Call them by their name – or whatever

Yesterday a new student joined my class. He showed me his timetable to confirm that he belonged in this room, and I asked him his name. He replied with the name written on the paper, then followed up with, “but call me xxx”. So I did.

I know there’s a lot of fuss right now about teachers using the name students ask to be called. (Brief background: in the US, some people are demanding that teachers inform parents when children ask to change names or pronouns; some people are demanding that teachers not do this, in part to protect vulnerable students;  Canada’s laws are different, but the same issue is cropping up.) Just before school started this year, a colleague in my school board posted a thread on Twitter about why we should use students’ preferred names, and spiteful commenters piled on, calling the teacher a “groomer” and worse. I was astonished by their ignorance. Well, maybe not astonished – I’m too old to pretend that I’m not a little cynical about the outrage; but I found it, at a minimum, fatiguing.

Here’s what they don’t know: teachers have long used students’ preferred names. I’ve been calling students what they want to be called pretty much forever, and I have never – not once – phoned a parent to let them know about it. My first memory of this is from years ago when a student asked to be called Kronos. Kronos! My instinct was to say no, mostly because this 8th grader was decidedly neither the king of the Titans nor a god of Time, but before I could say a word, the teacher standing next to me said, “Ok.” So we called the child Kronos. We didn’t phone home or worry about report cards. We just called him Kronos until he asked us to stop.

In that same school I had a student who went by Sarah while her family called her Sally. I’ve had students ask me to call them by their nicknames, middle names or last names (there are a lot of Emmas and Mohammeds out there; sometimes these name changes are a godsend). Before parent-teacher conferences, I often ask students what their parents call them, so that I can communicate effectively. 

For a lot of young people, names are a good place for a bit of experimentation. When we were little, my sister wanted to be called Christy instead of Kim. I have no idea why. I grew up in the South, so I knew plenty of kids whose first names were someone else’s last name – Madison, Perrin, Riley come to mind. When I was in my early teens, I longed for a name that could be mistaken for a boy’s. I blame Little Women for my dreams of being called “Jo” or “Alex” while behaving in unladylike ways. Later, I was awed when Shannon Faulkner took advantage of her gender-neutral name to become the first woman to enroll in the then all-male Citadel. Meanwhile, my aunt and uncle named my cousin Andrew, insisting that he not be called Andy; this worked fine until someone started calling him Drew. These days, he answers to either.

In the classroom, I’ve had students use a gender-neutral version of their own name, use a name frequently associated with the opposite gender, and use a name that, frankly, no parent in their right mind would choose. (I think most of us would try to talk our kid out of “Kronos.”) Sometimes their parents know; sometimes they don’t. It’s never really been an issue.

Look, I’m not naive: I know that people are using the name issue as a proxy for homophobia and transphobia. They say “name” and mean something else altogether. They’ve worked themselves into hysterics over this and decided that when teachers respect a child’s request to be called by a certain name or pronoun, something terrible will happen. In all my years of teaching, calling a child what they want to be called has never – not once – made a child feel less welcome; it’s never interfered with their learning; it’s never made them unhappy. I have 26 years worth of experience suggesting that using a child’s preferred name or pronouns won’t change who they are – but it might make them feel a little more like themselves.

So, when a child asks me to call them a particular name, I say “yes”. Why wouldn’t I?

Presenting

I have been futzing with the same slide show for hours. Hours and hours and hours. I’ve added some icons, resized them, resized them again. I changed fill colours and checked fonts. Oh, and I re-jigged one slide from three columns to four. That took at least 30 minutes and somehow seemed very very important.

I could be doing other things, of course. I could be helping with dinner or practicing on Duolingo. I could be heading to Knit Night or reading a book. I could be relaxing or chatting with my sister. But the slide show keeps calling me.

Tomorrow I will be doing my first-ever presentation at a conference. I am a little nervous. I have been reassuring myself that a teacher being nervous about a presentation is, honestly, silly. After all, I present all the time in the classroom, right? (Ok, well, not so much lately since I’ve tried to make my classroom much more student-driven, but I definitely presented for years.) And I’ve co-hosted an online book club for colleagues – complete with slide shows! – with no problem. And I’ve spoken on podcasts! How different can this be? (Different. It can be different.)

