Friday, December 19, 2008

iPod shuffling through life

OK, first of all, this is not a product endorsement. This is an invitation to a philosophy of life.

I recently bought an iPod shuffle. I got the shuffle instead of a proper iPod with display not because I knew it would change my life; I chose it because it was cheap. Plus, at 2 GB, it has enough room for a nice variety of songs I like, but not enough to load with my entire music library. This is an important distinction.

As I loaded songs, I knew I had to be picky, so I chose just a few from each artist. I had to think, which are my favorites? Which are the ones I am not sick of, the ones I'm least likely to get sick of if I hear multiple times in the next six weeks as I take 12- and 19-hour train rides? 

After loading 20 episodes of This American Life and 250 songs, I still had room for about 100 songs. Why not, I thought, let the shuffle choose some songs for me? It has an "autofill" button that will "choose items randomly" for you. In a couple of minutes, my iPod was loaded.

I clipped on the shuffle and went for a walk. I've always been opposed to headphones because, I thought, I like to be one with nature. I want to hear the birds and car horns and monkeys rustling in trees. As soon as I hit play, I realized I had been wrong all these years. Even though I couldn't hear those nature sounds, my other senses were heightened. I could see and smell and touch (if I wanted) the birds and cars and monkeys. Plus, my walk now had a soundtrack. 

The third song that came on startled me. It was great. Fun. With cool, funny lyrics. But I had no idea what it was. In fact, I was almost certain I had never heard it before. It must have come out of my library, must be one of the random selections, but I had no idea what it was. 

When I got home, I googled the lyrics, which went like this: "Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma? / I climbed to Dharamshala too, I did / I met the highest lama / His accent sounded fine to me, to me." This was amazing because, first of all, Dharamshala is near where I live in northern India, second, because it was about punctuation (even though I don't know what an Oxford comma is but I sure don't care about it), and mostly, because I was pretty sure this was not my song. It was ... iPod magic.

The song turned out to be "Oxford Comma" by Vampire Weekend. And it turns out I did have it in my iTunes. But how it got there remains a mystery. I probably downloaded it a while back and instantly forgot about it. And if it wasn't for my iPod shuffle, I would have never heard it.

In addition to providing me with a soundtrack of songs I didn't know I had, the shuffle made me embrace the concept of randomness.

As I lay on a overnight train bench the other day, trying to block out the snoring of the guy next to me, I cranked up the volume on my iPod. Because of its tiny size, the shuffle has no display, so you have no idea what track you're playing, or which one's coming next. (This is why I had to look up the Vampire Weekend song.) You can play the songs straight through your playlist or, what's more fun, you can select random play. Just like the "party shuffle" on iTunes, the random playlist is often incredible: songs that you would never play back-to-back play that way and sound great. As someone proud of his mix-tape-making abilities, I admit I am jealous of the iPod's skills.

The train bounced along. The snoring continued. And I was still awake. I thought I'd like to hear "Oxford Comma," and this is what can be infuriating about the shuffle. Without the display, and without knowing where in your playlist a song is, it can take hours to find it. That's what happened.

I clicked next, and a great song came on, and I thought, "Hmmm, let's listen to this one." I listened for two or three minutes, clicked next again, and again a great song came on. Since I had loaded mostly my favorite songs, every song was just about guaranteed to be great.

Music, of course, has the power to make you nostalgic. Especially when you're on a dark train in the middle of India. One song would remind me of a person. Another would remind me of a cross-country drive, or a commute, or a time I drove around the block an extra time to hear an entire song. As the minutes turned into an hour, I was taken on a journey to concerts and bedrooms and bars. I remembered moments and summers and heartbreaks. This is not homesickness or loneliness, mind you; this is just a collection of recollections.

Finally, I was sleepy, and I still hadn't found what I was looking for. I started clicking, nonstop, until I got to it.  It turned up easier than I thought I would. And then I was disappointed.

First of all, the song just wasn't as powerful as the others. The others were linked to some memory. They were ones I have loved for a long time. This was a new song to me. And compared to the memories the other elicited, this one didn't hold up.

I was also disappointed because, well, I had been searching for this one. And you know how, when you pursue something (or someone), you end up being disappointed when you finally get it? When the other songs came on, there was recognition, but there was also an element of surprise. "Wow ... I hadn't been expecting that song. And it sounds just perfect right now, right here."

So I decided that randomness is the way to go. On my iPod. But also in life. Let every day, every moment come as it may. Leave it up to God's will or fate or destiny or some little computer chip in your iPod. Sometimes you'll be disappointed because it wasn't the song you were in the mood for, or because it was rainy when you went to the beach. Sometimes a song will remind you of something hurtful, just like some days will be hurtful. 

But each song, each moment, each day will help you get where you're going, will combine to create the soundtrack that's your life. 

I'll try never clicking "next" on my iPod again. I can't wait to hear what the next song will be. But I'm going to sit back and enjoy this one.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Proctoring poetry

Random scribbles from another two-hour session, this time for an advanced mathematics exam:

Smart Fly

A little after one,
A little fly flew 
Through an open window
Into the room
Where forty-one seniors,
Bent over calculators,
Fingers twirling in hair,
Heads down, eyes here and there,
Worked on the semester one
Math exam.

Less than halfway into the room
The little fly made a U-turn
And flew outside again.


The boy sniffling a lot,
Blowing into tissue a lot,
Looking and sounding like he's about to die
A lot,
Isn't wearing socks.

Mathematically Impossible

Even if you calculate the remainder 
     of a string of numbers,
     when divided by rational roots,
     some things remain irrational.
If you get to the root of the equation,
     examining interior angles,
     following parallel lines,
     certain things will never equate.
Even if you do know x and y,
     having checked all probabilities,
     it's probably still unknown
     why she's your ex

     and not your infinite one.

Friday, December 05, 2008


I am in the middle of proctoring a two-hour macroeconomics exam. The thing looks like a bunch of random lines and charts and senseless questions, but the kids seem to know what's going on.

In the meantime, my eleventh graders are taking the English exam elsewhere. I will soon have a pile of papers to mark. And will I think, "Wow, guess I didn't teach these kids anything this year." The sad realizations of a teacher? Or will I be pleasantly surprised?

Proctoring is a special form of torture, reserved for the seventh circle of hell. You cannot talk. Read. Grade. Look out the window. Just pace the aisles for two hours, checking for cheating. 

Alone in my thoughts. OK, and I sneak out my camera and take a picture, without flash of course. This is what an exam looks like.

Here's a discovery, which isn't all that clever, but something to think about just the same: students at this school do not spend all that much money on shoes. Maybe this does mean something, something regarding economics ...

Back in Chicago, where most of my students were dirt poor, they wore expensive shoes: Timberland, Air Jordan, etc. Here, at this expensive, elite boarding school, where some of my students' parents are executives of multinational corporations, the kids wear ratty Converse All-Stars, cheap Pumas, Crocs. In fact, it seems that the more money in the family, the cheaper the footwear.

So, what does it mean? Is it just a fashion thing? Or are the parents well-off because they're frugal? Or are they teaching their children sound financial management lessons?

Or does it have more to do with the poorer kids back in the big cities? Are they targeted unfairly by marketers and their search for coolness? Do they spend what little they have on a few consumer goods that they can then show off?

These questions are not on the macroeconomics exam. Maybe these are issues for microeconomics. In any case, class, there are five minutes remaining on the test. 

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Why is it so hard to round up the stage crew kids?

The backstage area seems as big as a warehouse today, and as I yell at some kids in one room to head to the stage, I realize other kids have filtered into the room I had just cleared. I'm going in circles, and I can't get everyone to assemble in one place.

Plus, I've got the core group on stage, playing around with the ropes, hanging each other by the legs and then swinging around. And a secondary group opening up pizza boxes, sneaking pieces of awful pepperoni. 

My voice is hoarse from yelling, yet no one can hear me.

It's 4 a.m., and I'm dreaming about the fall play. I fell asleep at 10:30, exhausted, and now I roll around in bed, covers over my head to keep warm, still exhausted.

Rehearsals, in fact, have been going great, with very little work from me. Yet I can't help but worry about the first show, which is Thursday. The stage crew has been the weak link. While the student director's personality is loud and demanding, the stage crew head is very laid back. The actors have been whipped into shape, but the running crew and makeup group are still disorganized. The crew hasn't assembled in its entirety once, and there's too much lag time between acts. The audience will be bored.

