Wednesday, May 6, 2009

On building

When I sit and talk with some of my teacher colleagues that I admire most I am struck, at times, by how uncomplicated their advice is for teaching well.

As teachers and as caring human beings they have the desire that I think is present in most people to share the skills of their craft with others. These lessons are frequently anti-climactic or disappointingly simple in nature, at times being little more than platitudes. This is because, I think, what is most real and wonderful about their teaching comes from within.

Something that cannot be expressed through lecture is made manifest through their lessons. It must be felt to be known and, while it's not entirely clear to me where it comes from, it seems to be a profound inner strength and sincere love for what they do and for whom they serve.

All the training manuals and seminars and acronym-laden rubrics in the world may help build structure to teaching but that structure must be built upon a solid foundation of something one cannot acquire through a Ministry of Education conference.

So where the hell do I find it?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

And all around the smell of rain

I walked home today feeling very confused. The type of confusion that leaves you without any sort of base from which to start. Even if the base was only of clay or mud at least then you could sculpt a castle or a tiny mud dog and pretend that you had something concrete. But I didn't have that base and the mud dog was off somewhere probably chewing on the resolution to my confusion.

So I tried to make a list of people who I felt comfortable giving me a not-chewed answered. The list didn't satisfy me. I tried to think about it differently - we need to reframe the question in order to know to whom we ought address it!

I couldn't formulate the question.

By this point there was an intense feeling of frustration - but who was feeling it was unclear, where it was being felt was mysterious, and why it was met with a response of amusement and from whom was entirely unknown.

And then the wind woke me. I looked up and caught the moon giggling at me through the late-day clouds and all around the smell of rain.

Friday, May 1, 2009

On my teachers

As I snapped a candid picture of a young woman in Bratislava, one of the girls I was sightseeing with said with a giggle, "Uh-oh! Someone's falling in love!"

I explained to her in my most adult tone that "love" really didn't enter as a motivation, I simply preferred such shots as they catch the person in a moment as they are and not as they present themselves to be. Her following nod and quick jump to a new subject confirmed my suspicions that I had successfully and masterfully used the very adult skill of delivering a bit of a truth in an incredibly untruthful way as to avoid an uncomfortable conversation. Ahh, growing up!

This leads us to two conclusions:
1. I am awesome.
2. The world better watch out when that girl discovers just how smart she is.

I did have some feelings for the girl in the photo that I would have enjoyed following up on had the circumstances been different. Though romantics might decry me, I think whatever I felt will have to be likened to the brief moment of shared recognition that sometimes occurs between riders on oppositely departing subway trains. By the time it takes hold of you her train is leaving, you're looking for a seat that is not near the crazy raving man in the corner and, always, the faint smell of urine. Still, it's nice to know there are those kinds of people out there. Like her, I mean. Not the crazy pee-soaked guy.

This post isn't really about her, though. It's about the little girl who called me out. Of all the people I joked and flirted with, smiled at and made moderately inappropriate comments to, the young woman in the photo was the only one who apparently provoked a response from me that was interpreted as anything more than silly Americanism. Moreover, I was expressing things that I was fairly confident I had hidden. Moreover than that, this girl was the only one who picked it up and decided it was worth verbalizing to me.

But the truth has a way of finding its way through. I would not be at all surprised to be told that the girl didn't buy a word of what I was selling but thought it best to let the unrequited young man hide in his justifications. Why am I so consistently thwarted by 14 year olds? Her understanding of and care for others has been inspirational most of the adults that have worked with her and really makes me wonder about the teacher / student relationship. I think it's very likely that we have fooled those poor saps into thinking that they are learning, we are teaching, and the relationship gets no more dynamic than that. But what is REALLY happening is that we have created a magnificently convincing set of lights, mirrors, and smoke machines that disguises us taking notes as they live and act in the honest ways that we have forgotten.

Many of the implications of this little lesson as clear on their face, some of them are less so and I'm not sure how to verbalize them. Some probably haven't occurred to me yet. In any case, teachers like these are what have made my time here so meaningful and what will make it so hard to leave.

Thanks, B.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Against the Current

Some things hurt more than others. Stubbed toes are overshadowed by volleyballs to the nose which are eclipsed by bees in the urethra. But watching a child lose hope in her own skills and passions because the work she did was either not fully appreciated or was "out-shined" by that of another leaves those physical pains in the dust.

Except maybe the last one - I'm hesitant to compare.

A group of students from my school this past weekend competed at the Moldovan Odyssey of the Mind competition and did not score as well as their competitors. Thusly they were not given an initial invitation to go to Slovakia to participate in the Eurofestival. Trying to explain to them that they had won before they even walked in the doors of the competition just based upon their love and passion for what they prepared was met with a (possibly appropriate response to the perceived BS), "Yea, Matt, that's great, but we still ain't going to Slovakia."

