Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Double Standard

"Teacher, my journal!" Basir thumps a thick spiral notebook on my desk and smiles proudly. "I write."

I thumb through the pages and feel like groaning: he's just given me three months' worth of work in one go. "You were supposed to do this over the past three months," I tell him, frowning. "Why did it take you so long?"

Basir gives me a sad look. "Teacher, very, very busy."

"You've been too busy?"

He nods. The look on his face clearly says Isn't it obvious?

"For the past three months?"

He nods again.

Unlike some of my students, Basir doesn't have any kind of part-time job; I've asked. His only responsibility is to get to class on time four days a week, something he seldom manages to do. During my break, I stuff his journal into my locker with the half dozen other late journals I have in there. Maybe I'll have the time to mark it on the weekend.

When I go back to the classroom after my break, Basir frowns. "Teacher, where my journal?"

I look at him in amazement. "It's in my locker."

"You control?" (Turkish students use 'control' to mean 'mark'.)

"How could I possibly have marked it? You just gave it to me!"

Basir actually has the gall to look disappointed. He's always the first out of the classroom at break time and the last one to come back. He spends his break outside, smoking cigarettes and horsing around with his friends, but he obviously expects me to spend mine marking his overdue journal.

In the next class, Özge gives me a dirty look when I get her name wrong. "Teacher, what is my name?" she asks me, eyes flashing accusingly.

I chew my lower lip and wrack my tired old brain. "Özge," I say finally.

"You forget!"

By great effort, I manage to resist rolling my eyes. I forget my own kids' names half the time, but I can't expect Özge to know that. Or believe it, for that matter.

"I remember your name!" she persists. It's true, she does. Too bad she never remembers to use the past simple in the right place, but reminding her of that would be snarky.

Instead of answering her, I walk over to the board. I draw six black lines. "This is how many classes I teach here," I tell Özge. Then I write '30' next to each line, followed by 30 x 6 = I raise my eyebrows at her. "Thirty times six is...?"

She wrinkles her nose. "One-eight-zero."

I nod and print out 180 in large black numbers. "That's how many students I teach," I tell her, just in case she hasn't made the connection. "So...how many teachers do you have?"

"Two," she says, narrowing her eyes.

I spread my arms. "If I only had two students, I'd remember your names every single time." This is a lie actually. I only have two kids and I get their names mixed up every other day. But Özge doesn't need to know that.

Over the weekend, I really am busy. I've got our foster daughter coming home for the holidays and I have to launder her bedding, clean her room, and arrange for someone to pick her up from the airport. My husband catches a bad cold and our Eldest decides she will be coming home for Christmas too, but not on the same flight as her foster sister, so a ride has to be arranged for her too. There are meals to fix and Christmas presents to buy and a house to take care of. There is a kitten to chase after and a dozen letters to write and those one hundred and eighty students, after all. So I don't get around to marking Basir's journal over the weekend, and he cannot get over this. "Where my journal?" he asks me.

"I'm sorry, but I haven't had a chance to mark it yet."

"Why not?"

"I've been very busy."

I don't get around to marking it all week and he asks me about it every single day, sometimes more than once. Never mind that it took him three months to get around to writing it, the fact that I haven't marked it over the course of an entire week fills him with righteous indignation.

I get Özge's name wrong three times and I mispronounce it too. She pouts and shakes her head at me. She's obviously forgotten my little lecture on 180 vs 2.

Özge wants to be an architect and Basir is aiming for the engineering department. Too bad neither of them is going to be a teacher, but with any luck, some day they'll be parents.


Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Silent Nights

Our Eldest is home for the holidays. She flew in just a week ago in the midst of a spectacular hailstorm. My husband and I watched her as she told us all about her favorite subjects in university, the classes she really enjoys, the teachers who bore her silly. She seems so different. A little more sedate, a little more mature -- and, amazingly, even more sure of herself.

And weirdest of all, she sleeps.

From the get-go, our Eldest has not slept. I'm a lifelong insomniac and I seem to have passed it on to both of my children, but our Eldest has given me some stiff competition. When she was six months old, I asked her pediatrician when she would start sleeping regularly. She was only getting half of the sleep other mothers reported their babies were getting and I felt cheated. The doctor told me it would soon straighten out -- that our baby would soon get into a sleep rhythm and get all the sleep she needed. And the good news was, she did. But the bad news was that she hardly seemed to need any sleep.

This continued straight through her childhood and adolescence. And she was a night-owl. We'd get her into bed only to find that she was up again, ready to be kept company and entertained. She made curtain call after curtain call right up past midnight until I was at the end of my wits. I began to dream of a time she would start keeping sociable hours. It never happened.

We've kept in touch, so I know for a fact that at university, she goes to bed at five in the morning to finish assignments (she is also a first-class procrastinator, another genetic trait of mine she has managed to acquire). "So what time do you get up?" I asked her recently. She rolled her eyes at me. "Don't go there, Mom."

So the other day I was astonished when I got home from work and found her sprawled on the couch, out cold. She stayed like that for six hours too. I was so alarmed, I took her pulse.

In the morning I asked her if she was okay. "Sure. Why?"

"Because you slept straight for over eight hours!"

She looked surprised. "Yeah, I guess I did."

She did it again the next day, then the next.

"Are you sure you're okay?" we asked her.

"Yeah, I'm fine."

"Have you been doing a lot of that lately?"

"Not really."

It's just amazing. In fact, it's so unprecedented, I've taken to standing and staring at her while she's sleeping. When she was a ten-year-old, I could wake her up by breathing as I walked past her room. The other day, she slept through a storm strong enough to uproot trees. She slept through the last call to prayer, searing the air at full volume. She slept through my dropping a saucepan lid on the kitchen floor and her father's ear splitting sneezes.

I'll tell you something even more shocking: she didn't bring us home any laundry. This is a kid who used to go through three or four outfits a day. Who used towels like we were a hotel. Who had a knock-down-drag-out fight with me only a few years ago because of all the laundry she generated.

"Got any clothes you want washed?" my husband asked her on the first morning she was back.

"Nope." We traded looks.

"My friends said Why don't you just take it home so your parents can wash it?" she said.

"So why didn't you?"

"Because I'm a superior being."

And so she is.

I can't help but feel a little sad. You let your kid go and before you know it, they come back like this: a calm, confident stranger.

Yesterday, I was leaving for work when she peered at my face and frowned at me. "Mom, come over here, okay?"

I did. Shaking her head, she licked a finger and wiped my chin. "You're still not putting your make-up on right! Hang on, I'll go and get my make-up brush."

I followed her into her room -- and had to avert my eyes. Dear God, the state of it!

She's still bossing me around. And her room is still -- well, I won't go there. But it's nice to know our little girl hasn't entirely changed.

Merry Christmas, everybody!


Friday, 18 December 2009

Little Lost Cat

Almost a month ago, we found a kitten huddled by the trash heap in front of our house. The kitten looked lost and hungry. We have a No Pets clause in our lease, but we took the kitten home, promising my husband that we would take her to the local animal shelter as soon as we'd fed her up. Surely the owners wouldn't mind as long as we kept her on the balcony and didn't let her into the house.

It turned out that the kitten had a serious medical problem. You may have heard the expression 'As busy as a cat with the runs on a marble floor'. I can assure you that people who look after incontinent cats are even busier. We couldn't possibly take a kitten to the animal shelter in that condition -- even my husband agreed, though he was probably more worried about our car. We bought kitten chow for her, and we lined a box with newspaper and an old towel for her to lie on. As soon as the kitten was better, we'd take her to the animal shelter.

After two days, the floor of our balcony was so clean from constant scrubbing you could practically eat off it, but the kitten was no better. Her ribs and backbone protruded through her thin grey coat. We took her to the vet who told us that she would need to see the kitten every day for at least a week. She dosed the kitten with worm-killers, saying that she was probably full of parasites.

Boy, was she. I almost wished I had a microscope too, they were that interesting.

My daughter took the kitten to the vet every single day for a week, riding in the dolmuş with the kitten in a carrier bag. The kitten behaved impeccably. We gave her a bath after the worst of the diarrhea was over, and she began to get plumper. Although at first she'd done nothing but sit quietly, paws tucked under her, as though waiting for death, she began to get more playful as her health improved. We discovered that her meow was a little defective, a mere squeak. She started purring almost non-stop, a rich, grainy purr. We gave her a name, bought her a proper litter box and her own brush.

By this time, there was no question of taking her to any animal shelter. (Besides, we'd paid the vet's bill.) Like it or not, the kitten had made herself ours and we were all in love. We figured the owners wouldn't begrudge us one little kitten kept outside.

Three days ago, she disappeared from the balcony. Somehow, she managed to negotiate the roof and jump down to ground level. The entire household went out with flashlights, calling her name. It was dark. We tripped over roots and stones and felt like idiots, stumbling around, the beams of our torches flitting from corner to corner as neighbors peeked out of their windows at us. It was ages before we could bring ourselves to give up. None of us wanted to go back to the house without her.

The next day, my daughter searched for hours, but the kitten was nowhere to be found. Coming home from work to a cold, catless house was horrible. Coming back to a miserable, weepy teenager was even worse.

Every time we passed the litter box we got all misty-eyed. Just looking at the fur in her brush or the rubber string she liked to play with made us tear up.

Last night there was a storm. The thunder sounded like half a dozen giants wheeling trash bins across gravel, bending stainless steel sheets. The wind pounded the side of the house; it raged and whined and moaned. Lighting ripped across the sky; rain and hail lashed and pelted the windows. After midnight, we heard a cat fight outside. It sounded as though a big alpha cat was chewing out a smaller cat: we could hear a tiny squeak of a meow. In the morning we searched, but we could not see her.

