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.