The Universal Teen

When I interviewed for this job back in January, they said, “This school teaches the children of Egypt’s future. Our students are the grandsons of presidents and the granddaughters of generals.”

Here they are!

I picked up right where I left off last year. Teaching teenagers is truly universal. My corny jokes translate perfectly and I have managed to adopt a solid new crop of amazing, funny, adorable, witty and wicked smart Juniors and Seniors. (You can spot the Seniors in their burgundy polos…and there’s nothing better to them than getting to shuck that school uniform for their last, best year.)

You’re looking at my Homeroom, my three Business Studies classes, and my one class of Freshmen history (see if you can spot the babies).

They all call me “Miss” and it’s a lot like hearing “Mom” 200,000 times a day

I am not exaggerating when I say I have four Nours, four Amirs, five Miriams, five Adhams, six Omars, and seven Youssefs. And…. are you ready for this?…. they all (girls and boys) have four names, some even have five. Birth name + (optional) middle name + father’s name + grandfather’s name + family name.

Take Ben’s names. If Ben were Egyptian, his name would be:

Benjamin (Fisher, optional) Robert William Quarles. His friends might call him Ben Robert but his school records might have Benjamin Fisher Robert or Benjamin William Quarles or Benjamin Robert Quarles or Benjamin Robert William, or he might decide all on his own that he wants to be called Ben William or Fish or Ben Robby and his poor teacher would have to create a flowchart on four different Excel spreadsheets to figure it all out.

It’s not acceptable here for the girls to do what American girls feel like they are expected to do, regarding hair and makeup and jewelry and such. The boys must be clean shaven every single day, but those curls are allowed to grow!…and they almost all – boys and girls – have thick, curly hair and dark, beautifullllllll eyes! Don’t let these pictures fool you…outside of school, they wear the same clothes and enjoy the same things American kids do. Trust me…I run into them at the mall on the weekends and I hardly recognize them sometimes.

They are so endearing in so many ways. The differences between my American kids and these Egyptian kids is often striking. But taken as a whole, their global similarities remain the number one reason I still do this job. I love them so much already!

Teaching International

One of the first things people asked me when they learned that I was moving abroad to teach school was “Why would you leave the comforts of the United States to teach in a Third World Country?”

The answer is simple: America doesn’t pay its teachers enough for what we do, and many foreign countries do.

Let me preface this entire post by making it clear that I teach in a prestigious private school, not a public school. (I heard a rumor that tuition is $1000 a month.) The school has 2,000 students, grades K-12.

Anyway…

This is a picture of my 6-period day, here. First period is always Homeroom and I have been blessed with Seniors. This is the class where I check dress code, l deliver and collect important paperwork, we do the morning informative stuff and I bond socially with and mentor a very tight-knit group of college-bound kids. This is also the class where, on most days, half the kids are gone somewhere to prepare for special events, like any SGA or NHS club would. They do not get to enjoy these kinds of extra-curriculars as actual classes.

The remaining 5 periods of the day are all academic. I teach 4 classes, but sometimes not 4 on the same day. During my off-periods, I might be the substitute-on-call for teachers who are out and if that ever happens, I am expected to execute the day’s plans for that class, or at a minimum, keep the period as productive as possible. There is no pool of substitute babysitters.

Once every two weeks during one of my off-periods, I meet with my Department Head and* my Principal, to discuss whatever needs discussing.

I also serve a 20-minute duty during the daily breaks, but I don’t have to do this more than three times a week, and sometimes it’s just 2.

Any time not spent subbing-in or on duty, I am allowed to spend planning, and it is a refreshingly adequate amount of time, as you can see by all the blank spots, especially since the school provides every teacher with a laptop to carry.

My classroom is not “mine” in the familiar sense because there is a Classical Arabic Class whose teachers rotate into other classrooms who have an off-period. When Arabic is being taught in my classroom, I spend my planning in the library usually, but sometimes I go to the teacher break room and spend time with the other teachers on break during that period. Even when this happens, we are all busy working. (Indeed, I prefer the library.)

The school sends a bus around to our houses each day, all over the city, to gather up all the teachers who don’t or can’t drive, so I am never, ever late to school, and I never stay too late either.

We all come in through the front entrance of the school each day and sign in with an electronic name badge. If this doesn’t happen, five different people will be looking for you within the hour. If you lose your magnetic name badge, you can get a replacement but it will cost you a $2.75 donation to charity.

During the two daily 20-minute breaks, there are a few “yards” I can visit, which sell smoothies and ala carte items. A smoothie costs me 80 cents.

