Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Just Say Yes

On the grass behind the theater – once a fire station – two teenagers embraced each other and slow-danced.  They wore sheepish grins as they took each other’s hands, swaying and revolving to the music.  Iron & Wine and Graffiti6 and Elliot Smith floated from my portable speakers.  Curious dog walkers with waddling pugs and sweaty joggers threw sidelong glances.

It was week four, opening day, only hours before curtain.  Our Romeo and our Juliet were nervous.  Would their performance be believable?

The three of us met behind the theater to explore the act of falling in love.   The two teenagers began by locking eyes, standing quiet for twenty minutes without once letting their glances dart sideways.  Most students would feel too awkward to dance along the streets of Charlestown.  But these two seventeen-year-old actors were willing to try.

In theater such willingness is called “saying yes.”

Saying yes is the number one rule of improv.  If your improv partner says: “That soup you’re eating looks delicious!” and you respond, “I’m not eating soup,” the skit falls flat.   In our converted black box theater saying yes became the first rule and promise of our ensemble. 

Last summer, as a teaching artist for Actors Shakespeare Project, my July crackled with witches and Scottish thanes.  This year we – ten students and four teachers – took up residence in the bloody streets of Verona.   Our students were a demographic chart of the Boston area. Our ensemble came from the suburbs and from the heart of the city; from public schools, from exams schools and from private schools. Some had years of acting experience in camps and school plays and some came with no formal theatrical training.  What set them apart from their peers was that these ten teenagers were willing, even eager, to say yes.

Saying yes can be challenging in any setting, particularly in the confines of a traditional school classroom.  Raising your hand, offering up the answer to a math problem, sharing a poem, proposing a hypothesis – they all open you to vulnerability.  I have had 6th graders and college students of mine say no.  I have had students as far as Thailand and Cambodia and as close as Charlestown say no.  School textbooks and tests are lined with “right” and “wrong” answers and school halls are varnished in peer pressure and the shine of social status.

The black box exists outside this norm.  

Over the course of four weeks I watched as ten teenagers chose instead to just say yes.

They said yes to playing improv games that required them to squirm like jello and row furiously like Viking warriors.

They said yes to walking and running and crawling through our theater to explore the space.

Two young men said yes to locking hands and attempting to push each other across a room while yelling their lines and furrowing their brows.

One young woman said yes to chortling like an old man with a beer belly and then cooing like a baby girl.

Everyone said yes to playing games of Mafia every day (four weeks straight) during lunch, holding heated debates and flinging accusations, in each subsequent game, about who might be suspect.

One young man said yes to swinging his arms in the air for an entire monologue.  Another young woman said yes to trying not to smile (a real feat for her).

In four weeks our students said yes to dancing in the rain, to singing, to arguing about character backstories, to fake punching each other in the nose, to sharing painful stories, to laughing out loud and crying out load.

It is not easy saying yes.  You need three things.  You need peers that won’t snicker, you need teachers who won’t seek “correct” answers, and you need a space wide open to allow students to spin and floors strong enough to encourage students to leap.

And if you are lucky enough for such a convergence, then Romeo and Juliet waltz in a park, while dog walkers stare and at least one teacher smiles.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

In Memoriam

Reposted from The Boston Globe Opinion's page: 

Two weeks ago my 2nd grade teacher quietly passed away.  From what I’ve since learned he had taken a personal health leave from my elementary school where he has inspired and nurtured first and second graders for the last thirty years.

He had long battled depression, and last week chose to end that battle.  But as a student of his long ago, I would never have guessed he was unhappy.   He always smiled in the classroom.

As students, specifically seven-year-olds, our teachers exist for us within the confines of the classroom.  They spring into being with cheery smiles and a bounce in their step as we stow lunch boxes and head to morning meeting.  They retreat again at 3 o’clock with the lines of carpooling parents and yellow school buses.

For me, my teacher Jim was always summed up simply – a sketch by a seven-year-old mind.  He was tall but not imposing and grew a bushy beard.  He always smiled.   He favored flannel and wore Birkenstocks no matter the weather.

I have recently discovered these contradictions of the classroom as I have returned to school, this time as a teacher myself.   While students might fail to conceive of teachers outside the classroom, I now know for us teachers – our students are never far from our thoughts.  My students do not cease to exist with the school bell, rather they continue to run wild in my thoughts late into the night as I agonize over the girl who struggles with a math concept or the boy who can’t sit still for five minutes straight.

In the classroom we as teachers are the sounding boards and documentarians for our students’ lives – we hear about the birthday party plans, the antics of a younger sibling and last night’s fried chicken.  We hang up our lives, our worries and our concerns and cloak ourselves with those of our students.