This evening, my daughter went out again with her sister, home for the holidays. Half an hour later, they bolted upstairs, crying for joy. They'd found the kitten crouching under a pomegranate tree, hungry and thirsty and purring her head off. She smells like Clearasil and tuna. And she's obviously thrilled to be back.

Wherever we move next, that kitten is coming with us. Tomorrow, we're getting her a collar.


Saturday, 12 December 2009

Rage Against The Machines

When I was sixteen, I had to take a multiple choice test on mechanical reasoning. This was a trial of a new exam, our class was told, and we should not worry about our results: the examining board just wanted to get an idea of our mechanical aptitude. There were diagrams and illustrations depicting screws, levers, rotating belts, pulleys, widgets and gizmos in various machines with arrows pointing up, down, clockwise and counter-clockwise.

I sweated blood over that exam. I chewed my pencil down to a stub and wracked my brains over every single question, finally turning it in with a sigh of relief.

When we got back our results, I immediately put my paper away so that no one would see it: my score was 15%. The principal actually called me into his office over it. He wasn't upset, he quickly assured me; I wasn't in trouble. But how could I get only 15% right? Had I felt ill when I took the test? I blushed and shook my head. Well then, maybe I'd gotten mixed up; maybe I'd thought number 3 was number 4, say, and just carried on, making mistake after mistake? I shrugged. Maybe. The principal stared at me and frowned; he couldn't figure it out. It wasn't statistically possible for someone to get only 15% right. And it was very strange, considering how good most of my other results were. In fact, he went on, I was the only student in the entire school with such a great discrepancy between verbal skills and mechanical ability.

I let the principal think that I might have gotten mixed up and filled in the wrong answers. It was easier than answering any more questions. The truth, I suspect, is that the part of my brain where mechanical reasoning skills should be isn't just a yawning, cavernous blank, it's a carnival house of distorted mirrors where everything is twisted up and put in the wrong way around. It's like I have some mechanical dyslexia that makes me muddle everything up. And it isn't dependable either. It's not as though left is right and right is left: some days counterclockwise is clockwise, but others it might be straight down in a corkscrew fashion.

Fortunately, life isn't all about machines. I've coped through pretty well with my disability. I've mastered the rudiments of bicycle, typewriter, copy machine -- even automobile. In my life-after-children, I've actually figured out how to use a mobile phone and a laptop. And I'm a teacher, not a mechanical engineer: as long as I can operate a Xerox, pop a video into a machine, produce sound on a CD player, print out worksheets on a computer, I'm home free, right?

If only! A few years back, our school purchased what they call smart boards. These are essentially huge vertical laptops with a king-sized pen (really a 'mouse') that the teacher can whisk all over the board, or screen, to do all sorts of clever things. No longer do you have to stand at the blackboard, patiently writing out sentences with an aching arm, breathing in chalk dust. No more filling up board markers with messy ink, no more brushing up against whiteboards and ruining your clothes.

But smart boards fill me with terror. When I use my own laptop, only my family is around to witness my screw ups. When you teach with a smart board, you've got a whole room full of kids to witness what you do. Kids, I might add, who are a lot more computer savvy than I am. Who are bound to sit there, watching me flounder about and think smart board, dumb teacher. And no matter what anyone tells me, I know that smart boards are not problem-free. Just as computers have made the writing process far more convenient, so do they bring a near-infinite supply of headaches. No one will convince me that smart boards aren't just the same: even technologically savvy teachers tell tales of breakdowns, blackouts, and weird glitches they can't figure out, and I've heard them. The same goes for using laptops with projectors and speakers: sure teachers can do plenty with them, but is it worth all the hassle? I remain unconvinced.

So I breathed a huge sigh of relief when the smart boards were assigned to a chosen few (i.e. young) teachers and we old-fashioned types were allowed to use the classrooms with whiteboards. I breathed another sigh of relief when I knew that I wouldn't have to teach the class that is using DVDs.

Then they went and changed our schedules. Why do they do that?

Last week, I was handed a DVD and a book. I was given a laptop, a projector, a pair of speakers, an extension cable, and a whole crap-load of nasty things to connect bits to other bits. A kindly colleague helped me haul it all down and showed me how to set up. It didn't work, so she got another teacher to help us. Between the two of them, they finally got it working while I watched in horrified bemusement.

The class was like something out of hell. Even with all the blinds closed and the lights off, it was too bright for us to see what was going on. We ended up having to project the image on the wall opposite the whiteboard, and as all the chairs are bolted down, students had to swivel around and strain their necks to see. The sound was distorted and out of sync with the actors' lips. Every time I tried to pause the DVD to ask a question, I ended up turning off the whole thing. There were so many twisty, tangly bits of cable running all over the place that I ended up tripping on one and disconnecting the entire system. A student knocked over the projector when he got up to put something in the bin. The only thing the class managed to learn was that their teacher can't operate a laptop without swearing, which segues nicely into the only vocabulary I ended up teaching them. Everybody went out of class saying death, hell and poison. And worse.

The second class was just as bad. The third class -- the third class I don't want to talk about.

I have two more months of this, three days a week. Hell couldn't be much worse.

A friend once told me about a colleague of hers who taught in Bhutan. His classroom was in a cave. There was one blackboard, a carefully hoarded supply of chalk, and clean drinking water. Sounds ideal, doesn't it?

I wonder if there are any openings?


Saturday, 5 December 2009

Partial To Cats

I probably don't need to tell you this, but I'm crazy about cats.

When I was little, friends used to bring home kittens and cry when their parents wouldn't let them in the house. My sisters and I never had this problem: our parents brought home kittens all the time. My earliest memories are of cats. Sleeping cats, purring cats, long-suffering cats allowing their ears to be inverted and their whiskers gently pulled, angry, spitting, cats, elderly cats, playful, big-eyed young kittens, sick cats huddled over their water dishes, venerable old toms with quirky personalities, pregnant and nursing cats. When you've got parents who bring home cats and encourage you to do the same, you end up with lots.

Listening to other cat lovers talk about the cat they grew up with, I feel embarrassed: we never had a cat, we had dozens upon dozens. Word got around that we were soft on cats and in the dead of night, cat rejects would be dumped on our doorstep. Tiny kittens with their eyes still sealed shut, sick cats huddled in cardboard boxes, cats with personality problems. Most of them had lusty appetites and gave birth to many kittens. We grew infamous. The people at the county health department knew all about us.

We had marmalade cats, tortoiseshells, white cats, black cats, white-and-black cats who looked like they were wearing tuxedos, tabby cats, Siamese cats, Persian cats, and every conceivable mixture. Some of our cats were feral and anti-social; some were disabled. All of them were dearly loved. And a lot of our babysitting money went to the local vets.

After I left home, one of the questions I asked new friends was Do you like cats? If I introduced anyone to my family, the question was guaranteed to come up. Democrat or Republican, believer or atheist, vegetarian or meat-eater, education, hobbies, family -- all of that could wait. Our shibboleth was simple: Do you like cats? A no resulted in dire consequences. People who gave equivocal answers were viewed as potential converts and subtly tested for cat-loving potential.

I like to think that I've moved on from my family's cat mania. If you prefer dogs, I will be perfectly nice about it. And for what it's worth, I've loved dogs myself and even had a few. But old habits die hard. I can't help it: when I meet people, I still want to know. Do you love cats? Are you one of us?

Once, while conducting a speaking proficiency exam, the colleague I was working with asked the boy we were testing Do you have a pet? This boy had misunderstood some basic questions and was obviously very nervous. He frowned and hunched forward. "Pet?" My colleague smiled. "Like a dog or cat." The boy's face cleared. "Yes," he answered. My eyes opened wide. "Dog or cat?" I almost whispered. The boy licked his lips and smiled. "Cat. I love cat." It was all I could do not to give him a higher grade than he deserved.

Yesterday, a friend sent me 17 Things Worth Knowing About Your Cat. (As you can probably imagine, people send me things like this all the time.) Now, I'm well up on my cat facts; I already knew Hitler was a dog-lover who hated cats and that Lincoln and Robert E Lee were both cat lovers. (For you dog-lovers out there who suspect I'm being catty, I don't think that Hitler loving dogs is a mark against you, I think it's the only good thing I've ever heard about Hitler.) But I didn't realize how passionately Eisenhower hated cats, and I got to thinking about other cat lovers and haters and so I checked out a few more websites.

At first, there were no surprises. Famous cat lovers include Petrarch, Sir Winston Churchill, Albert Schweitzer, Renoir, Monet, Florence Nightingale, The Prophet Mohammed, Anne Frank, Raymond Chandler, Kuniyoshi Utagawa, Dickens, Dr Samuel Johnson, Edgar Allan Poe, The Bronte Sisters, Mark Twain, and Edward Lear -- to name only a few. No doubt about it: we cat people have got some great guys on our side. Other famous cat-haters besides Eisenhower and Hitler are: Genghis Kahn, Alexander the Great, Benito Mussolini, Julius Casear, and Napolean Bonaparte. So far so good, right? Who needs those guys? But then I kept reading and I found some real surprises. Lenin, for instance. Who'd have figured him for a cat lover? (Thank God it wasn't Stalin!) Also, Marie Antoinette, Teddy Roosevelt, and Queen Victoria, cat lovers all. And finally -- (nooooo!) William Shakespeare was a cat hater while Ernest Hemingway was a cat lover. I should point out that I love Shakespeare, but am not particularly fond of Hemingway.

I am absolutely broken-hearted about Shakespeare, but who knows? Perhaps he had an early bad cat experience. Perhaps in time, someone could have gently showed him the error of his ways. And I had no idea that Hemingway was one of us! How could I have missed that? He had 30. Thirty!

