Friday, 28 May 2010

Say What?

The other day, my friend Güzin and I got on the dolmuş downtown after an afternoon of shopping. Almost as soon as we sat down, a group of sixty-ish women piled in, one after the other, talking a mile a minute.

Güzin was delighted. "They're from Istanbul too!" she whispered. "I can tell from their accents; they sound like they're from my old neighborhood."

I was intrigued. "How can you tell?"

"It's just the way they sound." Her eyes widened and she frowned. "In fact, I can't really tell what language they're speaking," she whispered. "It's mainly Turkish, but it's something else too; I just can't tell what. Spanish maybe...?"

I closed my eyes and tried to concentrate on the women's voices. Whatever they were speaking sounded just like Turkish to me, though some words seemed more guttural and the sentences had a rhythm that was slightly exotic. "Well, it's not Spanish."

We were both silent for a while, then there was a lull in the women's conversation so Güzin and I started talking about something else: a colleague of ours who recently got engaged. She brought her photo album to work and I was fascinated by the Turkish custom of the bride-to-be preparing her husband-to-be salty coffee. "Does he really have to drink it?"

"Yes, he does."


"Because if he can drink his wife's salty coffee without complaining, her family will know he's patient enough to endure marriage."

One of the women shoppers with the fascinating language leaned forward and tapped Güzin on the shoulder. She said something to her, but all I could understand was İngilizce -- the Turkish for English. Güzin answered her.

"What did she say?" I whispered.

"She wanted to know where I'd learned my English."

The ladies were speaking to each other again and Güzin shook her head. "Do you think it's Catalan?"

I shook my head. "I've heard Catalan and that's definitely not it." We both frowned. "Hey," I said, "Do you think it could be Ladino?"

I've never heard anyone speak Ladino, but I've always wanted to. When Sephardic Jewish exiles settled throughout the Ottoman Empire, they took their language with them and it evolved, depending on what area they settled in.

Güzin perked right up at that. "Ladino? Maybe that's it!"

We listened to the women a little more. I could barely stand it: if the women were really speaking Ladino, I was dying to know. "Could you maybe ask them what language they're speaking?"

Güzin bit her lip and glanced quickly behind her, then shook her head. "I can't."

"But they asked you about your English!" I whispered.

"I know, but that's different."

And for the next ten minutes, we sat there simmering with curiosity as we listened to the women speaking their mystery language. If I thought they could speak English, I swear I'd have asked them myself.

Before Güzin got to her stop, she kindly let me practice my Turkish on her again: fırın n'ın orda, or Near the bakery. When I want to get off at the local bakery instead of the mosque, this line is an absolute must. I've never yet met a dolmuş driver who speaks English, so having this useful bit of Turkish has saved me many a long, dusty walk.

Just after I waved goodbye to Güzin, my mobile went off and I spoke to my daughter in Japanese. As we talked, I became aware of a sudden hush: all the other passengers seemed to have stopped talking. My Japanese suddenly sounded very loud and foreign to my ears. The ladies who might be Ladino speakers were watching me, open-mouthed, as was the driver.

Almost on cue, the driver wheeled around and asked me where I was going. I took a deep breath: I was ready for this! "Fırın n'ın orda," I said loudly and clearly.

The driver knitted his brow and repeated fırın and my heart sank. Because unfortunately, a useful phrase like near the bakery only works when the driver knows where the bakery is. It has been my experience that one out of five drivers don't know where our local bakery is, so this was just my lucky day.

"Where going?" a loud man in front of me asked in English. I stifled a sigh. This happens a lot. I speak my little piece in Turkish, nobody knows where the bakery is, and I end up having to entertain everybody in English. As it happens, the bakery is just down the road from our local cattery, but imagine having to explain that in Turkish. "You England?" the man in front of me shouted, looking me up and down. "You want Turkish bakery? Where you go?"

I had a sudden inspiration. "Pan-ya e," I answered in Japanese. "Karşıyaka ni arimasu ga, dare mo wakaranai mitai. Anata mo wakaranai dessho?"

The man's jaw dropped and I smiled. Russian, I heard somebody behind me say. I smiled all the more broadly.

When the mystery language ladies got off, they gave me a quizzical look. I hope we'll meet again. If they tell me theirs, I'll tell them mine.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Cheating Arts

This is it: D-Day. The final examination. I'm in a room full of students who are radiating fear and misery as they chew on the ends of their pencils and ply their eraser stubs over their answer sheets. This is the day when we separate the studious from the screw-ups, the hardworking from the lazy. The students grimace and gaze heavenwards as they wrack their brains for the right answers.