At seven, I was just the same.  On a recent foray to the basement I unearthed a cardboard box filled with relics of 2nd grade.  Jim had us write every day.  I have uncovered fifteen manila journals filled with elaborate and atrociously spelled stories detailing trips to relatives, to friends’ houses, describing home cooked meals and depicting colorful baseball caps we once bought on vacation.

We all were eager to share our everydays – just as my students are now. 

And Jim always listened – listened with such intensity that each of us came away feeling that our stories and our lives were remarkable. When my youngest brother was born in November, I brought him in at three weeks old for show and tell.  When Passover came in April, Jim was invited to our Seder. 

Teaching made me appreciate the duality of a teacher’s life.  My own teacher’s death last week made me realize how I saw my own teachers the same way.

Looking back I am ashamed to realize that I knew very little about Jim. 

The only thing I do know definitively was that Jim loved nearby Punkatasset Pond.  Year after year, every first and second grade class spent an afternoon at the pond, poking at the water’s edge and exploring the surrounding trails. I remember building tree forts out of sticks and catching tadpoles in mesh nets.

Even years later when I returned to the school to visit my favorite teachers, my conversations with Jim continued to center around me – what classes I was taking, what art or what writing I was engaged in.  For me Jim, as well as all of my teachers, continued to exist within the confines of school.

My second grade teacher was not a famous person; his obituary when it runs will be modest.  But I think it is worth pausing to consider the devotion of great teachers.  Almost everyone has had at least one – men and women who listened to you, supported you and made you feel special.   Like great parents, great teachers have a herculean ability to maintain two completely separate lives – successfully hiding personal struggles in order to show only warmth and support for the students they teach.  Theirs is a selfless commitment to the lives of others.

Jim was one such teacher – always there to listen, with complete and absolute focus, to the adventures of a seven-year old, always there with a smile, and always wearing Birkenstocks – no matter the weather.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

7 O'Clock News

I woke up early on the day I left Cambodia.  It was the monthly cleaning in the dorm and I had offered to help.  I found myself scrubbing the kitchen tiles at 6am – back and forth, back and forth.  My students were wide awake, and playing music while they worked.  And while I scrubbed I could not help thinking back over what I had observed while living in Cambodia and pondering what lay in store for these young women who hoped to become doctors and lawyers and businesswomen.


The weekend before I left Cambodia I traveled south to visit the home of one of my students.  She lives in Kampot, one of the southern provinces near the Vietnam border.  It is a province that was once famous across Europe for its pepper, but whose plantations were decimated during the Khmer Rouge.   My student is studying to become a midwife, but toying with switching to international relations.  Her parents are bakers; they bake a thousand baguettes a day.  

We spent Chinese New Year with her family: kneeling and lighting incense and sending up prayers in the perfumed smoke and sharing a feast of stews and noodle dishes -- eat more, eat more -- prepared by her mother.

The New York Times reported that in the northern forests of Rattanakiri and Mondolkiri Chinese Companies are illegally logging teakwood and rosewood from protected forests.  Last April a leading Khmer environmental activist was shot dead following an encounter with local police.  America’s National Public Radio recently reported how early this September a local journalist who had exposed a connection between local military officials and the foreign companies was found chopped to pieces in the trunk of his car.

In my final week I make a round of my favorite markets and sought out the older women who had conversed with me as I practiced my rudimentary Khmer. 

There was the grandmother with the broad smile who sat on used styrofoam boxes and sold me mangoes and pomelos.  There was the mother who sold dried fish, who had promised to find me a Khmer husband and had given me a curl of brilliant red dried snake and who, on learning I was leaving, packed up some of her best sausages from Siem Reap and refused to accept a single 1,000 riel note.  There was the grandmother who sold jewelry and who always sat me down to converse and who made me practice the Khmer words for earring and necklace and bracelet.  For her I printed out a picture I had taken of both of us months back.  I have been told by a friend that the picture now hangs on the wall of her shop.

The BBC reported that Khmer journalist and radio host Mam Sonando has now been imprisoned for the third time.  A longtime critic of the ruling party Sonando’s radio program is widely considered as one of the few strong voices for democracy.  In this most recent arrest, Sonando was charged with inciting a separatist plot in a provincial community that protested last spring against a rubber plant company accused of illegal land grabs. The protest led to soldiers firing into a crowd and the death of a teenage girl.  Late this fall Sonando was tried and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

One night during my last week I went out for soup and BBQ with one of my students.  For the past month-and-a-half I have been working with her on the art of public speaking.   In the middle of January she competed in the final round of a British sponsored public speaking competition in front of an audience of two hundred.   In the upstairs kitchen of the dorm we had practiced possible questions: How could you address the issue of prostitution?  How could you increase tourism in Cambodia?  Should women become leaders? Between questions, we fell into discussions about the future.  She is a law student with aspirations to work in the public sector.   Next year she will study in America, having won a scholarship. Afterwards, she plans to return home.  There is much she wants to change.

