toward social good does give more reason for hope. I haven’t even touched on comparative violence levels, efficacy of the justice system, sexual politics, or The Church’s influence.

Lately my posts have left me feeling especially vulnerable. This one especially so—I keep avoiding it—because I know so little about this country in which I live and the topic on which I’m writing. I’ve been too poor to afford healthcare, but I’ve always had a place to live and a family I know would help me if needed. I have few personal connections in this country. For my knowledge of Honduras I rely on overheard stories, images of semi-starved cows, overly thin children without lunch, laundry washed in the river, and a warning not to use my iPhone in town. For the US, I rely on myriad articles I’ve read, minor brushes with US social services and applications for medical assistance, personal anecdotes of poverty from previous jobs, and observations of the same people pushing shopping carts through Portland streets for years.

Going back to my problems with idealization of the US, it bothers me because I worry, as is my privilege, that it motivates people to leave their country rather than stay to help make it better. Their flight is based on a myth. But how can I blame them? I, too, often dream of leaving the US, because the problems seem too big to fix, especially in my lifetime. I suppose to fight that fight, ever the good one, is to look beyond myself more than I’m able, to future generations that will benefit as I won’t. It requires me to see the small progresses as steps toward a larger betterment. Yes, there is a problem with police violence toward minoritiesand the Supreme Court seems close to declaring marriage exclusion laws unconstitutional. Yes, states are making it increasingly difficult for women to take charge of their own vaginas, and Obamacare has enabled people like me to catch up on delayed healthcare. Yes, it is possible to work full-time at Walmart and still qualify for public benefits, and Seattle’s minimum wage is gradually increasing to $15 per hour. Pair the bad with good.

Deal with the reality and keep up hope, and build, always build and re-build.

Yours in contemplation,

theresa

P.S. Speaking of building, one of the teachers has constructed tables for the schoolyard, made from discarded materials.

P.P.S. I was unsure if I should publish this in two parts rather than one. Thoughts?

what colors are your markers?

Good Teacher

My days are so changeable; I’m so changeable. Earlier this week a housemate was turning off our water at nights due to a leak in the pipe through the kitchen wall. The controller for the water is located at the front of the house, outside the gate that is locked with a stiff, rusty lock one has to arm wrestle open. The way the gate is designed, you have to reach through the gate to unlock it if you’re in the house. I’m the first one up on school days. Tuesday morning, the lock key refused to turn the final millimeter. Now, it’s one thing to have some anonymous entity turn off the water; it’s another when the water could be on if only a stupid fucking lock would work properly—don’t ask me why we all refuse to buy a new one—and I had what could only be called a tantrum, at 515am. I rattled the gate violently, vowed to throw that lock into oblivion, slammed our front door, and knocked over some liquor bottles that are stacked immediately beside the door (no idea why). I was an absolutely furious baby dinosaur. Brushing my teeth, I waited for housemates to storm from their rooms and yell, What the hell is going on? and then upbraid me for being rude. No one did. No one even mentioned my baby fit, at least not to me.

Despite this disastrous beginning, it turned into a good day, because I got to be a Good Teacher. A Holy Grail of teaching seems to be a book called The First Days of School. When I was researching teaching how-tos, that book was frequently cited as a touchstone for setting up a classroom to avoid behavior problems. The small house has a copy and I flipped through its pages before the school year started. Many teachers share their personal stories and the one I remember is a man who said his style of teaching involved his students doing all the work. At the end of the day his fellow teachers would be exhausted, while he was refreshed and calm (I envision him skipping down the hall, La la la) because his students knew procedures, took charge of their activities like knowledge-nibbling beavers, and he merely guided them along this river of self-learning. Oh gawd. If I’m gone for a minute to retrieve forgotten supplies from the teachers’ room, the 7th and 8th graders immediately abandon all educational tasks for gossip, mirror worship, and wrestling. My science lessons too often consist of me lecturing for the period and attempting to generate some discussion, some Socratic back and forth. It’s like wrestling hogs on a slip-and-slide. Use your brains, dammit! After class I slink away to the next class. Sometimes, though, I’m a Good Teacher, and while I might not have a posh yacht upon which to steer my students, I make do with a leaky raft.

