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.

 

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Girl Gone Bad (Temporarily)

About 36 hours ago, I turned to a life of crime. Among my offenses are fraud, corruption, theft, criminal neglect, cruelty to animals and attempted murder. This is my confession.

It began when I went to my boss at the university and explained my predicament of having no students in my course. I was fully prepared to say goodbye to that job after 30 years. Instead, after asking me a few questions, my boss said this:

“I realize it is a difficult situation for you, but I have to ask you to keep teaching the course. We sell this program as a package and can’t simply cut out one of the offerings, even if it isn’t needed by anyone at the moment.”

To be honest, I was kind of stunned. I pictured myself coming to the university each week, sitting in an empty seminar room for an hour or so on the off chance that some sorry procrastinator showed up mid-semester, and then collecting about $250 a pop for my “efforts”. But my boss was clearly perfectly willing to let me do this.

I told him my opinion that it really wasn’t necessary to offer two English courses with the numbers we had in the program right now. He countered that changing the curriculum would be a long bureaucratic nightmare and costlier in the end than paying me for not teaching for a while.

I said I felt uncomfortable taking money for nothing and so he made a few suggestions of how I could alter my hours – maybe blocking them, or maybe offering online instruction . . . He would be okay with any alternative I came up with. He thanked me for coming to see him and for my good work over the past three decades. I left.

I sat on a park bench for a while and thought: ”What am I going to do?” At some point it occurred to me that what I needed to solve my problem was students. Where could I get some? From the other English course. I called up the teacher and we hatched a plan.

I showed up in her course and succeeded in luring her five best students away and into my course. Before leaving her class, I thanked her profusely for allowing me to steal them. Back in my classroom, we joined the two students who had shown up for my course that evening and we were off to the races. Let the semester begin!!

Thanks to my thievery, I felt somewhat better about defrauding the taxpayers. I think that, eventually, I could have even successfully rationalized it all if my crime spree had ended there. Unfortunately, this morning I almost committed murder.

I was hacking away with a hoe in one of my flower beds. I wanted to clear the jungle growing there completely and start from scratch. After a bout of hoe hacking, a round piece of dried weeds came free and tumbled down toward my feet. I reached down to grab it and got stung by pointy quills. I realized that it was a hedgehog that had rolled itself up in self-defense after being bludgeoned by my hoe. The remorse was immediate and overwhelming.

I stood there staring at the poor creature and saw that it was still breathing. Was it injured? Was it suffering? “Do veterinarians treat hedgehogs?”  I wondered. My cell phone rang. The husband was calling to say he’d be home in an hour and would I feed the chickens. I said yes and then blurted out “I THINK I KILLED A HEDGEHOG!!”

 

I am happy to conclude this post with a few updates:

The chickens experienced hunger today, but the hedgehog survived. (He eventually unrolled and burrowed back into my flowerbed.) The relief I felt will help me to return to the straight and narrow – my life of crime is over.

I will not defraud.

I will not steal (any more) students.

I will not be cruel to animals.

I will not hoe.

Other People’s Secrets

 

For the first two and a half years of bloglife, I was skipping along . . . riding a wave . . . whistling my way down Easy Street. Meeting my self-imposed, randomly chosen goal of posting three times a week turned out to be no prob. Ideas arose, ran down from my brain through my nervous system to fingertips on a laptop keyboard and then on to the WordPress Dashboard and then out into the ether. I had no qualms about publishing my own personal stuff for the world to see (albeit when I say “the world” here, I am talking about a total of zero to 20 readers). Surprisingly, the husband and daughters were also okay with me telling their stories from time to time – possibly as a way to make up for not being part of my blog’s reading audience. Having a job in the real world that I loved and no ambition to see my name on a book jacket helped me to concentrate on the fun factor. It propelled me along hummingly in my hobby.

Something changed.

It is now fall, which has always been my undisputed favorite season. It reminds me of my childhood excitement for the first day of school and how I always laid out my carefully chosen outfit the night before, next to my beautiful new school supplies in an un-customarily neat room. Fall reminds me of later pleasant backaches induced by hours of stacking firewood or gathering chestnuts to roast and then not eat because they don’t really taste good, but still somehow manage to seem romantic. Fall is the time when everything begins anew even as it is changing into glorious colors shortly before dying.

This fall has been different. It seems to be ALL about endings and few foreseeable beginnings. As I navigate my way through a successful start of the school year with my three new English groups, I can’t ignore the world around them disintegrating. My beloved school is in deep trouble on the parental level. Some new personal conflict arises among them every week, spreading quickly through the social network and ultimately to the kids in the classroom. Our sociocratic experiment has hit a rough patch. Something tells me the path to resolution will be a long and disruptive one. I assume the school will continue on for the next four years – my last four before retirement. But I am preparing myself anyway for eventuality that it won’t.

