The Kids Are Alright – (MYoM – Part 29)

As long time readers know, I spend Friday mornings making sure my cleaning lady stays happy. Today was no different. But once she left, I missed out on my usual routine of relaxing while enjoying the tidy silent home and the official beginning of the weekend. Instead, I put Dog Four in the car and headed off for the school. My twelve Secondary kids (ages 12-14) had planned another film evening – which means sleeping over in the school, ordering pizza deliveries and watching DVDs. My colleague Dave agreed to supervise them, but could not come until 4 pm. I agreed to “babysit” from 1 pm till he arrived. As a condition, though, I said I wanted to bring my dog and go for a walk for part of the time. 10 said yes and 2 no. I said that was a problem, because I couldn’t leave those two back in the school alone. They quickly agreed to join us.

When I arrived today, they were outside playing a ball game which was promptly interrupted by Dog Four excitedly greeting each one in turn. The first thing out of their mouths was that they wanted to do the walk first and cook lunch afterwards. So we set off pretty much immediately, with the kids taking turns holding the leash – working out a plan among themselves for who gets the dog and when. We wandered for an hour and a half as constellations of different kids formed and reformed. I noticed two walking and talking who had never given one another the time of day before – at least not that I had witnessed. That was nice to see.

When we got back to the school, 5 or 6 girls promptly went into the kitchen to start cooking spaghetti. I asked them if they had everything under control and they said yes. The other kids were up in the classroom listening to music or in the yard playing soccer. With nothing to do, I started tidying up the little lending library and adding some new books I had brought. One of the kids walked passed and asked me if I needed help.

When I went back to the kitchen, the table was set and all twelve were assembling for their late lunch. When we were done, the girls got up and left and the kids who hadn’t cooked started cleaning the kitchen. Fifteen minutes later it was spotless. You would never have known that a meal had just taken place. The last one to leave the kitchen had turned off the light.

In the final hour they played Ping-Pong and soccer and hockey and then Dave showed up to relieve me. I wished them a fun night and left our little gymnasium for the parking lot.

But I stopped and looked at them for a few moments through the window before I got in my car. They were all running around, whacking at the ball, laughing and talking. I realized that in the entire afternoon, there had not been a single argument. Not one kid had been slighted or excluded. None of them had said anything the slightest bit gossipy or mean. They were self-sufficient and knew how to compromise in order to come to a group consensus.

They hadn’t needed me. The afternoon would have probably gone exactly the same if I hadn’t been there at all – if they had been “unsupervised”.

They are a great bunch of kids – every last one of them.

londonI find that I am really looking forward to tramping through London with them a month from now. When we decided to do this trip, I said I would take care of the flights and accommodations, but that they would have to plan our days there. We started learning a lot about London’s history and sights. Here is what they have come up with so far – the first draft of our itinerary. I then split them into three groups, one for each day, and they are now working out the details (which buses or underground lines to take, which order to do these things in, how much time we will need, what the costs will be, etc.) My plan is to have them take charge, read maps and figure things out for themselves. They can lead me around. (They will probably end up cooking for me too!) My job is simply to be there.

Sort of like today.

Thirty Years

April 26th, 1986. It was 30 years ago and I was nearing the end of my second year in Graz as an English teaching assistant. Suddenly there was only one thing on the all the radio and TV stations all day (and day after day). A catastrophic nuclear reactor accident in Russia had the city, the country, the entire continent . . . on edge and holding their breath. We were all gluch1ed to the TV and checking atlases. I quickly found out that Chernobyl was over 700 miles away from me as the bird flies (or in this case, the cloud drifts). That seemed a fairly safe distance.

 

The Austrian media (which apparently went immediately into calm-the-population mode) reassured us about our remoteness from the disaster’s ground zero. They added that the winds seemed to be blowing northward toward Scandinavia and not in our direction. Kindergarten kids were told to stay home just in case, and mushroom hunting was not advised. We also might want to skip eating salads for a while. Measurements were being taken constantly and the situation was being monitored carefully. They would keep us advised.

Thirty years ago today, my mother called me.

“C., I want you to get on a plane and come home. Right now. Can you do that?”

