Election Night in Loopyville

Let me start by saying that my daughters were NOT taking me seriously in my efforts to do absentee voting by the book. Thanks to Daughter 1’s boyfriend, I have dozens of pictures of each stage of the procedure to back me up.

There was the showing of the empty ballots
There was the anonymous filling out of ballots
There was the inserting into and sealing of the (naked) envelope
There was the signing of the certification form
There was the witness signing of the certification form
There was the affixing of the certification form to the naked envelope
There was the inserting of the naked envelope affixed with voter-signed and witness-signed certification form into a second envelope and addressing it
There was a Happy End

I mailed off our ballots two days ago. I can already say with certainty, even though I didn’t look, that the Loopyville contingent of Milwaukee’s Ward 132 went 0% for the current pwesident. I can also say that I feel different. Like maybe there is a proverbial light at the end of this crappy four-year-long tunnel. Like maybe it is no longer my civic responsibility to follow every outrageous or scandalous twist and every shitshow turn between now and November 3rd.

I have my final golf lesson tomorrow. After that I might do some gardening.

– – – – – – – – –

Postscript

I really should know better by now than to make predictions. After writing the above yesterday, I was too tired to post it and decided to wait until morning. The first thing I see after firing up my laptop is the news about the pwesident’s positive Covid test . . . .

Quasimodo Returns (and Just in Time!)

Have you ever wondered at what point a pizza simply becomes too big? I thought that last night while out for dinner in a nice Italian restaurant in Graz. Honestly, the diameter of this thing was about 6 inches longer than that of the plate below it. Needless to say, doggie bags were required.

The reason the hubby and I were in Graz was that my elder daughter was throwing a 20th birthday bash in our house. Once she had received permission to have the party, she proceeded to tell us that we weren’t actually invited, but no worries, we could stay in her apartment that night. That was nice of her, I thought. Well played. Or maybe, not. Everything was spotlessly clean when we arrived there. We trashed the place and drank her vodka.

That was my third trip to Graz this week. On the second one, I finally met up with the sisters-in-law again and handed over the penguin. Based on the reaction, I think he has found a good home.

 

On my first trip to Graz this week, I took my daughter along with one of her friends (a former student of mine!) out for lunch. We negotiated a sort of mini-management deal as this friend has a lot of connections to the art and music scenes, knows a lot about the business side, and wants to help Mitzi promote herself better. Two days later, Mitzi had a one-hour gig at an open stage bar and raked in $80 in pay and another $180 (!) in tips. After hearing this, the husband decided to show up next week with his accordion and see if he can do the same (and then quit his job to be a street musician). As far as I know, he only knows how to play 5 songs and four of them are not suitable for polite company, so I am not sure if this is a good plan.

 

Anyway, back to today. The husband and I returned home again this morning to survey the post-party carnage. What we found was a house looking pretty much the same as when we left it. In fact, the only evidence that a party took place at all was the overflowing glass recycling bin and some half-empties on the kitchen counter. I have to admit, I was a little disappointed. This was just further evidence that my children aren’t children anymore. In fact, one of them is no longer even a teenager! Why didn’t anyone warn me that this was going to happen?

Thank goodness I still have one problem child left to worry about.

Remember my four new chicks from spring? Well, there is something seriously wrong with one of them. He is only half the size of his siblings, he seems kind of deformed, and he is not growing feathers. We keep consulting the Backyard Chicken Bible and it tells us not to worry as long as he is running around and eating – which he is. But, still, he is the ugliest piece of poultry I have ever seen. You be the judge:

 

The Karens

 (A White Mother of Black Children Reflects on Privilege)

 

It has become nearly impossible for any informed American to ignore the subject of white privilege in these turbulent times.

But for many, I suspect, the question has remained distant, intellectual, or abstract. In my case, it has been intensely personal. I have discovered myself to be completely and utterly ambivalent about it.

Two realizations keep recycling through my brain and confusing me. The first came after watching a few seconds of the video of the murder of George Floyd (which was all I could take) and then thinking, with utter abhorrence, “In this scenario, I am not the neck. I am the knee.”

The second realization was that I have spent the last 20 years ferociously wielding my white privilege like a shield for the sole purpose of protecting my black daughters. But my ability to do that is now coming to an end. The older one has begun her new life in an apartment in Graz and the younger will be moving out and joining her in about six weeks. They will have to go on living without my shield.

