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It’s been a while since I’ve been able to get on my own computer for the length of time required to write a blog post. There’s Ilsa, who’s taking AP US History (known as APUSH) this year, and whose teacher requires that each chapter in the textbook be outlined in great detail. A typical outline is 7-1o single-spaced pages. They do one of these a week, so evenings round here are now marked by the sound of whining. “I have SOOO much homework! I have to do two red sections a night every night and I only did one last night so can you do dishes for me?” On top of this there’s Elliot. Elliot is doing the full IB diploma which means all his classes are considered college level. (I’ll leave you to work out what this says about our colleges) Additionally, he needs to write an “extended essay” of 4000 words by December, and the outline for that is due on Monday, which means he has to get going on his research. Not surprisingly, this means he needs the computer every night for homework, of which he has a lot. On top of that, there is the whole college application process, which is pretty much kicking our butts. I intend to give that topic its own post. We’ll see.

So I haven’t been on my computer much lately. But there has been ever so much going on.

1. Classic. Classy. Classical. Class.

I am once again offering a free ESL class to Iraqi refugees, mostly female ones. I wasn’t going to do it this year, because all my students from last year have either moved or moved on. But suddenly, towards the end of August, throngs of people asked me about it. I totted it all up on my fingers and realized if everyone came, I’d have 12 in the beginner’s class and 4 or 5 in the pre-intermediate class.

(that was a bit of foreshadowing there, the whole “if everyone came.” Wanted to point that out to you. This blog is both the classic AND the cliff’s notes, all in one. You’re welcome)

Studies have shown that the 2 things most likely to keep immigrants from learning their host country’s language are lack of transportation and lack of childcare. I provide both. This means whining at people I barely know, friends of friends, persuading them to help me drive, to hang out with other people’s children, to do all this on their own dime, as I don’t exactly have a budget for this. Last year I had both levels at the same time, which meant that the beginner’s class was taught by two different people. This was less than ideal. I realized that for this to work at all, I needed to do both classes myself. I decided to do them back-to-back, which meant I’d need 4 volunteer drivers for each day.

Day One. I had 2 drivers (neither of whom I’d met in person) and a 3rd woman to do childcare (again I hadn’t met her, only spoken to her on the phone). The books hadn’t come yet, because I had stupidly clicked “free super saver shipping” which of course means you don’t get your stuff for a month. I had confirmed with all the potential students OR an English-speaking family member or neighbour. We were set!

That first class, the one where I had 12 potential students? By 9:00 a.m., only one person was there. My two drivers were also there. One hadn’t been able to find the place. (She’s proven to be delightful, but the first impression was a bit iffy) The other had knocked on the right door and there had been no answer so she had foolishly assumed it was the wrong door. Sigh. I went myself, to pick up 6 people (4 adults and 2 kids), only to return with one of the adults. He explained his wife and kids were sleeping. The other couple said they weren’t ready and promised to come the next day.

Two students. And for the next class, only one. We were off to a terrific start!

And so I wondered. Why bother? It’s true I enjoy teaching, but I could just do that at a school downtown and get paid and not have to fuss with volunteers and choosing and ordering books, etc. I went home very discouraged.

And now? 3 weeks on? The first class has never realized its 12-student potential but we have settled down to a comfortable 5 or so regular students, with the occasional one or two more. The second class had only one student all last week (I took her for coffee a couple of times!) but one other student had a nasty bout of flu, and another will start on Monday. Additionally, another student had all her life plans fall apart. She only arrived this summer, and her family was supposed to join her but instead ended up in another town, where she will now move. In offering services to refugees and immigrants, it’s important to remember how much their own lives are in flux right now. Ones that have been here a year or two are much more likely to show up regularly because things have usually calmed down.

2. Birthdays

For years and years now, I have wanted a smart phone. And now I have one! Yes, if you’re willing to be a few steps behind the cool people, you too can afford technology. I got an iPhone 4 for free, and the data plan isn’t bad if you’re willing to share 1 gb between 2 people. That sounds small but seriously, people, I can go on the internet in my car now. We are so spoiled!

