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.

"There's no combination of words I could put on the back of a postcard..."

Is a picture really worth 1,000 words? Or do perfectly chosen words create the best pictures? Either way, here I offer a sampling of some photographs I've taken while being here.

Some Bethlehem city streets:

Me in my classroom with the books I had made for my students:

The school where I live and work:

Views from my rooftop:

My favorite view:

Pictures from yesterday's outdoor leadership training that we'll be doing with our students:

To see the rest of what I've posted so far, tune in here:

...And now back to the word-pictures. :)

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Pull-Up as a Social Mediator (or, "A Teacher's First Days Of School")

I'm just gonna give it to you straight. There is only one reason my first days of teaching were successful: The Gold's Gym Exercise Bar.

I had decided, thanks to the off-handed suggestion of my roommate, to bring my "pull-up bar" to my first days of health class. After all, a key component of health is physical fitness, and what better way to communicate this than a chin-up routine by the teacher? It seemed like it would both be fun for the kids and, secretly, it would be a way for me to knock out those first-day jitters. And besides, it had been a huge hit so far with the other girls living in the upstairs apartments with me. What started with a casual demonstration one night has become a regular nighttime event. Every night, my roommate and I go across the hall where three other teachers live, we hook the bar over the door frame of the bathroom, put on the "Rocky" theme song, and get our work-outs on. It's become such an expectation, in fact, that if I miss a night (due perhaps to a late date-night with Barrett), I take a number of good-natured jabs from the other girls the next morning ("Where were you last night??" "We waited up for you..." "You know Jess, you've missed two nights in a row. How am I going to improve at this rate??"). I gotta say, it's been the quickest way to bond that I've encountered yet.

Therefore, I went with the idea and took the bar down to my classroom on Wednesday morning for a good old fashioned teaching prop.

Over the next two days, I had 6 different health classes: 7th-12th grade. With each class, after going over the seating chart and some general get-to-know-you chats, I asked them to tell me what they thought were components of the subject of "health." This was a good lead-in to the importance of exercise. It generally went like this: after focusing on the topic for a few moments, I sidled over to my desk, said, "To that end..." and pulled out the bar. All eyes went wide: a few with recognition; most with shock that there was such a strange-looking device in the classroom. I then explained what the object was, told them about the year's forthcoming "Chin-Up Challenge," and hooked the bar over the classroom door frame. Their surprise mounted as I told them they could get out of their seats, gather around the door, and watch. When I raised my cardigan-clad arms and began lifting myself up, excitement erupted. After doing a few of them, I got down, pointed to the bar, and said, "Who's next?"

Turns on the bar took up a good part of the rest of class (who needs to go over the entire syllabus, anyway?), and judging from the smiles, slaps on the backs, and encouragement-bordering-on-peer-pressure, I'd say they were having a good time. This was further confirmed when two different teachers said my class was a "praise" in their bible classes, and when one of my 9th graders came up to me yesterday after school and exclaimed, "That class was awesome!!" After yesterday's ultimate frisbee game, I even found myself suddenly in the middle of a circle of excited high school boys as they offered up suggestions of other activities they'd like to do during class (yes, I had said that occasionally our class would entail going outside and playing sports - we'll see if I regret this later). All in all, I'd say the first week of school has gone quite well, and at this point my main concern is whether I've set the bar too high... it were.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

How to Turn a Narcoleptic Into an Insomniac

Those of you who know me well can attest to this fact: when sleep presents itself as even the remotest possibility, my body willingly accepts the offer. Usually this manifests itself by causing me to fall into slumber a mere seconds after my head hits the pillow at night, but the situations are eclectic: on a plane, in a car, head down on a desk, watching a movie, slumped awkwardly in a chair. True, it's technically inaccurate to say I'm a narcoleptic, but the fact remains that my biggest issue with sleep is wishing it would back off sometimes and keep me from missing so darn much of life.

So what does it take, you ask, to cause me to lie awake at night without the slightest hint of drowsiness as thoughts run wildly through my agitated mind? Namely this: having the sudden realization that I live in another country, the next day is my first official teacher work day, I will be in the classroom teaching students (um, what?) in exactly 8 days, and I haven't created a single lesson plan. Oh, and they just gave me a new subject to teach. Yep...that's what does it. Who knew?

I've been planning on teaching 7th-12th grade health class, which remains the case, but a few days ago I was asked if I would be willing to teach a bible class. Sure, I said, I'm open to that. Yesterday the verdict was official: 7th grade bible tacked on. I am fortunate enough that out of sheer intuition I decided to cram some of my undergrad bible textbooks into my carry-on, but still. It was unexpected. Though truth be told, would I have actually done any planning if I had known? Probably not. Had I done any health planning? Nope.