There was panic in her voice. I had never heard her sound that way (and have never since). Obviously the tone of the news reports she was listening to in the States did not include that intention of calming people who, realistically speaking, had no options anyway. My mother looked at a map of Europe and saw only a small, one-country buffer zone between me and the radiation source. It took a long conversation to allay her fears.

The thing is, though, she was right. Years later, computer simulations had improved enough to show almost exactly how and where that radiation cloud moved in the days following the accident. When the five year anniversary of the disaster rolled around, this information was published and broadcast without much fanfare. I stared at the maps and thought “That’s not we were told at the time!”

As far as I can tell now, about the same time my mother and I were talking on the phone, the cloud was crossing the border into Austria. Three days later, this was the picture

ch2

Over the following years, many new policies, procedures and plans were quietly implemented in Austria, despite the fact that this country has no nuclear power plants. As we had learned, radioactivity does not respect borders and six of Austria’s neighboring countries have 29 reactors between them. So, for instance, we have a supply of emergency thyroid medication in our school to be administered to the children if something like Chernobyl happens again. If the news ever breaks that Temelin in the Czech Republic is melting down (50 miles from the Austrian border), my first tasch3k will be to find the binder of permission forms from the parents and then check which of the kids gets to/has to/ is not allowed to swallow a pill. Once that is done, I am not quite sure what the next step is. But I think I would be heading out quickly in the direction of my own children.

 

In the past three days, there have been many “Chernobyl – Thirty Years Later” reports. Fascinating camera images of the huge and de-peopled “Exclusion Zone” around Chernobyl document the seemingly thriving animal populations with their eerie ghost town backdrops.

An example exists, right now and not far from here, of what would happen if the people in this world were to disappear virtually overnight.

It makes you stop and think.

A Special Treat

How often does it happen that lilacs get to experience a winter storm? Well, here are mine right now – and yes, that is snow falling:

lilac and snow

It’s almost May (for heaven’s sake!!) Peak Blossom has come and gone. People already have their houseplants and balcony flowers outside!

Which reminds me . . .

I wonder how my (nemesis) yucca is doing out there?

PTSD* Protocol

teamWe covered a lot of ground and made a lot of decisions in our team meeting today. The field trip to the castle we just postponed will now be on the 3rd, unless the weather is bad, in which case it will be on the 10th. If that happens we will have to reschedule the Ethiopia presentation, if we haven’t already turned that into a student and parents’ evening event, in the off-chance they all respond positively to that idea and the field trip to the nature preserve will be on the 20th assuming our cuban guest teacher is flexible enough to change one of her three project dates if not we will go on the 19th and only to river part of the program that is close enough to walk to and then put off our school assembly on the 19th for another week i am glad we got all of that cleared up where is the scotch?

*(For the uninitiated, in this blog, PTSD stands for “post-team-sucking disorder”.)

Egg in My Face

Back in March, I posted “Freedom Egg” in which I lamented about my village’s affection for a certain far-right, anti-immigrant political party . . . 34% of them in the last election!! “How could that be?!” I thought. Suddenly, that number 34 is looking pretty good.

We had the presidential election yesterday. Before any misunderstandings happen – the Presidency here in Austria is a ceremonial office. The person filling it represents the people but doesn’t run the government. That is the job of the Chancellor.

There were six candidates in the running – the two major ruling parties (Socialists and Conservatives), the Green Party, the Blue (“freedomish”) party, one woman – a retired judge – who just ran under her own name with no party backing her, and Austria’s Trump. Or better, what Trump should have been – an old rich guy having fun in the limelight, seemingly delighted with his role as national laughing stock slash embarrassment.

My husband had to take my daughter to a singing gig, so about 20 minutes before they had to leave, he zipped down to the village to vote – five minutes to get there, five minutes to vote, five minutes to get back, an extra five minute window in case of delays which he ended up not needing. Yep. That is how voting works here – fast and easy.