And it’s not like I’m doing this alone. My friend, mentor & colleague, Melanie White, is presenting the session with me. She is, frankly, inspirational: a powerhouse of thinking fueled by an almost unimaginable volume of reading and listening. In fact, I’m pretty sure that *she* is the reason people will attend. After all, *I* would attend her session in a heartbeat. (And yes, Melanie, I see you reading this and shaking your head. Let me have my nervous moment over here.)

Even as I write this, I am starting to laugh at myself a little. Sure, I am nervous – but writing about it down makes me realize that perhaps this is not as big a deal as I think. After all, Sarah Zerwin (of the book Point-less) was the keynote speaker today, and she presented for 2.5 hours. Now *that* would be nerve-wracking. She nailed it: my brain was spinning with ideas and questions right up to the last moments. And she told us that it was her first time presenting for that length of time – and that she over prepped. Sigh… such a teacher move.

Which brings me back to that slide show for tomorrow. I’m pretty sure that I need to just double-check a few more of the slides. And maybe tweak the script a little. I swear I won’t add any more columns, but one more icon might make all the difference…

(Wish us luck! Here’s hoping we share things others find useful.)

Many thanks to twowritingteachers.org for hosting this space for teacher-writers.

If a student asks for poetry…

If a student asks for a poetry book that’s not in the library, you buy it.

I didn’t know this rule existed, but as soon as she asked, I realized it was clearly a rule. After all, how often does a student ask to read a book of poetry? How often is the poetry by a poet I don’t know, a poet the student discovered on her own? How often is that poet a refugee, born in a camp as her parents fled the Khmer Rouge regime? How often is the student who is asking a newcomer herself?

After class, we looked up Lang Leav so at least I would know a little about what we were getting into – but, to be clear, I was always going to buy the book. Leav’s style reminds me of Rupi Kaur, whose books are so popular that they regularly disappear from my classroom, leaving me to buy them again. (It’s ok; another unspoken rule seems to be “If a student needs a book of poetry to become theirs, they should probably have it.”)

In April – National Poetry Month – I usually read a poem out loud every day. We don’t study it or anything fancy like that: we just read it. For a few minutes, the poem simply exists with us; the students simply meet it. I choose all sorts of poems, often with the students in mind but sometimes just because I love them. Usually a few students will start to share poems they love after a week or two. Often someone brings up something that a poem reminds them of. Sometimes, like this year, we find ourselves talking about one poem, which leads to another and – oops! – we’ve read four and are accidentally talking about Robert Browning’s Meeting at Night and Parting at Morning and somehow we’re talking about sexual imagery and I’m blushing and then… well, then class continues. And the next day we read another poem.

On this day, the student wasn’t sure which of Leav’s books was “best”, so we looked at the covers and the previews, and then I bought two. Thanks to the miracle of modern shipping, I will put them in her hands tomorrow. I cannot wait.

Two books of poetry: the lefthand one is red and is entitled "Love"; the right hand one is cream and we can see the word "September" in the title.

Because you know what? If a student is reading poetry and falls in love with a poet – well, I buy it.

(Also, I just realized that Rupi Kaur is missing again. I know I spend too much on books for my classroom, but how can I say no?)

The Dilemma

My test is positive. Again. Unquestionably, undeniably positive. Despite my best efforts to prevent it, I have covid. Today is day 8 since my symptoms began and, while I feel much better – only a cough and runny nose linger – my RAT test insists that I am still highly contagious.

I’ve already missed five days of work, so my self isolation period is officially over. According to both Public Health and my employer (the entity, not individual people), it’s time for me to get back to the classroom. Public Health’s official policy is that people can go back five days from the date their symptoms started if their symptoms have been improving for 24 hours and they don’t have a fever. This is me: fever is gone, symptoms are improving. My employer offers five days of “quarantine” leave, but after that I am using my sick leave. I am an employee, and I am supposed to work. Did I mention that I am still testing positive for a disease that may be more transmissible than measles and which, while it can be mild, can cause unknown amounts of long term damage to vital organs?

