Gingerbread Man. On The Road Again. Unplugged.

As some of you know, my Gingerbread Man spent many years in darkness and solitary confinement before his release from the nightstand last year. Since then he has been lying on various shelves or the bedroom floor collecting even more dust. He doesn’t understand the world anymore or what he did wrong. He misses his old life of international travel and new pillows in exotic places. He misses sunlight. He misses his right eye.

So I have decided to take him with me on my school trip. Five days at a lake in Carinthia with 27 kids (one of whom – as his mother informed us – can’t sleep without his favorite stuffed animal and he’s very afraid the others will make fun of him.) I have also decided that I am going to devote my arts and crafts time to him this week. (But he doesn’t know this – it’s a surprise, so “Ssshhhh!”) He’s going to get his eye restored and his little jacket trimming replaced. That hole in his neck will be fixed and maybe a little scarf crocheted to hide the scar. There will be general nipping and tucking and spiffying.

 

So you’ve got the “Before” picture here. The “After” one will be coming in about 6 days. In the meantime we two will be offline at our cell-free camp – so have a nice week! We’ll miss you!

 

Where’s That Conch When You Need It?

(My Years of Montessori – Part 38)

 

It all started out so innocently.

Our school playground presented a perennial problem in that there was no part of it that the P1 kids – the six to eight year olds – could call their own. Their games were continually frustrated by older kids shooing them off or setting artificial borders for their games of Tag or Hide-and-Seek. So at the end of last year, my colleague, Mark, suggested extending the top end of the playground a few meters by co-opting a part of the adjacent kindergarten’s yard. He got the green light from the Team. Over the summer, he moved the fence and created a sort of protected space. He then piled a bunch of huge branches and various other natural materials there. The new school year started and we all watched as the little kids first cautiously approached, then discovered, and then started redesigning the new space.

It began with anarchic building. Trees and sticks and rocks were moved around by anyone who felt like it. Eventually, a sort of imaginative space began to emerge and suddenly changes were only allowed after consultation. A group of fort builders crystallized and rules were established.

Of course there were a few kids unwilling to follow the group directives and they found themselves banished. One of them, Davey, set up his own enemy camp in a huge flowering bush around the schoolhouse corner. It was from there that he and his two or three more or less willing followers launched their first attack on the Fort Camp.

But never fear! A force of Fort Defenders quickly formed to beat back the assaults. Sticks emerged and were carried around as weapons and then arsenals of them were stored, both in the Fort and in the newly created Bush Camp. There were more forays. Then surprise attacks.

I have Playground Duty only on Mondays this year, so each week I observed how the roles had developed and expanded since my last recess supervision. I watched to see that sticks were held properly (pointy end downward) when the forces were on the move. I made sure that no sword fights with actual contact occurred. I checked to make sure that there were smiles on both sides of the battlefield and that the game’s progression was mutual. The Fort Camp clearly liked the excitement of the enemy’s advances and they, in turn, had found their way out of exile in this new and accepted role within the game.

All the while, I was sort of haunted by some memory that I couldn’t quite grab hold of. I had experienced something like this before in my own childhood – but . . . what was it??

A week or two ago, things changed. It was precipitated by the addition of a large piece of cardboard to the Fort Camp which was quickly fashioned into roofing for one section. The coolness of this renovation coincided with the bush of Bush Camp starting to look decidedly droopy which caused alarm among the teachers. This was simply not the optimal place for them to reside. Bush Camp became disgruntled with the restrictions and the general inferiority of their situation.

And then the Fort was vandalized by unknown but suspected culprits.

This was totally unacceptable.

The imaginary war entered real life as the kids yelled at one another outside of recess and inside the school. They started telling on one another and name-calling, using furious vocabulary that raised the eyebrows of all the teachers. The Fort Situation officially became an agenda point for our weekly Team meeting.

I need to add here that I only knew a tiny portion of all these developments. I don’t have a lot to do with the littlest kids and only observed the more harmless parts of this Fort War. It was fascinating to hear about all the peripheral stuff. As my colleagues discussed, I was once again plagued by some vague, unattainable, distant memory. Ann talked about how a password had been introduced and I thought momentarily that a low point in my own childhood involving passwords and cruelty might be what was haunting me. But the situations were so different in every other way . . .