So it came to be that last night (or more specifically, around 1 am this morning), I decided it would be a good time to start thinking about how I was going to teach.

Now, I would say up to this point I have about 4.5 hours of actual teaching experience...and most of that was instructing my college peers in a mild presentational format with Powerpoint at the ready and the gracious tutelage of the esteemed Dr. Elaine Phillips as my guide. Decidedly not middle school and high school kids from a different culture who, if the stories are correct, are not exactly the most compliant or motivated students one could encounter.

...In other words, I was experiencing a mild amount of anxiety.

All of a sudden, however, something dawned on me. My goodness, I thought, I am completely ready for this. For 7 years now I've been a registered EMT and thereby have some pretty extensive knowledge in health-related matters. In addition, I started my college career as a Kinesiology major and took several more human-body classes. I later changed majors; but to what? Biblical Studies. Of all the things they could have asked me to teach, these classes were, as they say, right up my alley. I was probably the most prepared un-prepared person there could be.

At this point there came a new thought: earlier in the evening, the principal's wife had talked to me about being a key member in the coffee shop/hangout center they want to open for the kids. She had heard from Barrett that I was a former barista at Starbucks. Would I be willing to train everyone on the new espresso-maker when it arrived? Definitely; sounds like fun.

It then occurred to me, not without a tremendous amount of gratitude, that the Lord had been using all of these things in my life to prepare me for this moment, right here. A most remarkable sense of peace settled over me, and this verse popped into my head: "'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the LORD, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'" I grinned. "Ok, Lord," I thought. "If you've been so obviously and intimately involved in the details of my life up to this point, there's no way this isn't going to be ok. In fact, I bet it's going to be awesome." Still smiling, I turned over and fell asleep.

And today I started planning lessons.

Friday, August 13, 2010

But who said traveling was easy; right?

Israel is great...but it has its quirks.

I would like to say that arriving to my new home was hassle-free; but unfortunately that wouldn't be the truth. Although I guess to be fair, the issues started in Frankfurt, not Israel. I arrived there around 5 am local time and proceeded directly to my gate to wait for the 10 am flight to Tel Aviv. As is my international traveling custom, I found several unoccupied seats and laid down for a nap. After an indeterminate amount of time (who can really tell with these things?) those few of us at the gate were rudely awakened by airport officials telling us to "Get up! We have to clear the room. You must leave, go through security again (yes: AGAIN), and come back to the the gate...15 or 20 minutes, for you" (everything internationally is "for you". I've learned not to feel too privileged when on the receiving end of this token phrase).

Now, perhaps this wouldn't have been as annoying as it was, if:
1. It wasn't early am after a 6 hour overnight flight;
2. I hadn't been in the middle of a REM cycle on unusually comfortable seats;
3. I hadn't already gone through security in this airport;
4. Security had been hassle-free.

But as none of these things were the case, I was not feeling particularly amiable, so I decided not to go without a fight. Armed with my sense of justice and my mother's assertiveness, I looked one of the officers in the eye and said, "Look, I've already gone through security. Why do I have to do it again? This doesn't make sense." He gave an exaggerated shrug and motioned me onward. Great, how reassuring.

So I obliged. I went back and forth through the metal maze, emptied my pockets, removed my laptop, and waited my turn. This time, when I approached the official at the scanner, I said, "I've already been through this, and my exercise pull-up bar is in my carry-on. You will see it on the screen. It was already cleared the last time, so it should be fine, but I wanted to let you know." He smiled jovially and waved me forward. Next thing I know, the person on the other side of the scanner was pulling aside my bag and asking me to open it. I looked up on the scanner to see the 4 parts of my exercise bar glowing conspicuously blue. Sigh. I tried to explain the situation, but he too felt the need to take one of the pieces and go into a back room and consult with a face-less higher-up. I waited. And waited. After a few casual shrugs and several attempts at polite conversation with the woman official who was left (" Frankfurt nice, this time of year?"), I was starting to get downright irritated.

At some point the guy came back with the missing piece of my equipment and I was then told to follow the woman to gate-check my bag. (Ok, not as bad as it could have been, but really, Frankfurt? Lest we already cleared me.) When I arrived at the counter, I asked, "Do I have to pay for this?" " you want to pay for it?" "Um, heck no."

