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,

ABSURD.

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Various Trespasses

 

I had this whole other blog post planned. It was going to be a series of (seemingly!!) Random Thoughts Which Occurred to Me While Administering a Three-Plus-One Hour Exam to My One (And Only) Student. I had already planned out how to sneakily take a picture of him (from behind, of course) in the seminar room, poring over his papers, scribbling away, with me thinking “boy oh boy, if you only knew that you have already passed and all of this here is just for those officious, paper-dependent bureaucrats”.  While he was working, I was going to simultaneously read and write – catching up on all the blog peeps I follow in real time while sneaking in various observations from the past week. For instance, that pretty much all of their blogs are better reads than the book I just finished.  (Mr. Wolf’s billion-copy-selling “Fire and Fury” may be great resistance candy, but it is also really poorly written.) I was going to wax pseudo-philosophically on the euphoria one feels post-pain – after a nauseating battle with the flu is over and the four-day headache dissipates. I was going to end the four hours with a gloriously clear conscience from having made amends and achieving a successful fresh start for my Trek*, all while helping a nice young man get one step closer to his dream of studying at the university.

All that was the plan.

Instead, I post this sorry picture with the statement “Forgive me blog friends, for I have . . . trespassed” (the Presbyterian word for “sinned”.) It has been . . . fifty-three years since my first and last confession. While killing an hour at the train station and deciding where to go for my daily bread, I led myself into temptation and delivered myself to evil. As I ate it, I wondered if there was a single food item anywhere at the station that was less healthy or more ecologically and socially damaging per calorie consumed. To make matters even worse, I couldn’t finish my fries so I threw them away. Now, hours later, back at home, sitting here with a big undigested McLump in my stomach (and still somehow hungry), I wonder at how quickly things can change.

My poor (as it turned out, non-)student had the same experience today. He showed up to the exam with a blue envelope ( = registered letter) in his hand – still unopened. It had arrived just under the wire – right before he left for the university; he assumed (and hoped) that it was his admission letter to the program (which he needs to be able to sign up for and take exams). I watched him open it and then stare in confusion. His hands started shaking a bit. “Oh no!” I thought, “He’s been rejected!” I asked if I could look at it and was surprised to see “Admission” written largely at the top. What was the problem? And then I skimmed down to the list of the five exams he had to pass before he could start his regular studies. English was not one of them.

He had no idea how this could have happened! Everyone had told him he would need English! He apologized profusely for my coming all the way to Graz for nothing. We sat and talked for a while till he calmed down. We hatched a plan for how he could deal with this situation.

It was during that conversation that a different mystery got cleared up. My (non-)student told me that he had originally wanted to study Business, but had been rejected for that field and so reapplied with a different major. It turns out, he wasn’t alone. Apparently, every single applicant who wanted to study Business this year was rejected – all by the same professor. When that fact became generally known, an official complaint was lodged, the job of reviewing applications was handed over to a different professor, and all the rejected applicants were contacted and allowed to reapply. All of this happened just last week. It goes a long way in explaining why I had no students this year.

Anyway, instead of giving the written and oral exams for four hours, I headed back to the train station to go home. I wasn’t even that irritated because learning that new information was well worth a trip to Graz. If only I hadn’t blown it by going to McDonald’s!

Once back home, I wondered how I could get back on track . . . how I could repair the damage, repent, restore the Karma, (and hopefully lose the McLump) . . .

I remembered an essay on the topic of McDonalds some student had handed in way back at the start of my university career. I had found it so inane at the time with all its sweepingly prejudicial and empty statements interspersed with pretty phrases (“it goes without saying that . . .”,  “it may well be that . . . “, “at first sight we might believe that . . . but on closer view. . .”). I had it hanging on my bulletin board for years and later it landed in a keepsake box. I actually found the thing. I held it in my hand and thought . . . maybe I could post it (here) on my blog, and confess that, maybe just maybe, this student had a point and I had been unfair.  I read the text again and . . . and . . .

Naaahh. It really is an awful essay. Beyond redemption. A trespass against us that cannot be forgiven.

Incredible as this may seem, it is perfectly true.

Judge for yourself.

