Musings, North Dakota Living, Teaching

Waiting on Baby

I’ve written before about the crazy life we’ve built since getting married 14 months ago — and we certainly aren’t slowing down anytime soon with Baby #1 on the way. We found out a few weeks ago that it is a boy, which makes perfect sense in my family. I grew up with 5 brothers and numerous male cousins, and learning that the newest member of my family will be a boy too, well, came as no surprise to me.

Plus in our own little family, considering our dogs Lucy and Scout are both girls, now my husband will be slightly less outnumbered.

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So here we are, waiting for Baby with another four months to go. These are exciting times in our little home on our farmstead — but they are nervewracking too. Worries overwhelm me sometimes: Will I be a good mother? Will I even know how to be a mother? Will our home be a good place to raise a baby? Where is all this baby stuff even going to fit? Our little house already seems packed to the brim! Will I ever sleep again? Everyone tells me no, I will not. And I REALLY like to sleep.

Teaching while pregnant adds a whole new level of interesting. My feet and my back have never hurt so badly — and I’ve got four months to go yet.  At least the emotional turmoil of the first trimester has stabilized; it was pretty rough and I think my students knew something was weird. Sometimes though, even still, I get home and I’m so exhausted from dealing with other humans all day that all I want to do is curl up and stare at the wall. My poor husband, who spends much of the day working in solitude, just wants to have a conversation with someone. He’s very patient, thank goodness!

Then, of course, there is the fact that high school students have no filters:

“Mrs. M, you are HUGE already. You’re only half done?!” (I don’t think some of these kids have ever seen a pregnant woman.)

“Mrs. M, you look like you’re going to pop! Is your baby due soon?” (Um… no. It’s going to get a lot worse, kid.)

“Mrs. M, can you feel your baby kick? Will you let me feel next time he kicks?” (Um… double no. I like my personal space!)

“Mrs. M, can I babysit your kid?” (Well, if you didn’t lose every assignment I give you, I might be less worried about you losing my kid.)

“Mrs. M, you better name your baby after me.” “No, me!” “No, me! I’m your favorite!” “How about Hank?” “At least give him a middle name after me!”

“Mrs. M, you are so cute when you are fat!”

Sigh. And, once again, I’ve got four months to go….

But all of this is okay, because so far Baby is healthy, and deep down I do know that this, our farm, will be a great place to raise him. I can’t wait to buy him a pony when he gets a little older and teach him about country life and working hard and that nothing is owed to anyone for free. I can’t wait to give him some of the life I had growing up, full of family and love and siblings and pets and adventures.

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My husband can’t wait to teach him about music, hunting, and carpentry, and all that other guy stuff. My dad can’t wait to take him out on the tractor. My mom can’t wait to retire from her job and spend more time visiting her grandkids, including this one. The baby’s aunties and uncles and cousins will welcome him with open arms, and my grandma is busy these days making a blue baby quilt, like the pink one I still have today.

And you know, despite all the worries and backaches that come along with waiting for Baby, I think we’ll do alright.

Teaching

Don’t Forget the Trees

Sometimes, I get so busy in the throes of teaching — handing out papers, collecting assignments, turning on projectors and turning off lights, picking up gum off the floor, repeating what page we are on, helping students remember passwords and telling them for the 17th time what size font to use in MLA style, and ordering them to get out writing utensils, to sit down, to stop poking their neighbors — that I miss out on my very favorite part of teaching: Getting to know the students not as students, but as actual human beings. Humans with stories and lives and experiences and dreams that, unless I do some digging, I might know nothing about.

It’s as if the metaphorical thick and tangled forest of teaching is so dense that sometimes, despite my best efforts, I just can’t see the trees. But those trees are what I’m here for, and every once in a while I get a precious few minutes to focus on one “tree” at a time.

So I get a little break from teaching last week when the senior class is on a class outing for the morning. To my surprise, one lone student shows up to second period senior English. I inquire why she isn’t with her classmates, she gives me a reasonable answer, and we spend the rest of the period working on our various projects in comfortable silence, broken here and there by amiable conversation. I had liked this girl from the first day of school, but she is in a large class of almost 30 seniors and the truth is, I just haven’t had the chance to talk to her much one-on-one. This particular student is one of our oil field transplants, here from Louisiana. I’ve never been to Louisiana, I tell her, but I would like to visit someday. She tells me I should visit New Orleans, but not during Mardi Gras, and Baton Rouge is nice anytime of year. She loves to read; so do I, and the hour passes quickly as we talk about books and music and her other classes.