Then my colleagues started planning how the discussion with the kids should be conducted. Mark half-joked about having a “speaking stick” to make things go more smoothly. And that is when it hit me.

The conch.

“Oh my god!” I blurted out. “It’s Lord of the Flies!!”

The rest of the team all went silent and looked at me with curiosity. I decided it would be better not to explain my outburst and made a waving “Please continue” gesture. I listened to how all grievances would be aired and peace talks begun. How the Bush would be declared a nature conservation area and that the spot around the corner from it officially laid free for fort building – supplies forthcoming! I was relieved to hear that the adults were about to land on this island playground, bringing the insanity to an abrupt end.

 

Yesterday, the day after the Peace Talks, I ventured out into the Playground during recess. I saw that Davey was inside of Fort Camp. I quickly conferred with Mark to see what that meant. No, Davey had not been welcomed back from exile. It turns out that he had been captured and forcefully dragged into the Fort for trial.

But there were smiles on all the kids’ faces – even Davey’s. So I feel fairly certain that we won’t be finding his head on a stick anytime in the near future.

 

A Piteous “Pentafecta” Impedes Posting

I’ve been a bad blogger. Very very bad.

In the lead up to the glorious outbreak of Easter vacation, a whole slew of life circumstances intensified and all came to a head simultaneously. I realize “pentafecta” is not a real word – and if it were, it wouldn’t really mean what I am forcing it to here. But I can’t think of another way to express five sets of circumstances colliding at once.

Starting with the outermost realm of my reality – so external, in fact, that it is more of an alternative reality – is my ongoing, time-consuming obsession with American politics. Like most people, I too am guilty of letting the news of the world flow to me through a filter. In my case the filter is NPR and left-leaning cable news and websites. What they present me is a badly cast reality-show-presidency, flailing and mindlessly counter-punching. And that is it.  All un-pwecedented twump, all the time. As a consequence, I have not heard of a single positive political development since January 20th that wasn’t steeped in Schadenfreude.  (Goodbye and Good Riddance to Flynn and Sessions and Ryancare, to Bannon and now Nunes and the Muslim ban  . . . and whichever of the Best People or Beautiful Promises is next to go. My only regret is that your departures were not more spectacular and categorical.)  The increasing intensity of the daily outrages combined with my self-imposed limits on political content often left me with nothing to write about. I could either sigh once again that “Twump is ruining my blog” and leave WordPress without posting, or I could take the bait and add my two cents for the 50th time – like I just did in this paragraph here. That makes $1 dollar so far. If and when I hit the two dollar mark, I will change the name of this site to “Rant*”  –  (*Resisting American Nutcase with Tirades”).

Luckily, I was regularly forced to leave Alternativeworld and go to work.

Work was wonderfully distracting in its way, but the load kept getting heavier.  Also, I have had trouble explaining to my Austrian colleagues how insane the outside world is and why I was more tired than usual. The American daily outrages do not flow all the way to them. They are concentrating on their own problems and the daily school issues, local politics and why various trees and plants are blooming way too early this year. With them, I debated the effect of cell phones on kids and how to deal with adolescent protest. I defended my “homeroom” kids with a protective passion while still mentally carrying my fellow teachers’ concerns home, along with a new stack of homework assignments to add to the existing ones on my chaotic office desk. Occasionally, I considered bringing order to the Home Division of Workworld, but then this tidied space would no longer go with the rest of the house. As usual, the (mental) energy-sucking powers of my work led me towards procrastination.

But! Procrastination actually did have its benefits when it came to other aspects of Homeworld. My permanent mountain of ironing was all done by my mother-in-law (best birthday present ever!!) and my longtime plans to turn the basement pit into a guest room was mostly accomplished by my daughter (as a condition of being able to invite a friend here for two weeks.) Still, the list of household jobs awaiting me was a daunting one, made worse by the addition of a hundred little details to be accomplished (tax returns to file, bills to pay, prescriptions to fill, emails to answer, phone calls to make, flights to book,  . . .

. . . blogs to read, comments to make, posts to write . . .