 

Schwarzfahren

 

Riding home on the train yesterday, I had a new experience. It was the first time – I think in my whole life (!) – that I rode a train without a ticket. It wasn’t really my fault – neither the machine at the station nor in the train worked, so I had to wait till the fifth stop and its longer stay to get out and buy a ticket. That meant that for those five stops both on the way to the city and the way home again, I was . . . just a . . . hobo hopping trains. Riding the rails. Boxcar Betty. Queen of the Road. A tramp . . .

German speakers call this “Schwarzfahren”. Literally translated, that would be “black riding”. You can find signs in every train car, streetcar or bus warning against it. The most recent campaign imitates warning labels on cigarette packs, listing all the negative health benefits of “Schwarzfahren” – it leads to mood swings and muscle tension, high blood pressure and headaches:

I confess I didn’t suffer any of these consequences, which probably says something less than admirable about me. What is worse, though, is that my daughter accompanied me on my second crime spree. (She has her piano lessons in the city at the same time as my course and we take the train home together.) We met up at the station after our respective gigs and headed toward the train. As we were boarding, an elderly man asked us if we, too, were going to the town in Hungary that was the train’s final destination. I figured he was worried about being on the right one. We all got on, the man turned left, my daughter and I turned right and we took our usual seats.

A few minutes later, the elderly man popped up again. “We seem to be the only people on this train!” he said and then took a seat across the aisle from us. I assured him that we were very early boarders and that more would be coming.

This man was in his 70s I guess and he seemed friendly enough. He took my assurances as an invitation to chat, so in the next 10 minutes we learned all about him. He had been at an art exhibition, but had to leave early to catch this train. It was the last one that would still allow him to catch his connecting train home. He lived in Hungary part time and otherwise in Vienna – where he had many Nigerian friends.  His nationality was Austrian.

He paused while trying to figure out how to formulate his question.

We let him know that I was American and that my daughter had dual citizenship – Austrian American.

“Oh!” he said, clearly surprised. Then followed that up with “That Donald Trump . . . he’s a crazy guy, isn’t he?”

We rolled our eyes and I said “No. No no. We are not going to talk about that man.” And we all sort of half-smiled. There was a short silence as the man looked at my daughter.

He mentioned his Nigerian friends for a second time and was clearly trying to find out the – let’s say “ancestry” – of my brown-skinned daughter. One of us put him out of his misery and said “Ethiopian.”

“I had an Ethiopian girlfriend!” he blurted out excitedly. “For about three years. She was married off very young to a man that her father chose. That’s what those people do. She wanted to stay with me, but eventually she had to go back to her husband.”

I mentioned that Ethiopian customs differed a lot all over the country and then asked a few polite questions to figure out what kind of character we were dealing with here. The “romance” had happened years earlier when he was 57 and she was 25.  And, yes, he had wanted to marry her.

There was a lull in the conversation. He watched my daughter dig around in her backpack for her headphones. He started talking again:

“I saw a documentary once on Ethiopian TV about a young girl who left her family and went to work in a shoe factory. She lived in a tiny, dirty little house and earned just enough to feed herself. I thought, if I knew who she was, I would go save her. She could come live with me. Do some housework. Have a better life. . .”

My daughter piped up: “You know it often seems to us like all poorer people are miserable. But a lot of them know very little about how we live. They don’t have much, but neither do their friends and neighbors. They can still be happy. They don’t want to be saved.”

“Well,” replied the man, “I guess there wouldn’t be enough room here for all of them anyway.”

My daughter and I exchanged glances and then both chose that moment to insert our headphones and start the music (or in my case, podcast). I sat there marveling at my daughter’s grace and composure. She managed to stick up for herself and others confidently without being rude or provoking. She had shut the man down and was now shutting him out.

A new understanding rushed over me of how . . .  simply being in this world must feel to her at times. And then I thought of all those signs again, warning that “Schwarzfahren” can lead to headaches and high blood pressure and mood swings. It occurred to me that the word could also be translated as “Riding While Black” . . .  and the signs would still be true.

Sh**thole American

 

Although I sometimes feel like one, I should explain upfront that the title of this blog post does not refer to me personally . . . .

. . . yet.

