A Far-Off Place

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The first week of this month my family journeyed north to the Pilanesberg National Park. While we had done several smaller driving tours of animal sanctuaries, this would be the first time that we really ventured into the bush. Pilanesberg isn’t originally native habitat though. In the 1970’s the South African government created the nature preserve in the crater of an extinct volcano. Over 6,000 animals were brought in from Namibia in the early 1980’s. Today those numbers top 10,000 including lions, elephants, rhinos, and cheetahs. I think everyone’s expectations were lofty, and we tried to prepare our sons for the disappointment of not seeing any of the elusive Big Five. (Can you name them?) The park is simply massive at 250 square miles and while the roads (paved and unpaved) provide access to most of the area, the odds of spotting one of the three lion prides or a southern white rhino is not always in a visitor’s favor. Secretly I was ok with this. I didn’t want the journey to be a drive-through experience or pre-packaged show that’s the same for every tourist. I would always prefer sitting and waiting and letting nature find us if she wanted to.

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We arrived at the Bakubung Lodge in the early afternoon and were immediately impressed with the grounds and rooms. It’s winter and the slow season here, so the lodge had shutdown the boilers for the two rooms we had originally booked. My wife’s parents and our youngest would share a room, and my wife and I and our other son would bunk down in the other. We brought air mattresses for the boys just in case. I’m learning that in South Africa you’d best take care of yourself and be pleasantly surprised when it works out that you didn’t have to. It’s much easier than having any sort of expectations, especially when the term “resort” is used. The rooms were comfortable and clean and quiet. We opened the curtains and doors to the patio to see the park immediately on the other side of an electrified fence. The nature was there too.

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For dinner we opted for a braai experience hosted by the lodge in the national park. For me this was the most enjoyable part of the trip. I don’t think the rest of my family found it as powerful I did. They can be forgiven as it was a cold open-air truck drive in the dark to the braai. In addition the food wasn’t exactly American kid-friendly, and the boys were already tired. But as we left the hotel grounds and entered the park gates, a mountainous bull elephant emerged from behind a thicket. It froze in the truck’s spotlight unsure what to make of our commotion and the smell of diesel exhaust. Our driver told us to be quiet in a concerning tone. From its massive head two tremendous tusks reached out and down disappearing into the grass. I judged that it was easily twelve feet tall as turned and sauntered back into the night. When the brush stopped moving, we rolled on. Above the truck a million stars appeared. The drive rattled us around for another 20 minutes before coming to an abrupt stop at a human sized gate. Entering the braai area we were welcomed with a song from eight singers and a drummer. The food was laid out buffet style and we sat down on benches around long wooden tables. At the center of it all was a glowing bonfire. The kids didn’t eat much of the unfamiliar food and were restless for the dessert portion. For them, chocolate, whatever its form, is always more appealing than the main course. The camp was protected by a less than intimidating fence and torches, but we were reassured the animals on the other side wanted nothing to do with the noise or light our group was making. Still I couldn’t help but wonder if somewhere out in the darkness something sat salivating at the smell of grilled lamb, chicken, and beef.

As the moon slowly made it’s way above the surrounding hillsides, it struck me that we were completely surrounded by miles of wild and remote natural wilderness. I huddled close to the inviting bonfire and savored the last of traditional Zulu/Tswana meal. I sat there warmed by the red coals and watched my kids watch a group of drummers perform, and I forget about the world beyond the light of the fire. For over an hour that night my family sat there together, sitting and staring into the dancing flames like human beings have done for tens of thousands of years. The drummer’s rhythm and singing ebbed and flowed rising with the smoke up into the star speckled sky. In that moment of holding my family close and absent of the anxieties of the modern world, I felt that maybe this one life could be enough. For all the distance and distractions that moving to South Africa has entailed, we are now who we want to be.

The following day we loaded up the lodge’s safari truck for our afternoon tour. After the cold temps the previous night we each wore several layers and hoarded blankets in preparation. The boys tried to contain their excitement and rattled off as many animal facts, relevant or not, pertaining park’s wildlife. Entering the gates in the daylight was exhilarating. Armed with their gift shop binoculars, the boys kept watch as we bounced along a dirt road deep into the heart of the park. In the distance we spotted herds of kudos and impalas. On a ridge in the distance our guide spotted a cheetah. While I agree it did resemble a four-legged animal, from 300m away I wouldn’t bet on correctly identifying it. The afternoon was spent bobbing along in the back of the truck, calling out zebra and giraffes and cape buffalo. On the way back to the lodge we did find a family of elephants crowded near the road and a lone hippo in the tall grass next to a lake. The boys pointed and posed for pictures, and felt a sense of accomplishment. The sun set over the hills and left us with a parting gift of magnificent reds and yellows and finally a deep purple before finally turning on the stars for the night. If our only experience at Pilanesberg was our four hour tour, we would have left satisfied. However, the park held back something special for the following morning.

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On day three the lodge was completely fogged over as we made our way to breakfast in the canteen. Bundled in the same clothes as the previous days, we climbed aboard the truck and settled in for a morning of limited visibility. Our guide was in a great mood and tried his best to make us laugh as we re-entered the southern gates. For an hour we drove along mostly in silence looking at the fog sitting heavy on the golden grass fields. In what would be a trip-defining moment for my son, the truck slowed and the guide pointed out a group of elephants to our right. The other people on the truck repeatedly said elephant and pointed to where the bushes moved with something sort of large and gray. Our eldest but not our quietest child then corrected everyone by pointing out the elephants were actually a group of rhinos. The southern white rhinos (not to be confused with the tragically extinct northern white counterparts) are imposing and prehistoric looking animals. About five of them snorted and chewed and slowly bulldozed their way through the underbrush towards the truck. The largest stopped about 20 meters away and gave us a spectacular view of his size and majestic presence. Looking around the truck, I saw smiles and wonder and bewilderment on everyone’s faces. Several nationalities were represented on our tour and every single smile betrayed the same overpowering emotion, something between awe and fascination. For just a moment we were all children again, marveling at the raw power and beauty of the animals before us.

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With our spirits high and as the fog started to slowly burn off, we continued on the rough dirt road with our eldest chirping about how he had correctly identified the rhinos when no one else did. Within a few kilometers we spotted few cape wild dogs (the original native inhabitants of the park). Just as our driver was pointing out the fact that the dogs were usually an indication of lions, we heard it. The truck creeped forward not more than fifty meters until the sound of lions was clear. The fog had lifted enough to see a hundred meters clearly, and there off to the left of the truck, the western pride, comprised of a dozen or big cats, had just taken down a cape buffalo or a larger kudu for breakfast. Through the tall grass we could see the lions circling and ripping at their kill. We couldn’t take our eyes off of them. As the largest one ate, he kept the others at bay with a sound that I can’t describe, but that I can still feel in my chest. It rumbled like thunder in the distance. It is a sound that inspired a primitive fear in me. There’s no other way to say it. I don’t care how good your surround system is, this wasn’t only audible, it was palpable as well. We held our boys a little tighter as the truck maneuvered for a better look at the feasting lions.

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Within minutes the pride was on the move again. On big paws and with a carefreeness that bordered on arrogance, they walked out of the grass and onto the dirt road. Our truck followed, rolling in neutral as the cats crossed in front of us and drank from a stream that ran by on our right. By now the sighting had been radioed in and other cars and trucks had shown up to get a glimpse of the digesting cats. Having seen the show and feeling supremely lucky, we moved on to find a mother and calf hippo at the head of the same stream the lions were drinking from. Further down the road a family of giraffes and zebra enjoyed a late brunch overlooking the valley behind us. The sun warmed the metal frame of the truck and we started back to the lodge for lunch. My youngest son sat on my lap, his head bouncing off my shoulder as he gazed out over the foreign landscape as we rumbled along.