Sometime during this conversation, I ask about her family. She moved here a little over a year ago with her older brother and his wife. In a matter-of-fact manner, she tells me that both her parents died of cancer — her mom when she was 7, and her dad when she was 11. As she tells me this, her sweet but straightforward voice is broken by  the tiniest trace of sadness.

I am ashamed in this moment, and sad. Sadder than I expect to be. In fact, I need to excuse myself for a few minutes (to the copy machine, because where else does a teacher get a minute to herself?) as I feel tears welling up in my eyes. How have I had this student in my class for almost two months and not known the heartbreak of this young girl’s life? She has experienced more heartbreak than I have, and more heartbreak than any young girl on the brink of womanhood should have to.

Should I blame it on the fact that I have almost 150 students this year, and really, how would I have known this? Six groups of 20 to 30 students rotate through my room every day, 50 minutes at a time. We have 50 minutes to get settled, open books, take notes, cover sentence structure or the Anglo-Saxons or the life of Edgar Allen Poe; to get ready for standards and standardized tests and ACTs and college and careers; to do an assignment, put away books, clean up, and move on to the next 50 minutes. The few rowdy students in each class demand more than their fair share of my attention, and sweet girls like little Louisiana, while I’m so grateful to have them in my classes, sometimes get less. Furthermore, a big classroom full of one’s sometimes judgmental teenage peers is not always the greatest place to share real thoughts, troubles, anxieties, past experiences, and dreams for the future. At least not out loud. Sometimes I get a glimpse of it in my students’ writing.

But it doesn’t matter. I can’t let the craziness of teaching make me forget why I’m here in the first place.

She lives with her brother and his wife, she says, because it is a better option than living with her other brother and his wife, and besides them, there is no one else, nowhere else for her to go. When they moved to North Dakota for her brother’s work last year, she moved too. When they move back to Louisiana this November, she will move too to finish her senior year.

I’m going to miss her when she leaves. I will think about her and wonder how my little student from Louisiana is doing. Where will her life take her? I will most likely never know. I hope with all my being that she succeeds wherever she ends up. And I hope, secretly, that she remembers that senior English teacher she had once when she lived in North Dakota.

I am grateful for the reminder she gave me, yet again, that no matter how thick and tangled and dense that forest of teaching gets, no matter how overwhelmed I feel during the daily grind or how much I feel some days that I am getting absolutely nowhere, that I can’t afford NOT to see the trees.

The trees are why I’m here.

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North Dakota Living, Teaching

Famous in a Small Town

I’ve written a bit about how happy I am to be back on the farm. There’s another thing I’m happy about, too: Teaching high school in a “small” town again. (Not that Watford is really that small anymore, at least compared to how it once was.)

There’s something about belonging to a high school in a smaller town that really lends itself to a close-knit community feel. I missed this the last two years while I was off adventuring in Asia and in Bismarck. When you teach in a small town, you get to know the kids. You know their families. You know all of the other staff members on a personal basis, the good and the bad.

You even, as a teacher, have a certain amount of fame when you teach in a small town. Perhaps the better word is, you are watched. I am sure I could count on one hand the number of times I have been to the local grocery store without running into a student. Often, when I run into students out in public, they say hello. Sometimes they are so weirded out to see me in public that they act all embarrassed, don’t say a word, and then the next day proclaim in class, “I saw you at the grocery store yesterday!” (Students often feel braver in groups, in case you didn’t know.)

Sometimes, I think it it hard for them to believe that we sometimes exist outside the school walls. Students will say things like, “I saw you at the mall last night and it was WEIRD.” Or, “I saw you running. You can run?” Or, “Why did I see you at the restaurant with Mrs. S.? Are you guys friends? That’s weird.” You see the trend here.

Or, they might be very interested with whatever it is that we do outside of those school walls when we are actually acting human — things like what we do in our free time or even what we eat for dinner. One evening, I went shopping at the local Supervalu and purchased some items, along with the necessary ingredients for tacos. The next day in class, a freshman student asked, “How were your tacos last night?”

A bit surprised, I replied, “They were good! I don’t remember seeing you at the grocery store… How did you know I had tacos?”

“Oh,” he said. “My mom saw you, and she told me that she saw you at the grocery store, and that you were buying taco stuff. So then I knew you were eating tacos.”

See what I mean? They’re always. watching. you.