"You!" I whisper, tapping one boy's desk. "Stop cheating!" He shoots me an aggrieved Who me? look and spreads his hands.

But I've sat in on too many exams here and I know all too well what he's up to: while pretending to stare into space, he has in fact been copying what the girl next to him is writing. She's already managed four paragraphs and he has barely come up with three sentences, but what he has written is amazingly like her composition. My name Gamze, she has written. Thank you for email I am festival's very enjoyed Especially rockband. my family go Istanbul favorite holiday. Cheater Boy's first sentence reads as follows: My name Onur Thank you for email I am party's very enjoyed Especially music. my family go Ankara favorite holiday. Part of me is infuriated by his need to cheat; part of me respects the fact that at least he had the presence of mind to change the pertinent bits.

Because as much as it pains me to admit this, not everybody here has the smarts to know how to cheat. Last semester, a girl turned in an assignment about Turkish tourism, but had neglected to change Nigeria and Nigerian to Turkey and Turkish. And this group in particular has a couple of real boneheads in it. I recognize half a dozen from last semester: kids who never paid attention in class, never did a lick of homework, never once came up with the right answer. The worst one, a tall, pimply boy called Cemal, is sitting in the second row, his head bent over his test paper. I don't have the heart to see how he is doing. During his months in my class, Cemal was never anything but spectacularly dense.

In the fifth row, there is a boy who looks exactly like someone I went to school with, Nathaniel Tannenbaum. So far, I've taught half a dozen kids here who looked eerily like old friends or acquaintances of mine, but this kid is so similar to Nathaniel it's truly freaky: the same beaky nose, the same golden skin, unibrow, and long, shapely hands. Even the way this kid slumps in his seat is the same. Every time I have to walk by his desk, I try not to gape. Then I happen to look over Nathaniel's shoulder and see what he has written about his favorite holiday: my went enjoye istanbul september with fammily Three brothers, sister. my very had fun, too much Interesting, istanbul Very fantastik City.

I can't get over my disappointment. Nathaniel Tannebaum was a straight A student with a keen wit. He was in the Gifted English class and cocky enough to mock people who failed to distinguish between your and you're. How could this idiot be his doppelganger?

Cemal writes, never once looking up from his answer sheet. He frowns, he scratches his neck, he chews the end of his pencil and erases hard enough to make a hole in the paper, then writes again.

"What is that? Show me that paper!" I hear my colleague hiss. I wheel around and see him bending over a boy in the second row whose head is lowered in shame. My colleague holds up the crib sheet he has confiscated. I am dispatched to the office to fetch the head teacher to deal with the cheater. As I turn back briefly, I see Nathaniel trying to copy off his neighbor's paper. I feel like crying: Nathaniel cheating? Nooooo! Nathaniel was the guy everybody else cheated off!

I come back to the classroom with the headteacher. As soon as the blushing cheater is ushered out in shame, three of my former students leave, one after the other. I take a look at their papers and feel like crying: they haven't even bothered to attempt the composition. There is no way they're going to pass.

"You--sit--over--here," I hear my colleague tell Nathaniel through clenched teeth. Dark eyes flashing, Nathaniel gets up with great dignity and relocates to a seat in the back row.

Thirty long minutes pass. Two more of my ex-students get up and leave, their test sheets only half completed. My colleague doesn't say anything about it, but I know he feels as bad about the boy with the crib sheet as I do. Because we caught him cheating, that boy will receive a zero for his efforts. Instead of spending the summer relaxing with his pals, he will have to stay here and go to summer school. God knows what he will tell his parents.

Nathaniel and Cemal are the very last students to hand in their exams. A quick glance at Nathaniel's paper shows me that he has almost certainly failed. I don't even bother to look at Cemal's; his failure is a given. At least Cemal didn't cheat, I tell myself. But I still leave the classroom feeling jaded and a little depressed.