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I don’t know what this international adventure will continue to mean for me and my family. We are happier here, I know that. The boys have a wide circle of international friends and they love their school. My wife is absolutely crushing her job. I’m content in reading and writing and running a little every day. And for the first time in my life,  I’m a father first, not a teacher, not a coach, not a parent who is pulled in too many directions. But in four years time from now will I go back to teaching? Will we find a little American suburb of another artsy up-and-coming city to call our own? Can you go back? Do I want to? Would you? I don’t know the answers yet, but I’m terrified of losing this feeling of aliveness which permeates every aspect of our African days.

Be good and keep in touch.

A Degree of Seperation

What I want is for the two of us to meet somewhere by chance one day, like, passing on the street, or getting on the same bus.

– Haruki Murakami, 1Q84

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On June 20th, 1998 I walked across the stage in Yarmouth High School’s gymnasium to get my high school diploma. Twenty years later I was on the commencement stage again for Hillsboro’s graduation.

Returning to Nashville was everything I hoped it would be. I spent my time seeing former students and families and friends. I ate at all my favorite local eateries, and most of all, I could see the city and country that I’ve called home in a new light. I landed in Atlanta on a Friday morning and was immediately witness to a line of frustrated customers and apathetic employees at a Dunkin’ Donuts. People being bothered by the presence of people. Annoyance. Irritation. Anger. When I arrived at the gate for my Nashville flight, I saw it again. Bitterness at our flight being delayed nine minutes because our flight crew was late getting in. As I sat down in my seat for the last leg of my journey, I half laughed. Is this really how I used to go through life? The last twelve weeks I had grown to appreciate the difference between problems and inconviences. Landing back in America I could see it now, and I was a different person because of it. Right?

By mid-morning I was parking at Hillsboro High School. The memory of the double-takes and smiles when I first walked through the door warm my heart. It was the last academic day of the school year and both the teachers and the students were relaxed and happy about their impending freedom. I didn’t head for my old classroom right away. I felt like room 213 wasn’t mine anymore, and I was scared that seeing someone else teaching in there would be like seeing an ex laughing with someone new. You expect it, but you can’t erase that feeling. I wanted to keep my memory of that place, not to make new memories. Geography can be funny in that it can hold on to the echo of the sounds and smells and light, and I guess I wasn’t ready to walk back into that yet. So I settled in the IB History teacher’s room and more than gladly accepted the hugs and the high fives and genuine smiles from students and teachers alike. We told stories and laughed and reminisced. It was a true homecoming and a feeling that would be extended through the ten days at graduation parties, dinners, the state track meet, long runs, and happy hours. I’m warmed on this cold winter morning just thinking about the joy of it all.

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That first night I attended a graduation celebration for Addy, a former student and one of the managers for the XC team. I was exhausted after 8,000 miles of travel and nearly 40 hours awake, but seeing familiar and friendly faces energizes and enlivens. I was both inwardly and outwardly happy when my head finally hit the pillow for a solid night’s sleep.

The next morning I had a few hours to polish my commencement address before the second and third graduation parties started. Frothy Monkey on 12th Ave South has long been by go-to study and writing home. I sped from East Nashville where I was staying with a fellow teacher to the popular coffee shop hoping to beat the crowds. Driving again in the US was an easy enough adjustment, although I did try to get into the car on the wrong side several times. Another habit I carried with me from Pretoria was the constant vigilance at intersections. Car hijacking on a Saturday morning in May in Green Hills or 12th South is highly unlikely, but I couldn’t ignore the road intelligence that I’ve worked hard to develop. Drivers in South Africa are bad, but they are making me better at being vigilant and anticipating other people’s dangerous habits. At Frothy Monkey I over ordered on the food and coffee enjoyed every sweet bite while I searched for the right words.

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As for the speech itself, I worked on it for three weeks. It was difficult to narrow to a specific topic and then to narrow the topic to the five minutes allotted. After a dozen practice runs, I was still hitting roughly seven and a half minutes. I didn’t know if the jokes would go over, and I felt a bit like a fraud. What gave me any credibility? I was an unemployed English teacher who left the luxuries and modernity of America for a developing country. The only thing I was certain of was my uncertainty. I had asked for this opportunity, but I think what I really wanted was to teach my class again. I wanted to talk with my students, not to formally address 2500 people, most of whom didn’t know me or why I was on the program. This is one of those “be careful what you wish for” lessons that I still need to learn.

In the preparation, I had watched at least a dozen other speeches and stole what wisdom I could from my favorite writers and texts. In the end the final presentation was just over eight minutes. I hoped the administration would forgive me if it felt long-winded. Another week and I might have been able to say more with less. As it was, I’m mostly proud of the product and how it was received. I wish I had been more expressive in the delivery, but I felt the need to rush through to make up for the length. In the writing and sharing, I did feel a sense of closure that I didn’t know that I had needed. Leaving mid-year was right for my family, but as a professional, it left a huge hole in my heart. I was grateful for the opportunity to come back and to see everyone together again. It was a great privilege to see these students head out into the world. You can find a video of the speech recorded by Hillsboro librarian (and jack-of-all-trades) Joyce Claassen on YouTube.

As I’ve said before, this group of students was very special. As their teacher in 7th grade and 9th grade, their 10th grade AP and 11th grade IB English and Theory of Knowledge, and 12th grade capstone, we’ve been around the block a few times. I will forever be an advocate for looping. In fact if I head back to the classroom, that might be a condition for my employment. For five years we shared our laughter and tears and wins and losses and accomplishments and disappointments.

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Forty 2017 Hillsboro XC runners enjoying another perfect October morning.
Our field trip to Shakespeare’s Folio at the Parthenon in 2016.
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Ireland in 2017.

I watched them grow out of athletic socks and baggy cargo shorts and braces and awkwardness into confident, knowledgable, and capable human beings. We traveled to Greece and Turkey and Ireland and the UK together. We ran countless miles together. They threw me a baby shower for my first born and made meals for my family when my second born was in the NICU. They babysat my kids and kept me working hard even in the face of the most absurd conditions. Today, thousands of miles apart, I still feel that we are a community. The love and passion I brought to the class was a direct reflection of the love and passion they shared with me. They made me a much better teacher and parent and friend. Everyone was appreciative that I made the long trip home for graduation, but really I was the one who was grateful.

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While cash might have been more useful as a graduation gift, I am still an unemployed teacher (until I can sell some books anyway). Instead, I hand picked paintings and jewelry and accessories from South African artisans at our local market. In buying almost forty paintings by Gab Duru, I hope that not only am I showing the students and families how much I admire them and appreciate the positive impact they’ve had on my life, but that we are also helping to make a difference in the life on an artist. If you would like a piece of Mr. Duru’s art, please feel free to reach out to me and I will make sure it gets back to you in America.

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That week in May I attended ten more graduation parties. The warm feelings continued and as my schedule filled with coffee dates and whiffle ball and last runs in Percy Warner, I tried to fit more and more in. Without noticing the effect it was having on me, I started overbooking my limited time. Everyone’s request was a priority. I would show up late apologizing only to have to leave early or risk being late to meeting with the next friend or student. Luxury problems. I failed to deliver all the graduation cards and gifts. Regrettably, I had to miss one graduation party altogether. Over the week I would cut out time for meals and honk at traffic and drive like a South African taxi and try to make everything go faster. I had transformed back into the impatient American who always felt behind the clock. It was amazing. In this environment, my former self and habits re-emerged. Even now, three weeks removed I still feel a hint of disappointment that I couldn’t achieve all that I wanted in my ten days. At the end of this amazing adventure in a few years’ time, I wonder if I will be able to hold on to the South African pace of life and peace of mind that I’ve found here. Is it me or is it the American environment which drives people to hustle and rush and be impatient in the name of getting just one more thing done?