With national elections on the horizon in July, a series of laws are being brought before parliament. The Cambodia Daily – one of two English language newspapers – has been covering the developments: One law would prevent parties from “insulting” each other – effectively curbing criticism of the ruling party.  Another law would prevent lawyers from talking to the press without the approval of the Bar Association.

On the Wednesday before I left, the women at the dorm threw me a farewell party.  There was a boom-box and a table heavy with sodas and curry and platters of peppered meat and sliced green tomatoes.  

These girls -- who are usually so studious; who wake up at 5:30 to clean and to buy groceries and to cook; who then study, attend class and come back and continue studying -- tore up the courtyard with their dance moves.  We danced and we danced and we danced: Gangnam style, Bollywood, Call Me Maybe, Traditional Khmer, Korean Pop.

Over the Chinese New Year, early this February, The Cambodia Daily reported, two hundred military and police personnel from Phnom Penh flocked to the mansion of a prominent Senator’s wife, who lavished the armed forces with traditional red envelopes filled with cash “gifts.” “We are military forces and we are also assistants to her,” said one waiting officer. “We always help with whatever she needs help with.”

In our weekly news discussions my students talked about the case of the red envelopes.  It was 9pm and the mosquitoes were out in full force.  The girls were in pajamas, but there was no yawning.  Everyone had their books open, their pens out and were busily scratching notes.  Two of the girls presented a researched history of the senator’s wife.  They highlighted her connection to a major company in charge of land seizures taking place across the country.  As the clock hands closed on 10pm, they debated.  No solutions were devised before the girls dispersed to last-minute exam studying that stretched late into the night.

According to the Cambodia Daily, late one Sunday night in January a truck driver was transporting chilies on the north side of Phnom Penh.  He was stopped by two veteran policemen at an unofficial roadblock who demanded a 2,000 Riel bribe (the equivalent of 50 cents).  The truck driver refused.  When he attempted to drive away, the police threw rocks at his mirror.  When the truck driver got out to inspect the damage, the policemen shot him in the chest before fleeing the scene.  The truck-driver’s wife and sister rushed him to a local hospital, where he survived to tell the story to reporters.

On Valentine’s Day the girls and I drove to a park in the center of the city where a crowd was gathering.  For weeks now we had been practicing the moves to the One Billion Rising flash mob dance – a dance performed all across the world on the 14th to raise awareness about violence against women.   The song had been on constant repeat in the dorm as the women danced.  We were wearing identical black shirts with our logo in red and white, on the back: a heart composed of handprints around the Khmer word “Stop Violence.”

The Cambodia Daily reported that last spring a 60-year-old woman was set alight by her husband in Kampot province.  Fifty percent of the woman’s body suffered burns that day.  Months later some of the wounds are still oozing and infected.  Her husband, a long time soldier was never charged.  The police said that no complaint had been filed against the man and noted that he was ill: his hands had been burned in the process of burning his wife.

The Phnom Penh Post published a story about the most recent attack on a tourist, which happened over Chinese New Year: the naked body of a twenty-five-year-old French woman washed up on the shores of the main river in Kampot.  Lacerations were found on her head and body; rape has not yet been ruled out.  The police have no suspects or leads.   I was staying barely two miles away, in the sleepy center of town, when the murder must have taken place, but I did not learn of it until I read the newspaper the following morning, safe in Phnom Penh.

The night before I left, my students and I went on a boat cruise down the muddy Tonle Sap River.  We bought spiced lotus seeds and sweetened iced teas.  The sun was setting, tinting the water orange and yellow and red and gilding the swooped roof of the Royal Palace.  We spread out along the rail, chatting, laughing, taking silly pictures.    My students are so busy studying that rarely do they relax enough to have an adventure: only half of them had ever been on the river before.  As the sky darkened there were more pictures and a little dancing on the top deck.

For the 40th year in a row, the US-based Freedom House, which assesses the state of political rights and civil liberties in countries around the world, ranked Cambodia as “not free.”  2012 has not been an encouraging year for the country.  The New York-based Human Rights Watch and the international Reporters Without Borders both highlighted a decline in both political freedom and human rights.

I left Cambodia on a Sunday.  Normally I would have said my goodbyes at the dorm and caught a tuktuk alone, riding out through the bustle and the dust to the airport.  But my students would have none of that.   A dozen women insisted on accompanying me to the airport, my own personal escort.  None have ridden an airplane and only a few had even been to the airport before – to greet a returning aunt or uncle.  