You may remember that my camera and iTouch got stolen last summer. This sort of replaces both. And while it’s fun playing with Hipstamatic (I’m hip! at last!) and all, and it’s fun feeling all cool holding up your phone in the general direction of photogenic things, I do have to say that overall the camera reminds me of my very first camera–a Kodak Instamatic when I was 11. Remember those? (Don’t bother to say if you don’t. Yes I did just have another birthday, although I no longer bother to add every single year.) This is because there isn’t really a lens, just a flat surface. I’m learning to work with it. Now I just need to figure out how to get photos from my camera to my computer. What a nice problem to have!

Also I put my phone in French, thinking it would be good practice. What I didn’t realize is that means Autocorrect is in French too. So if you ever get a completely illogical text from me, that’s why. It’s like my version of drunk texting!

3. College Essays

Nope! This one gets it own post. I’m going to go on the internet on my phone and add photos like that. See if it works!

Also here is a picture of a knobbly pumpkin for you. I ended up having to email it to myself and then resize it in the free pseudo-photoshop I have. I don’t see this working. Also, my Hipstamatic is having issues.

PS Gosh this is long. Did you read the whole thing? Wasn’t it a bit boring? Did I mention I’m really tired?

All summer I planned to write my thoughts after our first full year in the American system. All summer I didn’t do so. And now they’ve already been back for nearly two weeks, and we’ve dealt with our second American-style rentree.

All sorts of things are happening. The twins signed up for Drama Club and stayed late every single day last week, which sort of got old quite quickly. When you pull up to pick them up, they will never be in the first or even second group of kids to come out. No, they are always, always last ones out, calling back to their friends cheerfully at the top of their lungs. The Drama Club is finished and try-outs will be soon. Ilsa wants to sing and dance, but a small part—she wants to design sets and costumes too. Abel refuses to be in a musical but would like to be in a play. They are both extremely dramatic, so I think this is a very good fit for them.

Abel has also decided to run for freshman class president. I sort of hope he doesn’t win, as he will be very very busy. I like my kids just the right amount of busy, which mostly involves me not having to drive them anywhere. Right now, the twins and Donn are doing his posters. So far we have “Ready Willing and Abel!” for one poster, and another with a pic of him in a beret against a red background with the saying “Join the Revolution.” They are very cool posters. Donn and I have come up with all sorts of other ideas (Him crying as a baby: “This man knows how you feel.” Him on a camel: “PETF—People for the Ethical Treatment of Freshman.”) that have been rejected by the twins as Not Cool for freshman.

I have been subbing every single day at an ESL center downtown. In between I have had house guests and henna parties. I am very very tired, but my friend Michelle is coming tomorrow so I need to clean up so that I can pretend I keep the place like this all the time. I am looking forward to seeing her very much. Last time I saw her was when she visited us 3 years ago and we took her hiking down the Columbia River Gorge. To commemorate how often she’s shown up on my blog (here, for example), I am planning to live blog her visit and post almost every day! No really. We’ll see how I do.

And what do I think of the American school system? Perhaps some day I will tell you, if I ever get around to it.

On Thursday, I went to Back-to-School night for the twins. It was hard to find parking within 4 blocks in all directions of the junior high. Hundreds of parents shuffled their way through hallways and crammed into desks and around tables to hear their children’s teachers present the year to them. “This isn’t about your individual child,” the note home had warned. Instead, we went in groups to hear the teachers explain how This is the Year that would get Our Children Ready for High School!! We were also told that they always have home work, but I didn’t believe them because they just don’t always have homework.

I was inevitably reminded of back-to-school nights in Mauritania and Morocco, although this was bigger and less intimidating, since I understood every word. Donn and I split the load, as usual; he went to Abel’s teachers and I went to Ilsa’s; we saw each other in the gym for electives and in the cafeteria for a word from the principal (who is a giant, but genial).

