Friday, April 27, 2012

Teaching: Ranting, Raving, Cute Pictures, and a Video guaranteed to make you smile

Yesterday, if you had asked me about teaching (or even if you hadn't -- sorry Kathryn), I would have been ranting.  I was sweaty and seething after a day at the high school, just wrecked.  I taught five classes in a row, and it was just one of those days.  The whining was incessant.  The kids couldn't even be quiet during a movie.  In one class, instead of watching the movie, kids played mah jong and some kind of shoot-em-up game on the computers.  The violent tapping of keys and idiotic teenage chuckling was really getting to me, not to mention the talking.  Okay, if we are having a lesson and kids are bored, they start talking, I get it.  But this was a movie.  A movie.  Can't they at least sit quietly through a movie?  Shouldn't they be grateful I am showing them a movie?  

I went up to one of my kids, putting a hand on his shoulder: "A.  This is the only time I am going to ask you to do nothing the whole class.  Can't you do that?"  He couldn't.


After my tenth grade class, a student stayed in with me to show me a short video clip.  A 12th-grader in the hallway saw me in the classroom.  We often chat in the hall.  He has been known to say cute things such as "If I had your shoes, I would do the same."  [referring to my living and teaching in Hungary.]  Okay, so that is the only cute thing he has said, but it was pretty damned cute.

So, I saw him in the hallway and he called out to me: "She's crazy!" meaning the girl in the class with me.  The girl who could hear him.

I walked outside of the door.  He was grinning like an idiot.  Okay, that sounds mean to write, but it's an expression so you can picture this grin plastered on his face, right?  Anyway.  "Don't be a dick," I said to him, and shut the door.


On the bright side, I saw one of my tenth graders in the hallway and asked how his day was going.  "Sucky," he said.  He's one of the few students I talk to honestly about my hard days, and I told him my students were being buttheads.  He thought I meant that I anticipated that his class was going to be difficult.  "I will bring the energy," he told me.

True to his words, he walked in and said, "Hi Jess!  What's crackalackin?"

Oh I was so grateful.

But on a whole, my day was tough, and it got to me, as it does 75% of the time (and that might be a generous figure).  I was so frustrated with my students, with the Hungarian education system, with how out of the loop I feel, with the lack of communicated, the lack of motivation, the "joke" that my job sometimes feels like.


Today, on the other hand, after five classes in a row at the primary school, I love teaching.  

I am consistently, amidst my moments where I am saying to myself "Jump ship! Jump ship!" or muttering not-so-kind words under my breath, having small moments where I do silent fist-pumps and say to myself, "Yessss!  You kick ass!  You are a real teacher!"

Like this one:

7th grade class: B is working with D.  D is going to dictate sentences, from memory, to B.  B says: "This will be terrible.  D has a slow brain. He can not do it.  He will not know the words and he will have problem."  He has a smile on his face; he knows he is being a jerk.  "B," I say to him kindly and firmly, "if he has trouble, you will help him, because you are a helping kind of guy," and I walk away.  

I know he is helpful, and I know he is not cruel.  He has the potential to be kind and helpful.  It feels good to remind him of this.  To expect this from him.

Here are some peeks of the lessons this week.  One of the many perks of living with Kathryn is that we can share lesson plans.  She had the ingenious idea to do a lesson on taste, and this has been very popular with my 5th, 6th, and 7th graders.

First, we learn taste words in English and Hungarian.  

 Then, I introduce a food (we tasted dark chocolate, gummy bears, granola bars, wasabi peas, sour candy, pretzels, and cranberries) and the kids guess what it will taste like.

Next, we close our eyes and taste the food.  This is Milan's thinking pose.

 About to taste yummy gummy bears.

Laura is not sleeping.  She is in dark chocolate heaven.

I asked them to let the dark chocolate melt on their tongue.  After a moment, I told them they could chew the chocolate.  "No!" Laura cried out, her eyes still closed, savoring it.

After they guessed, and tasted the food, they wrote down what the food actually tasted like.


In one of my favorite seventh grade classes, we did a lesson about the post office today.  Here is a video of a post office role-play.  But before the video, I have to share this with you:

We were brainstorming about the post office, and I asked them: "Who works at the post office?"

"Post officers!"