Later in the afternoon, I find Cemal's paper in my stack of tests to mark. I am astonished and delighted to find that he passed. If he did cheat, he did a great job of it.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

The Pursuit of Happiness

The auditorium is cool and dark and I almost sigh with relief as I sink into my seat. It’s hot and bright outside and my classroom on the third floor has been hellish. The heat is bad enough given our non-functioning air-conditioning, but what really drives me crazy is my students' varying temperature requirements. Coscun, who is tall and skinny, cannot bear having the window open. Aycan too is cold-blooded: she wears a sweater on even the hottest days. Sevgi, on the other hand, is always burning up, and Haluk, Kemal, and Nazli slide up and down the scale. No sooner have I started teaching than someone jumps up to see whether the air-conditioner happens to be working again. Five minutes later, someone else is tugging on a window, trying to open or close it. This goes on all morning until I could scream. Here in the auditorium the temperature is perfect for me. If my students don’t like it, they’ll just have to sweat—or shiver—it out until the movie’s over.

“Teacher, what movie?” Coscun whispers, tapping me on the shoulder.

“The Pursuit of Happiness,” I tell him for the third time in five minutes, through clenched jaws.

“Teacher, I am present,” Kemal cries breathlessly in the row behind me, making Nazli squeal in protest as he trips over her feet.

“Kemal. Got you,” I mutter, ticking his name on my roll sheet.

“Teacher, cold,” Aycan mutters. She snuffles. “Do you have—?”

But Kemal interrupts. “Teacher, I am here?” His breath is hot on my neck.

“Yes,” I mutter, rooting in my bag for Kleenex, which I’m guessing is what Aycan wants. From my over-stuffed handbag I pull dark glasses, my wallet, and a tube of hand cream. But where in the world is my Kleenex?

“You mark me present?” Kemal persists. Because God forbid he should spend a whole two hours watching a movie in a cool auditorium on a hot day and not be given credit for it.

“Yes, I have marked you here!” I tell Kemal a little too loudly, pulling a package of Kleenex out of my bag and handing it to Aycan. She frowns at it. “No, I have.” She leans closer to me. “Do you have pen?”

“Teacher, we have quiz after movie?” Nazli wants to know as I try unsuccessfully to stuff the Kleenex back into my bag.

“Teacher, what quiz about?” Aycan wails a little frantically.

By the time the lights go out and the movie begins, I am no longer cool.

And yet, in no time, I am caught up in the wonderful story of Christopher Gardner and his trials. Suddenly I am no longer a hassled, stressed-out teacher in an auditorium with a roll sheet on my lap, I am back in San Francisco watching Christopher and his son coping with life on the street. I marvel at how a father sleeping rough manages to turn himself out every morning, smartly dressed in a business suit and freshly ironed shirt; how he gets his son to his nursery school and back day after day; how he puts in a full day at work under the most difficult of circumstances. I feel his misery and anxiety when he is forced to give his rich, oblivious boss his last five dollars, when he has to pay the parking fines he has incurred through no fault of his own. When Christopher and his little boy are spending the night at Glide Memorial’s homeless shelter and his little boy says You’re a good papa, I find myself snuffling back tears. The movie could end right here and I’d be perfectly happy: if you’re living on the streets, doing your best to make ends meet, and your little boy thinks you’re a good dad, you’re a success.

“Teacher, you okay?” Nazli whispers, her voice anxious. I nod. A soft, cool hand pats mine in the darkness. Some of my students consult the clocks on their mobile phones, obviously bored, but they are the ones who would yawn their way through a hurricane. Most are on the edge of their seats, their mouths hanging open.

As I watch, I can’t help but find parallels between Christopher’s life and my own. Although I’m not homeless, I too am pursuing a dream, my own vision of happiness that always seems tantalizingly, provokingly out of reach. I too have children I am determined to do well by; I too am doing a job that is hellishly difficult and feel lost in a world that is indifferent to whether I succeed or fail. At the end of the movie when Chris is offered the job he has worked so hard to get, I burst into tears. And this time there is no stopping me.

“Don’t cry, teacher!” Kemal whispers as I fumble for my Kleenex with one hand and blot my tears with the back of the other.

“ArrrCHOO!” Aycan sneezes behind me. She’s shivering again; the auditorium air-conditioning is definitely a little too efficient and even I am a little too cool.

But inside, I’m warmed right through.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

My Inner Language Learner Is Hurting

It's the last hour of a long, three-hour class. Attentions are straying, and although I'd love to put us all out of our misery and dismiss everybody early, I can't do it: the final is next week. "Haluk, can you tell me which room of the house has the yellow floor?" I ask hopefully.

Caught off guard, Haluk hunches forward and chews his lip as he desperately searches his book for the answer. But it's no good: he hasn't been paying attention and he doesn't have the foggiest idea what the answer is.

