It was a Saturday three weeks ago, when I finally reserved the whole afternoon to start catching up on blog reading. I started, of course, with Ly and was horrified to discover that I had to scroll all the way back to early September to find where I had left off. (Yes, I am a terrible friend.) I spent an enjoyable few hours until being interrupted by a press conference. All schools were closing till the second week of December. I switched immediately into work mode and basically stayed there till . . . well . . . till yesterday. My cushy, reduced-to-two-days work week, now extended to seven days. For non-educators out there, I can tell you that distance-teaching is about three times as time intensive. It is also relentless and exhausting.
So, everyone was happy to hear that the schools were reopening next week. To celebrate our final online English lesson, I made a special quiz game for my class that they seemed to really enjoy. After gathering on the learning platform, all the kids turned on the “Chat” function. I asked a question and they all typed in their answers as quickly as they could. I awarded points to the first three correct ones. Minor spelling mistakes were allowed.
For the final question in the quiz, I decided to ask something really simple. I said, “Question Number 20. Ready? What is today’s date?” The answers started rolling in:
After the first 10 or so tries, the shock and horror began bubbling up inside of me. I started giving them little tips about ordinal numbers and capitalization. They kept trying.
At this point I was holding my head in my hands. Tiny whimpering noises were escaping from me. Finally, one girl wrote an answer that I could technically accept. I ended the response period and typed in a few possible correct variations. Two more guesses straggled in as I was doing so.
After 39 years of teaching English, my memory houses a fairly large collection of meaningful moments, nice memories, special experiences, highlights . . .
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.
About 36 hours ago, I turned to a life of crime. Among my offenses are fraud, corruption, theft, criminal neglect, cruelty to animals and attempted murder. This is my confession.
It began when I went to my boss at the university and explained my predicament of having no students in my course. I was fully prepared to say goodbye to that job after 30 years. Instead, after asking me a few questions, my boss said this:
“I realize it is a difficult situation for you, but I have to ask you to keep teaching the course. We sell this program as a package and can’t simply cut out one of the offerings, even if it isn’t needed by anyone at the moment.”
To be honest, I was kind of stunned. I pictured myself coming to the university each week, sitting in an empty seminar room for an hour or so on the off chance that some sorry procrastinator showed up mid-semester, and then collecting about $250 a pop for my “efforts”. But my boss was clearly perfectly willing to let me do this.
I told him my opinion that it really wasn’t necessary to offer two English courses with the numbers we had in the program right now. He countered that changing the curriculum would be a long bureaucratic nightmare and costlier in the end than paying me for not teaching for a while.
I said I felt uncomfortable taking money for nothing and so he made a few suggestions of how I could alter my hours – maybe blocking them, or maybe offering online instruction . . . He would be okay with any alternative I came up with. He thanked me for coming to see him and for my good work over the past three decades. I left.
I sat on a park bench for a while and thought: ”What am I going to do?” At some point it occurred to me that what I needed to solve my problem was students. Where could I get some? From the other English course. I called up the teacher and we hatched a plan.
I showed up in her course and succeeded in luring her five best students away and into my course. Before leaving her class, I thanked her profusely for allowing me to steal them. Back in my classroom, we joined the two students who had shown up for my course that evening and we were off to the races. Let the semester begin!!
Thanks to my thievery, I felt somewhat better about defrauding the taxpayers. I think that, eventually, I could have even successfully rationalized it all if my crime spree had ended there. Unfortunately, this morning I almost committed murder.
I was hacking away with a hoe in one of my flower beds. I wanted to clear the jungle growing there completely and start from scratch. After a bout of hoe hacking, a round piece of dried weeds came free and tumbled down toward my feet. I reached down to grab it and got stung by pointy quills. I realized that it was a hedgehog that had rolled itself up in self-defense after being bludgeoned by my hoe. The remorse was immediate and overwhelming.
I stood there staring at the poor creature and saw that it was still breathing. Was it injured? Was it suffering? “Do veterinarians treat hedgehogs?” I wondered. My cell phone rang. The husband was calling to say he’d be home in an hour and would I feed the chickens. I said yes and then blurted out “I THINK I KILLED A HEDGEHOG!!”