Like I said, my classroom is not nested and homey like I am used to. We are not provided boxes full of office supplies and I haven’t seen a DVD player since I left America. There’s no TV and my classroom furniture leaves me aching for the luxuries of Room 54. There is no carpet in this entire country I don’t think, which makes for a loud day, especially with 9th graders. Did I mention I teach one class of 9th graders? It’s a first in my career. They’re adorable but, like I said, they are loud.

Anyway, the creature comforts are in short supply here, even at a prestigious school. When I come home for Christmas I will stock up on Whiteout, jumbo paperclips, Expo markers, good pens, and the notepads Kay and Stephanie always got for me and David Walther. I was living in office supplies heaven back home and totally took it for granted.

But we have 8 copy machines. Some are color.

We stay an hour late every Monday for staff meetings. We have two Planning Days every semester, a week off in October, 2 1/2 weeks at Christmas and lots of random holidays (4 this semester, including Thanksgiving. THANKSGIVING! In Egypt!)

I have four bosses, in a highly enforced chain of command. My Department Head handles 99% of my problems, and he was the one who first made it a priority to enable me to call home and talk to Ben for the first time in two weeks after I first arrived, after my emotional breakdown in his classroom one day. The higher ups make sure the DHs are caring for their underlings. He moved planets around for me, much like my old Department Heads would’ve done.

Then there is the Head of Seniors, so I answer to her in matters relevant to that area. She knows them all and knows their families, so she usually has answers to my bizarre questions about the kids in my class. She’s like a guidance counselor I guess you could say, but she also teaches classes, just like I do.

My American School Principal is just that, and she handles parents. And handles them well, I might add.

Fridays and Saturdays are my weekend, so I work every Sunday. Yes, it’s weird.

The Boss, the woman who owns the school, is a highly respected icon of education in International School circles. Quick story about her. She makes it a point to provide Christian events and mark Christian holidays at this Egyptian school in the middle of a mostly-Muslim nation, because a small percentage of the students are Christian and a large portion of the teachers are as well. An example: “The Christmas Story” will be performed by the Drama Program at Christmas…. Baby Jesus and Silent Night and the whole shebang. Here, in Egypt! One year, a parent complained about this and her reaction was to encourage them to find another school if they didn’t like the way she did things at hers. My kind of woman. And my kind of boss.

For every foreigner she employs, she also gives a job to 9 Egyptians. This place is crawling with worker bees.

A Christmas Story… in school. In a Muslim country. Get your head around that. I will be beside myself with emotion after five months of being here, two weeks before I come home to enjoy Christmas with my family, in my country, I cry just writing about it. Why is this so hard in America?

We are discouraged from talking about our salaries publicly, because there are sometimes huge discrepancies in this system, for various reasons. I make much more than I made back home in the US, so you can figure out what ‘much’ probably is. All tax free.

75% is sent back to our US bank account and 25% is given to us to keep, in Egyptian pounds, which is more than enough to live on here. My rent is $8000 LE (Egyptian pounds) and its roughly $450 USD. Cable is $6 USD, Wifi is $83 USD for 100GB, Power is $27 USD, and I give the bawab (Houseman) $250 LE ($14 USD) to pay for water, maintain the grounds, take out my garbage and to be a handyman. (He even waters my plants. I came home last week with indoor trees that were not indoor trees at all and he scolded me in Arabic like husbands all over the world do when we’ve wasted our money, so he went back later that night and bartered for me to get the right trees. Then he repotted them all and brought them inside for me. A man around the house. Ahhhh.)

The other 75% comes back home and into an account I opened with Ben, to make college expenses convenient. We are about to see how responsible he is with money, aren’t we?

I do not have health insurance. What is offered at the school is through BUPA, which is international health insurance. It is honored everywhere in the world except for the United States. How about that? The good news is that an X-ray is $10 and a teeth cleaning is less than that. As such, I will continue to go without coverage, but will have to sell my soul to BCBS once again when Ben starts college at FAU. (Botox is $75 over here, ladies)

I miss driving. I miss Publix. And I miss Walgreens. I miss PegLegs oysters and Paradise American cheeseburgers. I miss my parents and my kid, so much. But taking all the good with all the bad, when I get home from work everyday, I’m not beat down like a dog and I don’t hate my job or the people running my school district, which is a new and refreshing feeling. I hope this information gives you the answers to some of your questions about my decision to come here. I think I did the right thing, and I am very happy, all things considered.

Miss you all!

Permission Slips

PC: Instagram @orhargil

Washington, DC. 2009.