Posters in the room trumpeted the importance of diversity, acceptance, and respect. Pictures of ice-cream cones illustrated the concept of “Proficient,” “Novice,” “Working towards Proficiency,” etc. We’ve had numerous notes home explaining that this is the new grading system. The “Novice” poster showed an enormous cone with one scoop—I couldn’t see that as an incentive to try for Proficiency, which had 8 scoops, syrup, and chocolate sprinkles and was in no way edible without making a huge mess. But I was beginning to suspect my attitude by that point. I just wasn’t feeling the group enthusiasm. In fact, I was downright grumpy, mixed in with a little smug.

All the teachers went on and on about what a Great Enormous Privilege and Honor it was that we were entrusting them with our precious darlings for hours on end every day. And I had another mental eye roll. Because, come on. I know many teachers love what they do (all they need are minds to mould!) and all that, and I know the pay is crummy and yet they persevere and spend their own money on Kleenex and extra pencils, but come on. It’s their JOB and they do it to pay the bills. I love teaching ESL and I have loved most of my students, although I did have a really hard time with the young Mauritanian man who would stick his pen up his nose during class. But I didn’t view it as a Great Honor. I suppose you have to tell yourself something to make yourself enter a junior high school every morning.

The math teacher explained that each test can be retaken once with no penalties at any point between now and the end of the year. “That way, the child can be sure that he or she really has learned the concepts,” she explained.

The social studies teacher explained that basically, you can’t read enough. I actually rolled my eyes at that and I think she saw me. This is ironic because I am a voracious reader, an omnivorous reader, someone who always has a book tucked in her purse or in the car door, just in case. For a long time, I bought into the myth that you can never read too much. I felt very virtuous. I not only read to my children—I modeled reading to them. No matter my other failings, I was doing that right. Then I realized that, uh, yes you can read too much, as I glanced round at my neglected house and family. And Ilsa can read too much—she who packs 16 books for a 3-day weekend, who has at least 2 books on her at all times in case she finishes one, who embarrasses her brothers when it takes 4 of us to get her library books out to the car. So we don’t have to worry about her reading enough, is what I’m saying.

I chatted with this teacher later. She knew my daughter right off. “She reads in class,” she told me. “What?” I gasped. “Oh it’s okay!” She patted my arm. “I told her as long as she can pay attention to what’s going on, she can read.”

Ironically, this woman is not Ilsa’s favorite teacher. Ilsa feels her class is undisciplined.

I walked down the hall towards the gym, where I would meet the choir and art and P.E. teachers, and I ran into some friends of mine, a couple who also have an 8th-grade daughter. We chatted a bit about the last meeting. I commented on how amazing it is that they can retake tests. “Wish I could have done that!” I joked.

“Isn’t it great?”  enthused the dad (inner eye roll from me). “After all,” he went on, “the point is that they learn the concepts, not the grade. This way, they really get it.”

Oh yeah. Guess that is the point.

So I had to change my grumpy attitude and stop rolling my eyes. And, considering that the Nomad family as a whole is extremely math-challenged (except for Donn, who can add things in his head), I have a suspicion we might be availing ourselves of this do-over option several times this year.

And, after the rigor and stress of the French system, I think that at least one of my children is relaxing and expanding in the warm-bath atmosphere of the American school.

Because it’s not about the grade! It’s about the giant ice cream cones. And I can live with that.

School zones stress me out. I am not sure of how to behave when dropping off my children. I’m used to more of a free-for-all, of cars jostling one another over mere inches of space, of people turning off their engines and leaving their cars in the middle of the street while behind them, everyone else leans on their horns in frustration. In this environment, I knew that there was basically no possibility I would stress out those around me by my risk-taking. I knew I was the uptight one. But this orderly, patient, and above all quiet procession of mini vans and SUVs through a wide loop that passes in front of the school doors unnerves me. It moves slowly, so I avoid it and pull to the side of the street to drop off the twins. A woman parked behind me shoots me a glance, a hint of shock and wonder in it, and I wonder what I’m doing wrong. I run through possibilities in my mind and come up blank.

