Friday, March 26, 2010

Teacher Potato

I like to find myself in odd situations. It means I'll be different afterwards.

Wednesday night found me in a small white classroom crowded with long narrow tables and metal chairs. I sat quietly in the back while Ray, one of the foreign teachers in this after-school program, taught an English lesson in his crisp, rhotic Guyanese accent. Only two students had shown up for the five o'clock class, and it was already quarter past. Ray led Jimmy and Benny in a children's song, "Frogs Around the Pond," which was rather juvenile for these boys of eleven or twelve, but they repeated the words and sang along when asked. As the lesson went on, another boy, Arthur, came in. Then came a couple of girls who were quiet and compliant, and whose names therefore were never said very loud.

After going through the vocabulary of the song -- "hiking, biking, wishing, fishing" -- Ray turned the class over to me. I walked to the front of the narrow room, set my bag of supplies on the floor and my notebook on the front table, and greeted the children. "It's been a long time," I said. "Do you remember my name?" "Teacher Potato!" the older boys yelled out, and I gave them a grin. Teacher Potato indeed.

This class might be taught by foreigners but it is clearly under the guidance of a thin, large-eyed Taiwanese woman named Christina. She attends a weekly English club I lead, slipping in silently about halfway through my lessons, careful not to interrupt the discussion. About this time last year she asked if I would teach a lesson on the story of Easter to her buxiban students. Native English speakers from around the globe come to Taiwan to teach in these cram schools, yet I had never set foot in one; so out of curiosity -- as well as a desire to encourage my quiet friend -- I agreed to come. Christina asked me to focus on the religious side of the holiday, whose more commercial aspects were appearing in the markets here. The students' English comprehension levels were all over the map, as were their ages, interests, and enthusiasm. I had no idea how I was going to reach across these gaps. I ended up doing a lesson on symbols (this was a new word to them), starting with symbols of spring -- flowers, bunnies, eggs and lambs, all signs of new life -- and juxtaposing them with the cross, not an obvious sign of new life until you hear the whole story. They followed the lesson well, and the older ones were comfortable enough to tease me about my drawings: my Easter egg had come out a bit misshapen, ergo my new nickname.

I have returned to the class several times over the past year to teach lessons on summertime, Thanksgiving, and two cooking classes at Christmas (rice pudding and scones). What the students now know is that I will come with props, I will teach them strange new words, and I will make them do something. When Christina asked me to again teach an Easter lesson, I agreed. After some thought and a very timely suggestion from a friend, I came up with a craft that combined elements of the Easter story. Strands of hot glue trailed across the tables as we attached leafy fronds, coins, twine, thorns, nails and gauze to their papers. It was messy and out of their comfort zone and glorious. As we talked about the women coming to the empty tomb on Easter morning, coming to finish the burial preparations that had been cut short by sundown on Good Friday, I gave them cotton balls spritzed with perfume to symbolize the heavily scented materials they would've carried. The boys coughed and waved away the heady lavender that wafted their way, but the impression was made, the story taking shape in a new way in their minds.

Someone asked me recently if I am in Taiwan as a missionary. Technically yes, as we are one of the staff families at a missionary school. But I don't wear that label easily. I'm not here to win converts. I don't consider myself a missionary in the sense that I have a job to do and numbers of souls to tally. I know many missionaries, actually, and that doesn't describe them, either. But I do value my faith and know that if I were somewhere mundane, somewhere more ostensibly Christian, I would say less about this rather vital subject than I do here. People here are interested. Not easily offended, not easily swayed, but interested. So when I am asked, I share. It grows me as much as it might grow those who hear me speak, and it is only the former that I am in position to measure. As we prepare to return to America I wonder what will grow me there, what odd situations will present themselves, and how I will respond. I find that my faith, like the Easter craft, gets messier the deeper I try to delve into it, the more I try to apply it. I don't know what God has in mind for Jimmy and Benny and the rest, but I know that He made them and loves them. I don't know what God has in mind for me, but the story is the same.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Peaks and valleys

All sorts of titles are coming to mind for this post, many of them film references. Hm. Anyway, I had said in my last post that I had something in the works, and now that all systems are go I'll fill you in. On New Year's Eve, at Cole's behest, I made a resolution -- which makes obsolete my circa-1999 vow to never make another New Year's resolution -- to climb a mountain this year. For years I've wanted to scale one of Taiwan's peaks, so now that our move is looming I've been looking for a way to make good on my recent promise to Cole and the long-standing one to myself.

Thanks to Blue Skies Adventures I'll be hiking Hohuanshan (insert one of many alternate spellings here:_____) the weekend of April 3rd and 4th. At first I thought the timing was terrible. It's Easter! How can I take a solo trip that weekend? But Cole insisted that I should go, Tim is willing to manage the holiday details, and I am now free to watch the sun rise on Easter morning from a height of 34oo meters plus change. It promises to be amazing.

Hohuanshan comprises eight peaks, and on this trip five will be up for grabs. Three are quite mild hikes, two others are a bit more challenging. I'll see how it goes once I'm there. At this point my goal is to do four, but I'm saying that with very little information on the conditions. My own condition is another factor. Must get out the boots and pack and start breaking them -- and me -- in.

If you're on island and want to come along, contact Mark at Blue Skies. And if you want to partake with me in Eucharist Under Special Circumstances on Easter morning, let me know; I'll bring more wine.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Home and Away

Time for an update, or rather, well past time for an update. It's been a crazy year, and not necessarily in a good way -- lots of changes ahead, but as Cat Power would have us believe, "What comes is better than what came before." (Although I hear she needs to lay off the sauce.)

Okay, musical ramblings aside, here's the scoop: We'll be moving to Phoenix this June. Both my parents and Tim's have retired to Arizona, so this is a good place for us to land. The hardest part of living overseas, for me, is not having the kids grow up close to their grandparents. So this is a good thing. [Hey, as I was just writing that "What Comes Is Better" started playing. Spooky.]

Other news... is scarce. At the moment things like renewing passports, packing up the house, getting tickets home, house hunting from 8,000 miles away, and looking for work seem to be more than filling up my time. Well, to be honest, thinking about those things is filling up my time. I'm making slow progress. We have three months yet; plenty of time for panicking later. Not sure how often I will get back to this, but I will try to post occasional updates and maybe some pictures of any farewell jaunts we take. Kenting is certainly on the list of weekend trips, and I am planning a little expedition to make good on a New Year's promise. News at 11:00.