Teachers and developmental organizations across the planet will lament the impossibility of objectively measuring the growth in character of youth when they have poured themselves into their work in a loving way. The youth themselves have learned to value grades far more highly than taking the chance to produce something interesting and possibly not pleasing to the teacher. Swimming against the current is only possible for so long and so we curl up in an innertube, grab a beer and sing the Top 40 while we sun burn along with all the other tubers. Swimming in a different pond entirely is a good way to get labeled insane (which is somewhat detrimental to one's standing in the fragile teenage social scene).

Watching a group of kids you worked with for three years throw in the towel because they are still too young to understand (as are most of us) that doing good work after one's passion is reward in itself regardless of whether or not it is recognized falls somewhere in between the pain caused by a bee hive finding its way into one's urethra and getting through this entire sentence.

And that's why I do not quite know how to express my happiness or gratitude to those OM organizers who fought for the team to get them the chance to travel to Slovakia and compete.

The inner strength will come, we hope, with time. Until then, a little recognition can really help a person swim in the right direction.

Thanks, CUC, and all you folks at OM.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

On the Flow of Language

Finding myself in a land wracked by debate of the proper tongue and coming myself from a continent historically ridiculed for bastardized habits of speech, the question of language is one that has harangued me for a spell.

Spellings, syntax, pronunciation, phrases and vocabulary vary between times and places and drift with the currents of popularity. When a language has enough drift to warrant talk of dialectal differences but not so much as to demand new classification then the voices of conservative propriety descend to the levels of school children arguing over whose father works the assembly line in the more important factory.

How have these high horses climbed to such altitudes in the ivory towers and who is the poor fool that must clean the stables?

Americans certainly do not speak the Queen's English. They have no queen and the king was abducted by aliens decades ago. But in popular discourse it is rarely made explicit which queen is in question and if all works of language must be rewritten upon succession to the throne and her particular peculiarities of the mother tongue.

Perhaps I am taking that too literally, but I believe the point lies: how are standards of a language established and what gives them a position of superiority over other standards in the same language? It seems to be quite like taking a picture of a particular bend in a particular river at a particular point in time and demanding that at all bends and throughout all time all rivers must adhere to that shape and flow.

The English language today as found in England is not the English of Shakespeare and even his English was not that found fifty miles to the north of him. Where does the condescension of linguistic purists find its foundation?

As a transmitter of human experience language is incredibly useful but has severe limitations. Anyone in the passionate moment of intense love or anger can attest to its shortcomings.

But as poor as language is at expressing reality honestly, the vague shadows it casts do illuminate the figures of societal assumptions. Hierarchical relations in Japanese are far more clearly established than in Romanian which has its own pronoun and conjugations of respect. That in turn is more clear than British English and in American English it borders on being forgotten, shown most often through maximum levels of vulgarity set based upon current company.

I sure as hell don't speak with priests as same way as I speak with you crackers. Not until I've bought him a beer, at least.

I am almost positive that that past paragraph is a gross over-simplification, but the destratification of the former colonies is surely reflected in the diverging flow of its language from that of the colonizers. Slavery being an obvious and regrettable exception. It also evolved in America to meet different needs and circumstances than were found in England at the same time. Where is the outcry against creation of the word "Internet?"

And again I must think - without some set standards, whether implicitly assumed or explicitly defined, we return to Babble. The arrogance of placing one language in that tower in the sky above all others, however, came to the ruin of all. The question of where the line should be drawn is not as clear, I think, as purists would have it. It is clear, however, that the divisions created between neighbours over disagreements how to spell "neighbor" are far more troublesome than just swapping the spellcheck over on your computer.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Limba Moldovaneasca

My time here has given me an inappropriate and selfish pleasure in truly experiencing the knowledge that the United States is not alone in making self-serving decisions at the expense of other nations. The question of Russia in Moldova is far more complicated than I could hope to fully understand or summarize here, but the issue of language is one that crops up daily and each instance leaves me more uncertain in my position.

Briefly, since before living memory Russia has exerted its influence over this portion of Bessarabia. That has included enforcing use of the Russian language, mass deportation of original inhabitants and mass migration and settlement of ethnic Russians in the territory. Imperialistic it was - and effective to some degree as the US has also discovered. The problem is that cultural memory dies hard and lies are eventually exposed.

The USSR employed "linguists" to prove and propagate a usefully divisive idea that the Moldovan dialect of Romanian was divergent enough to be considered a language in its own right and, until 1989, was written using a form of Cyrillic. Scientifically speaking, this is akin to asserting that US and British English are seperate languages. While Americans may indeed be taking a crap on the hood of the car of the Queen's grammar, it would be nothing in comparison to the consptipated elephant eyeing the science of linguistics were we to assert that they are fundamentally different.

And so continues a debate between the banks of these ancient rivers. Should the national language be Russian or Moldovan? Is there even such a language as Moldovan? What right does an imperialist power have to destory a local culture, language and its heritage?