I know I look normal to those around me. A mother, unshowered and in yoga pants (Elliot has to be there by 7:30; I’m more put together when I take the twins by 9), driving a mini van that you can’t tell is borrowed. No one gives me a second look. If I were to open my window and ask a question of the man in the bright yellow reflective vest, who is gesturing impatiently at me to keep moving while I carefully obey the stop sign, he wouldn’t blink twice. I look American. I sound American.

When I go into the schools and talk to the people in the office, I feel the same way. Lost, adrift at sea, in the fog. I tell them we’re new, but they don’t know how new.

I saw a sign in the window of a trendy upscale shop the other day: Do something that scares you every day. I thought it was one of the stupidest bits of advice I’d ever seen, come in with by someone in a cozy office who probably drives a new car with new tires and has insurance for every possible outcome. Things scare you for a good reason probably, unless you’re unusually timid. And the reason these school zones stress me out is because there are a ton of laws associated with them, and also I don’t want to be known at the school as Crazy Driver Woman. Or, this being Oregon, probably something less family friendly but expressing the same idea. I’m fine with going 20 (20ish) when the yellow lights are flashing and not passing school busses when stopped, but I don’t know if I can just pull up into the bus zone to drop off my kids, briefly, me not leaving the car or turning off my engine, or if I’m supposed to wait behind the car with the slower kids hunting for dropped papers even though Elliot is already inside the school, and I would pass on the non-kid side.

Maybe I’m scared of their looks. Maybe I shouldn’t be. But I just want to fit in. I’m tired of feeling overwhelmed in Target. (I mean, who feels overwhelmed in Target?) I’m tired of feeling so strange and out of place when I look so right.

Once we move into our house, they’re going to take the bus.

***

Yesterday a friend dropped by unexpectedly and took me out for lunch. We discussed in the car where we were going–sandwiches, Mexican, Indian buffet, which? We chose Thai food—spring rolls, panang curry. Afterwards we had iced coffees at Starbucks and wandered round a store when they had a plethora of fabric shower curtains on sale. If I could remember what my new bathrooms look like (we looked at a lot of houses in a few days), I would have bought one. I hunted all over Rabat—I believe I visited every single store there that sold shower curtains, before finally finding one in plain white. The shop keepers obviously thought I was fussy because I categorically refused even a hint of neon pink and green flowers, ducks, or navy blue and gold stripes. Fabric curtains weren’t even an option, and I bought the store model, literally the only plain white one in the city.

Sometimes choice is nice.

What do you do that scares you? Drive without insurance? Forget to pay your bills, just this month only? Walk into your kids’ school wearing the completely-inappropriate Marie Antoinette costume I saw advertised for Halloween? Or do you think the shop was talking about buying a pair of red boots instead of black? And are red boots even scary? Discuss in comments.

Ilsa has done the following class work in the 4 first days of school: written a paper on herself for English class, done a collage on herself for Social Studies, written 3 things about herself on an index card for “extension” class. (which is sort of like Study Hall, only more formal) Abel has brought home syllabus after syllabus for me to sign. “Congratulations!” they say at the top. “You made it to 8th Grade!” They all let us know that no hate speech of any kind, no sexual harassment, will be tolerated. None of them tell us what books the children will be reading, or what topics they will be studying.

Elliot shows me something for his Spanish class. It lists the books he will need (provided by the school—in Morocco and Mauritania, we had to buy our own, so this is nice!), suggests a few things, like a dictionary, and says to always bring your P.R.I.D.E. to class! I forget what the letters stand for…good things, like Respect and Individualism—no wait Integrity!—and Excellence and stuff like that. Don’t forget! It says.