I am happy to conclude this post with a few updates:
The chickens experienced hunger today, but the hedgehog survived. (He eventually unrolled and burrowed back into my flowerbed.) The relief I felt will help me to return to the straight and narrow – my life of crime is over.
I encourage my university students to consume non-commercial media like BBC, PBS and NPR. I also try to turn them on to podcasts – there are so many good ones out there. This year, one student in particular took my advice to heart. Each week, he would come to class and tell me about some new English language show or podcast he had discovered. A lot of it was pretty sophisticated stuff.
One time he was really excited about a fascinating find – it was called “Dead Dogs”.
“Dead Dogs?!” I asked, incredulously, “That sounds awful! Are you sure that was the name?”
“Yes, Dead Dogs. It’s about all different themes in science and technology . . . it gets millions of clicks every day.”
“And . . . so . . . why is it called ‘Dead Dogs’?”
“I don’t know. I’m not sure what ‘Dead’ stands for.”
“Spell out the name for me, will you?”
“D – E – D . . .”
“Wait a sec. ‘Dead’ is spelled D – E – A – D.”
“No, I am sure that it is D – E – D.”
We stared at one another for a while in silence and confusion.
“I have an idea,” I said, “write down the name so I can see it.”
Here’s what he wrote:
The following week we did some work on pronunciation.
Today was my last day at the university for this academic year. My last two candidates took their oral exams and both passed. One, a very studious and conscientious young woman who did hours and hours of work each week – more than was even assigned, and the other, a very confident future businessman who did almost no work in the entire first semester, telling me straight out that he was 1) too busy and 2) simply lazy. I responded that, of course, it was his decision. I just hoped that he wouldn’t end up feeling he had wasted his time this year. I asked if he was sure he really wanted to study at the university if he had so little time. He kept coming week after week, with empty hands and a strange skeptical stare every time I explained grammar or answered a question. He liked to talk – a lot! I must have said to him fifty times: “Okay. Now say that in English.”
In the second half of the semester, he slowly started doing a little homework, and then more of it each time – mostly, I think, because he and Miss Conscientious formed a study group of two. About three weeks ago he handed in his first of a total of two texts for the year. I was happy to see that they weren’t catastrophic. He managed to come within three points of a passing score on the written and then hurled himself over the top with a very well prepared and delivered oral exam. I congratulated them both for coming one step closer to being admitted to the university and we went to a café for the traditional post exam celebration coffee (or sometimes, beer).
It’s not unheard of for students to give me presents at the end of the course. I was sort expecting a box of Merci chocolates or something like that from Miss Conscientious. So it was all the more disorienting when Mr. Brash handed me small package. Inside was this original and signed painting of a hummingbird which he had bought at an art fair in Germany months earlier. (I had told them a few stories about my alternative school over the year.) I really love this picture and the thoughtfulness of the giver was touching.
After two night’s worth of good sleep, it’s time to finish the London posts. I would have done it yesterday, but we were hosting an exceptionally well-timed family celebration with 25 guests. That meant I spent the first post-London morning doing a “mother-in-law housecleaning” (Sorry, Omili!) and helping to set up pavilions, tables and chairs in the yard. The first guests and the first gusts of the approaching thunderstorm arrived almost simultaneously, so we all quickly relocated everything to inside the house, dismantled the tents and, finally, stowed the ping pong table under the porch just as the first drops began to fall. It actually was a really nice party, despite the weather’s uncooperative-ness. First we all patted ourselves on the back for making the right decision and in time. Then the torrential rains harmonized well with the soft and jazzy background music. Later the candlelight (after the electricity went out) made it sort of cozy while the gas and charcoal grills guaranteed that we would still get warm food. I got to catch up with nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles . . . A nice day all around.
Anyhooo . . . this is supposed to be about London. Where was I?