Nevertheless, the expectation is that I go to school – masked – even though both the tests and the science say that I am contagious and that the mask will not prevent me from infecting others. And I want to go. I’m so eager to return that this morning I even contacted a physician, just to double-check. Her response was unequivocal, “The RAT means you are still contagious. You shouldn’t go to work. Even in an N95 mask. Your students aren’t in the best masks. Just staying 2m away doesn’t prevent others from getting sick. Covid is airborne. I’m sorry.”

Each day that I stay home, the pressure to go in grows. Each day I’m out, the students lose out on effective instruction. Our school board, like so many others, is struggling to find supply teachers (substitutes). My colleagues are stretched thin, covering classes that are not their own; if we’re lucky and the school finds a supply teacher, that person is unlikely to be able to deliver a lesson; increasingly, we cannot find coverage at all and the students have (another) study hall.

But if I go in, I put real people at risk. Real people. People like you or your loved ones. Even as I type, researchers are trying to figure out the complications of covid, and we know they’re more likely if people aren’t vaccinated. Maybe you think that everyone should just get covid and get it over with. Or maybe you think that covid isn’t really that serious. Ok, sure. But what if I go in, coughing, masked and infect your child or your sibling? I don’t know if the students are vaccinated. I do know that one of my students is just out of the hospital. I do know that some of my students have younger siblings who cannot be vaccinated and others have family members who are at risk of complications if they get covid. I know that my friend’s child attends my school. I know, too, that my colleagues have people in their lives who are at risk. Who am I to decide that they should be exposed to covid?

Then, as my father (who is an infectious disease doctor) points out, I am lucky enough that I don’t *have* to go to work. Perhaps instead of being upset that I am still sick, I should be grateful that I am able to protect others. In that case, I can choose to be particularly cautious to protect others who don’t have the same luxury.

While I try to balance all of this, I must continue to plan my classes, even though I am not there to teach. Tomorrow will be day 7 of students following instruction from a screen. They are trying; they know that I, too, am trying. They really are the best. Still, some of them have thrown in the towel. Attendance is dwindling and fewer and fewer assignments come in. I don’t know what they have actually learned or what they need next to support their learning. I really want to be in the classroom.

And yet: I am so much more than simply an employee, merely human capital. I am a friend, a mother, a teacher, a colleague and so much more; much of my identity is wrapped up in caring for others. If I go to work, even though I am “only” coughing, even if I am wearing a N95 mask, even though Public Health says it’s ok and my employer (again, as an entity, not as individual people – my administration is lovely) would prefer that I return, I am denying the human-ness of all the people around me. I am deciding that my choice, my freedom is more important than they are. I can’t do that.

I love my work and my students. I miss them. I want to be there. Precisely for those reasons, I look at my RAT, look hard at those two red lines, and know that I am about to call in sick for tomorrow. After that, I’ll get to work on another lesson plan.

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Pivot

Educators in Ontario are starting 2021 by pivoting. Again. 2020 saw us pivot from what we quaintly referred to as “school” to “emergency remote learning” from April to the end of June. Then, in my school board, high school teachers started September in “quadmesters” organized into what is possibly the weirdest teaching I can imagine (and one which I still cannot describe succinctly): we teach one course for approximately four hours a day every other week. During that week, half of the class is in person one day and the other half is at home; the next day, they switch. Teaching is hybrid because the at-home cohort requires “some” synchronous connection with the in-class cohort during the day. Once both cohorts are home and have had a lunch break, they are supposed to do asynchronous learning for another hour. I’m pretty sure we used to call that homework, but whatever. The next week, we switch to a different course. Apparently, this is a mere pivot from our previous practice.