I’m happy to be back in South Africa, but I miss those people left behind. I wish there was more time for laughter and stories and sharing meals. Call it whatever you want: Fellowship, Community, Family. It is what we all seek. As my youngest son says, “It fills my bucket.”

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So what is next for the class of 2018? We are all awaiting news of their IB scores and results in July. Most are headed off on new adventures next fall. Some are headed to their first choice of universities with scholarships in hand. My heart is with those who are more disappointed by how their senior year concluded. Navigating the world of financial aid and college acceptance requirements is difficult and often disappointing for all involved. We like to tell ourselves that anything is possible, but the reality isn’t always true. Or rather, that what’s possible isn’t always an easy or straightforward path. Regardless of the individual situations, I have the utmost faith in all of the students who walked across the stage on May 23rd. They are good human beings. I know they can change their world because they have already changed mine. I’m planning a trip to Kilimonjaro next year, and I hope some of the students and families will be able to make it. Like all of our adventures, it will be open invitation. This isn’t the end. We still have mountains to climb.

Be good and keep in touch.

Commencement

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“If you want it, the abyss will be there for you. It is in no hurry, so do not hurry to it. Yes, silence may be the only perfect thing we can imagine… Yes, death is beautiful, but it is not human. It can never be more than it is; It will not solve the argument of you.”

– Brian Ellis, “Please, wait”

The light of winter casts long shadows twice a day. I’ve always found my bearings easily and this has helped me as a runner to know my way intuitively on trails and unfamiliar roads. To get home, I know I need to go this direction. But with the sun lower in the northern sky in what I have always known to be late spring, my internal compass is more easily confused. I need more time to think about my direction. To further disorient, my car and GPS units are metric. An exit 1900m away arrives quickly when you are driving 120km per hour. It all requires more attention. Slipping back into the habit of driving on the right hand side of the road even for a few seconds can be fatal. It’s happened more than once so far. And at least once a week I climb in the passenger door only to see the steering wheel controls on the other side of the car. In that old life when thought I was fully present, much of what I was doing was on autopilot.

In ten days time, I will be flying back to the US for my former students’ high school graduation. It is a special time of year, one where we take pride in what has been done and also when we look forward to new beginnings. Commencement. A ceremony where degrees are bestowed for achievement, a closing. Commencement. The beginning of something new. The combination of excitement and longing for a time past is bittersweet. When I was in the classroom everyday I felt a sort of certainty, a confidence in the way things worked. I felt like an expert. There were very few instances where felt that I lost my voice or couldn’t set the right atmosphere.  Twelve weeks here have eroded that confidence and certainty more than a little. I can no longer easily find true north.

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The class of 2018.

When I see my old students again, what will I tell them about a world that I feel I’m just now starting to see? What do I say about privilege and luck and responsibility? What do I tell them about the reality of ambition and dreams? What can or should you say about human nature to someone just heading out on their own? I get emails from them asking how this experience has changed me. Do I tell them I’m much more guarded now. There has been a rash of kidnappings and ransoms lately. I look over my shoulder in broad daylight. I’m hyper-aware that this life can be taken away in an instant. A carjacking or robbery doesn’t make the headlines unless someone gets shot. And then there’s only outrage if it was the victim and rejoicing if it was the would-be thief. The reality is that we’ve taught our kids security words for getting out of the car quickly. We practice entering and exiting the vehicles quickly. If a stranger picks them up, they are to scream, kick, fight. We walk quickly and quietly in parking garages. I don’t drive distracted, and actually, I don’t do anything distracted any more. I’m on my phone when I can give it my full attention. When I’m with my kids we are in a safe place where they can get my full attention. I’m overly cautious about where I’m running, when I go to the market, when I’m at stop lights. But because I’m not distracted, I’m also far more generous and patient than I have ever been. I give people my full attention. The security guard, the parking lot attendant, the waitstaff, the guy on the corner looking anxious. My wife and I are much closer than we’ve ever been. I know my boys better too. The kids at the school in Mamelodi get my full attention when I’m there. I’m present, for better and worse. I now have the luxury of time, and these are my new habits in my new habitat.

 

The last couple weeks I’ve wondered if I love or resent this new life. I love it because it has increased my awareness of my privilege, but I also resent it increasing those advantages. The examples of such allowance are numerous and readily apparent. Besides our skin color and nationality, we live in a very secure gated community in a house paid for by the company that sent us here. We sleep with confidence in our safety. I can volunteer when and where I want to, and I’m deeply appreciated for just showing up. Someone else cooks our food. Someone else cleans the house. Someone else educates our kids. Someone else does the gardening. As my wife pointed out, we are grown-up children. I just ate an outstanding breakfast for the equivalent of seven dollars, generous gratuity included. I will tip the car guard in the parking lot two dollars, and he will be immeasurably grateful. I’m constantly aware of the new affluence and means present in my life, and it begs the question what did I do to deserve this? Before I married my wife I wasn’t always aware of how I affected others. That was its own sort of privilege. I acted in self-interest for much of my 20’s, and today I’m embarrassed by how I treated some people and situations. Undervaluing people and passing judgment on others was a serious character flaw. I regret how narrow my thinking was and how I imagine it affected people around me. In addition I’ve never been very humble or satisfied or appreciative with my limits. So why do I deserve to spend my days in relative ease when so many around me need to struggle and work for basic survival?

The only conclusion I can draw from this line of questioning is that “deserving” has nothing to do with it. I certainly do not deserve any of it. I haven’t earned it. And none of the people outside the gates looking for work or students orphaned by HIV deserve the circumstances they were born into. I’m coming to despise the enduring power of the idea that merit justifies our behavior and beliefs. If there is a single lesson I hope our boys take from this experience it is that worth and value are not synonyms. But I’m still left with wondering what is my responsibility in the face of this inequity. It is a quiet gravity pulling at me for action. Is there a way to live that could justify the privilege of the life I have? What do I owe to the society that has given me this rare gift? How do I pay this forward? Norman Counsins once wrote that “The individual is capable of both great compassion and great indifference. He has it within his means to nourish the former and outgrow the latter.” How does one nourish compassion? In two weeks when I stand in front of my students as a class for the last time, and I can’t pretend to have answers or even a sense of direction.

 

I apologize for the solemn tone of these last two posts. I’m not depressed, I promise. I’m quite the opposite actually. I’ve never felt more alive. Every morning I wake up full of love and joy and curiosity, and above all, gratitude. When I started this blog, I said I would be writing for me. It would be a way for me to think and to express those thoughts. Maybe you want to hear about life here. Or maybe you want pictures of exotic animals. Either way, I don’t think you came looking for the mid-life existential questioning that you’ve found here. I’m glad you’re reading this regardless of why you came. I hope you are good and happy and I can’t wait to see you again.

Be good and keep in touch.

Us and Them

“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.” 
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

 

The last few weeks have been both a whirlwind and a slow crawl. Paradoxes abound in South Africa. We are now out of the hotel and into our house. The boys have started the process of unpacking their toys, a task which I think might take the full four-year term to complete. It is nice to have the certainty of a house again, but there is also something isolating about the silence of the day that the commotion of the hotel kept at bay. We have cable TV, although like back home, there’s never anything on. Internet at the house seems to be a pipe dream at this point, and oddly enough I’m ok with it. The iPads sit lifeless on the top shelf. The old cd collection which had been relegated to a couple of distressed shoe boxes is suddenly enjoying a resurrection. All three Bennett guys now have mountain bikes, and we have started the process of teaching the boys to ride without the training wheels. I’m excited about the outdoor adventures the bikes will provide for us. Our eldest is now an expert on the local ropes and zip-line course. Who would have thought that our timid little bird would ever want to jump from a tree platform fifty feet up. This is what we came for. The Comcast of South Africa is welcome to take its time.