"Teacher, I am very boring," he confesses.

I smile inwardly, tempted to let this one stand. No matter how many times I tell my students that their feelings should be expressed with -ed words and not -ing words -- embarrassed, bored, excited, interested -- they always tell me that they are boring, frustrating, tiring, etc. And although they often frustrate, tire and bore the socks off me, I know what they really mean.

"You mean you're bored, right?"

"Teacher, we are all boring," Haluk insists, gesturing around the classroom. My mouth twitches as I see heads nodding in confirmation. Fortunately, one of Haluk's smarter classmates leans over and whispers a correction.

"Bored!" Haluk almost shouts, throwing up his hands. "We are bored!"

"I know how you feel," I reason, "But we've got to cover these last few units. And there's just one more week until the final exam."

There is a collective sigh. "Teacher," Sevgi groans, "this book very bored."

"Boring," I mutter, irritated beyond reason. Because the truth is, their textbook isn't the least bit boring. There are colorful photographs and cartoons and the language is relevant and useful. The authors have made a real effort to include subjects kids are likely to know about and find interesting, and the vocabulary has been chosen using a carefully researched data base. There are funny stories and diverting games and intriguing puzzles and optional songs, and where do these kids get off calling this book boring?

Ooh, I could show them what boring really is! My first Japanese textbooks had columns full of drills. There were black and white illustrations of dopey looking people in business suits, stilted conversations with no attempt made at humor or intrigue, and long, tiresome vocabulary lists. And our book didn't come with CDs that included songs and funny conversations and interesting extracts from real radio programs; we had to go to the language laboratory to do 30 minutes a day of drills there. Watashi wa yubinkoku e ikimashita, a woman with a perky voice intoned, and we sat with headphones on and parroted the same thing back to no one at all.

The teachers at the school I attended in Japan wrote their own book and it was a brave effort, but it was nothing more than poorly mimeographed pages stapled together, clumsily illustrated. Some attempt was made to make the topics chosen interesting and there was a running story about an American man (with the unlikely and hilarious name of Penny) and his adventures studying Japanese. My fellow classmates and I weren't big fans of the fictitious Penny. He sounded like a hopeless nerd, but also like a huge kiss-ass. He spoke perfect Japanese, knew what to do in every possible situation, and had a lot of admiring Japanese friends. He was depicted as blonde-haired, blue-eyed, and pointy-nosed, which we particularly loathed. The only good thing about the Penny book was that we all got a lot of pleasure running him down after class.

When my Japanese got to the intermediate level, I was desperate to acquire more vocabulary, so I bought half a dozen books to help me. None of them were illustrated and all of them had long lists of vocabulary with phonetic readings and English translations. No context was provided, and there was no attempt made to show the frequency of occurrence.

The year I took the Japanese Language Proficiency Examination, it seemed like every bookstore in Tokyo had suddenly begun to stock Japanese textbooks that were more than grocery lists of drills and vocabulary -- books with good listening exercises, useful vocabulary with plenty of context, and pertinent photographs, all professionally bound and published. All those years I spent studying Japanese, I'd have killed for a textbook half as good as the one my students find so boring.

"This story very boring," Sevgi scoffs, flicking a long manicured nail at the page. The story in question is about Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera and their house in Mexico City. It might not be a thrill a minute, but it beats drills and vocabulary lists with a stick.

For my next lesson, maybe I'll bring in a couple of phone books. And perhaps an introduction to Penny is in order.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Getting It

"One more time: page one of the listening test, question one!" I shout over the roar of the class.

Coskun doesn't hear me. He's in the midst of a noisy tete-a-tete with Hamit and whatever they're talking about must be compelling: I've tried to hush them up twice now, unsuccessfully. "Coskun! Hamit!" I call again to no avail.

Well, I know a way to get their attention. I flick the CD player's volume switch up as far as it will go and press PLAY, then frown. Nothing's happening. It's taken me five minutes to deliver a pep talk on the mock exam my students have just performed abysmally on and another five minutes to take attendance. The last thing in the world I need is a non-functioning CD player, but that's what I've got.