At the same time, in the other half of my professional life, I am also realizing that the end is nigh. The stream of students into Business or Economics majors at the university has been drying up because, on graduating, too many of them find they are over-educated for the jobs most companies want to fill these days. (They want lower level staff and techies.) With fewer and fewer students enrolling, my GDE course tailored to them is also shrinking out of existence. This is officially my 30th year teaching this course, but I think it will be the last.

Then there is my expatriate life and morbid fascination in the quagmire American politics has become. Unfortunately the daily twumpian absurdities combined with the sheer distance between me and my ability to affect anything there are leading me to detach.

And my more immediate private life? It has revolved completely around – been infiltrated and consumed by – Other People’s Business.

 

In this autumn of endings, day after day, week after week, my thoughts have been chock full of events and concerns and news and ideas and developments and amateur psychology sessions – none of which are technically my own and none suitable for blogging.

 

So, once again, I will write about chickens.

They also incessantly squawk and squabble and peck at one another and make everything a mess. But they are chickens. So it kind of suits them. And night after night, they all waddle into the coop together where a few sorry ones on the lower bar get pooped on by others who managed to get a better perch higher up.  I suppose it is still better than being outdoors at night and risking being eaten up by a weasel or a fox.

After that glorious first egg my alter-ego, Blackthumb, told you about, a second one was found – lying on the grass and broken. After a closer look around, we discovered a pile of destroyed egg shells – maybe four or five of them. One of our chickens was breaking and eating the eggs (of another one, I assume). As for the layer of the destroyed eggs, I suspect the Sulmtaler (“Trump”). Despite being the same breed as our rooster, he doesn’t give her the time of day. She spends the day waddle-darting from here to there, acting all nervous and confused (not to mention looking silly with that awful hairstyle). As for the Egg Killer, I immediately suspected the Swedish Flower Bully. She then further incriminated herself by beginning to lay one egg a day in the quarantine coop. A half dozen so far. Thanks to this whole episode, she finally has a name: we call her Darwin.

 

Tomorrow her six eggs will be fried or scrambled and eaten along with some bacon and buttered toast. I will do my best to find them distasteful.

 

Tuesdays with Dafi

During a small family gathering today at my mother-in-law’s house, I got . . . scolded . . . admonished . . . reprimanded . . . by my sister-in-law.  And by my younger sister-in-law, no less. (A younger s-i-l who should actually be just a little in awe of me, a bit less uppity in my presence . . . I mean, if we were in China, I could boss her around and she’d just have to stay silent and take it.) What she scolded me for was how little I have been writing in my blog lately. Now that is a sweet thing to hear for any blogger – especially one who worries that certain friends and relatives are only reading out of a sense of obligation. I used to think this about her.

Every Tuesday, I take the train to the university to teach my course there. Two years ago, I got a new (old) lecture hall that had only one saving grace – it was right next door to my sister-in-law’s office. Once I realized this, I called her from the train one day and said “Hey Dafi! I’ve got a half hour to kill. What are you up to?” (She never let me forget that formulation.) What followed were weekly short get-togethers in which she gave me free coffee and all the latest family news that my husband forgot to tell me about. I’m not quite sure what she got out of these talks. Not only am I a terrible source for juicy gossip, but, once when I arrived at her office, I noticed my blog on her computer screen. “Oh no!” I thought, “she’s cramming my blog for our coffee klatch!”

One wonderful thing about Dafi is that when you think a thing like that, you can feel free to just go ahead and say it out loud to her too.

“Oh, no!” I said, and then asked her, “Are you cramming my blog for our coffee klatch!?”

She laughed and said no. I didn’t completely believe her.

All the more reason that today’s scolding made me feel good. Even if it came from a younger sister-in-law who has no business scolding her elder.

So, here’s a post dedicated to Dafi and a promise to everyone I have been neglecting on the reading/commenting side that summer is here, time for catching up is upon me, and I will be back. As I have warned many of you at times before  – “watch out for incoming!!”  And once the bombardment starts, you can all say:

“Thanks, Dafi! Thanks a lot.” (How you intone this is your own choice.)

______________________________________

A Note on the Name “Dafi”:
  1. it is pronounced “dah-fee”
  2. it is spelled d-a-f-i by me, d-a-f-f-i by my husband, d-a-f-f-y by others
  3. for years I thought it had something to do with Daffy Duck
  4. according to the husband, it comes from the movie “Some Like It Hot” and Jack Lemmon (in drag) as Daphne. (Pronounced in German “dahf-na” which turned into “dahf-nee”, which lost its “n” and became “dah-fee”, which is where I came into the family and took up the nickname and to this day, 30+ years later, still use it, even though no one else does anymore.)

 

A Moment in Teaching

I encourage my university students to consume non-commercial media like BBC, PBS and NPR. I also try to turn them on to podcasts – there are so many good ones out there. This year, one student in particular took my advice to heart. Each week, he would come to class and tell me about some new English language show or podcast he had discovered. A lot of it was pretty sophisticated stuff.

