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I was a dictionfairy for Halloween. A dictionfairy, for the uninitiated layman, is a fairy whose skirt is made from dictionary pages.
Specifically, medical dictionary pages. (I bought the medical dictionary because out of the Hodge Podge’s vast collection of reference books, it had the largest pages. This is an important consideration when one plans to use it to construct a skirt.)
Mrs. C and Helblabi, who coincidentally were also dictionfairies, graciously invited me to help with the first grade’s Halloween party.
I manned the food station. During the first rotation of children, a little boy paused before stuffing his mouth with summer sausage and ghost-shaped cheese to remark, “Your skirt is made out of newspaper.”
“It’s actually pages from a dictionary,” I said. “We’re dictionfairies.”
He stared at me a moment and then said, very seriously and somewhat emphatically, “No. It’s newspaper. You’re just pretending it’s a dictionary.
So I reached behind me and grabbed Barron’s 750-page Dictionary of Medical Terms and dropped it on his head.
Betcha he wishes we’d used newspaper.
My dad recently cleaned out his closet. He found $400.
I wish he would clean out my closet.
He also discovered a box of old photos which provided much of last weekend’s entertainment.
While flipping through the piles, I unearthed a picture of The Halloween I Realized My Parents Liked My Brother More Than Me.
It was a hard, cold day for this five-year-old.
Halloween was one of my favorite holidays. My mom made my brother and me eat our supper that night at the little table in the kitchen instead of in the dining room by the front door. Otherwise, she knew we’d jump up every two minutes to see if anyone had started trick-or-treating early. Even so, I was too excited to manage more than a few swallows.
My parents tolerated my Halloween hysteria only with reservations; the holiday was generally frowned upon. Our church preferred to celebrate with a “Fall Festival” or “Harvest Hoedown.” So actually, I’m surprised our parents let us trick-or-treat at all, but I suspect it was because my mom liked our Halloween candy as much as we did.
Though they conceded to trick-or-treating, we were never allowed to be anything remotely scary. Our costumes were benign children’s book characters: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pippi Longstocking, The Lone Ranger. It was more like an oral book report than panhandling for candy.
On the Halloween in question, my dad made my brother a robot costume.
My dad spent hours in his shop cutting armholes in boxes and bolting tubes at the joints. Everything was painstakingly wrapped in aluminum foil and he glued a computer circuit panel on the chest for ultimate robotic authenticity. If that wasn’t cool enough, the spray paint lid eyes lit up when my brother connected wires to a battery inside the robot’s head.
This costume was the envy of every kid under eight in the tri-county area.
That was the year they cut two holes in a bed sheet and I was a ghost.
I don’t remember exactly how I ended up being a ghost, but I imagine it went something like this:
Tugging on Dad’s pant leg as he fiddles with B’s robot head: “Daddy?”
“That’s strange, only one eye is lighting up. Try jiggling the other wire.”
“Ok! There we go! Now try turning your head. Perfect!”
“What am I gonna be for Halloween?”
**pause** He blinks.
“Oh. Oh, shoot. Honey! We forgot the other kid! Can you grab the sheet off the spare bed real quick?”
Never mind that ghosts fall under the category of “Spooky Things Which We Are Not For Halloween.” Never mind that my costume didn’t even have armholes which rendered it nearly impossible to carry a candy bucket. I was a ghost.
I spent the night bumping into fire hydrants because I kept stepping on the corner of the sheet, which pulled the eye holes catawampus so I couldn’t see. But it probably didn’t matter–who looks at a bed sheet when there’s a robot with light-up eyes at their door?
My only consolation was that while Mom was sneaking my Halloween candy, I could help myself to B’s, who never ate his, but instead squirreled it away in a Bridgeman pail in his closet until it congealed in a sugary lump.
So hey, if a robot hauled in more candy than Pippi Longstocking, I would gladly play second fiddle.
