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.