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. :)