A Totally Serious Post on an Important Topic

Ask me what I did today. Go ahead – do it. I will tell you eventually, but first you need the back story . . .

I have lived in Austria for about 35 years now, speaking more German than English on the average day. And yet, I have never lost my American accent. When meeting someone for the first time, it usually only takes a sentence or two before they ask me where I come from. So I have had A LOT of conversations about cultural differences between these two countries. And when I say “a lot”, I mean a gazillion.

It has made me somewhat of an expert on Austrian/American conversational relations. When I was teaching, I sometimes did cultural lessons on the topic and developed a list of “Things You Should NOT Say to Americans” when meeting for the first time. For example, the Austrian might want to know how the American came to be in Austria at all – what brought them to this country. The question usually comes out jarringly direct as:

“Why are you here??”

Another point was that when an American says “Hi. How are you?” it is not a question. (Neither is “How do you do”, by the way.) Under no circumstances do they really want to know how you are – so don’t tell them.

The absolute Number One on this list was this:

“If an American has been in this country for more than 15 minutes, assume that, yes, they DO know what an “Oachkatzlschwoaf” is.”

It is dialect for “squirrel’s tail” and Austrians, for some reason, seem very proud of this word. I’ve been asked literally hundreds of times if I know what it means. What makes it doubly annoying is that I never once heard an Austrian actually use the word in normal conversation: “Oh look at that oachkatzl! What a bushy schwoaf he has!” If that happened, I think it would go a long way in making this all less irritating.

So, go ahead and ask me what I did today, because  I worked on my latest crocheting project – a squirrel for my sister-in-law.

I made the schwoaf.

oachkatzlschwoaf

Pride Goeth

It was a Saturday three weeks ago, when I finally reserved the whole afternoon to start catching up on blog reading. I started, of course, with Ly and was horrified to discover that I had to scroll all the way back to early September to find where I had left off. (Yes, I am a terrible friend.) I spent an enjoyable few hours until being interrupted by a press conference. All schools were closing till the second week of December. I switched immediately into work mode and basically stayed there till . . . well . . . till yesterday. My cushy, reduced-to-two-days work week, now extended to seven days. For non-educators out there, I can tell you that distance-teaching is about three times as time intensive. It is also relentless and exhausting.

So, everyone was happy to hear that the schools were reopening next week. To celebrate our final online English lesson, I made a special quiz game for my class that they seemed to really enjoy. After gathering on the learning platform, all the kids turned on the “Chat” function. I asked a question and they all typed in their answers as quickly as they could. I awarded points to the first three correct ones. Minor spelling mistakes were allowed.

For the final question in the quiz, I decided to ask something really simple. I said, “Question Number 20. Ready? What is today’s date?”  The answers started rolling in:

After the first 10 or so tries, the shock and horror began bubbling up inside of me. I started giving them little tips about ordinal numbers and capitalization. They kept trying.

At this point I was holding my head in my hands. Tiny whimpering noises were escaping from me. Finally, one girl wrote an answer that I could technically accept. I ended the response period and typed in a few possible correct variations. Two more guesses straggled in as I was doing so.

After 39 years of teaching English, my memory houses a fairly large collection of meaningful moments, nice memories, special experiences, highlights . . .

December 3rd, 2020 will not be one of them.

Confessions of an Incompetent IT Administrator

It is Friday the 13th the 2nd in the 2020. Somehow, I don’t think those numbers can possibly portend anything good. The first lockdown in this country began on a Friday the 13th in March – a date I will never forget – and lasted into May. Summer was pretty chill but in Fall, signs started popping up that the predicted second wave was coming. After foolishly bragging just two weeks ago on this blog that I was in the only green spot on Austria’s Covid Map, things here immediately exploded, and we are now considered a hotspot. I fully expect that a new lockdown will be decided on today, Friday, November 13th, and that it may very well include the country-wide switch to distance learning for all age groups.

Good thing our Hummingbird School has a crack IT team (me) and a nearly functioning virtual learning platform almost set up with nearly all the kids now registered on it and a teaching team who have agreed to find time to learn how to use it – eventually.

I had been banging on this particular drum – our school’s need to have a functioning learning platform ready in case of closure – since the very beginning of the year. Being generally considered the most computer-savvy member of the team (which, believe me, says nothing good about our collective skills), I suddenly found myself in the unofficial/official role of “IT Designee”. I sighed for a week and then got down to work.

