Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Ode to awesome students

I've been feeling a little under the weather for the past week or so, and have been pretty bummed about it.

Today when I got to my classroom I was informed that 3 students out of the 12 were out sick. In the end, only 5 of the 12 showed up for class. Two of the students who did show up were out sick last week. One of the students who showed up has studied medicine. We ended up talking about health for 30 minutes.

I learned the following about the 5 students in class today:

One of the girls who was out last week has an enlarged heart and will be receiving open heart surgery in July. The other girl who was out last week is 18 years old and has high blood pressure. One of the boys who came to class today told us that he has 2 of something near his heart that all people are supposed to have 3 of (I didn't know the word, but am thinking maybe valve??). Despite warnings against practicing strenuous sports, he chooses to continue practicing his passion of Tae Kwan Do.

Now, I'm not going to downplay my own health problems, because in my opinion you can't compare burdens, but I was floored by the conversation. And impressed. I am SO impressed with the maturity and strength of my students (the 3 with the health problems are all under 20 years old). My respect levels for them were raised to new levels. I can't stress how much I admire these kids. And these 3 are the ones who are always smiling, laughing, and actively involved in class (and yes the ones who I have to shush the most).

We went on to have a really fun class, reviewing the idioms I taught them last week. We did an activity where we had a real conversation, but every time a person spoke they had to incorporate an idiom into their speech. This is the exact excerpt of one section of the conversation. I could have sworn I had walked in on a comedy routine (even more impressive to consider that this is my intermediate class).

Luis: "I heard through the grapevine that my girlfriend likes girls."
Erika: "Take a chill pill; there are more fish in the sea."
Karla: "Yeah, I'll introduce you to my girlfriends and you'll say, 'this is right up my alley.'"

... after recovering from intense laughter,

Me: "Jesús, your turn..."
Jesús: "Ummm... For me, this is not a piece of cake; I'm not the sharpest tool in the shed." (Jabes, who was in the bathroom, walks back into the room) "Speak of the devil!"

... after recovering from more laughter,

Me: "Jabes, your turn..."
Jabes: "I feel under the weather when I don't have class or homework."
Karla: "Whatever floats your boat..."

I seriously love these kids.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

My future

“To be left alone on the tightrope of youthful unknowing
is to experience the excruciating beauty of full freedom
and the threat of eternal indecision.”

Maya Angelou diagnosed my condition pretty accurately on page 271 of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.

Thursday, March 3, 2011


Today an UTEZ student died.

I learned of the news after giving a one-hour English conversation lesson to a new student who is 48 years old. In his introduction, he made it a point to mention that he was single, to recite his phone number, to tell me I was beautiful, and to ask me if I too was single (among some other less consequential things). I managed to steer the conversation to more manageable topics like soccer and religion, but it didn't totally dissipate my frustration and momentary discomfort.

After checking my watch about 15 or more times, the hour ended, and I cut him off in the middle of a thought to declare that class had ended. I reached across the table pointedly to shake his hand and said, "Nice to meet you." He hesitated, and in that moment I thought he was going to ask for my number. I braced for it.

He looked at me quizzically, "How can I say, 'Que Diós le bendiga?'" ("How do you say, 'May God bless you.'")

Boy, was I mistaken.

After saying bye, I walked into the English office next door and heard the news of the student who had died, apparently in a car accident with his girlfriend. I didn't know him, but hearing the news made me take a step back. It was one of those moments when everything in a split second becomes more simple; when suddenly I see my surroundings through a wider lens; when I realize that life and humanity aren't such crazy, complicated concepts. It was a moment when I saw the face of a fellow (male) teacher, one who is normally the token jovial jokester of the office, crumble into a cave of shock and sadness.

I think that as human beings, we acquire a series of masks throughout our lives, masks that make up what we call our "identity." I have my teacher mask, my foreigner mask, my friend mask, my white girl mask, my American mask, my scholar mask, my sister mask, etc. But the essence of human beings, when all the masks are stripped off, I think, is actually quite the same. At the core of our being, we all crave companionship and love; we all eat food to survive; we all laugh when we're happy and feel pain when we see others suffer or die.

Culture is a mask. I was put off by my student's comments on being single, but I reminded myself that it was a cultural norm. By the end of the lesson, he had taken off that mask and had sent me off with a genuine, heartfelt "God bless."