I was accompanying around thirty high school government students to see the nation’s capital. We were boarding the subway from Alexandria on our way back into the city, racing to catch the train just as it pulled away. Half of us made it on and half of us didn’t before the train’s doors slammed shut. I watched in a helpless stupor as the train bolted away from me with a dozen of my kids on it, most of whom had never been away from home before, had never been alone in a big city before, and who I was certain had never ridden a subway before.

Miami, 2011.

I flew with two teen girls to Miami to film our high school’s state championship baseball game. We arrived at Miami International Airport without incident until I tried to pick up our rental car and couldn’t find my driver’s license. The trip suddenly came to a screeching standstill, because as any traveler knows, you can’t do anything without identification.

A host of other problems presented themselves at that point, none of which was more pressing than the thought of having to put the girls back on an airplane alone for the return trip should I not be able to board with them. And how was I to even rent my own car to drive home? I actually thought we would have to take the Greyhound.

Washington, DC. 2014.

Our meeting place was to be at the Mall at 5:00 pm sharp and we had a few hours to kill while our driver got some sleep in advance of our 15 hour bus ride home. We’d already been in DC for several days and had seen all the sites and walked all the museums. With so much time to kill, it seemed petty and totally un-fun to make my high schoolers stay right up underneath me in what was by then a pretty familiar part of the city, so I let them go off by themselves for a few hours, with instructions to stay on the Mall.

Some of them didn’t stay.

At the meet-up later, we were missing four boys from our group and the subdued chatter amongst the kids clued me in to their whereabouts: a little jaunt all by themselves in a cab over to Chinatown, just because they thought it would be exciting.

A host of tragic scenarios played out in my teacher’s head. Muggings. Lost. Human traffickers. Did they have enough money? Were their cell phones dead? This was of particular concern because not a single one of them answered when I called. Hmmm.

Boston, 2015.

Shopping in Rockport with twenty teenage girls will absolutely take longer than expected. Late to dinner, we rushed them out and onto the bus with their packages, and I did a quick head count and gave the thumbs up to the bus driver to pull away. As we headed into traffic and back to the city, our group screamed from the back of the bus, “Stop! We left Autumn!”

Philadelphia, 2016.

We exited the restaurant rubbing our bellies and unbuttoning the top buttons on our pants. The bus ride from Lancaster County back to our hotel in the city felt like an eternity to the poor young man who was stricken with what is horrifically described in other countries as Montezuma’s Revenge, or Pharoah’s Revenge. It was quick in coming, it was vicious and it was unrelenting.

He was the sickest human being I’ve ever been around in my life. He was pained just holding his head up. He threw up every ten minutes. He hit the bus, the parking lot and the elevator going to his room.

There were originally three boys in their hotel room together, but one of them was removed by his mother for fear of infecting him with the mysterious wickedness we were facing. That left my sick patient and one other boy…my own son…who (by the way) gets sick if you look at him and even think about the word ‘sick.’ But I actually worried this ailing young man could die from his own vomit in the night and decided he couldn’t be left alone. Given the choice between me staying in his room with him all night (which presented a much bigger risk of losing my job) and sacrificing my own family to the vomit gods, I assigned my kid to take the graveyard shift to watch over his friend.

The next day we threw out his shoes, his clothes, the sheets on the bed, and most of their towels. It was indeed a long night for all of us.

The next day I phoned his mother and said, “You have two choices. He gets no food at all from me until we get home, or, I’m taking him to the hospital right now.” She said “Bring him home. He’s a big boy, he won’t die between now and then. Give him a hug and make him drink lots of fluids.”

My kind of mom. No panic, no hysteria, no emergency, no anger, no blame.

For the next thirty six hours, I resisted his pleas for a hamburger once he started to feel human again. My Soup Nazi admonitions of “No food for you!” were backed up by forced ingestions of apple cider vinegar. And not just for my patient, either. With my two other chaperones, we walked down the aisle of the tour bus and handed medicine cups full of vinegar and Vitamin C supplements to every single child under our care, a huge infraction in teacher world. We stood glaring at them as they held their noses and emptied their cups in disgust, begging and choking down what they said was the most disgusting thing they ever had to drink in their lives. Some complained that the vinegar was dissolving their intestines and they indeed thought they were dying. Some even pleaded for mercy. I never paused to acquire a parent’s permission for this treatment, and there was a moment, I knew, that the risk of taking that action could prove troublesome for me at the hands of an irate mama once I got home. It’s the society we now live in. Even knowing the risks, we let out a menacing laugh at their complaints and said, “Bottoms up, kiddos.”

