"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things
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Thursday, December 16, 2010

I Take My Life Extremely Seriously

It’s December 16, 2010, and I have finished—not altogether honestly (yes, I have ditched a few days of school) and not always a walk in the park (you bet, like the rest of my TLG friends, I’m slightly [re: completely, utterly, what-the-hell-am-I-doing-here] overwhelmed at times)—my first semester living in a far, foreign, and frankly third-world(ish) country. As I time travel back through the last four months, it feels almost like I’ve just gotten here and curiously like I’ve been living here for years. Among the crazier things that I’ve experienced in Georgia is the time I killed, de-feathered, and subsequently eaten a turkey, the time I sat down on my bus back to my village next to a man with a surprisingly tame Maltese falcon perched on his wrist, and the time I was followed in my friend’s village for at least 2 kilometers by a pig the size of a baby hippopotamus. I have been to an “authentic Mexican” restaurant that did not have sour cream or guacamole. I have one class with eight boys all named Giorgi; I respectively call them G1, G2, G3, G4, and so on—and sadly, even with my genius numbering system there’s still some confusion when it comes down to whose turn it is to speak when. And, if I would have consumed a little more liquor or perhaps if they would have asked just one more time, I could have been the wife to one of the four eligible Georgian bachelors who has asked for my hand in marriage—all who deserve serious bonus points for being so annoyingly persistent and having sleeves exploding with persuasive tricks of all sorts.

Still, amidst what has grown to be what I like to call the ‘necessary craziness’ that my life can probably no longer do without, I feel accomplished. I’m not saying that my initial expectations of signing on with this particular teach abroad program were fulfilled, because they weren’t. I’m also not saying that I feel as if I made a true difference on any one individual since I’ve been here, because I’m not sure I have. And I’m not equating myself with Mother Teresa (though I should—living on my $250/month salary and handing out these damn good English skills of mine and my $80,000 teaching certification and correlating Bachelor’s degree for basically FREE).

I recently co-created an invitation for a Christmas party in Tbilisi. The idea was that all of the TLG teachers would all be able to get together for one last friendly hoorah before heading home for the holidays. Now pause please, and let me backtrack. Sometimes when I’m out with large numbers of my TLG colleagues, I feel like I’m back in college as there always seems to be the token person puking in the bathroom (or sometimes not quite making it there) and the circle of people bitching (yikes, profanity!) about the program we work for or about each other. No need to raise high the roof beam, carpenters (yes, I just shamelessly threw my J.D. Salinger reference in there!) I’m not likening myself to any diva or deity. In fact, I once drank so much awful wine on the way to Borjomi/Vardzia that I didn’t even make it to see Georgia’s exquisite cave cities—though the pictures that I happened to unknowingly snap make it easy for me to lie and say I ‘remember’ the trip in its entirety ;-) Not all large TLG gatherings unfold as such. I was recently at a TLG vs. United States Marines American Football Match and had a wicked good time with friends (see left) cheering on the sidelines. Still, kindly, I asked in the Christmas party invite to limit vomiting, fighting, and any other forms of inappropriateness. Whoops. Shouldn’t have asked for so much. These three simple wishes were the first three (of many to come) nails in my Almighty coffin. Some TLG teachers, upset at my obviously ridiculous requests, deemed me thereafter as someone who “takes herself far too seriously and actually believes [she] is making a difference in this country.” Having fallen into the dreaded milieu of these types of people, I was naturally offended(ish)…at first. After my moment of “Mommy, someone called me a bad name!” I came to this conclusion:

I take my life very, very seriously. And so far, it’s going pretty well for me.

So, in all seriousness, I think I’m doing some pretty powerful things in Georgia. I’m nowhere near satisfied—and, given my tendency to be highly overachieving and overly self-critical, I probably never will be. I do know what can be done with just a mustard seed though:

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” (Matthew 13:31-32)

How much of a difference have I actually made? Well, while I can’t be sure of everything, here are the things I am certain of:

When I stepped into my first classroom, I was handed a textbook I had never before seen and told to “teach this today!”

I used to only get yes/no responses from my English teachers.
Me- “I love your bag. Where’d you get it?”
Teacher- “Yes”
Me- “No, where?”
Teacher- Smiling, “Yes. Yes.”

My students would be asked to rise at the start of class and to regurgitate a paragraph or two from a text that was more than likely grammatically incorrect in the first place. When I would ask students to summarize what they had just recited, I’d get blank stares in return. Still, the students who read the paragraphs for memory with no mistakes but had not an inkling of what the text was about would get the high marks, while the students who read with poor fluency and pronunciation fall-ups but could impressively paraphrase his/her understanding of the text would receive low marks.

After tests, grades were read out loud and in front of the whole class.

In all of my classes, the attentive students would sit in the front row while the rest of the class would be allowed to talk, text message, and interrupt accordingly without being reprimanded. For at least the first two weeks, my teachers would have a handful of students from every class stand up just so she can tell me, publicly, which students were the “lazy” students who “don’t know anything.” Students with the best English skills would be called on while the rest, deemed incapable, would get comfortable with never participating.

Here’s what my classes look like today:

I always know what I am teaching and what instructional method I’m going to use at least one day in advance, and so do my cooperative co-teachers. Planning is not given as much thought or time as it should, but I’m proud that our level of preparedness for class sessions is always higher than impromptu. After talk-time rituals with my teachers, English is at least mutually comprehensible. My students don’t get points for the ability to memorize a text. They get points for translating, paraphrasing, and connecting historic texts to something they see in contemporary culture—and they’re damn good at it! Grades are private, and my students seem to be motivated to self-improve. I have helped my teachers to realize that sometimes it’s the “lazy” students who “don’t know anything” that we should be paying the most attention to and that it’s our job, as teachers of English, to make sure that the rich don’t stay rich while the poor stay poor. The first row of students are no longer the best and brightest, and they’re no longer the only ones who participate. At the end of every school day, there is a drawer of cell phones in the teacher’s lounge belonging to students who dare to text message in my classroom during my lesson; and, for the past three weeks, the drawer has been empty.

So, exactly how much of a difference have I made in Georgia since August 30, 2010? THAT much…that freaking much.

And it’s not even enough. Sometimes I feel so inadequate and like so much of a failed teaching professional that I wake up in the morning and can’t think of anything I’d rather do less than go to school. And sometimes, when the bad gets the worst of me, I then become guilty of actually staying in bed and not going to school.

Four months and four marriage proposals later, my epic return to the Windy City has arrived. I have ruined every pair of shoes I brought with (I’m talking huge, gaping holes in the soles) and I officially hate all twelve shirts I’ve been rotating (and wearing sometimes 3-4 days in a row). I am also quite positive that any medical professional would agree with my self-diagnosis of anxiety-induced insomnia. Yeah, that’s right. I WebMD’ed it! I am smelling, breathing, and thinking so much ‘Chicago’ that I can no longer sleep at night. The things running through my mind are: a certain bald guy, 24 hot and steamy hours in my luxurious bathroom with my waterfall showerhead and Aveda shampoo, one venti, non-fat, 5-shot gingerbread latte from my favorite Starbucks barista, and my blue-eyed purring machine who doubles as my feline and my favorite book: GATSBY!

One semester down, one to go! Mogvianebit gnakhavt! (See you soon!)

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