Archive for May, 2014

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Coming Home

May 14, 2014
My old Pamplona home

my other home and family

Faith has come home. To her original home, that is. The one in Florida, the one where she grew up with her family and friends and familiar surroundings. But being a Peace Corps Volunteer means you always have another home, one with new family and friends and totally different surroundings that also have become familiar. It is one where you may never be again, but one which will always remain part of your being, a “temporary and forever home” as Faith so perfectly put it. Her other home is in Thailand. Mine is in the Philippines.

In what I hope was not her final entry in her wonderful blog, Faith wrote a piece called “Goodbye, Hello and Goodbye Again” in which she expressed her feelings about coming home. Reading it brought a powerful swell of emotional recognition. It has been six weeks now for her. It has been forty-two years for me, but what Faith had to say stirred my soul because such homecomings are unforgettable, full of the joy of reconnection but also the disorienting impact of readjustment. This is a goodbye and a hello that is both singular and indelible.

Faith wrote that “Thailand is already a little blurry — the way an object looks in your rear view mirror when it’s raining.” I understand. It can be disconcerting that such a profoundly life-changing experience can seem so distant so quickly, almost surreal. It can be worrisome that this other existence can seem diminished by a return to the original one which also seems somehow altered. You’re home now, but there’s a strange sense of turbulence, of displacement. “
Somehow Thailand was already behind me. The realization that the distance between myself and them, between my family here and my life there was so extremely vast rippled within me the way you can almost feel a strong thunderstorm vibrating in your chest.”

I understand.

I wanted to reassure Faith. I wanted her to know that despite time and distance this other existence will always be a part of her. I don’t think I need to, though. She seems to already instinctively know this, for she wrote “It’s in me and it will always be, whether I’m in Florida or Washington. Whether it’s right now and I’m a 26 year old looking for the next adventure or whether it’s in the future and I’m celebrating my 88th birthday. I’ll look back and recall that one split second in my life when I lived in Thailand. When I would ride my bike past rolling, green rice fields to the bright, pink school where I spoke Thai and taught in English. I’ll remember it as the time that I discovered just how little I knew and embraced just how much I was about to learn.”

And learn one does — about the world beyond your first home, beyond your safe haven of the known. About how different life is for so many others on this planet — so elemental and challenging and demanding yet strangely fulfilling. Perhaps even more significantly you learn about the self that lies dormant within you, waiting for an unexpected and unique opportunity such as this to blossom, to discover abilities you didn’t know you possessed as well as to confront those shortcomings and insecurities that can be easily masked in a place of comfort. And Faith indeed learned. “There is so much that I experienced while in the soft embrace of Thailand’s stunning sunsets. For 27 months that steady, fast, and strong flow of the Mekong River mirrored the energy that was constantly brewing inside of me…each and every day I woke up and chose to be an open recipient of all that surrounded me. And in that I was able to see all my weakness and all my strengths.”

Faith is on the cusp of another goodbye — a move in July to Seattle, Washington. I wish her well. I know this amazing young woman has many more fulfilling chapters to come in her life and perhaps many more homes. But the home she had in that small village beside the Mekong River will live on within her as my home amidst the rice paddies of Pamplona still does. How could it not? “I farmed — felt the moist mud between fingers as I planted rice. I ate sticky rice and even bugs. I collected snails from a pond and then cooked them in a frying pan. I attended weddings and I cried at funerals. I met my little Thai sister, Nong View, and then buried her one year later. I came to teach my coteachers and my students English and ended up being schooled about life.” These experiences imbed themselves deep within regardless of what follows.

Faith intends to try to go back some day to revisit her other home, a thought that I had sometimes entertained. Often I’d have dreams — ones that felt so real — that found me walking once again down the dirt road at night to my small town past banana trees aglow with fireflies. I wondered what it would have been like to return, to see how all those missing years had changed the people and places I had known so well, to see how they remembered me. My path did not lead that way; perhaps Faith’s will. I look forward to reading about that journey if it does occur.

