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My job finished about three weeks ago.  There were a lot of things I wanted to say about that time, none of which got posted, partly because I was busy, and partly because everything was very complicated, and the ethics and professionalism of using one’s daily interactions as blog fodder seem very different on this side of the Atlantic, somehow.  But I do want to say something; I don’t want to let that year of my life pass and disappear without so much as a salute.

Here are some thoughts.  It’s a start.

Toward the end, I spent a lot of time sitting on the windowsill and knitting.  I find this funny, because that’s what I did when I first got there — sat on the wide windowsill overlooking Broad Street, or on a chair in the corner, and knit, and watched my new coworkers teach, and tried to get my feet under me.  It’s a very different feeling, though.  As my boss said when I mentioned this, “This is different.  Then, you didn’t really know where you fit, and you were sitting there because you didn’t have something to do.  Now, you have your own class to teach, and you’re sitting there because it’s not your time to be in charge of the class, and you can help out if somebody needs it, but you don’t have to.”

With the new batch of students, I taught Professional and Postsecondary skills.  It’s mostly a good class, incorporating the best bits of Business Writing along with things that are more fun, like presentation skills and group work and deep conversations.  One week we worked on cover letters and talked about time management; another, the students presented skits on good and bad interview skills.

One day, a student broke down in tears.  Typically, this is not something I would be proud of, but this time it was.

One of the projects I assigned is “Student and Term Association.”  I gave each student a word, a personality trait, something picked specifically for them as a skill that they have demonstrated but need to work on further.  I tried to explain the project to my mother, struggling to explain why it’s such a positive experience.  Partly, it’s the framing of the project, that I don’t say, “This is a thing you’re bad at.”  But it’s more than that: I eventually realized that this word is a positive trait that a figure of authority has picked for them and told them that they can excel in.  Many of them have never been given something like a word before, and that makes it special.  The students were proud of those words, even those who acknowledged that they weren’t there yet, and the Student and Term Association presentations were some of the best I saw in my last session of teaching.

I gave the young woman in question the word “Confident.”  I see within her a lot of talent and ability, really strong group skills, and a very fragile sense of self that occasionally expands to encompass the breadth of her personality.  Come her presentation, she stood up, defined her word, and explained to the class that she didn’t consider herself at all confident; she’d been struggling with an eating disorder and with her sense of self-worth.  I was as floored as the rest of the class — while a lot of the homework (a written exercise to guide the presentation) had been emailed, I’d also allowed hand-ins at the beginning of class, and I hadn’t read hers yet.  She promptly started sobbing so hard she could barely talk, much less finish the presentation.

I was astounded by her vulnerability, by the piece of herself that she had pulled out and laid bare before her peers.  As I stood to usher her back to her seat, Mr. Articulate also jumped to his feet.

“Group hug,” he declared, and the whole group surged forward to enfold Ms. Confident until she got herself under control.

Mr. Unflappable, a young man who has a lot of self-control and ability to take anything we throw at him at school, but who I knew really struggles in his home life, refused to identify with his word.  “That’s not me.  I don’t do that.  I let stuff get to me.”

“Excuse me.”  Ms. Perspicacious raised a hand and looked at him tartly.  “Can I say something?  Because, Unflappable, I think that is you.  You have all this stuff going on at home, but you come in to school, and you don’t let it show.  Maybe it affects you, but we can’t see it in the way you act.  You’re always respectful, and you help anyone who needs it.”

Or Mr. Exemplary, who took his word in a direction I never imagined: “I look at the two meanings of my word, and I see two options laid before me.  I can be that shining example, or I can be a warning to others, a sign post showing which way not to go.  And my decisions determine which I will be.”

I was so proud of them.  I was proud of the work they did with their words, and their degree of self-reflection.  I was proud of what they saw in themselves as a result of the project, and on the whole very pleased with my choice of words.  But above all, I was proud of the space they created together, of the safety and community and trust they had in each other.  I won’t say that there haven’t been rough patches, and that they didn’t get frustrated and disagree.  But any group has its difficulties, and a group like my students, who have been out of formal schools for so long, perhaps has more than most.  But despite the flaws, I saw them BECOMING, even when they couldn’t always see it themselves, and what they can be together is so much more than the sum of its parts.  No one else can take that away from them.  And I sincerely hope that as they grow and change over the rest of this year, they will not take it away from themselves.