Now, as 2021 starts, we are “pivoting” again because Ontario is back in lockdown – or at least partial lockdown. First, we’re teaching fully online for three weeks. Because that doesn’t feel quite challenging enough, we are going to teach two classes a day for 112 minutes each (the two classes which we previously taught on alternating weeks for 225 minutes). The instruction must be synchronous for some amount of time that I can no longer remember, and there will still be an asynchronous component at the end of the day for those whose heads aren’t already spinning.

Also, while no one knows exactly what will happen, we’ll probably pivot back (re-pivot? un-pivot?) for the last week of January when we may or may not return to the original 2020 quadmester plan, except that this would give one course a full week of instruction and the other course none – so I may or may not be seeing the students who may or may not need something to learn. I mean, it’s not a problem because when we get there, we’ll just pivot.

But the current pivot means that all I need to do during winter break is cut my pre-planned two weeks of hybrid daily instruction plans in half, spread them over three weeks and – maybe? – two days, download and practice using a few apps (hello, colleagues who have time to practice with me) so that fully virtual learning can go smoothly, convert any planned in-person instruction to a different delivery mode, and get ready to handle any residual upset the students might be experiencing from the last time this happened – when we told them we were extending March Break & then separated them from all their friends & didn’t allow them back in the school for 5 months.

You know, pivot.

As 2020 ends and people suggest various phrases that define the year – “You’re on mute” is a fave – I vote for “pivot.” Oh, how I have come to loathe that word. To me, it implies an easy twist to a new position. Just turn a little and keep doing what you were doing. No biggie. No need to reconsider your pedagogy to take into consideration the trauma adolescents might be experiencing as the world around them goes haywire. No need to think about how that affects their ability to learn. No need to recognize that in-person, hybrid, and online education are, in many ways, entirely different beasts. No need to examine which educational practices are foundational and which are, perhaps, merely habitual. Just pivot.

So I looked it up. Because I’m a word nerd like that. And, while I regularly tell my students NOT to start essays with definitions (Dear Heaven, but they don’t need another way to avoid saying actual things), I’m going to share two of the definitions I found at dictionary.com.

Pivot
– to modify (a policy, opinion, product, etc.) while retaining some continuity with its previous version
– Basketball. to keep one foot in place while holding the ball and moving the other foot one step in any direction.

Suddenly I am back in high school, playing basketball with my athletic younger sister at the top of our driveway. She is on the Varsity basketball team. I am terrible at basketball, and my inexpert play is not helping her improve her game. Frustrated by my inability to block effectively, she sighs, “Just… set a pick,” and she places me between her and the basket. “Spread your feet, bend your knees a little, and stand still.”

I do, and she dribbles around me again and again, her brown hair flying as she finds different ways to create space for her shots. Sometimes – often – she pivots, confusing the imaginary defense before she spins around me and shoots.

Pivot, huh? Keep one foot in place and move the other foot in any direction. Retain some continuity. It sounds easy when the government or our school board assures people that we will simply pivot to online teaching, but I know better. Pivoting isn’t an effortless turn, a round peg gliding smoothly in a round hole. I think of my sister, relentlessly seeking improvement, earning her starting position one afternoon at a time, bouncing and bouncing, turning and turning, intentionally putting obstacles between herself and the basket. She was working.

Thanks to twowritingteachers.org for hosting this weekly space where teachers can hone their writing skills – and have fun doing it!

Still, even if we had to work at it, we had fun on those afternoons, and we got better – or she did, anyway. I didn’t, but I was mostly just standing still. It wasn’t easy, but, well… I think I need to go try out a couple of new apps. I’ll try to remember to keep one foot in place, but I’m constantly stepping with the other because on Monday, we pivot.

In the closet

When I had my second child, I was teaching at a relatively rural high school. Sure, some of the kids lived in the town, and more lived on large properties, but a fair number lived on farms, too. There were stories of kids coming to school on snowmobiles in the winter or sneaking off to go fishing or hunting when the season opened. I am pretty firmly a city girl, so a lot of this was new to me.

This was also the school where I started working in a program euphemistically called “Student Success.” The students in my room had not, in fact, met with success. The class was small, but every student was there to catch up on at least one and usually two or more subjects which they previously had failed.

