Friday, June 26, 2009

Everything you talk about, you say, "we will do this later."

-B, student from my Literacy class.

In the first week of the ESL*/ EFL/ TESOL Literacy class I am teaching for the summer I realize I enjoy a luxury that many educators can't say they have - that is, my students actually want to learn. Such is the beauty of adult education, which must not delude one into thinking that a career in secondary education is similarly ideal, of which I was reminded by one of my co-workers who is also a public school special-ed teacher.

For 2 and a half hours, twice a week, I sit in a room with 7 sets of eyes on me. Five West Africans, one Mexican, and most curiously, an American student who recently graduated high school. Three women and four men among them. All of them speak English, some with stronger accents than others. The first feelings of actually teaching, nevermind your anticipations before you walk into a classroom, are those produced by those eyes on you. It's not like any conversation that you can excuse yourself from if you get tired or come to a loss of material. They expect me to produce for them some knowledge, to transfer some understanding of the mangled forest of the written English language, just as much the task of a 4th or 5th grade teacher. For a couple, it's kindergarten and 1st grade material. If your audience is unreceptive, the feeling is daunting. If they are receptive, it's empowering. (By comparison, if your audience is one of professors and grad students, as say, at a conference, it's downright nerve-racking) Across the board, whatever kind of day you're having, it's objectifying, because what you are expected to do is perform, and the meaning and meaningfulness of you to your students is endowed by your performance.

Other than having tutored and teach-assisted literacy students for 5 months now, and a knack for grammar and language dating back to my Catholic school English lessons, my documentable credentials for such a task are minimal. They may or may not know that I lack the official qualifications to teach reading and writing in a publicly-funded institution. I don't even have an established syllabus or curriculum (which makes it really more fun for me, having time for such things). In other words, for all they know, I could be as good as any other shlep off the street. But they look at me no less expectantly, as best I could tell in the two classes thusfar.

The perceptions of what I am capable of, between myself and my students, is most interesting for me when it comes to I., my American student. The only difference between us (in these regards) is four years and a bachelor's degree, but for now someone has convinced him that I can do a better job than Philadelphia's public school system. To work up to this challenge, that is, to be such an enabler, in his life as well as my other students would be, well... an honor. This is the word that comes to my mind, and repeatedly. At first I think of it as a little clumsy, but if asked, what do you call it when people entrust you with something invaluable? It's current inappropriateness has mostly to do with the fact that I can't yet say that I have fully earned it. In the meantime, we can settle for warm and fuzzy.

As of now, I have no tools to measure success, except perhaps my class attendance, because to me not showing up would be the ambiguous protest. Plus, it seems they have already cultivated something of a coherently positive class atmosphere, which is a good sign. At least they're comfortable. Now that I am on the other side of the classroom, I realize how little teachers can know about what is really going on in the minds of their students. You're so busy presenting, trying to make sure that you're being clear, that you can't see yourself or the reactions of your students, so you can only hope that you're not leaving anyone behind. As much as my students' investments in my class are acts of faith, so it is for me. Fortunately, unlike many classrooms, the goal of students and teacher are more genuinely the same, a fact which is the source of my motivation.

* "ESL" is, as has been noted before, an inaccurate, not to mention presumptuous, title as many so-called "English as a Second Language" students, including some of mine, speak more than 2 languages.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Open Water Diver

Three days and 6 dives later, Ian and I have both earned our Open Water Diving Certifications! We set out about 9 a.m. every day to visit different places around St. John, including Calf Rock, Caval Rock, which pirates used to use for cannonball target practice, and Little St. James again.

For putting yourself underwater and surviving, and being comfortable on top of that, there are a lot of things that you need to keep in mind, which you don't realize until you do it. Equipment is, in our experience, safe and reliable. I had more trouble with the small comforts, which can be big discomforts underwater if they're not managed, and a distraction from everything you're trying to see... like mask fit, appropriate weighting, equalizing habits, and mobility skills. All this comes with experience, and I think the nicest thing about having the cert now is that I can take more of my own time rather than having to keep up with an instructor.

All in all, however, it was definitely the highlight of this Virgin Islands trip. Being able to breathe underwater really makes you think about 1) how much the body is like a machine and relatedly, 2) what human beings are capable of. That is, how we can simulate conditions to continue life in otherwise non-ideal or unsurvivable environments, and not for the purpose of survival, but for exploration. I realized that I'll probably never see this kind of diversity of life in eyesight anywhere else. While I hardly thought much about marine life before, I can definitely see now how a person could commit their life to understanding it.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

social inquisitions

Yesterday I suffered an episode of intensive social disorientation when Ian and I visited the market to pick up some food. I was blown away by the prices! $1.80 for an orange, $4 for a bag of onions, $8 for a box of cereal. My mind was then flooded with questions as soon as I asked myself: Can the natives afford these prices? Or do they pay cheaper prices at "local" markets? Then: How big really is the economic disparity between people that vacation here and those who we might loosely define as local (read, for my interest in this case: black) natives? If there are much fewer tourists than native Islanders, is there enough income generated by tourism jobs to sustain the living of all the natives, plus the non-natives that live here? When a house like the one we are vacationing in is on the market for $3.5 million, surrounded by dozens of houses like it in, how is this wealth distributed among the multi-generational residents of these islands, and its more transient labor and inhabitants?

