The Dishonor System

 

My elder daughter just finished the last test of her senior year and in a few days she will hear the result. All she has to do is pass and her life as a HS student will be over. (She still has the big graduation exams in five subjects ahead of her, but there will be no more normal school days – just prep classes and some tutoring.) Her homeroom teacher sent her this picture of the event:

I stared at the picture for a long time because there is just so much wrong with it. All three senior classes together, taking the same test, because we can’t risk the chance that one of the three teachers will give an easier test than the others. Desks dragged to the gymnasium where there is enough space to isolate each student – who otherwise would surely cheat! Cell phones and watches collected upon entering. Forty-five kids bent over desks for five hours, spewing out whatever they managed to shove into their short-term memories, solving complex math problems that will stymie them six months from now. Proving they can do things that 95% of them will never need to do again for the rest of their lives.  Needing permission and an escort if they have to go to the bathroom.

Learning the lesson in a myriad of ways that all this is necessary because no one can be trusted.

I wondered if the same thing happens in American schools now. I remember taking tests in my normal classroom at my normal desk. I remember take-home exams and open book tests. I remember being allowed a 5” by 8” cheat sheet – and spending so much time writing and re-writing it in smaller and smaller print that I memorized everything and didn’t actually need it. Most of all, I don’t remember any cheating going on. I had no doubt that my teachers would test and grade fairly and I think they trusted us to do our best independently and honestly. There was an honor system.

There may have been one here too years ago, but if so, it is definitely gone now. Slowly but surely, changes have been made – ostensibly to ensure fairness – but with each one taking a little more power out of the hands of the teachers. Subject matter is prescribed by the Ministry of Education. Tests must be uniform. Grading has to conform to a system and be documented in detail. And those graduation exams? They have been centralized for the entire country.

A week or so before the date determined by the Ministry for whatever subject, the written exams (in sealed packages) will be delivered to the school by armored car and then locked in a safe. At the exact appointed time in every high school in the country, the packages will be brought to the examination room where one student will witness the breaking of the seal and then sign a paper confirming this step. (And if the seal in one school was not intact, the exam will have to be repeated at a later date by every student in the entire country!) When grading the exams, the teachers are given long and explicit instructions on which answers can be accepted. For the oral exams, there is a state-wide pool of topic areas and the individual students get theirs lottery-style. They draw two numbers corresponding to question sets on two particular themes, look at them, and then choose one set to answer. Twenty minutes later, a panel of three teachers and one supervisor decides if the student’s general mastery of the subject is very good, good, satisfactory or in-/sufficient, when, in reality, the entire exercise probably has just as much to do with the student’s test prep strategies and sheer dumb luck.

Vladimir was once a child too.

I have been in many discussions with Austrians about this new system and usually ask why graduation exams are necessary at all, not to mention the massive amount of regulation involved in their centralized implementation. The answers are usually some variation of “Trust is good. Control is better”, which only makes me wonder if they realize they are quoting Lenin. I wonder why they can’t see that we are talking about a rite of passage and not proof of educational attainment. There’s a reason why the German name for these exams collectively is “Maturity Test”.

Now, before you can graduate from this post, I have two question sets for you to choose from:

Is there really so little faith in the people involved that all these complex procedures and massive control efforts are necessary?

and – something even more basic:

Should it really be the goal of an education system that every child learns the same things? Wouldn’t it be better if each student left school having learned something different – deeper knowledge in the subjects that correspond to his/her individual interests and talents? And wouldn’t trusted and empowered teachers be the most able to help the students discover what these subjects are?

 

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German, English, Norwegian, Scottish, Irish, and Roman

 

I’m back to talking chickens.

Loyal readers will know what that means: there has been too much NSFB (“not suitable for blogging”) stuff going on and occupying my thoughts lately. Add to that the fact that I also subjected blogworld to two political rants in a short space of time, making me feel like I have to make up for it somehow. I have been rooting around for a nice, easy, non-political topic I can spend some time on . . . now, let’s see . . . what could I write about? . . . I know! . . . chickens!

