Saturday, November 07, 2009


Fifteen minutes into a conversation with a Tibetan refugee, I noticed some of the girls shuffling around, looking restless. One tried to signal me, mouthed some words I couldn't understand, and reached into her purse. I just shook my head.

For the past three days, I had been chaperoning a group of 23 high school students, mostly twelfth graders, in the city of Dharamshala, home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile. Though educational, the trip was up to this point mostly exasperating, as it usually is on something like Activity Week, constantly waiting for latecomers, shushing them at night, watching in horror as they look bored or fall asleep during an audience with the prime minister.

This was our last morning in town, and we were visiting the Reception Centre (For New Arrivals From Tibet). After a short introduction to the centre from a staff member, we met a 38-year-old man who had recently arrived. His story was typical for one group of refugees, the ones who risk arrest or worse if they stay in their home country any longer: He and a group of about 40 people had participated in an anti-China demonstration in the capital city, Lhasa. Shots were fired, some of his friends fell, but he and his wife managed to run away with only the clothes on their backs and a scar on his arm from a bayonet wound. They left their 12-year-old daughter behind, hoping she would be taken in by relatives, and made a 23-day trek over the Himalayas to reach Nepal. From there they were taken to Delhi and finally to Dharamshala.
The other typical refugees are: children whose parents send them over the border to receive a Tibetan education (one of the main schools is in Mussoorie); monks and nuns who want to continue practicing Buddhism; and old people who want to meet His Holiness the Dalai Lama before they die. (We had also hoped for an audience with the Dalai Lama, but he was out of town.)

As some students asked questions which were translated by the employee ("When do you hope to return to Tibet?" "If I return, I will be killed."), others were looking like they were up to something. Please, I silently pleaded, just this once don't do anything stupid. Instead, as teenagers often to when you least expect it, they did something wonderful: They discreetly took up a collection for the man and his wife and whispered something to the centre's employee, who accepted the money and quietly rolled up the bills. I saw 500-rupee notes, as well as smaller denominations--plenty of money the kids could have blown on lunch and snacks and souvenirs.

The man looked touched when told of the donation. But when one of the students told the employee to "tell him that we are praying for him and his family," that's when tears welled up in his eyes and he said, "I thank you from the bottom of my heart."

For years, I had heard of the Tibetan struggle for independence; in fact, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Dalai Lama's exile in India. Growing up, "Free Tibet" seemed like a trendy catchphrase uttered by Hollywood celebrities and pop stars. These days, the cause seems to be less fashionable, and even Barack Obama has refused to meet the Dalai Lama, afraid of Chinese response. Reading about and listening to stories of the struggle, it is evident that the Chinese are close to their goal of eliminating the cultural heritage of the country. Tibetan children are taught in Chinese and sing patriotic pro-China songs. There are now as many Chinese living in Tibet as there are Tibetans. All residents of Tibet, regardless of their background, must speak Chinese to get a white-collar job and won't be served at stores and restaurants if they speak Tibetan. Buddhist monks and nuns have been marginalized, and "reeducated" by their Chinese handlers.
But all is not lost in Dharamshala. The cry of "free Tibet" is slowly being replaced by "save Tibet." Religious and cultural practices are continuing here in India, with young and old practicing the ancient arts, speaking the language, sharing the cuisine with visitors. The government-in-exile is still trying to engage the Chinese, still asking to be allowed to return home. Instead of independence, however, they ask for autonomy, for the right to live in peace.

At the same time, there is a sense of hopelessness. When asked what young people can do to support the cause, Prime Minister Samdhong Rinpoche paused, then said, "Pray for us. But also, pray for the Chinese people."

This kind of answer does not satisfy everyone. We met one man, the owner of a bookstore, who disagree with the Dalai Lama and his government. His more radical approach would call for each Tibetan family to send one child to become a "mosquito," trained to disrupt China by performing small acts of sabotage on the mainland. So far, he has five volunteers.

On a visit to a nunnery, we watched the young women--heads shaved and clad in red robes--debate. One nun would loudly and energetically shout a question and clap her hands, while the second one, sitting on the ground, would respond. If her answer was incorrect, the one standing would perform an inverted slap. With dozens of voices and slaps going at once, the courtyard was a spectacle of noise and animation. This kind of religious training can probably no longer be seen in Tibet, according to the principal of the nunnery.
As we groped for answers to unspoken questions, as we searched for hope in this hopeless situation, we met nuns from Tibet, India, Bhutan, and Korea. One student mused: "At least because of all this, the Tibetan culture is being spread around the world." A small victory for those hoping to "save Tibet."

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Past and present

Chatted on Facebook with one of my former advisees earlier today, and his advice to me regarding the blog: More stories, fewer photos. ("Write more about us!" he said, and I thought, you guys are gone, away at college, what am I supposed to write? But here goes anyway ...)

Speaking with former students is a good guage as to how I'm doing as a teacher. I always ask them how it's going, and if they think they were prepared. Now that they're gone, there's no need for them to lie. It turns out that speaking with former students is also a good way to plan what I am going to say to current students. So ...

All day today, in all my classes, I said, "You guys remember Jag? I chatted with him earlier. And guess what he said about college?"

Students in one of my classes were pretty funny about it:

"He said you did an excellent job of preparing him for college!"

"Well, something like that. But he said more."

"He said that the warm-ups really helped. He said you're one of the best teachers. He said college is easy compared to your class!"

"No, actually he said almost the exact opposite. He said that college is great, but that there's a lot of reading and writing, way more than he expected." And I told them that I've recently had emails from two other former students, and they said the same exact thing.

And then the kids all knew what was coming.

For my English 12 kids, read the entire chapter of The House of the Spirits, there's a quiz tomorrow. For journalism kids, sign up for on-line tutorials. For English 11, read a chapter in a textbook and revise an essay, including new information from the chapter.

"Thanks a lot," my current students are now saying to my former students.

And I just smile, saying, "I don't want to get the same email message from you in a year or two."

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


I work at a school that everyone seems to know, one of those places that you can mention anywhere in the world and someone will say, "Oh, I know someone that once worked there." Or studied there. Or whose husband or wife or parent knew someone that visited once.

But the fact is that I myself attended a high school just like that.

Today I was conferencing with a couple of parents. Their daughter, born in New Jersey, is here for her junior and senior years to get a global education and get in touch with her Indian heritage.

Her parents and I were talking about something or other, and they asked me what school I had attended.

"I went to a big public school in Chicago," I said. "Of course it was the number one school in the city at the time."

"Which school?" the wife asked.

"Lane Tech."

"Really? My niece went there, too," she responded. "She graduated in 1991."

"Two years after me," I said.

We then chatted about how it used to be number one but isn't anymore, how things change, how no matter where you go, you run into someone with connections to the place.

This was a nice little coincidence because, just this morning as I walked to work, I realized that I've missed my 20-year reunion. During my 10-year reunion, I was living and working in Japan. And as I sat down to write this, I looked at the date--Sept. 29, or 9/29--and that reminds me that back at Lane I was in Division 929.

Something's going on.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Coffee break

Spent all day Saturday at school. From about 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. I was writing report comments for all my students. After that, I was working with the eleventh graders on the talent show. Such a long day calls for lots and lots of coffee. Luckily, we have a coffee machine that grinds out a pretty OK cuppa, so I can usually stay awake, even on the longest of days.

As I walked past some students for the third time, I stopped to chat.

"I saw on the Discovery Channel something about how coffee can kill you," I said. "Supposedly, if a person drinks 60 cups in one day, he'll die."

One of my guys looked at me and asked, "Sixty? Or sixteen?"

"Sixty. Six-oh," I said. "I want to test it out. This is my sixth cup so far."

And he responded with an all-time cute comment: "Can you please stop? I don't want you to die!"

Sunday, August 16, 2009

English class is

A couple of years back, I wrote about an Application for English Class that I have students fill out. The schools and even countries may change, but my teaching techniques don't. I have modified the application a little, resulting in some different humorous responses I can share.

Students have to plug in personal information and answer questions like "What are your strengths and weaknesses in English class," "List three things that make your extraordinary and/or different from others," and "What (or who) motivates you to pursue your goals?"