And then came the fourth sphere of my realities: The issues going on around me in my home, or my friend’s and relatives’ lives. All of them occupying my mind but all of them OPS* and/or NSFB**. So with rare exceptions, my writing experience of the last few weeks was sitting down to the laptop way too late in the day, mentally mucking around in the swirling brain, finding nothing to inspire a first sentence, giving up and clicking on MSNBC.

* other peoples’ secrets
** not suitable for blogging  

 

That was then. This is now.

It is Day Five of Glorious Easter Vacation and here is the state of things:

House picked up. (Check!) Basement cleaned. (Check!)  Translation done and certification arranged. (Check! Check!) Also – Reports for Ethiopia written and sent. Garden weeded. Laundry done. Office tidied. CDs organized. Flights booked. Mail sorted. Documents filed. Application readied. Easter decorations put up. School photos organized. Book finished. Emails answered. And now . . .

Blog post written.

Kids in Their Cells – The Epilogue

My Years of Montessori – Part 37 ½

 

Movie Night was a mixed success in the end. Despite the lovely afternoon, it seems that the later it got, the more bad ideas the kids had and the more they acted on them. Cell phones reappeared and then after midnight, without my (sleeping) colleague’s knowledge, a third movie (not rated for their age group) was watched. For four of my five fellow teachers – this incident was the proverbial last straw. Time to take action against the increasing number of – and increasingly dishonest – provocations before our trust in them disappeared altogether. Cell phones would now be banned from the school.

I got tasked with letting them know. Right then and there. I trudged up the stairwell toward the classroom, thinking this is going to suck.

I called the whole class to the carpet and they sat in a circle. They were eerily quiet and uncharacteristically attentive. I think they knew what was coming.

“I have something to tell you all. It’s about the cell phone situation. We teachers have decided it is time to disappear them completely.”

The room was silent. There were no objections or groans or complaining noises. No one whined “But whyyy??” So I continued . . .

“We decided this because our original agreement on how and when cells can be used is not being kept to. So . . . from now on, they should stay in your schoolbags, turned off or in flight mode, for the entire school day. Basically from when you get out of the bus in the morning to when you get back in after school.  And . . . I guess . . . that is all. Does anyone want to say something?”

Tommy raised his hand and asked “Why does this have to apply to everyone in the group? The girls didn’t do anything wrong.”

I was stunned. All eyes were on me and all mouths remained shut. I surveyed the other boys’ faces and they were all looking back at me expectantly. Where was the protest? Tommy had essentially expressed a group confession, a collective acceptance of the consequences, and then tossed in a fine, fair, and socially mindful proposal to protect the innocent. I didn’t know how to respond. So I said,

“I don’t really know how to respond to that.”

A few of the girls quietly added that they would still like to listen to music during the break, and that it was true they had always stuck to the rules.

“Well, I can’t change the Team’s decision on my own. But if you all have an idea for a better solution in this situation, you can bring it to us and we will consider it.”

One girl then said, “I think we all agree with Tommy’s suggestion.”

“One set of rules for the girls and another for the boys? Is that true? Who of you thinks Tommy’s suggestion is a good way to go?”

All fifteen hands immediately shot up into the air.

“Okay,” I said, “I’ll bring it to the team and let you know. Until that happens, the new rules apply to everyone. Does anyone have anything to add?”

Another boy raised his hand.

“Should we go put our cells in our school bags right away?” He seemed eager, as if hoping to hear a “Yes”.

 

“How can it be,” I asked myself as I left the room, “that they all seem  . . . relieved?!”

 

I later came to believe that the kids had talked among themselves before this circle discussion ever happened. I think they knew the hammer was going to come down and came up with their own solution – as a group – that everyone could live with when it did. If so, that was a great sign. They were on their way to becoming unified again. I thought it would be a positive development to respect their unanimous proposal.

My fellow teachers, unfortunately, didn’t tend to agree. Especially my Movie Night friend wanted us to take the hardest line possible and saw all of this as just the next attempt to bend rules. I had to argue for 45 minutes till we came to an agreement.