During our school’s open house in August, a dad was giving his future kindergartener a tour. The door to the Resource Room/locker room, just off the gym, stood open while I worked at my desk. I heard the kid’s gasp of awe when his dad showed him the gym.
“This is where you go to play games,” said Dad.
“Cooool…” said the kid. This gigantic room just for games? This school thing was a dream come true!
Then the kid pointed down the corridor leading to my room–only the blue tiled walls and floor were visible.
“And is that where the swimming pool is??” he asked excitedly.
Yeah, kid, life is full of disappointment.
In the mornings, I roll my wooden cart, laden with literacy goodness, to the first grade hall. I sit on the floor while three different groups of first graders park criss-cross-applesauce facing me. I impart to them deep and meaningful truths, like: “Flippy Dolphin helps you flip the vowel sounds” and try to keep them from tripping dawdling kindergarteners. An hour and a half later, with nary a bathroom break, my cart and I dash to the fifth grade hall for three more reading groups and another 90 minutes of litertastic fun.
My cart’s previous owner attempted to spruce it up with inspirational stickers. All have fallen off, except “LAUGH.” Even from that, the “L” has disappeared.
So now, when I’m frantically passing out clipboards and pencils for my sixth consecutive reading group and I glance at my cart, it says “AUGH!!” Which makes me LAUGH.
But this week has been different. We’re doing state testing, so all reading groups have halted, and we administer the tests to small groups in the Resource Room. Standardized testing is a lot of: “Put your finger on number 107. Read the directions and do numbers 107-115. You will have approximately 20 minutes to complete this section.”
Then the proctor (that’s me) kicks back for 20 minutes of the sweet sound of #2 pencils marking those answers heavy and dark.
With the breaks, I’ve been reading potential novels for my fifth grade reading groups to begin after testing. So far I’ve read: Stone Fox, The Secret of the Seal, Honus & Me, Chocolate-Covered Ants, Who Stole the Wizard of Oz?, Skinnybones, Freak the Mighty, and parts of The BFG and The Report Card.
It’s been a pretty good three days.
Romans 1:19-20 reads, “[People] know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them. For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for no knowing God.”
So, thought I, what are these invisible qualities of God I can discover by studying the earth and sky? Paul gives two: power and divinity. In a perfect lake sunset, I also saw beauty, peace, and bursts of joy. My garden’s delicate Asters testify to flawless detail. Road trips through rugged national parks reveal majestic splendor and infinite imagination.
My picture of God–the character I discerned from my observation of nature–was all wonder and awe-inspiring creativity.
But a few days after the sunset-over-lake-utopia, I witnessed an intense hailstorm through the living room window. The white marbles smacked the panes so violently B. was afraid they’d crack. And I thought, “What if I was outside in this hail storm? What if I didn’t have a shelter from which to watch and this white rage was hurled on my uncovered head?”
Maybe my idea of God would not be so rosy.
What if I were left alone at the lake in the cold night? What about the early settlers crossing those mountains in a wagon? What of the fisherman caught at sea during a hurricane?
How terrifying, intimidating, and furious God would seem in those moments! His invisible qualities would be vengeance and wild wrath, not warmth and kindness.
The earth and sky–raw and untamed–are fearsome for a unsheltered human.
Then, thought I, maybe the only reason I see such beauty in nature is because I have a safe shelter from which to observe it. When the weather is fierce or the temperatures extreme, I simply don’t go out. If it had been 30 below, I wouldn’t have been watching the sun set over the lake. I have a lopsided impression of nature because I only interact with the pleasant bits. To me, watching the hail spatter the windows while curled up on the couch, God was a smorgasboard of beauty.
To the pioneer trapped in a blizzard, burning the last of his Conestoga–not so much.
So how can the earth and sky reveal God’s nature? My impression of nature is based on whether I have shelter from it. So how can it be a true picture of God? This perplexed me.
Until I had this revelation!
