Jungle Taming

Summer vacation is here! I can finally turn my attention to my flower beds (the ones Mean Neighbor Lady prematurely praised) which I have unfortunately neglected and allowed to grow wild. Despite my prediction – or maybe because of it (let’s face it: I am terrible at foretelling the future) – the final two weeks of the school year were not easy sailing. Not primarily because every day brought a special event requiring organization and overtime, and not because my remaining free time was used to write 28 individual letters to my students, but because my coworkers had not had the benefit of two weeks of convalescence and were at their frazzled nerves’ ends as they faced the same work load as me. To make matters worse, they made the curious decision to “co-write” their letters.

My part being in English, I had no choice but to go it alone, which was the way I wanted it anyway. As all of you blogger/writers out there probably know, the more people involved in a writing project, the harder and less efficient it gets. My colleagues spent hours and hours, day after day huddled around a laptop, formulating, reformulating, discussing the finer points of German grammar, allowing discussions to wander off onto irrelevant subjects, getting distracted, getting punchy, working themselves into exhaustion, slowly losing their ability to function normally. When I had to ask one of them a question, I often just got a blank stare in response. They would turn and leave the room in the middle of a discussion or come into a room and brutally interrupt a conversation in progress.  I began to keep my distance.

Meanwhile the kids were mentally already well into their upcoming summer vacations. They required entertainment and more than the usual amount of cajoling. On one day, we went to my husband’s school for a day of sports. The junior class there spent the whole morning with us, training our kids in tennis, volleyball, track & field, etc. They were so nice, but, unfortunately, a few of our kids acted up, refused to participate or moaned when they did. One boy in particular, I’ll call him Silas, got aggressive and insulting, even swearing at one of the trainers during an argument he had started. Since none of my coworkers had the capacity to deal with the situation, they left it to me.

A few days later, I sat down with Silas and talked to him about the day. He was defensive and apparently suffering from pretty major memory loss.  I told him that his behavior was unacceptable, disappointing and an embarrassment to whole school. He would not be allowed to go again next year. Unless, of course, he made some effort to make things right. I told him I was driving over to the school to give the students some thank you presents and that it would be nice if he came along and helped me. He could carry the watermelon. And maybe there would be a chance to make peace with trainers he had clashed with. Silas weighed his options and decided he would rather accept the future ban than have to apologize. I’m sure he pictured some humiliating scene in his mind – maybe him standing in front of the entire class, head down, blushing and mumbling. I knew I was not going to convince him to come with me, so I just said I was sorry to hear his decision and then went to the school without him.

Back at my school in the afternoon, I cooled my heels and twiddled my thumbs as my colleagues put the final touches and edits to their letters. I had to wait because I was the one who would then format and print them out. Over those hours, all four of my fellow teachers came to me separately to give me their thoughts on the Silas situation. All of them had had several confrontations with him this year and he had used up pretty much all of their good will reserves. I needed to call his mom right away and tell her. There had to be consequences. He’d been making this kind of trouble all year long, necessitating more than his share of after-the-fact talks and parent/teacher meetings even if his parents just split up this year they needed to know that his bad behavior went outside of the school’s walls it affects everyone there had to be a follow up this can’t go blah blah blah blah blah  blah   blah    BLAH.  And blah.

None of them, apparently, were interested in hearing my response.

Which would have been that, of course, there will be a follow up. But not today. Not on the eve of the last day of school. I would wait till the timing was right.

 

The letters did get done, as they always do. The final day of school with our little graduation ritual and subsequent breakfast went smoothly. The buses arrived and the kids started heading toward them. I stood talking with two fellow teachers when, out of the blue, a body appeared right in front of me. It was Silas, looking toward the ground, his head tilted slightly, his arms extended partway and sort of lamely towards me.

“OH!” I said in surprise. “Silas! Do you want a hug goodbye?” I didn’t wait for his answer but just leaned down and gave him one. He returned it. And then he ran off toward his bus.