Actually though, I love it. I love belonging to a smaller community. I like that my students work at the grocery store, the gas station, the only Subway in town, and the hardware store. I like that they ask me to come to games and notice when I do and when I don’t. I like those North Dakota Class B sports events where the entire town shows up to cheer on their boys or their girls. I like that by the time every student graduates here, they will have had me in English class at least once or twice.

There’s a lot of things to like, teaching where I do. One more thing I like, is that I’m teaching with my brother Tommy this year. He joined the staff at the same time that I decided to make my way back.

Here we are, being famous in the local newspaper:

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I kid. We’re not really famous… yet. But really, it’s great being back in this small town.

Musings, North Dakota Living

Not That Good at Juggling

Another harvest has officially come and gone. When harvest is over, summer is over, and we might as well face the facts that fall is pretty much here.

It always starts great – spirits are high, the farmers are excited, and everyone is full of energy and ready to go.

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Then, as the harvest season progresses, energy wanes a bit. It’s imperceptible at first, but it becomes just a little bit harder to stay out combining until dark. Backs start aching and sleep is in short supply. A few weeks before harvest is over, we also begin to lose workers one by one as they pack up and go back to school. It’s always a little sad to see everyone go, but there’s a practical problem too: When school starts, we lose over half of our workers. The students and teachers going back to school — including two of my younger brothers, two young seasonal farmhands, my mom, and myself — also double as combine operators, grain cart drivers, meal wagons, and truck drivers. They leave with the skills and the manpower and the smiles that just make everything go more smoothly around here.

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School started this year for us local teachers on August 17. At that point we were only about half done with harvest. Since then, I have found myself juggling very different roles. Each morning, I’ve tried to make myself presentable and drag myself to school in my heels, clutching my book bag and a jug of iced coffee and scrambling to throw together meaningful lessons for 150-some students in four different English classes. Each evening, I’ve come home and changed into grungy field clothes and work boots and attempted to throw together a passable meal to bring to the field. On a few occasions I’ve taken over for my grandpa after dinner and combined for the rest of the evening. After shutting down for the night, I’ve gone home to rinse off, crash into bed, and do it all over the next day — never mind frivolities such as working out, doing laundry or dishes, or spending time with my husband.

I do love harvest. But I admit that since August 17, I’ve been a little bit anxious for the juggle to be over. Do you know how hard it is to switch from comfy work clothes and ponytails and no makeup, to trying to look like a professional every day? Believe me, it is hard. (For me anyway.) Furthermore, the only things I can think of from my own experience that match the intensity of harvest is 1) planning a wedding in four months and 2) school starting, along with getting classrooms and lessons ready, getting back into a bell schedule, and meeting all those new faces.

As of this last week, however, harvest is finally over after six long weeks, and we can all breathe a little easier now.

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There is a lot to be thankful for here, don’t get me wrong. My family is always thankful to get another harvest into the books. I’m lucky to have a good teaching job. And I’m always grateful for the time spent together and the fact that we’re lucky enough to be a farm family.

But let’s be honest, I’ve never been that good at juggling.

I think I’m ready for fall now.

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Musings, Travel & Adventure

Tidbits About Thailand

Our time in Thailand, rather shockingly, is drawing to a close. Two months ago, I had said goodbye to my family and students and made frantic last minute additions to my backpack and iPod before leaving in a rush with an anxiety-induced stomachache, having no idea what to expect. Experiencing the initial culture shock upon arriving in Cambodia, I felt that my almost three months here would trickle by slowly. Instead, it’s flown by. I can hardly believe that we have only a week and a half left in Thailand before we head up to China for another week and then, home to the United States.

I have learned a lot of interesting things about the culture here. I am grateful we were able to come here as part of a volunteer teaching program, because we were able to learn more about local life than we would have merely as tourists. Of course, in two months I have barely scratched the surface of understanding a new culture, but I thought I would share a few little tidbits that people back home might find interesting:

