Suess. Doctor Suess.

When you spend your summer with people who still laugh uncontrollably at the word “fart” and consider booger a legitimate food, you have to find ways to stimulate your mind while keeping them from killing each other with spitballs. Dr. Suess was the answer to our troubles. I had the audacity to propose that we read all of his books. The nannying gig is over but my mission is not – so look out, unsuspecting children who need to be read to! You could be next…

I’d always been dimly aware that Dr. Suess was talented, but never realized just how brilliant he was. In every book, he leads us into his colorful, whimsical world and teaches us something new about life, or shows us something we knew in bright, new colors. He puts things upside down and convinces us that we are the ones who are not right side up. He sprinkles magic over mundane moments, splashing colors and music all over the place. The books I’ve read recently and what I see in them:

I discovered this one this summer. It’s about appreciating where you are and what you have. Although the message is ancient, it comes to life in a funny, colorful way. The kids loved it (and if they’d had their way, we’d be reading it every night – but I was on a mission).

This one is a similar idea. Just stop complaining and look at what you’ve got.

If you’ve never read this book, you’ve probably never learned to read, and it is unlikely that you are reading my blog. So assuming you’ve all read (or at least watched!) this one, I will admit that I think it is overrated, but still a good story with a memorable main character.

I do, however, recommend the Jewish sequel written by my dad and myself: The Cat in the Hat Kept Shabbat. Not kidding.

The pinnacle of Suess-ness. The ultimate birthday/graduation/new job/anything gift. You can read this one on the bus and not get looked at like the guy reading Spot Goes to School.

The pictures in this one are less appealing than those in his later work, but the story is complex and funny with an unexpected (and somewhat sinister) ending.

This is the one for those of us who are afraid of trying new things. Um…everyone? After reading this too many times, one of the kids decided he wanted to eat green eggs and ham for breakfast. For those of you in a similar situation, I will impart some of my wisdom: 1) Cabbage makes eggs go green. 2) Five year olds are likely to believe that salami is ham.

This is a collection of stories, the best of which is King Looie Katz. It paints a ridiculous picture of the working world and hierarchical society with lots of cats holding up each other’s tails…

Another one that makes the world as we know it look like a joke. There’s no way this was written for kids.

Different from his others – this one hardly rhymes and is quite long. It’s about the power of words and how to say sorry.

I can recite most of this by heart. Sometimes I find myself saying, involuntarily, “So-o… if you want to go bump bump, just jump on the hump of the wump of Gump”. One could argue that this book teaches about diversity, but mostly it’s a stage for Dr. Suess’ brain to dance on. His imagination is doing cartwheels.

A little boy with an imagination like Suess’.

Another place for Dr. Suess’ imagination to go wild.

Once again, he shows us his crazy universe and makes us feel silly for not knowing it existed.

And so my blog-reader, now I ask you,

to please leave your comments and tell me your view!

Do you agree that the Doctor’s fantastic?

Or have I once again been a little bit drastic?

How do you think I should continue my quest?

And which book is his worst? Which one is the best?

Thoughts of an Inexperienced Teacher

Honestly, I have no qualification for this. But I’m teaching high school math, English and physical education, and I’m about as qualified as it’s going to get. Needless to say, I am often questioning myself and wondering if I am doing more damage or good.

This morning there were four students in the class when I arrived. I was informed the rest were on their way. Just to put you in the right context, people here are always “on their way”. And so people are always late and people are always waiting and it’s just an intrinsic part of life here and no one cares.

I’m not Ugandan. And I am not going to sit around the classroom waiting for a bunch of teenagers (Am I no longer in that category?!) to saunter in whenever they feel like it, instead of teaching my lesson. So I went to the scariest woman in the school (in the kids’ eyes) but without a doubt my favorite staff member, and asked her what I should do about the late students. This was not the first time it had happened, and I’d had enough.

Madame (that’s how you refer to ladies here) walked into the classroom and despite her chalk-like size, made quite a threatening appearance. A few disappointed words ensued, and then the students followed her to serve their punishment – slashing weeds in the schoolyard.

Oh. I don’t want them to be punished now, I whispered to her. But it was too late; she’d given the command and there was no looking back. But I had a math class planned. Now what?

Dilemma number 1: What is more important – teaching them the importance of being on time or teaching them crucial concepts in math? And – will they actually learn from this to be on time or will they just be scared of me?

Whatever the long-term impact – they showed up to the next class on time. Some scowled and informed me they were “not fine”, but I made it clear that there were no hard feelings, I was not mad at them, they would not be mad at me, but they would not be late, either, and that was the end of that.

I was very excited for the English class, because I was about to teach them how to use the internet. I decided a while ago that English is the lesson in which I teach them whatever I want and think they need, as long as it’s in English. “So. Who knows what ‘internet’ is?” Blank faces. “Um…okay, who knows where the internet is? Is it on the TV? Or on the computer?”

I tried to squeeze whatever I could out of them, but realized it was a waste of time. “Take your notebooks and follow me,” and then we were off to the internet cafe all the way across the main road to try and open their worlds.

Of course, thenetwork was down, so we had to talk the guy into giving us his net stick, and he tried to get more money because we’d scared away all of his customers, and we couldn’t use a net stick at school because there was no power and everything was far from ideal… but hey – a handful of kids in some faraway village now know how to type http://www.google.com, and that if something is blue and underlined you can click it and it will take you to another page.

Dilemma number 2: Should I teach the students about facebook? Or are some things better left outside the bubble?

The decision was made from above – when I tried to sign into facebook the man’s net stick package expired.