One of the other teachers looked at me and said with wide eyes and a little laugh: “WHO was that?!! What in the HELL was THAT?!!”

Who was that?

Just another neglected thing allowed to grow wild.

What was that?

My absolute favorite moment of the day.

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Reeling from Time-Out to Time-Out

 

So here’s a possibly original take on the classic “why I haven’t been posting lately” post: I have just been so busy with one getaway after another.

First there was the sick leave, which, if I am honest, (and now that the memory of pain has faded), was really kind of nice. I have several crocheted animals to show for it.

That lasted about a week until boredom set in and sent me back to normal work for a few days. The week after was spent with two colleagues and twenty kids between the ages of 10 and 15 in an unheated house on an icy lake in Carinthia. Crap weather kept a lot of us in the one warm dining hall / arts and crafts / common room for most of the time. I taught a lot of kids to crochet and carve hiking sticks and make juggling balls with rice and balloons while my two coworkers took care of sports activities, homesickness and conflicts. We shared the task of kicking boys out of girls’ rooms and vice versa in the nights.

Back home, there followed an abnormally  over-excited week of work, thanks to the fact that the sex education experts were coming on Thursday and half the school kids were in a permanent tizzy – until the workshop was over, that is. Thursday at 12:30 pm they all casually emerged from their daylong sequestration in a state of feigned blasé whateverness.

(Note to future self: schedule the sex workshop BEFORE the trip to Carinthia!)

The following weekend – last weekend – was spent with my husband in some long overdue twosomeness at a nearby spa – my birthday gift to him. It was really perfect timing. With a long work slog just behind him and a mammoth one coming up, this was his one chance to unwind and unplug for a few days. Experience has taught us that we don’t see much of one another in the last weeks of the school year. For us teachers, June is the cruelest month.

Upon arrival at the spa, the first realization was that he had forgotten to pack swimming trunks. He rejected my idea to simply buy new ones. He didn’t really want to spend time in the water anyway, he said. He would start his training for an upcoming mountain bike tour and take long runs instead. He checked his cell phone and email.

“Whatever you want,” I said, and secretly hoping that the spa would work its magic.

It did. By Day Three he was napping on a lounge chair by the pool.

June could now begin.

Back home again, I stared at my calendar for the upcoming month and became confused. It slowly dawned on me that – at least in my case – this year was as good as over. First off, three long holiday weekends all fall in June this year, so I only had 10 more school days – and those were mostly excursions and sports days and special projects. Written into my calendar were some concerts and fests, a recital, one play and a canoe trip. There was a day at the public pool. There was a high school graduation ceremony and a big family celebration. There was the last day of school and the sentimental ritual that includes.

June was going to be a breeze!! Or so I thought.

 

The way I see it, Life is not a pathway forward but a curve-filled trek, always spiraling back toward some earlier point in time, though maybe on a higher or lower plane. That idea is behind the name “circumstance” and the way my blog entries often tend to end at or near the place they started.

In the case of this post . . . I am back on sick leave. Whatever caused my hip problem (which is much better now) has wandered up to my left shoulder. I’m back on anti-inflammatory meds and have new specialists and tests ahead of me next week. I assume there are also some hefty antibiotics in my future and some physical therapy. Olga will probably be beating me up again.

On the bright side . . .

. . . my earlier experiences tell me the worst of the pain involved (with the exception of Olga) is probably already behind me.

. . . I assume I will be able to take part in all of the events in my calendar that any one-armed person could manage and that is most of them. The canoe trip is probably a no-go. Shucks.