So many things the government runs in this country are equally well done. We have no power outages, everyone has health care, the trains and buses are clean and run on time, the roads are kept in good repair, housing is mostly affordable, the food is very high quality and water drinkable, the schools are generally well kept up and the teachers well-paid, the economy is humming along, the social welfare system is multi-faceted and not punitive, 20+ years of family allowances are paid out to all couples for each child, five weeks of vacation and child-care leave are guaranteed to all workers, the homelessness and crime rates are both low and the country has been neutral – i.e. has not fought in any wars – for over 60 years.

Clearly it was time to raise some fists and shake things up and throw the bums out while yelling “WE’RE MAD AS HELL AND NOT GONNA TAKE THIS ANYMORE!!”

                   Three, Two, and One
Three, Two, and One

By 5 pm the results were in. As expected, none of the six got over 50%, so there will be a runoff election between the top two next month. That means Blue (1) against Green (2). Judge Lady came in 3rd. The two major parties washed out – each strangely getting the exact same 11.18% of the votes. Austrian Trump came in last with a bit over 2%.

This morning, the numbers from every little village in the province – hundreds and hundreds of them -were published in the paper. So I could see, for instance, that 55.2% of my village’s votes were freedomish. I scanned the entire list for places with higher percentages. I only found three.

Maybe I should become an Austrian citizen and start voting here . . . get that percentage down to 55.1.

Educated Away – (MYoM – Part 28)

Every other year there is a big Montessori conference in Lower Austria visited by teachers from all over the country. For the past three days, three of my colleagues and I have partaken.  (Hence, the interruption in my . . . prolificness? prolificity? prolificacy? in this blog.) It’s a part of my continuing education, which German speakers call “Fortbildung”. I love that word. The root Bildung means “edification” or “development” or “education”. The prefix fort means “away”  – or in more Shakespearean terms, “Begone!”

And there is something utterly true about that term if the education you are continuing happens to be in the realm of Montessori. Most of us spend 12 years in the established school system learning the norms. Then we spend the rest of our lives trying to “unlearn” them. Looking for alternatives. Looking for solutions to our various discontents. Trying to rediscover our unstandardized selves. Trying to reignite the fires that fueled our preschool imaginations, the ones sometimes extinguished prematurely and sometimes violently by an over-regulated and over-worked, frustrated, dissatisfied, distracted, oblivious, impatient, or simply unsuited-for-the-profession teacher.

It occurred to me today that all this, THIS, is what Montessori is about. Whether the actual practitioners can really achieve this non-educational edification is another matter. I left the conference with mixed feelings.

The lectures were impressive. A woman with Asperger’s Syndrome gave an amazing talk. Hypersensitive to sensory overload and out of sync with those around her, she had somehow managed to survive her school years and successfully go on to college and Medical School. She became a doctor. She went on to specialize in Autism, gain respect, write books, and get invited to speak at conferences. In ours, she was admired universally as much for the self-deprecating stories she told as for her unique insights. She admitted in the speech that she had no friends and would like to have one. When she was done, and after listening to the sustained two minute long applause, she thanked us humbly, adding: “But . . . my! . . . you are all very loud!”

On Day Three, a Montessori Guru and object of much lavish idolatry related his evolution as a teacher. His talk was charming and full of truths. His love for the profession was clear and he encouraged us all to emulate it. What he didn’t seem to realize, however, is that his effervescent personality was something that maybe 5% of the crowd shared. He was a star teacher. The rest of us sloths could dream of his success, but without the larger-than-life personality to make it happen, we were not likely to achieve it. We would have to find our own ways, authentic for each individual us.

Day Two was Workshop Day. I had chosen one called “You are the toolbox – children are teachers.” Why did I choose it? 50% because it was the only workshop with an English title. 50% because the deadline was looming ominously, I didn’t understand any of the workshop descriptions, and I figured “whatever”.  Click! Registration accepted. Workshop #11 it is.

Five minutes into the 7-hour workshop, I decided that I had struck gold, however unscientific my choice had been.  The two teachers were immediately likeable. They put us at ease. We laughed a lot. And then we got into it.

It was all about breathing. And becoming aware of our own physical well-being. Finding our centers. Being in-the-moment. And looking into our own inner selves to discover the answer to the questions: “Where am I?” and “Why am I here?” and “What do I want?” These were questions I had dealt with over 40 years earlier. It was going to be a long day.