  • Chopsticks are not widely used in Thailand. More common is a fork and spoon, as in the West, but general table manners would have you use the back of the fork, in your left hand, to push your rice or noodles onto your spoon, in the right hand.
  • Tipping is not common in Southeast Asia. In fact, on some occasions when we have tried to leave tips, the server has insisted we take our “change.” One transplanted American working at a beach restaurant told us that generally the only customers that leave him tips are other Americans.
  • It is generally considered poor manners to drink from a bottle by tipping it up to drink from it. Better manners dictate to drink from a bottle by using a straw. Should you buy a bottle of water or a Coke from a 7-Eleven, for example, you will be given a straw to go with it. Teachers should definitely not drink from bottles of water without a straw in front of students, as the students are likely to emulate them and thereby go home copying these bad manners.
  • Speaking of 7-Eleven’s, they dominate every street corner in every major town here. I haven’t even seen one in the United States for I don’t know how long, but I have grown to love these little treasure troves of convenience where you can buy a 1.5 liter bottle of water for a mere 40 cents.
  • The “wai” greeting is used largely among native Thai people, meaning to place two hands together in a type of bow to show respect. How high or low you place your hands depends upon the rank of the person you are greeting – place your hands higher (fingertips at eyebrows, nose, or chin, depending on the situation) when greeting monks, elders, teachers, and bosses, for example; and place them lower (chest level) for employees beneath you, people younger than you, and students if you are a teacher. However, with Thailand’s active tourist industry, the locals generally understand that we Western visitors will not be able to “wai” correctly and don’t often try to greet us in that way.
  • It is rude to beckon someone with one finger as we do in the United States, mainly because that is how they call animals such as dogs. Instead, you should turn your hand so that your palm is facing down and use your entire hand to beckon someone. It is also rude to point at someone.
  • In Thailand, the head is considered holy and the feet are considered lowly. For this reason, you must not touch the head of an adult (with small children, it’s usually ok), and you must not point your feet at someone while sitting. Instead, it is more polite to keep your feet crossed safely underneath your chair.
  • Because feet are considered lowly and feet touch the floor, the floor is also considered an undesirable place for items of value. Books and school supplies must not be placed on the floor or stepped over, as knowledge is considered valuable and stepping over them would be disrespectful to knowledge.
  • So many people in Thailand’s tourist areas speak English, that if you attempt to speak to them in Thai and greatly butcher the pronunciation (as I do), the friendly Thai people are almost less likely to understand you then if you just speak English. At the very least, you may very likely get laughed at. At least, I do. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, however! Tommy is better at speaking Thai than I am, I admit.
  • Much of the beauty market sells “whitening” products, in the form of face creams, lotions, and makeup. I always find myself jealous of the beautiful tan complexions here, but then again, usually we want what we can’t have. Perhaps it is similar to America’s obsession with tanning beds, fake tanners and bronzers?
  • Although Thailand is a democracy with an elected prime minister, the country greatly adores its royal family, so much so that to say anything disparaging about the king could land a person in jail. Even to step on money inadvertently is considered disrespectful, as the face of the beloved king is displayed on Thailand’s coins and bills.

Cultural differences are fascinating.

Speaking of, I think going back to the United States may be a culture shock all over again. Going from the humid 80- and 90-degree weather back to North Dakota’s winters will be the biggest shock of all!

Musings, Travel & Adventure

New Perspectives from the Airport Bathroom Floor

About eighteen months ago, I decided my life had gotten too comfortable and that I needed a new perspective.

A few days ago, I found myself on the tiled floor of a public airport bathroom in Bangkok, throwing up my food-poisoned dinner from the night before, cursing myself and the bathroom and all of Asia in general.

Why did I ever think that “too comfortable” was a problem?

Let me tell you exactly how I came to find myself on that bathroom floor: After deciding I needed this new perspective, I researched Southeast Asia volunteer teaching programs online for months, began setting aside chunks of my teaching paycheck, got a second evening job, booked tickets, quit both my jobs, moved back home, found a new job willing to give me three months leave, prepared sub plans for those three months, applied for visas, got all sorts of brutal vaccinations in my arms, stocked up on sunscreen and mosquito spray, and packed everything I could into a backpack.

And here I am.

Did I really do all of this for the sake of gaining a new perspective on life?

I’ve always been accused of being a little bit dramatic.

But on that bathroom floor, I came to the realization that it’s working. As my list of new experiences expands — some more enjoyable than others — I do believe I’m getting what I came here for. I’ve seen and tried more new things in the past two months then I have in any other period of my life. I’ve been lost, homesick, swindled out of money, challenged, exhausted, disgusted, and culture-shocked. I’ve lost what feels like half my body weight in sweat in one day; I’ve battled the fastest, most ninja-like mosquitos that I’ve ever battled; I’ve trusted the kindness of strangers who don’t speak a bit of my language. I’ve purchased overnight bus tickets just to find myself on the overnight bus from hell. And of course, I’ve lain on the floor of a public airport bathroom in Bangkok, wanting to die and be put out of my misery. (I told you I could be dramatic.) Oh, and I really miss my dog.