Thinking that would be the last of my worries, I boarded the plane for Tel Aviv excited to see my man at the other side of Israeli security. After I had gathered my 150 lbs of belongings (exercise bar in tow), I headed out. No Barrett. I scanned the crowd for several minutes, and then after being satisfied that he really wasn't there, I tried to formulate a plan. Do I try to borrow a phone and call him? No, because I don't have the number that I call from within this country. Hmm. Ok, well do I try to find an internet kiosk? None to be found. Well, this is fun. I decided then that the best course of action was to revolve slowly in place with my bags and hope for him to turn up. These things tend to turn out ok, after all. And they did. After about half an hour, he came down the stairs. The reason for his tardiness? Daylight savings-time. Well, he could hardly be blamed for that. At least he was there and we were finally together! leave the airport.

This should have been a simple task. Barrett had already reserved a car rental, so all was had to do was go to the Avis counter and sign the paperwork, right? Well...we got there and were told we had to go back outside, look for area "01", hop on a shuttle bus, and go to the actual Avis business down the road. So, ok. We schlepped my luggage outside, onto the bus, and to the Avis counter located a couple miles away. We got inside and I, being the one to pay for the rental, went to give them my card. They couldn't accept it. Why? Because the numbers on my card didn't "stick out." In other words, they weren't the analog type that protrude from the face of the card...thereby nullifying the Avis-members' intention to make a "stamp" of the numbers to keep on file. Seriously? Now, both Barrett and I are used to meaningless rules such as this, so we had no problems asserting ourselves. "Look, it's a real credit card. I have the funds. Go ahead: try and take the money." No dice. "Ok, can't you just write down the numbers instead of making a stamp?" Sorry, that's not policy either. So after some not-so-subtle mutters of dissent, we stomped outside to regroup. I must admit after traveling for about 18 hours, I wasn't feeling particularly compassionate toward the Avis people or their policies. "Are you kidding me?! Just because the numbers on the card don't stick out??" To Barrett's credit, he was more patient and in better humor. "I'm sorry Jess...your card is just too technologically advanced!" I grinned in spite of myself.

So, what next. How about we take the shuttle back to the airport and catch a cab to our hostel in Tel Aviv? Again: sounds simple enough, right? Wrong. The shuttle sidled up to the curb, the driver gave us a good look-over, and kept driving. We motioned for him to pull over, but he just waved his finger in a circular motion and kept driving around the lot, then parked on the far side many yards away. "Um. What does that mean?" "Jess, don't you know that waving your finger means you're supposed to...well...bring your bags over here and wait...maybe?" Again, good humor will get you anywhere. So we went to the other side of the rental-car culdesac and stood in the middle of the road with my bags. Yep, just stood in the middle of the road. The next shuttle that came around had a female driver who started motioning for us to move. I looked at Barrett to take my cues from him. A devious grin spread over his face, he planted his feet, and looked over at me. "Jess, when society digresses from logic to the will to power..."

The bus driver had to stop. She too started smiling. "Quick Jess, get on" Barrett prompted. She opened the front door. I went up to it and right as I was about to step on, she closed it and opened the back door. So this was a game. Perfect! I will win. I hopped up quickly (a true feat, I must admit, considering the weight I was towing) and jumped into the bus before she could close the second door. Graciously, she allowed Barrett to follow, still smiling. Shaking her head and chuckling in spite of herself, she asked us about our traveling plans. We bantered back and forth with her as she told us "What, you want me to just bring you back to the airport? I only do that for people who are flying!" "Great; then we will fly to the beach!" She dropped us off exactly where we had requested, and I told her, "Thank you! You're my favorite." "What, you think I'm going to let you off??" she replied, even as she opened the door. Ok, so not everyone today is going to be unreasonable after all.

...It was good to have adopted that attitude when we saw the line to catch a cab. And also when we went upstairs to try and avoid that line and were told that THOSE taxis were only for VIPs. And when we had to schlep the bags all the way back downstairs again and wait in the interminable line. About this time I became acutely aware that my patience was wearing off, as was my deodorant. But Barrett came through again. He pulled me close and said, "Jess, can you believe it? We finally live in the same place. This is epic." Well, that sure puts it in perspective, doesn't it? We made friends with a German guy named "Okre," waited in line with him and split the cab fare (not without plenty of arguing with the driver), and FINALLY made it to our hostel in Tel Aviv. It wasn't long before Barrett and I were dining at an outdoor restaurant on the Mediterranean Sea, sharing a bottle of wine, walking in the waves under the stars, and loving every minute together. "Jess, I'm SO glad you're here. This might be the most epic thing that has ever happened to me."

Thanks, Israel. It's good to be home.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Coming Soon...

I am about to start updating this blog consistently once again. In just two short weeks I'll be living somewhere else in another country. Due to the political nuances of this place, I'm going to have to be fairly discreet with the words I use here if I keep this blog open. It may come to the point where I have to restrict access, so if you're an interested follower, do me a favor and let me know so I can make sure to allow you access. Thanks for tuning in and I can't wait to start sharing stories with you!