 

 “We’re going to be grandparents of three,” my husband said to me a few days back. He had just checked our third batch of incubator eggs with his special illuminator device, homemade out of a toilet paper roll and some tin foil. Of the six eggs, three of them had dark shadowy innards. It takes almost exactly 21 days for the eggs to hatch, so in about two weeks’ time, I will be able to tell you if he was right.

Our first attempt, some of you may remember, resulted in the deformed, short-lived Quasimodo and the equally doomed Fred, the German Reich’s chicken who was clearly too beautiful to live. Those two were accompanied for their short time by some hastily purchased Wyandotte chicks, all four of whom turned into roosters and, subsequently, three of whom turned into dinner. The fourth is the father of our current incubator batch. This time I am actually hoping for a rooster. I want to name him “Pete Buttig-Egg”.

Our second attempt at incubating was more successful – it produced four hearty Orpingtons who managed to survive the harsh winter in a small henhouse with an open door. They did it by sticking close together. By March we had three full grown hens and one rooster but, sadly, no eggs. For months I fed them, checked the empty laying box, and then informed them that they were a bunch of good-for-nothing losers. But then – on the very same day Mueller finally submitted his report to the aptly named Barr – one of them laid an egg:

Surely there will be more to come. There has to.

 

All this focus on progeneration naturally led me to other thoughts. What about me? Where do I come from? I still remember asking my mother about it way back in grade school when the topic of nationalities was first introduced into my consciousness. Just like Elizabeth Warren’s mother’s tale of a Native American ancestor, my mom had a theory of her own to tell:

“Well let’s see . . . you are German, English, Norwegian, Scottish, Irish and Roman. Pretty much in that order.”

“Roman?” I asked. “Where does that come from?”

Mom told me that her own mother was 100% English, but that she had dark hair and olive skin – so that probably went back to some Roman soldier from the Empire’s occupation of England in the first millennium. It seemed pretty feasible.

In defense of my mother, I assume now that she was being a little facetious and never thought I would go on to repeating that list of nationalities – including the last one – for the next two decades. Thank goodness there was no “Roman” box to tick on my college application form!

The mystery surrounding my heritage was further complicated by my elder sister who has spent years compiling a massive database of our genealogical tree. I only know a tiny bit of it, but I vaguely remember her correcting my version of our connection to the Mayflower and – more importantly – not being able to confirm the “Irish” part of my nationality list. This disturbs me greatly because I once distinctly heard the call of my ancestors while wandering around the peninsula of Dingle in Ireland. On the other hand, when I was in Rome a few years back, I listened for a similar call and . . . nothin’.

Fortunately, modern science might offer me a way to prove or disprove my mother’s and sister’s theories. My Cuban friend (whose mother told her she had some Chinese ancestry) did a DNA test through “MyHeritage” and got some surprising results. To cut to the chase, she now walks around feeling less connection with the Ming dynasty and more with the Massai.

Of course, after hearing her tale, I went online and ordered two kits for me and my husband. They have been sitting on a shelf for weeks, but I’ve decided that today is the day to force the hubby to swab. Once that is done, I will mail the spittle off. So . . . in about six weeks’ time, I will be able to tell you if my mother or sister was right. I’m curious to find out who, if anyone, will be exonerated.

 

 

Hillary’s Alien Baby

 

“He thinks it’s still the 1980s!!”

I said that to my sister when, once again, our long distance call turned to politics – a topic that has become almost obligatory in the Age of Twump. As usual, we spat some venom and vented our frustrations and exclaimed our disbelief at whatever the scandals of that particular week happened to be. Afterwards, the sentence above stuck in my brain and kept me brooding. Eventually, it occurred to me that I had reams of old materials about the United States in my office upstairs dating all the way back to my first year of teaching English. I thought I should dig those things out and see what the issues of the day had been . . .