Today, I sat with the kids in a circle again and had each individual one say in turn if they still felt the same, still agreed to Tommy’s proposal. No one had changed their mind. So I told them that we teachers see this as their decision, not ours, but that we will respect it because it was unanimous and had its own kind of fairness. Still, I asked the girls if they would think about alternative ways to listen to music as a show of solidarity and they all nodded yes. Then we wrote up the new arrangements and everyone signed:

 

Cell Etiquette

cells in schoolbags, flight mode, from bus to bus

music for the girls

ask before calling or texting (e.g. parents)

 

Kids in Their Cells

 

My Years of Montessori – Part 37

 

I spent five hours of my normally free Friday with my Secondary class. They were having their annual “Movie Night”/ sleepover at the school. It was very good timing, too, because the once good atmosphere in the group has been slipping away. And for one major reason: cell phones.

We have a general agreement that we teachers don’t take their cells away from them during the school day. They should be on flight mode and only used for listening to music during the break. I don’t know exactly when it started, but it is now the school’s worst kept secret that the five boys huddled on the couch for the entire 40 minute break are NOT listening to music. They are stealthily clan clashing or mine-crafting or subway surfing or Pokémon going. (I assume I revealed my ignorance about these games with that last sentence.) The non-gamers in the classroom are increasingly bothered about it – not only because of the dishonesty, but because these boys are no longer available to them. They are missed on the soccer field and in the rounds of Werewolf or Activity. They are missed in simple conversation. As they sit there staring into their screens, thumbs waving, they are unresponsive and inaccessible to everyone else. And they resent being asked to stop by their classmates, then compensate for their tinges of guilt by being extra snippy or sullen. As these cell phone games draw them in, they also draw them away from their friends, isolating them in a sort of self-inflicted solitary confinement.

So as I wrote at the start, it was a very good time for a class event like the Movie Night. Just like last year, I agreed to chaperone until 5 pm, when my younger and more idealistic colleague arrived to take over for the night shift. And just like last year, I agreed to do this on the condition that my Dog 4 came along and that we ALL went for a walk together.

When I arrived, most of the kids were cooking lunch already. The missing five were up in the classroom, on the couch, staring into screens with thumbs flashing. I sat down next to one of them and asked him to show me the game. Technically the school day was over and they had the right to do this openly, but my presence seemed to take the fun out of it. They broke off and, one after another, meandered down to the kitchen where all the laughter was. The one last holdout could not be talked into joining the rest, so I left him there alone. He finally showed up for lunch when the remainder of the spaghetti was cold and sticky.

We cleared the table and immediately set out for our walk. The girls set off at an enthusiastic pace, singing songs, while the boys lagged behind in a demonstration of their reluctance. Our destination was a sort of natural playground next to a stream that had been recently restored to its original course as part of a regional conservation project. It’s a beautiful area that now attracts more bikers and hikers than tractors or pesticides. Part of the project was planting hundreds of trees and special plants in an effort to bring back the bees. The restoration of the original river will hopefully bring back the native fish.

 

About halfway along, one of the girls blurted out: “Could we maybe forbid cell phones in the school?” That set off a flurry of discussion and revelations about what was going on in their classroom and how they felt about it. I mostly just listened and learned. The discussion continued all the way to the playground where we sat down and waited for the stragglers to show up.

They (the stragglers) eventually arrived and plopped themselves down at a distance from us, apparently exhausted after their 30 minute trail of tears.

But then something happened. The playground started to work its magic. They slowly, one by one, got up and moved toward some piece of equipment. They started playing. And competing. And laughing. Cell phones appeared – but only to take pictures.  As we all soaked up the sun, some of their adolescent lethargy melted away and the factions started intermingling.

The walk home happened in different constellations and unhurriedly as we stopped along the way for more games by the river.

Two hours after taking off, we returned to the school and . . .

. . . the five went directly to their classroom couch, dove into their cells, and were once again lost to the others.

But not for long. Protests from their classmates pried the first two out and back to group games. They went outside to play soccer, leaving just three. After five minutes, I said to them “Everyone else is outside playing – why don’t you join them?” I pointed to a cell phone. “You can do that anytime.” It was enough to get another one to move. Three down, two more holdouts: the biggest gamer of them all and a recent convert who I guessed was only doing it to fit in with the others. I set my sights on him.

