Bringing the blog up-to-date means trying to summarize two eventful months (wrapping up school, moving for the summer, satisfactorily completing German exam and visa paperwork, welcoming visitors from New Zealand and the U.S….) So, how about separate posts on “The Best Job Ever, ” “Friends from Afar,” and “Everything Else”?
The Best Job Ever
A few faces (Alexandra’s 2m [5th grade]), Carmen’s 7c [11th grade], and Angelika’s 8b (12th grade)…
Students here finish school at the end of June, but the teaching assistant’s last day is at the end of May. I really didn’t want to clear out my desk in the conference room or say good-byes. I have felt so at home at Keimgasse (my Stammschule, or primary school) these two years — the exchange of “Morgen!” as teachers assemble each morning, my perch next to Tina in the teacher’s room, the sunny classrooms, the spontaneous lessons, the prospect of a chat with a teacher over a coffee in the Lange Pause after the second lesson, the bustle in the halls between classes, the occasionally shared commute to or from Vienna.
For fun, I thought I’d assemble a list of (most of) the topics I taught the last two years at three different school for around 25 different English teachers and classes. Most (including probably any that seem strange) were requests from teachers. First, if I had to name a few favorites…
1. Fun: “Short Stories,” with prompts from a Reader’s Digest “writer’s block” webpage*
2. Memorable (I hope): “Religion in America” (with an open floor to share my faith)
3, Funny: “Creative Job Interviews” (in which I naively volunteered to be interviewed, and students proceeded to ask me crazy questions and make me sing in front of the class)
4. Controversial: Gender Issues, with an article on gender-selective abortions that led to a broader discussion of the topic
5. Popular (as far as teacher requests): “Regions of the U.S.” (food, regional distinctives, stereotypes, etc.); “U.S. Politics and Elections”
6. Stereotypes of America/Americans (only a favorite if I helped undo in some small way the stereotypes held by some): “Food in America” (stereotype: American eat fast food all the time and are fat); Gun Laws in America” (stereotype: everyone owns one, and you can get “informed” by watching “documentaries” like Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine).
Now to the expanded list:
- Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War
- African Americans in the U.S., 1865-1965
- American Dream
- American sports
- American symbols
- Amish and Technology
- Anabaptist traditions (Mennonites, Hutterites)
- Art (broad, I know)
- Beauty, fashion and body image
- Boston marathon bombing
- Bowling for Columbine review
- Christmas traditions
- Civil Rights movement
- Creative writing (short stories)
- Education in the U.S.
- Essay writing
- Food etiquette
- Formal debates
- Forms of entertainment
- Freedom Riders
- Gender issues, TV and advertising
- “Gift of the Magi” (and other O. Henry short story)
- Golden 20’s
- Global warming
- Grapes of Wrath (tho’ I haven’t actually read it!)
- Gun laws
- Highland Games
- Human rights
- Hunger Games
- “I Have a Dream” speech
- Irish in America
- Jeopardy game with various topics
- Jobs and interviews
- Kite Runner
- Mandatory military service (in Austria)
- Margaret Thatcher
- Mediterranean flora and fauna
- NYC and multiculturalism
- ObamaCare debate
- “Peter and the Wolf” (Prokofiev)
- Political correctness
- Poetry (Petrarchan sonnet)
- Regions of the U.S.
- Religion in the U.S.
- Super Bowl advertising
- Technology, private space travel
- Teenagers…friendship and conflict
- Teenagers…rules and dating
- Teen fitness
- Top 10 places to visit in the U.S.
- U.S. elections
- Valentines Day
- Writing a soap opera (oh, dear)
* * *
Although my last official work day was in May, June included three note-worthy school-related happenings.
First, I got to spend a morning listening to a few of the students from the 8b class (which I’ve gotten acquainted with over both years at Keimgasse) present their oral Maturas. …The exams students takes at the end of high school and in order to be able to study at the university level are serious business and formatted very differently from standardized tests in the U.S. There are two sections, written and oral, and 3 or 4 subjects in each section. Students prepare a paper on a special topic of their choice and prepare answers to possible questions on a wide array of themes. For the oral Matura, students converse with a teacher before a panel of other teachers, the school principle, and a representative from the regional school board. It took 4 hours, more of less, for 4 students to complete the oral exam! (I probably wasn’t supposed to take this photo.)
Second, I had the idea that a way to thank the teachers I’ve worked with would be to have them over for dinner at my flat. Nine women showed up (a full house!), and we had a lively evening — half an hour of piano music to start off, then lasagna and cheesecake accompanied by lots of school talk and laughter. It was exhausting and great.
Third, Angelika asked me to join her 5th form class for their Project Week. The last week of school is not really school per se, but pretty much any fun/educational activities the teacher (and class) comes up with. So, this past week was an adventure with about 25 9th graders:
Monday: rock climbing
Tuesday: a movie at one of the English theaters in Vienna
Wednesday: a tour of the airport training center (hilarious tour guide and the grand fun of seeing how fast we could disembark from a model plane — using the inflated ramps activated in case of an emergency landing)
Thursday: baking at Angelika’s house.
* * *
…Thinking over the past two years, I am immensely grateful to have been privileged to work with wonderful teachers, for the opportunities for cultural exchange in the classroom, for the sense of contributing something valuable, and for the warm welcome not only at school but into the homes and lives of various teachers in each of the three schools….