 

It was the year 1984. I had just arrived in Austria to begin my new job as resident native speaker and representative of the American society and culture. In other words, I was just launching a 35 yearlong effort to explain the inexplicable to sundry Europeans who crossed my path. At the very start, in the fall of ’84, the presidential election back home was heating up and in my eternal if naïve optimism, I told everyone that Mondale had a real chance to make Reagan a one-term president. (For those who have lost or repressed that particular memory, Reagan won 49 states.) When it came to presenting other current issues of my home country, I was a bit less starry-eyed. I put together materials like these “Facts about the United States” using the state-of-the-art technology of the time: photocopiers, scissors, glue and magic markers.

In the same binder where I found these materials, there were other articles and book passages that, for some reason, I never tossed in the paper recycling bin. Looking at them again after three decades, I was immediately struck by a weird sense of . . . for lack of a better word . . . convergence.

Immigration, drugs, crime, guns, the wealth gap, the Moral Majority, North Korea – they were all there as issues three decades ago. Some of them were being hyped at the time by the political right to create maximum fear in voters, while others were conveniently ignored and allowed to metastasize. Take any one of these issues and analyze the way it has developed since the 80s. The left tried desperately to reframe most of them, talking about a path to citizenship, decriminalization, ending mass incarceration, universal background checks, income inequality, religious tolerance, nuclear deterrence, etc. Twump, however, stayed old school. He talks walls and ICE, zero tolerance and Muslim bans, good guys with guns and punishments for women who choose, all while fantasizing about the proliferation of his namesake towers – next stop: Hanoi! I can’t think of a single 1980s right-wing position that is not in his repertoire.

It’s mind-boggling. Imagine you could pick any decade to get stuck in. You’d have to be a special kind of person to choose the 1980s.

Then again, Twump had a lot of help in maintaining his world view over the next two decades . . .

 

As I continued flipping through the binders of my old teaching materials, I discovered this little gem:

It was the early 90s and the Berlin Wall/Iron Curtain had come tumbling down over here in Europe. At home, the Right went in search of a new foil and the focus of their wrath shifted from the Commies to the Clintons. At the same time, the Evangelicals, the NRA and AMI (publisher of Weekly World News and the National Enquirer) went into lockstep with the Republican Party. Fox News joined forces with them shortly thereafter. Lobbying, PACs, and SuperPACs became a thing. The work of the military was outsourced to Blackwater, Halliburton, and Burger King. Prisons were privatized. The guns got bigger and more numerous while the school children they were aimed at got smaller and fewer. Some Conservative figured out that 5 Supreme Court justices could be just as effective as 50 Senators at maintaining the status quo and at a much cheaper price. That would later give us a President Bush, corporate personhood, the revolving door, Citizens United and an entire industry around Clinton-bashing. Conspiracy theorists inched into the mainstream, turning the media landscape into an (Info-)warfront and transforming Hillary from a relatively harmless alien baby adopter into a serial rapist enabler, a woman targeted for so long and with such viciousness that she became less electable for enough people than a gropey Reality TV charlatan. Would he ever have won without all that groundwork laid out for him and against her in advance?

For eight years there was a brief period of respite, but otherwise, politics seemed like one long, dark litany of events designed to depress the liberal-minded and keep everything the same ol’ same ol’.

But, once again, I get that weird sense of convergence.

Think of the people behind these depressing developments and how so many of them reemerged and/or coalesced around the 2016 Republican candidate. Rupert Murdoch, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Tucker Carlson, Rush Limbaugh, David Pecker, Jerome Corsi, Steve Bannon, Eric Prince, Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, Julian Assange, the Michaels Flynn and Cohen, most of the pwesident’s cabinet members, a congressman or two . . . they have been at their dubious respective games for years with impunity. But now, one by one, thanks mostly to their association with the current administration, they are coming under serious fire. If justice is truly divine, then a lot of these members of the opportunistic Lock Her Up Gang just might have jumpsuits in their futures.

There is always hope. I’m no longer so sure about the “change” part.