B: Hello.
R: I want some postcards.
B: Here is some. Choose one.
R: It's all ugly. Please give me some more nice.
B: Here that's all our postcards.
R: I want this one.
B: Okay, that's 1 pound.
B: Are you serious?
R: Yes.
B: 1 pound??
R: 1 pound.
B: I don't give it to you until you don't pay it.
R: Give it, please.  I will pay it.  I promise.
B: You promise?
R: I promise.
B: Are you serious?
R: I, I serious.
[Jess - call he police!]
B- Hi police.  He steal postcard from me.  ... Oh!  No, he is back.  He is going to pay.  
R: Here it is.  My invisible money.
B: Oh thank you.  It's a new technology.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Füvészkert Szeged - an afternoon at the botanical garden

I have been itching to be in nature, so I decided to find somewhere green to go this weekend.  Szeged, though a beautiful city, is still a city.  Perhaps I am spoiled.  I did grow up in a forest, the creek chattering by our house, the river across the street, and the ocean only four miles down the road.  Then I lived on an avocado ranch, mountains tan and covered in rich green trees.  Okay, not perhaps -- I am definitely spoiled.

I asked Sándor, a co-worker at the high school, for recommendations about somewhere close I could go.  He recommended a field, or Szeged's botanical garden.  Well, I didn't have much desire to see the field, so I decided to go to the garden.

In perfect synchronicity, a friend of mine from yoga, Róbi, invited me to the botanical garden this weekend.  The weather forecast says rain, he wrote to me, but I will go anyway.  I like shiny things!

This made me smile.  It was a damp and earthy morning, the ground slicked with last night's rain.  Shiny things awaited us.

Light rain fell in a hush as we biked through town; over the bridge and out of the city.  I was so excited to see trees and fields and a pond and sheep and spring flowers blooming in front of cute houses.  I nearly crashed several times.  

But I made it to the garden alive, and it was just what I needed.  I could breathe again.


When I saw this woman, naked in her joy, I knew we needed to walk along this pond.  I saw a turtle paddling slowly with his (or her) small turtley feet.  Plop!s in the water were frogs jumping from the reeds into the pond.  I didn't see any, but Róbi saw one.  "What was it like?" I asked him.  "Like a frog," he said.

Wind sighed on the water's surface and the trees shimmered.  I was entranced.  

"Look!" I told Róbi, after I took this picture.  "The water looks like sky!"  

... "It is the sky.  You took a picture of the water."

Maybe I was getting too much oxygen.

While I was busy taking a picture of these blossoms, Róbi said to me, "Use your other sense!"
It took me a second, but I realized he meant for me to smell the flowers.

In the greenhouse tour, we saw a vanilla plant.  I sniffed the leaves.  "No smell," I whispered to him.  He smiled, whispering back, "Bite it!"

This is a fence to keep you from crossing the stream.  I wonder what's on the other side.

We took a tour of the greenhouses, which smelled warm and old, like home.

The whole visit was like being home.  When we saw deer in the meadow, when I walked on dewy grass, when I looked into the pond and saw trees -- I was in Oregon.  The greenhouse, warm and tropical, was California, the avocado ranch.  It ached in the best possible way.  

We left the path to wander through the meadow.  We saw deer, we sat on a bench made from a tree trunk (thank you, tree), and we used more senses.  I found seed pods on the ground, and opened one.  Orange mush slimed my fingers, but the seed was brown and smooth.  "It smells like something!"  I told Róbi definitively.  Nothing had ever been truer.  ;)  "Don't taste it," he told me.  "I won't!"  and then . . . "It smells like papaya."

He carried the seed in his long fingers as we walked.

These pictures can't bring you the sounds of the gardens.  Our feet -- on wooden walkways, sucking mud, wet in the grass.  The water, the sweet back-and-forth of it, the plop!s of creatures cherry-bombing, the slow wiggle of fish.  And the music, a song so full and tender I closed my eyes to hear it, of the many birds above.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Oh My Watery Heart, or Waiting for the Spring

The snow has melted, and the trees are tender bursts of blossoms now.  Spring is here, but for awhile my body and spirit hadn't caught up.  I was stuck in the dead and cold of winter.

I think I was trapped under the ice, drowning in my own waters, my rapid breath fogging the glass.

I couldn't see or swim my way out.

So I did a little experiment.

I just sat in it, in the water, alternately breathing and crying and holding my breath.

This is what I discovered: being depressed is like holding your breath -- nothing gets out or in.  Nothing gets released, everything sinks.

I was sinking for awhile there.  Honey-mud.  In some moments the light would come through, but mostly I kicked my feet around in the reeds and stirred up too much dirt to see anything.  I found out: I am perfectly capable of muddying my own water.  I found out: I am perfectly capable of sitting still.  For a second or two.

In real life I don't like opening my eyes underwater.

It turns out that, metaphorically, the same is true.

I don't want to see the cold and feel how dark it is, but the truth of it is right there, in the water, surrounding me, seeping in through all the holes, prickling my skin and bubbling into my ears.

