The South African Gardener


Inexplicably, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about ethics and morality lately. (Yes, that was sarcasm.) Beyond the obvious reasons – the daily escapades of an ethically and morally bankrupt pwesident – it also has to do with my younger daughter, Lily. On starting high school, she opted out of Religion class* and attended one called ‘Ethics’ instead. She periodically comes to me with questions arising from those lessons. Early on she wanted to know the difference between ethics and morals and I gave her my lay definition. Crassly oversimplified, I said ethics are individual ideas about right and wrong, whereas morals are more communal understandings about how people should behave and interact.

Before I started writing this post, I figured that I should quick check Google just to be sure I hadn’t told her something wrong. Sure enough, the first five sites defined the two terms exactly the opposite of what I had said. Oops.

So I did what people do in these situations. I kept surfing till I found definitions that were in line with what I believed to begin with (and found a cool website in the process!) Here it is:

According to this understanding, “ethics” leans towards decisions based upon individual character, and the more subjective understanding of right and wrong by individuals – whereas “morals” emphasises the widely-shared communal or societal norms about right and wrong.


Now that we’ve cleared all that up, I can go on.

I have shoplifted once in my life. A skein of embroidery floss from the Dime Store. If memory serves, the agonizing guilt I felt afterward made me furtively return it to the store the following day – an experience that terrified me even more than the original crime. And still the guilt didn’t dissipate. I kept feeling it for the next . . . oh . . . 48 years or so. And counting.

This whole experience makes me suspect that my own sense of personal ethics is fairly rigid. (I blame my grandfather). I can’t stand cheating on tests and never did it myself. When I need digital music, I buy songs from Amazon. When a friend offered to share a trove of pirated Kindle books with me – 1000s of them – it didn’t cross my mind for a second to accept. I realize that all these things are common in this country – that the ‘widely shared communal or societal norms’ aren’t too bothered by these actions – but they just seem wrong to me.

So I was in a real dilemma when Lily and I decided to binge-watch ‘Big Little Lies’ during our last micro-braiding session (which, as some of you know, can last anywhere from 6 to 10 hours). By Episode 4 I was hooked. The braiding was done midway through the second last episode and that was when I realized we had been illegally streaming it the whole time.

But I really really wanted to see how it ended.

So I did what people do in such situations. I borrowed Lily’s IPad to watch the last episode. She wanted to use it herself and said I could just as easily use my own laptop, but I didn’t want any digital traces of my crime on this machine. Her sigh expressed her feeling that I was being totally ridiculous. ‘You do know, Mom, that everyone does this.’

‘Yes’, I answered, ‘but the fact that everyone does something doesn’t make it okay. Saying ‘Everyone does it’ is basically the antithesis of having ethics.’

‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘I know.’


At any rate, to finish this part of the post, I’ll say that the ending of the series was great. And next time I am in a store and see the DVD, I guess I’ll be buying the darn thing.  (Would it be unethical of me to wait until the price comes down a little?)


In terms of professional ethics, I have had very few dilemmas to deal with over my years of teaching. I never held a position of any authority over anyone other than my students, and I believe that as long as a teacher develops a working relationship of mutual respect with them, there is very little that can go wrong. I only had to deal with one complaint in my 30 years at the university. Someone went to my boss and said I wasn’t holding my course. She had tried to attend three weeks in a row and the classroom was locked and empty. Turned out she had been going to the wrong room.

There was one situation, though, that has stuck with me over the years. In one course, my students had to present a topic, including a position on that issue, and then lead a discussion afterwards. I gave them the hint that a lightly provocative topic or standpoint would help in getting the other students to speak up in the discussion part. It was even okay if they didn’t truly or fully believe in the opinions they were promoting, but if they went that way, it should not be obvious to us during the talk. (They could then tell the others their true ideas at the end.) So I heard presentations about how Greenpeace was a terrorist organization, that unemployment benefits should be abolished, that the European Union was just a corporate takeover of the country . . . we had some lively discussions!

One student came to me with the idea of presenting ‘South Africa was better off under Apartheid’ and I smiled and gave her the green light. Her turn rolled around a few weeks later and she began by stating that all those Apartheid protesters didn’t know what they were talking about. But she did, because had lived in South Africa as a child. My inner alarm bells started going off as she began to tell us how things were before and after the end of that system, about her experiences with black people there. Her entire premise boiled down to the ‘fact’ that black people were too stupid to run a country by themselves. She gave us several examples to prove it.

‘We had a gardener and we asked him to plant lettuce. He just dug a hole and poured all the seeds into it. So we had to show him how to do it properly. The next time we asked him to plant lettuce, he dug another hole and poured the seeds in again!’ She paused at looked at us with a ‘Can you believe it?! How stupid can you get?!’ attitude.