 

As the mother of two African children who became proud American citizens just six months ago today, I scream out to that whole continent:

“I am sorry!”

 

To the one Haitian American I know, a wonderful woman named Nancy, who just happens to be a judge in my hometown now and who invited us to watch an incredibly moving naturalization ceremony (an experience I consider a privilege to have had to  this day), I yell out:

“I am sorry!”

 

I am ashamed of our president.

It remains to be seen if I become ashamed of my country.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?

 

The husband dragged me to a “Small Animal Show” to look at chickens last weekend. Okay, okay, I wasn’t completely against the idea. But his confession of wanting to purchase two more Wyandottes there . . . and one of them a rooster!  . . . AND with the idea of starting to breed them!! – well, that was too much. I had to go along if for no other reason than to stop this insanity.

The first thing we saw on arrival was an absolutely gorgeous Wyandotte couple – and so obviously in love! And a big blue ribbon was hanging on their cages. Suddenly I was half on board with the whole breeding idea. I wanted those chickens! But, alas, these particular two were not for sale. The ones we could have were clearly inferior. I was less on board. We needed a little time to come to a decision.

We walked around and looked at the other animals for a while – more chickens and other sundry, questionable species. Here is a sampling of the lovely specimens we saw.

 

And then came the moment when I saw her – the perfect chicken.

Beautiful form and coloring. According to the information by the cage, she was also a good layer of eggs AND a good meat breed (not that we’d ever eat one of our own chickens.) Sturdy. Uncomplicated. There was only one tiny problem: the name.

This was a “Deutsches Reichshuhn”. Translation: a “German Reich’s Chicken”.

There was no way my Austrian husband was going to welcome a German Reich’s Chicken into our flock.

 

How can I explain this?

. . . hhhmmm . . . ?

Have you seen the film “The Sound of Music”? (Of course you have!)  So, tell me, in what scenario would Captain von Trapp welcome a German Reich’s person into his beloved homeland? None!!  Never!! Think of my Austrian husband as Captain von T. Now . . . were I anything like Maria von Trapp – in the film, anyway – I would have understood my husband – maybe even admired and supported his stance . . .

There were a few problems though.

First – that German Reich’s hen really was an attractive chicken. Secondly, those Wyandotte’s were so obviously substandard. Thirdly, let’s face it – I am nothing like Maria von Trapp – at least the film version of her.

I do happen to know, though, that the real MvT was also nothing like Julie, because I actually read her book. It was . . . disappointing to say the least Only “The Thornbirds” supersedes it on the “Worst Book Ever” list. It did, however, give me a new insight into the real Maria – who didn’t want to be married off to a rich widower with seven snotty kids. She wanted to be a nun. She was coerced into the marriage gig by her Order and subsequently went through life with the martyr’s mantra “God’s Will Hath No Why”. She was certainly no part of any resistance.

So . . . I channeled her, meaning the true, non-julie-andrews, Maria von Trapp and argued with my husband about our poultry decision.

I said, or actually, I sort of . . . barked in a gruff 1930s German accent:

“I sink zis German Reich’s chicken is EXACTLY what our sorry flock needs! She will finally bring some ORDER to our chaos! JA WOHL!  Zere will be a new attitude! Our chickens, zhey will get back to work! Zhey will tear out all zose pesky Edelweiss weeds by zhe roots! Egg production will increase! Zhe neighbors will learn to respect us again!”

 

For some inexplicable reason, my arguments didn’t work.

 

We took the sorry, second class Wyandotte pair home with us. The rooster became Gustav’s special friend fairly quickly. The hen refuses to enter the stall at night. She sneaks under the fence and then waits there, in front of the hen house(or under it), for me to come down, pick her up, open the door and stuff her in. She clearly likes the special attention.

Egg production, in general, has not increased.

 

And then there were nine.

Country Mice, City Rats

 

(My Years of Montessori – Part 40)

 

A few blog reading friends have expressed concern about my slow countrification as evidenced in recent posts. In the last few months it has been all checking chickens, migrating mice, and hoeing hedgehogs. I even got a short-lived crush on a donkey. But never fear! In a cosmically orchestrated twist, I get to reverse this recent trend and relate my adventures in the big city (Vienna) with 24 young country bumpkins (Hummingbird School kids) in tow.