On my bus ride home from school, I stared pensively out the window thinking of these things. In what felt like slow motion I made eye contact with a weepy-eyed girl inside of a corner store sitting behind the counter waiting blankly for customers who didn't come. I saw an older man, maybe 70 years old, inside his garage, sitting on a bucket, hunched over at an angle of 90 degrees, eyes fixed steadily on the dirt floor below.

A friend recently shared a quote on facebook, "You may forget the one with whom you have laughed, but never the one with whom you have wept." (Kahlil Gibran)

It's true, although tragic; at what time do you feel you know a person better than at their most vulnerable moment?

Call me simplistic or idealistic, but I dare you to get out there and try it yourself; get someone to take off their masks. It is beautiful.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


My street:

My room/apartment entrance:

I have about three months left in Mexico and I’m freaking out.

I know, I know three months is sooo much time and I shouldn’t already be feeling sad about leaving but the truth is that I am.

My relationships are strengthening, going beyond mere friendliness. Finally I feel like Mexico has become my adopted country, as opposed to just another country and culture that I have lived in and learned about. Already I am thinking about things that I will miss (other than the people): the fresh juicy mangos, the tropically shaded bugambilias that explode over every stone wall in the city of Cuernavaca and leave the streets smelling like sweet perfume, the tacos and late-night gringas (another delicious cheesy version of tortillas and al pastor meat), the salsa classes, the commute to UTEZ, the constant sunshine, my students, my colleagues, the Spanish language, the drop-off/pick-up Laundromat services which include ironing and folding, the cheap taxis, the Mexican people, and one of my favorite Mexican customs, lo de “provecho.”

The view down onto my host property/pool from my second-floor room.

A gringa in the making (just call it a Mexican cheesesteak):

We learned about provecho from the first week of Fulbright orientation in Mexico City, but it never fails to make me smile when I see it in action. So what is it? Provecho comes from the word aprovechar, which means “to make the most of.” In practice, it is a simple word that is said by every Mexican individual in the presence of someone who is eating. It is equivalent to “enjoy” or “bon apetit.”

The reason why I love it so much is the frequency with which it is used, the goodwill emitted by the word, and the level on which it represents the Mexican culture as a whole.

I hear it when I am eating my Tupperware salad in the teachers’ lounge at UTEZ and a student comes in for a meeting with his or her professor. “Provecho!”

I hear it when I am out to dinner and a certain party leaves their table and passes mine on the way to the exit. “Provecho!”

I hear it when snacking on something in the central plaza of Cuernavaca and a stranger sits on the bench near me. “Provecho!”

It is a simple 3-syllable word that brings immeasurable goodwill to a meal. And it is the story of my adopted culture. The Mexicans are a culture who enjoy their lives, who always seek pleasure out of whatever hand they are dealt with, who spend time with each other, and who usually desire the best for their fellow Mexicans. They are (at times illogically) generous, go out of their way to be helpful (even if they are incapable of helping, ie/ in giving wrong directions or running across the street to ask someone else and coming back to report to you instead of simply saying “no sé”), open, positive, and always see the glass as half-full.

Certainly there are aspects of my own culture that I miss dearly (punctuality, efficiency, speed, etc.). But there are also things about the Mexican culture which I have come to love, most especially provecho, and which I will do my best to bring home to my culture and apply to my everyday life.

And now... to aprovechar my last three months here.

Monday, February 14, 2011


I am currently sitting in the window of the lobby of the Hotel Emporio, on a couch, watching the people walk by outside and trying to figure out my next move of the day (Dad just left earlier this afternoon and we stayed here two nights).

(me and Dad)

This is a great station to people-watch, as I enjoy a rich sweet chai latte and kinda dry banana muffin. The hotel is situated right in the middle of the business district of Mexico City, on one of the main avenues, Reforma. There are business people walking by on their “comida” break (women in stilettos and men in black leather shoes), couples donning red and strolling hand-in-hand bearing gifts and flowers (it’s Valentine’s Day), blonde foreigners enjoying the crisp sunny day, old ladies on daily errands, orange-helmeted workers crossing the street carrying large white pipes, hipsters with their messenger bags gliding along in the bike lane, red double decker tour buses, teenagers on their way home from school, and dusty street venders pedaling their miscellaneous snacks and crafts.