Full Day Two
(London Eye, Hyde Park Corner, Natural History Museum, Kensington Palace and Gardens, Notting Hill Gate):
The kids were great all day long and we all came back to the hostel exhausted and happy. Unfortunately what followed for me was a really irritating Round Two of the “Did-we-or-did-we-not-already-pay-for-breakfast?” negotiations with various hostel staff members. The one person I really wanted to talk to – hostel manager – wouldn’t be there till the next morning, unfortunately. I showed a different woman the various emails sent back and forth over the months which clearly mentioned breakfast and room prices. I showed her my calculations of what the total price would be without breakfast and the receipts from my bank transfers showing I had paid about £200 more than that – about the same amount three days of breakfast cost. Three other young men in the staff listened to our discussion and I could tell they were tending toward believing me. The woman stuck to her position, though, and added that I would have to pay for all three days of breakfasts right then and there or they wouldn’t serve us the next day. That pissed me off. I felt my face flushing red and then suddenly remembered one of the tips I used to tell students back in the days when I taught negotiation courses: “Don’t discuss things when you are angry. Find a way to take a break to calm down.” I told the woman I would go talk to my colleague and come back later.
I spent the time going over all the emails and math again. Barb helped me strategize a bit and I told her I was going to try the “Divide and Conquer” tactic. (I had passed one of the staff members in the hall and he had apologized and said he understood my view of things.) The only other tactic useful for this situation that I could remember was how to deal with “Or Else!” threats. I kept that one up my sleeve. I went back to the desk.
Luckily, Mean Lady wasn’t there. I talked to the three guys and said that I needed to see proof in black and white, maybe an itemized invoice, and some math, before I would be willing to pay more. That is when it became clear that they had no detailed information, only the final sum. All three basically admitted that they totally understood my point of view and one added that none of them were senior enough to make decisions of this kind (including the Mean Lady – she was following the orders of a Group Booking manager). One guy was a big jolly looking type wearing a huge black turban and he started speaking in German to me. We chatted for a while and he told me his mother was a teacher too. He was sorry that this situation was causing me stress after spending the whole day with a group of school kids. I replied it wasn’t that bad, just that I didn’t like the extortion: fork over the cash or kids won’t eat tomorrow . . . He nodded. He apologized again for not being able to fix this and the faces of the others showed that they felt the same. Turban Guy said his hands were tied. He could only order the breakfast for us after it was paid for. He was embarrassed.
I reminded him that I would be clearing up the situation with the manager the next day and then we came up with a compromise. I would pay for the one breakfast in advance (and hopefully get it refunded the next day). That worked for everyone and we did it. I was about to leave when Mean Lady reappeared and insisted I pay for all three days. All three men jumped in saying “NO! We have it worked out.” And then they all started to argue. A fourth guy showed up and asked me politely if I could give them some space while they hashed it out among themselves.
As far as I was concerned this discussion was over for me. I got beers for Barb and me and sat down to wait for her. (She had been taking care of the kids all this time.) Out of the corner of my eye I followed the really long discussion at the front desk. I was exhausted. And then it hit me. I still had to do the nerve-wracking task of 14 online check-ins for our return flight! On my cell phone! I felt like crying. Suddenly, Turban Guy came over to my table and said he wanted to tell me – again – how sorry he was. He mentioned – again – that his mother is a teacher and so he knows how much work it is to be on a school trip. He hoped this hassle wasn’t ruining things for me. That was so sweet and really made me feel better. Then Barb showed up and sat next to me, offering her moral support as I navigated the group check-in on my cell. I don’t know what I would have done without her – and not just then, but the entire time! When I finally went to my room after midnight, a letter from the manager had been printed and taped to my door. She wrote she would come in earlier the next day so that we wouldn’t have to wait for her. It was a friendly but non-committal letter.
Full Day Three
The day began with our (prepaid!) breakfast, during which the hostel manager came up to me and introduced herself. She was ready to sit down with me whenever I was. Round Three of the Breakfast Negotiations began sort of dodgy, but she was nice and seemed to care about happy customers. She also admitted that a lot of mistakes had been made on their part during the booking process. She went through the computer listings and found extra charges for unused beds in our rooms – something I hadn’t been informed of. It offered her a way to reduce the amount. Success! Refund! Smiles! I asked her if she preferred red or white wine. She laughed and said neither. I asked her if she liked chocolate. She did. Now I could take off with the kids on our final day of touring London.
