Bacteria and virus models

Sweetheart and the enigmas

Admire this week’s science project above—making bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and fungi with clay and pipe cleaners—and meet Isabel, John, and Tara.

Isabel

When I consider my failings as a teacher, I think of her. I suspect Isabel’s often bored and frustrated with the classroom disruptions and slower pace of her classmates.  Diligent, she’s the most reliable when it comes to studying. When I asked the students to write a short story, 10 sentences, about their lives at Camp Green Lake, the setting of Holes, she developed an adorable piece about becoming best friends with a “gentle” (vocabulary word) boy there, who later became her boyfriend. When I suggested that she consider writing as a career (I can dream), she laughed. Like Joe’s, her imagination is colorful and my envy. She’s one of two who puts effort into their bi-weekly journal entries.

Isabel is still a pre-teen however, with moments of slack. Friday she said she couldn’t finish her paragraph about being sleepy because she was too sleepy. (I recommended she write, “I’m so sleepy that I can’t even finish this paragraph.”)  Likely because of the language difficulties, or because I inspire revelation, she can be rather frank, openly admitting she didn’t study for the writing exam because she was busy with another teacher’s (English always takes a back seat, despite this being a bilingual school.). She makes such observations with her sweet laugh. Sometimes she’ll stand near me, perhaps with nothing much to say, and I’ll wrack my brain for conversation. She confides in me that another teacher’s classes are boring and also when mine are boring; yet, despite her boredom, she has on occasion told me how happy she is that it is my class. Perhaps I am not boring. When I have doubts about my effectiveness as a teacher, I look in Isabel’s notebook and see improvement. I see and hear her try. These signs reassure, a comment, I suppose, that contradicts my “failings” comment above, but let that stand. Isabel can move at a much more rapid pace, but I’m not equipped to manage different levels.

As with nearly all of the kids, Isabel is obsessed with love, as well as Logan Henderson of One Direction, Facebook, my comparatively newer iPhone, and discovering the password to my computer. She has an older iPhone and braces. In fact, she’s one of few students with braces at school, which gives you an idea of her family’s financial situation. Petite, with a sweet smile, she is among the most fashionable on Color Day, in dresses too old for her, but elegant nonetheless. I’ve never had such style.

Isabel is the only one who unfailingly thanks me when I hand out anything to the students. She is a sweetheart.

John

The enigma, a student whose mind I have been unable to open for a peek. He will not speak unless called on, and then in a mumble, and is quick to join the other three boys in goofing off in class. Despite this, he vies with Isabel for the top spot. I often wonder if he is uncomfortable being (one of) the best in the class, among the boys, and this is why he goofs off so wholeheartedly, to fit in. Or, more likely, he’s just a short, stocky boy, who doesn’t make the 8th grade girls’ A-list, who’d rather play than work.

Because he confuses me, I am nervous and awkward with him, afraid that he senses my confusion—did he just glare at me? am I seeing contempt? So I consciously praise him and touch his shoulder during corrections. John usually puts in the minimum effort in class and is just as untrustworthy as the other boys for working independently. This adds to my confusion…and distaste. But—of course, but—he surprises. Parcial exams ended this week. His paragraph, a response to the question Are boys or girls smarter? thoughtful, mature. He said both were equally smart…because both are human and have the same potential. This is not the prevailing cultural thought and most students were decidedly in one camp or the other. I was surprised and softened.

Insight alert: I cannot find a vulnerability or place for connection with John. Were I replaced tomorrow, I suspect he wouldn’t care, and this summons insecurity, because if I am not needed (wanted?), in some way, why am I here? Isabel may not be insecure, but she needs me and my teaching. Antonio may be frustrated with me more often than not, but I know he is appreciative when I explain and he understands. Joe lacks confidence, but I am confident, more or less, in my ability to evoke the bright flashes I see in him. Moments like these answer the question, “Am I needed?” With John, I have none of these. I can’t tell if he’s a good, quiet kid or an asshole, a theory I developed after some exchange I don’t recall well.

