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."