I won’t be there to silence passers-by.

I won`t be there to make the train conductor think twice about asking for their tickets in a suddenly different tone.

I won’t be there to stop strangers from touching their hair.

I won’t be there when the neighbor downstairs tells them that they walk too loudly.

I won’t be there when the policeman asks them for their identification.

 

No, they are going to have to go through this world mostly on their own now. And what a world it is.

– – – – – – – –

My learning curve about racism here and in the United States has been a long one. I look back at some of the statements I made in lecture halls and can only shake my head. I remember discussing a “groundbreaking” article about how economic success in life has as much to do with luck as with talent or drive. I felt at the time that it was important to challenge the prevailing myths about self-reliance and “picking yourself up by the bootstraps” and dishwasher-to-millionaire American success stories. It didn`t occur to me at the time that access to “luck” had racial preconditions. That was about the time when we were planning to start a family.

Years later, when the anti-foreigner movement was underway here in Austria, I argued that “foreigner” was just code for non-white races. I said that, in contrast to Austrians, Americans had dealt directly with the topic of racism and were starting to come out of the other end of the tunnel. I thought. That was about the time when we were considering international/interracial adoption and wondering if it would be fair to the child.

From there, I had the revelation that the concept of “race” was merely a social construct and not a real thing. After all, if you go back far enough, we are all Africans. While raising my children, however, I discovered that race was only a construct for white people. For others experiencing the consequences of race-related belief systems, it is a real thing. And a danger.

And now, after George Floyd, I have finally realized that true equality means this: As long as the construct of race remains real for some of the people, it remains real for all of them.

I am the knee. I am the white woman calling the cops on a Central Park birdwatcher. I am the person who saw a suspect in twelve-year-old Tamir at the playground. I am a Karen.

 

This very morning, I discovered that new slang term (“the Karens”) in a New Yorker article. I told my husband about it and he found it a bit too amusing. He immediately googled for more information. Later, during breakfast, I asked my daughters if they had ever heard of the term. There was an uncomfortable silence and a meaningful look passed between them. Then the elder daughter answered.

“Yeah . . . we didn’t want to tell you about it. We were afraid it would upset you.”

 

Reopening – Part Two

(This might be a long one. As Austria is one of the earliest experimenters in reopening schools, I thought it might be of interest to people in places who haven’t reached this point yet. So, I’ve decided to go into pretty much detail about our experiences, even if our school is a quirky little private and alternative one (where the parents have far too much say!) and therefore, not exactly representative. One thing I can say for sure is that the situation in the husband’s high school is running far more smoothly and that he or his teachers don’t have to put up with a fraction of the crap we do . . . )

 

As I wrote in my last post, my teaching team and I worked all last week to prepare the school for reopening on Monday. We rearranged all the classrooms and tried to meet every requirement set by the government to minimize risk and maximize social distancing. We prepared the kids for the changes and the strangeness that would confront them on their first day back. We informed the parents about every change, every measure we had to take, and we asked them for their support. We encouraged them to contact us directly if they had any questions or concerns. Then came the final weekend before the reopening.

 

Saturday

In evening, 36 hours before the first child would arrive at the school, we get this email – addressed to everyone, meaning all the teachers and all the parents(!):

I felt an urgent need to reply and immediately composed an email that I knew I would never send. Once again, my fingers at the keyboard were sputtering and stammering. Here is what they came up with:

Of course, I didn’t send it. But getting the words out calmed me down enough to get a good night’s sleep.

 

Sunday

I wake up and the first thing I see is a response to the email above from the speaker of the parents’ organization. Her main point is that we have had bad experiences in the past with email discussions and that this mother can always – and should have – contacted the teaching team first. Her words thankfully ward off any further explosion of “Reply all” responses.

Later in the day, my boss forwards an email from a second family announcing that their two children would not be returning to the school. They wanted their kids to remember the place in a positive way and not be confronted with the fear and hysteria that apparently reign now.

That email is followed by another one saying two more kids would be leaving the school at the end of the year. This family – like the one above – had stopped paying the fees way back in March and would continue not doing so. But the kids were going to be there for the reopening the next day. “How can this be?” I wondered. (I have since found out that there at least three other families doing the same, i.e. not paying, yet still sending their kids or expecting distance instruction to continue.) My nervousness about the coming day increased. If the kids behaved anything like their parents, it was going to be a tense and tough one.