Then we introduced ourselves, one after another, around the circle. Of the 20 people there, 17 of them were the same person with a different hairstyle – a frustrated Kindergarten teacher, working within the established school system and looking for help. She wanted to find herself again because she realized that her own well-being was essential to being happy and effective in life and work (one or both of which was not satisfactory at the moment.)

At some point, it was my turn. I confessed to NOT being stressed out or frustrated – to loving my job. This made me immediately obnoxious.  My accent, however, worked its usual charm. From that moment on, the workshop became bilingual.

We breathed. In and out. We defined friendship. We breathed again. We lay down and breathed again. Lunch time came. In the afternoon, we did yoga. Lots and lots of yoga. The cameras showed up – so somewhere out there in YouTube World is a video of me leading the group through a yoga routine in dubious English. If you watch closely, you will see the moment when I almost wrenched my shoulder out of the socket in the process. I felt fairly blasé about this at the time – all the breathing and stretching was taking its toll.

At the end of the workshop, we all had to choose one or two picture postcards from the large number laid out on the floor. Then one-by-one we showed our selections to the others and said why we chose them. We saw a lot of butterflies and rainbows. Some of the participants cried. I chose two that reminded me of the scenery I had seen in the past two days and explained my choice by saying I was happy to be where I was at the moment. The saying on one of them was “When you lose your way, you get to know it.” I interpreted it to mean that always concentrating on the goal or finish line will make you to forget to look left and right – to see where you are and what is actually around you. Then I wondered with a little shudder at how uncharacteristically esoteric I was becoming.

But I WAS happy to be there. The conference was located in the Wachau – a particularly beautiful stretch of the Danube dotted with medieval villages and vineyards. I was not only relaxed from all the breathing and stretching, I was in travel-mode – i.e. just leaning back and letting things happen. Taking in the surroundings. Not thinking about all the unfinished work and details I would have to take care of when I got back home.

My peaceful state of mind was doubly obnoxious when I met up with my three colleagues after the workshops. They were all exhausted, restless and slightly fed up. They had also spent the day with variations of the same frustrated Kindergarten or elementary school teacher, listening to revelations they had personally come to at least 10 years earlier. In their cases, though, the other participants had left with the feeling “That all sounds great, but unfortunately it won’t work in MY situation. I’m handcuffed to the rules of the system.” I tried to infuse my colleagues with my newfound inner peace and equilibrium. I suggested we all breathe and do some yoga. They opted for beer and a good dinner instead. After comparing notes on our workshop experiences, we all agreed on one point: Thank goodness we don’t work in the established system. We’ve got it so good in our little school – and with one another.

Some impressions of the Wachau:

Positively Medieval – (MYoM – Part 27)

We have been doing a project on the Middle Ages at school, which explains why everywhere you look, there is a well-fortified cardboard castle complete with dungeon and a gallows in the courtyard for public hangings. In addition, half the older students are obsessed with witch burning and torture and the stocks and people throwing the contents of their chamber pots out of the window onto passersby below and . . . how did those knights in armor go to the bathroom anyway? I suppose this is to be expected when Maria Montessori meets The Game of Thrones.

court1Today I threw some gasoline on the fire by reenacting a medieval court in my English class. The six older girls acted out a series of short trials, while the 12 younger students sat in two rows of six chairs and played the jury. Towering over the proceedings was the Lord’s Steward who tried to quell the pandemonium by yelling “SHUT UP!!” a lot. To keep the jury in line (and speaking English) I added a little rule: any jury member who spoke German would immediately be accused of being a member of the Barbarian Hordes and have to stand trial next. And what was the punishment for treason? Death by hanging of course! Unless you were a nobleman – then it was “Off with the head!” That kept them in line – the results were hysterical.

First case: Mathilda was accused of lying about being sick so that she didn’t have to go work in the fields. Two witnesses testified to seeing her outside her hut. She was, of course, “GUILTY!!” Since she couldn’t pay the fine, she had to spend 24 hours in the stocks.

“Guilty!”

