It Is Worth Doing

 

We said goodbye to one of our three refugee-adoptees a few weeks back. Our Somalian. Of all three, he had made maybe the greatest effort on the social side of his particular equation. He did everything he could to fit in and make friends. He had a huge contagious smile and laugh, accepted every invitation to our house, was determined to finally win a round of Level 8, participated in my husband’s cooking lessons with enthusiasm, and gave us thoughtful Christmas presents. He went to school and learned German. He liked almost everything here except that there were no other Somalians left in his house, in fact, no other Africans. Most refugees feel alone, but that made him feel even more alone. With a lot of help, he found a new place to live in Vienna – an apartment with 8 young men of various nations – two of them Somalian – with friendly and welcomed supervision of the local social welfare office. He has kept in regular contact with my husband since leaving here – so far he seems to be doing well. He is currently looking for a new school that will accept him.

I miss him.

I’ve talked to so many people who have been involved in helping refugees and certain themes have crystallized. The most critical ones are those who had a “bad experience” and feel disappointment. They thought they were going to change the lives of the objects of their patronage. Make them see the light and realize the necessity of adopting Austrian cultural attitudes and norms. Turn them into desirable new citizens. As if a few dinners and talks could turn a forced-by-destiny survival artist into a socially conscientious, democratic participant. These patrons were baffled when their protect-ee continued to take full advantage of every freebie that came their way – and there are a lot of them right now – with no thought of paying it back.

I don’t know how many times I have asked people “How would you act if you had lost absolutely everything except the clothes on your back? Wouldn’t you take everything you could get?” It has little or no effect. The disappointed patron remains disappointed. The recipient of their social largess turned out to be undeserving. Payback never materialized.

I keep saying over and over – “You can’t do this work – helping the refugees – with rose-colored glasses.” You can’t change their destinies. You can’t save them.

You can be kind. You can be hospitable.  And that is all you can do.

It is worth doing.

 

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Once More Unto the Breach!

(My Years of Montessori – Part 36 – partially plagiarized from Part 6 – but this time with pictures!)

 

On my very first day in my “new” school (which really isn’t new anymore, seeing as how this is my sixth year there) I watched with morbid fascination at how awful the kids in the “Sekundaria”  – the 13 and 14 year olds – treated one another as well as the teacher who was trying so hard with them.

Traditionally, in this first circle discussion of the school year, the group comes to a consensus on seating arrangements and general rules concerning classroom etiquette, independent study time conditions and shared space. This includes a wide variety of topics from the use of cell phones to eating in the classroom, from quiet versus social areas to music volumes, from which kids are allowed in which rooms to respecting others’ property, from doing chores to not running in the hallways . . . It was quite a list. And a surprising one. In my introduction to the ways of this school so far, I had heard it contrasted to “rules schools” quite a few times. And here were the same prohibitions you would find anywhere. The only difference was that the kids were supposed to come up with and agree to them on their own. The teacher’s goal was to have them create a poster of the rules that would then be signed by all and hung in the classroom to guarantee a peaceful and productive school year.

That poster never came into existence. In this long excruciating hour, the kids teased and interrupted one another constantly. They chatted with neighbors rather than listening to the one who currently held the conch, oops, I mean the heart-shaped pillow. Elbows were dug into other kids’ ribs. Squirming was constant and adversarial. Barely audible but clearly snide comments and subsequent chuckles were made at other people’s expense. Pseudo-laughter over things that weren’t really funny was a constant feature in general. Arms were crossed in a defensive posture as one student after another leaned back and signaled their anger. All the while, the well-meaning and not un-respected teacher kept cajoling and lecturing the kids, trying to make them admit that they were old enough and smart enough to understand everything he was trying to accomplish. They were and they did – but none of them were going to actually admit that out loud. At some point, the clock struck 10, signaling recess, and the group discussion was over.

I went home and brooded over the experience for hours on end. In less than two days, I would have to face this group for the first English lesson (a subject they had collectively rebelled against in the past). How could I get this troop to give me and English a chance? I would have to hit the exact right tone and fairly quickly – these kids were clearly not receptive to lectures. They were tired of being talked to, reasoned with, and they immediately tuned out. And rules? They turned out to be enticements – the kids were very creative in finding ways to break them. I was going to have to get equally creative.