But, no, I must remove that asshole consideration after his response to the writing exam question. There is someone thoughtful and considerate in there. I just might never get to meet him.

Tara

Oh, Tara, where to begin? At the beginning of the year, Tara was Kim’s coloring cohort. Now she more often colors alone. She’ll request permission to wash her hands because the pen she was chewing on or the marker she was toying with burst. Five seconds after I’ve given instructions, she’ll ask, “What, Miss?” or “For the notebook, Miss?” having returned from her cloud. If I take a breath, she’ll burst in with a non-sequetorial “How many homeworks [until I get a prize]?” no matter how many times I’ve stated she can ask at break. As the year progresses, I’ve (shamefully) grown increasingly sarcastic in my responses, having no idea how to address her delay, the inattention. Attempts at personal talks, to solicit questions or request behavioral changes, are met with an uncomfortable eyes-averted, “Nothing, Miss,” or “Yes, Miss,” implying she has no questions or understands, when she obviously just wants the conversation to end. Corrections are met with denial and cease communications notice. Like John, I haven’t found the way in.

Her work is erratic, but quiz scores are high, indicating that she studies, and even remembers. After a student tipoff that Tara had cheated on a quiz, I questioned her a few days later. No cheating; she knew her stuff. She is eager to participate in board work—but on her terms. If she doesn’t get to go first, forget it—bingo, and most games. In her own mind, she is infallible. Actually, that could apply to most of the students. They are all perfect, in their own and God’s eyes.

Like John, she is an enigma, but of a different type. A less kind person would suggest that she has a screw loose. Let’s just say she and I have different priorities…and maybe different planets.

And now it’s Semana Santa!

theresa

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A plant with sports

You so crazy

Nothing gets me talking better than the topic of my students, and since I described a few of them last week, here are a few more, all seventh graders. Although I teach three grades, I teach these crazy guys at least three classes a day and think about them the most.

Antonio

During one of our parent-teacher-student behavior meetings, I asked Antonio to be my superhero, like Iron Man, and use his power for good. Tall, attractive, engaged in an active love affair with hair gel, and cocky, Antonio is the obvious leader of the class. He doesn’t walk across the school yard, he struts. During a game of grammar tic-tac-toe, his teammates sought his approval prior to placing their mark on the board. Jojo refused to compete against him in a review quiz game. When the first grade English teacher substitute taught my class this week, due to some scheduling craziness, and she was glaring at him for silence, he commented that she must be looking at him because he was so good-looking. He is confident in his immortality.

Of all the kids, it’s most difficult for me to remember that Antonio is still a child, because he’s tall, because his spoken English is fluent, because his defiance is strong, and I, a neophyte, easily fall prey to his manipulation. I roar internally in frustration at his academic scores because he’s smart but thinks he knows everything and always races to finish his work as quickly as he can, then bother those who aren’t finished. He could do much better, but he’d rather comb his hair and chatter. He laughs loudly when others make mistakes, which further discourages students from risking themselves.  He’s also a baby and, I suspect, babied by his mother. Whenever Antonio is chastised more than he thinks he deserves, he puts his head down and refuses to talk. If given detention, he pouts and threatens, “I will not come.” When asked to write about an awesome person, Antonio wrote about his mother, whose awesomeness stems from her giving him whatever he wants.

Yes, he’s a kid, a popular kid. I struggle to like him. He probably taps into the wounds I retain from my own middle school years. He can be charming, but it’s a power struggle, always, and I often hear his protesting voice in my head. When I can find a moment of vulnerability, like when I catch him needing help with something, I spread my teacher-gifted-with-knowledge wings and flash them in an attempt to blind him into humility. Despite how middle school theresa may feel, Teacher theresa does care. He’d make a good politician. I just want him to be an intelligent and kind politician.