Second case: Cedric stole a neighbor’s chicken and ate it. He was, of course, “GUILTY!!” A long discussion ensued about whether he should lose one finger, two fingers, or the entire hand. I can’t remember exactly what the decision was, but, needless to say, Cedric will have trouble counting to 10 in the future.

Third case: Benedict was accused of public drunkenness and swearing. Two witnesses testified to seeing him. Benedict won’t be able to continue those two bad habits now that he has no tongue.

Fourth case: Alice accused John of mugging her. In this one case, there was a witness who was actually sympathetic to the accused. John also seemed kind of nice. He was found “Not Guilty.” One jury member – Little Leonard –was not happy about this decision and said so, but unfortunately not in English. He was immediately accused by four fellow jurors of being a Germanic Barbarian Horde-ist. We added his case to the docket.

Fifth Case: Margaret was accused of setting Hugh’s hut on fire. No one actually saw her doing it. But the jury still contemplated their front row seats to her burning at the stake. Except that, by now, the kids were getting a little weirded out. Where was the proof? They ended up only making her pay a hefty fine.

We interrupted the trials and talked about the concepts of hearsay and innocent until proven guilty (versus medieval guilty until proven innocent). One student noted that you could accuse a person of anything! Hardly anyone got the benefit of the doubt. That didn’t seem right. And why were the punishments so extreme? What about second chances?

But then again, in the final case of Little Leonard, they had heard him speaking German with their own ears! I’m afraid the trial did not go well for him.

Poons and Moons – (Reunions – Chapter 10)

mitzi blanket 1Mitzi lying on a blanket on the living room floor, swatting away at the mobile above her.

Mitzi in the highchair by the table playing her favorite game: “poons” (banging various spoons on the table and then dropping them one by one on the floor for mama to pick up).

mr brownMitzi voraciously devouring another book – literally. She sucked on the corners of Mr. Brown so much that the cover now reads “Mr. Bro Can Mo Can yo – Dr. Seuss’s Book of Wonderful No”.

Me starting to sing again. I had stopped 30 years earlier when a grade school teacher told me to. But to be fair, she might have had a point. My husband used to say my singing wasn’t putting Mitzi to sleep, it was making her lose consciousness.

Later . . . Mitzi on the swing (“wing . . . push . . . lustig!”) and in the water (“bahdee bahdee bathtub”). Mitzi’s first wobbly steps – after which she immediately attained a state of perpetual motion and remained in it until puberty. Mitzi bringing us a book and sort of sitting through the first four pages. Mitzi playing with papa’s box of magic tricks (“ma ga ga”), singing the Snood song (“doo doo DOO doo”), going with papa to basketball games (“baskeebah”). Mitzi pouncing on Dog Two, turning knobs on the oven (“heiss! hot!”), emptying out cabinets (“mess”), emptying out garbage cans (“mess”), opening bottles and tubes (“mess”), tipping over the dog’s water bowl (“mess”) , generally throwing things around (“mess”) . . . Mitzi squirming away from the comb (“Stop it!”)

I remember that first year and a half of tag-team parenting as the most romantic period of my life. Having waited eleven years for mother-/fatherhood, we threw ourselves into it with a passion. I never felt for a moment that I was missing out on some other possible, free and childless, lifestyle. My husband and I had spent enough time as a couple of Dinks – years of being ridiculously over-prepared for our respective teaching gigs. We had bought a home and renovated it. We had travelled and partied and changed jobs and started new hobbies and spent money freely on un-necessities. I had gone back to grad school and he had run a few marathons. Various friends had moved into our house for a while and out again. Pets were added to the domestic mix and became our replacement children (except for that first cat – Gina the B. . . .  I’m gonna say “Beast” even though it doesn’t rhyme with “witch”. She had her own ideas about her role in our household.) We had been every there and done all that.