God is fearfully powerful. The Bible is full of verses like: ”Smoke poured from his nostrils; fierce flames leaped from his mouth. Glowing coals blazed forth from him. The Lord thundered from heaven; the voice of the Most High resounded amid the hail and burning coals.” (Psalm 18:8, 13) It’s obvious that the scarier parts of nature do reveal portions of God’s character.
But here’s the thing.
Just like I could watch the hailstorm from inside the house, I know God from a place of shelter–Jesus Christ. And from that covering I see his eternal power and divine nature. Because I am protected, God’s character is beauty and goodness. Hidden in Christ, I can say, “He is good! His faithful love endures forever!”
But if I were to face Him–alone and unprotected–then indeed, “It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews 10:31)
The heavens proclaim the glory of God.
The skies display his craftsmanship.
Day after day they continue to speak;
night after night they make him known.
They speak without a sound or word;
their voice is never heard.
Yet their message has gone throughout the earth,
and their words to all the world.
Monday I start a new job. I will be our school’s Resource Room Teacher.
“Is that what used to be called a librarian?” asked my pastor.
This makes sense. What room in a school is more full of resources than the library? But no, the resource room is not the library. It is a small room with a sink, no windows, and a modest stash of resources.
It is, in fact, the locker room.
Though the showers and toilet have since been removed, the double-decker lockers provide convenient storage and the tiled walls add a touch of class. It is a locker room of learning. Not like the locker rooms beneath the Old Gym at my high school whose murky depths simmered with mildew and silverfish.
This locker room is silverfish free. It’s a cheerful place with bookshelves, posters, and the aforementioned bright orange lockers. And I’ve got my own desk. Like a real teacher. Who hangs out in a locker room.
The main resources in the resource room appear to be the teachers. In the morning, I’ll teach three first grade reading groups, followed immediately by three fifth grade reading groups. In the afternoon, students come to the resource room for reading interventions so cleverly disguised as video games that the kids painlessly blip through levels of Space Commander and Tomb Trek, all the while making covert gains in fluency and comprehension.
Occasionally, students who need homework help access the resource room. And sometimes kids get sent by their classroom teachers because they are throwing things or incessantly whistling or running away. (The kids, not the teachers.)
When I worked in the first grade, I spent many hours in the resource room with a small chap from our room who at times threw shoes, broke rulers, barricaded himself under the kidney table, etc.
So off we’d go to the resource room where I’d use my college degree to trick him into thinking a worksheet on contractions was more fun than rummaging through the teacher’s desk and lobbing the objects contained therein at yours truly.
You can imagine how this turned out. Really, given a choice between Contractions and Flinging Writing Utensils, which would you choose?
One day, after throwing his quota of Sharpies, he climbed into one of the lockers and slammed the door.
The noise, the projectiles, the frustrated little body suddenly vanished. I glanced around the deserted room and briskly dusted my hands. What a tidy solution!
I basked in the unexpected silence for a few minutes. Then I imagined the principal walking in and finding me at an empty table across from an Addition with Three Addends worksheet, my small charge nowhere in sight.
This probably violated some policy. So I opened the door, which he promptly banged shut.
I’m sure he liked it in there. Quiet, dark, legs tucked up to his chest, no one trying to make him add. It was a safe place for him. Not a Conscious Discipline Safe Place, just a regular safe place.
Conscious Discipline is a management program created by Dr. Becky A. Bailey which relies heavily on brain research and the false assumption that every kid wants to be good. This isn’t true, because I used to be a kid and distinctly remember times when my goal was not cooperation. I just wanted to be a stinker and see how much of a stinker I could be until someone made me stop.
Dr. Becky A. Bailey, however, feels strongly that I wasn’t actually being a stinker, I just didn’t know how to communicate my needs. So this program is all about language and structures that help kids express themselves and sort through their feelings and actions.
One structure is a Safe Place. According to Dr. Becky A. Bailey: “The Safe Place provides the opportunity for children to remove themselves from the group in order to become calm, regain composure and maintain control when upset, angry or frustrated. Children come to the Safe Place in order to be helpful and not hurtful to themselves and others.”