The first question was how to deal with all the rebellion. By sheer coincidence, it was an election year, so one of our first topics was democracy. I introduced them to the American history and governmental system with an emphasis on rights and responsibilities. We moved from “I have rights” to “Everyone should have equal rights” to “Everyone should respect the rights of others.” The final project in these lessons was to take their classroom rule list and reframe it. For instance, instead of “Rule #1 – No running in the hallways”, they wrote “We all have the right to safety and security, so we don’t run in the halls.” They may have been wildlings, but they were also impressively smart. Suddenly breaking the rules for the sake of breaking the rules didn’t seem like such a great idea to them. But there was still a problem in how they treated teachers and one another on an emotional level . . .

And now we get to the sub-title of this post.

Two years ago, on a different blog platform, and before any of my current readers (except one) even knew I existed, I wrote about my eventual solution to the “wildlings” problem:

. . . After three weeks I introduced them to my group dynamics box.
Sitting on the floor in a circle, I explained to them that sometimes I wanted to send them a message, but didn’t want to do it in a lecturing way. So everything in the box was a symbol and a message. The first object was a Stop” sign but with some words added underneath. It meant things were getting too rowdy. Time for them to collect themselves:

stopsign

The second object was a little music box that played a particular melody – that one was sort of self-explanatory for them.  They were, after all, 13 and 14 year olds and they inherently understood the concept of momentary brainlessness.

music-box

The third objects were for the cases when a student was disinterested in everything –– the idea that something is “”Boorrrinngg!”” can be so contagious in a classroom. I said, ““I don’t expect you to find every topic interesting, but if everything is boring to you, then you are not really living. You might as well start building that coffin.” I put some big nails on the floor. Here are some coffin nails. You can get started.””
coffin-nails
Also in the box was a Socrates doll (teacher/student relationships / listening goes in both directions), my replicas of the Constitution and Bill of Rights (the classroom is a democratic space), and a little stuffed bird. This last one referred to a German expression “”You have a bird! which is actually an insult and means You are crazy.”” I told the kids that, in our class, “having a bird” was a compliment – like thinking outside the box or being original / creative.

         socrates replicas bird

Im not sure what Montessori, Steiner, Wild, & Co would think of this method, but the kids loved that box and it worked like a charm. The few times I did use it, there was always some laughter and then an easy course correction. They showed it off proudly and explained it to their parents on Hummingbird Day . . .  
My box of objects has gone through three adaptations based on the group dynamics and the personalities in the class each year.

 

About those adaptations. I had a subgroup in Year 3 that loved to make ridiculous requests. The first two or three times, I actually explained, almost apologetically and in words, about why I had to say “No”. Then I realized it was just a game for them. They wanted to see how I reacted. Enter the flying pig:

flying-pig

chickenNot all of my inspirations worked out. In Year 4, I added a chicken to deal with two boys who refused to speak English. It completely backfired and was quickly remr-potato-headmoved from the box. But also in Year 4, Mr. Potato Head joined the collection to deal with problems in circle discussions. He had big ears and no mouth. He turned out to be a keeper.

Last year I had such a harmonious class that I retired the group dynamics box all together. But lately, I have been considering reactivating it. I have a pack of five boys who have started rebelling collectively, mostly against journal writing. (For ten minutes at the end of the school day, the kids should reflect on the day and write something – anything! – about it.) The vast majority of our kids seem to like doing this. They write creatively and/or review what was new or fun for them that day. They add colorful illustrations or fitting song lyrics. But for the past month, the entries of the Pack of Five have included a lot of illegible scribbles or swearwords or penis drawings, etc. Or they provokingly write the same two sentences day after day after day: “Before the break we had (Math) and after the break we had (German). It was cool.”

This rebellion came to the Team’s attention and since then the battle fronts have hardened. (To be honest, I kind of admire the boys’ tenacity.) The schedule was tweaked so that I am now there for journal writing time twice a week to support my sorry young colleague who had been taking the brunt of the incoming up to that point. I also identified the weaker links in enemy force and have been employing a divide and conquer strategy with some success. Last Tuesday I challenged the whole class to write five sentences without ever using the German phrases for “I/we had” or “I/we did” – and that led to a few creative workarounds. I think I am weakening their defenses, but the battle is far from over. They still want to win.

I have been racking my brain for some symbol that might help in this journal feud to add to my magic box before I reintroduce it. One idea was a little white flag of surrender and a message like “I know you don’t want to give up. The problem is that you already have.” Another idea was something to do with wolves or sheep – though that might be too harsh. Basically, I am still waiting for an inspiration.