I won't give up on Shakespeare, but I am absolutely going to go back and reread Hemingway. I'm bound to have missed something there.


Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Free Ride

On winter nights, the main road is dark. You can barely make out the white trunks of the eucalyptus trees and you only know the lemon trees are there because of the fragrance. I had to squint to read the sign on the dolmuş, but one going my direction soon rattled along and I held out my hand. Getting a dolmuş to stop is usually easy. Sometimes it's almost too easy: even when you don't want one, the driver honks and waves as you walk along the road, minding your own business. If you happen to catch his eye -- it is always a man -- the dolmuş will instantly stop with a squeal of brakes and a spray of roadside gravel. Sometimes they even do this even when you're going in the opposite direction. This is because there are more dolmuş than there are people who want to ride in them, and they tend to be eager for passengers.

This one stopped so fast it made me jump. The driver was obviously eager for passengers.

I reached for the door handle, but oddly the door was already open. Which was weird, because you usually have to heave like nobody's business to wrestle the sliding doors open. I got on, bending and twisting myself into the classic getting-on-a dolmuş crouch. Then, because I am the sort of person who cannot resist shutting doors or turning off lights behind me, I tried to shut it. Too late, I realized it was an automatic door; it was shutting on its own. And too late I saw it: the dolmuş I had gotten into was a fancy, luxurious one.

The driver was wearing what looked like a clean shirt and pressed trousers instead of the grubby sweatshirt and greasy cap the usual drivers wear. Dangling from the rear view mirror was a single tasteful strand of beads, not the gaudy jumble of dice, prayer beads, and tinsel that dominate 20% of the average dolmuş windscreen. It was also eerily quiet. Most dolmuş drivers wouldn't think of cruising along without arabica blaring from their CD players. And there were hardly any other passengers. No cackling grannies with their bulging bags of vegetables and bundles of old cloth, no headkerchief-wearing housewives gossiping, no giggling schoolgirls or intense young men with noisy mobile phones. The seats were different too; only the dark had prevented me from noticing it right away: there were no tears in the clean, new-looking fabric. I patted the cushion surreptitiously and no cloud of dust puffed up. Most worrying of all, there was no price list.

Uh oh!

No doubt about it: this was going to cost me three times the normal rate. I got on one of these fancy dolmuş last year and I vowed I'd never do it again. My lucky night.

Five minutes later, half a dozen people got on. By the time we were near my stop, a respectable number of passengers had joined us. A man in the front seat tapped the back of the driver's seat. "Oi," he said waving a note over the driver's shoulder, "Let me off here."

The driver stopped, took the man's note, and gave him a handful of change. The man got off, but before the driver could pull away, the newly departed passenger rapped the driver's window and called something out in Turkish. The driver muttered something back. Reaching into a pouch, he handed the passenger a bill. Fancy as the dolmuş was, it was still too dark for the driver to see he'd given the wrong change.

Two girls got off next. One of them handed the driver a five-lira note and got back a handful of change. Hooray! It looked I wouldn't to have to fork out triple after all! I took four lira out of my wallet and let out a sigh of relief: I'd really lucked out.

When we reached my stop, I handed the driver my four lira and waited for my half lira change. He looked at my money, frowned at me at and muttered something in Turkish. I smiled and shook my head and he fumbled in his pouch for my change, then dropped the coins into my hand. It felt like a lot of change considering, but it was too dark to see.

When I got home, I looked at the coins in my hand. Five lira.

Instead of paying triple the fare, I'd had myself a free ride. In fact, it was better than that: the driver had actually paid me one and a half lira for the privilege of riding in his fancy dolmuş. I practically skipped the rest of the way home: it really was my lucky day.


Friday, 27 November 2009

The Five Pillars of Islam

Monday morning. Only four more days of school before the four-day Bayram holiday! I am in great spirits.

Four boys are waiting for me outside the classroom. Right away I'm suspicious: these kids are ultra lazy. They've got a furtive look about them too; I know from experience that if they had thought bubbles over their heads they would read Let's ask her and see.

"Teacher, Bayram," Mustafa says, thrusting out his chest and striking a confident pose. Mustafa is the strongest speaker here, the one-eyed-king in the land of the blind. He has obviously been chosen Designated Speaker as a result of his superior communicative skills.

"Yes, Bayram," I say enthusiastically, playing along. Only four more days of teaching before our four-day break!

"Bayram Muslim holiday," Mustafa continues, right on my tail as I push open the door.

"Yes, Bayram is a Muslim holiday." I love playing dumb. The way I see it, this job is tough enough as it is -- let me have some fun. Plus, I've got good pedagogical reasons for letting this play out slowly: language is all about communication and these boys have something they truly want to communicate. They more they get, the better.

"Very busy." Mustafa thumps his chest, then gestures meaningfully around the group by way of providing a subject.

"Yes, we are all certainly very busy," I say, setting my CD player on the desk. "Especially since we have three units to cover in a very short time. Could you plug this in for me?"

I can see the other boys watching Mustafa like cats watch a fish tank. Their thought bubbles would read Please oh please oh please.

"Many preparation," Mustafa puts in desperately. "Shopping."

"Yes, I know. It's a good thing we have Friday off, isn't it?"

"Teacher please no class today," Mustafa says, finally cutting to the chase.

"Muslim holiday!" puts in Ersoy, practically stepping on my feet. He has been hovering anxiously, unable to compete with Mustafa linguistically, but clearly frustrated that I have not been persuaded by Mustafa's arguments.

I roll my attendance sheet into a baton and whack the side of my desk. "Muslim holiday," I repeat. "And you are all good Muslims? You pray in the mosque every Friday?" This is mean of me, but I can't help it: no way do they go to the mosque every Friday. I've smelled alcohol on their breath before and I know a few of them have come to my class with hangovers. And let's not even talk about lying.

Mustafa has to translate. A few of the boys nod, but they won't meet my eyes.

"Okay, then," I say, an idea suddenly forming in my mind. "Who can tell me what the five pillars of Islam are?" They stare at me, confused.

"If you can tell me the five pillars of Islam, in English--" I pause for effect "--you can go home early to get ready for Bayram."

I know I'm safe here: not even Mustafa could manage this. These boys never study. If one of them were capable of explaining the five pillars of Islam, I'd immediately let him go home: with English that good, an afternoon off wouldn't set him back. And for him to have attained that level, he'd have had to work hard. I respect hard-working students. Smart kids impress me far less than diligent ones. I respect honest kids too. So if anyone tries to play the religious card with me, they had better play it well -- and truthfully.

"The five pillars of Islam?" I say, raising an eyebrow. "Can anyone tell me?"

Their faces radiate confusion. You'd think five and Islam might clue them in, but no.

Mustafa clasps his hands and bows. "Five times?" he says, his eyes pleading.

I shake my head. "Praying five times a day is only one of them. Come on, I'll help you out. The last one is hajj in Arabic."

Now at least they know what I'm talking about. While I take attendance, every boy in the little group does his best to come up with the three remainining pillars of Islam, recruiting some of the smarter students (i.e., girls) to help as soon as they enter the classroom. A few of them mime sacrificing a sheep and distributing the meat (part of the duty of Zakat, or charity), but this is as close as they get. Last term, I had six kids out of three dozen who claimed to regularly attend mosque. They might have managed the five pillars of Islam, but the kids I've got this term could sooner fly to the moon.

Tough love, I tell myself as they all take their seats with glum faces, their vision of a delightfully English free day so much vapor. Teaching is going to be tough today. Still, only four more days!

On the board, I write the five pillars of Islam. (It pays to have an inquiring mind. And a husband who teaches in an international school.)

Shahadah -- Declaration of faith (From my students I'd have accepted 'There is only one God'.)

Salah -- Prayer (from my students I'd have accepted 'Pray five times a day'. Heck, I'd even have allowed hand gestures and 'five'.)

Zakat -- Charity (From my students I'd have accepted 'Giving money to poor people'.)

Saum -- Fasting during Ramadan (From my students, 'Not eating' would have been fine. If anyone had used the word 'fast' without consulting a dictionary, I'd have been tempted to give him the whole week off.)

Hajj -- Pilgrimage to Mecca (From my students, 'Go Mecca' would have been fine.)

It was a long, long class for all concerned. But now it's Bayram: four days of no teaching! I am in great spirits.


Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Happy Teachers' Day

It's Teachers' Day here. Teachers' Day is a big deal in Turkey, especially in primary and secondary school. A couple of days ago, all the supermarkets and greengrocers started putting pots of flowers and boxes of chocolates on display near the check-out counters. Single carnations wrapped in cellophane have appeared in shop windows.

My husband teaches younger kids than I do and the kids (and more importantly, their parents) go all out, lavishing their teachers with gifts. My husband made out like a bandit last year; my daughters and I had to make several trips from his classroom to the car, all of us lugging carrier bags filled with his loot. Among the Teachers' Day presents he received were three bunches of flowers, two pen sets, a potted plant, a clock, a photograph album, two diaries, four boxes of candy, three batches of cookies, a loaf of banana bread, a foil package of freshly-baked brownies, a mug with his name on it, a fancy nazar boncuk amulet to ward off the evil eye, and a bottle of whiskey. Best of all were the hand-made cards depicting a middle-aged man teaching rows of laughing, smiling children. And the messages crayoned and penciled inside: YOU are the Bestest teacher ever! thaNK YOU THANK YOU! and Welove math now becuase ov you!

"What did you get?" my daughters asked me. All I could do was sigh: for Turkish university students, Teachers' Day isn't a big deal at all: none of my students gave me anything but grief.