The team agreed to using the free platform provided by the Ministry of Education and the core set of teachers all registered. I learned my way around the program and then wrote up simple step-by-step instructions for the parents to register their kids (a ten-minute activity) and presented it to them at our kick-off weekend. I impressed upon them our need for their cooperation. From the serious nodding in the audience, I figured we would have all the kids signed up by early October.

Here’s what I know now that I didn’t realize then:

  1. Most parents don’t read their emails.
  2. Many parents who read their emails don’t understand them.
  3. When parents don’t read or understand an email, they simply delete or forget about it.
  4. Of those who actually reacted to the emails, many had difficulty following simple instructions.
  5. Of those who succeeded in signing their kids up, a significant percentage could not log in again later because:
    • they couldn’t find the website again
    • they had registered themselves instead of their kids
    • they typed in the wrong username
    • they forgot their password

The upshot of my experiences over the past three months as IT Administrator is that I am having serious doubts about the . . . “thoughtfulness” . . . of mankind in general. I continually regather my patience as I individually talk someone through the process, explain to them where their problem lies, or send out the fifth or sixth reminder to someone. I sigh a lot.

In hindsight, I think it would have saved me a lot of time and nerves if I had just registered and signed in all 38 kids myself (although, I am not sure if this would have been possible, technically speaking.) Whatever.

It’s now Saturday the 14th and a press conference is scheduled for 5:00 pm, when government officials will announce yesterday’s decisions. Serious media outlets have already reported that all schools will be closing, but other in-the-know people say it is not true. In any case, that gives me about 9 more hours to get the last two stragglers on board before we (potentially) launch. I should probably drop the patient approach and try some good old-fashioned harassing.

Sigh.

Damals war ich vierzehn

 

When I was 14, it was the year 1976. The year of the American Bicentennial. A celebration of 200 years of freedom and democracy. In commemoration, I baked a cake and decorated it with an approximation of the original American flag. (Please don’t count the number of stars or stripes. I wasn’t a perfectionist back then.) The only reason I still know this is because there is a picture in my childhood photo album. I stare at it now and feel that it represents the peak of my patriotism, not to mention my baking skills.

The reason I have dredged up this particular memory is that I have just finished reading this book: “Damals war ich vierzehn”. In English, the title would be something like “I Was Fourteen Back Then: Youth in the Third Reich”. It’s a collection of short stories/essays/memoirs of Austrian writers who were children of various ages during the reign of Hitler. The experiences and perspectives were wildly different, but all of them moving. There was the boy whose torment by his fellow aspiring Hitler youth only made him want to belong more. There was the man piecing together memory fragments from his four-year old self who emerged as an orphan from the rubble of a bombed-out air raid shelter and somehow managed to travel all alone to his grandmother hundreds of miles away. There was the little girl who started singing a song while waiting in line at the butcher’s, only to be slapped viciously and repeatedly by her beloved Grandma. (She didn’t know it was an anti-Hitler song. It was just something her dad sang.) There was the young Jewish girl whose family (or what was left of it) returned to Austria right after the war – “now that it was all over” – only to learn painfully over and over again that it was all far from being over.

The one that got to me most, for some reason, was the story of two neighbor kids who were ordered by the Führer to bring their pet dogs to a sort of army physical to see if they were fit for service on the front lines. The kids proceeded to “train” (= torment) their dogs with loud bangs, sirens, and pain to make sure they cowered and ran off during the test (and were therefore rejected and spared). While reading this story, a realization washed over me of just how far-reaching and deeply implanted the tentacles of the Nazis had become by that point, interfering in daily family life even down to the relationships between little kids and their dogs.

This book is one of two perennial favorites of teachers in Austria who have to teach about the Second World War*. The other is called “The Wave” and it tells the story of a Californian teacher who conducted an experiment on his students after they rejected the idea that fascism could take hold in America. He began a movement in his class based on principles of “strength through discipline, strength through community, strength through action, strength through pride.”** He then added in symbols, and slogans and salutes. His experiment took on a life of its own, spread throughout the school and quickly got out of his control. Brutality and torment ensued.***

 

“How could they?!” I remember thinking the exact same thing as my German teacher in high school taught us about that historical period, including her own youthful experiences. She told us how at some point a critical mass of followers was reached, after which dissent became life-threatening.  She told us how parents eventually became afraid of their own children and could no longer speak freely in front of them. (Think about the song in the butcher’s shop – that grandma surely acted not out of political conviction, but out of fear.) My teacher let us know the whole story, including all the ultimate atrocities. I still thought “How could they??! That could never happen here!”