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First fire in our braai.

Winter is on the way and the rains have ceased. Our last good soaking dumped five inches on us in the span of a few hours. Our pool overflowed with a brown sludge and the yard flooded, but the house remained mostly dry. The rains down in Africa don’t play. Juliet, our domestic worker, needed to get home during that storm, and I couldn’t imagine wading out into such a torrent to catch a bus that might never come. So we climbed into the Audi for the first real test of its all-wheel drive capability. There’s a reason why trucks and SUVs have snorkels here. As we left the golf estate I witnessed the full destructive force of the water and gravity. Cinder block security walls were leveled. White water spilled out of drains and overflowed from culverts. The rush of water felled trees. Five inches of rain fell in five hours. I saw makeshift homes washing away. Four lane roads were suddenly half a lane wide. Cars and trucks were piled high with people trying to make progress against the elements and the fates. Stop lights (affectionally referred to as “Robots”) and street lights were eerily black leaving the outline of the road only to the imagination and the spectacular flashes of lightning. As I feared the taxis and buses quit for the day abandoning thousands of people at the makeshift stands and stops. Many had started walking or rather wading home. We drove in silence through the dark township. The narrow roads were lined with eyes peering out from under sheetmetal roofs and behind barred windows. The outrageous conditions that so many people endure are humbling and heartbreaking. Overwhelming gratitude for all that I have is never far away. I’ve sat and cried in the car more than once over the last few weeks. I simply cannot wrap my head or my heart around the injustice of fortuity.

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After the rains, the pool was sludge.

Each day is bright and cool and weirdly reminiscent of autumn on the Maine coast. My days are spent putting around the house and playing with our youngest son. He doesn’t start school until August, and I’m cherishing having a little shadow by my side as we unpack the last of the boxes or assemble bikes or navigate the markets for what we need. We take walks and imagine fighting Transformers. We go to swim lessons and build Legos. He is also teaching Juliet how to play American style. This means she is given a lightsaber or more often a Stormtrooper mask and blaster. She’s a wonderful human being, and I can already see that she loves our boys. As you might remember, Juliet and her husband have two daughters, and that they can only afford to journey home to Zimbabwe to see them once a year. We focus on how we can help: paying a living wage, arming her with skills and certifications related to her interest in cooking, giving ample time off in order to travel, inquiring on how we can help reunite her family, and ensuring her girls are given the opportunity to stay in and focus on school. And yet… It all still seems too little to assuage the unfairness and cosmic prejudices that have appropriated the resources and opportunities so unjustly.

Yes, I feel guilt. Yes, I feel embarrassment. Yes, I feel shame. And it isn’t at what I have, but what I’ve forever taken for granted. My advantages were so prevalent and so omnipresent that in the States I never tried to distinguish between the results of my efforts and the results of historical, geographical, genetic, social forces and just dumb luck. I assumed it was all my doing. Perspective. Compassion. Empathy. We all want to possess these attributes, but there is an expensive emotional tax for commiseration. It is one that I have paid mostly in lip service. I simply cannot imagine a life where I only see my boys once a year, or one where I commute through deluge, crime, and danger to work for only a chance at a better tomorrow.

So what do I do with this? What is my responsibility in this new light?

I don’t know.

I enjoy teaching literature because through characters we can focus on choice and responsibility and consequences. We can contrast the ideas of fate and absurdism and try to see how we can exercise some sort of control over our own stories. I teach existentialism not out of despair, but rather to try to get to the heart of purpose and the human condition. For me responsibility is as concrete as making decisions, acting, and accepting the consequences. If there is anything which I take from our readings and discussions, it is that what we choose to do or not do does make a difference. It makes a difference to the environment, it makes a difference in terms of material and economic consequences, it makes a difference to other people. It sets an example and endorses action. I ask my students what terrifies them more, that nothing matters or that everything does? Each year I fall more firmly into the camp of what we do matters.

But what does it mean then when I drive past people literally begging for help? What am I choosing to see, and what am I choosing to ignore? If at every moment we choose who we are and what we do, what does it mean to want to ignore the human being standing in front of me? In Man’s Search for Meaning Holocaust survivor Dr. Viktor Frankl says “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” How do I need to change? My favorite author Jeanette Winterson answers this question by comparing humans to snowflakes. We are all different, and we must forget this fact if we are to function.

“They say that every snowflake is different. If that were true, how could the world go on? How could we ever get up off our knees? How could we ever recover from the wonder of it?

By forgetting. We cannot keep in mind too many things.
There is only the present and nothing to remember.”

… 

On Monday I travelled to Jo’berg for an interview of sorts at the American School. It is the second time they have offered me a chance at my dream job. Small, diverse, highly motivated classes of IB students. The campus is pristine, complete with golf course and new natatorium. The staff is incredibly talented and driven in their instruction. The resources are unimaginable for an urban public school teacher. I could certainly see myself learning and growing and thriving professionally in this environment. While I considered the offer, I spent yesterday in the Mamelodi township at a public elementary school. The students there receive an educational experience that is at the other end of the privilege spectrum. The campus is surrounded by makeshift walls of concrete and re-bar and topped with razor wire. The main gate is imposing to see, but it wasn’t locked and could be easily opened with a shove. In the first room I visited there were roughly forty students sitting on a red carpet in the middle of the small stuffy prefab building. The walls were bare, boxes and stacks of donated materials lined the one shelf in the back. A teacher and an assistant were setting up miscellaneous items on the few desks that there were. But I never got to see the activity they were planning. For the most part, the teachers had the kindergarten students counting one to ten and then back down for the first hour I was there. Yes, the students sat on the carpeted area for an hour counting to ten. We kept waiting for something to happen, but they kept sitting and kept counting. And while upsetting, I can’t blame the teachers. Most do not have a formal education or degree beyond their own public schooling. I was told that some months they get paid and some months they don’t. It is difficult to retain teachers who have gone to on to teacher’s college when there is no guarantee of salary. There were no books and very few teaching materials apparent. I met the headmaster and he like most administrators I have ever worked with was kind and proud and knowledgable of all of his students. Easily in his sixties, his eyes were sharp and bright. I had a feeling that the people who worked with him believed in him and his mission. For the generations of kids from Mamelodi, this might be the best educational experience they have ever received. After all, the school was clean, safe, and they were learning to count. South Africa is often a paradox. One minute it is devastatingly heartbreaking and the next you are witness to public displays of joy and beauty and appreciation that is rare back home.

I do not think I will accept the teaching job. Many of the same reasons that I declined the offer last December are still relevant. I do not yet know how to best spend my time here. I do love and miss teaching. Yet I also feel the pull to something else. I want it to be writing and running and thinking, but I don’t know if those will answer my questions either.

 

On the drive home from Mamelodi I fight tears and decide to listen a meditation app. A calming voice with an English accent tells me to breathe.

One… Two… Three… Four… Five… Six… Seven… Eight… Nine… Ten.

 

Be good and keep in touch.

On Fellowship and Community

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“The glory of friendship is not the outstretched hand, not the kindly smile, nor the joy of companionship; it is the spiritual inspiration that comes to one when you discover that someone else believes in you and is willing to trust you with a friendship.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Over the last few weeks we’ve continued on what I consider to be the most crucial undertaking to-date for our transition, making friends. We left a city where we were rich with community. From the faculty of the school where I worked to the running teams and our friends from graduate school, we were well connected socially to Nashville. I still email and text with the old world daily, but I’m starting to feel the isolation of this new place set in. It’s not loneliness yet, I do have my wife and boys here after all, and they provide tremendous joy and daily inspiration. But I’ve also spent almost every minute of the last five weeks talking only with them (and 66% of them are under the age of 7), so you can imagine my delight in the fortuitous meeting of some fellow ex-pats. As a teacher I found that it was always important to ensure each student had formed a connection to someone on the first day. New students, exchange students, English learners, artists, athletes, thespians, all needed to be connected to their communities by people who act as social cicerones. These beautiful people who recognize the isolated, often from their own experience, and extend a welcoming gesture are my personal heroes. In school I’ve found that cross country runners and theater kids are often the best at inviting the outsiders in. They are usually more motley and therefore the most welcoming to new faces regardless of circumstance. The need for these social ushers is no different for adults in new communities.