In fact, I barely even noticed it was Teachers' Day last year. After an afternoon of teaching that was more hellish than usual, I was putting away my books when one of the girls in the front row creased her pretty forehead and muttered something in Turkish to the boy next to her. He frowned and flipped through the pages of his dictionary. The girl craned her neck to see. "Teechateechazday," the boy muttered as I bent to unplug my CD player. "Teechazday," the girl piped up after him. It took me two minutes to understand what they were trying to say. I felt awfully silly drilling the class stragglers on Happy Teachers Day, Teacher.

Last year, a half-hearted Teechateechazday was all I took home with me besides a headache.

This year, the Turkish Ministry of Education and Board of Health went and closed down every primary and secondary school in our area barely a week before Teachers' Day due to the swine flu epidemic. Swine flu has spread through Turkey like fire through dry tumbleweed, and even though our local schools have had only a few cases, every school had to lock its doors.

We've had cases of swine flu at the university too and hopes have been high; fervent prayers have been wafted up to the heavens and a petition has even been circulated -- all to no avail: no edict has been issued to close us down.

My husband and his colleagues will no doubt still be deluged with Teachers' Day gifts this year, but they will have to wait until school begins again to receive them.

I told myself that this year I knew what to expect, and I would not be disappointed. I knew that nobody would be bringing me candy, flowers, or ceramic mugs.

But as it turned out, I did get a gift. Something even better than flowers or candy or ceramic mugs.

Today I was sitting in the teachers' room when three students from last term came in, graduates of our preparation English program. They had come to talk to me, they said. They wanted me to know that their classmates were complaining about how hard it was to understand their English-speaking professors in the faculty. "But we understand everything they say," one of the boys told me, "because you talked so much to us all the time. Thank you, teacher."

Because I talked so much. Bless them, in all my life no one has ever thanked me for that before!

This evening I will be walking down to the main road to catch the dolmuş home with a spring in my step and a light in my eye. Mugs and flowers are great, but it turns out that heartfelt thank-yous are even better. And a whole lot lighter.


Friday, 20 November 2009

Time Well Spent

I have a weird habit: I cart around all sorts of junk just because I think it might come in handy some day.

In fact, practically everything in my bag does come in handy. If you have a headache, I've got a foil packet of aspirin tucked into my wallet. If you spill something, count on me to always have a couple of spare paper towels nicked from the lavatory. If you need a safety pin, I'll burrow around in my bag until I find you one. I've got a tiny sewing kit in my bag which has saved several falling hems and a dozen loose buttons, a handkerchief that has wiped up dozens of messes, a miniature bottle of hand-wash to keep swine flu at bay, hand cream and lip balm for dry or chapped skin, Kleenex, and -- everybody in the staff room knows this -- a whole mess of sugar packets just in case anyone around me ever goes into a diabetic coma. Nobody ever has, but whenever you run out of sugar for your coffee, I'm your woman.

I should point out that I don't do this out of virtuousness; I'm a born pack-rat. After dozens of moves, many international, I've had to suppress my accumulative tendencies. When I can indulge my inner pack-rat, I feel a lot better.

As much as I love being useful, I hate waste. I've been known to fish things out of the trash if I know I can use or recycle them. I once carried almost a dozen metal biscuit boxes home on the Tokyo subway: I'd found them in the rubbish heap, newly discarded and absolutely pristine. For ten years, they held crayons, loose jigsaw puzzle pieces, Chinese checker marbles, playing cards, and accessories for my kids' Girl Day dolls. If I'd walked past those boxes there on the rubbish heap, I'd be regretting it to this day. Stopping to pick them up was worth every bit of the embarrassment at being caught out, too -- and the hassle of dealing with them on the crowded train.

I hate wasting time too, so I usually have a book in my bag along with my Japanese calligraphy practice notebook, sudoku puzzles, and my harmonica. This way, whenever I get stuck waiting in the car, I can amuse myself in a variety of ways.

The other day, I had to take my class to a lecture on English, delivered in Turkish. I hate it when this happens. Inevitably, I shepherd my class to the lecture hall after taking roll, answer their endless, aggrieved "Do we really have to stay for this?" appeals -- "Yes you do, now sit back down and be QUIET!" -- then sit through the long session myself, bored out of my mind. (My students are lucky: at least they can understand Turkish.)

Good thing I had my bag of junk.

While we waited for the lecture to begin, Ilker started fidgeting, then wheeled around in his seat, his face radiating misery. "Teacher, very illy today. I have cold!" He pointed to his nose and mimed blowing it. I reached right into my bag, pulled out a packet of Kleenex, and handed it to him.

Two minutes later, Cem tapped my shoulder. "Excuse me, I go wash my hands come back, okay?" I rolled my eyes: Like hell he would! I shook my head. "You don't need to wash your hands." Cem's eyes widened. "Teacher, pig flu very dangerous!" I fished around in my bag until my fingers closed around my small bottle of anti-bacterial hand wash. I relished the look on his face as I handed it to him. My bag of tricks was really coming in handy: I even had enough chewing gum for the three people who wanted it.

But boy, was everybody jittery. Even after the lecture began, the seats shook with the boys' jerky, restless twitching as they readjusted their legs, fiddled with their mobile phones (which none of them can go any longer than five minutes without consulting), and passed items back and forth. I heaved a deep sigh: I was stuck here in their midst for the better part of an hour with nothing to do but examine the portrait of Atatürk, study my fingernails, and twiddle my thumbs. Stealthily I fished my calligraphy practice book out of my bag and began writing kuzushiji, the equivalent of Japanese cursive.

Five minutes into my practice, I suddenly realized that Abdullah, sitting next to me, was no longer fidgeting. And he was practically breathing down my neck. "Hojam, what language?" he asked, pointing.

"Japanese," I whispered.

He raised his eyebrows. "You know?"

I nodded and kept writing. Abdullah watched me, enthralled. I might as well have been turning water into wine.

Abdullah pulled out his notebook. "Teacher, you write my name please!" he said under his breath with barely concealed excitement.

Foreign names don't look very interesting in Japanese. You have to write them in katakana, the squarish syllabary used for non-Japanese words and names. People are always disappointed to see their names written in Japanese and Abdullah was no exception when I penned アブジュラー in his notebook. "What does your name mean?" I whispered. "If you tell me the meaning, I can write it better."

He didn't get it, so I wrote out my own name in katakana. "See, メアリー is how my name sounds in Japanese. But 芽亜里 is how I write it sometimes, for meaning. 芽 is like a small flower--" it's actually 'bud', but I wasn't about to try that on him "--and 亜 is for Asia, and 里 is for homeland. So if you can tell me the meaning of your name, I can write yours like that." I was pretty sure I'd lost him, but no, after a few minutes of feverish consultation on his mobile, Abdullah came back to me and scribbled the following in his notebook: Abdullah=God's servant.

Grinning, I took the pen from him -- I knew how to write this! 神の召使 I wrote in his notebook. Abdullah's mouth hung open. "Thank you," he breathed. And for the remaining thirty minutes, he did his damnedest to write his Japanese name, 神の召使, as perfectly as he could.

True, the only English Abdullah learned was God's servant. But he also sat quietly for a whole thirty minutes, a miracle in itself.

Next time, I'll have one of those beginning English readers in my bag.


Tuesday, 17 November 2009


"Teacher, I don't understand."

I sighed: Cahide again. "What don't you understand?"

Cahide opened her workbook and pointed. I took a quick look and stifled another sigh. "Can you come and see me about that tomorrow morning, before class? I can't explain all that to you right now -- I've got another class to teach."

I had to repeat this half a dozen times before she got it, but Cahide finally nodded. "Okay." It took her so long to understand, I seriously considered including her in the list of students who belonged in a lower class. I wondered when she would give up and realize that she was out of her depth.

First thing the next morning, Cahide was there with her workbook. I was surprised to see that unlike the majority of her classmates, she had completely filled in the pages I had assigned for homework. While her classmates' books were almost entirely pristine, Cahide's was full of penciled-in explanations, scrawled dictionary definitions of words in margins, erasures, crossed-out bits, and answers. Nothing had been left undone, either; she had even completed the sections I told everyone not to bother with.

It took ages for me to explain everything Cahide didn't understand, but the light of reason finally dawned and she went away, satisfied. It was enormously gratifying.

Unfortunately, she was back the next morning. She caught me gulping down coffee ten minutes before I was leaving to teach another class. "I don't understand this," she said, opening her workbook.

I took a look and blinked: she was already onto the next unit! I shook my head. "We're not doing that yet. Wait until we cover it, okay?"

She furrowed her brow and tilted her head. "Sorry? I don't understand."

I fought the urge to look at my watch. "We will do that unit the day after tomorrow. Wait until then, okay?"

When she finally understood, she nodded -- grudgingly -- then turned a few pages back to the unit we were on. "I don't understand this," she said, pointing.

I let out a slow breath. "Come and see me after class, then."

"Twelve thirty o'clock?"

I bit my lips. "Yes, twelve thirty is fine." There went my lunch break!

Sure enough, Cahide came and saw me after class and stayed an hour while I did my best to explain around hurried bites from my sandwich. She didn't leave until she was certain she had understood everything.

Over the next six weeks, Cahide hounded me and the colleague I shared her class with. She followed us out of the classroom and buttonholed us on our way to the toilet to ask us questions. We took to hiding from her, she was so determined. Her stamina and tenacity amazed us: she did every assignment we gave her, wrote every paper, filled in every form, answered every question. And if she didn't get something, she was never shy about letting us know. We began to dread her Teacher, I don't understand.