Then a third email arrived. A mother wanted to give me a little joy and sent a picture of her son in front of the computer at home. There on the screen was me, with a goofy expression and gesticulating weirdly. It made me smile.

 

Monday (– Reopening Day)

7:30 am. My job was to stand outside and greet the kids as they got off the buses or out of their parents’ cars and to make sure they knew the drill. (Go through the right entrance, shoes off, hands washed, on to the classroom – and there you can take off the mask.) It turned out to be easy. The bus kids all had masks on already and the car kids put them on unprompted as they neared the school. All I had to say after “Good morning!” was “Everything clear? Do you know what to do?” and they all said yes. They were so cool! Not one of them seemed embarrassed, fearful or resistant. They just took it in stride. You could tell how happy they were to be back and to see one another again. These were the older kids in the school (the younger ones would start on Wednesday) and apparently, they did not share all of their parents’ views. Or at least that was how it seemed at the start. But I am getting ahead of myself . . .

Halfway through these arrivals, a mother walked up to a foot away from me, mask-less, and handed me a box of disinfectant and masks. She was a doctor, too. I asked for the bill to reimburse her and she said, no, she was donating the stuff. Then she turned to me and said nervously: “You aren’t really going along with all this nonsense, are you?” She went off on a tirade about how dangerous mask wearing was and pulled out a form to show me. When signed by a doctor, it freed her son from having to wear one. She began filling it out. Meanwhile, I saw her son pull a mask out of his back pocket and put it on just before entering the school. I asked the mother to wait a sec and called for reinforcements. A second teacher and I together made it clear to Dr. Mom that we were indeed following the required guidelines but added that the amount of time her son would be wearing a mask could be measured in minutes. She changed her tune and said that the school part was okay, it was the bus ride she was worried about. Luckily, we don’t have any influence over those policies and could dodge this particular bullet.

After this one jag, the rest of the day jigged remarkably well. We had great talks with the kids and then began the lessons. I’ve never seen them so attentive, receptive and, simply put, happy to be taught. Some of them handed in reams of worksheets, posters and essays; others sheepishly confessed to having done almost nothing in the 9 weeks of the closing. In each case, it was entirely predictable. We had already gotten a good idea about which parents were on top of things and which were helpless when it came to home-schooling. We had been supplying the kids with a steady flow of inputs and assignments, but mostly through their parents’ email. I estimate that in about a third of the households, the information or materials never reached the child. And in a few cases, I assume this was intentional. In order to keep up the pretense that the teaching team was not providing a service and therefore school fees did not have to be paid, all of these efforts on our part to reach out to and help their children had to be ignored.

As far as the hygiene measures were concerned, the kids cooperated with aplomb the whole day. Once or twice we hit a snag and had to pull out the one-meter stick to refresh their memories about what that distance is. In general, though, they kept each other in line. Near the end of the day, I asked one group how they felt about it, how it went. I got this reply:

“I didn’t expect at all that this day would be so much fun!”

As the last school bus departed and we teachers were alone again, we all agreed that the day could hardly have gone any better. Despite all the trouble from some parents, the kids were totally cool and impressive. Then the phone rang. It was a notoriously nervous mother complaining that, from what her son told her, we weren’t enforcing the social distancing enough. Another boy had touched his face . . .

 

Tuesday – Day Two

I could tell in the morning that some kids were already getting a bit too relaxed about the new policies and we had to go through some of them again. But otherwise it was a day of successful teaching and absorbing. During recess, two of my oldest girls actually started asking me questions about English tenses and then requested extra homework in them. This is my ninth year in the school and that has never happened before! All four of my groups seemed almost excited to get their homework assignments. They all would go home with a clear plan about their work not only for the rest of the week, but for the remainder of the year (each group will only have five more lessons). And finally, the one girl being kept home by her parents sent me a (secret) message through one of her classmates. I returned it with an invitation for her to show up at our English chat over the internet on Friday.

There was only one jag.

I was sitting with my First Year group – just three kids all about 10 years old – on a carpet and talking about their assignment for next week. Right now we are learning to use “doesn’t” and “don’t” so I showed them a poster I made years back with a different group and asked them to do the same. They should find pictures in old newspapers, magazines or ads of things they like or don’t like, cut them out, paste them and then write the English words. One of them pointed to the picture of Barack Obama and asked about it. I said he was the former president, which they didn’t really understand, and yet they started talking excitedly all at the same time. It was when one of them said, “That’s all not true!” that I started listening more carefully. The child went on. “The media are paid to say bad things about him . . . the whole thing was started by Bill Gates . . . He’s not a bad man or a racist – he built the wall to protect Mexican children from human organ traffickers . . .”