This time I stayed in the water, in the icy ice.  My eyes filled up with it.  My heart, though submerged, was still thick with ice, making unnerving pop rocks kpow!s and crackles.  My heart, the arctic, threatened to give, to break, under the smallest of steps, the tiniest of touches.

Still I trusted the sun would do its work and that eventually light would coax the ice back into water, each drop bringing me closer to freedom.

Easter arrived and I switched metaphors.  I was cave-living.  Or, dead in a cave, more like it.  Me and Jesus.

I couldn't move, or breathe, or find any sliver of joy.

The moon swole up like it couldn't wait to give birth, and I took those labor pains on as my own.

Rumi says: Listen!  All the awakened ones, like trusted midwives, are saying, welcome this pain.  It opens the dark passage of grace.

I tried to listen.  I was still and heavy and weighted as I waited.

Lately the light has been getting in.

Maybe it's been there all along, like a switch I've been fumbling for, batting at plaster, feeling for it.

At yoga tonight I felt waves of love.  I was undulating.  I pulsed.  I also involuntarily arched my back and belly up towards the sky and opened my mouth for a big cat yowl but only breath and then small small sound came out.  I could feel the black from the depths of me, releasing.  I could feel the dark passage of grace.

I breathed into the grace, I breathed into the dark and deep of me.  My eyes were closed, but I could feel another pair of lids opening to the light, that sweet light that bathed me, that I could feel shining into me, illuminating the darkest of hiding spaces.

It was the sun, shocking the ice back into little drops.

It was me in the water, calm and not fighting, sunken and sitting lotus-flower in the mud.

I knew in my body, from this deep place, that the pulses of light and dark I was feeling could co-exist, co-arise.  It was perfect.  Whatever I was feeling was perfect.  The waters, finally, were moving.

I was alive.

I am alive.

This is what I told Viktor, who asked me how I was feeling after he held me like a baby, his arms cradling me, my head nestled on the thump of his heart.

"I am alive!"

"This is good," Viktor said.

It is.  But it is more than that.  It is everything.  To be alive, to be in the water, is everything.

I breathed and felt his heart, the gentle knock of it, and my heart, warmed from springtime, warmed from the heat of my breath, burst.  In one moment, bud to blossom.

Thursday, April 5, 2012


In early March Kathryn and I spent a couple of lovely days in Slovenia.


After hours (how about 8 of them) on trains, we rolled into the train station on a Wednesday night.  We had reservations at Hostel Celica, which is a converted prison, and has been dubbed one of the best hostels in the world.  Was there a misprint?  After a short walk from the train station, we find the hotel.  It is like a hipster convention.  I am the only fleece jacket surrounded by ironic nerd glasses, skinny jeans, and cardigans with tiny buttons.  Music is blaring and we're not sure how to make our way through the crowd to the reception desk.  Where is the reception desk anyway?

"Maybe it's over there," I say to Kathryn.

"That's a bar."

Q: How do you know you have landed in a party hostel?
A: When you confuse the reception desk with a bar.

There were even wine glasses on it!

Kathryn and I were slightly traumatized by the sea of hipsters, and I asked to change our reservation to just one night.  We are old grannies, or at the very least, tired teachers, and this hostel was not going to cut it.  It actually did feel like a prison.  Instead of denim jump-suits everyone wore clothing from H&M, and their hands were shackled to cocktails and cheap beer.

We pushed through the crowd to our room, hysterical with laughter.

. . .

The trip to Slovenia began with the tUnE-yArDs.  After my brother introduced me to them last year, I intended to see them in LA in the fall before I took off for Hungary.  That didn't work out, but when I saw that they were going to be touring in Eastern Europe in 2012, I said jokingly that I would just see them then. So, I did it.

They played at this arty funky grungy venue, during Ljubljana's Queer Festival.  We shoved to the front and we were inches from the stage.

Kathryn and I were the only Americans there.  "We love you!!"  Kathryn shouted.  "That sounded like an American," the lead singer said, eyes searching.

"It was!" Kathryn called back.

Good times.

And let's not forget Kiurki, the unfortunately unforgettable opening act.  She was a noise DJ.  I am sure she was very good, it's just that the noises were so noisy.  Her set sounded like planes full of cows crashing.  Kathryn has a video, which I will share with you when I can, lucky you are.

Ljubljana is covered with graffiti, and this was my favorite and sums up my feelings exactly.

We spend our days wandering the cobblestone streets, drinking coffees and eating pastries at sidewalk cafes, and indulging.  Slovenians are incredibly sweet, and the trip was a welcome change from life in Szeged, although we both missed home. It's a good feeling, to miss home.

Lock your love bridge.  Lovers come to seal their commitment by attaching a lock to the bridge.  It's pretty cute.

Lovin' the bike lock.

I miss you, Ljubljana.  See you soon.