But ... for some reason, I have complete faith. As I lie in bed, I think about my experiences here the past four months. The students really seem to respond when given freedom to do their thing. In fact, when I try to control things, whether assignments in English class or play rehearsals, things fall apart. But when I let go, when I set high expectations and walk away, the great majority of students do a great job.

This is a very difficult thing for me. I tend to micromanage. Control every element of every assignment. Make sure kids listen to every word I say. Have them do things exactly right. But, really, they can achieve so much more when I take a step back and let things happen.

And, really, this has been true in all my years teaching. Whenever assignments call for creativity and independence, whenever I say "impress me," students impress me. The less I interfere, the more they accomplish. I start to think I've figured out some great, big secret here.

Is that why can't I sleep? 

I mean, is this why I can't sleep? (Or write properly?)

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Best excuse note of the year nominee:

Mr. P.,
V. is late to English because he was still oiling his horn when the bell rang.
Sorry ... :(

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Player hater

"Mr. P, you're such a drama queen!"

"Me? What do you mean?" 

"I mean, you're always gossiping. Always trying to create drama."

Of course I knew exactly what she was talking about, so I had to defend myself.

"Gossip is when you talk about someone behind her back. If I said something to you, it's not gossip. Maybe I was teasing you, but not gossiping about you."

"You ... are ... so mean! I'm not a bad person!"

"I never said you're a bad person. In fact, I don't think that. I think the German is a bad person."

You knew he'd eventually reappear, didn't you? 

Recently, this one eleventh grader, who I refer to affectionately as the German, has been making his rounds through the twelfth grade girls. He's pretty smooth, fairly charming, and decent looking. He pursues these girls, and as soon as he has them, he drops them and moves on to the next victim. "I have this problem," he once told me. "As soon as a girl likes me, I'm not interested anymore."

So ... last weekend was the Junior-Senior Ball, and the German went with one of the prettiest girls. This week, I've seen him chatting up this other girl, a girl I'll name Sam.

So ... earlier in the day, I saw Sam not talking to this other guy in her class. When I asked her about it, she said that the two of them were trying to see how long they could go without speaking to each other.

"Oh really? Interesting," I said, and as she walked away, I called after her, "What about the German? Is it OK for you to talk to him?" She ran off blushing. Then later at the flagpole area, she accused me of gossiping.

"If it wasn't true," I said, "then it wouldn't bother you."

"But why me?"  Sam asked. "Why don't you tease him about it?"

"Oh, I have. I've told him that, one day, all the girls at this school would get smart and not give him the time of day," I told her. "And do you know how he responded? He said, 'No, that will never happen!' So, like I said, I don't think you're a bad person."

"He said that? Well, someone is going to say no to him."

I hurried off before Sam could declare war on me or all of Germany, and I wondered if it was my place to protect the girls against the players at this place, and I decided that, yes, someone has to do it.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Strike 2

In the middle of second period today, everyone was called to the auditorium for a special assembly. Without giving too many details, the head of high school announced that, because of what's going on in the country, a national strike had been called, and students would be dismissed immediately following the assembly.

This is the second strike of the year, second half-day like this. And I'm still not too sure what's going on, except that it's something about religious/political tensions. Also, this might not be the best time to live and work in India. Then again, whenever there are problems and changes, wherever there's action, that might be the best time to live in a particular place.

Our first priority is the students, so I'll be heading up to dorms in a few minutes to relieve staff there for a while. It'll be another afternoon of just hanging out with the eleventh and twelfth grade boys. 

After the assembly this morning, one of my students said, "I was thinking about you. Thinking how you probably had been thinking that we'd have a whole week of school this week." He was right. It seems that, with so many things going on here at this school, there's rarely a full, uninterrupted week of classes. That's one thing that makes it great and interesting, but it also makes it tough to teach sometimes.

Another student said, "I heard about the strike this morning. And during your class, I was praying the whole time that we'd get the day off."

"Maybe your prayers came true," I said. "But I just thank God that at least I had my twelfth grade English class today." 

She just scowled. "You must have been such a nerd in high school," she said.

"Are you kidding?" I said. "I was an awful student. I hated school. I was fairly smart, but I was lazy. And now, this is my punishment, being a teacher to students just like me."

Not sure she believed me. Or even listened. But as she walked off, I yelled after her, "Since you have the rest of the day off, work on your poetry!"

I know I wouldn't.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Autumn Movement

By Carl Sandburg

I cried over beautiful things knowing no beautiful thing lasts.

The field of cornflower yellow is a scarf at the neck of the copper sunburned woman, the mother of the year, the taker of seeds.

The northwest wind comes and the yellow is torn full of holes, new beautiful things come in the first spit of snow on the northwest wind, and the old things go, not one lasts.

Friday, October 24, 2008


What happens when a student that you've been trying to get to speak up finally does?  You punish him, that's what.

An easy distinction to make between western and eastern students is that the Asians--especially those from Japan and Korea--are quiet, meek, subservient, uber-respectful. That getting some of them to speak is like pulling a rotten, broken tooth.

Of course every stereotype can be shattered, every stubborn tooth can be yanked, but is it possible to push the right buttons, to prod and push even the most timid student to the point of impudence?

Consider Hiroshi (completely made-up name): A student here for the past six years, he has never spoken up, has never uttered a clear, complete sentence in class. Asked to respond to a simple question, he'll stammer and stutter, hem and haw for so long that everyone in the room will throw their hands up in frustration. That's what the other teachers say. I know otherwise.

First of all, I've heard him with friends. A few weeks ago, I had a "Japanese party" at my place for the J-kids, and Hiroshi was here, chatting and arguing with his friends, confidently beating them down at darts and with words. And the thing is, his English pronunciation is excellent--clear and no typical Japanese errors with L's and R's.

Second of all, I've heard him practically yell at an adult. Again, great pronunciation. Fluent. And that tone! An inner city youth might blush at the level of disrespect. It happened yesterday.

I took one of my classes to one of the computer labs. We had to walk through the library and, because this lab doesn't quite have enough computers, students tend to race to make sure they get one. I was last one through the library, so I didn't see what happened, just the aftermath.

The librarian was yelling at three of my guys, specifically at Hiroshi. A small wooden cabinet stood between them, its glass door shattered. Two of the guys stood there, saying nothing. Hiroshi, however, came close to the librarian, practically shouted, "I told you I didn't touch it!"

"What? You want me to believe that you walked past," she retorted, sweeping her arm past, "and then, magically, the cabinet fell over on its own?"

"I was there," he said back, pointing to the stairs leading down to the lab. "How did I knock it down? I walked past and five seconds it crashed?"

The librarian was clearly fed up. "Fine, you were there," she said. "But no one else walked past this, and it fell down. I'm not blaming you. I'm not going to ask you to pay for this. I just want you to apologize!"

He walked closer, spread his arms in exasperation, and hissed, "What ... the ... heck!" 

Watching all this, I sure was glad he hadn't used another word, but I was even more glad that he turned around and stormed down the stairs. The librarian explained to me what had happened, the way she saw it, told me how frustrated she was with herself because, just an hour earlier, she had commented that this cabinet needed to be moved, that someone would knock it over if it stayed where the movers had placed it.

I walked down to my class. One of the assistant librarians walked over to Hiroshi and demanded that he go back and apologize to the librarian. He was ready to refuse. I said, "Hiroshi, go apologize. Now." As he slowly made his way back to the stairs, I caught up to him and said, "Listen. Maybe you don't need to apologize for the broken cabinet. Maybe you didn't do it. I didn't see anything, so I don't know. But you do need to apologize for the way you talked to her. I did see that."

He returned two minutes later. It was my turn up the stairs. "Did he talk to you?" I asked.

"Yes," she said. "Thanks for that. I told him that it would be expected that, even if he didn't knock it over, that he would come back and help pick it up and apologize."

"So," I said, "did he apologize?"

"Yes," she said. "He said that he was told to come back and apologize."

"He what?" He what!

It was my turn to feel dissed. I went back to the lab, waited for the final bell, then grabbed Hiroshi. As soon as the others were out of the room, I launched into him, into a solid 10-minute talk about respect and sincere apologies. The whole time, his defense was, "She had no right to yell at me." 

"That's a logical fallacy," I snapped. "We just talked about that one in class two days ago. Remember? You're just changing the subject. I tell you what you've done wrong and you deflect your wrongdoing by pointing out that someone else did something worse." He looked at me blankly. "Tell you what, if you tell me what fallacy you've just committed, I won't give you a demerit." He couldn't.