These are some scenarios from their past life:

  • When Ilsa was in first grade, her teacher told the class they had to write their names on all their papers. Ilsa forgot one day. It was obvious that the paper was hers, since it was the only one without a name, but the teacher tore it up in front of the class and dropped it in the trash. Ilsa never forgot to write her name after that. (Aside: she was an excellent teacher and adored Ilsa.)
  • Last year, Ilsa had a teacher that told them, “You’re the worst class in the school! I won’t tell people I teach you because you embarrass me!” Ilsa just rolled her eyes. “That teacher is so mean!” she told me.
  • Abel had to do a dictation. He got about 70-80% of it right. But the teacher took a full mark (out of 20; French schools grade over 20) for every little accent mark, and gave him a 0. Others have told me it’s not uncommon to get a test grade of 3 or 4 over 20, even if you participate in class every day and are on time and have a good attitude.

In spite of these supposedly soul-shattering moments, my children do not, as of yet, suffer from low self esteem. They’re normal, healthy. They will chatter (nonstop!) at you if you give them half a chance, tell you about their new schools, or which games they like or books they’ve read. Ilsa entered a writing contest and expected to win, although she didn’t. She’s not crushed though. We talked about it, and she knew it was always a strong possibility. It’s true they’ve gotten plenty of positive affirmation, a lot of it from their teachers, but I don’t think I’ve prepared them for the barrage they’re getting now.

I can’t help but worry a little. One thing I know: the more you look at yourself, the worse you will feel about yourself. I learned as a teen that staring at myself in a mirror, looking for flaws to fix, only plunged me into depression. I still always leave hair salons subdued from having to stare at myself in a mirror for half an hour. Is my nose really that big? Shouldn’t I be done with zits by now? And low self-esteem is really just a flip side of high self-esteem—either way you think about yourself an inordinate amount of time. Either way you’re not a lot of fun to be with.

I saw a cartoon in the New Yorker a couple of years ago. A child runs into a house carrying an enormous trophy, bigger than himself. “We lost!” he announces.

I suppose I’m getting to the age where it’s normal to worry about the next generation. I’m sure they’ll all be fine, all these little narcissists. I’m sure they won’t be narcissists, and that I’m just cranky and crochety and still in reverse culture shock. But I can’t help wondering if we haven’t swung the pendulum too far, and if all this emphasis on feeling good about yourself might end up having the opposite effect.

The house is quiet and smells of cleaning agents. In the background, machines hum busily—washing machine, dryer, dishwasher. All doing for me what I no longer need to do for myself, although just between you and me I find rinsing dishes and loading and unloading a dishwasher to be just as much work as simply plunging my hands in some warm sudsy water and washing them myself.

Outside are leaves, still green and shapely but tinged with yellow at their edges, outlined against a grey sky. Already it is fall and the air is cold. We’ve had days of rain, and I’ve cursed my glittery sandals, so lovely and summery in their season, so inadequate against a suddenly-formed puddle. My boots are in the container, a giant tin box still riding the waves somewhere in the Atlantic. ON the Atlantic, I mean. I have caught a truly impressive cold, and have managed to lose most of my voice, and catch sharp daggers in my throat with every swallow.

The kids are in school. It took some time. First we realized we couldn’t get that house I mentioned, and I had to give up my dream of certain specific schools and settle for other specific schools, although still in the same generally-excellent school district. But there are strict neighbourhood zones and we couldn’t find a house to match nor prove that we were living where we needed to be.

Their new schools are fine. Elliot had to start a day late because he had to see an academic counselor before he could get his schedule. He has college level history, which does not make sense to me since he is a sophomore. He is peer-tutoring a beginning French class, and tells me with amusement how his classmates pronounce “et toi” as it is spelled in English.

He tells me how the principal told them, in a class assembly, that as sophomores, they’re like middle children, overlooked, neither the “new baby” freshmen or the attention-garnering seniors. “But he’s going to change this—so everyone can feel successful!” Elliot reports. I roll my eyes. So American!