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Let’s talk about culture shock

To be honest, of all the culture shock (and reverse culture shock) I’ve experienced in the past few years, I have to say that the culture shock of interacting with my students — inner-city former high school dropouts, mostly African-American — has been greater than Zambia, greater than Spain, greater than coming back home.  It’s funny, because they’re only about five years younger than I am, and most of us grew up in the same city, some in the same neighborhoods, and one would think that they are not so different from the children I went to elementary school with — but somehow it is.  I don’t know if the differences are more apparent as we get older, or if I just wasn’t paying attention back then, or if somehow it is different.

Part of what makes it harder, I think, is that culture shock is expected when moving from country to country.  Who expects it a 20-minute bus ride away, or even just a walk of a few blocks?

When I arrived in Zambia, I effectively had the skills of a three-year-old.  I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t cook, I couldn’t wash my clothing.  I didn’t know how to get water.  I stumbled over the most basic human interactions.  I could barely wash myself.  But this was normal — this was expected — this was accepted.  The people I interacted with understood that Ba Miriam did not know how to be a Zambian because she had lived all her life somewhere else, and accepted that I had the skills needed to behave as an adult in my own society, but would require time to learn them in  Zambian culture.

The cultural differences between my students and I are not nearly that large, but no one sees that they are there.  Many of my students have barely been outside their neighborhoods in any significant kind of way, and often have no concept that there might be more than one way to live one’s life, and that just because I don’t do things their way doesn’t mean that the way I do them is wrong.

As I child, I was taught that you measure water and rice, bring the water to a boil, add the rice, stir, and then cover it for twenty minutes.  (You can also do it in the oven, if you have lots of time, or some people use a rice cooker, but we’re not fancy like that.)  But you MUST NOT stir the rice after that first time, or even lift the lid, or you’ll ruin the rice.  I didn’t really understand what that entailed, but it would be RUINED.

And yet, in Spain, my host mother stirred rice the whole time she was cooking it.  (And made really good rice.)  Her idea of plain white rice was rice cooked in chicken broth (and stirred the whole time); she could not conceive of something more plain than that.  In Zambia, no one measures; you just put rice and water in a pan and stir it sometimes, and if you run out of water, you add more.

Maybe I’m a rice Philistine, but I have to admit that I can’t really tell the difference (though both the oven rice and the chicken broth rice taste better).  It was pretty shocking to me to realize that you COULD stir rice while it was cooking without the kitchen exploding or something, but Pepi clearly knew what she was doing, so I kept my mouth shut and learned.  I’ve become pretty blase about cooking rice, and these days I mostly just dump rice and water into a pan and measure Chinese-style, with my finger.

While I was in Puerto Rico with my students, I tried to cook rice — and was immediately shouted down for not putting oil in with the rice and water.  (Apparently you CAN’T cook rice without oil.  Who knew?  Certainly not me, or the Spaniards, or the Zambians.)  And rice isn’t the only place I see it, although food is where it comes up most: there is One Right Way to Cook X, and generally I’m doing it wrong.  We bumped into that a lot on that trip: the bacon was cooked wrong; we didn’t put Sazón with the chicken; the students can’t eat x without y . . .

“Why did you dump the pan scrapings on the eggs?”  (Clearly implied: I had RUINED them; they were now unfit to eat.)

“Well, some people like them,” I floundered.  “Take from this side, where there aren’t any.”  It wasn’t until hours later that I realized that it wasn’t about liking or disliking; it’s a habit learned from my mother, learned from her parents who grew up during the Great Depression: I don’t waste food.

It even comes up when talking about my lunches: something that I consider as normal as veggies with peanut sauce is a foreign concept to my students, and probably not edible.  Forget tatsoi or quinoa or goat cheese anything with a name in a language other than English.

I think the amount of judgement from is part of what makes it difficult.  In other countries, I am strange, yes, but I’m a strange foreigner, which gives me a certain amount of license to be strange, and means that most of the people involved expect that I will be experiencing culture shock.  Most of my students see me as unreasonably strange, existing in some sort of weird incomprehensible lifestyle that maybe isn’t even possible.  It’s an odd thing, to interact daily with people who view you as an impossibility.