Ex-pats are by definition strangers in a strange land, and I thought some work would be required to find community. But I never imagined just how difficult it would be to meet people when you lack language and some social literacy. We are staying in a very densely populated Afrikaans and German speaking area of East Pretoria. Both cultures have been cordial, but in our experiences they are also mostly closed to outsiders. After initial curiosity, conversations never really develop or extend beyond the introductions despite our best efforts. During our first few weeks, we’ve met a few parents from the American School, but as we arrived in the middle of the term and school year we’ve also found that many families are in their established routines and accustomed to the rhythm of their days. We’ve also missed out on all the orientation and meet-and-greets hosted by the school for this year. Enter the isolation and loneliness that is all too familiar for ex-pat families.

Then last week when we were walking in the park (the same one where we had tried and also given up on making friends with local German parents) my eldest ran up to me and declared “Hey Pop, that boy speaks English like me!” He pointed toward a family sitting nearby, but I was only slightly encouraged. We have tried to explain the difference between the versions of English to our sons, but it’s often lost in translation. To my surprise my son meant the boy actually spoke American English, not the heavily accented-English that is the second tongue we are becoming accustomed to. As we walked closer the mother of the two boys that our son was playing with stood and introduced herself. I felt optimistic almost immediately. She and her husband have spent most of the last twenty years living abroad, mostly in Africa, and she had recognized us both as American and also as a bit crestfallen. We immediately hit it off and within hours she had texted us with recommendations for local restaurants, safe outdoor play areas, and had invited us to dinner the following night. Our new friends also connected us with another ex-pat English teacher and fellow runner. That very night he had also texted to invite me out for a long run that weekend. While the run itself was a brutal reminder of how far my fitness has fallen since 2016, I thoroughly enjoyed the company and conversation. Sometimes all it takes is someone to say “You can sit with us.”

I’ve been in love with international travel since a trip to Italy as a senior in high school almost 20 years ago. In my adult life the world has been both terrifyingly immense and simultaneously surprisingly close-knit. When I was younger I spent too many days and nights thinking that the world I desired to be a part of was distant and unreachable, when in fact the social connection I wanted was just outside my door. Distance, I have learned, is often more an obstacle of imagination rather than one of space and time. The world is full of serendipity and connections are never far away. As evidence of this I offer up the time Erin and I travelled half away around the world with a group of high school students only to run into a college ex-girlfriend on the island of Rhodes in Greece. Or the time I flew across the country to a track meet at Stanford only to sit down next to a guy who lived on the same Oxford campus at the same time as I did? How many times have you bumped into faces and names from your past in the most random times and places? I’ve gotten used to running into former students, but I’m never prepared for making the connections half-a-world away. And even here, a place I thought would be the farthest away from the circles I’ve run in, I find that an American school family has roots in Brunswick, Maine and attended Mt. Ararat High School. For twenty minutes we named common friends and summer jobs and experiences. And the woman who introduced herself in the park? She was a roommate with one of my high school friends at William and Mary. This world is expansive, and yet friends and friends of friends are everywhere if I can just get out of my own way to meet them.

An update on last week’s blog. We own cars! And even better, they might be insured! It was a process filled with tribulation, but I think we are the better for it. Yes, it might be possible that we ultimately paid a bribe (or two) during the sketchy registration process (we’ll never know for sure…), but we are now driving around in two street-legal vehicles, complete with run-flat tires and smash-and-grab window protection. So that’s good news, I think. And since we now own some stuff outright in South Africa, we are starting to feel more and more like residents rather than extended tourists. This sense of ownership is empowering. In addition, we only have a little more than a week of hotel living before we get to make a house our home. If you’re keeping score, we are now in week ten of hotel residence. I know I speak for all the Bennetts here when I say that we are ready to be home again.

Be good and keep in touch.

Learning Morse Code

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Members and coaches of the 1998 Yarmouth High School Ski Teams. This week head Coach Bob Morse retired from coaching after 48 years and 32 state titles.

This week my hometown celebrated the retirement of my high school cross country and ski coach. Bob Morse is one of the figures whose impact transcends the role of teacher and athletics coach. For 48 years he guided Maine athletes to the highest levels of sport and while doing so he also instilled in them a deep appreciation for the outdoors, a respect for their own potential, and demonstrated a generosity with his knowledge of athletics. Like most young people, I struggled with finding a place and direction. Morse was a constant support and mentor for me. He was patient, and he was accepting. He took time to listen and to ask questions. With Morse I always felt like he believed in me and in my potential even when I didn’t believe in myself. For that gift I will always be grateful.

Last fall at a cross country meet I was thanked by a parent for being a voice of reason in their child’s life. I think it was a bit hyperbole, but I understand how adults can affect the trajectory of a young person’s life in ways their parents can’t. The words a parent speaks to their teen often fall of closed minds, but when those same words come from a respected coach or teacher they are valued as a much greater currency. I understood what these parents were saying because it was also this way for me. My parents tried to give me what I needed, but the suggestion and advice always meant so much more coming from Morse. When parents thank me for giving time and energy to their students and athletes, I never know how to react. It’s not entirely selfless. I’m paying a debt. I feel I’m only doing what was done for me by Morse and many other teachers, both formally and informally. Of course I will do the same for others. That’s how community works, right? And it’s my hope that someday someone of integrity will also be the mentor and role model for my sons when they stop listening to me. The old adage “it takes a village,” has become a cliché, but there is still truth in the sentiment. I prefer the Ugandan proverb, “A child does not grow up only in a single home.” We all have many parents and grandparents who look out for us. When we reach that age, it is our turn to do the same. And though we haven’t seen each other in recent years, I will always consider Morse and the Yarmouth coaches and faculty to be part of my family. I doubt that I’m the only former athlete who feels this way.

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Another year, another state title for Bob Morse and the Yarmouth High School Ski Team.

When remembering those years, I feel deeply fortunate to have experienced Morse at his finest, first as a seventh grade mathematics teacher and later as a coach for ten athletic seasons. I ran cross country, I skied, and I competed on the track for him. As a self-critical teenager (is there any other kind?) I could and often would disappoint myself with my athletic performances, but I never once felt like I let Morse down. His voice of encouragement and positivity was selfless and plentiful. Morse embodied the positive energy that we needed. There was one time after a morning ski race when my future bother-in-law intentionally prevented the team’s return to campus and class by wondering off. I thought for sure this would anger him. True to form Morse never raised his voice or showed distemper. When one of our athletes was kicked off a mountain for jumping from a ski lift, he simply shook his head in disbelief. At heart I believe he was just as mischievous as the rest of us. He took us to the mountains for pre-season camps, for training, and for racing. Long before geocaching was popular, Morse took our math class to a place called Fat Hog Hill for orienteering lessons. After giving us a compass and the initial control point, he climbed back on the bus and said he would see us for lunch at the terminus. We stood in the middle of the Western Maine hills looking at each other as the bus pulled off down the dirt road. Athletically and academically, Morse’s challenges were always set just outside of our comfort level, but always within our ability.

