Early Bird Special

I went out for dinner with two dear school friends last night and it was the fastest five hours of my life. They had arranged to go to a popular place that takes no reservations so we had to get there by 4:00 pm. As our plans were shaping up in a series of ping ponging WhatsApp messages, all sorts of idioms and cultural references to (mean and skimpy) old ladies popped up that were unfamiliar to me and needed explanation – finally prompting one of my friends to write “You have been gone too long.”

So, Blue Hair picked me up and we drove to the restaurant where Weenius would meet us. We all arrived within a minute of one another, but curiously, two of us spent the first half hour at a table with an empty seat while the third spent it on a bench across from the hostess station three feet away. We needed our cell phones to finally find one another. Another round of allusions to our aging processes ensued.

But at the same time, the rejuvenating magic of old friends started working. Conversation flowed fast and furiously, simply picking up where it left off last time. There was no feeling of “having been gone too long” – in fact, no time had passed at all it seemed. Giggling erupted and years started peeling off. Who is getting old? Not us! We are as immature as we ever were! And blessedly so.

The place was filling up and our consciences told us that we really should be leaving to free up the table for all the waiting customers. So we got our doggie bags and spent ten more minutes figuring out what 94 divided by 3 equals. Then we stiffed the waitress and left. Blue Hair drove off the curb with a clunk as we left the parking lot.

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. http://theconversation.com/you-say-morals-i-say-ethics-whats-the-difference-30913

 

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’.)

Dispatch

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.

Test of Nerves

Friday. 9:15 am. I leave work early to go to my appointment with the neurologist. I’m nervous because I have no idea what to expect, having never been to this particular type of specialist before. At the moment I start the engine,

my daughter is at her school and just beginning her oral graduation exam in the subject of Sports Science. She is summoned by a teacher and has to push a button to generate two random numbers which will determine the two topics she can choose from. 4 and 8 come up, which means either “Endurance Tests” or “Sports Injuries”. She chooses the first one and then has 45 minutes to prepare –

the same amount of time I have to get to the doctor’s office.

While driving, my mind runs through the litany of tests and pricks and probes and irradiations I have gone through in recent weeks. I would soon be adding hammer taps and zaps and god knows what else to that list. And then there were the possible diagnoses, running from bursitis to Lyme’s disease to rheumatism to sclerosis. Somewhere in these ponderings, fleeting thoughts about how my daughter is doing wander in and out. While “taking it easy” for the past weeks,

I often listened in on my daughter’s tutoring sessions with her father, who had taught the subject himself for years. As is common when parents try to teach their own children, those sessions could become pedagogically questionable tests of endurance for both of them.

10:00 am. I enter the doctor’s office and am immediately sent on into an examination room – no waiting at all. The neurologist is sitting at his desk, puzzling over my various lab results. He openly admits that he doesn’t understand why my regular doctor sent me here. There is no sign anywhere of serious health issues. But he would do a quick test anyway, if for no other reason than to rule out neurological problems he already knows aren’t there. He proceeds to attach electrodes to various spots on my ankles and lower legs and then send little jolts of electricity through my body. It is a creepy feeling each time, but as with many things, the expectation of each zap is worse than the thing itself. The memory of the sensations fades quickly.

At the same time my daughter is getting pelleted with questions from a panel of teachers and supervisors in her exam. She would tell me later that she was incredibly nervous and could not even remember what the questions were.

When my own test is over, I pepper the doctor with a bunch of questions about various flags on my lab results and what, if any, he thinks my next steps should be. What further examinations should I undergo? Basically none. Why two such bouts of bursitis in two different joints in such a short time? Coincidence. What can I do to prevent further attacks? Not much. It is probably just normal wear and tear and a bit of bad luck. So there may be more of these little endurance tests in my future. Or not.

11:01 am. I decide to stop at the car wash on my way home. While waiting, I start texting my daughter to ask how the exam went. Three words into the message, my cell rings

and it is her. She is done and she isn’t sure how it went, but her favorite teacher gave her a little thumbs-up signal as she was leaving and she thinks she answered every question and she said everything she knew and she hoped it was enough and now she just has to wait one more hour for the results . . .

I tell her to call me as soon as she knows. I then drive home and proceed to stand confusedly in my kitchen for a while. I have nothing to do. Then it hits me that I haven’t swallowed any pain pills yet today. I decide to stop taking the medication altogether and see how it goes.

12:48 pm. My cell rings and

my daughter informs me that she got an “A” on her exam. Her last hurdle has been mastered. (She still has one more exam in English on Monday, but everyone knows she will sail through that one.) It’s now official: High school is over and her life can begin.

And mine can resume.

 

I Stand Corrected

 

Hey guys!

I just wanted to let you know that my most recent posts included a certain amount of . . .  misinformation (especially when I tried to make predictions), so this one should set the record straight on a few things.

So far we only have one new grandchild (but a second egg is in motion):

 

I still have fifty pages to go and there has been no 70° weather yet:

 

 

It took three visits from Vera to half deplete the cleaning supplies. I will continue to monitor the situation silently:

(Now, in defense of my recent posts, please notice the reports in today’s paper – “Desperately Seeking Young Teachers” and “Styrians are Keeping Chickens Again”)

The fourth correction to be made is that the picture in my last post was of my elder daughter’s second last high school test. Today she had the last one – in German, so no drama there. It’s now looking fairly certain that she will make the Honor Roll – no, scratch that. I did not say that. (“I will not make predictions. I will not make predictions . . .”) I was also sort of wrong about her being done with high school. She came home today with an English assignment to do. A sample test question for the upcoming graduation exam.

Her task is to write a blog post and to make things easier, she got this handy instruction/information sheet including useful phrases to use. I looked it over and it seems I have been doing this blogging thing all wrong for the past four years.

The info sheet begins by defining a blog as an “online diary” that deals with “political themes, private experiences, travels, music, art, sports, youthful topics, or work”. (So, no chickens, Cheetos, or childishness.) Each post should have a title with a lot of nouns (Oops!), and an introduction that encourages the audience to keep reading (Oops! Oops!). It should begin with a friendly and familiar greeting, like “Hey guys!”

 

Aside:

“I never do that,” I told my daughter.

“Yeah,” she answered, “but I have to or my teacher will deduct points.”

 

In my daughter’s case, the post must be three paragraphs on the topic of binge drinking, whereby the first includes a negative experience, the second lays out all the disadvantages and negative effects, and the third is there to “explain [her] view on the matter”.

Aside:

I asked: “Can you write that you have these views because the test question told you to?”

“Yeah,” she answered, “but my teacher will deduct points.”

 

In addition, her blog post should address the reader directly, include some questions, and conclude by asking for/encouraging comments. So, what do all of you think about all this? Have you ever seen rules like these? Is this how you write your posts? Let me know! I would really appreciate hearing your thoughts! Please share in the comments below! I’m not kidding. DO IT!!

And in case you need some help in writing your comment, here are some useful phrases you can use:

    • I have stumbled across your blog recently and I . . .
    • I must say that I really enjoyed reading your blog.
    • I am so happy to have read your blog and I can only recommend it.
    • Thank you for pointing out that . . .
    • I just wanted to say that I completely share your opinion.
    • Great job!

 

If that is not enough, you can check the comments in your spam filter for more.

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!!

 

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?