I delivered the boy to his mother and not a second too soon, half starved, pale and weak. He lived, and no one else, except for my own sacrificial child, got sick from the Philadelphia Plague.

***

Why do I tell you these stories?

Because we should remember how amazing it is when teachers and coaches want to take our kids on adventures, how incredible it is for them all (most of the time) and how lucky parents and students are when there is an adult who wants to expose our children to something fascinating. In my fifteen years as a teacher, I’ve had the pleasure of showing hundreds of my students beautiful places they had never seen before, but (yes) places and situations that could be dangerous. Every field trip I ever took was amazing, but every trip had hiccups. It’s the price you pay when you travel. It’s the cost of learning to become worldly. It’s the lessons you learn by problem-solving your way through the snafus of going to places that are unfamiliar. The world is not a safe, predictable place, but I would argue that that’s the best thing about traveling it. What seems completely harmless could turn dangerous in the blink of an eye; it’s the Murphy’s Law of being a teacher on a field trip. In all of my above examples, terrible tragedy was always a possibility.

Every coach has stories like mine, and worse. Every teacher who has ever boarded a charter bus or an airplane with students has these same stories, and worse. Every school takes on these risks when they agree to host a trip away from home but the risk is worth it just to have the experience. We should thank the people in charge for wanting to do this for us and for our kids.

***

The boys in Thailand made it out of their cave safely and for that, I cannot tell you how many prayers I offered up. As the days ticked off, I played out all the possible scenarios and while I hoped for the happy ending we got, I feared we would probably not be that lucky.

All the while, I thought about their coach more than anyone else. He could be me. He is every teacher and every coach in the world who ever stepped outside the safety of a classroom. One harmless hike. What could go wrong?

He was forgotten among the list of heroes the news channels praised…among the doctors, the divers, the inventors, and the local farmers, his name was never there. I never saw his picture as they discussed the people who were saving the lives of those boys, and I actually feared the backlash he might face for his role in putting them in the cave in the first place. I was right, the criticism came. I am here to defend him.

Ekapol Chantawong is the greatest hero of them all. He goes by “Ake,” their coach and their mentor, and it was Ake who got them through those first two weeks of being totally alone in complete darkness before the help ever even arrived. It was Ake who said the words those boys needed to hear, reassurances to hang on to until the rescuers found them. It was that 25-year old orphan and former monk, still just a kid himself, who sacrificed his own food and comfort for the children he was charged with protecting. Their coach is the real hero, the one who likely woke up that fateful morning and simply wanted to show a few kids he coached the spectacular beauty and adventurousness of a nearby cave. That is something only a teacher or a coach can possibly understand. I have known the excitement that kind of opportunity brings, in spite of the dangers that usually lurk. A harmless hike that turned into a nightmare no one could have predicted, and my prayers now are that those moms and dads will hug his neck and say Thank you, Bless you, We are grateful for you, and let that be what heals that young man’s heart. He blames himself enough already.

My students on the subway hopped off at the next stop and waited for me as they had been instructed to do in the event that we were ever separated. They trusted me, and listened to me, and followed my instructions, and we found each other again.

In Miami, the girls and I enjoyed an unplanned night in a South Beach hotel while I figured out how to get us home, and they would tell you today that our surprise night at the Shore Club was the best part of the whole trip. Their moms shared with me later that they were more worried about those $20 cocktails by the pool than having their children fly home in an airplane alone, and I assured them that satiating them with virgin daquiris was the only thing I did have control over that weekend.

My boys who went to Chinatown alone were properly scolded for disobeying me, but I didn’t come down too hard on them. I probably would’ve done the same thing. Their adventurous spirit was proof that they had what it takes to be true scholars of the Earth, which is why I wanted them to go on trips with me in the first place.

We stopped and Autumn jumped back on the bus, winded and relieved. I apologized and made a note to myself to count slower in the future, but relaxed in the realization that had we actually left her behind, we had contingency plans and plotted maneuvers in place that would have reunited us soon enough. I would have gone to the ends of the earth to get her back and make sure she was safe, any teacher or any coach would attest to that. Our group made many jokes and had a great many laughs thereafter about our memories of her chasing the bus down. After all, it kept things exciting and now makes a great story.

And my sick young man was handed right back over to his mother, starved and weak, but alive with the promise never again to get on an airplane or eat fried chicken in an Amish-themed restaurant. The truth is, it likely wasn’t even related to anything he ate, and soon enough he got right back on his travel horse and rode again.