I sat there struggling with a barrage of strong emotions. It was clear by now that she wasn’t just being provocative – she really meant all these things. This girl was turning my classroom into a platform for appalling racist garbage. But what was almost more disturbing was the complete silence of the 20 other young people in the room. I soooo wanted to take her down, to ask her if stupidity was the only possible explanation for her gardener’s actions, if maybe, for instance, he didn’t care if your lettuce grew. But I couldn’t. I was her teacher and had a certain power over her in our unequal relationship. I was the one who could pass or fail her. It wouldn’t be right for me to humiliate her in this public space even though I hated the opinions she was expressing.

Her presentation ended and she moved on to the discussion part. The silence was deafening. And it went on for a long time. I had no idea what to do if none of them spoke up, but I knew I couldn’t do it for them. Finally, finally, finally, one student said quietly, almost under her breath, ‘This is so racist!’  Then another student spoke up, and another, and another. I wouldn’t describe it like a dam breaking or anything; the discussion remained halting and muted until the clock ran out. But it was a whole lot better than subjugated or complicit silence. I will always feel gratitude toward that one courageous listener who spoke out first. With her protestation, she saved the lesson from turning into a total calamity.

And if a certain South African gardener is still out there somewhere, a shout out to you, too.


*(And, yes, you read right. Austrian students have Religion as one of their school subjects. If you want to hear my thoughts on that disturbing reality, you can read ‘Heathen Talk’ or ‘Scene of the Crime’.)


Years ago, someone gave me a magnetic poetry kit and like so many of my (and my daughters’) personal possessions – books, games, toys, etc. – it ended up in the school for my students to use. In the first week of the year, a few boys discovered the word magnets and started creating . . . well, not exactly poems, but rows of funny, somewhat disconnected, grammatically challenged sentences on the metal door of the Language Room. As suspected, these works of art did not last long, because other kids kept coming into the room and rearranging the words. So far it has not become an issue.


I went and sat in the Language Room after school today because I had a meeting with two other teachers and a social worker. He had recently started working with the family of some of our kids. The case history was a long one, full of periods of intense turbulence, imploding relationships, spur of the moment resettlements, battles with substance abuse . . . the list goes on. The one constant, the one stable thing, in the lives of these kids was our school. The family did go through periods of relative calm as well, and the arrival of the social worker was a sign that we were in one of those. We teachers and he filled one another in on some past history before moving on to the progress being made at the moment. We agreed on a few common measures and goals to keep this forward momentum going.

At some point in the meeting, when someone got up and closed the door, I noticed that most of the magnetic words had been removed and the rest shifted around haphazardly. One sentence had been written sideways, but it was too far away for me to make out.  After the discussion broke up, I went to take a closer look.


After contemplating which grammatical structures might be missing from this author’s repertoire in order for him to make his point, I took a step back. That was when I noticed a few magnets way down at the very bottom of the door. I pictured some kid crouching there in the corner, neatly placing his four word message. I crouched down in the same way to read it.

Jungle Taming

Summer vacation is here! I can finally turn my attention to my flower beds (the ones Mean Neighbor Lady prematurely praised) which I have unfortunately neglected and allowed to grow wild. Despite my prediction – or maybe because of it (let’s face it: I am terrible at foretelling the future) – the final two weeks of the school year were not easy sailing. Not primarily because every day brought a special event requiring organization and overtime, and not because my remaining free time was used to write 28 individual letters to my students, but because my coworkers had not had the benefit of two weeks of convalescence and were at their frazzled nerves’ ends as they faced the same work load as me. To make matters worse, they made the curious decision to “co-write” their letters.

My part being in English, I had no choice but to go it alone, which was the way I wanted it anyway. As all of you blogger/writers out there probably know, the more people involved in a writing project, the harder and less efficient it gets. My colleagues spent hours and hours, day after day huddled around a laptop, formulating, reformulating, discussing the finer points of German grammar, allowing discussions to wander off onto irrelevant subjects, getting distracted, getting punchy, working themselves into exhaustion, slowly losing their ability to function normally. When I had to ask one of them a question, I often just got a blank stare in response. They would turn and leave the room in the middle of a discussion or come into a room and brutally interrupt a conversation in progress.  I began to keep my distance.

Meanwhile the kids were mentally already well into their upcoming summer vacations. They required entertainment and more than the usual amount of cajoling. On one day, we went to my husband’s school for a day of sports. The junior class there spent the whole morning with us, training our kids in tennis, volleyball, track & field, etc. They were so nice, but, unfortunately, a few of our kids acted up, refused to participate or moaned when they did. One boy in particular, I’ll call him Silas, got aggressive and insulting, even swearing at one of the trainers during an argument he had started. Since none of my coworkers had the capacity to deal with the situation, they left it to me.