“You know, I don’t think you realize what that device in your hand is doing to you. Those 12 kids outside are your friends and their feelings are hurt. You all only have about three more months together. They want to spend time with you. And you are up here doing something you can do alone in your room.”

The convert paused for a second, put the cell down, sighed an “Okay” and went to join the others. That left one. The leader of the lost pack.

“Are you coming too?” I asked him.

“Maybe. Later.”

It took no more than a few minutes before the convert was running around whooping after scoring his first goal. Another five minutes after that, the final holdout appeared at the side of the soccer field. The others noticed him and squealed out his name, letting him know how glad they were to see him. He smiled.

 

Women’s Work

It was just International Women’s Day, so I have decided to write on the topic of cleaning toilets.

It comes from the fact that I am going to have to do this job for the first time in years. (Unpaid! No one should have to do such a thing unpaid!) And that is due to the fact that my cleaning lady has pneumonia and can’t come again tomorrow. Please get well soon, Judy!

Now, I will stipulate that there are probably millions of men around the world who do or have done toilet cleaning too. Many out of necessity in their college apartments or bachelor pads. But I am willing to bet that the vast majority immediately assumed they no longer had to do this work the minute they began co-habitating with a female.

(Am I being unfair?)

This was just one of many unwritten rules that confronted me after my immigration to Austria and the start of a relationship with an Austrian man.  At the very beginning of our romance, I was once at my future husband’s apartment and watched as he packed to go home to his parents for the weekend. He was stuffing dirty laundry into a bag. I asked,

“Oh! Do you do your laundry at your parents’ house?”

“No. My mom does it.”

I started to laugh. My (then boyfriend) stopped what he was doing and stared at me with a quizzical look. I stared back.

“What is so funny?” he asked.

“Well, you were joking, weren’t you? I mean . . . you are 25 years old. Your mom still does your laundry??”

My question seemed to surprise him and it took him a moment to respond:

“She . . . she . . . likes to do it!”

 

That was my first hint at what might be expected of me if I were to marry an Austrian. I had no intention of being a housewife and luckily, my husband turned out to be very enlightened. When we moved into our first apartment together, we divvied up the big household jobs – he took on the cooking and I took on the laundry. He vacuumed and shopped. I dusted and mopped. He took care of the heating and I ironed. I don’t remember who cleaned the bathrooms. There were some adjustments over the years depending on who was working more hours at the time and whether or not we currently had a cleaning lady.

What neither of us could control was how others would view our household arrangements. Raised eyebrows and second-hand reports of critical comments were not uncommon. In those moments, I channeled my film heroine, Maude (as in “Harold and Maude”) and reminded myself that “You can’t let people judge you too much.”

Of course, this is also a generational thing. My young university students often scoffed at the idea that gender equality had not been reached. I ended up tricking them into recognizing their own gender biases in this area.

At the beginning of the course on social issues, I had them take a questionnaire on a variety of issues that might be covered that semester. It consisted of a list of statements to which they should circle a number between 1 and 5. (1= I agree completely; 5= I disagree completely.) One of those statements was:

“A man should help his wife/girlfriend/partner with the household work.”

My enlightened students all dutifully circled either 1 or, sometimes, 2.  I circled 5. Then I showed them the results of the survey and they all laughed at the one person who circled 5. I told them it was me and assured them that I was serious. They stared at me with a quizzical look until one of them finally asked

“Why?”

“Why do you think?”

In most cases, one of the brighter students mentioned the word “help” in that sentence and asked if that was the reason. Of course it was. How can it be that when my husband does some housecleaning that he is helping me with (implicitly: “my”) work?

What ensued was a discussion of deep-seated beliefs and assumptions that household work is women’s work and whether they – this young, knowledgeable-about-feminism crowd – might still, deep down, believe this. Many students insisted they didn’t.

So I asked them how they would have responded to the statement with the genders switched:

“A woman should help her husband/boyfriend/partner with the household work.”

That made them laugh. Until it didn’t.

I can’t tell you how many times a bunch of female students hung around after class to talk to me when the debate topic was women’s rights. Many of them were distraught. They told me that the statements of some of their male – and female! – classmates had shocked them. They had had no idea that such ideas were still so predominant in their age group.