May

There are students closer to my heart than others, and May is one of them, mostly due to the near deadpan inflection of her English, which renders her work protests hilarious. She shakes her head and tells me, “Miss, I don’t understand,” with a strange little lift at the end and a flat-lipped, embarrassed smile in her half-turned face as if this is a strange thing I have caused, this not understanding, and she’s casting it off to me to do something with that information. It stems from insecurity and a self-rooted assumption that she will not understand whatever I’m teaching. I’m not sure why she feels this way, and it may be my fault. Despite months of being with this crew, I still am unable to gauge the difficulty of my lessons. So before quizzes and exams, when I remember—increasingly difficult with my sieve of a memory—we review during lunch time and she passes, whatever the topic, or she doesn’t. She works hard, I think. May is a Good Student, not great, but good. I don’t often enough see her smile and I will tease her and turn myself on my head, in our free moments, to find it in her sweet face, that wrinkled-up nose, averting her eyes. I often want her approval and wish I knew her better.

She loves to make cakes…if only I could get her to make one for me.

Krissy

I am the only volunteer teacher who is fond of her. Big, loud, and a school hater, Krissy is a bully. She frequently and at high volume disrespects her teachers and kicks or punches other students. Hers is another voice I hear in the quiet and it often says, “Miss, but I no want to!” Another volunteer proclaimed that Krissy is “just too much.” I suspect I love her for a vulnerability that is rarely revealed.

Early in the year when I’d allow the students to find relief from our stifling and loud classroom by working outside, Krissy’d wander away and bother other classrooms. I confronted her and explained that because of this tendency I couldn’t trust her, despite wanting to. I’m not sure why, maybe it was my speaking to her seriously and honestly, but our relationship after that changed. She started trying more and looking my approval. If I gave her The Look, she’d stop talking, for at least a second, and work. She’d argue less. And we built this relationship where if Krissy gives me crap, I can give her crap right back:

K: Miss, it is so hot and boring.
T: I know, Krissy, but you are young and strong and in my heart of hearts I believe you will survive. Can you? Can you make it through this rough day?
K. (Smiling) Oh, Miss, you so crazy.

And she’ll try…for a minute.

Krissy is the biggest—okay, fattest—kid in school. At a parent-teacher meeting, her aunt mentioned that the family couldn’t get her to stop continuously eating. Her aunt suspected stress from school. When we were studying earthquakes in Science, an eighth grader joked it was Krissy walking. During a writing exercise where kids had to write a sentence then fold over the paper and pass it to another student to write the next sentence, someone compared Krissy to an elephant. And Krissy, big, strong bully Krissy, who never shows hurt from these comments, was upset. My middle school self, one that was also relentlessly teased, the memory of which struggles against Antonio, hugged her. My teacher self struggled to find a solution and felt inadequate.

Krissy’s family is a good one. Her mother is a dentist, her father a mechanic. Both care for their daughter, though seem confused at times by her behavior. Krissy now sees a psychologist, though I’m curious if she actually talks to him/her, because it’s difficult to get beyond the superficial. Krissy excels in math but hates Science and English. (This post’s picture is what I drew on a quiz when she wrote that a plant could reproduce with sports, not spores.) She has great listening skills and is fluent, if grammatically atrocious, and her writing and reading skills are weak. Recently I started tutoring her once a week, and while she’ll lie slickly to wiggle out of it, to the point that I call her mom if Krissy tells me tutoring has been cancelled, our sessions are fun and she’ll play along. I suspect she enjoys the attention. I enjoy shocking her, such as by telling her I used to dye my hair all sorts of colors. I love her incredulous smile and her look of surprise when she gets something right.

If the other volunteers spent as much time with Krissy, I wonder if they’d change their minds about her. They see her picking on their little kids and protesting their instructions at top volume. I see these things too and daily get on her case for physically responding to a slight. But I also see how she is picked on by others for her size and poor vocabulary, and while I don’t see it, because it’s hidden, I know this hurts her. And, I suppose, I like her because she likes me and I’ve figured out, a little bit anyway, how to work with this girl who’d much rather be at home watching Calle 7.