A few days later, I sat down with Silas and talked to him about the day. He was defensive and apparently suffering from pretty major memory loss.  I told him that his behavior was unacceptable, disappointing and an embarrassment to whole school. He would not be allowed to go again next year. Unless, of course, he made some effort to make things right. I told him I was driving over to the school to give the students some thank you presents and that it would be nice if he came along and helped me. He could carry the watermelon. And maybe there would be a chance to make peace with trainers he had clashed with. Silas weighed his options and decided he would rather accept the future ban than have to apologize. I’m sure he pictured some humiliating scene in his mind – maybe him standing in front of the entire class, head down, blushing and mumbling. I knew I was not going to convince him to come with me, so I just said I was sorry to hear his decision and then went to the school without him.

Back at my school in the afternoon, I cooled my heels and twiddled my thumbs as my colleagues put the final touches and edits to their letters. I had to wait because I was the one who would then format and print them out. Over those hours, all four of my fellow teachers came to me separately to give me their thoughts on the Silas situation. All of them had had several confrontations with him this year and he had used up pretty much all of their good will reserves. I needed to call his mom right away and tell her. There had to be consequences. He’d been making this kind of trouble all year long, necessitating more than his share of after-the-fact talks and parent/teacher meetings even if his parents just split up this year they needed to know that his bad behavior went outside of the school’s walls it affects everyone there had to be a follow up this can’t go blah blah blah blah blah  blah   blah    BLAH.  And blah.

None of them, apparently, were interested in hearing my response.

Which would have been that, of course, there will be a follow up. But not today. Not on the eve of the last day of school. I would wait till the timing was right.


The letters did get done, as they always do. The final day of school with our little graduation ritual and subsequent breakfast went smoothly. The buses arrived and the kids started heading toward them. I stood talking with two fellow teachers when, out of the blue, a body appeared right in front of me. It was Silas, looking toward the ground, his head tilted slightly, his arms extended partway and sort of lamely towards me.

“OH!” I said in surprise. “Silas! Do you want a hug goodbye?” I didn’t wait for his answer but just leaned down and gave him one. He returned it. And then he ran off toward his bus.

One of the other teachers looked at me and said with wide eyes and a little laugh: “WHO was that?!! What in the HELL was THAT?!!”

Who was that?

Just another neglected thing allowed to grow wild.

What was that?

My absolute favorite moment of the day.

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?



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.

Unceremonious Endings

Two of my activities today got me thinking about all the times I have lost jobs. Technically I have never been fired – at least in the sense of someone looking me in the eye and saying “You’re fired!” But that is only because two of my former bosses were simply too chicken to do so. One of them took 9/11 as an opportunity to quick give my class to someone else. (I had missed the start of the semester because I was stuck in the States waiting for a chance to fly back to Austria.) That new teacher ended up calling me to tell me the news. Never heard a peep from the boss about it.

About 10 years later I got fired by forwarded email from my boss’s boss instructing me to clear out my office and give back any of the Institute’s stuff I might have. The layoff itself did not come as a surprise to me, but the way it was done was galling. A particularly nice sendoff after 25 years of employment . . .

Today, a new twist on this form of email termination was born. I wrote an email to my boss requesting that the university course I have been teaching be cancelled. In other words, I basically fired myself. This was not the easiest thing to do because I always loved teaching this particular course. Unfortunately the whole program is winding down and the number of students has been dwindling for years. Last year I had to go and proactively look for students – corral a few warm bodies into my classroom to teach. This year I didn’t want to do that anymore.

So I am down to one job now. I would be feeling sorry for myself if not for three of our chickens who have had an even harder day. Remember those four chicks we got for the purpose of keeping our one incubator chick company? Well, all four of them turned out to be roosters. Three of them had to go and today was the day.

We grabbed them, stuffed them in a box, and my husband drove them to the local . . . Chicken Ender. A half hour later, he was back home with a bulging plastic bag.

Tomorrow one of the roosters is going into the oven and then comes the moment of truth. I am not convinced that I will really be able to eat him. My husband is determined to cultivate a realistic attitude about it all. He says if he can’t handle the fact that animals – even those he knew when alive – are killed and eaten, then he should become a vegetarian.

I, on the other hand, am considering turning the meal into a little ceremony. I will take a moment to remember and honor this rooster for his many contributions to our family enterprise. I will thank him for his good work and give him the thoughtful sendoff he so richly deserved.

I’ll try hard not to gag.


Teachers in Arms


Just when you think things can’t get any worse, the pwesident manages to find a new level even lower than last week’s rock bottom. I have been shaking my head and waving off comments all day long about his latest idea to arm 20% of every school’s faculty. (In the case of our school, one colleague noted, only one of us would have to start going to the shooting range and taking  lessons. Then they all turned and looked at me . . .)

The thought that I, or any teacher I have ever had, or worked with, or know (and that is a lot of them) could whip out a gun from . . . wherever (a purse? a classroom locker?) and then go out Rambo-style in search of an active school shooter to confront is,

to put it very simply,