 

People who decide to live together in a shared space in any sort of relationship should be free to arrange their responsibilities in whatever way works for them. They shouldn’t be ooched toward any particular arrangement based on the expectations of others or social norms or  government policies. As long as women still generally earn less than their male counterparts and fathers are generally considered less important than mothers to a child’s well-being, people will continue to conform to old patterns.

I’ll be cleaning the bathrooms tomorrow. Because I have a free day, my cleaning lady is sick, and my husband now has a 60+ hour work week. I will not do it out of sense of responsibility.

I tell myself.

 

 

Trash Wednesday

Well, actually “Ash Wednesday”. Which means yesterday Austria celebrated what they call “Fasching”.  It has nothing to do fascism – quite the opposite really. It is the big blow out before we all, or most of us, or actually just some of us give up something we really like until Easter, or at least for a few days, or sometimes maybe for just for a few hours. Nowadays on Fasching Tuesday, Austrians of all ages either make themselves ugly, or they don the usual Halloween-type costumes – witch, pirate, cowboy, angel, devil, etc. But I have read that the old tradition was to slip into the opposite of one’s usual role. So men dress up like women and women like men. A king (- in American terms, the president) dresses up like a court jester while a fool becomes a president.

With that old tradition in mind, I chose my costume for our school party:

cook

Full disclosure: that last sentence was a fib. Actually, my husband bought and wore this costume at his own school’s Fasching party last year. And, no, I am not this large. The costume has a little motorized fan that blows it up like a balloon.

As I walked into each classroom yesterday, a loud round of shrieking broke out first. The kids then approached me carefully and made little tentative pokes. Those became jabs. After 10 minutes, I felt less like a cook than a punching bag and had to reassert my teacher authority to stop the abuse. The wooden spoon came in handy. The best part of the celebration was dancing in the disco in this get up – doing all the hip-hop moves I learned from my daughter as my students freaked out. Some of them were laughing, but others were staring at me with a questioning look on their faces: “Who ARE you?? And what did you do with my English teacher??”  I am fairly sure there are quite a few pictures of me currently floating around in various teenage WhatsApp groups.

I don’t care at all.

I used to really dislike Fasching and everything connected with it. I didn’t have this tradition growing up, so seeing all these grown-ups dressed strangely and acting crazy was sort of creepy. And the village festivals were just obnoxious puke parties as far as I was concerned. Ash Wednesday became one of my favorite days, because 1) being a heathen, I enjoyed not having to give up stuff I like for six weeks, and 2) it meant Fasching Tuesday was over. Then I changed jobs.

During my first two years in the school, I had to jump over my own shadow to participate at all in these parties and the enjoyment factor was non-existent. Slowly, but surely, I started to get into it. I slipped more and more into my new role-for-the-day and had fun with it. This year I came the closest yet to that coveted feeling of abandonment. One NOT achieved in a cheating way with chemical help (see “puke parties” above.)

As an immigrant to this country, it has become very clear to me how much a person’s character is defined by the culture they grow up in. I used to tell my (university) students that, as far as I could tell, it is impossible to “become an Austrian”.  People’s identity here is so tied up with the real estate they were born on – the country, the province, the city, the village. The Carinthians make fun of the Styrians and vice versa, the Lower Austrians make fun of the Upper Austrians and vice versa. Everyone makes fun of the Burgenlanders. No one outside of Vienna likes the Viennese . . . When my husband is asked where he comes from, he answers with the name of a city he spent only his first five years in. I couldn’t imagine myself ever saying “I come from Brown Deer.”

I basically emigrated from the States at the ripe old age of 20. I came back for one year to finish my undergrad studies. I came back again for 7 months to finish grad school. I have had many month long vacations there over the years. But . . . total it all together, it still doesn’t come close to the 31+ years that I have lived here in Austria.

Have those 31 years gotten me closer to being Austrian? Hardly. But yesterday, dancing in the disco along with my bearded colleague in his fairy butterfly bride costume and a hoard of young costumed confetti-throwing kids, I moved a tiny notch closer.