And those are three of my kids.

ta ta,

theresa

Grover

Now and later

Many adults, caught in the tangled net of responsibility, look upon their childhoods or those of their own children with nostalgia. They recall childhood as easy, but I know I wouldn’t want to travel backward, except to visit moments here and there that weren’t so hard, that weren’t rife with confused emotions, intimate conflicts with friends, and tall people telling me what to do and feel and laughing with condescension at my wounds. Then kids, too, get bundled up like debris in the messy lives and emotions of their adults, whether those are parents, guardians, or teachers, people they’ve been told to follow, but who at times have no idea what they’re doing. Yet they tell their kids, Follow me, while another adult, doing something completely different, also tells their kids, Follow me. Still others are punishing their kids in order that their life won’t be followed.

Kids are told to do this now or don’t do this now for reasons they’ll understand later. They’ll get to thank some big person later. Study math now because you’ll need it later. Don’t have sex now and you’ll understand later. Too much of a kid’s life is spent in a vast later that stretches beyond comprehension, because when you’re five and those five years have seemed pretty long, the next 13+ years of later is forever. I would imagine by the time you’re in the adult-dreaded teenage years that later is a pretty sickening word, especially because you’re starting to feel more like an adult, be given adult-level responsibilities, but with none of the freedom, and are still hearing about that neverland later. You know that later is closer but still much too far.

This is me, trying to be compassionate with my students.

One of my seventh graders, KB, lives in one room with her family, her mother, her older and younger sisters, and her niece. The fathers of her sisters are semi-involved financially in their lives; hers is not. Their family relies on her mother’s part-time income and foreign support. KB is the responsible one, for her little sister and for her niece when her older sister isn’t home. She worries about too many adult things, like rent payments, because she has to. She has adult worries but not adult trust, and KB is very torn by this. Her mother gets suspicious whenever she talks to a boy in her neighborhood and has punished her upon hearing rumors of such conversations. I’ve been told about name calling and shouting over this issue. My student knows why her mother is concerned—pregnancy—but all KB wants to do is talk, and it’s unfair that she’s responsible enough to take care of her family but not move beyond the gate that closes their apartment to the street. I have heard this story many times this year.

With my oh-so-vast adult wisdom, I can see as her mother does, how talking leads to one thing and another, as it did for her mother and so many others—and too many of the others are barely older than KB—and I can understand that her mother fears most that this second daughter will create or end up in her same circumstances and is determined to lock her up and even beat her to prevent this. I can also see that KB is fiercely loyal to her mother, protective of her family, responsible as best she can be, and she honestly just wants to talk to this boy (Okay, I bet if a kiss happened, she wouldn’t mind.). But there’s no way that KB will understand that for now she gets to worry like an adult, care like an adult, but can’t be trusted like an adult. There’s too much now and later.

This is me trying to be compassionate when she fails a test and can’t help flirting with a classmate rather than take notes.

Kim is insecure and not a little goofy. She’s tall, long-limbed, and has a birthmark on her face she’s ashamed of. Rather than believe in herself, she idolizes other girls, girls I wish she wouldn’t, because they are terrible role models, girls who need good role models themselves. For a few weeks early in the school year, Kim and I had a breakthrough and she went from coloring in class to wanting to please me, which translated into her working. Now, she works and will participate more than she did at first, but if her friend isn’t working, neither is she. So I try to sit them apart, and her mother wants this as well, but Kim is shy, a little strange, and a lot of the kids don’t like her. How can I begrudge her a friendly elbow partner? She gets mad when I move her and sulks with her head on her desk. She tried to cheat on her last parcial exams. Then, after lunch, she’ll zoom around the room and stand an inch away with her lovely lopsided smile and a “Hello, Miss Theresita!” Of course it’s a joke on me, but I’m glad she’s comfortable enough with me to be that weird and, honestly, I’m quite weird. I just worry that the sparking light I see in her is going to be twisted by whomever she places her trust in and not lifted, as it needs to be, but she’s not strong enough to lift it herself. Yet.