I loved every minute of it. The room was full of all kinds of kids who were there for all kinds of reasons. The small number of students meant that I could get to know them and that they could get to know one another. The fact that they had already failed a course meant that any movement forward was a success. We shared a lot, laughed a lot, and celebrated a lot.

For those same reasons, I used myriad strategies to help students stay focused, persist through difficult moments, and generally learn how to learn. One of those strategies involved using the small office/closet/storage space next to our classroom so that a student could have some quiet. This was *never* a punishment, the door was always open, and we didn’t use it often, but sometimes it was just what we needed when someone was looking for focus.

I was particularly grateful for that little space when I returned from parental leave. I was still nursing, so having a private place to pump was fantastic – no more hiding in the corner of the classroom away from the door or hoping no one looked over at me in the staff room. Ah, the luxury of my own small room. It was heaven.

Of course, I still used it with students sometimes, so I carefully packed away the various plastic bits and bobs and zipped everything back into place every time. Or almost every time. Except, apparently, for the time when K went in there to finish up a test in peace. He was a particularly exuberant kid, not known for his ability to sit still or focus for any length of time. He worked on his family farm and regularly regaled us with tales from his daily life. He loved to talk. So I wasn’t at all surprised to see K’s face at the door mere moments after he had left for the quiet room. But I was surprised that he was, momentarily, speechless. His face was red and he was hopping from foot to foot, sputtering.

Alarmed, I jumped up. “K! What is it?”

He stared at me, eyes wide with horror, “You put me in the MILKING ROOM? THE MILKING ROOM! Miss, I CAN’T WORK IN THERE!!”

I nearly fell off of my chair laughing – so did everyone else. K took a while to settle down again. Needless to say, no tests were written for the rest of that class period and that particular room was no longer in use for the rest of the school year.

The milking room. Still makes me laugh.

Many thanks to twowritingteachers.org for hosting the Slice of Life every week. And special thanks this week to my teachers knitting group whose storytelling led me to remember this one.

The Way I Felt

Sometime earlier this year, Glenda Funke (over at Evolving English Teacher) told me about Ethical ELA‘s monthly Open Write. As I recall, she shared this after I admitted to feeling very nervous about poetry – mostly about writing it (I pretty much hate every poem I write) and sometimes about teaching it. May’s 5-day open write started on Monday, and I’ve been tentatively following and occasionally joining. Yesterday’s prompt was called “The Way I Felt” and was based on a poem from Jason Reynolds’ novel-in-verse Long Way Down. I knew right away what I would write about – my husband and I had just come in from a glorious bike ride – but then I didn’t write at all. Poetry does that to me sometimes. Well, poetry and parenting.

Then today, Doug Ford, the Premier of Ontario, announced that we will not be returning to school before the end of the school year. The announcement wasn’t shocking, but it still sucked the air out of the room when I heard it. I didn’t have lots of time to contemplate what he’d said because I had too much school to work on, but the emotions swirled around me for the rest of the day. And then, yesterday’s prompt came to me, and I wrote.  (And yes, I hate the poem I wrote- I pretty much always do. But I won’t get better if I don’t write and get feedback, and writing it made me pin down a few things – and that’s what writing does.)

The Way I Felt

when they announced today that we will not be going back to school this year
was relieved.

No more waiting
for people who don’t know me
to make a decision about
my life
my family’s life
my students’ lives
my community’s lives.

No more hoping for teaching and learning
that feels familiar
that resembles what we had started
that would be better if we were together.

No need to
send my own children to a place I don’t think is safe
make decisions about my own safety
wonder what will come next.

I sat at my work space in the kitchen
listening to the Premier speak
and my shoulders settled
my eyes fluttered closed
my breath finally filled my lungs
with a calm I had been missing.

The way I felt
when they announced today that we will not be going back to school this year
was heartbroken.

Tears welled up behind my closed eyelids
I drew my breath quickly through my nose
and I pressed my lips together.