But here’s the thing: I’ve also made new friends, learned a bit of a new language, and (somewhat) successfully taught English to Thai children. I’ve enjoyed my interactions with locals; and I’ve had interesting conversations with other travelers from Poland, France, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkey, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Canada, Iceland, Spain, Australia, and the UK. I’ve gained a new taste for spicy food, gazed at the Indian Ocean for the first time, and found a good traveling partner in my brother Tommy.

I didn’t know what to expect when I signed up, but I think I can say that so far — despite the few hiccups — it’s been a good decision. The months preparing weren’t easy; the months spent here haven’t been easy; but I knew they wouldn’t be. I knew I was going to be hot and sweaty the whole time. (To those freezing in the Midwest right now: I apologize and I know this may be hard to hear, but intense heat is not all it’s cracked up to be.) I knew I would end up lost more than once. I knew I would like the kids at my school just a little too much. I had a strong suspicion I might get food poisoning. And I knew I was going to be thrown right out of my comfort zone. That’s what I signed up for, for reasons I can’t always remember now.

Here are a few pictures of our more memorable new experiences. (If you don’t mind, I’d rather forget the airport bathroom.)

Remember The Spider?

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I’ve made new little friends:

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And new grown-up friends:

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We’ve trekked over mountains:

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Climbed waterfalls:

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Visited countless beautiful temples (this, the White Temple in Chiang Rai):

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Participated in a lantern festival:

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Gave Thai cooking a shot:

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Went white-water rafting:

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Got up close to an elephant:

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And kayaked, in the rain, through Thailand’s renowned karst formations. On this particular adventure, I also had to arm myself with my paddle against creepy little bandit monkeys, but I refused on principal to take pictures of the little jerks:

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Most of the new experiences, unfortunately, really can’t be caught on camera. If I could, I would show you the insane traffic in Cambodia, or the friendly Thai security guard practicing his English on me, or the moment we realized we were really, really lost in Chiang Rai. I can’t, but you can take my word for it that my perspective, in just 8 short weeks, is changing. I appreciate things I didn’t appreciate before. I’ve gained new ideas about the world. And I still have a few more weeks to go before I go home for Christmas. Hopefully, the list of new experiences will keep expanding until then.

On second thought, remembering the airport bathroom that I’d really like to forget, maybe I should be careful what I wish for….

Musings, Travel & Adventure

A Little Watermelon

I know I’m not supposed to pack the kids from school into my bag and take them back home with me, but I can’t help but want to, just a little bit. Especially one tiny little girl named Dtang-Mo, which translates literally into “watermelon.”

Dtang-Mo is about 2 years old, has dark eyes, dark curls and chubby cheeks. She is missing her front teeth prematurely. She grins at us every time we make eye contact with her and every time she sings. She loves singing. Her favorite song is “Itsy-Bitsy-Spider.” Sometimes when we are sitting on the floor, coloring or playing a game, she sits close to me, begins doing the actions for “Itsy-Bitsy-Spider” with her little chubby fingers, and whispers the words to me, or at least something that sounds sort of like the words. When I sing it softly with her, she holds up one index finger at me at the end, which means “one more time.” When we get to the end, she holds up one index finger at me again. I could sing “Itsy-Bitsy-Spider” with her all day long.

When we color, we sit on the floor like all the rest of the kids. The school doesn’t have many school supplies, but it does have a bag of crayons and the kids get only one or two colors each. She sticks out her tongue when she colors pictures of lions, spiders, and gardens. When she is finished, she points at the blank white back of the coloring page. I draw a flower. “Flower,” I say. “Fwow-a,” she repeats. The next day, she finishes coloring and points at the white space again. I draw a flower. “Fwow-a,” she says excitedly, and begins pointing to all the white space repeating “fwow-a,” over and over again. Pretty soon, her paper is covered in flowers. This happens every day for a week. At least I know I taught one word, flower, to at least one student, Dtang-Mo, if I accomplish nothing else on this trip. I could draw flowers with Dtang-Mo all day long.

When we play duck-duck-goose at the end of the morning, she gets picked sometimes. Seeing her little grin and her chubby little legs as she bounces around the circle makes me bubble up with laughter inside. She never tries catching the kid who picked her. She just bounces. I could play games with her all day long, too.

I would take this little watermelon home with me, if I could.

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