Sports class made way for new questions. While some of the students can’t get enough of the running, others would rather do anything else (except foor slashing weeds, maybe).

Dilemma number 3: Do you push the good ones higher or do you try to pull the weaker ones to a basic level?

I tried pulling them, only a little too literally. I wanted one lazy girl to join the relay race. So I dragged her by her legs, the way someone who grew up with older brothers would. I didn’t realize that I was smearing her skirt with dirt. And that that was a criminal offense. She made a sour face, walked away and didn’t turn her head when I called her.

Dilemma number 4: How much do I run after a student to try and apologize? Am I a teacher or friend?

It’s confusing and tough, but my desire to give them with knowledge and confidence in themselves grows each time I see them. Today I got some glimpses into beautiful personalities – from the girl who wants to be a lawyer and change Uganda (by making plastic bags illegal), to the ones who chose to spend the break trying to solve the algebra equations in our semi-private lesson, to the girl who blessed me with “Good night Danya…Tuka Bulungi Nyabo – Dream on me!”

With all of the time I’m spending fundraising, planning, and meeting, it means so much to me to have this time to touch the ground, feel the students, learn the vibe – and remember why I’m here.

Women’s Day

What did you do on International Women’s Day? Did you celebrate? We did.

African women are strong. They carry babies on their backs and baskets on their head. They also carry the burden of supporting a family and being unnappreciated and getting their behinds squeezed by strangers.

Women plant seeds. Women cook beans and rice for passers-by and they sell mangoes and air-time and single cigarettes. They make babies and take babies, when the men move on to other women. There are women doctors and teachers and ministers, but equality is a foreign concept, rooted in faraway countries that have quotas and affirmative action and McDonalds.

Because even though the women look strong and independent to me, they don’t know they are. And so they fall into early marriages and a life of toil and succumb to being used and abused. I’m not a radical feminist. I spoke to women and this is what I learned. Those who can go to university and put off the married life, do.

So on Women’s Day, a national holiday, we celebrated being women with our students at Muse School.

At first we spoke about which attributes are male and which are female. Turns out only women can be caring and only men can be intelligent. I was pleased when they said women can be smart, but soon learned that smart here means good-looking.

Then we spoke about strong women. We told them about Oprah and Rosa Parks and Rihanna (She was mine, actually. There’s a lot more to her than you think) And then we asked them to tell us about strong women in their lives. One girl told us about her doctor sister, but then one boy told us about his brother. It made me remember that they probably understand about twenty percent of what we say…

We moved to simpler modes of communication. We danced. They drummed with their God given rhythm and danced with their agile bodies. We had a professional dancer from the Ndere Dance Troupe show us some moves (I claimed I was incapable of following  because I didn’t have the proper Ugandan butt).

They’re about fifteen. But they have more curves and more flair and more womanness than I’ll ever have.

I don’t think we sparked the feminist movement in Uganda, but I did see a little change in their faces as the day went by. From nervous giggles and embarrassment their eyes filled with sincere hope, and their skin glowed with the realization that being a woman could have more to it than cooking and cleaning. An acceptance that maybe there was something to be celebrated.

We Don’t Get No Education

Students in Tanzania

Yes, I think they are in the right direction. In 1960, 76% of the population older than 25 had gotten NO SCHOOLING. Forty years later, the number was down to 43.5%.*

But that is still a LOT of children who are not being educated, at least not formally. I saw it with my own eyes while hiking in the Usambara Mountains in Northeastern Tanzania.

Kids all over the place

Throughout the entire day we’d see kids out in the road, running and screaming. Our guide often asked them why they were not in school and got a different excuse each time. When we passed a school one evening in a place called Rangwe, I asked to go in. This is something I found on the noticeboard:

List of exam results

Do you see how many F’s there are? Division 1 is the the highest level. Notice there are zero students in Division 1. Whereas in the “failed” category there are plenty.

The next day we saw more students on their way to and from school, in uniforms and cheerful. “Good morning teacher”, the older ones greeted us, while the less learned ones called “bye muzungu”.

We entered the school grounds and a hoard of shrieking kids began to follow our every move, shaking with laughter. They kept creeping up and then backing away whenever we turned to look at them.

We walked into the teacher’s room, which had a few weary looking women. For nearly 700 students in the school, they are six teachers. It’s no wonder they were sour.

The Teacher's Lounge

I was introduced as a teacher, and my being white earned me the status of a person who has to be taken care of and shown around. So I entered a classroom of wide-eyed students who all stood up when I entered the room. Although I’m not generally shy, I found myself at a loss of words in front of the class. After all, what was I going to say? Hi, I came to look at you?

Downhearted, but hopeful that maybe I’d be able to make an impact in Uganda, I left the school. A few tens of students seemed keen on escorting me out.

I am now in Namulanda, a small village with a very special art school for disadvataged children. Back home, I created a lesson plan packed with information, ideas and equipment. I was going to teach the topic of self-portraits, through the lenses of different artists throughout history. We would explore different mediums, such as painting, drawing and collage, and we would explore ourselves and try to understand what it even means to make a self-portrait.

But when I got here, I realized there was no math teacher. And the English teacher was actually the preschool teacher, who was leaving the small children so she could teach the older ones. And there was no sports class. The moment I expressed interst in this, I was pegged down to teach English, math and sports to all grades, as well as teaching a group of mothers how to read.

I will have to try and work out a schedule, and see where I will fit in the other things I had in mind – namely building something sustainable, and helping the students figure out what they will do when they leave this wonderful school, but in any case, these are going to be a busy few months.

* (International Data on Educational Attainment: Updates and Implications. Robert J. Barro and Jong-Wha Lee, 2000)