Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Day After the Superbowl

The Faces That Make It All Worthwhile

The following are pics of me and the kids. Enjoy!

(boxing! don't worry, it looks worse than it is)

(The 9th graders after their debate)

(The Negative Team)

(The Affirmative Team)

(my body guards, during school spirit week. don't worry, the guns aren't real. :))

Saturday, January 15, 2011

A Different Kind of Poverty

About a week ago I was discussing possible plans for next year with one of the other American teachers here who has become a good friend. She said she'd love to stay, but she also feels called to live in a place of extreme poverty - and she's not sure this is it. The catalyst for this thought came when she was discussing the various Christmas break activities with her third grade class. "One of the girls told us all she got a new iPad for Christmas! And I thought: 'Yeah, I just don't know about that...'"

She has a point. While the standard of living and the resources here are certainly far below what you'd find in the States, there are still the more affluent families in the area who are able to pass along material possessions to their children. Technology is valued and available and many of our kids will grow up to inherit the family business and continue to be fairly well-off. In terms of being physically destitute, the situation in this part of the world is not as dire as it is in some other places.

But then we started discussing a different kind of poverty. What I see here is not so much of a material poverty (though certainly it exists well beyond that of other places in the world), but more of a psychological poverty. For instance, our children are severely in want of good father figures. Most of their fathers are gone for large portions of the day at work and are not part of the upbringing of their kids (beyond beating their children for poor behavior and dishonoring the family name). Furthermore, the kids are also lacking in terms of seeing good relationships between husbands and wives (and males and females, for that matter). The society undervalues women and applauds displays of male chauvinism, so our kids are in want of good role models to exemplify healthy male-female interaction.

And then of course there is the poverty of spirit that comes from growing up with an identity of oppression. Our students are proud to be who they are, yet they feel frustration and sometimes even hatred toward those on the other side of this wall keeping them inside. It is amazing to me that the same teenager can say "I love God" in one sentence, and "I hate the Isra..lis" in another. And then when I ask them in class if they have any perceived enemies, most struggle to find an answer to the question. The disconnect is fascinating and alarming, but understandable when lack of opportunities due to a faceless force is all you've ever known. And yet there is an obvious chunk of goodness missing from this equation.

Last semester, due to the suggestion of a dear friend who is an English teacher in the States, I had my 9th grade Lit class read a short story about gang violence. The story's protagonist is lying on the ground bleeding from a mortal wound, and as his last act, he shrugs off the jacket bearing the name of his gang and hitherto-fore only identity. I had the kids write down on note cards what kinds of labels they would like to shed, if given the chance. After collecting them, I anonymously read them to the class. Here is a sample:

"Important people in my life think that I don't care about them because of the way I treat them."
"I am not all about saying jokes and laughing. I can take things seriously."
"I'm not just a smart person. I'm more than that."
"Being the teacher's daughter."
"I would not like to suck at sports."
"I wish people didn't know me as that my dad owns a big shop."
"My attitude."
"I wish some of my friends didn't call me by my last name."
"You are who you are, but in this society the only way you get recognized is if people know your father and mother, and what they think of them."

When I got to the end of the note cards, there was a heavy silence, and then one of the girls breathed: "That...was interesting."

Ever since the conversation with my friend here, Jesus' words "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" have been rolling around in my mind. And then lo and behold, our speaker a few nights ago at Al Beit ("The House"...aka youth group) spoke on these very words in the Beatitudes. My prayer is that God's kingdom would indeed come to this place and these people...and that they would be a key part in bringing about His redemption on the earth.

Home is Where Your Half-Heart Is

Hey everyone!

It's been a LONG time since I've posted, but I'm committed to being a much more faithful blogger this semester. Here's to New Years Resolutions!

Recently I was able to spend a few weeks in the States over Christmas. It was absolutely wonderful to see friends and family and to learn that I can, in fact, go home again. I was able to pick up where I left off and enjoy the company of good people and relationships that are well-worth preserving. What an incredible blessing.