I have a science textbook for this term. Let me tell you that my lesson planning is hours shorter. My school nights sometimes end at 6pm rather than 9. The book has science application ideas, and I just love the whole darn thing. I can wax poetic about it….  Here, let me do just that:

Oh dearest text of mine
that maketh the science so clear
let me clutch you to my heart
you are to me so dear.
Let us never part
without you…I
I
I
I
would have a complete frikkin’ nervous breakdown I was so close to the edge I tell you and I do not deny my need for you and if you leave me ever I will find a bridge surely there are bridges here and throw myself from it.

And, no, that is not hyperbolic. I have never loved a book with such desperation.

Anyway, we’re studying light this term. The application idea was to envision what a red, green, and blue beach ball would look like through filters of those same colors. I had magenta and green filters. The students had markers. They drew their beach balls and passed around the filters. I took a break from talking for what I had anticipated would be ten minutes. My confidence quailed a bit when this turned into two classes—had I taught the concept so poorly? I self-consoled—whether my lectures were clear or not, application is always different from reception, from regurgitation of notes. None of them whined and gave up, and most of them, the ones that w/could, diligently tried and understood with a little individual attention. Then, Friday, we played with pigment, putting strips of paper marked with a black dot in a glass of water to see what colors of ink the marker companies used to make black (Crayola uses magenta and blue/cyan, FYI). More science in action. These classes were so relaxing, not because I was working less, but because this is what science is about, this playing with the world. I felt competent, like real learning might be happening. Like my students would do more than just memorize answers to the quiz questions. I was a Good Teacher.

The educational culture here, and to a lesser degree in the US, promotes regurgitation. Teachers lecture and students take notes, memorize, and recite on exam day. Students work for the grade, not understanding, which is completely normal and was a key factor in my educational drive when I was in school, although if I didn’t understand, I couldn’t memorize, which, BTW, some people find rather annoying. Over winter break I posed this question to /r/teachers (ever my resource), “How do I teach my students to think?” because once the students are done writing, they immediately turn off their brains. They can’t follow instructions or put 1 and 1 together to make 2. If it’s not already in the box, they won’t find it on their own. This drives me bonkers because science is boring without thinking and discussion. As is reading and speaking and anything, really. Learning English is more difficult and slower. One teacher suggested riddles, so that’s what the 7th graders do during double hour science on Tuesdays. They like it because it delays science, but I hope I’m sneaking in some critical thinking. As I write this, I don’t know why I don’t do this with the older grades. I will.

A common discussion among the volunteers is cultural differences in educational styles. The volunteers, most of us from the US and Europe, strive for dynamic classrooms with hands-on activities, peer interaction, discussion. My TEFL crash course was crammed with activity ideas. Note-taking and lecture is unavoidable, but it is never the primary approach. Depending on their grade level, the students receive this style of education about 2 or 3 classes per day. The remaining classes, lead by the Honduran teachers, are heavily lecture and notes, with the exceptions of P.E., home economics, and art. So our style is the anomaly of the day, and most of the students don’t quite understand how to manage their relative freedom when the activity is to discuss their winter breaks using the past tense, or piece together without significant assistance (spoon feeding) that if the apple reflects red light but the green filter transmits only green, that the red light will not go through the green filter, or that if Crayola keeps making more crayon colors, it probably means their brand is popular. But I try and I’ll keep trying because I see no point to teaching otherwise. I do wish, however, that the culture, and the US culture as well, was more open to inquiry, to playing around with ideas to find out how and why things work, and didn’t worry so much when the student’s grade falls below 100. Grades don’t equal learning, but that is a difficult idea to accept when grades also equal better schools, a road out of here, and parents feeling they’re getting what they pay for.

Science saved this week and while I won’t say 7th grade was a laugh, I will say it didn’t upset or depress me as much as it often does. I didn’t cry and beat the bathroom wall with my palms as I did last week. Also, our water was fixed.

But the gate lock is still pointless.

In color,

theresa