There was no way I was going to get into a political discussion with a student, and especially not a 10-year-old one. I wouldn’t have been able to in any case because I was so dumbfounded. Where does such a young kid get ideas like that??!! Please god, let it not be his parents!

(This story is not over, and I will surely be returning to it in a future post. But first, I need to consult my team to figure out what, if anything, I should do about this.)

 

So, that was our start in the new normal.

 

I’ve spent all day rethinking these past events – not just the reopening, but everything all the way back to that first rushed and panicky teleconference about closing the school down completely and immediately. The idea was to fire the entire teaching team, stop school fees, and yet, somehow, magically, keep all the kids enrolled and say they completed the school year. We managed to stave that off, but at a pretty hefty psychological and financial cost to the teaching team.

My own feelings toward the school and my future there have been changed too. In the past I had always kept a distance between me and the parents, but Corona and home-schooling made that impossible. I got dragged into the middle of the organization’s multiple crises and then had a crash course in history behind all of the parents’ idiosyncrasies. I began to mentally sort them into groups: the Seriously Supportives, the Hysterical Hyperventilators, the Squawkers, the Stay out of the Frays, the Hopelessly Helpless, and the Silent But Deadlies. After Day Two (and the revelation of a Ten-Year-Old Twumpist), I added a new group: the Conspiracy Theorists.

As might be obvious by this uncharacteristically cynical description, with some notable exceptions, I no longer trust the parents. After years of listening to yapping about solidarity and the bonds that hold us together and commitment and obligation and collective responsibility, the crisis made it crystal clear for which people this was just blah blah all along. When the road of solidarity hit the rubber of their pocketbooks, they quickly switched to personal agendas. A lot of these people are either going or gone now. But not all of them.

The question is if I should go too. Technically, I am still unemployed and could walk away, especially if the crisis management team reneges on their promise to fully reinstate the entire teaching team 10 days from now. On the “Stay” side of the equation is the team itself. We have stuck together in a truly remarkable way and we have gotten closer through this whole ordeal. I think they are fabulous people and, past conflicts aside, working with them has been a great enrichment of my life.

And then, of course, most of all, there are the kids.

 

A Motherful Day

 

While on our daily dog walk, Nice Neighbor Lady told me that her son refuses to celebrate Mother’s Day, saying first that every day should be Mother’s Day and second, that it was a Nazi creation. It’s not, but after that, I didn’t have the heart to tell her how wonderful mine was.

It started early with two new flowers for my garden and then a trip to my sister-in-law to pick up a washing machine (along with a whole bunch of other furnishings) for my daughters’ new apartment. From there we went to a (socially distanced) family gathering where I got to see my mother-in-law for the first time in two months. Since the golf courses have reopened, her life is back in order again. We couldn’t stay long, because my daughter had to get back home for a performance. It was a Mother’s Day Concert being livestreamed from the nearby spa featuring local musicians. I don’t want to brag too much, so I won’t say that she stole the show. Instead, I’ll quote a few of the WhatsApp reactions from friends and my sisters in the States:

“Amazing!”

“Wow. wow wow wow. She’s killing it!”

“Oh. My. God. So beautiful.”

 

Right before leaving for the concert, my husband called out to me that my favorite chicken just hatched a new chick. (She actually let the other hens do all the brooding work for 19 days, and then took over for just the last two. Crafty girl!) Right after the concert, my Skype started chiming and I got to spend the next hour with my own mom. And finally, shortly before going to bed, my daughters posted on my Facebook page, including two of my very favorite photos. Here it is – or at least a doctored version with names changed to protect the perps:

What a wonderful day full of momstuff, sisterstuff, daughterstuff, and grandchickendaughterstuff!  To spread the joy, here are two songs from my favorite singer:

 

 

 

Yo! Bro!

 

At our reunion in December, I managed to coerce two more family members into following my blog. Last night, during a Skype session, I snagged the last remaining sibling.

“Do you read my blog?” I asked innocently. To which he had no choice but to say, “Oh yeah, I’ve been meaning to do that . . .”

At which point he was trapped.