But we began to admire and respect her even more. She never gave up. When the rest of the class yawned and looked at their watches, Cahide nodded her head and raised her hand. When everyone else sprinted out as soon as it was break time, she stayed in the classroom and asked endless questions. She walked to the teachers' room with us afterward, grilling us about details. What should she be studying? How many hours? Which compositions should she be writing? Would we read her work after she had finished? Would we correct it please?

Before the midterm examination, Cahide's diligence surpassed itself. She doubled, then tripled her efforts, constantly bringing us compositions to mark and questions to answer. What impressed me the most was that she never gave any preference to my Turkish-speaking colleague. Coping with our language gap must have been as much of a trial for her as it was for me, but it never seemed to faze her. My colleague and I were exhausted, but increasingly heartened by her enthusiasm and incredible determination.

The only thing that worried us was the midterm. Many students fail the midterm, particularly those of Cahide's level. We hoped that failing wouldn't discourage her the way it has discouraged other students.

Yesterday we got the midterm results. Cahide, it turned out, got the best mark in the entire class.

"I am so proud of you!" I told her today. "You are an inspiration!"


I wrote it down for her. "Inspiration. Look that up in your English-Turkish dictionary when you get home today, okay?"

She smiled modestly, but she seemed distracted. "Okay. Teacher?"


She flipped the pages of her workbook until she found the unit we will be starting next. Pointing, she said, "I don't understand."


Sunday, 15 November 2009

What's In A Name?

"Poor kid," my husband murmured the other day as a teenage boy walked past us. The kid looked okay to me. "What's wrong with him?" I asked. "Is he sick? Have his parents split up?"

My husband shook his head. "He's fine. It's his name."

"What is it?"

He told me. I clapped my hand over my mouth. "You've got to be kidding!"

"I'm not."

"Maybe he can pick another name. Or use his middle name instead."

"Pick another name?" my husband snorted. "It's his last name."

Poor kid!

I'm not going to tell you what the word is. This is a kid-friendly blog. My kids know the word and so do most, but I don't like them thinking it's okay to bandy it about. Let's' just say that this word is about the worst you can get. When it comes to shock effect, it trumps the F word any day. And this poor 15-year-old boy is walking around with it.

"Hope he never goes to live in an English-speaking country," I said. My husband nodded. But this kid is around English-speaking kids every day. If he hasn't been ribbed about it yet, it's just a matter of time.

When I lived in New York, I knew a Japanese girl whose name was Mariko, a perfectly common and respectable name in Japan and one which means nothing unpleasant or embarrassing in English. But when Mariko went to her first ESL class in Brooklyn and was asked to introduce herself, she brought the house down when she shyly said, "I am Mariko." Her almost entirely Spanish-speaking class heard this as maricon, which is Spanish slang for gay. It took Mariko weeks to work up the nerve to speak in front of the class again. She also took to calling herself Mari. "I got tired of everybody laughing when they heard my name," she said.

In Japan, I taught a boy named Shu, which is pronounced exactly like shoe, a girl called Mami, which is pronounced exactly like Mommy, and a boy called Yu, which sounds exactly like you. Shu's and Mami's names always made me smile, but Yu's name really tripped me up. When we practiced third person present, it always felt weird to say, "What does Yu do?" Once when our class went out for coffee together, I had the interesting experience of asking one of his classmates, "Is Yu going?" It didn't sound right.

When Yu told me he was going to study in the States for a year, I was thrilled for him at first, then I frowned. I hated the idea of telling someone to change his name, but Yu seemed to be heading for confusion.

"Umm...have you given your name any thought?" I asked. He smiled. "Someone told me Scottish name like Euan is good idea in America." I let out a sigh of relief.

In my years as an EFL teacher, I've also taught a Saiko (pronounced the same as psycho), a Tuba and a Tuna. But I never once taught an Anus. My mother did.

My mother used to teach in a tiny one-room school in the backwoods of Western Kentucky. Many of her students came from humble families with illiterate parents. One day a new boy showed up in her class. When she asked him for his name, he promptly replied, "Anus."

My mother blanched. She had grown up among people with Victorian ideas and for a split second, she wondered if the boy was trying something funny. "Spell that," she almost whispered.

The boy licked his lips. "A - N - U - S."

My mother studied his face: there was not even the slightest flicker of a smile.

For a week, my mother taught Anus. "But I could not call on him by name in class," she told us. "I had to point to him and say you,and I felt so rude doing that." She decided to pay Anus' parents a visit.

Anus' parents were good, simple people though obviously illiterate. When my mother brought up the subject of his name, his father proudly said that they had gotten it from the Bible. My mother was vastly relieved by this: they had been aiming for Enos, but hadn't thought to double check the spelling. When she suggested that they might want to change the spelling, Anus' parents were confused. Why?

My mother was the sort of person who never even used the words damn or hell. As a child, she'd had her mouth washed out for calling someone a fool, so she was way out of her depth trying to explain what Anus' name meant. For a few awkward minutes, she hemmed and hawed. She explained that ENOS was the correct spelling, but Anus' mother shrugged. So their son would have a different spelling for his name, what was wrong with that?

My mother flushed. "It means something bad."


Sadly, my mother's Victorian sensibilities made it impossible for her to spell it out. For one entire year, Anus was referred to as You in her class. Too bad he couldn't have called himself Euan too.


Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Cat Scratch

The hospital porter gestured through a fog of smoke to a pair of grubby-looking swinging doors and a sign that read CASUALTY. "What wrong?" he asked, waving his cigarette.

I showed him my right hand. "Kedi," I said, making a scratching motion with my left. He nodded and pointed at the doors.

The waiting room was so small it only had three chairs in it. A bored-looking 20-something woman sat in one, communing with her mobile phone. Next to her sat a middle-aged man in a shabby suit. The third was taken up by a stoop-shouldered elderly woman in a headscarf. In a corner of the room stood a very skinny old man who at first sight seemed to be clutching his crotch. I took a surreptitious look and decided he must be trying to hold up his trousers: he was so thin they were in danger of sliding right down his legs. The mobile-punching woman and I were the only ones in the room who didn't look ill.

Immediately after me, a woman came in with two young children. The kids were covered with blisters daubed with some sort of white ointment, and both of them were screaming their heads off. The woman looked the way you look when you've been taking care of sick, cranky kids for far too long. No sooner had she steered her shrieking kids into a corner than the door swung open again and a man on crutches hobbled through, followed by a woman, veiled from head to toe and carrying a tiny infant. I looked at the healthy young woman who was busy punching buttons on her mobile, but if she noticed the man on crutches or his encumbered wife, she never gave the slightest sign.

I looked at the tiny scratch on my hand. What was I doing here? Who got lockjaw nowadays anyway?

The elderly man who looked like he was clutching his crotch talked softly to the children, as though he was trying to stop them from screaming. They didn't pay him the least bit of mind.

A door whipped open and a harassed-looking doctor stuck his head out and barked something in Turkish. Two of the seated people got up and followed the doctor through the doors, their movements sluggish and pained. I expected the woman with the baby to sit down in one of the chairs, but she remained standing, scowling at everyone in the room, her baby sound asleep in her arms. She stayed there even after her husband hobbled out of the room.

Hardly a minute later, the swinging doors creaked open again and a man in a business suit came through. The doctor's door swung open again and the couple who had been sitting walked out. The doctor spotted the man in the business suit and fired a question at him. The businessman held out his hand. My eyes popped: his hand was the size of a boxing glove. It was swollen to twice the size of his other hand, his knuckles round and smooth as glass, the skin tight, dark red and shiny. The doctor poked and prodded it, all the time staring in fascination; we all did. I winced, half expecting it to burst open. The doctor said something to the man and he left, taking his fascinating hand with him.

The doctor disappeared through his door just as another man rushed through the swinging doors, holding his hand high over his head, his face drawn and white. He was dressed in a mechanic's jumpsuit, black with use, and his hand was wrapped in a dirty-looking blood-soaked bandage. The doctor poked his head out again and beckoned him through.

I now felt completely out of place. What in the world was I doing among all these people with genuine complaints? Should I even be here? With all these ill and injured people, I would be here for ages before anyone could see me! The fully cloaked and headkerchiefed woman stared at me sullenly through narrowed eyes. I fought the urge to bolt from the room.

The man with the bandaged hand came out of the treatment room, a clean white bandage on his hand. The doctor beckoned the two screaming children and their mother. After they left, the waiting room got a lot quieter. The girl with the mobile phone continued to sit, and the woman holding her baby continued to glare.

Half a minute later, the two children came back into the waiting room, still screaming, followed closely by their long-suffering mother. The doctor crooked his finger at the crotch-clutching man who disappeared into the treatment room with him.

The woman with the baby scowled a little more deeply and I stared back at her, trying to make my expression kind but firm. I have a right to be here too. I haven't had a tetanus shot since God-knows-when. And if I were the one sitting in that chair, I'd have gotten up the minute you came in!

The woman's face did not soften.

No sooner had the crotch-clutching man pushed through the swinging doors than another family came in, composed of a granny in a headscarf, a middle-aged laborer dad, comfortable-looking mother, and two sullen teenage kids. The doctor stuck his head through the treatment room door and noticed me for the first time. "And you?" he said in Turkish, frowning.

I sucked in my breath and showed him my scratch. Never mind that it had bled copiously earlier; never mind that it was deeper than it looked: my blushes were a lot deeper. I almost expected the doctor to burst out laughing, but he nodded and motioned for me to follow him.

The linoleum floor inside the treatment room was sticky and the examining table was spread with a stained sheet. I sat down on it and waited while the doctor rummaged around for a tetanus vaccine. Opposite me lay a young man on another examining table, his outstretched arm being tended by a nurse with a pair of tweezers. A mess of bloody dressings spilled out of a stainless steel basin placed nearby. I tried not to stare, but it was a compelling tableau: the man's face was turned away from the nurse, his eyes dull, utterly without expression.

