Sunday, December 15, 2013

My Global Moment

#MyGlobalMoment from The Ubuntu Center on Vimeo.

“And you call yourself an educated man.”

I was having a buffet breakfast in 2006 with two Afghan teachers at a conference for Middle Eastern educators (TARA) in Bahrain.  The man was young, maybe thirty, the woman, Hamaira, more seasoned, with a married daughter of her own. She had told me of her marriage at the age of 11, how she was in the garden playing with dolls when her father came to fetch her to meet her new husband.  While they had grown close over the years, she was quick to distinguish her marriage from her daughter’s, which, with a slight straightening of the spine, she described as a “love marriage.” Her daughter lived in Atlanta, far removed from her but also from the fighting in Kabul. “It is good,” she said definitively.

Hamaira, who had endured refugee camps and had very little in the way of material belongings insisted on giving me her headscarf when we parted, an act of generosity that I could not refuse, but which hurt to accept.  Years later, it still smells of her perfume.

The young man had a permanent look of concern.  He thought the ideas being exchanged at the conference were all good ones, but, he tipped his head, unfortunately not much use to him as his students had neither desks nor pencils.  These were only a couple items on a long list of what had gone missing in Kabul as the result of war.  No electricity. No clean water. His grandmother had no legs as a result of an American land mine.

“And you are sitting here having breakfast with me?” I asked.

“You did not plant this bomb,” he said matter-of-factly, evidencing a maturity of reasoning not present at home where educated folks had actually debated the merits of calling French fries “freedom fries,” a few years prior -- a phrase still in use at that time (and still in use in some restaurants even today).  Americans know how to hold a grudge and spread it with ubiquitous contempt from border to border.

The conference had sponsored the attendance of these two teachers.  They were both classroom teachers and trainers of teachers in a school system in which many children go to school in 2 hour increments because of their work schedules.  Not the teachers’ work schedules, the kids’.  With so many of the men absent from families after decades of war, basic provisions were a joint effort. As we sat trading stories, the young man said something that made Hamaira flare. “Ah, you say these things, and yet when you ask your wife to bring you a glass of water, you do not look her in the eye or speak her name. You wave your hand and say, water.  And you call yourself an educated man,” she sniffed.

“What do you expect?” The young man replied with a shrug. “I live in my father’s house.”

Changing the hearts and minds of people with such deep traditions suddenly looked to me to be a foolish, misguided and painfully arrogant notion, dreamy, magical fiction, transient as freedom fries.

To some extent, we all live in our father’s house.  How we find common ground is never along path carved out by one party.

Do you have a Global Moment?  Post it here and read others:

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Dostyk American International School, Atyrau, Kazakhstan

“What were you doing in Kazakhstan?’ asks the customs agent in Newark.

“How much time do you have?” I want to answer, but these folks get paid to not know how to take a joke, so I just say, “Visiting.”

He stares me down. 

“Visiting a school.”

“Do you speak Russian?”

“No.” Neither do all Kazakhs, I’m thinking.  They have their own language.  But I don’t say that part.  It was a long trip; I don’t want to add any interrogation rooms to the legs of my journey.  “English language,” I say.

“What are you bringing back?”

The true answer involves memories, smiles, stunning lines of poetry, new friendships, hugs from old friends, new vistas, tacos, home made beer, a muddy market, laughter, and a slight head cold.  But this guy doesn’t want all that, so I just say, “a hat and some alpaca socks from Frankfurt.”

Thump.  Thump.  He stamps my passport and hands it across the counter.

“Welcome back.”

How do you sum up a weeklong trip to the other side of the planet in a single sentence?  Memories are crammed into the data bank like an over stuffed suitcase, hard to contain even if you sit on it.

My best attempt would be, “Spots of brilliance against an otherwise grey landscape.”  Favorite line came out of Cheryl Fullerton's pre-school class where one student said that "snow is water than looks like sugar."  Most laughable line came from the K-1 class where one writer was searching a word and pointed to my eye for me to help her.  "She's not being rude," explained her writing partner, "she just doesn't know the word."  The word was wrinkled.  

Salinger and I spent a week working with the 81 students at all grade levels at Doystk American International School in Atryau.  The skies may have been grey most days, but the kids were brilliant.  Writing poetry can be risky business, but the kids just jumped right in.  This tells me that they are in an atmosphere where they feel safe.

The kids had illustrated some of our poems before we arrived and are active writers, so were open to trying new approaches as they wrote and revised their way to a culminating performance for classmates and parents.

The first couple of days, I taught in borrowed clothes as our bags got hung up in Moscow and flights to Atyau only happen every two-three days.  

Luckily, they arrived before the evening reading we did for parents.  Lots of good snacks and warmth with the ever gusty winds whipping outside.  Once in a while it's good to share poems just for the sake of the words.  Not teaching, just sharing.  