One time he was really excited about a fascinating find – it was called “Dead Dogs”.

“Dead Dogs?!” I asked, incredulously, “That sounds awful! Are you sure that was the name?”

 “Yes, Dead Dogs. It’s about all different themes in science and technology . . . it gets millions of clicks every day.”

“And . . . so . . . why is it called ‘Dead Dogs’?”

 “I don’t know. I’m not sure what ‘Dead’ stands for.”

“Spell out the name for me, will you?”

“D – E – D . . .”

“Wait a sec. ‘Dead’ is spelled D – E – A – D.”

“No, I am sure that it is D – E – D.”

 

We stared at one another for a while in silence and confusion.

 

“I have an idea,” I said, “write down the name so I can see it.”

 

Here’s what he wrote:

TED Talks

 

The following week we did some work on pronunciation.

 

 

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.

 

 

Mission Creep

 

(My Years of Montessori – Part 35)

 

It is my sixth year in my beloved little alternative school. Before that I spent 25 years teaching in a university Business School. The two worlds could not be more different. In fact, it strikes me now as just a little strange how these two worlds can co-exist on the same planet. No . . . “co-exist” is not the right word. Each of these worlds politely ignores the existence of the other. The Business faculty continues to preach the established world economic order and does very well for itself in the process. The Hummingbird School lives on a perpetual shoestring, finding creative new ways to buck the system, continually re-defining itself always in contrast to establishment principles. If I had to create a social/political/economic Venn diagram of these two worlds, it would look like this:

venn

The little red dot is me.

From the very first day of my employment there, I represented an intersection point between this alternative world and most everything outside of it. Over these six years, I have slowly staked out my place in this very complex place as an insider/outsider. The only teacher whose own children do not attend the school. The only teacher who does not participate in the parental organizational structures or pay dues/school fees or commit 30 hours a year to janitorial and organizational duties. The only teacher for whom this work is only a job and not part of some larger, life changing communal project.

So far I have gotten away with it. I’m an integrated foreigner, allowed to be a little different now that I have learned the language. But it also works out because slowly and surely, I have increased my voluntary contributions to the school. I have taken over supervision of the Secondary group. I have taken over the school book ordering. I have taken over the organizing of photos and make the school year slideshow. I’ve started offering lessons to the grade school and kindergarten kids. I attend the weekly team meetings in which we basically administrate the entire school as a group of five. I’ve arranged excursions and camping trips and weeks in London. I’ve gone to seminars to learn more about Montessori. I’ve attended weddings and parties and team-building weekends. I’ve listened to others for hours on end.

I didn’t envision most or all of this when I started. It just happened. When you work with a bunch of idealistic people who are all willing to pull extra unpaid weight, you do it too or you go. It is mission creep. I keep re-evaluating the extent of my commitment and where the borders are.

All of the above became an issue again, because we had a “Supervision” today. It is sort of a group therapy for the teaching team led by a psychologist/coach and it was my fourth experience with this. For the fourth time, I basically listened like a voyeur to other people working out their problems with the help of a mediator and in front of witnesses. This time it was all about one incident way back in fall. The two coworkers involved both felt that the other had acted arrogantly. There were tears.

Some of my thoughts during the session:

“Geez, I have so many other things I could be doing right now.”

“I had no idea these two had a problem with one another.”

“Why don’t they just apologize and move on?”

“Boy, I am really really insensitive compare to everyone else here.”

“This whole week has really sucked.”

“How, pray tell, is this going to help?”

“I wonder if anyone else here feels like I do?”

After about an hour of these two coworkers expressing (non-violently!) their facts, their feelings and their wishes, it didn’t seem to me that they were any closer to an understanding than at the start. A bizarre silence ensued.

“Please don’t ask us to weigh in on this!” I thought.

“So, I think it would be good if the rest of you now weighed in on this,” the mediator said.

 

This is my world now.

Strangely enough, it was memories of my old, coldly professional and highly competitive workplace that made me feel better. I imagined my former colleagues – almost all of whom were arrogant – in this situation. A bunch of old, white-haired (male) college professors in suits, sitting in a circle on the floor, two of them facing one another, looking into one another’s eyes, each telling the other in turn how their statements or behavior had made them feel, with the rest of the faculty watching and then weighing in with understanding and constructive statements. Then the dean asks the two professors if the situation is resolved for them and adds how deeply appreciated they both are as part of the team. The dean then hands one of the professors a tissue . . .

The mental image made me laugh.

Soooo . . . .

Three hours of my today were basically lost and I will never get them back. My butt hurt and my back ached at the end of them. I’ll add those three hours to the mission creep tally.

But in the grander scheme of things, I wasn’t cold. And I am still glad to be here and not back in the real world.