The twins come home their first day excited, chattering. Ilsa has 2 new friends. Abel loves his homeroom teacher. She is so different from a French teacher, he tells me. If you forget a pen or pencil, you can either buy one off her special supply, or you can borrow one—you leave a shoe at the front of the classroom so you remember to return it. We all laugh about this, as French teachers scold you pretty hard if you show up without any writing utensils. In fact, all 3 expressed varying degrees of shock at how nice and friendly the American teachers were. (This is not to put down French teachers. I think their goal in a classroom is to educate children, and they feel being nice and friendly distracts from this) Ilsa was unimpressed with one of her teachers, and said she needed to yell at her classroom to restore order. Elliot said, “I was hoping the French teacher would yell. That would have relaxed me, made me feel at home.” He added, “She’s English, you know, not French after all.”

Their list of school supplies is much smaller and less specific. No fountain pens are needed, although Ilsa takes an old one in her trousse (pencil case). Everyone is excited to have a locker.

We’ve found a different house. I believe most people would feel this house to be better than the other—it’s bigger, newer, and cheaper. We’re excited about it, but both Donn and I love older houses, with hardwood floors and funky bits of personality that are theirs alone. This one doesn’t really have much personality. It’s a blank slate, and we’ll add our own to it soon enough I’m sure. Which do you prefer?

I search the online French-English dictionary for the word “bullying.” Harcélement, it tells me. A wikipedia article calls it “le bullying” and states that France is “extremely behind” in dealing with this issue, with a policy of “closing their eyes.” This is not reassuring.

I’m preparing for a meeting with the CPE of the kids’ school. I think he’s the equivalent of a vice-principal. (Meredith, would you agree?) He’s a really nice man, with friendly brown eyes, often chewing gum. I got to know him when I did the English Club at the school last fall. He told me how much he admires my children, and how good their French is “for anglo-saxons,” which amuses me no end. (Talk about damning with faint praise! He means it as a compliment though)

This meeting will not be so chatty, I worry. It’s because Abel is getting picked on at school. Apparently it’s been going on all year but we’re just finding out the extent of it. We knew there were some issues, but it came to a head this week when Elliot got involved. Kids were teasing Abel, picking on him, snatching his recorder and playing keep-away with it while he tried in vain to get it back. Elliot saw what was happening and sauntered over with some of his friends, snatched the flute back, and basically pulled rank…older/bigger/alpha male! Yeah. But Elliot can’t be Abel’s watch dog. The teachers, when appealed to after kids steal Abel’s fountain pen, ruler, pencil sharpener, have proven to be completely useless. Feet of clay all. So, on Elliot’s advice, I appeal to Caesar, as it were.

On Wednesday morning, I trudge off to the meeting. It goes well. The CPE is as nice as ever. He is disturbed. I tell him, “I realize some of it is Moroccan culture (the pushing, hitting, calling names—all of this happens in the teen class I teach, regardless of my best efforts to stop it). But it’s still not good for Abel. I worry that if it’s not stopped, it will escalate, and regardless, it will affect his self esteem.”

The CPE agrees. He asks for names, promises to help. That wikipedia article was wrong—this seems exactly what anyone anywhere would do. He promises to talk to Abel’s homeroom teacher and the kids involved; he says that if there are any further incidents we must come straight to him, no appointment necessary.

I know that he follows through, because two days later a kid in Elliot’s class tells him that he overheard kids in Abel’s class threatening to beat him up because he told on them to the CPE. Elliot dispatches himself to keep an eye on his sibling as much as possible, and so far, nothing has happened.

Sure, some of this is our nationality. We’re the only Americans at the school—or anglo-saxons, as I prefer to think of us. As things are tense on a global stage, maybe not specifically now but overall, we can expect some hassle. Abel has gotten picked on specifically for being an American before. During the first year of the Iraq war we were living in France, and an Arab boy, about 5 years older than Abel, took it upon himself to take out on Abel the feelings watching the evening news stirred in him. But we were able to work that out through talking to the kid.