For other places, namely Colombia and Morocco, I would have some answers to these questions. What makes this place unique for me is -

a) I know next to nothing about any inhabitants here, and
b) these are islands, very small, fixed geographical areas with limited resources and living spaces
c) these are U.S. "territories," implying a political relationship with the U.S. government that I know only vaguely.

Although I come with a lot of intellectual baggage, knowing almost nothing I would like to know about a place, like the who's and the how's and the why's, can actually be kind of fun. I was too lazy to research (it is a vacation, right?) before coming, but it has actually been convenient for my social inquisition. I've resolved to not look up anything on the internet til we get home, and now it's almost like detective work.

So last night I got a local newspaper, the St. John Tradewinds. There's a constitution of the USVI that's recently been passed, and no one seems to be happy about it, at least no one who wrote in the editorials. One reads: "The argument that only defined 'natives' of these islands will protect the integrity of government and the interests of average citizens is a grievous falshood." Another calls it a "discriminatory document." It's meant to go up shortly to Obama and Congress to be passed. I wondered what the so-called "natives" of the islands have to say, or if they are the same ones complaining....

When we went sailing with Captain Bob today, I asked him about this proposed constitution, and he said that the language is very questionable and controversial, with some elements of racism that gives the "locals" certain privileges, and disregards the variety of people (ex., 1st and 2nd generation whites and blacks, Puerto Rican labor, etc. etc.) that have a stake in the islands. I also learned that the black locals that one can loosely define as natives (I'll call them multi-generational inhabitants) are referred to as "West Indians," and that the language they speak is a variant of English, but can readily sound incomprehendable to us Continentals.

I have yet to talk to a "West Indian," as much as I would like to, about island life beyond the Bahama Breeze version. Chances are that I won't, but I'll keep my eyes and ears sharp for more insights.


Today we spent the day on a sailboat. Aside from Jersey's tall ship the A.J. Meerwald back in April, this was my first day-charter sail. A 39' sloop-rigged Pearson named Spree, home to Michigan-born Captain Bob. We were out from 9 a.m. til about 3 p.m. I spent the couple hours or so with my eyes closed, with either seasickness or indigestion, praying that it wouldn't get worse. Fortunately it passed.

On the way we sailed by this island. It's called Little St. James, entirely owned by a billionaire philanthropist currently jailed in West Palm Beach for sex with underage girls.

We moored at Lovango Cay to snorkel. Although it was cloudy for most of the day, the sun shone through enough to get some good underwater views. Here's another photo courtesy of Pete, this one with two blue tangs and a school of French grunts:

I am building a repertoire of underwater life. So far I have seen and identified (using Pete's marine life picture book):

brain coral, southern sting ray, spiny sea urchin, trumpetfish, blue tang, French grunts, foureye butterfly fish, bearded fireworm, and yellowtail damselfish (my favorite so far!)... and the list keeps growing.

Tomorrow Ian and I start Day 1 of diving for our Open Water certification, where we'll get to see even more fish.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


I wake up early on vacation, this morning at 7:30, like it's my job. This morning's charge is to get some geographical orientation. Ian and I eat breakfast and set off to cover nearly all the drivable perimeter of St. John. Roads are maximum two-lanes, two ways, and mandatory 4WD, or at least some hardy transmission, and aside from Cruz Bay, walled by tree and bush, and graced by an occasional donkey. There are no taxis, which I think unwise for an island with so many cars and so little road, but who am I to say.

(^ This is Trunk Bay from an overlook from the road, my photo this time! - check your cellphone, M!)

By 12 we have settled into the beach in Hawksnest Bay (pic on right), under a broad-leaf bush for some shade from a mean sun. The water is paradise blue and green, and the sand is white and soft. Shortly after the family arrives with the snorkel gear, the clouds creeping over the hills from the west break. It sprinkles, and then pours, and then 20 minutes later the sun is shining as if nothing happened.

I set off in the water with mask and snorkel. Even though I've been diving, I've never snorkeled, and it wasn't nearly as sunny when we dove. And how spectacular! So many fish! Blue, yellow, silver, striped, big, small. The only life I could recognize from Pete's marine life picture book was the brain coral, tube sponge, and spiny sea urchin. Fortunately, he got some great underwater pics. Here's his photo of a school of blue tangs. There's a spiny sea urchin on the left corner. If you step on them, the spikes are impossible to remove and you have to wait for them to dissolve in your body.

Monday, June 8, 2009

beachbumming in the USVI

Tomorrow (more accurately, 2 a.m. tonight...) Ian and family and I will be setting off for their yearly vacation to the US Virgin Islands. This will be the first time going away without having to worry about virtually anything (thanks G & J!!!). No hostel reservations, no language barriers, no conferences... a genuine "vacation."