"Fine," I said. "You're not sorry about any of this. Then I'm not sorry for giving you a demerit. Three demerits! And I'm not sorry that I'm giving you Saturday morning detention." He just nodded, accepting his punishment.

Then I launched into another 10-minute spiel, this time about how I taught all types of miscreants in Chicago, and no one ever showed me this kind of disrespect. Finally, he had enough.

"But I went," he said. "You wanted me to go, and I did it."

"I wanted you to apologize," I said, "not tell her you were told to apologize."

"Did you want me to lie?"

"I wanted you to apologize," I said, careful not to raise my voice.

"But I went. If I didn't want to apologize, I wouldn't go."

"Are you kidding?" I asked. "If I told you to do something, you'd refuse if you didn't want to?"

"I've done it before," he said. And I noticed the frustration mounting in this usually silent student. Tears welled up in his eyes. As I launched into another spiel, this time about listening to the demands of your elders and superiors, a single tear rolled down his face. In utter humiliation, he wiped it back with his sleeve. 

At the time, I was quite proud of forcing him to cry. I wasn't sure what words finally got to him; perhaps it was: "Do you think it's OK to talk to the librarian that way because she doesn't give you a grade? Or is it because she's a woman?" Maybe it was something else, but I was glad. That'll teach him to speak up, I said to myself.

Later, though, thinking about it, I realized it was all some sort of misguided sense of pride. He probably felt he lost face there in the library, with this woman screaming at him about something he didn't do ... in front of everyone. He fought back, stuck up for himself, as he'd been taught to do here in this international school. And for that, he was being punished. 

Still, I wrote it up and he'll serve SMD this weekend. Maybe we can continue this discussion at some point, and I can tell him how saving face is more important than losing it. How a simple apology could do more for his reputation than whatever preceded it.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Who you gonna call?

When the phone rings in the English Department office in the middle of the afternoon, I know it can only mean one thing: whatever it is, it'll be unexpected.

It's my free hour after lunch. I have a quiz to write up so that I can get it to the Reprographics guy to get it copied for tomorrow. If I work quickly, I'll get it done before the next class starts. So when the phone rings, I'm tempted to ignore it. But maybe it'll be something interesting ...

"Sorry to disturb you, but can you do us a big favor?" It's the head of high school, so how can I refuse? "Can you run down to the health center and get a stretcher? A student took a spill in science class."

Every teacher knows that our job description entails much more than “teach course material.” We’re counselors, parents, friends, disciplinarians, confidantes, and sometimes cooks, janitors, and money lenders to our collection of crazy, mixed-up kids. At a boarding school, all those jobs are multiplied, and new ones emerge. Today I'm about to take on the role of "paramedic."

I run down the high school ramp to the health center. The nurses are waiting for me, and they are laughing when I arrive. "So sorry to make you do this," the head nurse says, "but it's just the two of us here, and we've already got a full house." 

I see one of my students, nose bandaged up. "Hey, you look better than ever," I say. He broke his nose a few days ago playing rugby, and he's just returned from the hospital.

I grab the stretcher and run back up the ramp to the senior lounge. A girl is sprawled on the floor, and a couple of friends and teachers are gathered around her. "This is so embarrassing," she complains when she sees me. We scoop her into the stretcher, and the office assistant and I carry her down the ramp. "I'm so sorry that I'm so fat and heavy," the girl says. She's one of the most petite girls at the school. I laugh and ask what happened. She doesn't know, doesn't remember. 

Walking down the ramp with us is a senior boy, holding the girl's hand and telling her she'll be OK. He's not her boyfriend. Nor is he just trying to get out of class. He's one of these incredibly nice guys that always seems to be helping others out. On another occasion, he has walked another girl from my class down to the health center after she had some weird epileptic seizure.

I try to say something funny, try to lighten the mood, but mostly I'm thinking about the quiz I'm trying to create for tomorrow. As soon as the girl is safely in the health center, I run back up to the office. If the phone rings again, I think, I should ignore it. But I know that I won't be able to resist.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Stupid drama

One of the cool things about the school where I work is that, despite being in the foothills of the Himalayas, there's a great Western vibe here. Students are loud and have learned the art of speaking out and even talking back. Despite that, they're plenty respectful, and some even say "thank you" after every lesson.

And when you catch them saying or doing something rude, even if they're right, they truly feel bad about it.

Today, walking up to my classroom after morning tea, I was behind one of my students on the staircase. She's new to the school, just here from Kathmandu; hard-working and sincere, she's one of those kids that stresses out about individual points on quizzes and never fails to remind me when something is fair or unfair. Basically, she's a student that works her ass off to get good grades.

Anyway, I was walking behind her and she didn't know I was there, and I overheard her say something to her friend about a "stupid drama" assignment. As soon as she said it, she glanced back, saw me, and almost literally melted in shame. "Hi there," I said, smiled, and quickly walked past. 

For the rest of the afternoon, every time I saw her, I'd glance over and smile, and she'd bow her head. I went up to her in the cafeteria during lunch. "Just getting ready for ... drama class," I said. As I walked away, I saw her whispering to her friend, who just laughed.

I wasn't really offended that she called some drama assignment stupid. In fact, I couldn't agree more. This is my first time teaching drama, and I've found myself making stuff up, creating lessons that require little work from me but still allow students to get on stage and act as much as possible. I've heard rumblings that the kids really like the class, that, for some, it's the highlight of the day. 

For me, it's the opposite. When I'm unsure of myself in front of a class, I tend to get serious, I tend to have less fun, and I make up assignments that challenge students to do things I myself could never do. But that's the way it goes with teaching. Maybe life. Insecurity breeds cruelty. Backed into a corner, one lashes out.

And during class today, I finally snapped. The students seemed to rebel over some minor detail, and I ended up yelling something at them and storming out of the room. I wasn't sure if I was really angry or if I just wanted to get out of there. But I left, ending up in the staff work room.

Five minutes later, a couple of guys from the class came to find me. "We're so sorry," they said. "Please come back."

"No way," I said. "Not until I think you can be honest."

"Come on, please," one of the guys said. "We can't be honest when critiquing each other. If I told someone how bad she was on stage, she would just tell everyone at school that I'm gay or something. And then I'd have no friends."

I had to laugh. "No, too bad, I'm done with you guys," I said, trying to think of a way I could gracefully return to class. Luckily, they thought of a way.

"What if we dance for you?" the other guy said. "Would you come back?"

"Tell you what. I'll give you five minutes. When I walk into that room, I want to see a Bollywood dance performed by the whole class."

They ran off. Five minutes later, the class danced. And it was really good. And we all laughed and forgot about the stupid drama assignment.

Monday, September 29, 2008


Every once in a while, someone asks, "What do you miss most about home?" There are a lot of things I miss--family, baseball, good beer, hot dogs, the lakefront, beer gardens, live music--but, quite honestly, I knew I'd miss these things even before I left. So my answer is usually a vague, "I don't know."

Last weekend, I came a little closer to an answer. 

When some friends invited me to join them for a trip to Rishikesh, I wanted to go, but I also wanted to chill out and do nothing. The thing that convinced me was this: the hotel would have a swimming pool. I live in a place without bodies of water, without bathtubs, without a chance to sit back and soak. And after two days of wandering the hillside, of taking five-hour walks up and down some steep inclines, I realized I needed, not just wanted, a day in a pool. So I said yes.

And in Rishikesh, I discovered the Indian version of truth. When we arrived at the hotel, we wandered over to the pool and found it filled with green water. Almost solid, thick, algae-overgrown water. We spoke to the manager, demanding a discount because the pool was unswimmable. He just looked at us, wondering what the problem was: when asked about the pool on the phone, he had replied that, yes, there is a pool. And I guess he wasn't lying.

I wasn't the only one looking forward to swimming, so we called other hotels, asking if they had pools, and more importantly, were they clean? We drove over to another place, this one with a great view overlooking the Ganges. Down below, we could see white water rafters going past.

The conversation at reception went something like this:

"Do you have four rooms?"
"Yes, sir."
"And do you have a pool?"
"And is it clean?"
"Yes, sir. You will find it to your satisfaction."

Not ready to commit, we went over to look at this clean pool. And there it was: completely dry. Empty. No water. But certainly clean. We left and ended up staying at a place without a pool. We didn't feel like being mocked by a pool we couldn't use.