Lately she’s been in detention a lot, for not doing her work. When she’s upset, she shuts down and it’s hard to find access. Sometimes I have to threaten her with going to the office.

Her best friend and idol, Jojo, has divorcing parents and a distant father. Too many dads are out of the picture. Jojo’s been a slippery enigma since the beginning. She has a wall a mile high, much of it fortified with insecurity. I also can’t sit her next to anyone else in class because, as I’ve said in my less compassionate moments, she gets her claws into them and brings them to the dark side, as she did with Kim. But I’ve found some chinks in her armor. If she doesn’t do her work, it’s often because she doesn’t understand, which she’s too proud to admit, and so I always thank her for her questions and invite her to ask more.

This is me trying to be compassionate when they both ignore and giggle at me and I itch to place them in hugs bordering ever so slightly on a chokehold.

This is me trying to be compassionate when Fred, mortified at being so behind, yet again cancels our tutoring session, but the fact is he shouldn’t be in seventh grade, he’s already failed once, and he continually disrupts class because he’s bored and lost. He gets by on his sweet smile.

Sometimes I have no idea if my sandwich is being buttered with bullshit. I wasn’t prepared for life in this emotional blender of compassion and adolescence. Did Jojo really not understand the homework or is that an excuse for forgetfulness? How can I blame the kids for whining when it’s over 80 degrees in our classroom with the broken fan, but I need the whiteboard for our lesson? Was the science quiz too difficult or did the kids just not study? Am I explaining this poorly or are the kids just not paying attention? I’m not proud or arrogant to enough to assume I’m always right. I dole out negative reinforcement with secret guilt, wishing the positive reinforcement were enough.

Often I forget they’re kids. It’s hard not to when they’re practically adult sized and not cuddly like the wee ones. I struggle to comprehend that they (mostly) aren’t kids like I was, who paid attention, who suffered the boredom silently, who didn’t like but understood the importance of later. I forget that my world is not their world. The other volunteers were more normal as children, or perhaps they’re just more resilient, and don’t appear to be caught in this emotional goo. I forget that inadvertent rudeness happens when you don’t know the subtleties of the language you are learning. I get impatient and sometimes unfair and too often take this all personally.

My kids are kids; they barely comprehend tomorrow, much less later. As I write this, the compassion swells into my fingertips and my weekly forecast is tinted with hope and strength. I can just see myself navigating these moments with skill and grace. I feel myself remembering childhood and the future that came much too slowly. And then…I can feel myself dreading the alarm Monday morning.

I’ll try.

Indubitably,

theresa

P.S. Grover came to Honduras with me. Despite his self-doubt, he dabbles in superheroism.

SalvaVida sign

Soy El Hulk! Soy un hijo de Dios!

Here are a few observations that have been on my blog topic list for awhile but my brain has not yet formed into a full entry, kinda like a blog version of Radiolab‘s Shorts! episodes:

Dogs

Dogs roam about the town, pant on street corners, sleep in the road, fight with each other, and bark at all hours. Sizes range from tiny to medium. Their minimal flesh clings to ribs and tailbones, unpadded by fat, their testicles outsized in comparison to their bony frames. Many have open sores and limp.  Most are male, for reasons I don’t want to fathom, and the females, with their distended and swollen nipples, look overused.

Dogs crawl through the fence that borders the school to scavenge for scraps (or participate in Monday’s Acto Civico assembly) and are chased or harassed by the children, though I did see a boy give a dog his lunch. Yesterday I tried to give one the stray bits of popcorn he was sniffing for under the table, but my movements scared him and he fled. Well, he fled when he saw the guard running toward him. They’ve learned a raised arm releases rocks in their direction.

Still, dogs here are dogs everywhere. They make friends and play with each other; even the scrawniest look happy-goofy as their tongues loll out, panting in the heat, and once a dark brown longer-haired mutt, who appears better cared for, goosed me in a friendly sort of way.