But now THIS . . . this parenthood thing . . . THIS was something new every day!

mitzi chairTo be honest, it was a bit like playing house in the beginning. My husband was a 50/50 dad and Mitzi was an easy, sunny baby. She also started her life as a great sleeper – but, never fear, we somehow managed to rid her of those good habits by the age of six months. (Oh, those painful bedtime traumas! To this day, I still get impatient and uptight when she stays up too late. Almost 16 years old now, she tells me – rightly – that I am being hysterical. I shoot back that it is her own darn fault.) The moon wasn’t a big help either, though. At some point I realized that her bedtime stress came in regular intervals. I had never believed in astrology or that the alignment of planets affects us here on Earth – but I started to wonder after I noticed that her sleep troubles were always in the last three days before a full moon. When her first word after “mama” and “papa” turned out to be “moon”, I became a believer.

mitzi sheepThat was one of many unexpected revelations in parenthood. Another was that having a child is like getting a big and powerful friendship magnet. I had lived outside our village for 11 years but knew hardly any of its citizens. I had a knack for forming close friendships with women who were only temporarily here. One after another, they took off for bigger and better places (like Berlin – to name just one example off the top of my head.) My job being in another city 50 miles away, I hadn’t met local people through work, so most new relationships came via the hubby and remained fairly cool. Now, with Mitzi by me, I suddenly started connecting with other young (and mostly younger) mothers. Play groups formed. Later, each time Mitzi was institutionalized (nursery school, kindergarten, grade school . . .) I ended up forming another new friendship or three – many of which are still going strong today. You think of young mothers as being isolated somehow, but in my case, it opened all sorts of doors to new people. Even my friendship with my nearest neighbor only began after Mitzi came home to us. In the 11 years before that we had maintained a polite, Frosty relationship – you know, the “good fences make good neighbors” idea. Now we meet up several times a week for dog walks and we celebrate every Christmas and Easter together. No Mitzi, still Frosty.

Although most of the revelations of motherhood were good ones, there are one or two dirty little secrets that no one tells you about beforehand.

I have read somewhere that the worst tragedy a person can endure is the loss of a child – worse than that of a partner or a parent or a sibling. Possibly the ONLY good thing about involuntary childlessness is that, at least, this is one worry you are spared. The minute you hold your child in your arms, the idea that something could harm him or her is overwhelming. For the rest of your life, there will be the potential of this tragedy looming over your head. I assume every new parent has to deal with this in some way (and I suspect many go the road of denial – just blocking it out and carrying on.) Many of my new young-mother acquaintances had a harder time dealing with their fears. They remained at DEFCON 1 around the clock. They hovered and fussed and used thermometers fervently. When their child wandered over to the slide, they followed. When the child tried to climb the ladder, they held on and said “Here, let me help you.”

One young mother in our play group had a particularly hard time dealing with her fears. She simply refused to drive anywhere with her husband unless the child was also in the car. Her reasoning: what if something happens? Our child would be an orphan! Her house was pristine. It reeked of soap, disinfectants, and strong, anti-bacterial cleansers – so much so that Mitzi often started sneezing when the play group met there. When this mother’s baby developed rashes and dermatitis and allergies, it only confirmed her fears. She once came over to my house and brought her own mother along. I saw the Grandma’s disapproving eyes scanning my living room, looking suspiciously at the baby blanket full of toys on the floor where Mitzi often lay and then the dogs roaming past it, shedding hairs. The first thing this mother’s mother did was feel Mitzi’s bare feet and proclaim them to be cold. I checked quickly and they seemed perfectly warm to me, but I put some socks on her anyway.

I was lucky in that my own mom, my mother-in-law, my pediatrician, and the only baby book I ever bought (and even perused parts of) kept sending me the same messages. “Relax. Stop comparing. Trust your child. Trust your instincts.”

“What instincts?” I thought. I was not only a worrywart by genetic pre-determination, I was also never pregnant. My hordes of nieces and nephews were off at too great a distance for me to pick up vicarious childcare skills through them. Our parenting was going to be learning by doing and we were going to make mistakes along the way. And thank goodness for that. If you ask me, the concept of “the perfect mother” is a pretty frightening one.

Over the years, I have crystallized parenting down to two simple things: 1) you have to love your child and want him/her to be happy and 2) your child has to know – and I mean really know, deep down – that you love them and want them to be happy. If those two things happen you can go ahead and make your mistakes. Things will turn out okay.