 

Two and half years ago, I wrote the prequel to this blog post (“Pink Flamingos”) about how I experienced the beginnings of this long political pendulum swing to the right. It was dated October 16th, 2016 and in my eternal if naïve optimism, I all but pronounced the upcoming historic election of our first female president. It was just three weeks away!

Instead we got her alien manbaby and his promise to make America 1984 again.

 

Sacred Place

Twice a day, I walk Dog Four around the cornfield. I have even blogged about it, seeing as how it is a non-negotiable part of my everyday life (“What the Doctor Ordered”). About halfway along this route there is a “No Trespassing” that has annoyed me for three decades. One of the lovely things about the area I live is that all the fields and forests are legally accessible to everyone. The only fences around are to contain herds of cattle and they are mostly temporary. I like the openness of area.

So that yellow sign is an affront. Luckily it is on a chain which hangs so low that I can easily step right over it.

Beyond the sign is a beautiful and peaceful meadow completely surrounded by trees. There are some beekeeper boxes and an old deer feeder which looks slightly more slanted every year. One of these days it is going to topple, just like the hunter’s perch that used to be near it. A really bad storm took it out a few years back. It was nice to look at, but considering its purpose, I am kind of glad it is gone. There is also a sort of bench.

I often extend my dog walks by circling the edge of the meadow. I like to sit down on the bench, look out over the grass and trees, the rolling hills and mountains behind them, and think about stuff. Not problems or concerns, just random pleasant stuff. This is not a place for hamster wheel brooding. It’s a quiet, peaceful, flowery place, equidistant and at the other end of the world from my workplace hassles, the toilet brush and the daily pwesidential news onslaughts. It’s a place where for ten minutes a day, I can be unplugged and un-assailed. I can also be completely alone. Thanks, in part, to that yellow sign.

Fifty-seven

Things I can now say:

Garlic shrimp with arugula is delicious. Contrary to popular experience, Thai massages can be wonderfully unpainful. Next week I will probably finish “Becoming” in my new hanging basket chair on the screen porch in 70 degree weather. I am no longer so immature as to do something like make a Styrofoam cheesehead hat – that’s the kind of stuff I did when I was younger. Today was a near-perfect day.

 

Cheesehead

The Austrian Mardi gras (called “Fasching”) is coming up fast, which means I have to wear something silly to school. I decided, as a good Wisconsinite, to go as a Cheesehead this year. I would put on some black leggings and my “Say Cheese” t-shirt and then one of those cheese-hats that Packer fans famously wear. I went on Amazon to order one and this is what I found:

Now this may make me a very bad badger, but there was no way I was going to pay over 120 bucks for a piece of orange foam! So today I went to the hardware store and bought some supplies. Thick Styrofoam, masking tape, glue, orange spray-paint . . . and then I spied these rolls of yellow spongy stuff and thought . . . “Perfect!!” Unfortunately, I had to buy a whole roll – 12 meters long – so by the time I was done with the checkout, I had already gotten about halfway to the Amazon price. In addition, making the thing cost me an entire afternoon.

In case you are thinking about making a cheese-hat for yourself, here are the instructions:

Step 1: Cut the Styrofoam to the correct form. As you are doing so, little white balls of Styrofoam will begin to appear. They will start multiplying and then flying around the room and sticking to things. They will follow you wherever you go, leaving little trails in their wake.

 

Step 2: Put masking tape around the sides of the form to staunch the flow of little white balls. Vacuum the entire house to get rid of the rest.

 

Step 3: Hollow out a circle for your head. Vacuum the entire house again. Go to the bathroom mirror and remove all the little white balls from your hair.

 

Step 4: Attach a ribbon

 

 

 

Step 5: Use a hot glue gun to attach the foamy strips around the sides and to the top and bottom.  While waiting for the glue to dry, think about possible uses for the remaining 10 meters in the roll. Trim off the foam and . . . you’re almost done!

Step 6: Find a classy setting to photograph the finished product. I, for instance, seated my cheese-hat at the grand piano and had him lean casually against it.

I would have taken a picture of me wearing it, but this is an anonymous blog. For what must now be obvious reasons.