"I'm so sorry," I babbled as the doctor rubbed my arm with alcohol. "The cat is usually very polite." He stared at me uncomprehendingly, and I could hardly blame him. "I didn't even want to come here," I went on, watching the doctor depress the plunger. "I mean, it's not really much of a scratch." The doctor frowned. He looked a lot like my students do when I'm not explaining things well: it was obvious he didn't understand a word.

On my way out, the family of five had been joined by a father and his teenage son. The woman with her baby was still standing; the girl was still bent over her mobile phone. They looked up at me and I felt my cat scratch shrink into a mere pinpoint.

I could hardly get out of there fast enough.


Friday, 6 November 2009

When The Saints Go Marching In

Ten minutes into the lesson and I've finally managed to take attendance.

"Teacher, what page?" asks a girl in the front row.

"Page thirty-three," I repeat through gritted teeth. "Page thirty-three."

The door whips open and Ender breezes in, reeking of tobacco and aftershave. "Hello teacher. Sorry for late." He looks pointedly at the attendance sheet lying on my desk. "I am here?"

"Teacher, what page?" yells a boy in the middle of the classroom who wasn't paying attention earlier.


Ender is still standing there. Barely glancing at him, I jerk a thumb towards the desks in a sit down gesture. This sails over Ender's head. He takes a step closer and gestures at the attendance sheet. "I am present?"

"You are late. Sit down!"

He doesn't sit down, though. If he knew me a little better, he really would, but he stands there, waiting for me to stop what I'm doing and mark him present.

"You are late, and I am trying to teach," I say, my voice dangerously soft and low. "Now sit down."

"Teacher, page forty three?" a girl calls out.

"THIRTY THREE! I bellow.

Ender still hasn't given up. He jabs his thumb at the roll sheet. "I am present?"

God give me strength! Ender is the third student who's come into my classroom late this morning. My patience stores, dangerously low even before Ender made his ill-timed appearance, are suddenly empty. I pick the register up in both hands and raise it over my head in a fair imitation of Moses ready to smash the tablets. "SIT.DOWN!" I thunder, making the entire class jump.

Students in my morning class tend to come in late because the bus service is erratic. I'd be more sympathetic if I hadn't spotted a few of the offenders outside, indulging in pre-class cigarettes. When it comes to the bus being late, wolf has been cried one time too many. I've gotten hardened after over a year here, and I've grown canny too: Ender is unmistakably one of the wolf criers. Maybe his bus was late. Maybe it was raining/hailing/windy where he lives or his lift didn't show up. Maybe his roommate stole his bicycle. Maybe he has a 104 degree temperature from swine flu, but I don't care. Everybody else managed to get here on time. Ender is on two legs; he looks more well-rested than I do, and he smells like he's spent the last three days smoking in a closet. Nothing short of, God forbid, a dead mother with an authentic, carefully-vetted death certificate is going to change my mind: I'm not marking Ender present. The midterm exam is this coming Wednesday, and my class is lagging far behind. I was hoping to use this period to catch up, but Ender has gone and made me waste five precious minutes.

Amazingly, Ender doesn't leave the classroom once he knows I'm not going to mark him present. Finally getting the point, he stomps down the aisle, throws himself into a chair and lands on his back, legs splayed in front of him, his face like thunder.

"Now open your books to page thirty three," I say quietly. And Ender does. The rest of the class are watching me narrowly, their faces full of awe. In fact, I'm full of awe myself.

How in the world did I get like this? I am the mildest mannered person you could ever meet. I hate confrontations; I will bend over backward to accommodate people; I am gentle by nature and utterly trusting. How did I become this shrill, cynical woman who bullies students into doing their homework, patrols her classroom for slackers, and wrests cell phones from the hands of teenagers? I've gone through an amazing transformation in one year's time.

For the next two hours, I work the kids like there is no tomorrow. I push them willy-nilly through the present perfect tense; I make sure they've got a handle on already, just, and yet; I drill them on Have you ever...?; I give no quarter and accept no excuses and I do not allow them a minute's peace. The deserving are praised, the lazy ones are admonished, and the confused are gently led to the light. I make sure that all of them participate and contribute, even Ender. And we get through all the material, by God. We are now only two chapters behind, and I know I'll be able to cover them on Monday and Tuesday. When I finally dismiss the class, they get up from their seats with glazed looks on their faces; they squeeze their eyes shut and rub their faces and the backs of their necks. I think they may be even more tired than I am.

The truth is, I don't know whether they'll pass the midterm. But this I do know: on the seventh day I will rest. And if there really is a heaven, I'm that much closer to securing myself a spot.


Tuesday, 3 November 2009

A Dish Of Culinary Xenophobia

My knife slides into the avocado and the two halves fall apart, all green-edged pale yellow perfection. "Look!" I say, breathing a sigh of relief, "it's just ripe enough."

Avocados are tough to get just right: sometimes one that looks absolutely fine will turn out to be rotten inside, nothing but fibrous and rancid brown mush. The fact that this one is so beautifully ripe and flawless is a real stroke of luck. But the ring of faces around me registers deep suspicion. Nobody seems impressed.

"Now, we'll just put the avocado halves in this bowl here," I go on, handing one boy a garlic press, "and squeeze some garlic and a little lemon juice into it--"

"Hojam, I no like," the boy interrupts glumly, pointing at the garlic.

I look up at him in consternation. Last week, I asked everybody if they liked garlic and I'm sure I got nothing but enthusiastic nods. Maybe nobody understood me. Maybe all those nods were the equivalent of my students' kneejerk yeses when I ask if they've done their homework, even when they've hardly glanced at it.

I try to keep my face from falling. "You really don't like garlic?" How can someone not like garlic? "You didn't say anything about not liking garlic last week..."

The boy shivers and looks at the garlic press in my hand, his upper lip drawn back. When I suggested doing guacamole last week, everyone seemed keen enough. From the looks on their faces, I might as well be mixing up slug slime with gasoline.

I don't actually want to be here, doing this, but I have no choice. This term, our director got the idea that we should have after-school clubs for the students, in order to offer them a more diverse and stimulating social life. In the warmer months, there are a lot of things the students can do, but when it gets colder, they get bored. Students have complained that they do nothing but -- gasp! -- study, and commute back and forth to school. So now we have a tennis club, a football club, an engineering club, a conversation club, a drama club and a 'gourmet' club. I'm in charge of the gourmet club.

We should not have called it a gourmet club. Why not? Because it turns out that none of these boys will try more than the tiniest smear of guacamole. They feel the same way about the cheese and spring onion quesadillas we have fried up. The same food my own kids can't get enough of is clearly grossing them out in the worst way.

"No thank you," murmur all the boys, one after another, shaking their heads as I hold out a bowl of fresh tortilla chips and point to the guacamole. They avert their eyes and make nauseated little moues.

I should have known the boys weren't wholeheartedly behind the idea of trying Mexican food. When I reminded them about it earlier, they frowned at the avocados and started talking about kebabs and pilaf. They've eaten hundreds upon hundreds of kebabs and pilafs, but not one of them had the tiniest idea about Mexican food. I just wanted them to try something different. This is a Gourmet Club, after all! This is what I get for wanting people to love the things I love. For wanting them to try new things and expand their horizons.

All too keenly I remember the time my eldest daughter convinced me to make sushi for her class in Scotland. I told her it was a bad idea. I tried my best to discourage her, only partly because I didn't feel like going to the trouble of making sushi for a bunch of strangers: I knew that her classmates could not possibly appreciate my efforts as much as she did. People can be very squeamish about certain kinds of 'ethnic' food, and our little town in Scotland is hardly a cosmopolitan metropolis. But my daughter begged and begged me, certain that her classmates would be as thrilled with her favorite food as she was, so with great reservations, I sent her off to school proudly carrying a plateful of futomaki, stuffed with soy-cooked shiitake, carrots, cucumber, egg, and crab.

Sure enough, my daughter came home from school with an empty plate and a glum expression. While some of her friends loved the sushi, a lot of kids played ball with them in the classroom. "They didn't like the nori," my daughter told me. "They said it tasted like paper." I made a sympathetic face and refrained from saying I told you so. "All they like is chips," my daughter grumbled. "They don't even want to try other stuff, no matter how good it is."

"Turkish boys like kebab, Mary," my colleague informs me primly as I wrap up the scorned quesadilla and dump the guacamole into a plastic container. I scrub the chopping board and try to keep my irritation from showing. Of course Turkish boys like kebab -- I know that! But this is a gourmet club, not a Let's make the same old food you eat every single night club, right?

Looks like next week we'll be making a pilaf.


Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Missing Japan

"Teacher," Mehmet whispers conspiratorially just as I push open the door to the classroom, "I think you speak Turkish."

I've told Mehmet and the entire class that I don't speak Turkish at least two dozen times, but I smile mysteriously and lift an eyebrow. "Do you now?" I murmur, juggling my CD player and stack of books.

"You speak Turkish?" he nudges me. "I know you speak Turkish."

"Sure, I do," I say enigmatically, frowning as I plug in my CD player and slip in a disc.

Mehmet leans closer and says something to me in Turkish, then gives me a meaningful look. God knows what he's saying; I sure don't.

I'll play along, though. "Okay, you want me to speak Turkish? Bir, iki, üç, dört, beş," I count in a sing-song, pulling out the attendance sheet. One, two, three, four, five -- Whew! I've just exhausted a significant chunk of my Turkish right there.

Mehmet rolls his eyes and knits his eyebrows. "You speak Turkish!"