And I realized: one thing I really miss is the chance to just submerge myself in cool, clean water. That, and I miss direct responses to simple questions.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Small world

After school yesterday, the phone in the English office was ringing off the hook as I walked in. I ran to pick it up before my head of department, a  cynical old Australian, could say anything about the call being from one of my fans. He does that. The phone rings, and he turns to anyone else in the room and says, "Must be one of his many fans." Guess he doesn't get many calls.

The call was from the development office. Something about a couple of my "fans" being at the school wanting to meet me. "Yeah, right," I said, thinking she was kidding around.

"No, really," she said. "There's a couple here in the Lyons Lounge from Chicago on their honeymoon, just passing through town, and they know of you from your blog." 

That sounded a little too random to be made up, so I dashed through a terrific downpour to the staff break room. And sure enough, there was a couple there from Chicago--Jeremy, an IT guy, and Erin, a former CPS teacher and current Museum of Science and Industry employee--who knew of me because of Chicago Teacher Man. 

Well ... it was like this: Jeremy had previously worked at a different international school in India. He moved to Chicago, where he met Erin, who had read a Chicago teacher's blog, an anonymous teacher who recently moved to India. On their trip here, they wanted to head north to the mountains, so they passed through town, then while wandering, got lost and ended up at the school gates. So they stopped by, and when they told school personnel that she was a science teacher and he an IT guy, they got the royal treatment and tour (we currently have a science opening). They asked school staff if there happened to be an English teacher from Chicago ...

We met, and later I dragged them over to my place, then on a walk up the hill, showing them the sites. They stopped for pictures ... of monkeys, of clouds, mountains, a rainbow, weird signs, and on and on, reminding me of me. (Maybe I'll get one or two of those pics to post on this blog?)

In any case, here they are at my place, my first official visitors from Chicago:

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Back in Chicago, I found it funny when students couldn't spell a word like "guaranteed" on a quiz called Success Without a Guarantee.

Well, 7,000 miles away, on the same quiz, I've got proof of humanity's similarities. On one of my current student's quizzes:



She finally went with garranteed

One kid almost had a perfect score on the quiz; in fact, his only error was spelling "guaranteed." I garantee he'll be mad at himself when he gets the quiz back tomorrow.

Friday, August 29, 2008


Today was an unscheduled day off from school.

Christian institutions around the country, in a sign of solidarity, shut their doors in protest over religious attacks in the eastern part of India.

We started the day off with an all-school assembly, during which time some of the details of the conflict were explained. The principal asked a couple of students to place flowers at the base of our flagpole. The finance director reminded everyone they were privileged to be educated. The chaplain spoke to the students, focusing on the little ones. "You shouldn't be afraid. And here's why: Could I ask all the adults in the room to please stand up?" As soon as all one hundred-plus of us stood up, he continued, "Because see all these people? They're here to protect you and keep you safe and love you." In a way, his words touched me, made me think of my responsibilities here in this boarding school community.

The day wasn't completely free. Following the assembly, students returned to their dorms, and high school teachers met to hear about their duties for the day. Each of us was assigned a dorm to supervise for an hour.

I went up to where the senior boys live. It was sunny and almost hot, and the hike up was wonderful. The boys were welcoming, friendly, laid back. We sat around and chatted about things we don't get a chance to talk about in the classroom. I talked to some guys who auditioned for the fall play, to the student director of that play, to the dorm president who is frustrated by the living conditions, to a couple of guys that are helping me start an open-mic coffeehouse in the girls' dorm, to another about a planned Japanese party at my house. 

My hour turned into two, and I left knowing that the strike wasn't a blow-off day, wasn't an interruption in the students' education. In fact, it was a day to connect, for teachers to start acting like adults.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Two cents

As I passed out novels to my twelfth graders, a girl exclaimed, "I found money in my book!" She held up a note of some sort; it wasn't Indian.

"Hey, it's your lucky day," I said.

"Oh, I can't keep it," she said.

"Why not? Of course you can. We'll never figure out who it belongs to."

"No, I just can't. I'll give it to you."

I laughed, "No, then that would be seen as a bribe. I can't take it." I looked around the room. "Does anyone object to her keeping the money?"

No one objected, but someone suggested she donate it to charity. "Great idea," I said. "You can donate it to your favorite charity. How's that sound?"

She looked relieved. From a corner of the classroom, I heard someone say, "That thing's worth about two rupees." Two rupees is about five cents. All this trouble over five cents! But I guess the girl's got morals, or whatever you want to call it. Something I don't have.

The next morning, after I heard the crash of another small landslide behind my house and went outside to investigate, I found a 1,000-rupee note on the ground in front of my door. That converts to about $23; not a ton of money, but quite a lot here. In fact, I didn't even know the country had 1,000-rupee notes until then. (When I exchanged several hundred dollars at the airport, the highest denomination I got was 500.)

My neighbor, who was also outside to see if there was any damage to our water supply, said, "Thanks, that's mine."

"Yeah right," I said.

"I'm just kidding," he said. "But make sure you put that to good use. You know, buy your neighbors beer or something."

"I was thinking of buying some students pizza with this," I said, "but I like your idea better."

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Week 1 report

This'll be quick (because I'm so busy, because I have so many papers to grade, because I have so many people to bug):

In one week at my new school I've established a totally new persona, one that I never in a million years could have pulled off in Chicago: Students consider me a difficult teacher, a harsh grader, a guy with unreasonable expectations. They actually fear me. 

On the other hand, many students are warming up to me. Today one of my advisor group students asked if I'd host a Japanese party at my apartment. "Absolutely," I said, and then bugged her and her friends about when they want to throw it, what they want to do, who they want to invite. 

This might seem like a contradiction, but I think it's the nature of the boarding school beast. Students view teachers one way in the classroom--as authorities, dictators, tormentors. Outside of class, they look at us as advisors, friends, confidantes. I guess this is true in any school, but especially on a campus where you can run into your charges at any time, on any day. So far I like it.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The German

It's weird, on the first day of classes at a tight-knit boarding school, I sort of felt like the new kid. The students were friendly and nice enough, but there was definitely a distance. Some tried to figure me out--am I cool? will I stick around?--but mostly they ignored me. So, I absolutely could understand how the new students feel. One of my favorites so far is an 11th grader from Germany. In less than 24 hours, I've busted him three times. Each time, he puts on the same innocent act--I'm new here; I have no idea how things work. And each time I'm like, yeah, same here.

Yesterday, I joined a small group of colleagues at a little restaurant at the top of the hill. When we got there, the place was absolutely overrun by high school boys; the main dorm is about to be demolished and replaced, so this year, the boys are scattered at different satellite dorms. The older kids are near this restaurant, so it'll be their hangout. After a while, the boys cleared out, and my group had the place to ourselves. As we sat there enjoying cheese toast and wai wai (which is glorified ramen), the German strolled up, carrying a bottle of Sprite in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

"Excuse me, are you a student?" one my my colleagues asked.

"Yeah," he said.

"You can't smoke! You smoke, and we have to report you right away."

"Yeah," I said, "you can't let us see you smoking!"

"Sorry," he said. He put out his cigarette and sat down at an adjacent table. After a few minutes, he got up to leave. He walked over and placed his pack of cigarettes and matches on our table. "That's it," he said. "I quit."

Today, as he entered my classroom, the German was listening to his iPod. "You know I have to confiscate that," I said.

"It's not allowed?" he asked. "Even between classes?"

"Even between classes. No iPods."

During class, students were working on my first assignment of the year--an application for my class. I always warn students that the application must be absolutely perfect--any cross outs or blanks and I don't accept it.

"Oh fuck," I heard. It was the German.

"What did you say?" I asked. "Oh what?"

"I said, 'Oh fuck,'" he said. Several students gasped. I shook my head. "You asked me what I said," he said.

"That's three strikes," I said, trying not to smile. "Do you know baseball? Because in baseball, you'd be out."

"No, I don't know baseball," he said. "I'm new here."

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Man or mouse?

In an epic battle of man vs. beast, I have been soundly humiliated by a mouse. But it’s not over yet.

Day 1
It was my first night in Mussoorie, a dark and stormy one, as it happens. First of many such nights, with the monsoon in full swing, everything damp, rain pelting my plastic skylights, jackals and monkeys yelling on the hillsides outside my front door.

