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."