(King’s Cross / Platform 9 ¾, a Tube ride, Camden Town, Camden Lock Market, Hamley’s Toy Store, Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square, Soho, and Oxford Street):
Near the end of our final walking tour, the kids made a lot of questionable last-minute purchases in awful tourist trap shops – one of which I stepped in and prevented (see above – the poor kid had no idea what “hash” meant or what that plant was.) Once back at the hostel, we had a quick meeting about how to prepare for our 4:45 am departure the next morning (packing everything that night, returning towels, filling water bottles, setting alarms . . .) and then all the kids took off to their rooms. I gave the nice hostel manager the box of chocolates I had bought in Camden and then Barb and I had our traditional end-of-the-day beer as we compared notes on the events of the day. We both confessed to getting lax about the head counting (“. . . nine, ten, . . . eleven, . . . close enough”) and then laughed about it. A hostel worker walked past and thanked me for the chocolates. He said they were delicious. Barb marveled at how great the kids had been. There had been almost no complaining or whining. No arguments. No one was left out or distanced themselves from the others. I told her I wasn’t surprised at all. It’s all about trust. That and the fact that they were more afraid of getting lost in this strange place than we were. “It’s like when you take your pets to the vet and suddenly they are well-behaved,” I said. At some point, a hostel worker handed me the printed out boarding passes and a wave of relief washed over me. My last organizational hurdle had been traversed. For some reason, Barb and I talked forever, leaving us only about 3 ½ hours to sleep before . . .
The kids’ last British adventure mirrored their first one . . .
The plan was to post the picture highlights of each day directly from London – but that didn’t quite work out. Not only do I barely know how to use either WordPress or my cell (and I seem to have fat clumsy fingers), but the WIFI was unreliable. And then there were the three-day-long negotiations with the (all but one!) lovely hostel staff about whether we had paid for breakfasts already or not. That will be a future blog post. To cut to the chase – we got our breakfasts, no extra charge.
The fact that I didn’t have time or energy to post had absolutely nothing to do with being responsible for 12 kids 24/7 and tramping around the city all day with them – continually doing head counts and taking consensus votes on where to go and what to do next. Finding public restrooms in a pinch, or places to eat where the Micky D. fans and the vegetarians would all be satisfied.
The kids were fantastic. There was hardly a whine and no spats whatsoever. When a meeting place and time was arranged, they were all there, all twelve, and usually five minutes early. I loved watching them experience London.
Here are some impressions of the first full day (very limited by my own “no faces” rule). Day Two and Three will have to wait until after I get some sleep.
Trafalgar Square, Charing Cross (M&M’s Store), St. Paul’s Cathedral, Tower of London and London Bridge, Thames cruise, London Dungeon.
Here I go. Off on a trip back to my teenage years. Tramping through town for four days from one tourist trap to the next, hopping on and hopping off, eating at Subways and sleeping in a bunk bed at a youth hostel. Counting to twelve over and over, yelling “Look RIGHT!!” a lot, and answering the same question seven times in a row. My only breaks being a beer at the hostel bar with Barb after bedtimes. Don’t be surprised if I return to this blog a week from now sounding a whole lot older younger. Wish us luck!
We have been doing a project on the Middle Ages at school, which explains why everywhere you look, there is a well-fortified cardboard castle complete with dungeon and a gallows in the courtyard for public hangings. In addition, half the older students are obsessed with witch burning and torture and the stocks and people throwing the contents of their chamber pots out of the window onto passersby below and . . . how did those knights in armor go to the bathroom anyway? I suppose this is to be expected when Maria Montessori meets The Game of Thrones.
Today I threw some gasoline on the fire by reenacting a medieval court in my English class. The six older girls acted out a series of short trials, while the 12 younger students sat in two rows of six chairs and played the jury. Towering over the proceedings was the Lord’s Steward who tried to quell the pandemonium by yelling “SHUT UP!!” a lot. To keep the jury in line (and speaking English) I added a little rule: any jury member who spoke German would immediately be accused of being a member of the Barbarian Hordes and have to stand trial next. And what was the punishment for treason? Death by hanging of course! Unless you were a nobleman – then it was “Off with the head!” That kept them in line – the results were hysterical.