Despite the weather and the wildlife, it had been a warm welcome to Woodstock School. First, a six-and-a-half train ride from Delhi to Dehra Dun, then a Chinese buffet, and then a winding one-hour bus ride up the mountain in the mist and rain. Throughout the journey, old staff and new came together for conversation and laughs. I discovered my new colleagues had come, for the most part, from the Chicago area (I’ll call Springfield, Illinois, and all of Minnesota part of the greater metro area) and came with a wide range of teaching experience and expectations. Several were just out of college looking to start life as well as their teaching careers. One was a former Woodstock student, current Northwestern University professor of medicine, leaving her job so that her two sons could have a quality education. Another was a 75-year-old firecracker who joked and flirted the entire way.

At the school, while our suitcases were soaking in the rain, we were greeted by old staff and some of their children and assigned “buddies” who took us up to our new homes. It seemed everyone wanted to say hello to each of us, and in a show of the friendly spirit, two old timers argued about who would take me out to dinner. They split the duties: One would take me to my place; the other would take me out to eat.

I immediately loved my apartment (well, as soon as I could catch my breath following a hike up a steep and rocky mountain path). It’s a loft-style place that’s been recently renovated. The hospitality department left some flowers and breakfast food on the table to help me get settled, and as soon I had the hot-water heating instructions settled, I was left to unpack before dinner.

Dinner was everything I had hoped for at this place: unbelievably hospitable colleagues and their children, going out of their way to make the me (and one of my neighbors) feel welcome with food, beer, and lots of conversation and laughter. My English-department buddy is another university professor taking a break to spend some time doing this.

After all that, I thought I’d get some sleep, finally. Back at my place, I crawled into bed. Tired, hoping to get some sleep, unlike the previous night, when the jet lag kept me tossing and turning. Initially, I thought I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep. There were weird little noises that seemed way too close. I wondered if there were monkeys on the roof but laughed off my nervousness: I’m up in the mountains of India, I thought, there are bound to be noises. I dozed off.

Moments later a sharp pain on my left foot jolted me awake. A bed bug? A scorpion? I bolted out from under my sheets. I didn’t turn on the lights, though. In my sleepy mind I wondered if I had just dreamt the sting or bite or whatever it was, remembering my buddy’s words that most people have strange and vivid dreams their first couple of nights in the 6,000-foot elevation. I stayed there on top of my bedding, hoping this wouldn’t keep me awake. I started nodding off when ...

Another little nibble, this time on my other foot! I yelled and flailed, jumped out of bed and turned on the lights. I wasn’t dreaming. I noticed that the first bite, on my left foot, had actually slightly broken the skin, like a deep mosquito bite. What the ... ?

I pulled the sheets back. Didn’t see anything. But now I was awake, heart and brain racing. Was I going to deal with massive bed bugs for the next two years? I walked over to my computer. No Internet connection yet, but I thought I’d listen to music to calm my nerves. As I sat at my desk I heard a little rustling sound from the first floor below. I looked over the banister and saw a mouse on my dining room table, chewing through a pack of gum. Now what, I thought. Bed bugs and mice on the same night. The critter sensed it was being watched and scurried off the table and out of view.

I took a closer look and saw mouse droppings on my desk, next to my computer. I walked downstairs and found several droppings—on the table, a chair, the coffee table, the floor. Crap, I thought. Literally ... crap.

I considered phoning one of my colleagues—one had specifically said, “If you have any problems, no matter what time it is, give me a call.” But should I really call to see if she has a mousetrap at 1:30 a.m.? Perhaps I could walk over to one of my neighbors. But they are new teachers, too, and how would they be able to help? I quickly sensed that my real welcome to India was beginning, and I contemplated methods of eliminating two pests—a cat for the mouse (mice?) and fumigation for the bugs. How easy was this going to be to do tomorrow, a Sunday?

I walked back to bed, decided to pull off the sheets, blankets, everything. Maybe I’d put on socks and shoes, long pants, a sweatshirt, and somehow be able to sleep later. Then I saw a mouse dropping right in my bed. So ... the mouse had been there. Which means, I guess, that it’s possible that I was bitten by a mouse. But mice don’t bite, do they? And how the hell had it gotten under my sheets? And how am I supposed to sleep, I wondered ... ever again?

An hour later I had most of my belongings in out-of-reach spots. I sat down at my computer and began typing. After about a page, as I was clicking save, the mouse ran over my feet. I screamed. (Note: This wasn’t a terrified sissy yelp but more of an angry this-means-war holler.) I looked around for something to smash the mouse with, saw nothing, so I picked up my chair and smashed down repeatedly as my target scurried around the banister posts. Using the chair legs as a weapon, I had four chances with each slam to kill my tormentor, but really, I had no chance, and the mouse got away.

More awake now, adrenaline pumping, I scanned the area, wondering where the mouse’s entry point was. On the windowsill, mouse droppings. Ah, I thought, I had opened the window earlier, and the screen was a little loose. Just loose enough for a mouse to crawl in. “Fine,” I said out loud. “You came in this way, but you’re not getting out!” As I reached for the window, I let go of the screen; it swung down and nailed my thumb.

More screaming and jumping around. (Not a sissy scream, mind you, but a pained one.) As my thumb turned blue, I realized the mouse had just won another round.

Minutes later, as I walked back downstairs, I saw some leaves racing across the floor, toward the kitchen. The mouse was carrying off parts of the flowers the hospitality department had left for me. I ran after, determined not to be humiliated further. The leaves were in a corner. “You’re not getting these,” I said, tossing them into the trash.

I’d like to say I waged a brave war over the next three hours. But truthfully, I was a coward. For some reason, in my mind I still thought of the possibility of a scorpion or other bug in my bed. And I witnessed a starving, insane mouse running over my feet and furniture, fearlessly carrying off my flowers. I walked outside to see in any of my neighbors were up. Everything was dark.

So ... I came home and sat up on a dresser. Yeah, up high enough where there were no mice or scorpions.

The mouse came out a couple of times, brazenly ignoring me as I contemplated building a trap. I pulled out my tiny video camera and shot scenes for a future horror movie. A mouse crawling on a couch and dashing under a fridge. A mouse scurrying around on a fireplace. A grown man sitting on a dresser.

I eventually did the math: The creature in my bed and the one running around eating and crapping was the same one. I shouldn’t have to worry about being bitten again. I went back to bed, pulled the sheets completely off, wiped off the droppings, and wrapped myself in my sleeping bag and slept for an hour.

Day 2
The sun came up. No, wait, ha ... it’s monsoon season, no sunrises for the next six weeks. The sky brightened, outside my windows the entire valley was shrouded in mist; there was a mouse somewhere in my house.

Now that it wasn’t dark, I was able to laugh at my fears. It was way too early to call someone about a mousetrap, so I busied myself learning to use my new home. A flip of a switch, and 30 seconds later I had purified water. A match to light the burner, and 3 minutes later I had water boiling for some instant coffee.

I made eggs. I learned that they take longer to cook at this altitude but somehow still burn more easily. I took a shower. I learned that my hot water lasts less than 5 minutes. I eventually phoned my dinner buddies from the night before. I learned that, even though I have known these people for less than a day, I already have concerned people around me who do two things you’d expect from lifelong friends:
  1. Immediately scramble to help.
  2. Laugh hysterically at my misery. 
At their house 30 minutes later, they made plans for the day: Call someone to have my place cleaned and mattresses replaced. Contact the school nurse—who lives downstairs—to find out if I need rabies shots. (Incidentally, after I washed the bite with soap and hot water the night before, the mark completely disappeared, so I figured I was OK. But she has a stash of vaccines in her freezer, so she came up and stuck me in the arm. Four more to go in the coming days.) Go to the bazaar to buy cleaning supplies and mousetraps. Have coffee. And the whole time, laugh. And whenever anyone comes over or phones, start the conversation with: “This guy was brutally attacked by a rabid mouse last night.”

We went to Mussoorie for some shopping. The town is a narrow, curving road, with loads of cramped and cruddy shops selling whatever you need, each with its own specialty in its small space. I got some cleaning supplies. My friends bought a dryer. (In monsoon season, things are just damp. Clothes take a week to dry, if they dry. Mold appears everywhere, although I’ve been assured that my home shouldn’t get any since it’s a newly renovated space. Still, I’m thinking of buying a washer and dryer in the coming days.) We checked seven or eight stores, but couldn’t find a mousetrap. The simplest things. They are the things one misses when living halfway around the world.

Eventually I bought a package of rat poison. The package notes that it is fast-acting, kills in one feed, and is effective against plague causing rats. Just the smell of it should kill a mouse. My purchase cost 9 rupees, about 25 cents. I gave the shopkeeper 10 rupees, and instead of giving me change, he handed me a candy. I thought I had been had, a stupid foreigner getting candy instead of money, but later I was assured that it was worth the one cent I was owed.