Here are some of my favorite responses to the final question, "Complete this sentence: English class is ..."
  • like chocolate. Its flavor remains even after it's over.
  • necessary for my future.
  • where you get to excell and learn an universal language.
  • cool, OK, coolest, good. one of my favorite classes.
  • very interesting compared to other classes.
  • a short story.
  • like a woman, you must cherish every moment before she walks off.
  • going to be tough but totally awesome!!
  • a piggy bank.
  • everything the teacher and students make it
  • a training ground for oblivious minds.
  • a philosophy.
  • where we learn how to transfer emotions into words.
  • ironic, in how its overall greatness cannot be put into words.
  • fun when we don't do Shakespeare.
  • an interesting class but very tricky and difficult where I have to be really confident and attentive.
  • scary and stressful, but necessary.
  • a lighthouse in a weather of mist is about to come in any second.
  • a mystery
  • a series of thriller movies that makes me awake all the time with tension.
  • a bittersweet symphony.
  • boring unless the teacher is fun.
  • a mobile phone (it helps people to communicate with one another)
  • not an elective.
  • English class is a tribunal and I am the criminal being persecuted.
I sure am glad they don't come in with any preconceived notions.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

First day fun

Walking to the library during a free period, I spot three twelfth grade guys hanging out with two new kids.

"I can't believe you're teaching them bad habits already," I say.

"Oh, come on," one of them says. "What can I possibly teach them?"

I stop. "Now that you mention it," I say, "you're right. You can't possibly teach them anything."

He laughs, and I go off on my merry way.

Today was the first day of school. I got to meet a whole new batch of kids. And so far, the kids are alright.
The eleventh graders are hilarious, because they've heard all sorts of things about me.

During one class, after explaining the syllabus, I asked, "Any questions?" Nobody moved. Nobody looked my way. So I waited. That's one of the questions about teaching, I guess. Can you wait long enough?

Finally, after an uncomfortable 45 seconds, a hand went up slowly. "Yes?" I asked.

"I heard you are a strict teacher," the new kid said. Where did he get that idea, I wondered.

"That's not a question," I said and stared him down.

"Sorry," he said, "someone told me you were strict." He looked at me expectantly.

"So what's your question?" I responded.

"Are you a strict teacher?"

I laughed. "I don't think so. But why don't you stick around and find out for yourself?"

Monday, July 20, 2009

Frank McCourt, 1930-2009


Several summers back, McCourt's book Teacher Man kept me in the profession and inspired me to write about my experiences. His book--about his 30 years in New York public schools--is hilarious, poignant, and true; McCourt admits his insecurities about teaching, much the same way I feel almost every day in the classroom. This New York Times article sums up his teaching days nicely.

Saturday, May 30, 2009


Or: Tears, Part 2

Five minutes before class: A student is standing solemnly outside the staff lounge. I am heading out of the room, going up to the auditorium where this girl and two classmates will present their "Senior Symposium."

"I have a problem," she says nervously. "I'm not ready."

"Sure you are," I say as I brush past her, knowing full well that she's probably not. She's one of my weaker students, working with two other weak students. Today's the first day of the Symposium, and the three of them got the unlucky break of being selected to go first. "You go on in five minutes. I'll see you there."

Three minutes before class: I've peeked into the auditorium; everything seems to be in place. A table and three chairs, plus a podium on stage. Lights on. Students are wandering in casually, filling in random seats. Two of the presenters are at the door; unprepared girl is not. I step out, see her standing in a corner by the stairs.

"I lost most of my presentation," she says as I approach. "I can't go on. Can the two guys go on without me? I'll take a zero."

"What do you mean you lost your presentation?" I ask, pretty much knowing what she'll tell me. All year long, whenever an assignment has been due, at least one student was bound to tell me something about a computer crash or lost storage device or some sort of technical snafu.

The girl pulls out some typed-up notes and mumbles something about working all night and not saving it properly.

"Looks like you have something," I say. "Just present that. Even if it's not great, even if you get a terrible grade, it's better than nothing. Remember what I've said all year, an F is better than a zero." (It's true: an F will not drag down an overall average like a zero does.)

She doesn't look convinced, but I turn away, distracted by some silly seniors asking questions about the Symposium. It begins today, and they still don't know exactly what's expected of them. It's not that difficult. In groups of three, they've all read and analyzed independent novels, linked by author or theme. Today, groups must present that author or theme. Each group member chooses something that links the three novels and speaks about it for ten minutes. Afterwards, there's a question-and-answer session, group members defending their conclusions.

The symposium has been a tradition here for at least 15 years. It's something every twelfth grader endures in the weeks before graduation. But I guess it hasn't hit them until here and now. They are graduating in less than 20 days.

"Does everyone have to dress formally, or just today's presenters?" someone asks. As if I'd tell her to leave if she wasn't dressed properly.

One minute before class: Unprepared girl is now a total nervous wreck. Tears are streaming down her face. She's probably wondering why she's here, cornered, why she didn't run somewhere, anywhere instead of showing up. I should let her off the hook, let her take a zero, fail the fourth quarter, possibly the semester, not graduate. I should. But first I need to trick her onto the stage.

"Let me ask you something," I say. "What do you think of me as a teacher? Am I OK? Or terrible? Or somewhere in between?"

She looks up. Wipes some tears away. "You're a very good teacher," she says.

"Thanks," I say. "Now let me tell you a story. Are you listening?"

I tell her--in as few words as possible--about my time student teaching, back in the early 90s. I was having a terrible time. I got along well with the students, but I just wasn't ready to teach. I quickly realized that I had blown off my entire four years of college. I hadn't learned a thing about teaching. I didn't know how to write a lesson plan, how to teach, how to assess. I didn't even know my subject well. When the university supervisor asked me specific questions about what I was doing or why, I couldn't answer.

So I decided to quit.

There was about a month to go, and I was in pain and agony. I realized that I would never actually work as a teacher. I didn't know what I would do, but I knew I'd never teach. One evening I told my parents that I was quitting. They were upset, but for the first time ever, they didn't attack my decision. They listened. And when I was done, tears streaming, they said something like this: "Maybe you won't ever teach. But just finish this. And if you decide to teach in the future, you'll have the degree, the qualifications."

I did finish that semester of student teaching. It wasn't great. But my cooperating teacher was encouraging, and the university supervisor gave me a pass.

"My point," I tell unprepared girl, "is that I'm glad I finished what I started. If I had quit back then, I wouldn't be here right now."

She agrees to give it a try.

30 seconds before class: As nervous girl walks into the auditorium, I smile and give her a final word of advice: "I promise you, you will not die. It might not be great, but you will not die."

I turn out to be right. Her group does fine. She does fine; in fact, she's better than her more confident group members. And the audience is approving, asking loads of serious questions. It's not the greatest 40 minutes of anyone's life, but nobody dies, life goes on, and maybe someone has even learned something.

Friday, May 29, 2009


What is the bravest thing you have ever done?

I personally don't know if I have ever done anything brave in my life. Definitely never as brave as what one of my twelfth graders did today.

For the past two weeks ago, the twelfth graders had been talking about staging a senior skip day. "Tell us when you're going to do it so we plan accordingly," we teachers would say. "We haven't decided anything," they would reply. Well today was the day. At morning assembly, the seniors were noted for their absence. They were simply gone. Where to, nobody knew.

One girl, though, was there, sitting and smiling when the school principal stood on stage and said, "I take a dim view of this action at this time of year."

"Why aren't you skipping?" I asked her after assembly. She was going to be the only student in my first class.

"Because I don't feel like it," she said. "I have nothing to rebel against." She said the same kind of thing to other teachers, with slight variations. "I know it sounds cheesy, but I want to go to my classes." This girl is not in the running for valedictorian, nor is she going for a perfect attendance award. She just didn't feel like skipping.

Turns out she took a lot of heat from her peers. Apparently, she got all sorts of nasty phone calls and text messages telling her how big of a bitch she was, how she had ruined skip day, how the whole class would suffer because of her actions. Thing is, the principal did drive up to the top of the hill, where the seniors were congregating, and told them they'd either come back to school and face minor consequences or stay away and face major consequences. Almost half of them came back.

"It was the scariest thing ever," one of the returnees said. "He came up, delivered one sentence, and got back in the car and left."

Meanwhile, the lone holdout was reeling from the attacks.

"Basically we were all blackmailed by the class governors to say we'd skip school today," she said. "I signed something saying I'd skip, but then I didn't feel like it."

At the end of a grueling semester, at the end of four long years of high school, the senior class isn't very united. Most of the kids just want to get out of here and get on with their lives. Today's failed attempt at unification won't make things better.

"The whole thing's so stupid," holdout girl said.

Finally, one of the returnees approached. "You're my hero. You really are," the returnee said to holdout girl. "I wish I had been smart enough to say 'screw it' and come to school like you did. But it was so hard."