In the middle of this people-watching, a little gray ball of fuzz caught my eye, right in the middle of the sidewalk in front of the window. I thought it was a piece of trash until it turned its little head toward me and I saw a miniature beak below two beady black eyes, staring in my direction. A baby bird. A wave of nerves washed over me as each heeled or sneakered foot barely missed stomping the lost little guy. Should I go out and move it? There’s a square patch of earth just inches from this perilous position where it could at least be out of harm’s way. But I have all of my bags with me; I can’t just leave them unattended. Plus, I wouldn’t want to get a disease from touching it… as cute as it is.

As these futile thoughts passed through my mind, I started to observe a broader scene closing in on the little bird’s concrete world. From the left, a couple in their twenties wearing sneakers unknowingly approached the bird at a leisurely pace. From the right, a short old woman wearing a blanket around her shoulders, ragged black orthopedic shoes, and holding a Styrofoam cup in her wrinkled and dirty right hand also hobbled in the bird’s direction. As she walked she thrust the cup into the path of each oncoming passerby, asking for a few coins. This is it. The bird has seen its last moments. There is no escaping this one.

I began to cringe, wondering if I even wanted to watch. All of a sudden though, in a single moment, the couple noticed two things: the woman and the bird. As they set sight upon the impending white Styrofoam cup, they immediately averted their gaze downward to avoid the woman, slightly shaking their heads but continuing their conversation with each other. As they turned their gaze to the concrete below, they saw the bird and at the last moment veered around it. The old woman, whose pleading eyes were set on the couple’s faces, saw their actions and in turn stopped in her tracks, lowered the cup, and looked down at the helpless creature. The couple brushed shoulders with the woman as they continued their walk, and the woman circled the bird, still looking down at it, and finally stooped down to pick it up. I saw the fluttering of gray feathers as the bird escaped from the woman’s grasp and saved itself.

Why this event warranted a blog post, I know not, but I do know that I was affected by it. I immediately thought back to the day I was in the City Line Ave Starbucks at SJU, right on the corner of the eternally busy intersection of 54th street. I was trying to study but became much more interested in an apparently homeless and probably mentally ill black man who was repeatedly crossing the street, going back and forth between trashcans and digging around inside of them. He disappeared for about five minutes at one point and came back to the intersection with a 711 sandwich, which he ate upon entering the Starbucks and sitting in the armchair next to me. He would stand up, then sit down again, then stand up and straighten his coat, then take a seat, then try to start a nonsensical conversation with the girl across from us.

Not-so-surprisingly, he stood up again at one point and exited once more into the intersection, crossing 54th street. This time though he did not complete the traverse and instead stopped in the middle of the one-way street and bent over to pick up something, presumably trash or a nickel. He turned back around and entered once more into Starbucks with the mystery trash item in his hand. Holding it up, he asked rather loudly if anyone had lost something. I looked closely and my eyes focused not on a piece of trash, but rather on a shiny new Blackberry.

Take these stories however you like; I thought they were worth sharing.

Happy Valentine’s Day 

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


As my life begins to mold to some sort of routine once again, I have taken great pleasure in some of my favorite indulgences. I am thinking of three, specifically: coffee, chocolate and books.

When I started typing this post, I found myself typing “Simple Pleasures” as the title; however, after some reflection, I realized that these three things are not quite simple, as in they are all somewhat expensive habits and not easily accessible to the majority. Especially books. Very few Mexicans read.

But I do. So one thing that I will not compromise when it comes to packing my suitcase in June is literature. I have probably compiled around 20 pounds of books while here in Mexico. Last Sunday, Laura and I went to a talk on the drug war at the community center for an American expat group in Cuernavaca. Afterwards, we went to the adjoining library, where they also sell used books for about one dollar. I bought seven.

I’ve been eating very healthy these past two weeks, lots of salads and fresh fruit, but two things, in addition to books, that I will never compromise or give up in my diet are coffee and chocolate. And I’m okay with that.

This morning I woke up at 7 to volunteer at the breakfast program, so I did not have time to make coffee. When I arrived home at noon to collect my things and head to work, I bought a coffee on-the-go before getting on my 35-minute bus. As I sat sipping my café americano and reading my book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (ashamedly I have never read it), I felt happy, despite being on a cramped, stuffy bus, with the sun piercing through the window next to my singeing face (Think Sid and the magnifying glass in Toy Story 1).