I oblige him by reciting my list of fruits and vegetables. My daughter, whose Turkish is a lot better than mine, has grilled me on these endlessly and I am very proud of my ability to pronounce fruits and vegetables in Turkish. I nailed persimmons at the greengrocer the other day and it was the high point of my week. (It's hurma, in case you're interested. Feel free to learn it: you never know when that might come in handy!)

Mehmet lets out a sigh and goes to sit down. Good: maybe he'll stop asking me Do you speak Turkish? now. Maybe he'll even try to learn English instead of pestering me for Turkish.

My students aren't the only ones who think I speak Turkish. At the airport, the man in passport control thought I was Turkish; the lady at the drug store talked to me in Turkish; fully half of the kids and their parents who come to our program to be registered walk right up to me and start speaking in Turkish.

The sad truth is that I really don't speak Turkish at all.

Ironically, when we lived in Japan, I had exactly the opposite problem. I speak Japanese very well, but no one who didn't know me ever assumed I could. Whenever I went somewhere for the first time, I used to spend ages trying to convince people that I really understood what they were saying. I once spent an afternoon showing a Chinese-American friend around Yokohama. Towards the end of the day, I felt like a ventriloquist's dummy: every person we met directed their questions to my friend, who would then look helplessly at me until I supplied him with an English translation.

In Japan, it used to take ages to get people to accept what I could do. Nothing I say seems to convince some people I can't speak Turkish.

I can't help but find it frustrating: in Japan, where I could do plenty, I despaired of ever establishing the kind of credibility I've managed to effortlessly -- and erroneously -- acquire here. I'd have given just about anything to be taken for a native in Japan. In seventeen years in Japan, it happened to me exactly once, when a blind woman at the station asked me to help her pay for her ticket.

As we file out of the classroom, Mehmet and his pal, Osman, bid me goodbye in Turkish, grinning impishly. They're positive I understand what they're saying: hope springs eternal.

I sneak up to the computer room in order to write something I can post on my blog. Bloglarınıza erişmek için Google Hesabınızla oturum açın, I read on the screen. I'm pretty sure this has something to do with writing a new post, but who knows for sure?

Someone is talking to me: it's one of the African students. "İngilizce biliyormusunuz?" he's asking me. Good grief: even the African students think I speak Turkish!

One thing I've learned here: it's better to be capable and thought incapable than incapable and assumed capable.

I miss Japan with all my heart.


Wednesday, 21 October 2009

The Devil You Know

"Are you sure you aren't supposed to be doing academic skills?" My voice sounds awfully feeble and wimpy.

A sea of faces stares back at me -- or at least the ones that are actually turned my way. A full quarter of this strange class isn't paying the slightest bit of attention to me. Half of the kids who aren't yakking away shake their heads.

I hold up the book. "But you do have this book?"

"No book!" they practically chorus.

This is a real blow. "You don't have the book?"

More frowns and wiggled heads.

I'm beginning to panic now, so I hold the book high and walk down the aisle. "Does anyone have this book?" I roar at the top of my lungs. Foreheads furrow and lines appear between eyebrows.

"Nobody has this book?" I'm just buying time now. I'm covering for a colleague who has the same horrible flu I have barely just recovered from myself. And I've wasted the last thirty minutes hurriedly planning a lesson that isn't going to happen.

No one, it turns out, has the academic skills book. Not even the keenest, most conscientious, straight arrow among them will admit to having the academic skills book. It's hot outside and the air-conditioner isn't doing its job; I feel sweat beading up on my forehead.

"But you do have your course books, right?"

They all nod. Thank God!

"Okay, hang on and I'll go get mine."

Fortunately the teachers' room is just a mad dash across the corridor. I rummage through my locker with growing panic: my course book is gone! I have a vague memory of someone asking to borrow it earlier. Whimpering, I go skidding into the coordinators' office for a course book, then hurry back to the classroom to take roll.

Good thing I'm back: they're really starting to get restless now. I have to shout to get their attention.

But there is fresh hell: the roll sheet I've been given is not the current one and half a dozen students seem to have been added to the class list. By the time I've cobbled together an attendance record of sorts and dealt with thirty-five strange Turkish names, I'm exhausted. I've had six students spell their names for me and not one of these kids knew the difference between 'e' and 'i' -- in Turkish 'e' is pronounced as eh, while 'i' is pronounced as ee -- so we spent too much time on that. Sure, they'll thank me some day, especially if they ever have to make a phone call in the middle of Grand Central Station and are required to spell their names, but now they're just hot and pissed off.

As I start in on my teaching point, my eagle eye lights on a boy in the back row who seems to be talking. I narrow my eyes: he's holding a newspaper. For the benefit of the class, I point at the offender and mime horrified shock, then make my way towards him slowly, rolling my eyes at the rest of the class. The boy is so busy talking, he doesn't spot me until I whip the paper out of his hands. Everyone else in class is enjoying this too much to spoil the fun.

I don't even have to look at the paper to know that it's in Turkish, but I go through the motions anyway, just for the heck of it. "You're reading a Turkish newspaper," I point out. The boy nods sheepishly. "Although this is an English class." He nods again, trying to smile. I sigh and shake my head. The newspaper goes into the trash; he's lucky I don't rip it in half first. Newspaper boy and his friend are assigned new seats in front where I can keep an eye on them. They blush and drag their feet, but at least they do what I ask.

Now there are only twenty minutes of class time left.

The lesson -- following contextual clues in reading -- isn't an easy one and requires much more preparation time than we have. The class is a typical mixture of keen-as-mustard and don't-give-a-damn. I'd say the ratio was about 1/10. By the time the class is over I have yelled myself hoarse, confiscated five mobile phones and a magazine, and reseated three more kids. I feel like a marginally overpaid babysitter. Are the kids in my class this awful? They can't be -- can they? At the very least, none of my regulars has read a Turkish newspaper in class. Yet.

As I walk out the door, one of my own students, a great, swaggering, sloppy boy who gives me no end of trouble, sees me in the corridor. His face lights up. "Hello Mary Teacher!"

I've told him two dozen times not to call me Mary Teacher. But what the heck, he still looks great.


Saturday, 17 October 2009

Listening From Heaven

In the relative quiet of my classroom, the jarring blast of Arabesque music makes us all jump. I wheel around, narrowing my eyes, trying to figure out where the sound is coming from.

Ahmet might have gotten away with it, but his furtive eyes betray him. So does the telltale movement of hands to pockets.

I sidle over to his desk and stick my hand out. "Hand it over!"

Ahmet cringes, the offending object he is clutching still shrilling Arabesque, the whining, wailing belly-dance music my students all love so dearly. I leave my hand where it is and bend forward a little, fingers outstretched as I drum on the table with the other hand. "Come on, give it to me."

Ahmet lets out a sigh and drops his mobile into my hand. I hold it up triumphantly for all the class to see. "Ahmet's phone is mine for the next forty-five minutes!" I crow. "Think I can sell it on e-Bay in forty-five minutes?" Everybody but Ahmet thinks this is hilarious, but he's a good kid and a good sport: he smiles weakly too.

The first day of class, I laid down the rules: No Turkish in class; come on time; do your homework; always bring a notebook and pen; make your calls during break time. I don't take mobile phones off students unless they happen to ring during class time. Ahmet isn't a first time offender and I've got to crack down.

Before I reach my desk, the phone lets out another tinny blast of Arabesque. Getting a sudden inspiration I hold it to my ear and have a pretend conversation. "Hello? Who's this? No, sorry, I don't speak Turkish. Do you speak English? İngilizce?! Do I sound like I speak Turkish? No? Well, then! Now, who is this? Ahmet's father? Mr. Ayaz, I know you want to speak to Ahmet, but he is in class now -- English class. You are spending a lot of money for him to learn English. This is his English teacher and--" I hold the phone away from me theatrically and stare at it.

The class roars as I put it back to my ear. "My name is Mary. Nice to meet you too. Now, as I was saying, you are paying a lot of money so that Ahmet can LEARN ENGLISH and I don't want to waste your money. And the entire class is waiting. So could you please call back during the break? That will be in forty-five minutes. Okay, thank you. Goodbye. Yes, I'll tell Ahmet to study very hard. Please remind him yourself when you call back."

I repeat call back half a dozen times. 'Call back' isn't on our vocabulary list this term, but one of the brighter kids used it the other day when we were discussing phrasal verbs, and I want to reinforce it.

As I put Ahmet's phone down, the entire class practically bursts into applause. They have done something unprecedented: they have listened intently, eyes wide, mouths open, clearly riveted by my pretend conversation with Ahmet's father. Forty-five minutes later Ahmet takes his phone back and I see him furtively checking his sent call list to see if I really did talk to his father. When he comes back after the break, he flashes me a conspiratorial grin.

During the next two weeks, I pocket half a dozen ringing cell phones and indulge in a minute-long conversation with the caller every single time. Usually I talk to fathers, but sometimes I talk to mothers, girlfriends or boyfriends, as the spirit moves me. Once, I actually did talk to someone's friend, who surprised me by knowing a smattering of English. The entire class hushes while I have these 'conversations' -- I don't even have to ask them to be quiet. They probably get more listening practice than they do all week this way; I have to fight the urge to quiz them afterwards on what I said.

I am happy with this discovery of mine. Quite inadvertently I have found a way to get my class to pay attention and listen. Sometimes teaching is all about thinking on your feet.

Last week, Emre's cell phone goes off right in the middle of a role play between two shy girls. I pocket Emre's phone without blinking an eye -- just snatch it right off him before he even knows I've done it. "Go on," I tell the shy girls, giving them an encouraging nod, "finish your conversation." They stare at Emre's cell phone and frown. "Come on," I prod, "we're all waiting." One of the girls bites her lip and smiles. "Talk?" she whispers, pointing to Emre's mobile. "Teacher talk?"