The pressure was on. And one girl was brave enough to push back against the weight of all of her peers. It took guts.


Or: Tears, part 1

"Did you really write this? Is all of this true?"

It rarely happens, but every once in a while, a student writes something so good that I have no choice but to ask. I'm in the English office with one of my eleventh graders, reviewing his personal essay.

"Yes, everything is true," he says. "Well, I'm not sure about all the dialogue, but I think that's what he said."

"This is pretty incredible," I tell him.

High school students have the hardest time writing about themselves. Many claim that they've never experienced anything worthy of an essay, that their lives are boring, that they are nobodies. Or they write too much about the most minor point, or a negative trait that they really shouldn't be revealing. But with a little digging and a lot of prodding, most produce some really interesting stuff. Back in Chicago, there were plenty of stories of survival--from gang warfare, drugs, bad parents. Here, at an elite boarding school full of well-to-do Indians and other Asians, there are stories of success and tradition--the uncle who became a billionaire, the grandmother teaching Tibetan ideals.

One kid, though, really blew me away. I probably shouldn't reveal too much--it is a personal essay after all--but maybe he wouldn't mind.

One boy found out at some point in elementary school that he was a quarter Jewish. Living in Germany at the time, he was given a new nickname, and a game called "Catch the Jew" was established. He thought it was all hilarious (his emphasis, not mine).

Then, about a year ago, he met his one remaining Jewish relative, his grandfather. The boy laughed so hard he cried when he saw the old man's big nose. Then, the grandfather told a story about the time he left an orphanage after the war, after four years in a concentration camp, when all he wanted was an ice cream cone.

That's the sparknotes version, missing the emotion and cleverness. But trust me, the essay is incredible. If it's true.

In class, I raved about it and asked the writer if he'd be willing to read it. He agreed. He's sort of a show-off, likes being the center of attention, so he stood proudly in front of his peers. His pronunciation isn't the best, plus he started reading way too fast, so he wasn't doing any of it justice. At a pause, I interrupted, "Are you a little nervous?" He admitted he was. "Well, slow down," I said.

He did. When he got to the ice cream incident, he paused a little longer. "Just a minute," he said. He bent over, hiding his face behind his paper, shoulders heaving. Soon, he was sobbing out loud. He couldn't get a single word out, just remained crouching at the front of the room, tears and mucus running down his face.

The class sat in stunned silence. Here was a campus tough guy--someone who flirts relentlessly, who gets busted smoking and doesn't care, who influences shy Korean boys to talk to girls, who plays sports and laughs and openly admits he drinks--weeping.

I let him stay in that position, all by himself, for a minute. The longest, sweetest, most beautiful minute of the school year. I'm pretty sure the story is true.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The art of teaching

Every English teacher knows the story:

You try to discuss a novel, try to point out some possible symbols, try to get the kids to create meaning out of what's there. Soon enough, skeptical faces stare back, and finally a brave soul says, "Yeah right! How do you know the author meant that?"

"Well, I don't know he meant exactly that," you say, "but he definitely meant something. I mean, do you think that scene--or those words--are there by accident?"

"It's possible," the skeptical student says. "Why do you insist that everything has some hidden meaning? Can't things just be what they are?"

"Of course they can," you say. "And they are what they are. But the beauty of literature is that there's more to it. Literature is an art."

Anyway, if you're an English teacher you know the story. And if you've ever been a student in an English class, you know the story from the other end. In fact, you probably hate reading because of the damn analyzing you were forced to do.

My eleventh graders have been grumbling about this stuff for the past few days. The grumbling almost turned to shouting when I handed back a multiple-choice test on Parts 1 and 2 of Ian McEwan's Atonement.

Writing multiple-choice questions about literature is hard enough. Defending the questions and answers against the skeptics is almost impossible.

But today I think I made a breakthrough.

"OK, I'm working on my multiple-choice-question writing," I announced at the start of class. "Take out scratch paper and answer two questions. They're based on a New Yorker article about McEwan. You'll read the article next week, but today I want to see what you think."

This was a brilliant tactical move. I highly recommend it. The New Yorker article is brilliant, because it's not just about the author; it's about the writing process. The reporter follows McEwan as he works on his new novel.

"Question 1," I said. This was an oral test. "How long do you think McEwan worked on Part 2 of Atonement? Was it A. several hours, B. several days, C. several weeks, or D. several months?"

The kids scribbled their choices.

"Question 2. About how many words does McEwan write on a good day? Remember that he is a professional writer, and he has nothing else to do all day but write. So, is it A. 500, B. 1,000, C. 2,000, or D. 5,000?"

I asked to see a show of hands. What did they think? Mostly B. or C. for both questions. Maybe kids are conditioned to answer B. or C. when they don't know an answer.

"OK, thanks for playing. You'll find out the answers next week when we read the article," I said. This was met with groans. "What, you want to know right now?" They did. "Fine."

And so I pulled out a copy of the article and read the answer to question 1: "When McEwan was writing Atonement, he struggled for months with the Dunkirk section." And the answer to question 2: "For McEwan, a single 'dream of absorption' often yields just a few details worth fondling. Several hundred words is a good day."

"So," I said, "the answers are D. and A." Only one student had both answers correct, a girl who talked to me about McEwan after school on Monday. "Now," I said, "who can tell me why I had you try to answer these two questions?"

A kid got it right on the first try: "Because we always argue when you say that writers spend a lot of time on their novels, and that everything's in there for a reason."

"Exactly!" I said.

"Yeah, but," a skeptic said, "is this true for every writer? Or just about McEwan?"

"Well," I said, "every writer is different. Some struggle for weeks on just one sentence, trying to make it perfect. But whatever the case is, you need to believe me when I say that writing is an art."

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


Working at a k-12 boarding school with students and teachers from dozens of countries and cultures, simple daily interactions can be educational and rich in meaning. Random little moments with people I don't even know can make me shake my head in wonder and pontificate on "kids these days."

As I was talking to a couple of my eleventh graders after school in the quad today, a sixth grade girl walked by and shouted in her annoying little voice, "HelLO, Mr. PolKA!" I don't really know her; I don't teach her; but she shouts out my name whenever and wherever she sees me. It's kind of cute. Kind of rude.

Before I could respond to her, though, she saw one of the kids I was talking to, said something in Korean, and bowed low in a sign of respect.

"Wait a minute!" I shouted. "You bow to her--a student? But you don't bow to me?"

"Oh, sorry," the sixth grader said and gave me a quick, little bow before running off.

"What was that all about?" I asked my two kids.

"I don't know," the recipient of the bow said. "I guess she sees me as her respected elder."

"But not me?" I asked.

"I get the same thing from the younger Thai students," my other student said. "But I guess they just see you as a foreigner."

"So I don't get respect? I thought you came from cultures that respect teachers."

"Yeah," the Thai guy said, "but they see you as an American and act appropriately. They act the way American students would towards teachers."

There's something wrong with kids these days. Especially here, especially the good kids that come from good families, the ones that end up acting the way they think Americans are supposed to act. But maybe "wrong" is the wrong word. When you're in a situation where cultures mix, where identities and beliefs are formed, strange things happen. And strange conversations take place.

This morning, for example, I ate breakfast at school. Only one colleague was there, a French teacher, with his son, who is in the second grade. My colleague stepped away from the table, so I continued with some small talk with the small kid. We were on the topic of food, and he was saying how he prefers certain things back home in France.

"I bet you think everything is better in France," I said.

"No, not everything," he said. "I don't like the bananas in France. They get shipped all the way from Africa."

"Really," I said, and then we chatted about different foods that are better here in India. Eventually we ran out of different ingredients you can add to milk.

"You know," I told him, "when I visited France a couple of years ago, I liked something that you probably don't know much about. I really liked the wine."

"Oh, yeah, wine! Some wine, when you drink it, it makes you go," he said, making a strange, shuddering face. "Other wine makes you go," he continued, this time with a different face.

I was having a conversation about wine with a second grader! Or was I?

"Do you mean to tell me that you can differentiate between good wine and bad wine?" I asked.

"No," he said, "all wine is good. But I really like beer."

"Beer?" I laughed.

"Yeah! Apple beer."

"Do you mean cider?"

"Is that what it's called?"

"Where did you try cider? Does you father allow it?"

"No, at grandma's. I had two glasses!"

After school, after the bowing incident, I ran into the French teacher in the staff work room. I told him the story.

"Surely you're exaggerating," he said.

"No, that was the exact conversation we had this morning," I said.