This was the first time we could leave behind a copy of our new book with projectable lessons, High Impact Writing Clinics, with teachers for follow-up, which was exciting.  We never go into a school thinking we know the needs of the students better than their teachers.  What we hope is that we can add a few more lessons for teachers to draw upon as they help kids find their voices through writing.  Sometimes it just helps to have someone back up what the teachers have been saying all year -- draft, revise, be specific, use comparisons.  The normal stuff made more than normal if kids hear it from more than one place.

Atyrau, Kazakhstan is not a well known tourist destination.  But we had fun touring, one day taking a 5 mile walk.  This picture was taking on the bridge where you can cross from Asia to Europe and back again.  The hat is on loan from Konna, the face mask a souvenir of Vietnam.  

Thanks to Principal Raul Hinojosa and his favorite librarian, wife Patsy for the invitation.  Thanks to Konna and Peter Parker and their therapy husky Toshe for opening their home to us.  Special thanks to the parents who made us feel welcome with spectacular meals and conversation. 

To Brent, Cheryl, Lauren and Maxim Fullerton, how great to see you again! Thank you so much for recommending us.

Wanted in Michigan

No one climbs aboard a bicycle and proclaims, “I want to crash and fall on my head.  Bring on the broken bones.” No one puts a cake in the oven hoping it will come out burned black and tasting like a hockey puck. Likewise, people don’t get married because they want to get divorced.  If they did, American Tuxedo would rent helmets. 

When a marriage crashes or turns into a hockey puck, it isn’t because the partners want it to happen.  Divorce is like volunteering for amputation without the anesthetic. Who would ever wish for that?

My parents were divorced. I was an adult when it happened, but that doesn’t mean it was easy on me. My marriage also ended.  Didn’t want either one of these things to happen. Just did.  Today I can say, I am pretty glad things turned out as they did.  I like my life.  But, I can’t say, could never say, that I wanted divorce to be part of who I am.

So this knowing was the impetus for my poem, Wanted.  Today, that poem is wanted by teachers in Michigan as it (unpredictably) is a component in their state standards.  The state didn’t choose to provide the poem to teachers for classroom use, they just assigned it.  Unfortunately the book that originally contained the poem has gone out of print.  So teachers have been writing to me (apologetically) asking for the text of the poem. 

Some would say (and have) that divorce is no topic for kids’ poetry.  Kids’ poetry should be about balloons rising, spinning till you fall over, or castles in the air, in ancient times, in Spain. Anywhere and anything except the dismemberment of the castle in which a kid currently resides.  It’s true that the poems that pop out when pulling your finger out of your nose are funny (perfectly okay with editors) and a (ick) represent a pretty universal experience, it’s also true that divorce happens. 

In my world, real happenings are the stuff of poems. I spent about 15 years writing poetry in my kid voice before I had anything published.  I had never been to a book fair or teacher’s conference where children’s poetry was discussed.  I didn’t know writing kids’ poetry came with a set of rules having nothing to do with iambs, quatrains or free verse.  I didn’t know there were topics that kids’ poets just didn’t write about, like divorce. Death and war are okay topics, but only if they are old news, not breaking news. 

My first editor suggested I divorce all my divorce poems from the others and make a book of poems just on that topic.  My response was a big no to that idea.  I mean, seriously.  Who would check that book out of the library? After I wore that first editor out, the second one suggested that since she had an intact marriage and so had her parents (lucky her, exactly the opposite of my experience) that only certain kids would be able to identify with the topic of divorce and therefore, poems on divorce should not be included in any collection.  “You have a skewed perception based on your experience,” she told me, “Most kids are happy.”

“Not in my neighborhood,” I said.  True, I may be a little askew, but what do I have except my own perception?  From what I could see, divorce had touched the lives of every kid I knew, if not their own parents, then a friend had moved away, a cousin got squirrely, a friend wound up in tears at school, even grandparents have been known to split up.  Besides, nobody as in NOBODY is happy all the time. I got a third editor.

One reviewer suggested when my book Am I Naturally this Crazy was published that I was making light of kids' feelings because I used rhyme in this particular poem.  No rhymes allowed when speaking of divorce to kids?  Who wrote that rule?

Crazy even got banned in one district that I know of because not only did it contain a poem about divorce, but also about a current war (double whammy).  Writing about divorce, a rather tight-lipped librarian explained, meant I was “anti family values.”  Did she mean I didn’t value my family because we spread ourselves over two houses? Where do people get these ideas?

Funny how a few words arranged in shortened lines can take on a life of their own. Since the book this poem first appeared in is out of print, this particular word collection is hard to find.

I may never have wanted to know about divorce, but I do want teachers and kids to have access to this poem.