These debates spill over into the public discourse in somewhat more mundane arguments over the use of slang and Russian buzz words. In general, informal speech does not erupt into lectures over the integrity of the language, but now and then it does come up. I have officially learned Romanian, though in my own speech I use some Russian words and grammatical structures - knowingly for comedic effect and unknowingly simply as a product of having learned the language from the population and not a university professor. At times I am lectured for a dirty county bumpkin accent and lazy slurs. I am speaking Romanian and I should have the respect to speak it in a literarily clean diactect, right?

But what the hell is a "literarily clean" language?

When I came here that question seemed a lot easier to answer. It was a mark of education to use the acedemic standard of a given language. On how that is established exactly I am not altogether clear though I assume some people are paid pittance for long hours to do so.

I had a discussion with one of my students yesterday who was pushing hard for the Romanian literary standard and I'm sure the historical and cultural reasons listed above form a large part of her motivation. I understand that but I have trouble understanding the violent pride taken in a
"clean" form of a language. I don't mean that facetiously, I honestly don't understand.

No language evolves in a vacuum, nor does any language stand outside the forces of change (intrinsic and extrinsic) over time. Romanian itself is born of very un-literary soldiers' latin along with numerous gaulic, germanic, slavic, and geto-dacian influences. Beautiful though it is, it was not simply placed here by God in its current form. Similar "corrupting" influences throughout history has made it what it is today.

(As an aside, there is also a firey debate raging in Romania about the introduction of English jargon in the language. Currently it stands at less than one tenth of one percent but is growing. I assume this is in large part due to the increased use of computers and the Internet. I wonder if such arguments took place as English co-opted French and Latin tendencies through scholarly pursuits.)

It seems to me that language is an ever changing beast and that acedemia is forever playing catch-up to document it and cage-up to make it static. Grammar crusaders often overlook the fact that the goal of language is effective communication and so spend (waste?) time splitting hairs instead of moving forward. A standard of language seems to be little more than a snap-shot of general practices at a given point in history. On the other hand, some standard must be recognized to permit mutual understanding at all. Dialects of English in the Appalacians demonstrate the problems that arise in communication if two groups use widely divergent standards, stereotypes and educated arrogance notwithstanding.

Where then is the line drawn between dialect and language?

To what extent should students and officials be made to drop Russian words from their vocabulary?

The political ramifications of these question are important but are not my realm. At the end of the day I just want to be understood and to end conversations on the topic started, not in a lecture about how I ate tîrci for breakfast, not caşa. I understand the cultural motivations as well as the problems that arise in multual understanding for ignoring clean Romanian, but "clean" as used to describe a language seems arbitrary if not completely meaningless.

And so even that sef-rightous resentment of the Bear in the end doesn't help me figure this thing out.

Paka.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Something beautiful in tradition

I've been in two different directions as regards tradition and its value in life.

On the one hand, while studying philosophy I had to put tradition on a level that admitted its distinctness from Truth proper (it might give us hints, but it itself is not Truth). On the other, I am from a mobile family that has spent much time overseas and traveled widely. This was followed by my tour with the Peace Corps and the experience that brings with new cultural traditions.

One part of my worldview distrusts tradition as a perpetrator of illusion and an obstacle to clear understanding of the universe; the other is fascinated by and is in awe of the various methods of human expression that have arisen throughout time and geography.

As an adolescent who took that role quite seriously, I dutifully let this dichotomy exist in my mind and argued the more impressive position when the situation called.

What brings this up now is that since Thanksgiving I have been playing Christmas music on repeat at home. This is the same music I just to roll my eyes at and give my dad a hard time for just five years ago. This is the same music that my parents grew up on, the same music that my grandparents weathered a war on, the same music that folks I never met in an era I never saw loved and continued my prestigious family name with (nothing like a good carol to get the reproductive juices flowing). Songs very much like these have their roots deep in my very heavily European line.

To be honest, not all these songs are very good. Some of the things Ella Fitzgerald does with her voice and pronunciation distract me from actually feeling the music. It's annoying. There's no accounting for taste, right? But that's not really the point. It brings me back to Christmas' across the US and across the world. It brings me back to Christmas' with grandparents past and it connects me to those I never had the chance to annoy by digging holes in their lawn.

It seems me that very few people can stand in a place of great age and not be struck at once both by how transient they are but also how connected they are in that one moment to a wealth of generations past. Who could gaze upon the foundations of ancient Rome in indifference? Our traditions are living manifestations of these foundations and our partaking in them a recognition of our unity with all other souls who throughout history have struggled against the conditions of existence.

The fact remains that when searching for capital 't' Truth one cannot look to tradition as the authority; precedence does not establish accuracy. This is not the point, though. From crappy Christmas songs to fruitcake to mistletoe placed in strategic locations, there is something beautiful in our silly traditions.