Yet I was also reminded, more than ever, that my heart is now officially in two places. I loved being in America, but simultaneously yearned to come back here - to the places and people that now make Bhem in the W.B. my home. It seems my fate is sealed: no matter what happens, I will always love where I am and miss where I've been.

I know some of you who have moved can relate. There is a restlessness, though not one of discontent. It aches, but there is a fullness in the gift of being able to love so deeply and broadly.

I also feel fortunate to know that this place has become home so quickly. I feel myself becoming invested for the long term, and my prayers that God would make that a reality increase daily (ah, the visa hassles). But I know there is good work to be done here, and if the light in our kids' eyes and their thirst for knowledge is any indication of God's spirit moving (which I'm confident that it is), it's an exciting place to be in an exciting time. So stay tuned...great things are on the way.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

For the Vox

I must start by offering my apologies for the recent hiatus in writing. Things have been quite eventful over here, what with first quarter grades being due, basketball and soccer tournaments for our students, a visiting church group, and my boyfriend suffering a concussion (and the successive hospital visits). However, recently I was asked to write a 300-500 word article for Vox Populi ("Voice of the People"), the alternative publication of Gordon College. What I offer below is what I wrote for them. I hope you all are well!

Many blessings,

"For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility." Ephesians 2:14

As I look out my window, the sun has begun to set over this Palestinian neighborhood. It casts a warm glow on the white limestone buildings and catches the sparkle of hubcaps. The red awnings of storefronts pop vividly against the cerulean sky as laundry blows in the breeze on the rooftops. From places near and far can be heard the sounds of children calling in Arabic and the gas truck whistling a cheerful Fur Elise through the streets. And I feel at peace.

Ironic. In a land that for decades has been choked by the despondency of conflict, whether through overt violence or simply the bitterness that breaks the souls of its people, it may seem like the most unconventional place to feel peaceful. Indeed, for many people the hope of peace is under constant threat of despair and is sometimes rejected altogether.

But then there are mornings like yesterday. I was sitting in my kitchen sipping tea when I saw a playground. Across the valley and beyond a street and up a hill I could just make out the feet of children swinging under the trees. I'd never noticed it before; but now when I look, it's the only thing that catches my eye. And I realize that peace is already present here. It is children swinging together. It is the man at the grocery store who patiently explains the Arabic names of fruits and vegetables to me day after day – and then rewards me with a banana when I come back and recite them correctly. It is our eighth grade girls who practice diligently for “Peace League” – an organization where Israelis and Palestinians play basketball together. It is all of our students becoming compassionate thinkers before our eyes. And it is my roommate’s class, where just this week her students prayed for the Israelis. Our responsibility is to recognize and be part of the daily incarnations of it, just as Jesus himself became peace incarnate in this very place.

The work is far from over. This is why tomorrow I will go back into the classroom and teach my students. I will read their journal entries about feeling trapped in a prison devoid of opportunity and wishing for more. And I will cling desperately to the hope that Jesus’ gospel message – that which tells us to care for those in need, love our enemies, and notice the lilies of the field – does indeed have power here.

And we will keep playing ultimate frisbee together.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Changing Seasons and Packer Umbrellas

This week we experienced something of a small miracle: rain.

In a Middle Eastern climate, rain is precious. You yearn for it in the same way that you miss a loved one whose absence has been felt for such a long time that it makes you weary. This area hasn't seen rain in 5-6 months, and so when it rained for the first time on Wednesday, it changed everything.

As the first light of dawn was blossoming over the hillside, I found myself being summoned from sleep by a vague rustling sound outside my window. As the incoherence of first-consciousness faded away, I soon realized: "No, that's not rustling...that's rain!" When I officially awoke about an hour later, the rain had stopped, but the wet ground below betrayed its visit. I found myself standing at the window grinning like a kid watching snow fall on Christmas morning. Rain! This was so exciting! And why? Because I realized that Wednesday was the eve of Sukkot, also known as the Jewish "Feast of Tabernacles" or "Festival of Booths." It is an 8-day festival which has, as one of its purposes, the supplication for the Lord to send rain. I have been in Israel during Sukkot once before, but it wasn't even close to raining at that time. Thus, when I made this connection it was truly awesome. I imagined hundreds of Jews throughout the land waking to this same realization and praising Yahweh for His provision.