I must have been about 14 at the time, maybe a little older, but in any case, still near the peak of my patriotism and baking skills.

 

And here I sit, about 44 years later and 45 days before the next election, wondering not only if it could happen, but if it will happen. Fascism in America. Or if our institutions (or what is left of them), our Constitution (or what is left of it), our Free Press (or whatever that is now), and our liberty loving people (who is that exactly? which liberties do they care about? whose liberties do they care about?) may pull off a last-minute reversal.

The American people beating back fascism would go a long way in restoring the entire world’s faith in our country, not to mention my own. Will it happen?

Or will more brutality and torment ensue?

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

 

*One principle in the Austrian curriculum in History is called “Vergangenheitsbewältigung”, meaning “coming to terms with the past”. The idea behind this policy is fairly straightforward and Santayana-ish . . . “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” Austrian students are confronted with the events and the atrocities of the time of their grandparents (or maybe now great-grandparents). In their Junior or Senior years, they all take a class trip to Mauthausen, which was the one major concentration camp in Austria.
We have no real concept of dealing with the past in the United States. On the contrary. As Gore Vidal wrote (about the issue of legalizing marijuana) in the New York Times: “It is a lucky thing for the American moralist that our country has always existed in a kind of time‐vacuum: we have no public memory of anything that happened before last Tuesday.” He wrote that in September 1970 – a half century ago. It still seems true today. Maybe more so than ever.
 ** In other words, “Law and Order, Build the Wall, America First, Make America Great Again”.
***Strangely enough, there was a scandal here in Austria just last year. A teacher was using this book to teach about WWII and, for some reason, his/her students started role-playing the same dynamics extra-curricularly. It got bad. Things are not perfect here either.
 

Labor Day

 

NERD ALERT!

I’m not sure there was anything in my childhood that excited me more than the first day of a new school year.

I remember how I spent the last day of my summer vacation before beginning First Grade (and every year afterward) deep cleaning my room. How I then carefully chose and laid out my clothes, right down to the socks and underwear. How I lovingly fondled my new school supplies – the notebooks and pencils and whatever else was necessary in 1968 – and placed them next to my outfit in perfect perpendicularity.

I might have added “my new lunchbox” to the collection and experienced a similar feeling of excited satisfaction – that is, if I had had one. I would soon learn that the Elementary School cafeteria was segregated into the Cool Lunchbox Kids and the Brown Paper Bag Kids. I was in the latter group. Later, in the Third Grade, I would learn that there was a difference between the kids with real Converse shoes and those with the Target version. I was in the latter group. Even later, I would learn that there was a difference between kid with real alligator shirts and those without – but by then, I had stopped caring.

Despite these repeated revelations, my excitement for the first day of school – year after year – never diminished. After all the cleaning and preparation was done, I would go to bed at a seriously sensible time and then lie awake in happy anticipation for hours on end.

I loved school.

 

Back to the Future Present – 52 years Later:

 

I went to bed last night at 10:00 pm with “school supplies” prepared, but no concrete wardrobe plan. I had no trouble falling asleep.

I don’t think our first day of school could have gone any better. The remaining usual kids arrived with smiles and stories. The new kids arrived with exceptionally engaged parents in tow. They came with baskets full of donations to our first day breakfast. They came with appreciation and excitement and a desire to contribute and belong. They came with a desperately needed new and positive energy.

All three of our groups of students had a positive experience in their first hour of being together. They talked and listened and related. In the group I was in, our “integration student” – a kid who would have been called “mentally retarded” back when I was in school – had her turn to speak. She was taken seriously and respected.

In the break, about 20 0f our 37 kids spontaneously started a soccer match on the playground. They ranged from the ages of 7 to 15, but they worked out team arrangements equitably and the more powerful kids paid attention to and took care of the younger ones.  Among the non-soccer players, I could see that every “new kid” had already found a new friend. They all had fun.

At some point, in the middle of all the action, I was in the kitchen. I looked out the window and saw two new parents sitting on a bench, watching their kid on the playground. They were obviously beyond happiness. This was just what they had hoped for.

Eventually, the buses started to arrive, and the kids and families left for the day. I wandered back to the far side of the school – out of sight of any remaining people – and sat down.