Just as I'm about to ask a student to exchange the faulty CD player, in comes Sevge, ten minutes late. "Tee-cha, I am here!" she gasps redundantly. I sigh: I've run out of test sheets and Burak won't know where to find these; I'll have to go downstairs and get the CD player and test sheets myself. Leaving the room, I almost collide with Aziz. "Teacher, I am present?" he calls after me, obviously expecting me to rush right back so I can put a check next to his name in the roll book. On my way downstairs, I pass another student making her way upstairs. "Teacher, I am here?" she calls, but I decline to answer.

Two minutes later, I am back with another CD player and half a dozen extra test sheets. The classroom volume has gone up another notch; the natives are restless. I distribute test sheets, pop the CD into the new player, and press PLAY. It doesn't work.

I'm starting to sweat now. Hamit and Coskun are half out of their seats, practically jumping up and down. "Teacher what is problem?" Coskun roars happily. Coskun is the kind who will blame me for anything -- a wasp in the classroom, a wonky chair, a spilled bottle of Coke in the corner, it doesn't matter. I check the plug socket, the settings -- yes, it's on CD -- the light switches. The overhead lights flicker on, flooding the sun-filled classroom, so it isn't a power failure.

"Teacher, I get another player?" suggests Burak, a quiet, respectful boy. I nod wearily.

I've got a handful of kids like Burak in this class. Two pleasant, intelligent central Asian girls, a near-native English speaker from Iran, a few boys who aren't bright, but more than make up for it with their quiet maturity and the ability to sit still for 45 whole minutes. They will never know how grateful I am for their presence. In the midst of a hellish lesson where nothing is going right, I see the light of understanding in their faces and realize to my amazement that I'm actually making sense to someone. Posing some general question to the class, I hear, through the cacophony and chaos, their in-the-right-ballpark answers, and I am touched and reassured. True, 85% of the class are lost in space, but I can't be that hopeless a teacher if somebody's getting it.

Burak comes back with another CD player. I plug it in and look for the CD. It isn't there. "Burak, did you take the CD out of the last player?" I ask him. His mouth drops open and he slaps his forehead and vanishes. Coskun and Hamit think this is hilarious. "Burak forget CD!" Coskun cries, pounding on his desk.

By the time Burak is back with the CD, the classroom noise is close to deafening and I don't even bother to pound on the table. I slide the CD into the player, press PLAY, and offer up a quiet but fervent prayer. But the CD gods are not with me: nothing happens.

Now Hamit and Coskun might as well be spectators at a circus. They guffaw and holler as they bounce up and down in their seats, clearly enjoying every minute of my misery. Suddenly I have an inspiration. I pull out the plug and insert it into the next socket. The CD player, tuned to RADIO blasts out a top-volume high-pitched screech of Arabesque, making us all jump out of our skins. Coskun roars and feigns anger. "Teacher!" he screams accusingly, covering his ears and pointing. "Noisy!" bellows Hamit, throwing up his hands in mock rage. Hypocrites.

Five minutes later, we're right in the middle of the listening exam revision and I accidentally jog the plug, resulting in the CD going right back to the beginning. The class roars in frustration: the listening test is all on one tract and we'll have to listen to the whole thing over again, each question repeated in maddening, carefully enunciated tones. It takes forever.

We take a much needed break during which I put my head on my desk and pray for the strength to go on.

"Teacher, can't hear!" Aycan wails ten minutes after the break. I'm thoroughly done in. I've weathered their rage over a mistake on the answer key and a couple of long, silly disputes about whether it's fair for them to know that scary and frightening mean the same thing and that careless is the opposite of careful. I'm exhausted and frazzled, but I want to encourage Aycan. Three months ago, she was one of the noisy, boisterous bunch and suddenly she's joined the quiet and attentive camp; I can see that she's starting to get it. God knows what happened, but now that it has, I want to keep it going. I push the CD player a little closer to her -- and manage to disconnect the plug from the socket yet again.

After this, try as I might, I can't get the class back under control. I bang on the table, I clap my hands, I raise my voice. The third time I start to explain what I'm going to do -- let the CD play at low volume in the background while we tackle the reading section until we get back to where we were in the listening exam -- Coskun interrupts me with a noisy, superfluous question -- "Teacher, what are you DOING?" -- and suddenly something inside me snaps and I lose it. Big-time.