The afternoon was a tour of the town—which tailor to use, which grocer sends up the best produce, which shops sells the best bootleg DVDs. When the sky cleared, we saw the Ganges River far below in the valley. As we had coffee overlooking the busy street, we saw a cow trying to enter a fashionable clothing store. It was gently coaxed away. A friend who visited India a couple of summers ago said that finding a bar in this county is difficult. My new friends pointed out half a dozen decent places to get a drink in this town of 30,000. We had a few at The Tavern, the most popular of them with school staff.

After food and drinks, I returned home with my purchases. I scrubbed surfaces with bleach. I put a light bulb in my closet. (That’s one way to keep clothes relatively dry.) I unpacked my suitcases, realizing that I had, in fact, brought way too much clothing and not enough of anything else. I made a peanut-butter-and-poison sandwich. I placed two chunks in strategic places. “Nice knowing you,” I said to the unsuspecting mouse.

A while later, my neighbor and I headed to the school cafeteria for dinner. We sat with other new staff, and I told my story. They laughed. My neighbor, who had been on the shopping trip all day and had heard the story before, shook his head and said, “I think he’s just making this stuff up.”

After dinner, we hung out with the girls next door. Eventually, I asked if anyone wanted to see a dead mouse. We walked into my place. The poisoned sandwich in the kitchen was gone. I ran upstairs. The one there was still there. “All right,” I said. “Help me find the body.”

Someone spotted the mouse in the cupboard under the kitchen sink. It was still alive. It scurried into a little space. “It’ll probably die in there tonight,” my friends said.

Just to be sure, I chucked in a chunk of rat poison under the sink. For the next 10 minutes, we watched as the mouse popped out of its hiding spot to nibble on the poison. Everyone congratulated me, hoped that the mouse would die in the open, and left. At 10 o’clock, I thought I’d turn in and see if I could get my first good sleep in India.

Day 3
I woke up at 3. Not as much sleep as I hoped for, but better. Outside, some jackals howled (it’s a hyena-like laugh). I heard birds. But my apartment was silent. I turned on the lights and saw a troubling site.

The poison sandwich I had upstairs, the one that was still there the night before, was gone. I raced downstairs, immediately noticing something amiss. The remainder of the rat poison, which I had left on my kitchen counter, was gone. I opened the cupboard, and saw what I feared: The mouse, alive and well, darted back into its hiding spot. This thing was healthy looking and getting bigger. Why not? I had been feeding it.

And just to show how it felt about me trying to poison it, the vindictive little monster left about five turds in one of my shoes. One of the first things you learn here is to check your shoes before putting them on. Usually you’re checking for scorpions or spiders. For the rest of my stay here, I’ll be checking for mouse crap.

“And all those jerks laughed at me yesterday,” I thought. “I knew I had reason to be scared of this, this super mouse that can't be killed.”

I eventually slept fitfully. At one point during the night, a mosquito or some other insect buzzed my ear, and I sat up startled, wondering if it was the mouse. I waited for the light of day, just so I could get out of this infested house.

The community at Woodstock was soon rallying around me. Everyone I met asked, “Are you the one with the mouse problems?” They laughed, they told me their own horror stories of mice rats snakes monkeys scorpions leaches, they assured me this was the first time ever that anyone had been bitten by a mouse, they laughed some more, but the whole time, they were extremely supportive, offering advice or poison or a cat or a bed at their homes in case I felt too tormented to sleep in my own.

And so that’s going to be my reputation here, at least for a while. The guy emasculated by a mouse. I guess it could be worse.

Whenever starting in a new place, it’s important to stand out in some way. Dozens of people meeting you every day, and you want them to remember you as someone funny and interesting, not shy or standoffish or sarcastic. So, I came up with some standard lines, the new people laughed while my neighbor rolled his eyes, having heard them over and over again.

Back at home, I noticed evidence that my mouse was still alive.

Day 4
I woke up with a new strategy. “I’m going to ignore the mouse,” I thought. Whenever anyone asked me about it, I would laugh off the subject and try to talk about something different.

That proved difficult. Every new person I met wanted details. Guess they really hadn’t ever heard of anyone bitten by a mouse. So, the standard line: “I crawled into bed, fell asleep, and felt a strong bite on my toe. I thought to myself that this country has some incredible bed bugs. But when I discovered the mouse droppings, I realized that it had been sleeping there and I had invaded its nest, so it was defending itself or just trying to get out. Now, how about that devotional service? Wasn’t that exciting?”

Probably not the best attempt at changing a subject; this is a Christian school, and while the vast majority of students and most staff members aren’t Christian, or at least aren’t here for that reason, there are some very devout people too. I haven’t figured out who’s who yet, so I’m trying to walk the fine line between the believers and the others, trying not to offend either. And, here’s the shocking part: While I’ve been a practicing agnostic for many years, I actually was impressed with the devotional service. There was some singing, and I was amazed at the quality of the voices in the room. There was a talk by the chaplain, who happens to be one of my next door neighbors, and I was amazed at how friendly and welcoming he was to everyone in the room, stepping on no toes, demanding nothing, and just asking us to consider the greater good of the community in everything we do this school year. Being the self-centered person I am, this struck a chord.

Afterwards, the new people had a meeting to introduce us to this 154-year-old school and to each other. Of course I talked about the mouse.

“Rest assured this kind of thing doesn’t happen,” said the guy running the meeting told the group.

“Be afraid,” I corrected him.

Following that, I tried to get down to preparing for the school year. I’ll teach several unfamiliar texts this year, plus drama, so I realize I’ll have precious few moments of free time (read: blog posts will be a few sentences and sporadic). But I was easily convinced to put down my book by two groups: three fellow new teachers wanted to walk to the bazaar at the top of the hill and a veteran couple wanted a few of us to stop by for dinner. Done.

The hike up the hill took a while, mostly because I took the lead. It was quite breathtaking in more ways than one. First of all, I’m still getting used to the elevation and the steep climbs. I hope to be used to it soon. But I hope I don’t get used to the stunning beauty of my surroundings. Even when the clouds rolled in, and we were literally walking in a cloud with little visibility, the natural beauty was overwhelming in its silence and simplicity.

One of the new girls, who’s just out of college and beaming with life, showed how to face nature’s pests with grace: At one point, she bent over to look at her foot and said, matter-of-factly, “Oh, you’ve got to be kidding, my first leach.” Attached to her leg, just above the sock, was a dark little worm. She lifted it, saw that it was embedded, and said, “Well, don’t want to pull it out because the head might get stuck.”

She calmly walked on. The other two girls and I exchanged grossed-out looks. We eventually found a shop, she bought a container of salt for 10 rupees, and sat down. A few granules of salt and the leach writhed out of her skin and she flicked it away. “Look how bloated it got,” she said. “Remember how thin it was when we first saw it?” She tried to step on it to watch it burst, but like a balloon, its body expanded.

If she could handle her first leach like that, I thought, surely I can handle a mouse.

I was late to dinner, and as soon as I sat down, half the group left for the local watering hole. “Just eat in the taxi,” my hostess encouraged me. “You can give me the plate back another time. We’ve got plenty.”

I stuck around, had some great food and great laughs, and eventually went to another neighbor’s house. “Hey, great to see you,” he said. “Want to borrow the cat?” Earlier in the day, we had arranged for me to take one of his cats to get rid of my mouse once and for all.

“Thanks,” I said, “but I’m actually concerned about the fact that this mouse ate a lot of poison. I mean, it might not have killed the mouse, but it still might harm your cat.” So we sat for half an hour, had a glass of wine, and talked about the wonders of mountain living. He invited me back for a pizza party on Sunday that he’s throwing for all the new people.

Back at home, the first thing I saw was my mouse scurrying around. Little did it know that I had a secret weapon—not the cat, but more poison, a gun-powder-like substance the shopkeeper at the top of the mountain assured me was one-hundred percent guaranteed to kill any rat or mouse. For 5 rupees, I sure hope so.

I made three little balls of bread and peanut butter and 100-percent-guaranteed poison. I set them on a paper towel in the corner of the room. But then I started worrying about all the advice I had heard: If the mouse dies in his hiding spot, I’ll never find him, and my whole place will stink for a long time. The way the poison works is it makes the rodent so thirsty that it leaves the house searching for water, sort of how peanuts send people searching for beer. Thing is, if the mouse can’t get out of the house, it ends up dying who-knows-where. Damn, should have taken the cat, I thought.