Though I’m not 88 quite yet, I still look back to the one split second of my life in my other home in the Philippines. Sometimes it seems unreal, another lifetime in some distant past. Other times it seems like yesterday. I look back at my fading photos and the images come clear once again. The feel of the humid tropical air just after the daily rainstorm, the sweet smell of the sampaguita blooming wildly, the perpetual sound of laughter from the children in the muddy streets, the savory taste of adobo and lechon and pancit — all of them still resonate in my very cells. Faith said she cries now when she looks at her photos. As time goes by, I believe the sadness of separation they recall will be replaced by the deep-seated gratification that having this other home is a timeless gift, one that will continue to reveal its value and wonder with each passing year.

memory of laughter

a lasting memory

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What’s Love Got to Do With It

May 4, 2014

teach

May 6 is National Teacher Day, but most teachers will probably not be basking in well-deserved recognition. More likely they will be in the midst of preparing for their Summative Evaluations or reshuffling their lesson plans to accommodate the annual onslaught of standardized testing. But teachers can count on my salute, for as I observe the prevalent trends encumbering the profession with its proliferation of alphabetic interventions — DEAC, SGP, SGO, PARCC — I can only shake my head in dismay at the current state of affairs.

I am proud to say I was a teacher. For forty years I dedicated my life to the proposition that I could have a positive impact on the lives of my students and thus contribute to the greater good of society. During the course of those forty years I witnessed the growing imposition of bureaucracy on this noble profession. Well-intentioned though it may have been, it only served to erode the efficacy of teaching which is, at its best, a delicate art — a fine balance of content knowledge, facilitation skills, and most important of all, human caring.

The good teachers that I had worked with have often passionately expressed their disheartenment to me. So much of their time has been diverted from actual teaching to testing and documentation tasks that many feel powerless in their quest to get back to what really matters — the kids in their charge.

It saddens me to say that I’ve been hearing this kind of lament quite a bit. The educational pendulum has been swinging in this direction over the last several decades and dramatically so in the past few years. Hopefully it will swing back before it has too great of a deleterious effect on good teachers. Test scores and SGP/SGO pressure are anathema to the practice of nurturing the development of “the whole child” which has apparently fallen by the wayside. The narrowing of focus on “academic standards”  has sadly neglected those crucial aspects of children that will be important to them in their lives — self-esteem, integrity, creativity, a respect for real learning, tolerance, a strong moral compass — regardless of the career path they pursue.

I recently saw a piece on TV about this year’s National Teacher of the Year, Sean McComb of Baltimore. He is a thirty year old, eight years into his career, and his passion for teaching is thankfully still intact. It was said of him that he would “do just about anything to get his students fired up about learning.” In the course of his interview, he revealed that he had not been a stellar student himself. There had been struggles in his life — as there are in so many kids’ lives — that took precedence over school, in his case parental unemployment and alcoholism, but he’d had some teachers who showed they cared about him, and that made all the difference. They saved him by “shining a light into his darkness,” and it compelled him to pay it forward by doing the same.

When asked to describe his philosophy of teaching, he simply said, “Kids before content and love before all. My first task is to make sure that they feel loved and cared for and feel safe to take risks.”

What? No mention of SGPs? No testimony of test scores? Strange, but I do not recall hearing any mention of love and care from administrators at faculty meetings or Education Commissioners at press conferences or politicians discussing educational fixes in the halls of congress. Instead there is a litany of tasks that have little to do with the passion that is at the core of teaching and learning. What good are the cures proposed by those in power if they kill the patient? I am not opposed to accountability or evaluation, but both must be done in a common sense manner that recognizes the essence of good teaching, those very truths voiced by the Teacher of the Year.

Sean McComb humbly insisted that his award was not just for him but instead for teachers across the nation who put their heart and soul into their job. I’m glad he expressed this for there are indeed many who do what he does in anonymity, at least as far as the public goes. Not so for their students, all of whom know exactly what these teachers have meant in their lives, SGOs be damned. I know this because I see it taking place in the school at which I taught. My fear is that this love and care which is at the heart of good teaching will be squelched by some assembly line or “business” model that is more and more becoming the face of modern American education. And that would be a shame. I too was saved by teachers who cared, not by an SGO or standardized test score, and I hope that students to come can be exposed to that same possibility before frustration and stultifying bureaucracy drain the very life out of our best teachers.