He said I was trying to embarrass him in front of other colleagues, who were laughing away, especially when he said that his son had just been disqualified from the spelling bee for misspelling the word "wine."

"Which wine was it? The kind you drink, or the way kids talk?" I asked.

"Now you're really trying to embarrass me," he said.

Eventually the conversation returned to the wine you drink. He said he sometimes buys a local brand from this one shop at the top of the hill.

"How is it?" I asked. "Is it drinkable?"

"No," he said, "I wouldn't say it's drinkable."

"Really? What would your son say?"

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


As I was heading home after school today, I ran into four girls in the quad. They looked like they could use a little cheering up, so I said, "Hmm, what do the four of you have in common?"

"Very funny," one of them said. "You know why we're in trouble."

I did know, and it turned out that they were waiting for the head of high school to personally hand deliver letters of apology. Over the weekend, they had been caught with a bottle of booze. "We just hope that you and the other teachers don't think any less of us because of this," one of the girls said.

"Don't worry," I smiled. "It's impossible for me to think any less of you than I already do."

"Ha ha. But seriously, you probably did worse things when you were in high school."

I wasn't about to admit it, so I switched the subject. "You know the trouble with getting older," I said, easing into lecture mode, "is that you become more conservative. And you worry about young people. And you try to protect them from the dangers of life."

One of their guy friends walked by, and I called him over. I asked him, "What do these four have in common?"

"I don't know," he said. "They're all beautiful?"

Smooth kid. Not bad for an eleventh grader. Of course he did know why they were in trouble, and he stuck around and chatted, talking about all the drinking he and his friends did in Delhi over the weekend.

"See how unfair all this is?" one of the girls said. "So many people do a lot worse than what we did."

"Yeah," I said, "but you got caught. Plus, you're girls." Eventually the conversation turned back to me. "Oh sure," I said, "you can try to ignore your crime by talking about a helpless older person. Or better yet, blame it on me and the book I assigned. You could say you were so influenced by Holden Caulfield that you wanted to see what drinking was all about."

I didn't stick around to see how their apology went. Probably they'll get dorm-gated. I'm not sure what that means, but I think it involves not letting them out of the dorms except to go to school.

I did tell them that eventually they'd laugh about this incident, but in the meantime, I would continue mocking them, just to make them feel bad enough not to be stupid in the future. I was tempted to tell them about my first drinking experiences, but I'm past trying to be cool in front of my students. I'm also past trying to be a bad influence. Plus, I'd have to go deep into my past to talk about my first drinking stories ...

In eighth grade, some girls used to have parties where we played games like "spin the bottle" and something called "catch and kiss." Of course there was always liquor around. Seems odd. When I look at eighth graders now, they seem so young and dumb, like such babies, and I can't imagine them drinking. But I clearly remember thinking I knew it all back then; plus, I remember kissing a girl named Vanessa in her basement, slightly buzzed from a couple of shots of vodka. I also remember how dirty this girl was, what she used to say she would do if she ever met the lead singer of Motley Crue.

I also think about the first time I got sick from drinking. Freshman year, over at Mike's house. A third guy--probably Mark--Mike and I drank a bottle of whiskey in about 20 minutes, then headed off to a nearby park to throw around a football. I started throwing up soon after we got to the park. Then, on the way home, just for good measure, I threw up all over the CTA bus.

Pretty disgusting. And stupid. But why is it that I'm supposed to act shocked when a group of eleventh grade girls quietly want to experiment in the safety of their dorm room? Is it because they are "good" girls? Because I see them as children?

At one point in our conversation, one of the girls said something about me not really understanding how any of this feels because I'm not a parent. "Yeah, thank God for that," I said. "But I'll tell you one thing. It seems to me that, from everyone my age that does have kids, the wilder they were when they were young, the stricter they are now. So watch out. Some day, if you have children, and they get busted for drinking or doing drugs or something, you will be the one that does not understand. You will punish your kids swiftly and severely."

Or, if they're really unlucky, they'll become teachers, lecturing teenagers about this kind of thing.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Dis honor

As my students walked into class yesterday, they were confronted with this message from their teacher in 300-point font on the projector screen:
Write and sign this pledge on your test (if you do not, I will not mark it):

On my honor, I pledge that I have neither given nor received improper assistance in completing this task.
"Are you kidding?" a few demanded.

"That's bullshit," a couple mumbled under their breaths.

"No, I'm not kidding," I said, "and I don't care what you think. We now have an honor code."

"What if I don't have honor?" one wiseguy wanted to know.

"Then this is completely meaningless to you," I said. "Just sign it and cheat. But if you get caught, there will be consequences."

A group of students had led the effort to start up an honor council at the school. This was after months--if not years--of seeing others getting away with cheating on exams and assignments. For my part, I was disturbed by the administration's failure to deal severely with an alleged cheater, someone that different teachers on different occasions had caught. So when the email came asking us to discuss the honor council and code with classes next week, I decided to start here and now. With four of my classes having quizzes yesterday, I had them write and sign the pledge on their papers. And I spent valuable class time responding to student complaints and anger about it.

I was a hero of honor! Or so I thought.

After school, the teacher-advisor of the honor council approached me, saying a couple of the kids were upset with me. Upset.

I tried to process. I rewound through the day, wondering what I might have said to offend.

Possibly: "So this means that from now on, you either don't cheat, or you cheat so well that you don't get caught." I did say that.

Or: "If you don't believe in honor, then why do you care? It's just one more thing you have to do, like go to chapel once a month."

Or: "You might as well get used to it. Most colleges and universities have some sort of honor code you sign, and if you're busted cheating, the consequences are more severe and more expensive than here."

I was feeling pretty good about how I had defended honor. But still. "What did I say?" I asked.

Apparently, two of the kids were upset that I had also said something about how this pledge does not apply to me, to "do as I say, not as I do." I don't remember saying it, but I probably did. My initial thought was to apologize for this dis of the honor code. But when I thought about it later, I decided I was right.

The student honor code absolutely does not apply to teachers. It's like anything else: There are rules that students must follow. Teachers may lead by example, but we shouldn't be held to the same standards.

Instead, teachers are held to a much higher standard. Or we should be. We are professionals, having been educated and then hired to fulfill a responsibility. If a student is caught cheating, he may get a zero on the assignment and possibly a one- or two-day suspension. A teacher, on the other hand, can lose his job for a transgression. So, saying that a teacher should sign the student honor code is a false analogy, comparing apples to oranges.

And speaking of, I need to remember to give extra credit to the kid that brings me an apple every day.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Lost and found

For the past month and a half, I've been weighed down by a heavy backpack full of student work. Seven weeks into the second semester, I've realized two things:
  1. I've really hit the kids hard this quarter. Five formal essays so far for my eleventh graders; heavy reading and weekly essays on that reading for my English twelves. All this work, as any English teacher knows, translates into a mountain of marking. In fact, today was the first day in more than a month that I did not bring any papers home to grade. I simply refused to accept some work yesterday. "Take it home and revise," I demanded. "I don't want it."
  2. I don't know if it's connected to number one (it probably is, but it probably has more to do with other things), but I've also realized that I've lost something: My sense of humor. I've been grumpy, cynical, sarcastic, and mean--all rolled together into a ball of unpleasantness. One student summed it up perfectly last week: "You've become old," she announced, and this week, she has gone on the offensive, telling me which mannerisms I've picked up, comparing me to other teachers. All I need to do is grow a moustache and talk to my computer, and I'll be a history teacher.
When you lose something like your sense of humor, it's difficult to find again. It's not at the high school lost-and-found, that's for sure. And students--grumpy and cynical from all the work you've assigned--aren't going to help you search for it.

But I think I might have found a trace of humor on a car ride down the hill Sunday afternoon. I've almost got a joke to tell now. Well, I have the set-up and the punch line, but I need to fill in the rest. Here's what I have so far:

Here's the set-up: Four Korean kids in the back of a car.

It's a classic joke right from the start. Imagine four 16 year old Korean boys, crammed together, on top of each other, in the back of a small sedan, something like a Nissan Sentra. We were heading to Dehra Dun, one hour down the winding mountain, so that they could take the TOEFL exam, a four-hour test of their English competency. Being the chaperon, I sat in the front, trying to mark some essays.

OK, the middle part isn't quite done, but it goes something like this:

"Are you OK?"


"Do you need to stop?"

"No, I'm fine."

The punchline: And then he puked all over himself.