While planning the trip with my three fellow teachers, we concentrated on things like Schönbrunn or Belvedere? Technical or natural history museum? Lunch packets from the hostel or supermarket stops?  What we didn’t think so much about was:

  • how do you get 28 people on and off a crowded city bus or tram in one go?
  • do our kids know the rules of city sidewalks?
  • do our kids know how to walk in pairs for more than 30 seconds?
  • will they be capable of standing still long enough for us to get a headcount?
  • will our more free-wheeling kids take our statements as instructions or mere suggestions?

Our first inkling that these things would be issues came when we changed trains on our way there. All twenty-four kids made it on to the connecting train, but only twenty-two of the suitcases did too. Mark grabbed the abandoned bags and tossed them inside before getting on himself. It took the guilty parties almost a half hour to realize what they had done.  The next sign that we were in for some troubles came during the walk from the train station to the hostel. Our kids walked in packs of five or six, taking up the entire sidewalk, practically plowing down other perplexed and/or peeved pedestrians. And not only that – they kept jostling around, shoving or trying to trip one another. They were excited and laughing loudly in the way pubescent kids do when nothing is truly funny. They were oblivious to the sights and sounds around them.  Despite having no idea where they were going, they just took off in any old direction with inexplicable confidence.

Schönbrunn Palace and the technical museum were planned for the arrival day. Halfway through the palace gardens, Mark and David were already prepared to start sending this or that kid home early. By the time we left the museum, I, too, had the first name on my own mental list of potential early departers.  (Lucy of “Power Girls and Hoodies” fame. Panting, sweating and with a face flushed red, she declared that I was unfair for accusing her of running through the museum – right before tearing off again.) Later, back in the hostel, as the kids played “Spin the Bottle”, argued the superiority of their respective hostel rooms, and planned their nighttime visits, we four teachers began a second list: “Things We Will Do Better the Next Time We Plan a Vienna Trip”. Not only were the questions above on the list, but also some new issues including:

  • should we confiscate the energy drinks (to be returned) or just toss them?
  • what should we do about kids with way more money than agreed on (or worse yet, ATM cards) and who were already starting to make loans to others?
  • should we teach them how to put sheets on a bed in advance? (as most of them have clearly never had to do this before)
  • what do we do about the kids with unlimited internet access on their cell phones?

 

Had Day 2 gone similarly to Day 1, we may very well have ended the trip early. But, as kids often tend to do, they surprised us the next morning by suddenly behaving themselves. Our system of forming groups of 8 for bus and tram rides worked almost flawlessly. On approaching a bus stop, seven of my eight magically appeared around me. They started calling me their “Vienna Mama”. (The eighth kid was Moritz of “Hummingbird Report Cards” fame.) He kept wandering off and joining other groups. “Where is Moritz?” became a mantra of our group. They watched out for him along with me. When Moritz got off the tram one stop early on our last ride, the entire group screamed his name. He heard, turned, and got back on the tram at the last second.

Back to Day Two.  The vast majority of the kids were attentive and interested during our inner city tour (thanks to a fabulous guide who adapted her content for a 12-13 year old audience). They did surprisingly little complaining about the fact that it was really cold, and when they did get a bit tired and cranky, it turned out that the cure was a playground in the City Park where they ran around like wildlings until they were no longer tired.

Memorial to Maria Christina in the Augustinian Chapel in Hofburg:
In the park:

 

The final stop on Day Two was Time Travel Vienna which is an attraction like the London Dungeon – an entertaining introduction to the history of the city. The kids were generally enthused, but also pretty sophisticated in their critiques of the experience. (Some of it really was a bit cheesy.) Only our autistic Katy had major problems dealing with this part of our trip. She couldn’t handle the 3D film and didn’t know enough to simply close her eyes (which I did half of the time).  In one part we saw rats running through medieval streets and then puffs of air blew around our feet in the theater, making it seem like rats were running past us. Poor Katy kept talking about it for hours afterward – with tears running down her eyes; it was real for her. She was so afraid we were all going to come down with the Plague . . .