So I’ve decided to enlist YOUR help, my blogworld people – you are all so creative. Any suggestions?

 

Back to Slogging

work
Warning! Ironic!

 

Four fabulous days in Berlin followed by four different but equally excellent days in Tyrol did wonders for my state of mind. In that whole time, there were no aches or pains that were not self-inflicted (for instance, by bowling for 2 hours with no warm-up, or contributing to the emptying of bottles of assorted types of alcohol). There were 3 hours between leaving work 10 days ago and heading off to the airport. There were four hours between returning home from Tyrol and going to bed with the alarm set for 6 am. Between those 3 hours and those four hours, work crossed my mind . . . never. Obligations haunted me . . . never. Thanks to incredibly gracious hosts, I never had to cook. Or drive. Or do laundry. There were no “To Do” lists.

And today the alarm rang at 6 am. I got up and went to work very ill-prepared, hoping that sudden inspiration born of necessity, 30 years or teaching experience, or some subconscious lesson planning would get me through the school day while in body and (conscious) mind, I was actually still on vacation.

It all went okay. I was saved by the fact that all my students were still mentally on vacation, too. My colleagues as well. We were all improvising today.

Nevertheless, I came home tonight determined to get back into work mode. Not because of today, but because of several conversations I coincidentally had over the past ten days with widely diverse people on the topic of retirement.

Some people handle it well, but many more are completely lost without the structure and status that work provides to daily life. How does it feel to suddenly wake up in the morning and have nowhere to go and nothing you have to do? Great (!) when you are on vacation, but what is it like as a permanent condition? No matter who I talked to, they all agreed on one thing – once retirement (or unemployment) begins, there are no more vacations.

These discussions reminded me of many debates my business students had on the subject of joblessness. The majority opinion was often negative towards unemployment benefits. “Why should I pay for (or my tax dollars go to) someone who is too lazy to work?” many students asked. I especially remember one impassioned student countering these arguments. “Have you ever experienced what it is like to not have a job?” she asked. “To apply over and over again to 30, 40, or 50 companies and always be turned away? To be desperate for any shit position? To feel like a total reject?”

I am not convinced that she reached her privileged classmates, but she sure made an impression on me. The ONLY thing she wanted in that time of her life was a job. She would never make the mistake of equating “not working” with “vacation”.

There is no vacation without work.

I love vacations. Especially this last one. The idea of no more vacations frightens me.

It’s time to get back to work.

Dog Four Goes to Heaven

dogs4

Don’t be alarmed about the title of this post. No, we did not lose two pets in the space of a month. But having only one dog now, we were able to bring her along on our yearly visit to our aunt and uncle in Tyrol – a place I affectionately associate with heaven.

Dog Four made instant friendships with the two canine residents of the house – two equally friendly and much better trained dogs. She gets constant attention, several daily walks, top quality dog food, a bed in our room, and lots of playtime with her new bff’s.

She’s not going to want to go home again.

I’m not sure which option is better for her: a Dog Five? Or a repeat visit to heaven next year?

Connection Finally Made

 Berlin Postings – #4

 

The Wall came down and the two Berlins were reunited way back in the early 90s. As it turns out, it would take about another 25 years before they came together inside my head.

For the historically challenged, I will explain that the city got drawn and quartered after WWII by four different occupying nations. It was later re-stitched somewhat, but a big chunk was left off. Berlin became two cities, in two different countries, in two different economic and political systems. All the former streetcar lines and roads that had connected the two halves became mirror image dead ends.

European cities characteristically have an old center where the most awesome buildings congregate – the palaces, the opera house and theaters, the massive churches or cathedrals, the impressive museums, the renowned universities, the libraries, the City Hall . . .  When the barbed wire went up after the war this old center, “Berlin Mitte” landed in the East and was off limits to me in many of my earlier visits. Instead of all these magnificent structures, I pictberlin-mitteured East Berlin as a collection of non-aesthetic gray concrete blocks. But on Day 3 of this trip, we explored lots of the center on foot and those old false images got a correction.