. . . I have this new duck:

 

The Dishonor System

 

My elder daughter just finished the last test of her senior year and in a few days she will hear the result. All she has to do is pass and her life as a HS student will be over. (She still has the big graduation exams in five subjects ahead of her, but there will be no more normal school days – just prep classes and some tutoring.) Her homeroom teacher sent her this picture of the event:

I stared at the picture for a long time because there is just so much wrong with it. All three senior classes together, taking the same test, because we can’t risk the chance that one of the three teachers will give an easier test than the others. Desks dragged to the gymnasium where there is enough space to isolate each student – who otherwise would surely cheat! Cell phones and watches collected upon entering. Forty-five kids bent over desks for five hours, spewing out whatever they managed to shove into their short-term memories, solving complex math problems that will stymie them six months from now. Proving they can do things that 95% of them will never need to do again for the rest of their lives.  Needing permission and an escort if they have to go to the bathroom.

Learning the lesson in a myriad of ways that all this is necessary because no one can be trusted.

I wondered if the same thing happens in American schools now. I remember taking tests in my normal classroom at my normal desk. I remember take-home exams and open book tests. I remember being allowed a 5” by 8” cheat sheet – and spending so much time writing and re-writing it in smaller and smaller print that I memorized everything and didn’t actually need it. Most of all, I don’t remember any cheating going on. I had no doubt that my teachers would test and grade fairly and I think they trusted us to do our best independently and honestly. There was an honor system.

There may have been one here too years ago, but if so, it is definitely gone now. Slowly but surely, changes have been made – ostensibly to ensure fairness – but with each one taking a little more power out of the hands of the teachers. Subject matter is prescribed by the Ministry of Education. Tests must be uniform. Grading has to conform to a system and be documented in detail. And those graduation exams? They have been centralized for the entire country.

A week or so before the date determined by the Ministry for whatever subject, the written exams (in sealed packages) will be delivered to the school by armored car and then locked in a safe. At the exact appointed time in every high school in the country, the packages will be brought to the examination room where one student will witness the breaking of the seal and then sign a paper confirming this step. (And if the seal in one school was not intact, the exam will have to be repeated at a later date by every student in the entire country!) When grading the exams, the teachers are given long and explicit instructions on which answers can be accepted. For the oral exams, there is a state-wide pool of topic areas and the individual students get theirs lottery-style. They draw two numbers corresponding to question sets on two particular themes, look at them, and then choose one set to answer. Twenty minutes later, a panel of three teachers and one supervisor decides if the student’s general mastery of the subject is very good, good, satisfactory or in-/sufficient, when, in reality, the entire exercise probably has just as much to do with the student’s test prep strategies and sheer dumb luck.

Vladimir was once a child too.

I have been in many discussions with Austrians about this new system and usually ask why graduation exams are necessary at all, not to mention the massive amount of regulation involved in their centralized implementation. The answers are usually some variation of “Trust is good. Control is better”, which only makes me wonder if they realize they are quoting Lenin. I wonder why they can’t see that we are talking about a rite of passage and not proof of educational attainment. There’s a reason why the German name for these exams collectively is “Maturity Test”.

Now, before you can graduate from this post, I have two question sets for you to choose from:

Is there really so little faith in the people involved that all these complex procedures and massive control efforts are necessary?

and – something even more basic:

Should it really be the goal of an education system that every child learns the same things? Wouldn’t it be better if each student left school having learned something different – deeper knowledge in the subjects that correspond to his/her individual interests and talents? And wouldn’t trusted and empowered teachers be the most able to help the students discover what these subjects are?

 

Cheesehead

The Austrian Mardi gras (called “Fasching”) is coming up fast, which means I have to wear something silly to school. I decided, as a good Wisconsinite, to go as a Cheesehead this year. I would put on some black leggings and my “Say Cheese” t-shirt and then one of those cheese-hats that Packer fans famously wear. I went on Amazon to order one and this is what I found:

Now this may make me a very bad badger, but there was no way I was going to pay over 120 bucks for a piece of orange foam! So today I went to the hardware store and bought some supplies. Thick Styrofoam, masking tape, glue, orange spray-paint . . . and then I spied these rolls of yellow spongy stuff and thought . . . “Perfect!!” Unfortunately, I had to buy a whole roll – 12 meters long – so by the time I was done with the checkout, I had already gotten about halfway to the Amazon price. In addition, making the thing cost me an entire afternoon.