Yet even on this side of the wall where Jewish festivals are neither acknowledged nor appreciated, change was palpable. The air throbbed with anticipation. In the courtyard below, kids coming early to school laughed more joyfully than usual, and each teacher coming around the corner had a look of pleased bewilderment. This was a special day.

In my apartment as well, precipitation brought blessing. It was a rare morning when I was awake before my roommate (ah, those unfinished lesson plans), so when she awoke I happily informed her, "Hey, it rained this morning!" "Really?! Did you seeitfeelithearit?!?" We laughed at her exuberance, then she said, "Well in that case..." (disappeared to her room and reappeared) "...Happy First Day of Rain!!" and handed me a brand-new Green Bay Packers umbrella. As I am a born and bred Packers fan (this is putting it mildly), the kindness of this gesture rendered me speechless. I finally managed to stammer, "Wha-uh-when-how did you get this??" She grinned, shrugged, and said, "Hey, I'm from Wisconsin."

(digression: I live with probably the only Wisconsin native who is a VIKINGS fan. sorry to those of you who are not inclined toward football, but the incredible irony had to be noted.)

In the minutes that followed (while I was supposed to be preparing my lesson for that day), I started contemplating the changing seasons of my own life in this move abroad. It's been 7 years since I willingly uprooted myself to go to college, and in that span of time "home" became both my loving family in New Hampshire, and also my dear friends who have loved and supported me on the North Shore of Massachusetts. Don't get me wrong: I've been thrilled to embark on this new adventure which is the realization of a God-given dream-come-true. But that doesn't mean it's easy to leave.

Recently I was telling a friend what it's like to miss home. I shared with her a W.S. Merwin poem called "Separation":

Your absence runs through me
like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

And this is why I love poetry: because there's really no better way to say it. What I feel about having left isn't so much a constant sadness...not usually a sadness at all, really...but sometimes a dull ache just on the fringes of my awareness. It's a recognition that those I've left behind mean so much to me and it's something I constantly carry with me. I tend to think that every interaction changes you in some way, no matter how big or how small, and when you leave those who have consistently been in your life for a long time, the separation is even more poignant. I remember so vividly the moment on the plane ride over when it all of a sudden hit me what I had done. I had spent the whole day crying off and on as the reality of leaving started to sink in, but somewhere over the Atlantic I all of a sudden had this moment where for the first time I comprehended the full weight of what it meant. Transitions are funny things. Even the best ones come with mourning...with a sense of loss...or at the very least, a need to reckon with the weight of the change.

But as you all know, just because a change is hard, doesn't mean it isn't good. Really ridiculously good, even. I was reminded of this when I stood in my kitchen Wednesday morning twirling my new umbrella as the guy I love strolled in smiling. Nothing like some good old-fashioned perspective.

So to this I say: bring on the rain.

(For more of my thoughts on the theme of water in the desert and the festival of Sukkot, see one of my previous postings:

Friday, September 10, 2010

"Toto, I have a feeling we're not in America anymore."

There are, of course, the obvious signs.

Like the fact that when I go to the grocery store I have to order in grams and kilos. Or the fact that there is a real, live rooster who crows outside my window every morning starting at 4:30 am (incidentally, the rooster's crow is followed shortly thereafter by the call to prayer from the local mosque, so it's a real cacophony of noises to contend with out there). Or the fact that the gas truck drives around playing a cheery whistling tune of Fur Elise every day, while the ice cream man abrasively shouts at the top of his lungs: "Booza! BOOOOZA!!"