But honestly, that’s not what’s going on here. Elliot and Ilsa have no problems. Abel is young for his age, small for his age. He’s a sweet kid—thoughtful, caring—but when teased, he responds. He gets upset. He struggles a bit with his French and that doesn’t help. In no way do I want to blame the victim, but sometimes he misses out on social norms, such as the time he was practicing the recorder at recess.

What bugs me so much is how many clues I missed along the way. It’s been going on all year, every day. Now I can see clearly how it’s been affecting him, but at the time I just worried that he didn’t seem to have settled in. How could I not have realized?

“Michael Jackson isn’t dead,” announced Ahmed yesterday, in the middle of a discussion of the scale of “somewhat-quite-very-extremely.” “Yes he is,” I countered.

“No, teacha,” he argued. “I saw a report. They had a lot of proofs.”

With my class of teens, I don’t mind going off subject. They take English in school and my class is meant to improve their overall level of the language. I figure that even a tangent like this can do that, especially as they are quickly bored with worksheets and fill-in-the-blank exercises. I don’t even bother with involved grammatical lessons, which result only in them yawning, punching each other, and playing with their pens until they spin across the room, with bonus points for hitting another student.

“You can’t believe everything you see on television,” I tell him. “Do you believe everything you see on television?”

“Yes, teacha,” he responds.

I turn to the others. “Do you believe Michael Jackson is alive?” I ask them. They nod.

I write the words conspiracy theory on the board. I ask them if they know who Elvis Presley was. Some nod, some shake their heads. I explain that he died when I was a child, that everyone was very sad, and that some people were so sad they claimed he didn’t really die. “But know what? He did!” I tell them. They nod. They have no problem accepting that Elvis is dead.

We talk some more. Ahmed has a hard time putting his thoughts into English. He gives me the “proofs.” The ambulance did not take the autoroute or use its lights and siren. His sister wrote him a letter. I point out that these are hardly convincing, and yet he remains convinced.

“Why would he do that?” I argue. Ahmed tells me Michael Jackson is in hiding and is going to come out with an international movie, the like of which has never been seen before.

“His doctor is about to go to jail for manslaughter. (another word written on the board) Michael Jackson would have to be a total jerk to do something like this.” I write jerk on the board, add the word cruel which they recognize.

“Yes, teacha,” they all nod. “He is jerk. He is cruel jerk.” “But he is live,” Ahmed adds.

This is not my first time dealing with the peculiar brand of obstinacy created by Arab conspiracy theories. I am reminded of my time at the University of Nouakchott, in Mauritania. My first day as a teacher there, I hadn’t realized I would need to bring my own chalk and eraser to use on the cracked and pitted blackboard. I mentioned this to friends, who sent boxes of Crayola chalk from America as gifts for everyone in the English department.

I glanced at the familiar yellow box with the green chevron and didn’t think twice before tucking it in my bag. But when I pull it out later, my students gasp. “No!” “Don’t use it!” “We’ll all die!”

I am completely mystified. I mean, breathing in billowing clouds of dust isn’t good for the lungs, but it shouldn’t affect them this strongly. My friends who come to my house for conversation group fill me in. They gingerly take the box in their hands, show me in tiny writing on the side where it says “Made in Israel.”

“They’ve put anthrax in it and sent it here to kill us,” explain these educated university women. “They wouldn’t have sent it to you—they like you because you’re American. But they don’t know you’re here.”

I was supposed to get shudders at that point, and they all looked disappointed, and a little put out, when I burst into a hearty peal of laughter.

I’ve heard lots of other theories that make just about as much sense, and I am powerless to dispel them.  Laughing, explaining, pointing out logical things—none of these things have any effect. It’s so much more fun to be freaked. And although I have called these Arab theories, I realize that no human is exempt. There are a lot of conspiracy theories in America these days, on both sides. Whereas in the past it tended to be fringe people who believed that the investigation of JFK’s assassination was a huge cover-up, or that the UN was sending in black helicopters to take away our freedom, now I watch from a distance in dismay as my own country becomes more and more polarized and people believe more and more improbable things.