My children will not run on the playground at recess
or surreptitiously swap snacks with classmates
or stand in front of their peers to present.
My son will not say goodbye to the school he’s attended
since he was four.

I will not see my students again.

We will not laugh or read or write or share
together in a space that is ours.

I will not see some students again at all
they are not in my class this semester
they will not join an online chat
they will graduate and move on.

Their unknown futures will be far more unknowable than we expected,
and I will not get to wish them well on their journey.

The way I felt
when they announced today that we will not be going back to school this year
was desperate

to remind them – my students, my children, your students, your children –
that though this is different
so different
from what we expected
they can still learn
and grow
and become.
The world is still full of possibility.

The way I felt
when they announced today that we will not be going back to school this year
was.

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Teeter Totter

Last night I was rubbing one child’s back while I read The Mysterious Benedict Society aloud to both kids. His muscles were tighter than I expected in a 9-year-old, and my thumb jittered off one particularly knotty spot and settled with a shudder into a softer space. “Sorry,” I interrupted my reading, “that must have felt weird.”

He considered. “I kind of liked it. Can you do it again?”

I could not recreate the exact sensation for him, so I went back to reading and continued to rub his back.

After that moment, though, I wasn’t concentrating on the read-aloud as much as I should have been. Instead, I found myself reliving summer moments on the teeter totter in my neighbor’s backyard. We were far too old for teeter totters: I didn’t even move to South Carolina until the summer before 5th grade, and I’m fairly certain the teeter totter didn’t arrive until sometime after that summer. What sort of self-respecting 6th grader plays on a teeter totter? And why on earth did the neighbors have one in their backyard when the oldest of their three children was also at least 11? I can no longer answer these questions, but I know for sure that for at least part of one sticky hot Southern summer, the neighborhood kids ate watermelon and rode on a teeter totter in the Pinckney’s back yard.

I really was far too old for this and, as the oldest in the group, too big, too heavy, too cool. And yet, I couldn’t resist. Rion was big enough to balance against me – or we could put together some combination of the littler kids with the bigger ones to balance things out. Up and down we rode, day after day, laughing, dripping watermelon juice and gleefully spitting out the seeds.

If I close my eyes, I can still remember being the one down on the ground, looking at Rion on the other end of the board, trapped in the air… waiting… waiting… and then – now! – I push off hard and whoosh up to the top where I stop with a hard bounce against the board. Now I am suspended, looking down at Rion, knowing she will push soon…but when? waiting… waiting… and then, whoosh back to the ground where the seat hits with a hard juddering thump. Sometimes we hold each other suspended for breathless seconds between each motion; sometimes we find a rhythm and go up and down up and down with unthinking regularity. One way or another, the fun of it is in the motion, the unpredictability, the sense that where we are is not where we will be, and that we will have to cooperate to keep it going.

Sometimes, in a tiff, one child would hold another high high high in the sky and then, all anger and meanness, hop off the bottom altogether so that the other person would come down fast with a jolting, horrible whomp. Fights ensued. Teeter totter might be soothing in its regularity or wonderfully unpredictable, but abandoning someone to fall on their own was the unforgivable end of the game.

“That HURT!” we raged, eyes nearly streaming with tears because it did, in fact hurt, or it could have hurt or it might hurt next time, or maybe just because the game was over for at least a few minutes and everyone had to content themselves with the dullness of predictable gravity.

My memories were interrupted when the chapter I was reading ended; it was time for bed. Up and down, up and down. We had had a good day, I knew, though some parts were noticeably less good. This whole time has been like that, really.  Up and down: now I can make a list of the good bits – waking later in the mornings, snuggling longer with my children, working out most days – and the bad ones – missing my friends, not seeing my students regularly, feeling like a failure for some part of most days. I give my son’s back one more rub, wondering if I can rediscover the teeter totter, remember the joy in  the waiting, the whoosh and the whomp that are all part of the ride. Use my memories to make my present more bearable. Maybe. Maybe. But not tonight. Tonight it’s time for sleep. I shoo the boys off the bed and head towards their rooms to tuck them in and sing some songs.