Thirty-five minutes later, I got off the bus and began my ten minute walk, through a very impoverished neighborhood, to the University. I’m pretty sure there’s no running water in this neighborhood. The dirt road that I walk on is bordered on the left by a large field, where donkeys are often munching, and on the right by the small, rundown community of gray cinderblock homes. Walking through, I usually catch whiffs of burning coal or human waste, which I believe is deposited on the side of the road or around the field. Kids are usually running around barefoot, pushing and racing each other on rusty tricycles. Routinely I pass young pregnant women who I estimate could be no older than me. Coincidentally, I discovered today that one of the women involved with the breakfast program in Cuernavaca lives here.

One of the little houses I walk past in this neighborhood acts as a tienda during the day, selling miscellaneous candies, soft drinks, ice cream bars, and chips. I stopped today to indulge in a chocolate bar. Not wanting Nestle or the oh-so-common Mexican selection of weird chili-flavored sweets, I asked what kinds of Hershey chocolates they had. The woman shuffled back to the ice-cream freezer, and after rustling and digging for a few moments, she came back with four types of chocolate bars. I felt for a moment as if I were a character in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, getting the special treatment. So many choices! In the end, I chose a small Hershey’s cookies’n’crème bar and a little chocolate truffle. And that was the highlight of my afternoon. Call me a nerd, call me boring, but that little moment (combined with the affects of just having read some Maya Angelou and the coffee beginning to run through my veins) made me feel on top of the world.

And that is all I wanted to share. Moral of the story: I love coffee, chocolate, and good books.

(A chocolate bar my mom brought me at my apartment last spring when I was dying of a high fever. It healed me.):

Sunday, January 23, 2011

I'm baaack

It’s been a crazy month… or two.

Since I arrived home to Cuernavaca from my backpacking trip, I have hosted visitors (Aunt Betsy, brother Leo, cousin Geordy), changed apartments, begun salsa classes, lost my resident card, killed two (and disposed of one already-dead) giant spiders, adopted a pet gecko (not really but there’s one that hangs around on the walls of my apartment) and started up classes again. All of these topics deserve further elaboration, but since I just finished a night of lesson planning, I will dedicate this post to what is fresh on my mind, teaching.

This is Señor Gecko, who I plan on keeping around, since apparently they eat spiders and scorpions, thus protecting me from the latter two:

Most of my students from last semester have returned, along with a couple new faces. After a first few confusing, Mexican, disorganized days back, we seem to be back into the routine.

Every month thus far I have chosen one overarching cultural topic to focus on, which frames the classrooms work: conversations, articles and writing assignments. This month, January, I have chosen to focus on the education system in the U.S. It has been a fascinating unit for me; in the research I have done to prepare for classes I have learned a ton myself. Mostly I have realized how lucky and blessed I was to be able to attend the quality schools I did. There are far too many American kids whose educational experiences are jokes.

Some of the activities I have done with my classes in this unit include:

1. A power point presentation I put together on the history of education in the states (which really hinges a lot on inequality in education and reforms, ie/ Brown vs. Board, Title IX, desegregation, resegregation, etc.)

2. Songs. I played these two as part of the first introductory lesson on the education system. I had them listen to each song twice and write down every word they heard that is school-related that was part of the lyrics. Then they had to guess which level of schooling the song spoke about based on the vocabulary of the song (high school, kindergarten, college, etc.).

The White Stripes, "We're Gonna Be Friends"

John Mayer, "No Such Thing"

And this one as part of the second lesson, which focused on the inequality and segregated nature of education (WARNING there are like 3 bad words in this song). For this song, I printed out the lyrics and left blanks sporadically throughout the song so they had to listen for the missing words and fill in the blanks.

Blue Scholars, "Commencement Day"

3. Articles. These also turned out to be about segregation, specifically the recent phenomenon of “resegregation,” which refers to studies that show that schools have been steadily separating by race once again, since 1988. Here is one of the articles, from CNN.

And a photo of my attempt to teach the concept of segregation to my visual learners:

4. Show N Tell. In my Tuesday class we had Show N Tell, just for fun, because it was one of the only terms from the songs that they weren’t familiar with. This is one of my students, Gustavo, who brought in his daughter as his item:

5. And this week I will be showing the movie Freedom Writers to all my classes, as a representation of public education in the U.S. I just finished pre-screening the movie, and I actually cried a few times (it’s a happy movie though). I highly recommend it. The day after I saw it for the first time (second semester, freshman year at SJU), I ran to the education department and declared an education minor, which lasted only one semester. Needless to say, it is a very empowering and powerful movie.

Well there you have it, an update of my education escapades.

Hope you all are well!

Peace love and geckos,