The other little secret of parenting no one tells you is that time speeds up. You get what seems like about a month to revel in having a new baby in the house. Then you turn around in a circle once and she is pulling herself up and taking those first steps. You turn around a second time and she is getting on a school bus. Turn around a third time and she is riding away from you on her bike for the first time. The very next day she drives off on her new Vespa and you realize you have about 15 more minutes before she flies off to the States for her high school exchange year.

mitzi race

Mitzi was less two years old when she took part in her first running event. I stood on the sidelines, watching as she raced past me. This was all going by too fast. I missed the baby blanket on the living room floor and the colorful toys scattered around it. I missed the bassinet and the cute little booties and darling size 56 jumpsuits. I missed singing lullabies and reading Dr. Seuss and playing finger games. The memories of our 9 months of adoption labor pains and the traumatic moments during the birth of our family had faded. My thoughts turned toward Ethiopia.

Parental Guidance Recommended – (MYoM – Part 26)

Another Hummingbird Day has come and gone. The stations were created by the students over the last two days, a quiz for the parents was typed up and printed out, experiments were set up in the courtyard and a buffet appeared in the kitchen. A village of cardboard castles sprang up in the garden, and the slideshow (finished just in time – thank you smiling moon!) ran on a loop in the arts and crafts room, 20160415_144730along with two short films the students had made in one of their projects. The parents trickled in fashionably late and were slowly prodded into the courtyard for the opening ceremony and show.

The highlights of the day were the two theater plays.

A young drama teacher has worked with the kids for the past few weeks. She started by letting them decide on a character they wanted to play and then let them improvise. She slowly brought different characters together and had them improvise role plays. Little stories developed and these were slowly interwoven into a single play.

20160415_132830

So, today, we saw a fairy princess get kidnapped by a vampire. Her sister and a friend set off with their dogs to find her. They are helped by mysteriously friendly bat who leads them to a castle. The kidnapped sister – who is now a vampire too – attacks them, but the dogs join the fight, making it go on long enough for vampire sister to have a change of heart. Mysteriously, it all works out.

 

Before the older group of kids was set to take the stage, the drama teacher made a little speech. She informed the audience that the kids had decided to explore darker themes this year – social problems and violence and drugs and death. She suggested to parents with children under six years old that they decide whether the kids should stay. In any case, they should be prepared to help the young ones work through what they were about to see.

“Well, this is going to be interesting!” I thought to myself, with the afterthought: “And what a great plug for the school!”

20160415_134114It actually wasn’t that bad. They turned their stories into a murder mystery in which a rich, tyrannical, drug-purchasing, non-paying, extortionist of fortune tellers slash theater owner is killed. The crime is reenacted three times – each time with a few more details included – and then the audience was asked to help to identify the perp.

Was it . . . the dealer, the private detective, the black sheep or the boss? Or maybe it was contract killer, the stylist, the actress or the body guard? Then again, it might have been the singer, the pretty boy or the fortune teller.

20160415_134912 - Copy 20160415_134912

If you guessed any of these, you were wrong. It was the witch who needed the drugs for her potion to turn her two friends from dogs back into human form. Once most the bad guys and some detectives died in a shootout – she finally got her hands on the stuff. Another happy end!

20160415_135248

Girls Off the Rails

If I were ever to share a train car with a suspected criminal, I would be useless to the police as a witness. On my weekly commute to the university, I usually board the train, hunker down in a seat, and whip out my Sudoku book. I spend the entire hour completely oblivious to my fellow passengers. Couldn’t tell you how many there were, what they looked like, anything really. I am truly off in my own little world.

But not the last two trips. In both cases it was a group of high school girls who dragged me out of my reverie and back into the here and now. The first was just a group of two across the aisle from me. Each with their cell phone in hand, they had discovered a site with a hundred different farting sounds and were trying them out one by one. They giggled softly at first after each one, and then, slowly, the volume of both their playback and their laughing increased. They were not off in their own worlds, they knew that everyone else in train car was partaking in their mirth – whether they wanted to or not. This continued for an obnoxiously long time. The rest of us emphatically ignored them.