Clearly, throwing things is not helpful, so it was suggested that we create a Safe Place in our classroom. We covered a round table with a long cloth and–voila!–a Safe Place. Our little friend was a Safe Place guru. Whenever a math lesson ground on too long or he sensed a tedious assignment coming down the chute, he’d dive under the table. Lost in the oblivion of composure.
The first few times, he took a nap.
I didn’t mind. If he was sleeping in the Safe Place, he was not muttering inappropriate things to his classmates or overturning chairs. I woke him up for music and he crawled out, face etched with pillow lines.
When he realized he still had to make up the work he missed while snoozing in the Safe Place, he visited it less often. By April, Mrs. C and I were mainly just glad our Safe Place was a table so we could stack science kits on it instead of say, a tent, which would not be useful at all.
But the orange locker was too small for a nap, and after a tussle with the door, the incident ended with him doing his math on a clipboard in the locker on the condition that the door be left open. I counted this as a win. Math done at a table vs. math done in a locker? Dr. Becky A. Bailey must concur–the differences can only be slight.
Over the year, I grew to love this little guy as we prayed for him every night and I hung out with him every day. I’m looking forward to seeing him in the resource room this year–but not as a pencil-hurling locker-dweller.
This year he’ll come for the video games–and leave with the skills of a reader!
I usually stay in hostels when I travel. They’re cheap.
And full of fun people whose backpacks are covered in patches from Kyrgyzstan and Paraguay and who talk of “doing” a country the way a fourth grader might do a page of math facts.
My travels don’t hold a candle to these adventurers; I’ve only explored the U.S. and Europe, never backpacking more than a week at a time. But I enjoy their stories and useful tips.
“I always hang a pair of leggings or a bra around my neck and scrub it while I wash my hair. If I do a little laundry every day in the shower, I don’t have to run the machine,” shared a veteran hosteler, as she superglued her shoe.
Another told me of his adventures in Istanbul, “The second day I checked out the protests in Gezi Park. The police were throwing tear gas canisters into the crowd and using water cannons. My eyes were burning and everyone was running, so I ducked into a gelato shop and hid upstairs with twenty other Turkish people for three hours. The police were arresting anyone they could find. I didn’t want to tell my mom I got thrown in a Turkish prison my second day in Europe.”
My mom cringes every time I mention that I’m staying in a hostel. Hostels carry a shady reputation in the States. Probably for two reasons:
1. We don’t have hostels. An Australian we met told us about her visit to NYC. She asked the cab driver to drop her off at a hostel. He responded by trying to dump her at the Super 8, then a Travelodge.
“No, these are hotels,” she told him. “I want a hostel. You know…a hostel.”
He finally took her to a homeless shelter.
2. The 2006 flick Hostel. I am 100% sure my mother has never seen this film (neither have I, but I just watched the trailer on YouTube and probably won’t sleep tonight) but it has seeped into our collective consciousness that hostels are good places for gruesome dismemberment.
In reality, the worst that’s going to happen in a hostel is your Girl Scout cookies tasting like three weeks of rotten produce when you retrieve them from the communal fridge.
(Or your face might swell up like the Elephant Man because you’re allergic to the detergent on the sheets. This happened to FM#1 in Salzburg.)
Our hostel in St. Petersburg was not the cleanest I’d seen, and after the first night they moved us to a larger room which we thought was a female dorm, but gradually turned into a mixed room over the next three nights. This is annoying, especially when it’s a stifling ninety-six degrees and you’d like to sleep in your underoos.
There we met two Brazilian girls studying medicine at a university north of Kazakhstan. (Omsk, I think.) Fourteen hours by train got them to St. Petersburg, from where they planned to fly back to São Paulo for the summer.
“How did you end up in Russia?” I asked one.