“So, that was it.” I thought. “My very last first day of school.”  To my own surprise, I felt the tears coming.

So happy. So sad. At the same time.

 

The Last Times Begin

 

On Monday I woke up and officially began the last week of my summer vacation. More shockingly, I began the final week of my last ever summer vacation! Next time this year, my 39-year teaching career will most likely be over. And if you don’t have work, you don’t have vacation, right?  Weird thought.

Of course, I should add here that I am notoriously bad at making predictions, so when I say that I am beginning the last year of my teaching career, you could be forgiven for a tiny bit of skepticism. I am, after all, the person who spent the better part of 2016 telling everyone “there is no Math” that would get Twump to an election victory. I also wrote in early July this year that I had an expanse of lethargic nothingness ahead of me, but now, in retrospect, the summer was full, and it sped by. I had my last week of my cure in Salzburg, followed by an even better cure week at my aunt and uncle’s in Tyrol, followed by a week of golf lessons (the  muscle aches from which I am still feeling!) followed by a week of relaxing and hiking in Carinthia. Here is a random sampling of impressions from those days:

Other activities during my final summer vacation included a lot of home projects (most of which came down to “putting shit away”). I did a six-hour braiding session with younger daughter and attended a performance or two of the older one. I supervised the building of blacksmith shop in my yard. I befriended a barking rat (my name for Chihuahuas). I ate two family-sized bags of Cheetos and then briefly considered immigrating to Australia when I read that the Dominos there is giving out free pizzas to women named “Karen”. I monitored the DNC and the RNP (“P” stands for “Pukefest”). I read two and half books and made two and half new friends. I requested my absentee ballot. I did lots of laundry and no ironing. My dog and I together lost 8 pounds.

 

It’s now Friday, which means I am officially into my last summer vacation weekend before work starts up again on Monday. From here on in, it’s going to be a long string of last times: My last preparation week, getting my last work schedule, my last first day of school, going on my last team-building excursion with the kids, making my last attendance/homework lists and year plans for my four English groups, attending my last “Start Weekend” with all the parents, designing my last chores wheel for my class . . . . And that is all in the coming two weeks. Assuming I resist getting talked into extending my stint, by the end of the year, this list of last times is going to be really long.

And then I will be done. For good.

I predict.

 

Moritz Revisited

 

One the cruelties of June (mentioned in my last post) is the fact that I have to write an individual letter to each of my students – this year that meant 28 of them. What these letters entail has already been covered in this blog – so I will just point you to that post of five years ago (which should probably be read first if you want to fully appreciate the nuances of the following): “Hummingbird Report Cards – (MYoM – Part 11)”.

Go ahead. I’ll wait.

 

 

Little Moritz of that old letter is now, five years later, a school-leaver. That meant his letter required special attention. Here is what I came up with. (And I will leave it up to you all to determine which parts of the following were actually in the real letter, and which are embellished here in the spirit of steam-off-blowing.)

 

Dear Moritz,

I remember some parts of my earliest lessons with you way back in the Primary 2. Your group and I would meet on the carpet and I would announce that we were starting. Then I would look around the circle, count off the heads, and stop abruptly. “Where is Moritz?” I would ask.  Fast forward five years. Now in the Secondary 2, I never have to ask where Moritz is. He is where all those weird noises or pounding sounds are coming from . . .

In last year’s letter I kidded you about your “Warm-up Phase” and I have to admit, that has gotten better this year. You participated well in all the lively discussions of your English group, even though you weren’t always sure what they were talking about. Your physical attendance was almost perfect this year and, in the end, you managed to hand in some of most of your assignments. You have always seemed to see some sense in learning English – even if after the fact. Your level of English – especially when it comes to understanding YouTubers and Rappers, where YOU had to explain to ME what they were saying – is now curiously high.

Another thing I kidded you about last year was how your journal entries were mostly short and consisted of unfinished sentences. True to form, the second last sentence in your journal this year (which was complete) was followed by “Afterwards”. . . .  and that was it! The best sentence, however, was this one: “Today in german we learned about which words have to be Capitalized.”

In some ways, I feel you left the Hummingbird School quite a while ago, being ready to go on to something new. I know it has been difficult to find the thing that interests you most, so I hope that discovery will come to you soon. In the meantime, have a great summer and good luck in your new school. Afterwards

Still Here

 

There are about two dozen people scattered across the globe who might have noticed that I have been absent from WordPress for a while. But then, it is exactly these people who also know why.