Another point for our mental list of what to do better next time:

  • consider what activities are okay for our spectrum kids.

 

Day Three had only one activity – the kids could decide between the natural history and the art history museums. A week earlier at school, two thirds decided for art, but as we were standing there between them, the “Dogs and Cats” exhibit sign on the natural history museum made many kids change their minds. I ended up taking only five of them with me through the art history one.

It was probably for the best.

The Egyptian mummies and hieroglyphs held their attention for about fifteen minutes, but from then on they spent most of the time giggling and taking cell phone pics of historic breasts and butts and penises. 2000 years’ worth of them. But even that got old. At one point we sat in front of a huge painting of Prometheus having his liver ripped out by a bird and I told them the myth. I was surprised when one of them asked me if it was a true story.

I suddenly saw the masterpieces in this museum through the eyes of a 13 year old country bumpkin. When Moritz proclaimed on leaving the museum that people in the past were “sick in the head and disgusting”, I couldn’t really disagree. At least by modern standards. It was a nice reminder that, despite all the trouble in the world right now, there has never been a better time to live in than now. I mean . . . there is no Camelot time in the past when people – generally – had it better than we do. The best lesson of most history is reminding us of how lucky we are to be beyond it.

 

While standing outside the museums again, waiting for the final stragglers to return from the bathrooms so that we could make our way back to the train station and home, Mark fell into conversation with another teacher in charge of a nearby school group. He had only about 15 kids with him and all of them were 8th Graders. He had noticed how we had so many kids and of mixed ages  (the oldest 14 and the youngest 10). He asked us how we managed them all.

What we learned from that conversation is that “Vienna Week” is a staple of the Austrian junior high school curriculum. In most cases, schools all over the country simply apply to the Education Ministry and get their excursion to Vienna organized and implemented for them by professional guides. A few teachers go along for the ride, but don’t have a lot of responsibility. The costs are minimal.

Go figure.

Should we decide to do this again, I’m not sure we are going to need our mental list about “What to Do Better Next Time”. Or maybe that will be the only list we need. We will deal with the energy drinks and the spectrum kids; someone else will deal with the Lucies and Moritzes.

 

A Barn Yarn

 

“I’m stuck!” I told my sister on the phone. “No one wants to read about my morbid obsession with the American pwesident or my current workplace  . . . curiosities. I can’t write about anything in my private life because it is all OPS. And I can’t just keep writing about chickens.”
“Keep writing about chickens! Do!” she answered.  “I love it when you write about chickens.”
Thanks, Sis. Once again.

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I jumped on the chicken bandwagon a bit too late.

Had I been in on our poultry project from the start, I would have encouraged the husband to build our hen house in the style of a traditional Wisconsin barn. The kind I passed on weekends as we drove to Grandma and Grandpa’s house each Sunday. Or the ones we saw on our way Up North for vacation each summer – those yearly six or seven hour drives, first through the rolling hills of southern Wisconsin farmland and then into the Big Woods with its 15.000 little lakes. A cottage on shores of one of these was our usual destination – our own temporary “Little House”. Within an hour of arrival, I was in the water and basically stayed there for most of the day, every day. Any time not in the water was spent on nature hikes and/or steeped in fantasies of being Wisconsin’s most famous pioneer girl, Laura Ingalls Wilder.  I devoured her books (repeatedly!) as a child. She was my link to the 19th century version of myself.

My husband has his own link to his 19th century self and it is much more impressive. His great great grandfather was a famous writer and poet who grew up modestly in a remote mountainous region of Styria. The childhood home of this man, Peter Rosegger, is now a museum. My husband visited this place many times in his childhood and I imagine he also fantasized there about being a 19th century “Forest Farmer Boy”. In any case, he clearly had some other image in his mind as he built our chicken coop. Something more Austrian.

 

Last week he announced that he was going to paint our hen house and started suggesting colors. It was at this point, that I finally got involved in the construction project. Blue?? Who’s ever heard of a BLUE barn?!? Honestly! Anyway, here is the result:

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P.S. Thanks Sis, too, for the compliments on the coop via WhatsApp. As for your curiosity about what it looks like on the inside, I have to disappoint. Chickens are crappy decorators. Literally.