She told me she dreamed of being a doctor, but had failed the competitive Brazilian university entrance exam three times. A few months later, her dad saw an ad in the paper for cheap med school in Russia.
“So here I am!” she said brightly.
“That’s amazing,” I said, “Do you speak Russian?”
“No, the professors teach in English. But their English is horrible. Most of the time, I don’t know what they’re saying,” she said. Her English was flawless, but her friend had trouble joining the conversation.
She told me her classmates came from around the world: Thailand, Pakistan, India, Jordan.
“Hmm…” I said. Russian professors explaining complex medical procedures in broken English to non-native English speaking students who couldn’t get into universities in their own countries. Here is fertile soil for malpractice.
When I lived in England, my Italian flatmate dated a guy from Germany. Neither spoke the other’s language, so they communicated in English. Listening to their rudimentary conversations, I figured their relationship didn’t involve a lot of talking. So the thought of the substantial language barrier shrouding say, the finer points of cardiovascular surgery was most disturbing.
“Where do your classmates practice medicine when they finish university? Do they go back to their own countries?” I asked, fervently hoping it was so.
“Some of them do. But the school has an agreement with hospitals in Australia and Canada and the United States, so lots of them go there. I want to be a neurosurgeon in California.” she grinned cheerfully.
I gulped. “Well…study hard!” I said, making a mental note not to schedule brain surgery in LA anytime soon.
While writing this, I also stumbled upon this article which did nothing to ease my mind:
This is the same girl who, a few nights later, told me they had met some Russian guys in a club who offered them a boat ride at 1:30 am to watch the bridges open. I thought of sex trafficking and dismemberment and the theft of irreplaceable documents.
The girls from Brazil apparently thought, “Sure!”
“The views were amazing!” she said.
(We also went to see the bridges open in the wee hours [twice actually], but not in the watercraft of intoxicated Russian strangers.)
In our room were also two older women–teachers from the U.S. beginning a Global Exploration for Educators tour which started on the Trans-Siberian Railroad and ended in Beijing.
The two seemed an odd pair–one was a loud, heavy-set Texan who was definitely not wearing a shirt and may or may not have been braless the first time Mrs. W met her lounging on her bunk in our mixed-gender room. (“How could you not know if she wasn’t wearing a bra? She talked to you for like fifteen minutes!” I said. “I don’t know, I tried really hard not to look; maybe she was wearing a beige one. I hope it was beige.”)
The other was a petite graying lady who, when she wasn’t sipping tea, was reading an improving book.
We later learned they met at a conference and only joined forces each summer for a GEEO tour.
During one exchange, the petite lady interrupted the Texan’s interrogation of Mrs. W re: teaching for the Department of Defense to say, “Excuse me, but your wine spilled in my purse.”
They were smuggling booze into our alcohol-free hostel. Not even the Brazilians did that.
“Oh my gosh!” exclaimed the Texan. “I am SO sorry! Here, let me clean it up for ya!”
“No, no…I’ll do it,” said the other lady faintly.
One afternoon, as I and at least three other people were trying to nap in our sweltering room, the Texan, probably swilling wine, struck up a loud conversation with her friend on the top bunk who was reading quietly.
“I gotta tell ya what happened on the last day this year. Our math teacher, just a young guy, went to the bar for some drinks and he got in a fight and some guy shot him. Blowed his head right off.”
She paused theatrically, then finished her grisly tale: “I don’t know why they had an open casket. I was like, ‘Shut the damn lid! Too many gawkers.’ He liked ice cream, though, so they put one of ‘em cartons of ice cream next to his head where it was blowed in. To kinda cover it up, you know.”
“Oh…oh my,” murmured the other lady.
I shoved my face in the pillow to smother my totally inappropriate laughter.
Then silence. What can you say after that? Her story hung in the air like an unexpected belch at a job interview.
In the heavy quiet, I drifted back to sleep, dreaming of Häagen-Dazs and Turkish prisons.
Thus concludes my tales of Mother Russia. Most of ‘em anyway.