But what I have been most amused with is not the every-day cultural and situational differences; but rather, how different it is to teach here. For starters, we are addressed by our first names, since the first name is the identifier in this culture (so I am "Miss Jessica" or "Miss Jess" or, sometimes, just "Miss"). And this is a good indicator of the comparative informality of it all. My students have my cell number and call when they need help with their homework assignments. They joke and converse freely with us in the halls and after school. We have them over to our apartments from time to time, and every week we all play ultimate frisbee together (though it's quite embarrassing when we play "teachers vs. students" and can't win). And often when I sign into my Facebook account, I will have a frantic student messaging me with something like "miss jess thank god ur online!" My favorite example so far has been this:

Kyle**: miss jess I can't figure out the online hw
Me: ok, why is that?
Kyle: im not sure which activity we have to do
Me: you were assigned Student Web Activity Chapter 1, Lesson 2. so go to the main website and follow the instructions I gave you for how to do those kinds of assignments.
Kyle: oh ok, I get it now. thanks a billion! ur awesome!!

and then later...

Me: Kyle.
Kyle: jessica.
Kyle: I mean, miss jessica.
Me: Good catch.
Me: I received your online quiz, but you didn't get 100. remember I told you, don't send it to me until it's all correct? you can take it as many times as you need to. I would suggest sending it to me again before I grade it.
Kyle: ok I will! thanks!!

The other comical part about it all is how I've so naturally stepped into the teacher role. Every time phrases slip out of my mouth like "Harley isn't the teacher; I'm the teacher" or "You can do that on your own time; not mine" I have to check myself to make sure I'm not looking as taken-aback as I feel. I even find myself falling into common teacher mistakes, such as my unfortunate affinity for the charming imp who, as much as his sarcastic comments should be a thorn in my side, always manages to soften me with his constant grin. (In some ways I suppose teaching is the same everywhere.)

The challenge, of course, where the teacher-student relationship is so strikingly different than in America (would YOU have played knock-out basketball with your high school teachers after school?) is how to effectively quell potential discipline issues in class. My first real victory in this area happened in class on Wednesday. While one of the high school classes was working on their study guides, Anthony, a bright, frustratingly-charismatic troublemaker, came up to my desk, took one of my whiteboard markers, and started writing on the board. Well, you have to pick your battles, and frankly, I was curious. So I feigned disinterest at my desk and waited to see what would happen. When I looked up, he had written 2 columns: "Lame" (where he had listed his classmates) and "Cool" (where he had written his own name several times). Slowly the class started looking up and uttering humorous exclamations of dissent. When the clamor had finally died down and the students were again working diligently, I walked up to the board, calmly erased Anthony's writing, and wrote, "Anthony is not as cool as he thinks he is." This elicited pleased laughter from the rest of the class and Anthony himself grinned and nodded in a concession. "Yeah, ok." Would this get me fired in the States? Potentially. Is it effective here? You'd better believe it.

Despite it all, I'm still enjoying teaching (yes, the Chin-Up Challenge is well under-way), and I have a sneaking suspicion that these students might just worm their ways into my heart. I can't wait to get to know them better. Keep praying that I would not only be a competent teacher, but perhaps more importantly, an effective mentor.

In other news, I've traded a class with Barrett. Starting on Monday, he will teach 7th grade Bible, and I'll teach 9th grade English. For a number of reasons, we thought the switch would play better into our strengths, and given my secret love affair with literature and poetry, I'm actually pretty excited about it. But it does mean I have to read "Lord of the Flies" this weekend to get ready to jump into class discussion on Monday. Hey, you gotta roll with the punches, right?

Many blessings,

**All student names in my posts will be changed to protect the innocent, or in some cases, the devious. As much as it kills me to change their names and Americanize them (thus losing some of their essence), at least this way I get to tell the stories.

A picture of some of my 11th graders practicing flossing in class:

My opinion is that Health class should be as interactive as possible. Props to Mac Photobooth for capturing this special moment.