June is the cruelest month for teachers here. Particularly cruel in my school and in the era of Covid-19. Particularly cruel for an American watching helplessly from afar as her country suffers.  Unnecessarily.

In the midst of all the chaos, I HAVE written the occasional post – and then not posted it – mostly because it was, in the end, essentially a rant.

One was titled: “America! Please! Wake Up and Smell the Mental Illness!”

One was titled: “Parents! Raising your Children is YOUR Job!”

One was titled: “How Covid Killed the Hummingbird”

One was titled: “Sick of the Dick’s Shtick”

One was titled: “Dead Brain Walking”

One was titled: “Goat in a Tree”.

Actually, the last one was kind of inspiring. It began with something I observed while standing on my screen porch, drinking my morning coffee.

Background info: There was a single apricot tree that unfortunately ended up inside the area we fenced off for the goats. Upon arrival, they quickly killed it by eating off all of its bark within their reach. It stood there afterwards, dead, and unnoticed by both goat and human.

Until one day  . . .

 

There is some kind of metaphor here, but I am not sure what it is. I suspect it has something to do with “fruitless endeavors”. And that there are things you can do that bring no rewards whatsoever, but you do them anyway because you can and because that is who you are.

In my last post, I was a “Karen”.

In this one, I am a goat.

Progress.

 

 

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.

 

Empty Nests

My four-week stint (or eight, depending on how you look at it) of experiencing unemployment has come to an end. I just had my first day back at work. The Hummingbird School has survived its own initial incompetence in crisis management, and starting Monday, (most of) the kids will be coming back. To comply with all the requirements set by the government and school board, we had to prepare a whole new physical environment in the classrooms – new nests, so to speak. Gone are the couches for lounging and the big carpets where we sat for circle discussions. Gone are the balls to play sports with during the recess. Gone are all the chairs in the small kitchen. Gone are the Montessori materials that get passed from hand to hand or are not conducive to being disinfected. Gone are the glasses and pitchers of water in the classrooms. Gone are the computer stations for common use. Gone are the musical instruments and board games. Instead, the room is filled with socially distanced, individual desks where the students will sit for most of the morning. In the front of the class there is a space for me to stay put and – for the first time in my career – teach lecture-style to a captive audience.

We’ve divided the students into 4 groups of roughly 10 kids apiece. Two of the four will come each day on an alternating schedule and each group will have it`s own entrance into the school. The ones who will be filling this empty classroom will disembark from their school buses in masks, enter the building, and immediately wash their hands before going to the classroom. They will take a seat and only then remove the mask.

I confess that I feel uneasy in more ways than one about these first steps into the new normal. While planning with my team members, we talked about whether it was a good idea to assign yet another text about their experiences in the lockdown and distance learning. I suggested that the kids reread the reports they handed in near the start and then write about what changed over time. In my case, I worried about feeling confined at first. Now at the end, I find I don’t really like the idea of leaving the house if I don’t absolutely have to.

I wonder if this feeling is normal. Clearly, I have had it easy. Between my spacious house and big garden, my family situation and hermit genes, it’s not like it has been hell. I’ve honestly enjoyed having my whole family around me, not to mention so much time that I stopped monitoring its passing. (“What day is it today?”) I could have continued on like this indefinitely.

But this is not where we are at here in Austria, so I guess it is time for me to come out of my hiding place. The rest of my household is doing so too (if somewhat more eagerly than me).

Whereas the school nest shown above is about to be filled up, my home one is emptying out. Last week, our refugee son moved to another village to be near his brother. The plan is for him to transfer to a school in Graz for his last year. (There is a long story behind these decisions that I won’t get into here. I will only say that I hope he will be happier and more productive with this new living situation.) Yesterday, my elder daughter moved back to her apartment in Graz after two months with us. She took my daily concerts with her. That leaves just one – my youngest daughter – who will be taking her graduation exams starting a week from now. Her original plan for a work/travel gap year got nixed by Corona, so she will be starting university in the fall and, of course, moving into the apartment with her sister.

It was while listening to a conversation between the daughters about decorating the place and the timing of Lily’s move, that the realization finally washed over me. They were talking July – or August at the latest. “Wait!” I thought, “It’s almost June already!” Too months from now, it will be just me and the husband and a whole lot of silence.

Somehow I thought “reopening” would feel different.