OK, OK, it's not really all that funny. My students, especially some Koreans, didn't think it was all that hilarious when I told it in class on Monday. But when you've lost your sense of humor, something is better than nothing.

We stopped the car. The other three kids woke up (there's another joke in there about Korean kids falling asleep whenever in a moving vehicle) and asked what was the matter. One realized he had vomit on his pants. The driver got on his cell phone and, even though I don't speak Hindi, I figured he was saying something like "why me" to his boss or girlfriend. He's the same guy who once had to deal with a vomiting dog, but that's another story.

We got back in the car and continued on our stinky way. Since it was a Sunday morning, we couldn't even find an open coffee shop, so we settled on McDonald's. While the sick kid was in the bathroom cleaning up, the rest of us had our McMaharaja chicken burger meals (no breakfast served here) and watched South Indian music videos on the restaurant's plasma TVs.

A commercial came on for some foot odor powder. "I wonder if it's effective on vomit odor," I said, and as the three kids laughed, I thought, hey, maybe this situation is funny.

Another commercial came on. Some guy standing in front of a fountain, talking about life insurance or something. "You know what that fountain reminds me of?" I asked the kids. "Projectile vomit." They laughed again, and I said, "Oh man, it's not like I can even make fun of the guy. He's not even in my class."

OK, before you get all high and mighty and start scolding me for laughing at a sick child, I should tell you that, on every trip down that damned hill that I've been on with students, someone has always gotten sick.
Many, many adults take Dramamine or something before the one-hour drive; it's that winding, that steep, that nauseating. Anyway, this was the first time I had a person actually puke in the car. So I thought it was funny.
At least it's a start.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Kids at this school are fascinated by the English Department. There are three of us that occupy a dungeon of an office; all of our names begin with P; and each is sarcastic and mean in his own way. So the school newspaper staff sent us a questionnaire, just to figure out the "three P's in a pod."

I must be getting sappy in my old age, because these are my answers: (The editor thanked me for my responses, saying they had "mass appeal." Let's see.)

What do you think of the other two P’s and how do you feel about being part of this “clique”?
The book discussions at Powles’ place are great, but the poetry readings at Prakash’s are often more memorable. At least that’s what I’ve heard. I haven’t been invited yet.

What has been your most embarrassing moment [here] thus far?
Maybe this is a lame answer, but I don’t get embarrassed often, so I don’t know. I realize I say and do plenty of stupid things, but at the end of the day, those are the things that make life interesting and fun.

What is your favorite quote?
After I finished my undergrad, I decided to bum around the country for a few months. Mostly I hung out on a friend’s couch. Then, one day at a Chinese restaurant, the message in my fortune cookie was: “Your secret of success won’t work unless you do.” That quote rocked my world. The very next day I got a job at a gas station.

What is one thing you can never do?
Math beyond the four basic functions. At least I don’t want to. Or see the need to.

What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?
Coffee. Black.

What would you do with a USD 1000000 if you absolutely had to spend it within a week? (safe deposits, CDs etc. do not count)
I’d buy two things: a big house in the hills of northern California and a big boat. I’d spend a few years sailing to as many countries as possible. Then, I’d open up some sort of small business or charity in that big house, maybe a bed and breakfast or a school of some sort for disadvantaged youth.

What did you want to be when you were little?
When I was young, everyone walked around saying, “I wanna be like Mike.” They meant Michael Jordan. I also said, “I wanna be like Mike,” but I meant Mike Royko, the hilarious opinion columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

What’s the best thing about [this school], according to you?
The talent show made me realize why I like this place: There are lots of talented students here. Then again, even those that aren’t all that great are willing to take a chance, to have fun, to possibly embarrass themselves in front of a large audience. In other schools where I’ve worked, teenagers are too self-conscious to get on stage like that.

If today were to be your last day on earth, what is one thing you would do?
After the obligatory phone calls to loved ones, I’d figure out a way to sell all my worldly possessions and cash in my stocks and bonds and savings accounts, and then I’d donate all my money to some cause or NGO. I don’t have a ton of money, but maybe it would be enough to make some positive change in the world.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Those who can, do

I want to write this quickly so that I don't forget, just to remind myself of a major breakthrough in this semi-charmed kinda life of mine.

Today I made an eleventh grade girl cry.

That's it, but here's how:

In the past couple of months, kids in my drama class have asked me, "Mr. Polka Andrew, why don't you show us how to act? Why don't you get up on stage and show us how it's done?"

This is a shocking question when I think about it. Not because they asked. But because no other students have ever asked similar questions. I've been teaching English for eight, nine years now. Teaching kids to write analytical essays, poems, news articles, and everything in between. And not once has a student asked me to prove that I can write. They want to see me act but not write. Why?

I brought this up with one of my classes today, and one student actually had a good reason: "We expect you to be a good judge of writing, but not necessarily be a writer yourself."

Still, aren't they curious? Every once in a while, I drop little hints. I used to be a journalist. I won a couple of writing awards. I have a blog. My hobbies are reading and writing.

But since they didn't ask, I decided to read something to them anyway. I've been trying to get them to toy with narratives to answer silly little questions like: is TV good? is pop culture making you smarter or dumber? how should one look at women?

Their life experiences are good; the way they write them, not so much.

So I picked one of my recent posts from here, the one about iPod shuffling through life. And then this morning I woke up at 3:30 and decided to add to it, to fill it in with examples of songs and associated memories. The whole thing turned into a massive 3,500-word monster. I read it to them (but not before first warning them that they better at least pretend to listen).

They clapped when I finished. Whatever, kids here clap for anything. People get up in front of morning assembly and talk about a dead puppy for ten minutes, and the kids clap. They're polite.

I asked some questions. What was my thesis? Did I sustain it? Did I stray? What worked? What didn't?

A girl raised her hand. "Actually, I thought it was really sad," she said. And then she started crying. Kept crying for the next three minutes until the bell rang. Walked out crying.

"That's one of the sweetest reactions anyone has ever had," I called after her.

"You should take it as a compliment," another student said.

"I do, even though, really," I said, "I didn't even write about any real depressing times from my life. It could have been a lot worse, but I didn't want to get all that personal."

So, I'm glad she cried. Glad she was touched. Then again, I'm not really sure why she cried. Was there anything really sad in my story? Or was she crying because the writing was so good? Or bad? I might never know.

But as another girl walked out, she said, "You really are an English teacher!" If good teaching is making someone cry, I've arrived.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Little things

In teaching, in life, in just about everything, it's the little things that count, right?

One of my students has really started standing out this semester by doing those little things, and something she did the other day was literally little. So much so that I'll now call her Little Paper Girl. Last semester, she was just another shy Asian girl, rarely volunteering answers, rarely speaking in class. She did good work, she tried hard on everything, but she was just ordinary. This semester, she's speaking out, often saying ridiculous things.

As I was collecting essays yesterday, she caught my attention and said, "I had a little problem with the printer." She held up her essay, neatly typed and stapled: It was on a quarter page. "It looked fine on the computer screen," she said, "but when I printed it, it came out like this." She said it with such sincerity, and the class laughter was so good-natured, that I had no choice but to accept it. Now I have to mark an essay that is in what amounts to 3-point Times New Roman font.

Little Paper Girl showed up after school to audition for the spring play. Though she claimed no acting experience, her performance stood out so much so that the student directors said afterwards: "She was the biggest surprise."

The German update

The German did not hand in an essay of any size. In fact, he wasn't in class. After school, I saw him, and he claimed to have been in the health center. Fair enough. But two hours later, I found out that he did end up going to rugby practice.

I planned all sorts of retaliation against him today. I wasn't going to let him into class if he didn't have the essay in hand. Even if he did, maybe I'd give him a zero. Or maybe one letter grade lower and a demerit. I ranted about him in the staff work room and at lunch.

And then he wasn't in class again. Turns out he's in the hospital. Stomach problems or something.

Bangladesh update

As punishment for saying some stupid insensitive thing about Bangladeshis, one of my students agreed to do a presentation about people from that country that counter the stereotype.

"I expect all of you to take this seriously," I warned the class before he began, not telling them what he was about to do. When he started, there were a couple of scattered snickers in the classroom. But then he did something amazing: he absolutely captivated his classmates.

There are a few scientists and a fairly well-known economist from Bangladesh. Everyone seemed to know that. But there was stunned silence when he told us about one of the co-founders of YouTube (he's worth something like $500 million now). And this story: a 17-year-old Bangladeshi student stepped in to defend a group of people on a New York subway from some bullies. The kid got beat up, but then was recognized by the mayor for being a hero.