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On futons, spiders & memories: Slice of Life 20/31 #SOL20

Today we managed to get the futon frame out of the basement and into the guest room. Our “guest” is our exchange student from the Netherlands. His dad was an exchange student with my family when I was in high school. Given the current state of the world, this exchange is a *little* different than anyone was anticipating. The current state of our house isn’t making things any easier. Luckily, Pieter is very good natured and has not complained about sleeping on a futon mattress on the floor for a few nights. Unluckily, the futon frame – once we found it and got it upstairs – was very dusty and home to more than a few spiders. Pieter and Andre cleaned it up and put it together and then, over dinner, I regaled them with a spider story from possibly the craziest overseas trip I ever led – the time another teacher and I took ten students to Cameroon. 

After dinner and bedtime, I dug up the email I sent from that day, about twenty years ago. Here is a slightly edited letter from my past self to the parents who trusted me (age 20-something – aka *not old enough*) to take their children to Africa for a few weeks. Just re-reading it makes me gasp and smile. (The editing is that I removed the kids’ names, though I doubt any of them would care. We were two chaperones, ten kids from our school in the US, plus five from the local Cameroonian high school.)

Why hello there.  Did you miss us? Have you been sitting at home wondering what in the world your children have been doing?  Well, they are all alive and well and they are not bored.  Let me tell you about it…

As I recall, I left you at the end of the day Saturday – we’d been to the village and the lava flow.  Sunday morning we woke up bright and early and continued our exciting experiences of Cameroonian roads as we headed up to Bimbie, a town not far from Limbe. Our first order of business was hiking the Bimbie Nature Trail which runs through an old growth lowland rainforest – the only one left between Limbe and Douala. We split into two groups and made our way into the dark, humid interior. We walked by fig trees that have adapted to place their fruit on the ground so animals can get it more easily; we saw ebony trees and smelled their wonderfully aromatic flowers – and learned that you can eat the berries inside the flowers, though I found them bitter; we slopped through a mangrove and thanked the heavens once again for hiking boots that the mud couldn’t suck off our feet (though it tried); we saw a tree whose heartwood rots out leaving space for all sorts of creatures, including hundreds of bats; we even saw a four or five hundred year old tree. The hike was lovely and quite a success.

Upon our return to the road, we realized that the car that had been left for us was not big enough for everyone to get back to Camp Saker, the camp where we were staying in the rainforest.  So a LOT of people crowded into the first car, and the other half of us walked. Eventually, the car came back for the rest of us and we all got to the camp, sweaty but happy.

After lunch, we headed back into the forest with researchers from the Botanic Gardens and we learned how to do a wildlife transect to study a forest.  One student got to use the Global Positioning System (super-technology in the middle of the forest) and the rest of us served as recorders, measurers, tapers and spotters. We spotted lizards, caterpillars and birds’ nests as well as lots of crab holes, but we didn’t see much large wildlife because, in addition to the fact that we were crashing through the forest with about 20 people, these forests have been hunted to the point that almost no large wildlife is left.  Sad, but true. A few sweaty hours after we started our transect, we made our way back to the road and then back to camp.

We spent the early evening at the little beach near our camp. The Cameroonian boys all played soccer on the beach and some of our students joined in. Stella, our cook, was supposed to be making us dinner but, unbeknownst to us, our driver accepted a private deal and was, as a result, several hours late. So Stella was stuck in town, and couldn’t get to us. We realized something was wrong as we got hungrier and hungrier, but we really weren’t sure how to cook for 17 in a camp in the middle of the forest with only rudimentary cooking supplies. When I explained to the kids that we didn’t know what was going on, one of the Cameroonian girls stepped up and promptly took over, cooking a delicious bean stew over an open fire in an outdoor kitchen while I made rice (over a gas stove in an indoor kitchen). Let me just say how seriously impressed I was with her ability to take over and cook. Just as we began to serve, Stella arrived with soda (the height of luxury), and even she was impressed that we’d managed a delicious dinner on our own.