I don’t think there was a greater joy for him than to bring young people into the sports and community he loved. Because he never valued results more than his athlete’s development, the state titles came organically and routinely. As a coach I appreciate and try to replicate how Morse treated his least talented athletes with the same energy and support as he did his All-Americans. He cultivated winning programs by growing people. Morse invested his time and energy in the athletes of Maine for nearly half a century. I often think of how his wisdom was camouflaged by wit and humor. Our teams found camaraderie trying to decipher his riddles and enigmas which pitted our minds against his. As documented by Kathleen Fleury in last month’s Downeast Magazine, Morse’s knowledge of the state of Maine and his innate talent for finding skiable snow in warmer winter months was never less than astounding. But for me, his ability to pass off his wisdom in dismissive asides and throw away answers which sometimes left my head spinning that was impressive. Morse’s Zen-like one-liners and repartee that contained multiple meanings always left me wondering how much more he knew than he was letting on. It was simply a joy to be on his teams.

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Yarmouth XC 1997.

Morse was a true athlete’s coach. He wanted us to be the best athletes we could be, and he knew that in order to achieve that end we needed to become the best people we could be. Years after I left Yarmouth, I would occasionally return and stop by practice to catch up with him and see how the team was doing. But I always left feeling like he had learned more about my life than I did about his. Much of my teaching and coaching philosophies and practices stem from the experiences I had in his classroom and on his teams. I am eternally grateful for his generous gift of time and energy. He made the Maine athletic community infinitely better, and I’m certain his impact on will continue to be felt for generations.

So tonight, please join me in raising a glass or ringing a cowbell for a true luminary, one who lit the way for so many of us. Thank you, Morse! Heia! Heia!

Week Four – Car Buying In South Africa

Over the last two weeks we have embarked on a journey of both mind and spirit. At times it was comical, and other points it was depressing. But through it all, it felt absolutely absurd. I know, I know. This is the most ethnocentric and “Ugly American” position I can take. Let me see if I can outline the car buying process for you. If at the end of the day you still think I’m being judgmental, then I will happily re-evaluate my experience.

Before even looking at vehicles, people here need permission from the government to buy one. I say permission because the depth and sophistication of bureaucracy that needs to be navigated is a holdover from the apartheid days. It was meant to befuddle, confuse, and slow the social and economic progress of the oppressed. Under the guise of order and procedure, regulations became a standard way to prohibit people from gaining a social or economic foothold. While apartheid ended twenty-five years ago, the system used by that government is still in the D.N.A. of institutions and organizational cultures. But instead of applying mind-numbing layers of red tape to oppress certain people, it now exists and applies to everyone equally. After this experience I might start to see how and why corruption can flourish. Having a cousin working in the right office or knowing a friend who owes a you favor can be lucrative. If you don’t happen to have a personal connection to hook you up, knowing how and when to slip someone fifty Rand can get your application placed at the top of the stack or can help you bypass the lines of people waiting outside. With this in mind, we met our relocation liaison two weeks ago at the License Bureau in Centurion. She suggested we get an early start as the lines only tend to grow, and with them our chances of submitting our application on that day would diminish.

Before submitting an application for a T.R.N. (Traffic Registration Number, which is basically the file that documents that you are “in charge” of a vehicle), we needed to have a few things in order. First, and most importantly was proof of residence. Without this, you cannot hope to obtain a bank account or a cell phone or even a long term car rental. Since our lease doesn’t not officially begin until April 1, we asked for a letter from our hotel. This would suffice. We also needed passports with visas, driver’s licenses, and a copy of Erin’s employment verification. Easy enough. All of these documents seemed logical and familiar to us. In addition to these, we were told to bring four copies each of our passport photos, our birth certificates, copies of our passport pages and visas certified by our bank, and an A.N.R. form (the white one, not the blue one) filled out in BLACK pen, not blue. In addition it was suggested that an “affidavit” be signed and stamped at a police station which could help our cause. This is a sworn statement indicating why we needed a TRN (While I don’t know for sure, I think this is just another chance for someone to take home some extra cash). We passed on this option and ended up okay, but I got the feeling that its importance was determined on a case-by-case basis. At our appointed time we arrived at the traffic registration offices. They open at 9AM and the line was already 250 strong. People were standing quietly, patiently, counting the seconds with stiff upper lips. I settled in for a long day reminding myself that “This is water.” If you’re not familiar, please take ten minutes and watch the animated abbreviated version below.


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/188418265″>This is Water-David Foster Wallace</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user58158815″>alexander correll</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

After fifteen minutes of standing in the non-moving and ever growing line thinking about the lives of the people in front of us, we were waved to the side by our liaison. We were in the “wrong” line. She escorted us off to another building where the line was only about a dozen people. The feeling of hope at seeing only a few people in line ahead of us quickly diminished as we watched in horror as each individual was subsequently dismissed for not having proper documentation in order. It was like an episode of that 90’s trivia game show.

I mean, how could you possible think of getting a T.R.N. without first having evidence of your birth doctor’s credentials in triplicate?! What kind of second rate bureaucracy do you think this is? You are banished for your stupidity and insolence. 

Within the hour, our chance to prove our worthiness of owning a vehicle arrived, and we stepped up to the glass like Oliver Twist with application in hand. The woman on the other side nodded as she went through the paper work with a laser-like concentration. She was definitely looking for any chance to reject our attempt at obtaining a car. With a grunt of disdain, she initiated the application approval. I sighed with relief, and it seems like that’s all it took. “Oh no, no, no. You see here, you are applying for two TRNs, yes?” I felt a lump in my throat. What had we forgotten? I knew we should have brought along character witnesses and blood samples. “You see, he is not on a work visa, correct? Then he cannot apply for T.R.N. Are you married?” (Note: For the almost a decade, I have always confidently answered yes to this question, but it seems the lovely folks back in Tennessee would argue this point. It appears we might have started our family out of wedlock. My lawyer is looking into the matter).

“Yes, we are married.”

“Do you have proof?” I thought about holding up our eldest son, but I decided against it. This didn’t seem like the place that would appreciate my sense of humor. “Do you have a marriage certificate?” She repeated.

“Yes, but not with us.”

The slightest hint of a smile crept out of the corner of her mouth. It small, but it was there. Was this an opportunity for her to make a little extra money? I don’t know. I can’t read the situations where bribes are being requested yet.

“Come back when you have it. We can’t proceed until then.”

Silly Americans. You are the weakest link, goodbye.

And with that we walked out of the office, another unhappy non-customer. Our wedding certificate was in a stack of identification documents we were storing at Erin’s office which was located about a half-hour’s drive away. We didn’t want to lose another day coming back, so while our driver David took Erin to her office for a single piece of paper, the boys and I found a place for lunch.

Later that afternoon our second attempt at submitting the applications (this time with our marriage certificate in hand) was ultimately successful. As we were being fingerprinted (all ten digits in ink, not grease) and signing the application for the fifth time, we were told to come back on March 14th before noon. I wanted to ask what would happen if we came back a day early or after noon on the 14th, but I bit my tongue. Gift horses and all that. We thanked the woman for her help, and as I left I swear I noticed a head nod from her, one as if to say, “Well done, American. You have survived the first round, but it only becomes more difficult to get what you want from here…” Even the security guard seemed slightly impressed at our preparation, agility, and resilience. I felt his smile and look appreciated the fact that we had accomplished something without paying. Respect.