"Talk!" the rest of the class urges, almost in unison. "Talk to Emre father!"

I roll my eyes, but I put Emre's phone to my ear and obligingly go through with the charade. "I promise to tell him," I conclude. "Emre doesn't like studying--" (This is sadly true) "--but I'll make sure he gets your message, Mr. Yılmaz."

Emre has a funny look on his face -- as though he's barely managing to contain himself. The minute I put down his phone after pretending to turn it off, he leaps out of his seat. "No, teacher -- no talk my father! Impossible! Father is died -- ten years!"

I roll my eyes again and give him my best duh look. "I know that," I say pointing upwards. "Where do you think he called from?"

Emre's eyes flicker upwards, then down as he takes his seat again. He smiles a little wistfully. As he leaves the class, I hand him back his phone. "Emre, wherever your father is, I know he wants you to do your best. If he really could talk to you, I'll bet he'd tell you that too." Emre smiles. Thank God. Maybe he'll even study!

Sometimes teaching is all about thinking on your feet.


Tuesday, 13 October 2009

A Gown, With Hugs and Kisses

"Mary, do you have your gown?" one of my colleagues asks me.

"Of course I do," I am able to answer with a touch of smugness. I know why he asked me: last time we had to parade through town in our academic gowns, I happened to forget mine. No way am I going to get caught without it this time, though -- I'm on top of things! This time I'm going to be all cool and calm composure. This time I'm going to get it right.

My colleague cranes his neck. "Where is it, then?"

"It's in the car," I tell him. "I'm going to change into it this evening, right before the parade."

Some years back, the powers that be at our university decided that it would be a fine thing for all the faculty members to parade through the town in academic gowns with collars, just like the dons at Cambridge and Oxford. Our university is such a far cry from Cambridge and Oxford it just isn't true, but nevertheless, the entire teaching staff has been required to do this. The university has considerately provided each one of us with a voluminous black polyester gown and fancy collar. Every faculty's collar has a different color scheme; ours is maroon and blue. We go downtown in these hideous garments and swan around in a parade for all the townspeople to admire. Already hot and tired after a day of teaching, we march all the way down to a statue of Atatürk, where we stand through a long ceremony and sing the Turkish national anthem. Last year, I forgot my gown and ended up having a miserable, sweaty time of it, running back to the office to get it. By the time it was over, you could have wiped the floor with me and I wouldn't have noticed.

My colleague is frowning. "Your gown's in the car? You didn't forget the opening ceremony, did you? You need it for that too, you know."

Oh my God. I feel the blood drain from my head: I did forget! We are supposed to wear it to the opening ceremony too, which happens to be fifteen minutes from now.

"You have time to get it," my colleague says helpfully. No I don't: the parking lot is a good long walk away and it's very hot outside. Moreover, the car is locked and my husband has the key. And he's teaching right now. He would not welcome a sweaty, panting wife turning up in his classroom, asking for the car keys.

"Why don't you go to the book store and ask them if you can borrow one?" another colleague suggests.

"Do you think they'd really mind if I didn't wear it this time?" I say by way of an answer, though I have little hope.

She gives me a hard look and shakes her head. "They'd mind. They'd notice."

So the bookstore it is.

The bookstore is barely five minutes away, but I seem to know half the people who are crowding the walkway as I sprint along. "Mary teacher!" one girl calls out joyfully, grabbing my hands and kissing both sides of my face. "This is my mother!" A woman who looks far too young to be the mother of a 19-year-old smiles at me. "Hello Mary teacher!" another boy calls out just as I've managed to extract myself from the girl and her mother, "I am happy to see you!"

Everybody is happy to see me, it seems. I wish they wouldn't be: my five-minute walk has stretched to ten minutes and I feel so rude, rushing by grinning ex-students with fond memories. By the time I get to the bookstore, I am a sweaty, huffing, puffing mess. I have shaken two dozen hands and received double that many kisses.

Miraculously, the long line I observe with a sinking heart diminishes quickly and I am waited on almost immediately. I explain my dilemma as quickly as I can, but the kind young man at the counter doesn't understand that I don't want to be issued a gown, I merely want to borrow one. "I'll give it right back," I assure him. "I've already got one."

He has obviously kitted out lots of faculty members today. "Gown," he says smartly. He disappears and returns with a brand new gown and the sign-out book. Uh oh: if he checks this against my department, he will see that I already have one. I will have to try to explain -- again -- that I just want to borrow the gown, and by the time he's figured it out, the opening ceremony will be well underway.

But bless him, he does not check my name, he nods as I sign, and I am now the proud owner of another polyester gown. I quickly put it on, pull the wretched collar over my head, and sprint out the door.

The five-minute run from the bookstore to the assembly hall is not a pleasant one. On a hot day, a full-length black polyester gown is not a comfortable piece of clothing, especially when it's worn over your own clothes. When you're running in it, it's even nastier. I'm not a naturally sweaty person; I can run for a mile before you can tell on my clothes, but even a soda cracker would sweat in black polyester. When I finally get to the assembly hall, I am a sweaty, miserable mess. You could wipe the floor and clean your car with me and I would not bat an eye. But -- hallelujah! -- I am on time. And I'm wearing my gown.

Too bad we're not going to be here next year. I'm sure I'd get it right.


Friday, 9 October 2009

A Lesson Learned

I helped rescue a kitten yesterday afternoon. I was waiting for my husband when I heard it yowling. It was so loud, my first thought was that children must be teasing it; there is an elementary school nearby and kids were everywhere, having just gotten out of class. When I looked out the window, I could see children running back and forth to an air-conditioning unit outside, calling out excitedly. But when I went down to investigate, I saw that the children weren't tormenting it at all: they were trying to free it.

"Poor little thing!" one thuggish great boy with a strong London accent said. He and a friend were trying to move the air-conditioning unit out of the way to get at it. It wasn't easy: it was in front of a strip of paneling that was screwed in. Behind the paneling was a metal vent about half a foot long with a tiny gap where the kitten had probably gotten in.

"It's been in there for a long time!" the boy told me.

"How long?"

He screwed up his face. "Maybe two days. Nobody can get it out. It's scared, like."

"How'd it get in there?" I asked.

A little girl shook her head. "Maybe someone was trying to play with it," she said shyly. Another little boy joined us. He said something in Turkish and the Londoner translated. "Maybe it was trying to get away. Maybe it thought somebody was going to hurt it."

I fumbled around in my bag for a nail file. "Can someone help me move the air-conditioning unit? Maybe we can get this paneling off."

Three little boys immediately volunteered their services. With their help (and a little interference) I managed to get two screws out, but it was impossible to get purchase on the others. Fortunately, they were all rusty and fairly loose: the big boy with the London accent managed to pull the paneling off and another dragged the air-conditioning unit right back, revealing the tiny gap the kitten had managed to squeeze into.

A mother who had come to collect her kids watched us surreptitiously, a look of deep suspicion on her face as we pulled the paneling out of the way. I did my best to ignore her.

"Your arms are long," another little boy said. "Maybe you can reach it."

I did manage to get my hand through the gap, but when I tried to pull the kitten out, it hissed and spat. All I could see of the kitten was its whiskers, and -- occasionally -- its tail.

My long-suffering husband had shown up by this point. "They've told the janitorial staff about the kitten," he said. "Someone's going to come along and see to it later."

I wasn't buying this. I know our janitorial staff and their idea of 'later': I'd spent two hours in a hot classroom, sweating it out with twenty-six miserable kids. The janitors had been told that our air-conditioner didn't work. They were going to see to that 'later' too.

After a long day of teaching, my husband was tired and hungry and sorely in need of a beer, but he knows me. When I told him I would stay until the kitten was freed, he sighed a long sigh. "I'll stay with you."

Fortunately, my husband had his mobile phone with him and unlike mine, it still had credit on it. I called the Kyrenia Animal Rescue. This is a group of wonderful people who spend their free time caring for stray cats and dogs. They get them inoculated, arrange for them to be spayed or neutered, and sometimes pull them down from trees -- or out of holes. The woman who answered the phone agreed to come help. She told us she would be there within twenty minutes.

While we waited, one of the well-wishers crowding around, a fellow teacher, told us about a wounded bird she had rescued from her classroom window. She had managed to catch it, take it to the vet, nurse it back to health, and release it, whole and healthy again. The children around us all listened, wide-eyed.

When the animal rescue woman showed up -- with cat box, gardening gloves, and a bag of cat food -- we all practically cheered.

By this time a modest audience had gathered. We all watched as the woman put on an old shirt, crouched in the dusty narrow space in front of the hole, and tried to urge the kitten out. It took ages; I was amazed by the woman's patience.

At one point, I didn't think it was going to happen. I was tired, hungry and thirsty too; I'd been on my feet since eight in the morning and all I wanted to do was sit down with a tall drink and a book. And then all of a sudden, the kitten was out, a feisty, blue-eyed little bundle of tiger-striped fur. We all cheered as the rescue woman popped it into the cat carrier.

The story doesn't have a traditional happy ending: the kitten was adopted by a kindly colleague, but he cried so much and so loudly at night, she had to let him out, and then she couldn't find him again. She showed up at work tired and stressed after racing around, looking for it.

But if I had it to do over again, I would do just the same thing. I was heartened by those children and their gentleness with the kitten; I was touched by our fellow teacher who had spent so long over what everyone else scoffed was "just a bird"; I was grateful that my colleague had tried to give the kitten a good home. Not every story has a happy ending, but sometimes that itself is a lesson too.