It's as though I'm standing next to myself, another person entirely. I watch in awe as waves of sound bellow out of my mouth. "I HAVE HAD IT! I AM SICK AND TIRED OF YOUR CHILDISH NONSENSE! DON'T YOU GET THAT I'M TRYING TO HELP YOU? NOW, WILL YOU SHUT UP AND LISTEN? OR DO YOU SERIOUSLY WANT TO FAIL THIS CLASS AND STAY HERE ALL SUMMER LONG?" My eyes flash fire, my hands are clenched in fists, smoke is billowing from my nose and ears. I'm Moses brandishing the tablets. I'm God straight out of the Old Testament loosing the fateful lightning from my terrible swift sword.

Heads bow over test papers. Hands pick up pencils. Every single one of the students catches my drift even if they don't understand every nuance of my language. For the remainder of the class, everyone works in comparative silence. Nobody, me included, wants a repeat performance from Scary Mary.

As I dismiss the class, my heart breaks to see all my good students scurry out of the classroom, their eyes down. It's so unfair: they weren't to blame, but they got a good dose of my rage just the same.

I've got to start practicing my yoga breathing again. We've only got three more weeks until the end of term, but I'll need it. Not necessarily for teaching, but for the next time someone whines about lucky teachers and their three-month summer holidays.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Working Girls

The girls were all in their early twenties, some tall, some short, all Asian. They were walking in front of my daughter and me, a little awkward in their short skirts and high heels, swinging their arms, talking. A middle-aged woman on the opposite side of the road raked them with her eyes as she passed. She scowled and pulled her headscarf a little further down on her head.

"They're so pretty," my daughter whispered. I felt a pang. Fat lot of good their beauty was doing them.

"Those shoes must hurt," I ventured. We stared at their feet. You couldn't run in shoes like that. You couldn't kick a ball or hike up a hill or jump up and down.

The girls turned the corner and disappeared into a house that we still think of as the Khans'. The Khans are an elderly Pakistani couple from the U.K., very refined, well educated and generous. Earlier this year I got a call from Mrs. Khan who told me that they had decided to stay in England this year and rent out their house. Had we by chance seen the new tenants?

As it happened, we'd run into the new tenants a few days earlier when they were moving in. "What are they like?" Mrs. Khan wanted to know. "Are they a family?"

Neither my husband nor I had the courage to tell them that their house had been rented to a group of prostitutes and a couple of thuggish looking men who seemed to be their escorts. They were only in the house for a few days. I saw some of the girls at the local swimming pool a few times, but they never returned my greetings.

Now the Khans' house was being rented again. Two or three times we saw scary-looking men standing outside in the garden, smoking, thuggish fellows who looked like they carried knuckle dusters and guns and had no qualms about using them. The girls seemed to come and go freely, but when they passed people on the street, they never looked them in the eye.

I have complicated feelings about what these girls do for a living. On one hand, it incenses me when people treat them with disrespect; on the other, I'm convinced there must be better ways for them to earn money. Clearly, there will always be a demand for what they offer, but I know that if this world were more just, these girls would be able to find better employment. If they had been born into a just world with plenty of reasonable vocational options, but still found prostitution to their liking, I could breathe a sigh of relief and leave these young women to their fate. But that is not the case, is it? Many of these girls have been born into real poverty, with no education, no guidance, and no prospects. The current world slump has made a difficult situation impossible, but the 'nightclubs' here are always looking for fresh talent.

A few months ago, there was a flash flood and the bottom floor of the Khans' house was flooded. The Khans didn't have the new tenants' phone number, so they asked my husband to go over and see how bad the damage was.

"Were the girls okay?" I asked when he got back.

"They looked okay. They didn't look like anyone was holding them there against their will." That has been my biggest worry, so it was a little reassuring. From time to time, a different group of prostitutes comes to our local supermarket in a garishly pink van decorated with lurid purple flowers. They are noisy and shameless and full of life, and I can't help being a little cheered: they are obviously well fed and at least they look happy.

A few days ago, my daughter and I ran into a fresh batch of girls on our way to buy raisins. The girls were wearing newish-looking clothes of cheap, shiny material, teetering on their high heels, working hard not to step in potholes. I felt their eyes on us. I wondered if any of them would have liked to be on the way to buy raisins with their mothers, trying to decide what kind of cookies to bake.

As we passed them, the girls grew quiet. Girls hardly older than our eldest daughter who is now at university. Girls who could so easily be my wonderful students from former Soviet bloc countries: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan. Who could be spending their days attending classes, going shopping with friends, visiting each other to swap notes and gossip.

"Good evening," I called out over my shoulder. But the girls kept their eyes on the ground and if they heard me, they gave no sign.