It is at this point I need to say that this, like with almost everything we do, was all Erin’s preparation and planning. I’m solid at the execution of plans, but she’s the mastermind behind it all. Buying a house? Enrolling a kid? Vacations? Grad school? Marathons? It’s all her foresight and groundwork. She’s the mitochondria of our living cell. Coming here was supposed to switch things up. In this world, I’m referred to as the “trailing spouse,” which means that I do not hold the work visa. Coming here and intentionally not working would allow me to assume the mastermind role and be the driver of the family for a few years. Erin has long supported my efforts in public education and coaching, and it is past time that she has the support at home to be able to thrive in her professional career. One catch though… because I do not have a work visa, I cannot get a bank account, I cannot purchase a car, sign a cell phone contract, or really do anything beyond look pretty and tell the boys to stop their mischief making. Erin needs to be the one to establish all the accounts and sign all the contracts because she’s the only one who has a work visa. But if she is setting up our financial and functional lives, she cannot also be at the office working which is our whole purpose for being here. Catch-22.

Like so many other places in this world, the “working spouse” in South Africa is still assumed to also be the head of the house. Traditionally this has been a man’s role. He is the worker so he has the name of the bank account and he adds his wife as an “auxiliary.” Seriously, that’s the word that is used. If he opens the cell phone contract because his job gives him credit, he can purchase and authorize an additional a line for his wife. This system is another example of a holdover from an earlier time. And like apartheid, it is one of control. Men have used their social and economic power to control the women in their life. I’m told by people who will openly answer my questions that women can and often do have bank accounts and cell phones in their own names now, but if (and when) women marry, accounts are transfered or opened in the man’s name. In fact, you should have seen the look our on personal banker’s face when we told her we wanted a joint account instead of a primary account holder with authorized user attached. She had never heard of such a thing. It seems that even in 2018, economic equality in marriage is still not as prevalent as I would like to think. Since our engagement Erin and I have shared a bank account. Our bills are our bills. Our paychecks are our paychecks. The lean years and the bountiful are ours together. I own her debt and she owns mine. We work together to budget our income regardless of where it comes from. It was one of our very first agreements as couple. I invest 100%. She invests 100%. It works for us. Without wanting to pass judgement, it seems to us that the idea of equally shared value and resources in relationships is as foreign as we are. The policies and regulations around goods and services like phones and cars reflect the attitudes that the traditional male breadwinners are still the more socially and economically valued partner over the supporting spouse. Which brings me to this quote and thought. I can’t wait to write more about the intensive labor practices I see women undertaking everyday. It is mind-blowing. But for now, just know that the inequality of the sexes in relationships is readily apparent, and yet very much accepted custom. This also raise questions for me. Do I say something when I see this inequality at work? Do I advocate? Do I criticize? What is my role here? Trailing-spouse? Feminist? Humanist? American? What does that even mean now?

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(And as another aside, had Erin’s company purchased our cars upfront and then been reimbursed by us, all of these bureaucratic hurdles, bribery opportunities, and days out of the office could have been avoided. As it is, we continually remind ourselves that we are getting the full international experience by having to do the leg work on our own.)

So with our T.R.N. application submitted, we commenced car shopping in earnest last weekend by visiting a dozen dealerships with the hopes of finding both a reliable used commuter car and a used family vehicle which would seat seven for when guests visit. (You are coming to visit, right?) Very quickly Erin found a nice 2017 Hyundai with 15k miles on it, and after a test drive we made a deposit. We were told by the salesman that putting run-flat tires on car and installing smash-and grab protection on the windows would be no problem. It was a problem though. Little did he (and we) know that the only brands that are capable of having run flat tires are BMW, Mercedes, Mini, and Audi. For me, run-flat tires (those with reinforced sidewalls allowing you to drive 50 miles at 50mph) are essential. Erin’s commute is relatively easy and mostly on a very good toll roads. We intentionally picked our housing location based on the commute and our proximity to the international school. But even the best roads here can be littered with debris and the stuff that will literally fall off trucks. I know that “stuff that falls off of a truck” is usually a euphemism for stolen goods. However, in the last month I have seen more items fall from trucks than in my previous 22 years behind a wheel. I have seen mattresses, cans of paint, lumber, tires, and in one particularly dangerous yet spectacularly awesome explosive episode a couple boxes of long industrial florescent lights were thrown from the back of a truck. So it is a no-brainer that we will have run-flats on our car. It is a luxury, I understand, but this is the kind of peace of mind that we need if Erin is commuting early or late.

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A “Bakkie” spills a load of textbooks on the R21 highway last fall. This is the road Erin will be commuting on and is the central road between the international airport and Pretoria. 

After learning about the run-flats being limited to these luxury vehicles, we forfeited our deposit on the Hyundai and moved on to shopping for used BMWs. Because of the price difference, we needed to look at older models with more miles, but I still feel like this is a decent trade-off as many German automobiles are designed to last much longer than their American counterparts. Meanwhile, I also started the search for the larger family vehicle. When we first learned of our placement here, I started dreaming of a manual all-terrain diesel Land Rover complete with benches, spare water tanks, and snorkel. They are everywhere in South Africa, and I knew the boys would love one as much as me.

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The dream is actually a nightmare for long distance highway touring and travel. It’s loud, inefficient, and has a poorly heated/cooled cabin which can be miserable for passengers. But it looks so awesome!

On closer inspection however, they are some of the worst vehicles in terms of comfort for the kind of road trips and exploring we want to do. I know enough about myself and our habits to realize that a comfortable highway vehicle that safely and reliably gets is to and from the national parks is a smarter buy than the cool ride. Head over heart. I explored newer models like the Discovery, but couldn’t find one that was young enough and could fit in our budget. Yesterday I put down a deposit on a 2014 Audi Q7 with 68,000 miles on it. I think it will be a great vehicle for us, even if it isn’t the “Jurassic Park SUV” the boys wanted. Erin found an older automatic BMW Series 3 sedan with low-ish miles and a touch of power still left in the engine and made another deposit.

We now had vehicles and our T.R.N.s were ready, so yesterday we returned to the License Bureau in Centurion at opening only to find the following sign:

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Even when you show up at your appointed time, the offices might be closed.

At this point we had to laugh. It seems that even when you do everything right, something will still hold up the process. We went and got a cup of coffee, and Erin moved her meetings back. The usual line was established when we returned and we joined in, upper lips and all. When we got to the window, the nice woman retrieved our application from the same file cabinet she has deposited it in two weeks previous. From my point of view, nothing had been done with it or to it, I’ve been wrong before though. She started to “process it” in front of us while yelling at the woman working the window next window. She was clearly upset that someone didn’t follow some protocol. I just hoped it wasn’t us. We watched as she unstapled our applications and removed our passport photos and restyled and filed the application written in black ink on the blue form. She printed two new pages and cut to fit our photos to the box on the new sheet before using a glue-stick to affix our photos. She asked for our signatures below the photos and then our left thumb print only. We complied. Taking a piece of packing tape, she covered the photo, signature, and thumb print and handed us our TRNs. And with that we were unceremoniously approved to buy and own cars by the Republic of South Africa.

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I’m told that the next steps will involve the actual purchasing the cars, the registering of the vehicles, obtaining insurance, and having the cars pass a “road worthy” test. In terms of total time and resources used to get this point, I think we are looking at about 20-25 hours. I’m hoping that we can finish the process within the next week. We sold our Subaru’s in early February, and we have been paying for rental cars (a Ford Focus in Nashville, and a Hyundai Sonata and a Toyota Fortuner here) or using ride shares like Uber to get around. I’m ready to have a car again. An interesting note here is that the one item you don’t need to get in order to buy a car is a driver’s license. My Tennessee issued one will work just fine as long as it is valid. Can someone remind me to visit the DMV in Nashville when I return in May?

So has our experience been comical? Depressing? Absurd? All of the above? I don’t want to pass judgement on other cultures and customs and ways of functioning. The one I use to compare all of my experiences to falls well short of perfect most days, and often it struggles to even reach good enough. So when I’m witness to an exchange between people that just doesn’t sit right with me, it takes all I can to remember that “this too is water.” Awareness. Wonder. Patience.

Be good and keep in touch.