I don't know much about the USVI, and maybe it's ignorant to say that I don't know if there's much to know, because I only picture it as some kind of idyllic place as presented in all the pictures. I never met anyone from the Virgin Islands, and know nothing about what it's like to live there. I've heard of an "island culture" that consists mainly of Calypso music and spicy food. Naturally I'm curious to know how much of it really is about Calypso, spicy food, and peace and love, but since it is a vacation, I will allow opportunities for such insight to come to me more casually than not.

For better or worse, I don't think that culture tends to be the main selling point of the islands, and it's certainly not our reason for going. The pictures speak for themselves. I am imagining it as being Tayrona x 10, at least area wise, but with internet and cell phone access.

We'll be staying on the island of St. John. Ian and I, after our intro to SCUBA in Colombia, will be looking to get our Open Water diving certification. Most of St. John is national park land, which will give us some other outdoor explorations to do. Other than that, it's eat, sleep, beach, snorkel, Mating (the book! - see below), and iPod. Will hopefully be posting pictures!

P.S. the above pic, Trunk Bay on St. John, is not mine.....

Friday, June 5, 2009

on feeling useful

On the SEPTA bus. A tall, white man with glasses walks on. Jeans, t-shirt, and a backpack. The bus driver tells him the fare. He pulls out his wallet, and after sifting through it, he asks the bus driver for change, which no SEPTA bus has. I also detect an accent from where I'm sitting. The bus driver lets him go with a dollar and coins.

You're not from around here, are you? I ask. Cliche, but, in the spirit of everyone else who has helped me in the same circumstance, that is, being disoriented in another country, I couldn't resist. I figure now is a good time to return the karma.

I learn he's a German scientist touring the area in the days he has free before a conference downtown. Today he's looking to visit Valley Forge Park. He's equipped with maps and bus schedules, like the good European travelers who seem to be so much more directionally gifted than myself. He has a strong accent, and struggles just a bit to speak and hear English clearly. The funniest part was when he asked if I could tell when he got on the bus that he was not from here. To which I said that, aside from barely hearing his accent from that distance, most people who live in Philadelphia know that SEPTA buses don't have change, so at least he wasn't from the city.

We talk about different things, how to get to D.C., what's good to do around the city, how hard it is to understand English, and how American breakfast portions are excessively generous, and how, so long as I call myself an American, not everyone eats in quantity or quality the same as a typical diner fare. I help to clarify some things about his itinerary and orientation, and tell him he can call me in case he has any problems.

I helped a helpless tourist! I tell everyone. Ok, not helpless, but if the situation were reversed, I definitely would have been, and it was nice to be on the other side for once.

Monday, June 1, 2009

...what I was trying to do with my anthropology was first to get a job in a halfway decent university...

...and then get tenure. This was a marxist analysis of my situation but it was correct. Along the way, of course, I was going to be adding to the world's knowledge of man, no doubt. But there was already a lot of that, to put it mildly. Possibly there was enough.
-Norman Rush, Mating

With an upcoming vacation later this month, I went to The Book Trader this weekend with the mission of finding a good beach read. As with movies once in the movie store, it took a long time before I could think of a good book that I really wanted to read. Eventually I remembered Salman Rushdie's interview on NPR about his latest, The Enchantress of Florence. To my surprise, not one of his books lined The Book Trader's fiction section. Still browsing around the "R" authors in disappointment, I picked up a book by Norman Rush, titled Mating, whose central character is a woman anthropologist recovering from a disintegrated doctoral thesis in Botswana who is supposed to find herself infatuated with some hyperidealistic cult founder in the south African jungle. At first, I was skeptical about a male author's ability to write from the first person perspective of a rather introspective female character, but the page-browsing I did (and my reading thus far) was convincing enough. So in a sort of parodying twist of fate after not finding Salman Rushdie, I walked out with Norman Rush. With 460+ pages and small type, it might be a long haul, but the comical and self-conscious style with academic terminology of the first 50 pages should make it as much fun as interesting.

btw, The Book Trader, a used-books store in Old City, is definitely one of my top 5 favorite spots in Philly. Not that I have any tour-guide credentials, as I don't live in the city, but I do love book stores. With 2 floors of crammed shelves overflowing with books and boxes of books strewn on the floor still to be filed, I'm like Paris Hilton at the Mall of America, or like a trick-or-treater at a chocolate factory. I'm just in awe of all the browsing to be done. While books are categorized by subject and genre, the poor organization within them makes the place like a gold mine where you could find several copies of the same book on different shelves, or serendipitously come across something you didn't expect, like a 1951 travel account of Morocco by Rom Landau, or a 1901 print of George Eliot (or Norman Rush instead of Salman Rushdie, for that matter). Fortunately, I have the discipline to keep my spending under $15, and to remind myself that I have too much clutter at home, that I can only read about one book at a time, and that I can always come back.