In case you are thinking about making a cheese-hat for yourself, here are the instructions:

Step 1: Cut the Styrofoam to the correct form. As you are doing so, little white balls of Styrofoam will begin to appear. They will start multiplying and then flying around the room and sticking to things. They will follow you wherever you go, leaving little trails in their wake.

 

Step 2: Put masking tape around the sides of the form to staunch the flow of little white balls. Vacuum the entire house to get rid of the rest.

 

Step 3: Hollow out a circle for your head. Vacuum the entire house again. Go to the bathroom mirror and remove all the little white balls from your hair.

 

Step 4: Attach a ribbon

 

 

 

Step 5: Use a hot glue gun to attach the foamy strips around the sides and to the top and bottom.  While waiting for the glue to dry, think about possible uses for the remaining 10 meters in the roll. Trim off the foam and . . . you’re almost done!

Step 6: Find a classy setting to photograph the finished product. I, for instance, seated my cheese-hat at the grand piano and had him lean casually against it.

I would have taken a picture of me wearing it, but this is an anonymous blog. For what must now be obvious reasons.

Unceremonious Endings

Two of my activities today got me thinking about all the times I have lost jobs. Technically I have never been fired – at least in the sense of someone looking me in the eye and saying “You’re fired!” But that is only because two of my former bosses were simply too chicken to do so. One of them took 9/11 as an opportunity to quick give my class to someone else. (I had missed the start of the semester because I was stuck in the States waiting for a chance to fly back to Austria.) That new teacher ended up calling me to tell me the news. Never heard a peep from the boss about it.

About 10 years later I got fired by forwarded email from my boss’s boss instructing me to clear out my office and give back any of the Institute’s stuff I might have. The layoff itself did not come as a surprise to me, but the way it was done was galling. A particularly nice sendoff after 25 years of employment . . .

Today, a new twist on this form of email termination was born. I wrote an email to my boss requesting that the university course I have been teaching be cancelled. In other words, I basically fired myself. This was not the easiest thing to do because I always loved teaching this particular course. Unfortunately the whole program is winding down and the number of students has been dwindling for years. Last year I had to go and proactively look for students – corral a few warm bodies into my classroom to teach. This year I didn’t want to do that anymore.

So I am down to one job now. I would be feeling sorry for myself if not for three of our chickens who have had an even harder day. Remember those four chicks we got for the purpose of keeping our one incubator chick company? Well, all four of them turned out to be roosters. Three of them had to go and today was the day.

We grabbed them, stuffed them in a box, and my husband drove them to the local . . . Chicken Ender. A half hour later, he was back home with a bulging plastic bag.

Tomorrow one of the roosters is going into the oven and then comes the moment of truth. I am not convinced that I will really be able to eat him. My husband is determined to cultivate a realistic attitude about it all. He says if he can’t handle the fact that animals – even those he knew when alive – are killed and eaten, then he should become a vegetarian.

I, on the other hand, am considering turning the meal into a little ceremony. I will take a moment to remember and honor this rooster for his many contributions to our family enterprise. I will thank him for his good work and give him the thoughtful sendoff he so richly deserved.

I’ll try hard not to gag.

 

Teachers in Arms

 

Just when you think things can’t get any worse, the pwesident manages to find a new level even lower than last week’s rock bottom. I have been shaking my head and waving off comments all day long about his latest idea to arm 20% of every school’s faculty. (In the case of our school, one colleague noted, only one of us would have to start going to the shooting range and taking  lessons. Then they all turned and looked at me . . .)

The thought that I, or any teacher I have ever had, or worked with, or know (and that is a lot of them) could whip out a gun from . . . wherever (a purse? a classroom locker?) and then go out Rambo-style in search of an active school shooter to confront is,

to put it very simply,

ABSURD.

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.