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!


Positively Medieval – (MYoM – Part 27)

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.

court1Today 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.

Einstein Was Here

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)

An Inconvenient Revolution

I find that I am not done with the subject of Flint. After posting declining crime statistics yesterday, I went rummaging through old files to find their companion graphic. Despite a positive 20+ year trend – here is how people perceive the state of affairs:

crime perception

After 25 years of teaching social issues, I am not at all surprised that almost 3/4ths of the population believes the world to be different than it is. And in this election season, when Republicans claim for the gazillionth time that Obama wrecked the country, I am sure that they sincerely believe it. We are all the products of selective perception, of the voices we choose to listen to.

More than Trump, or Bernie Sanders, or #BlackLivesMatter or this generally bizarre election season, Flint has gotten me thinking about the state of The States and the state of the world. It has thrown me back into my previous life when such topics were part of my daily fare. It is a conversation I will be having with myself for the coming months, right up to the moment when my absentee ballot arrives in the mail. Hillary or Bernie? Hillary or Bernie? Here’s Part One of that conversation.


All day long – as I was assisting my cleaning lady (doing the disgusting things like moldy-vegetable- and dog-accident-removal in a desperate attempt to keep her working for me – good household help is so hard to find!) my thoughts were wandering around aimlessly in my political and professional past, starting with the four years of undergrad studies that I spent debating god and the world with roommates and partying pals. Strangely enough, a lot of them were Republican and studying Business. And yet (!) – we stayed friends. I wonder if it is still okay to let the sparks fly and then agree to disagree so that the party can begin. Or . . . are college students now divided into separate but equally antagonistic camps? If so, that is too bad, because those years – those many debates – prepared me almost more than my Liberal Arts degree for the job I would eventually do for a quarter of a century, namely teaching English to Business and Sociology students at the university level.

After removing hair from the shower drain and shoveling the poop out of the kitty litter box, I took a break from household chores to surf through my old computer files and reread some of the materials I used in those university courses. I was actually searching for the unit on “Corporate Power” which included the film “Roger and Me” (mentioned in yesterday’s blog post) as part of the required preparation, but ended up getting lost among old familiar literary and social criticism friends. I was struck by the bizarre mix and high level of readings I had required my students to do. Everything was in there from Plato’s Cave to Mein Kampf, from Thomas Jefferson to Noam Chomsky, from Karl Marx to George Orwell to Joseph Stiglitz. From Gore Vidal to Malcolm X to Shakespeare to Douglas Adams to my sister’s parody children’s book. I had them reading poetry! Business students!

My cleaning lady cleared her throat a few times and it ripped me out of my post-intellectual nostalgia. Noticing that she had a feather duster and a rag in her hand, I ran through the house, quickly freeing all the flat surfaces of paper and garbage piles while collecting all the dirty clothes from floors and furniture into a laundry basket. “Social and Economic Issues” was the name I had finally decided on for my Business English 2 course. I wanted to discuss aspects of everyday life with the students – food, health, drugs, education, financial security, gender . . . – while investigating how both governments and (big) businesses affect our lives in these universal concerns. What role did each play and what purposes did each serve? When was it best to let the economic system freely do its thing and when should the government step in and regulate?

I openly admitted my intention to be subversive – to get my students to question the system they lived in. Or better, to discover the questions they had not yet asked – the things they had so far simply assumed to be true. Their professors were teaching them the tired old truisms that free enterprise leads to best prices and practices because the greatest economic force was demand and consumers made rational decisions in their own best interest. Then God said “Let there be money.” And money appeared. And God was pleased with it and let it make the world go round. . .” I threw out a question to my students. How about if we don’t simply accept these Truths to be self-evident, but investigate their veracity? I brought two loads of dirty laundry down to the basement. Through sheer luck I noticed the dead mouse in the bucket by the floor mop before the cleaning lady discovered it. I took the bucket to the basement door, tossed the corpse out onto the lawn, and returned the bucket back to its usual place. Whew! That was close!

ehrenreichI wondered what Barbara Ehrenreich (another of my required readings) would think of the power dynamic that existed between me and my cleaning lady. Her final argument about our system is in full –if somewhat distorted – display in my household. It is not the poor who depend on the “handouts” of the wealthy to survive, it is the wealthy who depend on the continuing existence of people willing (or desperate enough) to do all the hard and shitty work necessary for the wealthy to maintain their cushy lifestyles. It is probably my own awareness of this truth that keeps me shoveling the poop and removing the corpses to keep my cleaning lady happy. I started to tackle all the overflowing garbage cans, carrying bag after bag to the containers outside.

Over two decades of teaching the course, certain new truths became clear to me. The first was that no matter which issues the students chose to investigate, there were always a small number of huge corporations behind the curtain – or better, looming over the stage and holding the puppet strings. When we discussed drugs, the awful practices of the pharmaceutical industry came up. How their marketers dreamed up new uses for already existing drugs – suggesting new diseases to healthy people with the cure already available. Ask your doctor! When it came to food, we researched the rise of Monsanto, Round-up Ready, and processed foods. Factory farming and “The Meatrix”. We discovered how very little we knew about what we were putting into our bodies or where it came from. We looked at our clothing too and followed “The Travels of a T-Shirt” on its race to the bottom. We wondered which Asian or Central American factory our clothing came from and how old the seamstress was. Which reminded me, I had to start doing the laundry. While I was down in the basement, I might as well get the vacuum cleaner and carry it upstairs for my cleaning lady – she was almost ready to start the floors.

harpers cover 1In all of these investigations, the most astounding thing we learned is this: that what we think we know might be completely false. Or in any case, very incomplete. When everything periodically comes crashing down around us – like it did in 2008 – we act surprised and say “Who knew?” despite the fact that the whole mortgage crisis was described in detail two years in advance.

We are all busy, working hard with precious little time to really inform ourselves even on such basic things as “what’s in this water I’m drinking?” Instead, we choose which Kool-Aid we prefer (the one put through the lefty filter of MSNBC media conglomerate or the righty one of Fox) and we drink it.

I heard my cleaning lady turn on the faucet and fill up the empty pail with mopping water (no dead mouse here!). This is always the last thing she does, so I could finally return to my laptop to catch up on the news. Rachel updated me on the latest outrageous development in Flint and how Bernie Sanders is doing in the polls. Bernie is right in everything he says – but it is not only the big banks and Wall Street – corporations have gotten too big and consolidated too much power in every major industry of our economy, including the media. They have grown beyond or risen above the government’s sphere of influence. Politicians are reduced to puppets in the voters’ perception (and so they are drawn to the one who seems to be manipulating strings of his own.) It may not have been a big company that put lead into Flint’s water, but surely the perennial budget crises behind the decision to switch sources can be traced back to GM – the one corporation the entire city depended on – taking off for better havens. The people can organize and petition and protest all they want. The bag the government is left holding is empty.

I paid my cleaning lady – as usual about 15% more than she asked for – and tried to hide the hopeful tone of my voice as I said “See you next week!” It still came out sounding like a question. As she drove away, my mind returned to that other question: Bernie or Hillary?

I feel myself tending toward the woman with a plan – even if she is a part of a corrupted system. I truly like and admire Bernie Sanders, but until he explains exactly what he means by “We need a revolution”, I will not be voting for him. Do we need change on a revolutionary scale? Yes, of course. Fixing campaign finance and reigning in Wall Street are only the tip of the iceberg. And a lot of people are ready for change and willing to do their part. It’s just that we are going to be really busy in the coming months. It will be hard to find the time to revolutionize. In my case, I’m thinking Friday afternoons might work. Right after my cleaning lady leaves and before my daughter’s piano lesson.