At the airport they arranged themselves on the benches.  There was an hour before the check-in counter opened and despite my assurance that they need not wait, they stayed with me.  We talked and laughed and reminisced about the Shakespeare we had performed and the puppet show we had attended. We took pictures: group shots and funny poses.

Then it was time for me to pass through security.  There was a last round of hugs, final goodbyes.  I waved as they walked back towards their motos -- to drive back into the city, back to the dorm, to studying, to classes and to constructing their futures.  I waved until I could not see them anymore, then I hoisted my backpack onto my shoulders and turned toward my flight. 


Sunday, February 17, 2013

Angka’s Judge

Hanging above the violet-robed men and women is an image of an ancient judge.  He is dressed in the traditional formal attire of an Angkor official, seated cross-legged on a dais, sword in hand.

The emblem hangs in the courtroom alongside the UN’s blue and white and Cambodia’s blue and red.   The judges, lawyers and court staff work behind glass, stage-like, in a large, darkened auditorium. 

This is the ECCC, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia – a quasi-national and international tribunal established in 2003 to bring to justice the puppet masters of Pol Pot’s genocide.

The Khmer Rouge Tribunal is located thirty minutes outside the center of the capital, far from the construction, the tall buildings and the bustle.  You drive past the airport and continue out a ways, until you reach a nondescript guard post.  There you turn and drive down a dirt road lined with trees till you reach the stand alone buildings of the court.

Anyone can attend the hearings.  I went on a Tuesday, relinquishing my phone at the gate and then a coffee candy at the door to the Court.  The candy went on a table scattered with the small contraband of purses and pockets – candies, containers of tiger balm and packets of betel nut.

Everyday men and women from the countryside are bused in to watch the halting steps of justice.   Mainly older women fill the seats of the auditorium – women with shaved heads, sarongs, white cotton shirts and checkered karma; women who do not see many foreigners and who smile and nod at me and squeeze my arms; grandmothers and mothers who would have been young women during Pol Pot’s regime.

In the thirty-four years since the fall of the Khmer Rouge only a single perpetrator has been tried, convicted and sentenced to prison.  That man was not Pol Pot.  Pol Pot died in his house fourteen years ago – possibly from a heart attack, possibly from suicide – the same night he learned that he would be tried by an international tribunal.

As of now, the only person serving time for the murder of two million Cambodians is the man nick-named “Duch” (Kaing Guek Eav) who headed Tuol Sleng Prision (S-21) in the heart of Phnom Penh.

At Tuol Sleng, Duch orchestrated the cleansing of traitors and spies from Khmer society – extracting confessions under torture from ten-year-old children and eighty year old grandmothers, ultimately condemning over twelve thousand people to death.
After hiding for 21 years, Duch was discovered by a photo-journalist 13 years ago.  He was the first to be tried by the ECCC in 2007 and three years later was found guilty of crimes against humanity.

We are now deep into trial 002.  Thirty-four years later.  Three men stand accused: Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary and Khieu Samphan.  Originally there was also one woman – Ieng Sary’s wife Ieng Thirith, originally charged with planning and directing mass purges and killings.  But she was released a year ago due to severe Alzheimer’s.  She is one of the few who has been able to forget.

The morning I visit the trial, the prosecution was in the midst of presenting documentary evidence against the three men.

TV screens project close ups of the lawyers and speakers project the proceedings into the auditorium in Khmer.  As one of four foreigners, I am given a headset that translates into English and French.

The process is slow, slightly stiff.  The lawyers read from a six-inch-thick binder, referencing previously presented evidence and citing numbered documents.

The prosecution plays a video interview with Nuon Chea, also known as Brother Number Two, who was Pol Pot’s right hand man.   In the video the interviewer asks
Nuon Chea why children, as young as ten, were conscripted into the Khmer Rouge army. “They were fighting for social equality that they haven’t had since the 2nd Angkor Period.”  “But why children?” “I ignore the reasons…Without Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge Cambodia would have been in the hands of the Vietnamese.”

Nuon Chea is absent from the courtroom.  He has been in and out of the hospital for months now, most recently with acute bronchitis.  Khieu Samphan, former head of state is also frequently in the hospital. 

The orchestrators of Democratic Kampuchea, the men and women who worked for the almighty, faceless Angka, are slowly dying.   But almost all remain uncharged.

The trials churn painstakingly onwards.

In the courtroom the morning session is adjourned.   In the auditorium we rise.  The judges file out of the room. 

Off to the side Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary are helped to their feet.  They have been sitting silently the whole time, off to the side, behind their lawyers.   They are small men now.  They are wrinkled and sunken-eyed – disturbingly easy to overlook in the grandeur of the courtroom.

A guard helps them each to their feet and, as they are led haltingly away, a white curtain slides across the glass of the courtroom – hiding it all from view.