Those dogs with homes are used primarily for protection though I have seen a few well groomed, anything-but-fierce pups on leashes held by children. Some of my students speak fondly of a dog they once had and played with, and I’ve met a few lapdogs of the Chihuahua and Min Pin variety.

Dogs are the preferred pet, with cats prized for their rodent catching abilities. The cats are rough and ragged and refuse to be pet. Our house feels no ethical qualms that Nova, the cat that adopted us, may have belonged to a family, because we intend to spoil him as only cat-spoilers can. It took him no time to accustom himself to the new lifestyle.

El Señor es Amor y Paz

People tend to be Catholic or Evangelical. Our teacher meetings start with a prayer, as do our Monday school assemblies. On Saturdays and Sundays, one of the houses across the road plays church services at top volume. When a minister leads a prayer, people also pray aloud, but some fervently, with their own words and at their own speeds. They close their eyes and raise their hands, sometimes pulsing their arms. This style contrasts with the listen in silence or repeat what the pastor said style I grew up with.

Traveling to La Ceiba, I passed many signs celebrating the love and peace of God, and all the hired vehicles dedicate themselves to Jesus and El Señor with worded inscriptions or paintings of Jesus in his crown of thorns or a cross. My favorite tuk-tuk is painted with a picture of the Incredible Hulk, who proclaims, “Soy El Hulk!” and a picture of a man, I assume the driver, who responds, “Soy un hijo de Dios!” the message, no doubt, that the man, backed by El Señor, can kick anyone’s ass. I call the chicken buses “Jesus buses” because when I first saw the inscriptions, I though they were used specifically for taking people to church. But, despite the odes to that higher power, no one finds it odd that the Jesus-blessed bus also shows hyper-sexual reggaeton videos.

I can’t deny that the religiosity bugs me. The poorer people are, the more religious they tend to be, and on its face, this doesn’t make sense. How can someone praise how they are blessed when there are bars on the windows and no food on the table? It reminds me of Freud’s observation that the pleasure we experience from relief of pain is a sick pleasure because to feel it, we first must feel agony (I wonder now if he was talking about S&M, in which case, I’m taking him out of context.). So people thank God for the food they have, overlooking or somehow justifying the days without it.

Vintage

On the main road is a stretch of wall covered with a peeling advertisement for the Honduran beer, SalvaVida. It took me some time but I finally figured out why I find it so pleasing. My aesthetics have been corrupted by the ‘vintage’ look. In the States a person can pay very high prices for furniture either made of weathered materials, like wood or rusted metal, or designed so that it looks like weathered wood or rusted metal. You can pay people to make your stuff look old and worn out. It’s a pretty interesting people-with-money idea, and I’m as guilty as the next corrupted person to find my favorite bakery in Portland, Back to Eden, adorable with its use of old (or old-looking) cabinets and “reclaimed” wood. Then there’s the ubiquitous pictures of European villages and streets with centuries old buildings that are disheveling in an oh-so-quaint way…. So that SalvaVida sign? It fires all those quaint and vintage aesthetic receptors in my brain. But the thing is that there’s nothing fashionable about the look of peeling paint and crumble here. It’s the look of someone who doesn’t have enough money to repaint, repair, or replace. It’s the look of poverty.

How did that worn out look become so popular? What makes it so special, and is the pleasure confined to white urban people with money? When I see a worn out cabinet being used to store flour I think of how well it was made so that it is still useful now. I admire the use of real materials rather than a bunch of woodchips slathered with glue to make a board, then screwed together into a shelf that will definitely not survive the zombie apocalypse. I think of farms and outdoors and simplicity, when men were men and all we had to do was live on the land, that sort of nonsense fed to me by Hollywood. I think of when people cared about quality.

In other news, today is March 1. The countdown to the end of the school year is going strong, too strong. But that relief is mixed with panic as I wonder what is next.

As ever,

theresa

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.

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