Yesterday, I took an earlier train and ended up in Graz about the time school lets out there. I got on a bus and took a seat next to the most silent black woman in the world. One row up, four school girls were seated in a group facing one another. They were talking too loudly as teenage girls do. They mentioned Ramadan and then something about praying and “right now”. It turned into a dispute about how feasible it was to observe the rules exactly. One of them said (loudly):

“It’s not a problem! I just say I have to go to the bathroom. Then I go in there and shut the door. I throw my sweater on the floor and kneel down and pray. If someone comes in and wonders why I am crouched there with my head on the floor – who cares?”

This puzzled me. I knew a little about Islam and had heard of a five-prayers-a-day rule, but I had no idea that there were particular times for these observances. Later, at home, I did a little research and found this information on a website of an Austrian Islamic center:

prayer times

It surprised me to see six prayer names and exact times of day – (the things you learn while eavesdropping on strangers!) I could understand the standpoint of the girl who argued it was too hard to keep to the rules – Austrian institutions, public spaces, opening hours, schedules etc. are not set up to be convenient to Muslim prayer obligations. It was a Tuesday while I was on that bus and 12:56 came and went as I listened to those girls.

At one point the discussion got hefty with all four talking at once. I couldn’t catch more than snatches of it – something about “wanting to grab that thing and rip it off her head”, for instance. I looked at them more carefully. They all had sleek dark hair and beautiful faces. They were wearing nice clothes including the ripped jeans so in fashion right now. They wore make up and no head scarves. They spoke perfect German in an Austrian dialect that was clearly native to them. I doubted very much that there was any other language they had better command of.

The discussion turned to the subject of their mothers as they tried to one-up each other. “My mother would have a fit!” one of them said. “My mother would send me straight to the mosque,” said the second.  “That’s nothing! Come to my house once and you will see what it means to be extreme!” the third countered.

The bus turned a corner and passed a large billboard. It was a political ad for Austria’s Freedom Party candidate in the upcoming presidential election. Three of the girls raised their hands and sent a middle finger salute in the direction of the man’s picture. The fourth girl was nudged. She looked up from her cell and asked “What?” One girl pointed at the billboard. “Oh” said the fourth and she made the same quick gesture.

We were getting near the main square where they were going to get off the bus, so the crazy mother competition was replaced with an equally loud discussion about their afternoon plans.  One of them objected to the idea of getting some Kebab first.

“There you go again! It’s the same point I was making before,” another girl nearly shouted. “You have to think more about other people! I AM HUNGRY!” They debated back and forth emotionally and then seemed to find a compromise just as the bus reached their stop.

I thought about these two scenes a lot for the rest of the day, and then again today. It suddenly struck me as odd that they stayed on my mind and I wanted to figure out why. Two sets of girls were sort of obnoxiously loud on public transport – that is fairly normal for teenagers anywhere. I had learned a little something new about Islam from the second group, but then it wasn’t THAT fascinating . . . and then it finally dawned on me.

I had been surprised at how normal those four girls were.

Five or ten years ago, that idea would have never entered my head. Tens of thousands of Muslims have been living in Austria for decades. I have had hundreds of Muslim students and didn’t find anything unusual about it. This surprise of mine was something new – something had to have changed inside my own mind for me to feel it at all. Could it be that all the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, fear of terrorism talk I have heard in recent years had gotten inside my head despite my rejection of them? I want to think of myself as being above that, being immune to manipulation, but there it is. I hate such moments of discovering my own prejudices. I hate the thought that extreme politicians can create such crap perceptions in the minds of people who hadn’t had them before.

I want to think that despite ups and downs, humans are generally going in the right direction when it comes to racism. That the moral arc is truly bending towards justice and that someday the current concepts of race will die out. That the future world my daughters live in will be even better to them than this one. But right now I am wondering if some ideas can’t always be raised from the dead again.

My two girls ride trains and buses with their friends. I don’t want them sitting silently and trying to be invisible. I also don’t want them shouting or giving the finger to a political billboard. And I sure as heck don’t want them playing loud farting noises on their cell phones. But more than all this, I don’t want the other passengers looking at them and being surprised at how normal they are.