So then I decided to build my own trap. I tipped a bucket over the poisoned balls and positioned it in such a way that I could knock it down from above. Yes, I was going to wait for the mouse to go for the food; then, I would toss something like a rolled-up sock down from my loft, knock the bucket over and capture my tormentor. There are many, many things that could go wrong with this plan, I realize. In fact, just writing I see how stupid a plan it was. But here’s the thing: It worked!

I didn’t even have to wait long. As soon as I went up to the loft, the mouse was running around down below. I have to give the mouse credit: it was fast, darting around, seeking food. It ignored my trap once, but minutes later it went in. I couldn’t exactly see if it was under the bucket, but then I heard it munching on the bait. I actually heard it slurping down the peanut butter. I tossed the sock, the bucket fell over, and there was no sign of the mouse. It had to be in there, right?

I quickly realized I had a few new problems:
  1. I couldn’t see into the bucket, so I didn’t really know if the mouse was in there. If I lifted the bucket to see, it would escape.
  2. I didn’t know how long I’d have to keep the mouse covered up until it died. If the poison didn’t work, I’d have to wait until it died of hunger or thirst. How many days would that take?
My first problem was solved very soon. After 10 minutes, the mouse tried scratching its way out from under the bucket. I put an English anthology on top, telling the mouse: “Most high school freshmen can’t lift this book, so you won’t be able to either.”

As for my second problem, I don’t know what the answer is. It’s now Day 5 of this saga. My fifth day in my new home, and the whole time I’ve been consumed with this creature. The war isn’t over, I realize, but at least I got a point.

Friday, July 04, 2008

D gets the money

A final update on D, my student whose laptop was stolen and then replaced by readers of this blog (click on the label below to follow the entire story): I met with D a couple of days ago to present him with a "scholarship fund" of $1,000. The money, most of it donated by a group of amazing people, will go toward upcoming travel and other expenses relating to his college search. He said he's spending this summer preparing for his senior year (four of his teachers assigned summer work) and visiting various campuses. Plus, at some point, he'll try to relax.

Initially, we thought we'd use half of the money to start up some sort of charity, but with me leaving, that became something of a challenge. So ... yeah ... here he is in front of the school (with a rare smile on his face):

Monday, June 30, 2008

A week in Madison

There's a post I meant to write every day last week, but I never got around to it. It was going to go something like this:

Just got out of my seven-hour lecture on teaching AP English. And when I say lecture, I mean it. I'm at a workshop being run by two UW professors and three experienced high school AP teachers, and all week, they've been talking at us. Standing there and talking. Actually, in the case of one of the profs, sitting in front of us and talking. No sharing of ideas by the participants, no collaborative work, no time to practice new teaching strategies.

It's funny how teachers preach something called "best practices," but when they stand up in front of a group of teachers they do what should never be done to students: lecture lecture lecture, blah blah blah, listen to me pontificate.

You would think it's been a miserable experience, but to be honest, it hasn't.

First of all, in a collection of 40 teachers, there are always at least a couple of really dynamic, brilliant people that have a lot to share during lunch and after class.

Second, forced to sit there, I've taken to perusing the materials, and I must admit to getting very psyched up to teach AP.

Most important, though, is that Madison has the perfect spot to have a beer after class: the terrace behind the Union. It's a collection of colorful metal tables and chairs set up in shade and sun, overlooking the lake where boaters float lazily by. There are loads of students hanging out, but maybe because it's summer, the focus seems to be on grad students, plus professors, tutors, locals with children, and a collection of brain-fried AP teachers. The Union serves great beer--New Glaris, Bell's--and it's cheap. Every day there are scheduled activities: movie nights and live music afternoons. If there is a better place to grab a drink, on a college campus or otherwise, I'd love to hear about it.

Whenever I attend a professional development activity, no matter how bored or frustrated I become, I always try to stay positive and look for that one moment, that one piece of advice that might change my teaching. I don't know if that moment came during the workshop this time, but it certainly did afterwards.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A new home for my kitty?

I craigslisted the following ad about my cat: Typically crazy Siamese cat needs a home. If you want a cat to scare off all of your friends, Chisai might be the one for you!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Detour, part 2

When I returned from Japan nine years ago, I had no concrete plans. But being someone who likes to write five-year plans and then promptly forget them, here's what I thought would happen:
  • I would either settle down
  • or stay for a few years and then move on, becoming a lifelong expatriate.
The first point got a push from my dad, who helped me buy a condo near Senn High School, where I had been hired to teach. A couple of years passed, and I was offered the opportunity to teach in the school's International Baccalaureate program. After that, no matter what happened during the rest of the day, I had one period a day with bright, eager, usually motivated students. These kinds of students are a drug to teachers: They listen, ask, challenge, compete, learn.

Eventually, I became a slightly better teacher, and I was able to get "regular" students to respond. Life wasn't bad.

But still, in the middle of every school year I started wishing for something more. I'd look at the world map in my classroom and wonder about the possibilities. The world is big. Life is short.

Meanwhile, my friends were getting married, having children, settling down. I felt torn: I wanted that too, but I also wanted the independence and freedom to bounce around the planet one or two years at a time. This wishy-washiness doomed every relationship I was ever in. Years passed.

So ... flash-forward to this school year. Sometime in December, I decided that this was it. I HAD to move on. I told my principal I wasn't coming back, asked for a letter of recommendation. I told everyone that I was moving to California, either to the sunshine of San Diego or my friends in the Bay Area. One hundred percent guaranteed. I started examining housing and job opportunities.

I soon discovered that this might not be the best year to move to California: Arnold had ordered school districts to cut 10 percent of their budgets, and teachers around the state were losing jobs, searching elsewhere to work. No worries, I thought: I can do something else. A friend of mine is big time in the blogging world, so maybe I could somehow work with him or maybe he could set me up. Other friends are resourceful and generous, so I'd make it.

Then ... something happened on this blog. Because of this blog. Readers started posting really positive comments about me. Readers got together to donate money to one of my students, and they said they wanted to help in part because of the kind of teacher I am. And I realized: I'm not yet a great teacher, but I'm slowly getting there. And I don't want to do anything but teach, to work with teens, to help in whatever way I can.

So ... what could a person in my shoes do? I thought about my dream to bounce around the planet. I thought about a couple of my friends that had gone off to teach at international schools. And so I checked recruitment services that help place teachers at schools around the world.

I discovered it was too late to attend an international school recruitment fair. But one source listed schools that were still hiring. I checked out those schools' website and was intrigued by one. "Well, it's a long shot," I thought, "but if this place hires me, I'm going."

I filled out the application form, sent my resume and letters of recommendation, and hoped. The school replied, sorry, the position has been filled. I responded, thank you, maybe I'd consider working in the residence hall and wait for an English position next year. (This is a boarding school, so they need people to help take care of students outside of school hours.) They interviewed me. And a few days later said that the English position is available after all, what were my intentions?

I'm writing this quickly, with few details, but mostly as a reminder for myself, so I don't know if any of this makes sense to anyone reading. But the bottom line is this: I have been hired to teach high school English at a boarding school in the mountains of India. I leave next month.

Half my new students will be Indian. The other half from all over the world. Yes, they speak English. In fact, the school has an American curriculum, and many of the students end up coming to the U.S. for university; others go on to study in the U.K., Australia, or all over Asia.

Yes, I'll miss Senn and my students, but I'm excited to move on and start a new chapter of my life. And yes, I'll continue blogging, and will post a link on this page when it's ready. Thank you all for reading; I have a few more loose ends to tie up, which I'll do in the coming days.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Detour, part 1

Heard a Jens Lekman song recently that starts with these lyrics:
If I had to choose a moment in time
to take with me into eternity
I would choose this,
this moment with you in my arms.
I don't know if the concept of taking a moment into eternity has religious or cultural significance, but it reminds me of an excellent Japanese movie I saw a while back called After Life. The movie is very simple, and slow-moving, but profound: After people die, they go to a sort of in-between place where they must choose one memory from their lives that will be recorded for them to take with them to heaven, or wherever the afterlife is.

After seeing the movie, then buying the DVD and seeing it again, the concept became a most favored conversation topic for a while: What if you had to choose just one experience from life, and that's the only thing you'd remember for all of eternity? Which experience would you choose?

Hey, actually, maybe you can skip down to the comments, write your memory out, which will then be preserved for the eternal life of the internet. Then, come back to this spot and keep reading.