 

Here’s a taste:

Gendarmenmarkt and the Neue Wache – a monument dedicated to the victims of war:

Bebelplatz which was the site of a huge book-burning in 1933 – I assume the first of many. There was a glass plate through which you can (normally) see an empty underground library – unfortunately the glass was so scratched and fogged up that I could barely make anything out:

Outdoor waiting lines made us decide to put off the museum for our next visit and the chilly air made us all crave a warm café and hot chocolate. On the way, though, we stopped at the Berlin Cathedral and ended up spending quite a while in there:

With a few hours to fill before dinner time, Ly’s sweetheart came up with an inspiration: American bowling. My daughters had never tried it and . . . (Warning! Confession!)  . . . I used to be pretty good at it – even had my own ball. It was a riot.

The final highlight of three excellent days was a “jam session” in a club where patrons were welcomed to sing or play along. The sweetheart finagled getting my elder daughter onto the stage by calling her “(Mitzi) from Chicago”. One line into her “Ain’t No Sunshine”, the crowd started enthusiastically whooping and clapping. Then they settled down and really listened. The musicians kept her up there for two more songs and then asked her to come again the next day. While it was going on, my guilty Raven Mother conscience (for bringing my underage daughters into a smoky bar) faded as my inner Stage Mom emerged full force. I turned to the stranger next to me, pointed to the stage and bragged, “MY daughter!”

—————————-

For going on twenty years now, I have been arriving at Tegel Airport and immediately handing over the reins to the world’s most gracious hostess (and, in later years, the sweetheart host). They drive me around, feed me, act as my personal tour guides. In recent trips, my family members have enjoyed this treat, too, along with sundry strangers from, let’s say, Kiel. In all this time, I never really had to know where I was – Ly had a plan.

For some reason, this time it occurred to me that I had no city map of Berlin in my head. So I finally bought one. I have studied it and located all the places I’ve seen and photographed . . .

That’s where I’ve been! What do you know!!

 

No Escape

 

Berlin Postings – #3

 

memorial

Day Two in Berlin began somewhat solemnly again as our walk through the center led us past the site of the Christmas Market attack right in front of Berlin’s iconic “Gedächtniskirche” – the bombed and burned out remains of the cathedral left standing as a reminder for the population of war’s devastation. But thereafter, things got happier and my biggest complaint of the day would have to be the peas in my tuna fish salad sandwich.literatur-cafe

We let the girls roam KaDeWe and Bikini Berlin with wads of cash in their fists while Ly and I toured bookstores (“Ka-ching!!”) and then went to the Literature Café for a light lunch. Fabulous place – except for the peas.

 

the-room-kopie       go-west-kopie

 

From there it was on to “The Room” – a live game with the theme of escaping from East Berlin in the 1980s. (My hubby made the reservations for us as part of our Christmas present.) We were given a short orientation and then led to a room. We entered. The door shut behind us. We had one hour to use all the clues hidden there to find our way out – the secret escape route to the West. If we failed, the East German Stasi (secret police) would break down the door and arrest us . . .

It was A LOT of fun, but unfortunately our teamwork and communication were a bit lacking. To make a long story short . . .

I’m adjusting to the Gulag very well.

Unhidden

Berlin Postings – #2

 

Our first full day in Berlin had a recurring theme. Bringing to light what once was intentionally not seen. Hidden treasures and hidden atrocities.

20170210_135140

Our first stop was the concentration camp Sachsenhausen. As usual my own emotional reactions came after a delay. While walking through the exhibition my focus turned quickly to my daughters and how they were taking it all. In the first building dealing with the rise of fascism, there was still some conversation, but we all got increasingly silent.

20170210_144229

Things got really rough at the “killing station” with its chilling matter-of-fact descriptions of efficient extermination procedures. Immediately afterward we weaved our way through larger than life-sized pictures of dead Russian soldiers. These images were printed on sheer cloth banners hanging from the ceiling. We had to zigzag through them and avoid their eyes. We were walking among ghosts.

That was when we all felt it. We had taken in as much as we could handle and it was time to go. At some point both girls wondered at the reasoning behind showing all these things – as if it were a tourist attraction. We talked about the importance of seeing these things with your own eyes. Of knowing what happened, facing it, and then maybe recognizing the warning signs in times when it could happen again.

20170210_142005

 

That is all the words on this I have at the moment. For a moving and more detailed account, read Lyart’s blog posts “Sachsenhausen” and “Sunday Matinee

In the evening we went to the movies and saw “Hidden Figures” which did what it could as an antidote for the morning’s impressions. It wasn’t a perfect film, but this time it felt GOOD to see the once unseen being seen.

hidden-figures