“You know most of the people who know me and aren’t bloggers themselves just follow by email . . . (followed by an explanation of what that means) . . . tell you what. Open your web browser right now . . . now type in circumstance227.wordpress.com . . . no caps . . . now look in the bottom right corner – see the ‘Follow’ button? Press that. Now type in your email address . . .”

I suppose there might have been some point where he could still have wheedled his way out of this, but he didn’t. And now he has just gotten his first email notification.

Yo! Bro! How’s it going?

To commemorate your initiation into Trek* World, here’s a little blast from the past:

For other readers, a short explanation: This particular brother spent two summers in his youth on massively long bike trips with two friends. It must have been in the early 70s, because one of the articles mentions them “starting High School in the fall”. I don’t remember much other than the huge beer can collection he came home with. And how surprising it was that he could find so many empty cans in such good condition just lying there on the side of the road!

On a less facetious note, the whole story amazes me somehow. In today’s world of too little trust and too much general anxiety, it is hard to imagine the 15-year-old who would want to do this, much less be allowed to. The world and parenting norms have changed, and not necessarily for the better.

On the other hand, my own personal world got better today.

 

Love in the Time of Corona

People occasionally ask me how Europeans see the whole political mess in America, so when this newspaper arrived at my doorstep on Super Wednesday, I put it aside to use in my blog. There is a reason I am finally posting it today – a week later and at a time when the corona virus and crashing economy have completely shoved political topics aside in the news.  Add to that the crescendo-ing crisis at my workplace and it is almost a wonder that I have any room left in my brain for the primaries. But as I said, there is a reason – and it has mostly to do with cat puke.

The three topics mentioned above have been intermingling constants in my consciousness and I keep feeling that they are all somehow connected. I’m going to try to get to the bottom of that here. Starting with politics . . .

The article above is a pretty accurate assessment of the state of the Democratic primary race, except that it pronounces Sanders to still be the clear front runner and it predicts a contested convention. Well, either things change quickly, or I have missed something in the coverage of the race.

In my own assessment, after watching all the more attractive candidates drop like flies one after another, I find myself imagining the fall debates with either of the two remaining contenders against Twump. Will it be two septuagenarians tossing word salad or two septuagenarians flinging invective poop at one another while bemoaning all that is disgraceful and disastrous in America. I can’t help seeing Bernie as the flip-side of Twump’s coin, with a different set of issues, but also banking on grievance and fear. Two men completely locked into their world views. I don’t like the idea of having to choose between revolution and devolution. I don’t want to vote based on fear or any other negative emotion. I think I prefer Biden’s kinder senility.

Because that is a second constant theme in my thoughts lately. How Twump has succeeded in putting the “coarse” back in “discourse” and then spreading it around the globe like a . . . well, like a virus. I’ve been noticing signs all over in all different contexts how communication is becoming ruder, more aggressive, more profane.  Swearing politicians. Stories of increasingly vicious trolling in the internet. Group mobbing on social media. Nasty movie reviews of perfectly nice films like “Emma”. (You see? It has even infected me!) I’ve watched little seven- and eight-year-olds in our school calling one another “wankers” while giving them the finger. Older kids speaking with the crassest words, hurling insensitive insults, and being either oblivious to or unbothered about their reception. “That’s just how young people talk today,” they tell me. (Nonsense!) The number of 15-18 year-old students who stop attending because they can’t handle the school day is increasing and a lot of their stress is social. It has prompted my husband to send out a letter to all the parents in his school, asking them to talk to their kids about the way they communicate in the classroom. I hope it will help, but when I observe how the parents themselves behave in discussions, it seems pretty clear to me where the kids might be getting it from.

There has been one meeting after another in my school and I see the different factions getting more and more rigid in their views – more certain that their assessment of the problems and solutions is the only right one. No room for compromise. The tone can be aggressive, threatening, fear-inducing, insensitive, impolite, even crass. One group says it’s simple: close the kindergarten and fire those two teachers. Problem solved. The other says it’s simpler: raise the tuition by one hundred percent. If this or that family can’t afford it – well, too bad! They can go somewhere else.