OK ... done writing (or thinking about) your one eternal memory?

Here's mine:

Almost exactly eleven years ago, back in 1997, I stepped off a plane at the Osaka, Japan, airport. I was alone, with a couple of suitcases of clothes and CDs, waiting to be picked up and taken to my new home. I had recently been hired to teach conversational English in a town called Numazu. I had also recently broken up with a longterm girlfriend, quit a kick-ass job at a small newspaper in Vermont, said sayonara to friends and family, and boarded the plane with little knowledge of what was to come.

Here's how stupid I was (stupid? naive? clueless? whatever word fits best): With me I had no contact information should anything go wrong. I simply relied on my new employer's word that someone would be at the airport to pick me up. Well, you guessed it, no one was there.

After I passed through customs and into the airport, I was bombarded with newness: This place was clean and modern, so much like the country I had just left, but I was hearing announcements in a language I didn't understand, I was looking at signs with squiggly writing, I was seeing lots and lots of Japanese people. This was my first time out of the country, and I wasn't prepared for any of it.

I didn't see anyone looking for me. No sign with my name on it. No one calling my name. As my fellow passengers cleared out, I was left alone. It was evening, maybe 8 p.m., but it was amazing how quickly the place quieted down. No ... one ... left.

"I guess they're late," I thought, and plopped down on my bags. Fifteen minutes later, and still no one. I started feeling tinges of concern. No, wait, those feelings had started on the flight, this was escalating into panic. Yeah, I know, it was only fifteen minutes of waiting, but in that time, so many thoughts crossed my mind: What was I doing here? What was my problem? Why had I decided to drop everything to do this thing? Was I just running away from something or someone? What if no one comes to get me? What am I going to do? I wonder when the next flight back to Chicago is?

I eventually worked up the courage to approach the information desk.

"Um," I said, realizing I hadn't learned a single word of Japanese before coming over. Oh, I had planned to, but just had never gotten around to it. (At the time, I did know that one "Mr. Roboto" song, but had no idea that domo arigato means "thank you very much," even though that's stated very clearly in the song.)

"Can I help you?" the very cute woman at the information desk asked. She spoke English, yes!

"Someone is supposed to meet me," I said, "and they're not here. Did anyone ... call or anything?"

"What is the party's name, please?"

I had no idea. "I don't know," I said.

"No, I'm sorry, I don't think I can help you. Maybe you wait a little longer?"

Like I had a choice.

The next fifteen minutes, the fifteen minutes until someone actually did show up, that's the memory I'd like to take with me to eternity.

In that time, I felt so, I don't know, helpless, confused, scared, hopeless, but at the same time, alive. I know that most people say they feel most alive when they have a near-death experience, or when they scale some incredible mountain, or they watch their first child born. Those things haven't happened to me yet, but this one quarter of an hour at some random airport, I was completely alone. And I had no idea what would happen next. And I had no prospects. No way of surviving, even though I had cash in my pocket. In a lot of ways, I felt I was at a major crossroads in life. If no one came, how would I act? If I couldn't rely on anyone, would I be able to rely on myself?

I have never really felt those things again. The eleven years that have passed since that day have flown by, without a single moment I'd like to take with me to eternity. (Oh, hell, that's wrong in a lot of ways--there have been many, many amazing moments, experiences, days, and even weeks. But nothing that almost caused a complete circuit failure in the thing I call my brain.)

So, yeah. I want to recapture that feeling ...

Friday, June 06, 2008

Lookin' for love

... in all the wrong places.

A billboard in my neighborhood.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The bad, the good, the great

It's ACT score time. I was really pushing my juniors to get an 18, and some are actually excited about their scores. Just got this email from one of my kids. All of a sudden I'm feeling better about the entire school year (and I guess about life).
Mr. P,

well i have some good news, some bad news, and some GREAT news.

im sure you want the bad news first so here it goes...


bummer right...luckily there is also some good news...


so close to the 18!!!!...ok now the great news...


all this i did with your were the only teacher in any of my classes that actually gave a damn about kids and their future. Thank you so much for supporting my classmates and me. Thank you for teaching us all the strategies that helped SO MUCH on the test.

IM GOING TO NEED YOU TO PLEASE GIVE ME TUTORING CLASSES AFTER SCHOOL TO TAKE THE ACT AGAIN NEXT YEAR...i know its my senior year and i wasnt supposed to worry about the test but now that i saw such progress i got motivated and i'm determined to get a higher score...


Friday, May 30, 2008

Geometry homework

"My mother told me to give this to you. I don't know what you're talking about."

So long

Well, it's been a long and sometimes-eventful school year. Thanks for reading. I think I have one or two loose ends to tie up, then it'll be summer time.
  • Speaking of ties, a student asked to borrow a tie for some semi-formal event coming up. Must remember to bring one in.
  • I have a new job. New city. New students. New experiences. Come back in mid-July for more info.
  • I have been chosen by the seniors to speak at graduation next weekend. Darn them, they must know my fear of public speaking. Maybe next week I'll post my rough draft and see if anyone can help.
  • Speaking of which, I was at Jewel the other day and ran into a kid I taught two or three years ago. "I'll see you at graduation," he said to me. Apparently he's got a younger sibling graduating this year. "Great," I said, "I guess I'll be saying a few words." He nodded and said, "Yeah, I heard."
  • D has yet to come up with a plan for the donated money. I'm thinking I'll just put the whole thing into some college savings account for him. After a few glitches, he's got the laptop working. And he's storing it in my locked closet these days.
  • Two kids who graduated last year stopped by the other day while one of my current juniors was hanging out. One of the now-college freshmen said he loved my class so much that he wrote an essay about it this year. Comments like that make an entire year worthwhile.
  • A students said something really hilarious the other day, possibly the funniest thing I've heard all year. "I should write that down," I said. But I didn't. And so I forgot what it was. (Darn, I was hoping that if I starting writing about it I'd remember.) Just goes to show why I NEED to post every day ...

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Talk talk talk

I wonder if it was like this when I was a teenager. Been so long that I don't remember. But anyway.

During passing periods, I stand outside my room, welcoming students, monitoring traffic, listening in on conversations. And today it seemed that every conversation I heard was a typical he-said, she-said drama. Kids walking down the hall, pissed off and venting that someone had said something, that someone better mind her own business, that someone said something to someone about something. It was enough to make me want to scream. And it was enough to make me wonder if any kid walking past me had anything at all to think about other than what someone might have said.

It was one of those days. Got worse fifth period when one of my favorite students walked in totally venting about the same thing. "And they were just whispering," I heard her saying. "Why can't they just say it out loud, why do they have to whisper?"

This girl is super bright, usually super motivated, the kind of kid who yells down the hall, "How's my favorite teacher?" and I duck, embarrassed by this awesome kid. But today she sank a level.

"Why do you care?" I asked as I passed her before the bell.

Class started. I was ready. Most kids were ready. But this girl was still whispering to her friends about the kids in the hall that were whispering about her.

"This poem," I said, referring to what I had just read, "is about something important. About something that matters. Not about some stupid little thing someone might have said in the hallway." Yeah, I was looking at Whisper Girl, and she knew it, and she was pissed off about it.

"Why do you have to call me out like that?" she asked.

"Why do you have to care about some idiots in the hall?" I asked.

"Because they annoy the hell out of me," she said. "Just like you!"

The usually-chatty classroom fell silent, waiting to see how I'd respond.

"There's probably a million things I can say right now," I said. "But I'm just going to avoid this confrontation." And I got the class going on something.

A couple of minutes later, I asked Whisper Girl to come over to my desk. I chatted with her for a bit about the assignment she was working on. Then I asked about what had happened in the hallway that had upset her so much. Of course it was just a case of some girls talking about her.

"Why can't they just say it out loud?" she said. "Then we can deal with it." By that she meant, they could fight. About what? Who knows.

I tried appealing to her intelligent side. "You know," I said. "You're bright. You have a future. You're going to college. Why do you want to sink to that level? The level of kids that have nothing better to think about so they just talk about others?"

"I don't know," she said. "I've been trying to ignore it. Really I have. But they just get to you, you know?"

"So you're letting them win?"

We chatted like this for a few minutes. Resolved nothing. Although eventually I had to admit that it does matter what people say. That it's important to be liked. Or, more importantly, to not be hated.

But there was no resolution. And there's no point to this post. Just like there's no point to the crap kids talk about in the hallways, the crap that holds their interest, that gets them so worked up that they're willing to fight it out just to make it go away.