But my students yesterday are still young. “Use your heads!” I urge them. “Think about things! Don’t just believe everything you are told—consider who is telling you these things! Look for other points of view.” I write the word agenda on the board.

But they leave convinced that Michael Jackson is a cruel jerk who is not really dead, and I leave in desperate need of a cup of coffee.

Last night, the kids’ school had parent-teacher meetings for the 7th grade classes, of which there are 6. Each child was given a sheet of paper dividing the time from 4:30 to 9:05 into 5 minute slots. Parents were supposed to tell their kids which teachers they wanted to see, and then the teachers would sign one of the slots and write it down for themselves. I did this last year and also on Monday, for Elliot’s class, and it’s a sort of 3 ring circus with teachers going over the 5 minutes and parents wandering around looking for classrooms and worrying that if one parent is late it will throw everyone else off, which it does.

The paper is vital. Otherwise you have no idea when you are supposed to see which teacher. Since the twins share a lot of the same teachers, I asked Abel to sign me up for double sessions with French, Math, History, Arabic and Latin teachers, and then to get me appointments with his Physics teacher. At least, I think that’s what I said. I asked Ilsa to get me an appointment with her Technology teacher, also her homeroom teacher. She did, but double-booked me at the same time I was supposed to see the French teacher. I sent a message to the man, asking if I could just come see him next week. Ilsa told me he said, “No problem, no problem. Now, can you wipe down the board?”

Yesterday afternoon, I was drinking coffee when I suddenly panicked because I realized I had no idea where the paper was. Abel had shown it to me and left it on the table and it wasn’t there. I was pretty sure he had tucked it into his carnet de correspondence, but I couldn’t duck an ominous feeling.

Sure enough, when Abel came home, the paper was nowhere to be found. A frantic search ensued, house-wide, but especially amongst the piles of paper that have magically appeared in his room since last week’s thorough deep cleaning (we had visitors last weekend!). No luck. Appointments started at 4:30, and it was already 4:20. “I think I know where it is,” said Abel. That morning, the twins were late and had to go in the small door and have their carnets taken by the surveillant. “I think it fell out on the floor,” he told me.

The only appointment I knew was the double-booked one. I set off early, and stopped in to ask at the surveillant’s office, where the woman laughed and shook her head. I went to meet with the French teacher. She commented on how different the twins are from each other, and I agreed with her.

I knew I had an appointment with the history teacher, so I went there next and popped my head round the door. I explained the situation. “It’s not your time now but don’t worry—let’s just do it,” she said. We had a nice chat about how different my twins are.

Next was the Arabic teacher. It was about 5:20 at this point. “Ah, Madame Jones,” he said when he saw me. Turned out my appointment with him had been scheduled for 4:30! He was very accommodating though, and we settled down to discuss Abel and Ilsa’s differing attitudes towards the Arabic language.

The math teacher looked up my appointments, which were at 6:30, so I went home for a while. By the time I returned he was running late, so I had a nice chat with another mother outside his door. Then we shook hands and introduced ourselves and he told me that both my children were wonderful, but weren’t they different from one another! They are, but I noticed both are doing fine in geometry and terrible in algebra. And I don’t blame them.

And then I went home. Because I couldn’t remember which physics teacher they have, and the Latin teacher wasn’t there, and I was tired of explaining my predicament to everyone. I made home made pizza (yes it was excellent, thanks for asking) and watched Batman Begins in French, and went to bed to dream one of those dreams where you run around the whole time and get nothing done. Hmmm…wonder why?

Me: Abel, don’t you have a test tomorrow?
Abel: Yes, but like at 3. No, at 2.

Me, raising eyebrows slightly: That’s still tomorrow.

Abel: Yeah…I guess.

Me: Shouldn’t you be studying?

Abel: Uh…

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