After dinner, some of the students organized a coconut feast (the guides had shown them how to get coconut milk on the morning hike). A few kids gathered the coconuts; everyone worked on opening them; one boy even used his baseball skills to throw coconuts at rocks until they burst.  We all loved the fresh coconut meat, which the kids observed tastes nothing like what you get in the grocery store.

Just before bed, I had to get help from my co-chaperone because a GIANT spider had taken up residence on the ceiling over my bed – not quite as big as my hand, but nearly…  I just couldn’t bring myself to sleep underneath it. He chased the enormous thing about until it gave up and dropped directly into my hiking boot – not my ideal outcome. As you can imagine, this made it very difficult for me to put my boots on the next morning. We decided to keep the spider incident quiet because we didn’t want to tell the kids and “creep them out” (many things “creep people out” around here), but then we learned of the lizard in the boys’ toilet and the various critters in the girls’ room, so we shouldn’t have worried. The night was also stiflingly hot, and Camp Saker doesn’t have air-conditioning – or even fans – so we all had a restless night and people looked a little worse for the wear Monday morning.

Today we are having a symposium (which I am late for as I type, so I’m about to sign off) and this afternoon will be spent at the beach with a beach barbecue for dinner. Tomorrow we have an optional hike to Bomona waterfall. It’s optional because it involves starting at 5 am and a 2 hour uphill hike – but the falls are supposed to be beautiful. As soon as the hike is over, we head to Yaounde. Thursday morning we will meet with the American Ambassador and show him our work painting the education center (which the embassy helped fund) at the Zoo and then we go to Douala. All of this is to say that I will probably email tonight, but after that I can make no guarantees. In addition, please limit your emails to your children to a line or two tonight as I won’t be able to get them the actual text, and this is probably the last time you should e-mail.

Hope all is well in DC and that you are out from under the snow.  More information as I can write.

Amanda

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Social distancing: Slice of Life 13/31 #SOL20

Just for today, I let the grade 10s leave before the final bell officially rang. They had asked all their questions, turned in the memoir they’d been working on, and maintained their composure for 73 minutes. They had even agreed to read at home. It seemed like enough. “Goodbye!” they called, and one or two lingered a few seconds longer than normal.

The period before that, the grade 12 students and I had worked together to make plans for our extended March break – all schools in Ontario are closed until April 5. The students met in their book clubs and planned various ways to meet for discussions: Instagram, Google hangouts Flipgrid and Google classroom will host our synchronous and asynchronous meetings. We talked about the value of journals and documentation during times of crisis, and the students decided to write regularly (I’ll provide prompts) for the next few weeks. They really want to learn, these kids. We watched Kelly McGonigal’s TED Talk “How to make stress your friend” and talked about reaching out to each other during our time apart. I reminded them that they could email me anytime, and I created a new Instagram account dedicated to working with them. I had to take a deep breath after we said goodbye.

I gave all the classroom plants extra water, gathered my things, and headed to the English office. There, several teachers were in the process of clearing out the refrigerator. April 5 is only three weeks away, but our unspoken concern was clear: what if this lasts longer? I swang by our Spec Ed room to pick up the avocado tree; it’s not really supposed to live in Ottawa, and it won’t last long without water. Back in the office, we threw things away, rinsed, washed, recycled. We gathered books, found papers, printed student phone numbers, just in case.

Finally, there was nothing left to do. Our goodbyes echoed through the hallways – “Take care!” “Be safe!” “Stay in touch!” – as teachers from various departments turned off the lights and pulled the doors closed.

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Outside of the building, a strong wind threatened to topple the tiny tree I was trying to shelter home. The car door blew shut and my colleague and I, laughing, had to work together to get the tree safely, if awkwardly, ensconced between my knees.

Training ruck march

Moments later, as we turned onto the street in front of the school, a group of soldiers marched by. We knew it was probably a training march, but it seemed oddly apropos. As we drove away from the school, from our students, from our social interactions, the incongruous soldiers in the rearview mirror, we laughed and laughed, trying to forget what we were leaving behind and how little we know of what lies ahead.

 

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