"What I said in class the other day was stupid, based on stereotypes from the media and other people," the presenter said in conclusion, "and I just want to say that I'm really sorry."

Apology accepted. It was a little thing, I know. But maybe it counts for something.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Quick: What's the first stereotype that comes to mind when you think of Bangladesh? And no cheating by flipping to The Onion Atlas of the Planet Earth.

If you don't know any stereotypes about the country, or maybe if you're not exactly sure where it is on the map, you're like I was a few short months ago. Innocent.

Today, there was a shouting match in my English 12 class.

Two groups of students disagreed with how the play "Master Harold" ... and the boys might continue, if it were to continue. One group suggested anger leading to murder. The other group opted for reconciliation. Guess which group was boys and which was girls.

At the end of class, after the arguing was over, there was one thing I was angry about.

"I love it that you guys were so heated about this," I said. "I mean, it made me think you actually have something to say about a work of literature. But one thing I cannot tolerate is that racist remark I heard."

In the middle of the argument, out of left field, some kid had said to another, "Of course you think there will be violence. You're Bangladeshi."

The kids here, because they are kids and they live in dorms, have all sorts of inside jokes, put-downs, and ridicule that they heap on each other. Absolutely nothing is sacred. But eventually it has to come to a stop. Someone has to teach a little political correctness.

I held the kid who made the comment after class, told him that he'd have to come up with a punishment for himself, something that the rest of the class would take seriously and take as a warning not to make the same kind of comments in the future.

"Think about this," I said. "You're high and mighty here. You come from a family with money, with status. Next year, when you go off to college in a foreign country and you're in the minority, no one will care about those things, and you'll hear all sorts of comments coming your way. How's that going to feel?"

If he goes to the U.S., for example, many people won't even know if he's Indian or Pakistani or Bangladeshi. If he's Hindu or Muslim. Some might look at him and think, terrorist. How will it feel?

Some stereotypes are rooted in truth, but most result from fear or hatred or stupidity. As far as I'm concerned, though, I'd rather not know certain ideas about countries and people. I miss being innocent.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


Listen: I want to tell you about a day in my life ...

Friday, 7:15 a.m.

There's a knock on my door. One of my neighbors with a thermos and something wrapped in paper. And a note:

Dear Mr. P,
We are really sorry! We will try to be better. Hope you get well soon. Hope you enjoy the soup and the garlic bread. Get some rest. Take care.
--Grade 12

"Who's this from?" I ask. My neighbor has been sworn to secrecy but tells me anyway. "Thanks," I say. Almost instantly I have two favorite students.

I unscrew the thermos, and as cold soup spills onto my hand, I flashback to yesterday:
I had one of those days that I'd rather forget, one of those days that the students won't soon forget. A little sick, a little cranky, and with scratchy 90-year-old lifetime smoker voice, I yelled at my twelfth graders for not caring about a word I had said all year long. "As a teacher, I have to reflect on everything I do," I croaked, "and I guess I've come to the conclusion that I'm not very effective."

I pulled out a stack of essays I had collected the other day, shook the stack at the class. I rambled on about some golden rules of writing about literature that I had tried to make clear, things I called "instant zero requirements." They were called "instant zero" because that was the grade I had threatened if the requirements weren't met. Stupid things like underlining titles of novels.

"Let's see," I said, examining the top paper. "This might be an excellent essay, might have some great points ... but is the title underlined? No! So I'll never read it!" With that, I crumpled up the paper and tossed it into the trash can. It went in.

"How about this one? Same thing!" I crumpled up that one too and tossed it. "Look, I made it," I said with a bright smile. "So that's two more points for me. But zero for you!"

And on it went. In a class of 21, only six survived. In my other class, eight survived. Whenever I missed the trash can, I said, "That's zero for both of us! But me, I don't care!"

Later, one of the kids came up to me. "That was the greatest English class of the year," he said. Sounded sincere. When I reminded him that his paper had ended up in the trash, he said, "Yeah, but I learned so much. Really."

When I told the story at lunch, the new guy at the table said, "I thought that kind of thing only happened in movies."

"Stick around," I said.

7:25 a.m.

I rush to school. I've promised to write a recommendation for another student. It's due today, and I've just started it. She shows up and admits she hasn't even started the essay she has to write, and she asks me for advice. I give her some, although really, I could use some myself.

8:10 a.m.

An eleventh grader walks into the office, asking if I can read the introduction to her essay, which is a narrative, for the third time. "Can you give me a minute?" I plead. "I've got to fill in this recommendation form first." She gives me a minute, then I give her essay a minute. The narrative still doesn't work, I tell her, and give her some more ideas. "More details. More conversation. More people talking. If you don't remember exactly what was said, make it up. No, don't make it up, but do your best. Write it the way you remember." Why can't students write realistic dialogue?

8:35 a.m.

Five minutes into class, there seem to be no hard feelings from my paper-crumbling episode yesterday. "I just hope you all know that I did that," I say, "because I care." I see some eyes roll upwards, but no one feels like challenging my display of caring. Halfway into class, nobody rebels when I ask the class to write the essay again. I walk around the room and notice that everybody has underlined the title.

10:00 a.m.

I tell my eleventh graders to open their textbooks to some random page I've selected. "See all the dialogue?" I ask. "What happens when a new person talks?"

"New paragraph," someone says.


I tell them that writing dialogue isn't necessarily a required skill, but it would be nice to be able to do it. I then talk about a class discussion we've been having on moodle. "Here's a request I have for you," I tell them. "Instead of writing, 'I disagree with Tom,' you should write, 'I disagree with Tom's idea.' Do you see how that's different?"

They promise to, from now on, attack each other's ideas, not each other.

They then read a short story called "Nobody Listens When I Talk" and respond to it in their journals.

"I hate sad stories," one guy says as he finishes it.

"Write down why," I tell him.

After everyone has written something, I ask if anyone would like to share.

"I think the girl is absolutely pathetic," a girl declares, and then goes into a rant about why the narrator is the most pathetic human being, ever.

"Wow," I said, "imagine if someone said he or she really identified with the character."

11:35 a.m.

My second section of twelfth graders is rewriting the essay. A girl calls me over. "I need TP," she says. "To blow my nose."

Everyone is quiet. Working. I walk out of the room, jog upstairs to the boys bathroom. Of course, no toilet paper. "I can't believe this," I mumble as I walk towards the girls bathroom. "Hello?!" I yell. "Anyone in there? I'm coming in."

I run back into my classroom with a roll of toilet paper. The girl who asked for it already has some on her desk. Someone had some. I should've asked.

12:15 p.m.

I stop by the library. Recommendation girl is in there and asks me to read over her application letter so far. The first two paragraphs--about how writing is her passion--are good. I tell her. "But what do I write after this?" she asks.

I have no idea. "I don't know," I say. "What's your major going to be? Tie it in with that. How the business world needs passionate writers or something."

2:35 p.m.

My least favorite part of my weekly schedule: exploration block. It's a hole on our schedules filled with random students to explore some non-academic topic. No one signed up for my poetry idea, so instead I run something called Rock 'n' Roll Appreciation. I thought I'd get a bunch of cool kids talking about and exchanging cool music. Underground Bhutanese techno maybe. Or Indian indie rock. But no, I've got a bunch of kids who don't even bring in their iPods and just sit around sulking when I try to introduce them to bands like The Velvet Underground and The Clash.

"How about some Girl Talk?" I ask.

"Oh, I downloaded that album," one of the kids says.

"Really? You did?" I ask. "How did you hear about it?"

"You played that one song last week," he says.

And I'm finally like, wow, one of these guys actually got turned on to something cool. The new Girl Talk, by the way, is definitely cool. And at pay-what-you-want, the price is right.

3:35 p.m.

Right after school, application girl rushes up with her finished copy. It's good. I mean, she basically followed my suggestions, but somehow made it sound really good. "Thank you so much," she says, racing to the counselor's office, where she'll fax her essay and mine. I hope mine is good enough.

3:50 p.m.

Seven of my advisory kids are hanging out in the English office. I've bought them some amazing cheesecake from a new cafe in town, my apology to them for canceling our dinner tonight. Once or twice a quarter, I invite them over to my place, but I haven't been feeling well, so I canceled.

One of the girls, who is in my English class, is telling another one about what happened in class yesterday.

"Why did he throw away your papers?" her friend asks.

"Because he cares about us," she deadpans. She's Japanese, and her English isn't perfect, but I think she's got sarcasm down.

4:15 p.m.