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Join me for lunch?

Right about the time lunch started, I was sitting at a coworker’s desk, checking my email as today’s class finished up what they were doing and got ready for break. Another student, one of our IT students who’s currently on the academic rather than vocational side — I’ll call her Snowflake — walked in through the open door.

“Where’s Mr. R——-?”

“In Portland.”


“He’s on vacation.”

“When will he be back?”


“I need my Graduation Pathway. Who has it?”

“I’m not sure.” (I love how most of the students seem to assume that I do nothing with my brains besides store the exact details of what requirements they’ve completed, and what they still need to turn in, etc, etc. There’s a reason I write this stuff down.)

“Well, do I need to pass Business Writing?”

“You need to pass [the IT track].”

“I’m passing.”

I wasn’t so sure of that, but I didn’t have her grades in front of me.

She sat down at my coworker Lala’s desk, across from me, and grabbed a big pile of papers from the desk and started paging through it.

“You did not just take a stack of papers off of Ms. H—–‘s desk.”

“You won’t tell her.” She didn’t look up. “I just want to know who’s passing.”

I picked my jaw up off of the floor. I will admit that I do not recall exactly what I said. I know that I in some way indicated that such behavior was unacceptable — though probably not as eloquently as I would have done had I been less flabbergasted.

Snowflake shrugged and put the papers back. “Will you just tell me, am I passing?”

“I don’t know.” I did not have quite the presence of mind to point out that she did not pass my class, either time, but she knows that already. “You’d have to ask Ms. M—— about that.”

“I guess I will!” She flounced out.

Later, after I’d microwaved my lunch in the other room, I came back to find Snowflake sitting at a table, reading the Vocational Newsletter from last week.

“Will you sign my ASAP form?” ASAP is the program to make up missed time in half-hour chunks, before school, after school, and during lunch. Teachers sign off to say that a student did work for a particular period of time, and eight half-hours are eligible for a day’s attendance credit (but not the work for that day).

“If you work for half an hour.” I pulled out my phone and checked the time. 11:48. I’ve had experiences with Snowflake getting annoyed over ASAP forms before, when my sense of integrity and her sense of entitlement collided.

Some more students came in, and we chatted about life, and the review tab in Microsoft Word, what peculiar thing I was eating for lunch (steamed veggies and peanut sauce. I didn’t bother to mention that the grain was freekah greenwheat, since that seemed like too much bother, and peanut sauce was already a stretch), and You Are Not Eating At The Computers.

Snowflake looked up. “Ms. Miriam, you gonna sign my paper now?”

I shut my mouth on the automatic ‘yes.’ My hands were full of grapefruit, so I couldn’t check the time. “K—, what time is it?”

K— glanced at her computer. “12:10.”

“Snowflake, I’ll sign it when you’ve done half an hour.”

“I did!”

“I told you twenty minutes ago that I would sign it in half an hour, if you were working.”

“But I was working before you came!”

“I wasn’t here to see it.”

“Well, that’s your fault! You shoulda been here!”

“I’m not responsible for giving you ASAP time.”

“Yes you are, since Ms. J——‘s not here!”

“I didn’t sign up to sit in this room all the time and sign people’s ASAP forms.”

“You signed up months ago.”

” . . .” I think she meant that I’d signed an ASAP form months ago, which is true.

“Look, I gotta see Mr. F—- before lunch is over. Will you just sign it so I can go see him?”

“You can go whenever you want.”

“And you’ll sign my form?”

“After you work another ten minutes.”

“That doesn’t count?”

“No, it’s not doing ASAP time. You can go see him and then work ten minutes, and I’ll sign it.”

“I don’t have any more work to do!”

“Read a book. Work on [typing program].”

She found something to do for ten more minutes, and then gave me grief because I signed on the line that she had reserved for a signature from Ms. J——.


What’s interesting about this interaction is that Snowflake is better than she used to be. I’ve seen her grow as a person over the last six months. Nowadays she asks when she wants me to proofread a paper, and she’ll move to sit in the circle for group discussion, even if she won’t participate.

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