Sunday, November 27, 2011

A foreign land

A year and a half ago I flew halfway around the world to fashion a life in the Kingdom of Thailand. What followed was a year of motorbike trips to hillside temples, tear-inducing plates of somtum (Papaya salad), city-wide water fights, rock climbing competitions, fish spas, Thai karaoke parties, and countless other adventures – both absurd and meaningful.

A few months ago I returned to America. And, while May has somehow slipped into November, I have yet to fully re-assimilate into that place I once and again call home. I still sometimes respond in Thai, I still bow to people in salutation (much to their confusion) and my accent, especially when expressing shock or excitement, dips and rises in Thai tones. I find American staples lacking in flavor. Since returning, not once have I cried due to an overly generous seasoning of birds-eye chilies. And while my mouth has not caught fire in months, my extremities are slowly growing numb with the New England progressive cold, a persistent reminder that winter is coming.

Here are just a few observations from this strange land:

1) There are heaping bowls of fresh grated parmesan cheese and hearty baguettes on the table of the Italian restaurants.

2) People are generally taller and things are always bigger.

3) There are vast quantities of empty space everywhere. The sidewalks are wide and empty; the streets are wider and also emptier. The aisles of the local CVS are so roomy as to encourage dancing.

4) Restaurant portions are enormous. Back from Thailand less than a week I met my friends for Sunday brunch. I scanned the extensive menu (for the first time in a year, I could read an entire menu) and selected an omelet with goat cheese, caramelized onions and sundried tomatoes, figuring it would be the most filling and leave me only mildly hungry. Fifteen minutes later there appeared before me a four-egg omelet overflowing with cheese, onions, tomatoes, all placed beside a heaping pile of hash browns, all of this hiding under the largest slice of oatmeal bread I have ever seen. I can’t remember a single time in Thailand when I was so full. I was forced to leave food on my plate.

5) The roads in Boston are banal. There are no sinewy men on bikes, no Labradors balanced on Vespas, no orange robbed monks hanging out of sawng tows. Cars, here are contained: no limbs, or bodies, or over-bulging bags of twisting eggplants are visible. Traffic regulations are a disappointment. Traffic lights and lane markings are, for the most part, respected. Little serendipity remains on the roads.

While back in my native city, I have resumed writing for I find myself again in a foreign land: For the past three months I have found myself amongst sixth graders.

I am a teacher in the Boston Public School system employed through the nation-wide non-profit Citizen Schools. With my fellow Citizen School teachers, I come into an existing public school as a second shift to expand the school day by roughly 3 ½ hours per day. In the classroom my focus is a mix of academic support, primarily through daily math class (yes, you heard right, I’m now a math teacher), and college readiness classes that strive to excite our students about the possibilities of college and provide them with the tools and motivation to get there.

Over the next few months it is my hope to share some of joys, quirks and challenges of life in a sixth-grade classroom. For the confidentiality of my students, all names and identifying details will be altered in my posts. But the names don’t matter. Rather the real story is in my students’ creativity and in their energy (whether channeled into solving a math problem or into devising ways to take the longest time possible for a water break). And it is this that makes me so excited and so intrigued to go to school each day.

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