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.

 

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Girl Gone Bad (Temporarily)

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 will not defraud.

I will not steal (any more) students.

I will not be cruel to animals.

I will not hoe.

A Moment in Teaching

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:

TED Talks

 

The following week we did some work on pronunciation.

 

 

Admittedly Surprised

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).

hummingbird giftIt’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.

Sometimes people surprise you.

The Remains of the Days

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 . . .

Departure Day

The kids’ last British adventure mirrored their first one . . .

In the airport shuttle
In the airport shuttle

Goodbye, London. And Thanks!

London – Day One, Really

I’m already back home.

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.

Our itinerary:

Trafalgar Square, Charing Cross (M&M’s Store), St. Paul’s Cathedral, Tower of London and London Bridge, Thames cruise, London Dungeon.

Off to London!

london3Here 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!

london4