* * *
*If you have an insatiable love of reading and have actually made it this far and still want to read more, below is a short story I wrote for one of the Reader’s Digest prompts:
Your neighbor started hanging her Christmas decorations. You smile, wave and say, “Looks good,” as you pull into your garage. Suddenly, you take pause and notice that her decorations look very familiar and are, in fact, yours. To confirm, you dash to the basement and see that all of you Christmas decorations are missing. You decide to steal back your goods in the middle of the night but it doesn’t go as planned.
“Looks good!” I called, admiring Marta’s Christmas décor. She stood in her narrow front lawn, adjusting a single string of old-fashioned bulbs that highlighted the glass ornaments hanging inside the picture window, they themselves framing a diminutive tree. “Simple – just like I like it,” I thought.
“Home,” I said out loud, as I stepped inside next door. And with that one word a rush of memories came flooding in – of growing up in this same house, when it was full of family, music, laughter, the smell of Christmas cookies, decorations. And with that last image came a sudden sense of despair. Those understated glass globes and delicate icicles, that ornery string of bulbs forever threatening to flicker out – they were all hanging in my neighbor’s home.
I sat down on the floor, one snow boot leaving a damp puddle on the doormat and the other still on my foot. The house felt suddenly empty, the greeting of home and hearth more silent than the usual echo of long-ago footsteps racing to greet Father coming home from work or the mixture of the dog’s bark and children laughing at his antics.
Somewhere out of the deep recesses of my will – buried under years of self-restraint and dogged adherence to maintain the status quo – an inner voice trumpeted: “John, claim your own!” As though audibly spoken, the oppressive silence was broken. I stood up, pulled off the snow boot, and dropped my briefcase in the bedroom. Just to confirm my solid suspicions, I ran downstairs to peer inside each of the storage boxes stacked at the back of the basement. No ornaments to be found. I remounted the stairs, cooked dinner, and sat down with a copy of A Christmas Carol to wait. Around 11:00, the lights next door went out, and an hour later I surmised that the coast was clear.
Silently, except for the swish of stepping through deep, soft snow, I crossed the strip between our houses and gingerly opened the side door. As I expected, it was not locked – how could anyone dare to lock their doors in a town the early gold prospectors had named “Dependable”?
I slid inside, stocking footed, leaving my boots on the doorstep. Noiselessly feeling my way along the hall towards the living room – I knew the layout well from childhood games of hide-and-seek with the previous owner’s wild twins – I asked myself how I was going to explain myself if Marta came downstairs. Or, worse, whether I’d give her a heart-attack. Just then, I nearly gave myself one: tripping over something in the hall, which skidded across the floor with a plaintive meow, I rammed into a doorframe with a thud that seemed to reverberate throughout the whole house.
I sank to the floor, dazed by the blow, unsurprised by a questioning, “Hello?” from above and the sound of feet in oversized slippers coming downstairs. There was no use running for the door – the footprints would give me away by the light of morning. I awaited my doom, fingering the growing bump on my head and thinking ruefully that once upon a time I’d entertained the idea of asking Marta out – just a coffee or a walk downtown through the antique stores. Now, we’d live side-by-side – she a thief and I a trespasser, both too stricken with embarrassment to turn the other in or to wave our usual hellos.
Footsteps tiptoed through the living room, and the hall light flashed on. I squinted up through the unwelcome brilliance, expecting a scream of terror or a raised baseball bat. Instead, Marta was leaning over me, a worried expression creasing her brow and highlighting the way her eyebrows arched to make her look always curious. “What’s up?” she asked. I glanced away, wishing I hadn’t come and wondering why there was laughter hiding behind her eyes.
In the kitchen, while we drank tea, I told her that I’d come home from work and seen my Christmas decorations in her house and wanted them back – it all sounded so pitiful, vindictive, under her inquisitive gaze. “John, she said, don’t you remember the neighborhood yard sale? I helped your clear out your basement, and you said all the boxes at the back could be unpacked for the sale.”
Yes, I remembered now. Marta had offered to help, and I had indeed said that everything could go, except for the blue tricycle that had been mine as long as I could remember. But, I had forgotten that box of Christmas decorations. “I bought all the ornaments,” she continued, but you can have them back.” And then she started to laugh. “You are so strange, why didn’t you just ask?”
And, then I was laughing, too. We laughed till the tears rolled down her cheeks and till my stomach hurt. Suddenly, I felt like a kid again, up past my bedtime, out of the house without my parents having caught me on the stairs, on a grand adventure. Without thinking, I grabbed her hand, and before we knew it, we were outside – gloves forgotten, boots unlaced, and coats flapping. In the front lawn, at midnight, we built a snowman between our two houses, and Marta made snow angels while I hunted for twigs for the snowman’s arms and a stiff smile.
The next morning found the snow angels obliterated and the snowman only a wrinkle in a fresh drift. Perhaps he just as glad to be hidden, too shy to admit observing the kiss I’d surprised myself by bestowing on my neighbor before the cold drove us both back indoors.
Four months later, after surfacing from the recesses of what had been my mother’s wardrobe, a narrow band of gold and a speck of a diamond found its way on to Marta’s finger, and by the next Christmas the glass globes and icicles hung where they had so often before, but now Christmas cards directed to “Mr. and Mrs.” lined our mantle. Perhaps one day we’d have reason to pull the little blue tricycle out of the basement.