As my advisees leave, an eleventh grader walks in to see if I'll read over her essay. It's quite good, even though the narrative isn't the best. I blab on about details, about showing not telling, all those things English teachers blab on about. Still, I'm captivated by her story.

"Even back home in Nepal, people call me 'Chinky,'" she says. In India--and Nepal I learn--people with East Asian features are called "Chinky," something the bullies maybe wouldn't get away with in the U.S.

I get lost in parts of her essay because it looks like she's been abusing a thesaurus. I accuse her of that.

"It's just that I'm not very confident with my English vocabulary," she says in perfectly pronounced, perfectly articulated English.

"From now on, I want you to only use words you know," I say. "I mean, half these big words you use have, you know, different connotations. Yes, they mean something like the word you're thinking of, but they're different."

She tells me about an SAT course she took over winter break in Nepal. She was considered the best writer in class, but still, she didn't know most of the words on the test.

"All right, let's work on your vocabulary," I say, "but when you're writing, only use the words you know well."

She leaves. I pack up. As I walk out the door, I see another eleventh grader, the one from this morning.

"Fine," I say as she walks up with her essay. "But only 10 minutes."

Twenty minutes later, I realize I've created a monster. Her narrative is much improved. But now it's way too long. Who wants to read this much? With almost too much dialogue. Still, her story is almost heartbreaking for some reason, and with every sentence I learn something new about traditional Indian values.

I start to warn her about the dangers of the thesaurus.

"I know," she says, and informs me that her friend filled her in after leaving the office. How did they do that in two minutes, I wonder. They must have met in the hallway, and one told the other, "He said not to use the thesaurus."

The two of them, it turns out, are now roommates. They chose each other because both are hard-working. They read each other's drafts, talk about teacher comments, and learn new words together. And instantly they become my favorite students this year. And this time it's for real.

5:45 p.m.

As I walk home, tired but oddly rejuvenated, I realize something, and if I were writing an essay for my class, this would be my thesis statement: Kids listen. They may look like they're not. They may pretend like they're not. They may be bored or sarcastic or mean. They may drive you crazy with their apathy or their questions. But they listen.

Monday, February 16, 2009


In order to be an OK teacher, one must be a spectacular liar. I'm not sure if I'm an OK teacher yet, but I'm definitely getting better in the lying department.

After school the other day, one of my twelfth graders stopped by the office. "Can I ask you for a big favor?" she asked.

"You can ask," I said.

"Could you write me a letter of recommendation?" she asked. She then revealed that she needed it right away, that the application deadline to this university was just a few short days away, and that she'd have to scan in my letter and email it. The letter, actually, was to be less of a recommendation and more of a statement that the student could read and write English.

"I suppose I can write it," I said, "but first let's see how good your English really is. Why don't you first tell Mr. P what I picked up off your neighbor's desk yesterday." There are three Mr. P's in the English department here, myself included, but I was talking about our head of department.

"Well, you picked up our math homework," she said.

"Really? And what was happening with your homework?" Mr. P asked. I had filled him in on the story earlier.

"She was checking her answers," the girl said.

"Just checking?" I asked.

"Well, she didn't know some of the answers."

"So," Mr. P said. "In other words, you were cheating. A day after the principal said that cheating of any kind, even copying homework, wouldn't be tolerated. What kind of offense did he say it was?" 

"But she didn't get a chance to cheat because the papers were taken away," she said.

"Ah-ha," Mr. P said. "I guess we can't throw you in jail for intending to kill someone. So you should thank him for preventing you from cheating," he said, pointing at me.

"Thank you," she said.

"But still, what did the principal say would be the consequences for any type of cheating?" I asked.

She stared at us, stunned. "He said it would be a level 3 offense. Suspension," she said.

"That's right," Mr. P said. "So why don't you go home and pack your bags. Call your parents, and tell them you'll be spending some time with them in Bhutan."

"Yeah," I said. "I'll send the letter of recommendation there."

Mr. P continued: "And make sure you write a letter to all the universities you're applying to, and tell them about this incident, but assure them that you're a better person because of it, that it will in no way hurt your academic potential."

Most students, especially by the time they're in the twelfth grade, know that the three Mr. P's are quite sarcastic, so she didn't quite know what to believe.

"Are you really going to report me?" she asked me.

"I just did," I said. "I told my head of department." 

She looked at him. "Oh, you're fine," he said.

"This will never happen again," she said.

"I believe you," I said. See what I mean about being a liar?

She left, and I went home to write the letter. In it, I assured the university that this student had excellent English skills. Good enough to get out of suspension, I should have said.

Monday, February 09, 2009


Here's another piece that I started writing in Goa. It's incomplete, but I need to post something:

I saw a puppy playing on the beach this afternoon. He was adorable, especially when he discovered a tiny red ball, about the size of a grape. His look of curiosity, then, when he picked it up carefully with his tiny teeth, his look of jealous possession, reminded me of a little child. His master ran after him, finally caught up and took away the ball, and scolded the mischievous boy, who put his head down onto the sand with eyes pleading for forgiveness.

Tonight, as I sit at my beach shack, sharing a beer and stories with other travelers, my attention turns to another dog, an older one sleeping a few feet away. He's got it all, the lazy bugger, with no worries: a place to sleep, plenty of food judging by his size, and lots of friends at nearby shacks. Then, he does something that makes me wonder just how far apart animals and humans really are.

Every night at around 9, when the sky is finally dark, fireworks signal a party somewhere down the beach. Tonight, I see the dog at my feet waking up to watch the exploding display, just like his human companions. He doesn't look scared or confused. He seems to enjoy the show. He sits up erect, eyes wide open, and as a rocket trails up into the air, he leans forward, expecting the explosion. When the rocket does explode, he sits back, his eyes saying "ooh" along with his human companions.

Any pet owner will tell you that animals have emotions. Maybe not as many as we have, maybe not as complex as ours are, maybe without the ability to express them as clearly as we do, but they are real. Can a cat or dog truly love somebody or apologize for a transgression? I think yes.

Anyone who has observed humans can tell you that we act on our basic, animal instincts more often than not. Just the other day, I paused to watch children playing in front of a school. Two boys got into some sort of argument (I couldn't hear or understand what it might have been about), and each grabbed the other by the throat. And they just stood there at arm's length, holding on tight, staring the other down without a word. And I thought, how similar are their eyes and expressions to two animals squaring off?

Surely humans are different from animals. But what happens when humans are treated like animals? 

On our campus, there is a lot of construction taking place. Every day I walk past the future gym, which is rising fast. The construction site, like everything else here, is on the side of a hill, so there are no easy roads to bring in materials. Which is why, from the road to the site, there is a path on which donkeys haul stone and sand all day long. You wouldn't want to walk up that steep path, covered in animal waste and beaten down by hooves. Thing is, there are plenty of men walking up that path, men with loads of brick strapped to their backs. Walking at the same pace and doing the job as the donkeys. All day long they go up and down, to the point of exhaustion, back and forth. The only difference between man and beast is that no one yells and wields a stick when the men slow down.

People wonder how the pyramids and other wonders of the world were built before the advent of heavy machinery. The answer is simple. Take a massive number of poor people, enslave them (or pay them a pittance, what's the difference), and make them work.

On another construction site, I've seen men squatting on the road, hammer in hand, breaking up large stones into smaller ones. All day long. And on another, men and women mixing sand into cement and carrying it up a path on their heads. 

Maybe when they go home at night (which is often a plastic-roofed shack on the construction site), these people laugh and talk about the future and have the same look of wonder that I saw on the dogs' faces at the beach. But at work, during the day in the sun, there is very little to separate them from beasts of burden. 

Thursday, February 05, 2009


I wrote this last month while sitting on a Goa beach, drinking a beer. Pretty simplistic, but might as well share, to show that I wasn't just staring at the topless, aging hippies:

French philosopher Blaise Pascal argued like this that one should believe in God: "It makes more sense to believe in God than to not believe. If you believe, and God exists, you will be rewarded in the afterlife. If you do not believe, and He exists, you will be punished for your disbelief. If He does not exist, you have lost nothing either way."

Growing up, I always thought of myself as a rational person, or maybe something of a cynic or skeptic, so his argument--or "Pascal's Wager" as it's known--seemed inadequate. I didn't want to bet on God's existence. I wanted proof.