The gift in that horrible tragedy of a trip, and in all those trips, was having parents who never freaked out on me, who never blamed anyone (especially me) for what was undoubtedly just a series of unfortunate events, a parent who never tried to have me punished or reprimanded for any actions I took with their children, actions both with and without permission slips, and parents who never blinked at the opportunity to send their kids right back out into the world, come what may. They trusted me and they trusted in my relationships with their children. A teacher or a coach who shares those experiences with your kids also loves them, and would never intentionally do anything to put them in harm’s way.

So to the small group of critics around the world, or the parents right here at home in America, who have anything nasty or punitive to say about Ake, the selfless coach of the Wild Boars soccer team, about the who, the what, or the why of how those boys came to be stuck in that cave, let me urge you to check yourself first. Take a minute to re-evaluate what’s most important in life.

It’s experiences. Experiences that sometimes come without permission slips.

And relationships.

Everything else that might happen is just hiccups.

Rock the Casbah! How a Smalltown Girl Became an American Expat in Egypt at Almost Fifty!

I met a friend at the bazaar in Casablanca, in 1996!

When I was 25 years old and finally graduating from college, my dad took me on a tour of Spain, Portugal and Morocco as a gift. Those were the kinds of gifts I usually got…no cars or laptops for me, and no regrets either. (Thanks Dad!) Still, I was young, so I didn’t even know what I didn’t know about what I was seeing at those places. I’ve always wanted a do-over of that trip, especially once I went on to become a history teacher of all things. Read more

A Manuscript for YOU and YOU and YOU!

It is with GREAT excitement that I am able to give each one of my students in all of my American history classes their very own printed manuscript of the new book, Witness to the American Century (formerly titled “Where Do We Get Such Men?” and also formerly titled “Accidental Odyssey”). They are totally devouring it, and already they want to meet Pops, they want to see the planes at the Pensacola NAS Museum, they want to learn the prisoner tap code (we’re doing that on Monday) and they want to know more about why I hate Communism so much. (Oh…and do I plan to tell them!) It is such an invigorating way to teach the history I love so much.

What more in the world could I ask for?  

The Box

One rather heavy, somewhat disorganized and cumbersome-to-transport cardboard box, a box roughly the size of a mini refrigerator, has been emptied, re-organized and given a whole new life recently. Its contents are best described as treasures of zero monetary value, of little consequence to any milestones in the lives of its contributors, and of somewhat trivial and miniscule philosophy. Still, they were born of a life dedicated to cultivating knowledge in young people. My life as I’ve known it as a public school teacher is entombed inside that box. Read more

Jellies

PC: Instagram @luakanishi

I heard his tell-tale screeches from all the way down the beach. A young boy, around eight by my best guess, clearly thought he was going to die of pain. I stayed out of the pandemonium at first, trying not to be the (nosy) kind of person who tells someone else how to do their job, but his parents were turning themselves around in circles, picking up and dropping towels, dumping water bottles onto his skinny, paralyzed little limbs and making a wrinkled, sandy mess of their perfect pallets near the water’s edge.

They were jellyfish virgins, it was clear. Read more

A Guest Post: A Letter to My High School Self

The following letter is republished with permission from its original author.

Dear High School Me,

When I look back at you, I see a girl who felt trapped in high school. You were the popular, pretty cheerleader, but you were also known as the Party Girl. People knew you were the one who liked to have a little too much fun. You didn’t know your limits, and you did not know your worth. In the moment, you didn’t always know what you were supposed to do. However, the lessons you learned are ones you can bring to use now that you are older. Read more

American For Sale

Emilio after his naturalization was final. PC: Andrew Payne

As my time teaching and living with teenagers draws closer to an end, I am finding it hard to keep my excitement contained. Teenagers are exhausting in their very own unique way, anyone who knows them would attest to this. So I remind myself constantly that soon this stage in my life will be over and I will be free of these highly-charged, 100-mph, full-bore years forever and be on to something less…less…everything. Read more

The Fighter

PC: Instagram @tolufiz

I noticed two things right away: first, the bad mood, then the bruises.

I can spot the kid who smokes weed on the internet for attention, the one who revels in his shameless exhibition of wasted potential. I can point out to you the misfit who eats lunch facing the wall everyday. His days are long and lonely, I bet. I know all about the promiscuous ones, the boys and the girls, who are both oversexed and way under-supervised. Their parents would never believe the number of nudes their child has sent and received over Snapchat. I watch the rich kids with the expensive cars unintentionally look down their noses at the others around them. They don’t mean to be snobs but they have real goals and they know they’re going places. And I know who the Fighters are. The Fighters are my favorite. They’re the ones who always look like they had a really long night. They’re kind of special but no one thinks about them much. They keep a low profile. Read more