First case: Mathilda was accused of lying about being sick so that she didn’t have to go work in the fields. Two witnesses testified to seeing her outside her hut. She was, of course, “GUILTY!!” Since she couldn’t pay the fine, she had to spend 24 hours in the stocks.
Second case: Cedric stole a neighbor’s chicken and ate it. He was, of course, “GUILTY!!” A long discussion ensued about whether he should lose one finger, two fingers, or the entire hand. I can’t remember exactly what the decision was, but, needless to say, Cedric will have trouble counting to 10 in the future.
Third case: Benedict was accused of public drunkenness and swearing. Two witnesses testified to seeing him. Benedict won’t be able to continue those two bad habits now that he has no tongue.
Fourth case: Alice accused John of mugging her. In this one case, there was a witness who was actually sympathetic to the accused. John also seemed kind of nice. He was found “Not Guilty.” One jury member – Little Leonard –was not happy about this decision and said so, but unfortunately not in English. He was immediately accused by four fellow jurors of being a Germanic Barbarian Horde-ist. We added his case to the docket.
Fifth Case: Margaret was accused of setting Hugh’s hut on fire. No one actually saw her doing it. But the jury still contemplated their front row seats to her burning at the stake. Except that, by now, the kids were getting a little weirded out. Where was the proof? They ended up only making her pay a hefty fine.
We interrupted the trials and talked about the concepts of hearsay and innocent until proven guilty (versus medieval guilty until proven innocent). One student noted that you could accuse a person of anything! Hardly anyone got the benefit of the doubt. That didn’t seem right. And why were the punishments so extreme? What about second chances?
But then again, in the final case of Little Leonard, they had heard him speaking German with their own ears! I’m afraid the trial did not go well for him.
If my readers understood German, I would write that I am completely “geschlaucht” right now. Translated literally, that would be “tubed”, which, let’s face it, is weird. What we would really say is “exhausted”, or “pooped”, or “shattered”, or “whacked”, or “bushed”, or (maybe the closest translation idiomatically speaking) “drained”.
And I hardly had to work at all today! It was the final day of Science Week. The students set up stations and then showed one another their science experiments all morning long. My only jobs were to monitor them as they taught one another and to yell “Time to switch!” every 15 minutes or so. Easy.
Timewise, everything went smoothly and according to schedule (despite a few mishaps). I saw demonstrations of chemical reactions, adhesion, cohesion, friction, density, evaporation, condensation, action-reaction, recoil, solubility, and crystallization. I took pictures and feigned fascination and went in search of more baking soda.
And yet . . .
All together and quite accidentally, my students also proved the Theory of Relativity. Time seemed to slow down almost to a standstill. For me, the school day was about 12 hours long. Why did that happen? Here are my hypotheses:
Theory 1: Maybe it was because I had to keep my eye on the clock all day. (And to make matters worse, we have about five wall clocks in the school and they all show slightly different times.)
Theory 2: Maybe it was because I knew somewhere deep inside that when the last bus left the school, my semester break would officially begin. 10 free days in a row!
Theory 3: Maybe my tiredness was linguistically induced. What I mean is that every definition of “geschlaucht” seemed to happen to me today. Leo’s balloon rocket “exhausted” me when I stood behind it and “whacked” me when I stood in front of it. I got “shattered” after Dina dropped a glass beaker and I helped her sweep it up. I got “bushed” during recess while retrieving the soccer ball that had flown into one. I was “drained” while helping the kids clean up after their experiments, pouring one pitcher or beaker of water after another into the sink. And I was “pooped” when I stepped in stray cat doo-doo on my way to my car.
On the bright side, I got through the day without being “tubed”.
Let the vacation begin!
“A theory can be proved by experiment; but no path leads from experiment to the birth of a theory.” — Albert Einstein in The Sunday Times (1976)