These recent developments have gotten the teaching team worried about the continuing existence of the school. It prompted my boss, who is not a sentimental person by nature, to send us an atypically cutesy meme – something I would have found sappy in the past:

Love . . . should be the virus that all people on Earth are infected with , , ,

 

Which brings me to Topic Number Three. Which is really Number One. Today’s news included the biggest drop in the world’s stock market in history as well as the shutting down of an entire country (Italy. Our neighbour.) Closer to home all the universities are now closed in Austria for the coming week (or weeks?) Even closer to home, the theater in Graz we were planning to take the kids to next week has cancelled all performances until April. And at home, I got an email today from the Department of Education. It was a directive to all teachers to start preparing materials that students can do at home. We think that all schools might be closing down starting Monday.

Everything seems connected.

My students need a time-out and a course correction. My school needs them too. So do the politics of my home country, the economy, and the world. The Corona virus seems to be forcing us all into one. And yes, I realize that is an insane way of looking at things.

But my cat agrees with me.

He jumped onto my desk this afternoon and started retching. The only thing within reach was the newspaper I had been saving to blog about. I quickly removed the first few pages, spread out the rest in front of him and let him empty his stomach onto it. I then carefully folded up the paper and tossed it in the garbage.

Later, I started reading the article for my blog post and discovered that the second half was in the part I had thrown away. I fished it out and gingerly opened it back up. There was the puke and, of course, it had landed right on the article I was looking for. Its stain smeared into two adjacent articles – a complimentary review of the movie “Emma” and a public service ad for the corona virus hotline.

 

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.

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*(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’.)

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.

 

The World is Theirs

 

My three yearlong (!) quest to get the American citizenship for my adopted daughters reached its finale today. This last act began when we took a mini-mother/daughter trip to Vienna. Our first stop: the American Embassy where we had appointments to hand in their passport applications along with a bunch of documents and photos (no glasses!) and self-addressed stamped envelopes and . . .

The extremely friendly security guards greeted us with big smiles and asked us each in turn to put our bags in the scanner. When mine went in, a picture sort of like one this (taken from the internet) popped up on the screen:

I stared at it in horror. A string of theories about how a gun could be in my bag – all of them ludicrous – began spinning around in my head. The guard began to laugh and said “Don’t worry! That is a fake picture. It’s put there to test me – to make sure I am paying attention.” He handed me my bag.

I remained in a state of mild shock as we made our way to Window 1, which was probably a good thing, because it temporarily supplanted my nervousness. Almost three years earlier I had visited this place and it turned out to be an awful experience. I was scared that something would go wrong again – maybe I had filled out the wrong form? Should I have brought the birth certificates and adoption decrees? The girls’ baby teeth?

But the woman at the counter was both officious and friendly. She stayed patient as I confusedly fumbled through the documents and then handed one over for the wrong daughter. When she learned what our situation was, she peered at me knowingly and said “You must have had to do a mountain of paperwork!”

“You have no idea!” I replied. “I think when these passports arrive, I’m going break out in tears.”

“Please don’t cry in here!” she half-whispered to me and then glanced quickly back over her shoulder.

As the woman checked the application and all the documents, I pulled out one of the girls’ decrees granting them the right to dual citizenship and asked her if she needed that too. Her eyes widened a little at the sight of it and she asked “How did you manage to get that?!” Apparently, it is becoming nearly impossible to be granted such permission from the Austrian government. She said that she had had to deal with Austrians who became naturalized American citizens and were then rudely informed that their Austrian citizenship was being revoked. It was possibly the one saving grace of my last horrible visit to this embassy that someone made me aware of the need to apply for dual citizenship permission before taking the next step. I don’t remember this information showing up anywhere else in process and I am sure it wouldn’t have occurred to me on my own.

Once the paperwork was all handed over, we were sent off to Window 3 to fork over the cash and then it was back to Window 1. The girls signed their passport applications in front of the new official and he told us we could expect them in the mail in about 10 days. We were done. The whole thing had taken about 15 minutes. I was almost sorry to have to leave.

As we walked back toward the security guards and exit, I noticed for the first time that the place was entirely empty except for us. I had been at this embassy many times over the years and the waiting room was always packed. I wondered what that was about. The last thing we did before exiting was to pass by the pictures of Twump and Pence and Pompeo. I felt sorry for the guard sitting at the desk across from them – just imagine having to look at those three all day long every day!

My daughters and I had a nice day of shopping, had lunch, went to the movies (“The Green Book”) and stayed in a nice hotel. The next day we caught the train back home. That was seven days ago.

I confess I continued to worry that something could still go wrong.

But today, the world is mine again.