Every once in a while, I'd try to test God, to see if he'd intervene in everyday life and prove Himself. I wasn't the first or last fourth grader walking home on a snowy day sending up a silent prayer that went something like this: "Dear God, Please make it keep snowing all night. Please make it snow so much that school will be canceled tomorrow." Back in Chicago, every once in a while, we'd have a snow day, but only if there was so much snow that cars and buses couldn't move safely. It didn't happen often, especially after one mayor lost his reelection bid because he didn't clear the streets in a timely manner.

My little prayer was my own wager with God. I'd finish off with this offer: "If You make this happen, I promise that I will forever be a good, church-going person. I swear! And all you have to do is provide 10, 12 inches of snow tonight. Surely this is in your power."

I would sleep well that night, knowing that I didn't need to fear that awful math test the next day. The next day, I'd wake up calm and happy, yet a little excited. This happened more than once, and each time I remember running to the window and seeing clear blue skies and clear back streets. God had let me down.

Thing is, the prayer did work, just not in a way that I'd understand for a long time. My prayer somehow set my mind at east, allowing me to get a good night's sleep. Like any form of meditation, prayer slows your heart rate and allows you to calm down and think clearly about your problems, whether they are major life problems or minor math problems. Is this enough to believe in God? I don't know. But I know I'd always do OK on those math tests. Of course I would've done better if I had studied, but the praying at least kept me from getting too nervous.

Other things in life don't have such simple explanations. For example, I've never sought out palm readers or other fortune tellers, but sometimes they've found me. With mixed results.

Back in 1990, during my first year of college, a friend introduced me to his girlfriend, a strange but beautiful gypsy from somewhere in Eastern Europe. After saying hello, she held onto my hand and asked if I wanted her to read my palm. "Oh whatever," I thought, "like palm reading is real. But what if it is!" 

She lifted my palm to get a good look and almost immediately screamed and let go of my hand. "I'm sorry," she said. "I ... I've never seen such a short life line." In other words, she was telling me I didn't have much longer to live. 

I didn't necessarily believe her, but I thought, wow, in case she's right, I better start acting like I don't have much time left. I started ... living. No more wasting time, just sitting around watching TV. I sought out adventures, travels, excitement. "I'm not going to wait until I'm old to experience life," I decided.

That was almost 20 years ago. So I guess I outlived my lifeline. 

Years later, while living in Japan, I met another friend's strange but beautiful girlfriend. This one didn't read palms. Instead, she read feet. I thought she was giving me a foot massage, but really, she was applying pressure to different parts of my foot to learn about me. For the most part, after tickling for a while, this "massage" felt good. But then she pressed one point and I felt an almost electric pain shooting up into my body.

"Does that hurt?" she asked, pressing again. I pulled my foot away.

"According to your foot," she told me, "you are healthy, except for your stomach. That part of your foot corresponds with your stomach, so it means you will have stomach problems later in life."

And here's the thing: It's now later in my life. And while I don't have major stomach problems, my stomach does cause me problems more than other parts of my body. Then again, ever since that foot reading, I started taking care of myself. Started drinking more juice and water, less alcohol. Eating more fresh fruits and vegetables, less junk food. Maybe the warning helped me make better choices by leading a healthier life.

These days, I'm still cynical, and I'm not much of a betting man. But when I reflect on what I've learned from the palm reader and the foot reader, maybe it makes more sense believing. There's much to gain, and the proof--if one is necessary--is a longer and more fulfilling life.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009


As we were sitting around a campfire in the middle of the desert, watching the stars appearing one by one, one of our guides pointed over his shoulder and said, "Pakistan is that way."

"Really? How far is it?" someone asked.

"Less than five kilometers," he replied. 

The three of us on the safari looked at each other with a mixture of fascination and dread. Had we really ridden that far west from Jaisalmer these last two days? I hadn't bothered to even look closely at a map of Rajasthan before embarking on the safari, so I guessed it was possible.

"So, what are those lights?" I asked, pointing at a couple of sets, evenly spaced, in the direction of Pakistan.

"That's the border," he replied. "Should we take the camels there?"

After a slight pause, the other guide, the younger, more serious one said, "He's just joking. Pakistan is at least 90 kilometers away."

The first guide smiled. "They wouldn't allow us to come that close."

For the next hour, we chatted with these two men, mostly about their lives and their villages, but also about U.S. politics.

"George Bush just wanted India and Pakistan to go to war," the older one said, "because he wanted India to need America and then be under its control." He expressed hope that Obama would be different but adopted a measured "we'll see" attitude towards the new president.

For a complete outsider like me, the guides' lives in their small village fascinated me more than their take on world affairs. And they didn't mind talking, considering we were their customers. In 16 years of being a guide, the older man said, he had never had a group of Indian tourists. Only foreigners seemed interested.

Neither man had ever been more than 50 kilometers outside his place of birth. Neither had any interest in seeing what was out there. They lead simple lives, bound by tradition and caste, that they wouldn't change.

Much of their lifestyle baffles me, probably in the same way that my lifestyle baffles them. Though I might use words like "wrong" or "backwards" to describe some of their beliefs, at the same time I am drawn to their simplicity and respect for family and tradition. One such concept is marriage.

"He's getting married in six months," the older man, who was married with "only" five children, said about his younger partner. When his three customers congratulated him, the younger man said that the other one was joking again, that he wasn't getting married until sometime next year.

"Oh, but he has to listen to me because I'm older," the older one laughed. "So if I say six months, that is the way it is."

Officially, systems like caste and dowry are frowned upon; in small villages, they are alive and well.

In small villages of Rajasthan, when a son is ready for marriage, his parents make an arrangement with a neighbor or someone in a nearby village. But since they are taking their neighbor's daughter, the groom's family must provide a young girl to that family. If they don't have a daughter to exchange, they exchange a cousin or niece. The brides are "officially" 18, but the exchanged girls are often much younger.

The bride and groom meet each other for the first time on their wedding night. After that, the bride spends time alternating between her husband's home and her family home for several months until she is comfortable with her new arrangement.

Our guides said that there's no such thing as dowry; however, the bride's family spends a lifetime's savings on the wedding feast and on gifts for the bride's new home. What they cannot afford, they borrow from a moneylender and then spend another lifetime paying it back.

"Is there anyone who thinks this is a bad system?" I asked. "Does anyone protest? Does anyone think that, instead of spending 300,000 rupees on gold, they could buy a team of camels and start a business?"

My questions didn't make any sense to the men. 

Recently on TV, I've seen a lot of anti-domestic violence messages. There's a campaign called "ring the bell." In the commercials, the sounds of violence come from a home. A neighbor, or a group of neighbors, walk up to the door and ring the doorbell. In one, a group of boys ask the man of the house for their lost cricket ball. He closes the door, then comes back saying something about the ball not being in the house. One of the boys just stands there tossing the cricket ball. When the man sees this, he understands.

The older guide admitted that there were cases of domestic violence in the village. "But when it happens, a group of men go to the house and beat the man," he said, again with a smile.

As for divorce or other attempts to go against tradition, well, they weren't tolerated. "If a man divorces, he will be kicked out of his caste," he said. And did this ever happen? He couldn't remember the last time it did. Nobody wanted to become an untouchable.

I wondered how any of these things were possible in modern India. Weren't there federal laws to follow? The guide laughed. "What can the government do to me?" he asked.

I thought about stories about tribal Pakistan and Afghanistan, where villagers live by their own rules and refuse to be governed by politicians in the capital cities. I wondered if it was the same here in India. "What if the government declares war on another country?" I asked. "Would you refuse to do what your government wants you to do?"

"If our country told us to fight, we would fight," the older man said. "Without question." He looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and added, "even if it was against America."

Sunday, January 11, 2009


THIS is what I miss about Chicago:

Remember, D, the kid who had his laptop stolen? I wrote about him, saying that he was special and would amount to great things. So readers of this blog donated something like $1,000, plus a new laptop, to replace the computer, not because they knew me or D, but because they wanted to make a difference in the life of a kid with potential.

Well, I'm happy to say that Devin (I should start calling him by his name) is on his way to reaching that potential. He recently emailed me, saying that he has won the Posse Scholarship, which will pay his tuition for four years at Oberlin College, a private liberal arts school in Ohio, "the school I really wanted to go to."

You can read about Posse on its website, but here's the main point:

The Posse Foundation identifies public high school students with extraordinary academic and leadership potential who may be overlooked by traditional college selection processes. Posse’s partner colleges and universities award Posse Scholars four-year, full-tuition leadership scholarships. These Scholars graduate at a rate of 90 percent and make a visible difference on campus and throughout their professional careers.
Makes me proud to have been a part of Devin's life ...