Exploring Mpumalanga

(I will have part two of the Exit Interview post coming later this week. I’m still reaching out to people and asking permission to share their stories of success. Stay tuned!)
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One of a million dirt roads begging to be followed.

This last weekend we took our first baby steps out into this magnificent country. I had done some preliminary research using a handy Lonely Planet guide (Thanks, Trish!), Instagram, and Google. What resulted was a two day trip east of Pretoria to the beautiful big sky country of Mpumalnaga. Think of it as Wyoming meets the Grand Canyon all at 6,000 feet. It was vast and beautiful and serene and quieter than any place I have ever been in the United States.

Okay let me step back and set this up the right way. I follow several professional runners on Instagram. They are kids compared to me, but their posts are inspiring and motivating even if I don’t end up getting out the door for my sluggish three miles around the golf estate. Over the last few months I noticed that some of the runs the South African, Swedish, and German athletes were posting took place in a town called Belfast, South Africa.

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More dirt that smells like sweat.

Situated roughly two hours east of Pretoria on the N4, Belfast and the surrounding dirt farming roads provide ideal conditions for distance runners: Safe, cool, non-humid conditions between 6 and 7,000 feet of altitude. It seemed like as good of a place as any to  escape from the late summer heat of the city. On Saturday morning we loaded up our rental SUV (a diesel powered Toyota Fortuner, or as the locals say “Very choice”) and headed east and up. The N4 is a fine road, mostly three lanes of well maintained blacktop. The traffic was light and the sky was the kind of deep royal blue that hints of the impending autumn. If you’ve ever driven west across Kansas, you know what I mean by headed up. The rolling hills all topped out a little higher than the previous, and without even noticing it, we climbed into high altitude.

Turning north of the N4 we followed the signs for 20 miles through some of the most beautiful country I’ve ever driven to Dullstroom, a small mountain town famous for its fly fishing. No kidding. In addition to distance running, people come here from all over the world for the size and abundance of brown and rainbow trout in local lakes. Who knew? Dullstroom also can boast of having South Africa’s highest train station at 6,800 feet above sea level. It also happened to be the location of our one night stay. Because we made excellent time from Pretoria, and because the boy were being so well behaved, we decided to call an audible and continue on to the main attractions of our trip.

The “Panorama Route” is paradoxically both a renowned and little traveled road loop through some of the most spectacular landscapes in the country. Most people opt to rush for the chance of big game viewing in Kruger further East, and they skip right over this four hour roundtrip journey. Starting in the working class town of Lydenburg (4,780ft), the R37 climbs forever up to Long Tom Pass (7,100 feet). From the pass, I’m sure we were looking out east at Mozambique roughly sixty miles away and at Swaziland just under eighty miles south. The views in every direction are breathtaking, as are the harrowing sets of switchbacks into the adventure town of Sabie. I’m talking about Tour de France level of climbing and descending.

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The road into Sabie.

Sabie is where the fun starts though. Up to this point, most of the trip was limited to staring out the car windows. Scenic overlooks are rare, and roadside pullovers can be dangerous. But Sabie caters to thrill seekers and the local economy is entirely dependent on hikers, some white water rafting, and mountain biking. We stopped here for lunch and to fill the tank. The people were welcoming and generous. I wish we could have stayed longer in the city center for shopping. But the main reason why people come through this town though is for the waterfalls and that’s why we were here. The road from Sabie to Gaskop is 20 miles and has a dozen stops for majestic waterfalls. Being full-blooded Americans, we chose the biggest two.

The Mac Mac Falls are 215 feet top-to-bottom. The viewing platform is a distance away preventing any real concept of the magnitude of water and the fall. I think the kids would have been much more impressed if we could have travelled down to the pools below. Unfortunately for us, Thomas Link wasn’t with our tour today. Maybe next time.

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Mac Mac Falls from the observation platform.

Farther up the road is the aptly named God’s Window. This tourist trap presides over a near vertical 3,000 foot drop that will make your stomach uneasy as you approach the viewing platform. The parking lot is a veritable United Nations of tourists and the street vendors and monkeys know it. Most of the stuff being sold here today is factory produced and a knock off of the real thing. We quickly escorted the boys past the booths with their inviting colors and sounds and head to the trail. This was the lone stop on the drive that was crowded. While I would definitely return and stare out over the continent, I would do so early in the morning or on a non-weekend day. The commanding views were almost ruined for me by the selfie sticks and jostling on the trails around the park. I could feel the resentment and the frustration tightening in my shoulders. I held my son’s hand tightly and moved too quickly. What was I doing? In places like this (and more often, everyday) I just wanted to take a minute, just a minute, and to step back from the haste of the photo opportunities and the pressures of all the little thoughts and anxieties and wants, and to do as poet Anne Sexton said.

“Put your ear down close to your soul and listen hard.”What do I need to hear before all the self-doubt and justifications drown out the voice of myself? This is why we came here. To slow down. To do some hard listening. To sit with it all. I looked out of God’s Window expecting to see the world before me, and I all I saw was myself. 

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The views from God’s Window.

A half-mile hike up the trail will take you further from the crowds into a cool rainforest. No, literally. At nearly 6,000 feet of elevation, the cold clouds ram into the Drakensberg Escarpment providing near constant moisture to the ridge top. This enables more than 1,000 species of plant life to thrive.

To be honest I was happy to get back in the car and continue on. I’ve never been a fan of crowds and have always enjoyed the solace of the open road. Berlin Falls is a short drive from God’s Window, but it feels like different world. A crooked sign and a dirt road any Mainer would love will take you a couple of kilometers away from the tourist buses and you will again find yourself immersed you in the quiet of South Africa. At each of these stops there is parking guard who, for a small fee of ten rand per passenger, will keep your car from losing its tires or hubcaps or luggage while you take the tour and see the sights. There is rarely any formal information about the history or natural element, but there are always people set up selling handmade goods. While you can bargain here, neither Erin nor I can ever bring ourselves to do it, and so we always pay full price for the souvenir. I know you might think we are suckers, but after the conversion you are really haggling over a piece of beaded leather or painted wood that costs $1 or $2 (R10 or R20). For us, we’d rather have an intact conscience rather than an intact wallet . Berlin Falls was no different in this regard. We bought the boys each a sling shot (which was the biggest mistake we made on the trip), and I found some other gifts for friends and family back home.

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The solitary Berlin Falls.

As we left Berlin, I noticed how low the sun was hanging in the sky and felt a sense of urgency to get moving. Having only covered a third of the 120 kilometer route, I knew we needed to cut some of the itinerary if we were going to make it back to Dullstroom before dark. Everyone (the South Africans, the ex-pats, the waitstaff, the guy at the cell phone store) has warned me not to drive after dark. Not only is drunk driving extremely prevalent here, but crime and carjacking risks greatly increase once the sun retreats behind the horizon. Plus you also need to contend with both livestock and wild animals who happen into the road. Skipping Bourke’s Luck Pot Holes and only briefly stopping at Blyde River Canyon, helped get us back on track. Blyde River Canyon has a bit of an inferiority complex, but it shouldn’t. All the roadside signage and tour books bills the attraction as the world’s third largest canyon. The view stretches on for days and is as green and lush as any tropical forest. There is no need for the comparisons. The view from the canyon rim well earns its nickname, The End of the World.

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We let the wheels run as we traveled down off of Drakesburg Escarpment and into the agricultural valley below. I tried to sneak some views of the lowlands, but the potholes on the roads made Nashville’s 440 feel like driving on a sheet of glass. Add to that motorcycles and the lack of enforcement on posted speed limits in this part of the world, and I can understand why vehicular deaths occur so frequently. We cruised back into Dullstroom just as the last rays of sunlight crawled up the mountains in the East. I was more than happy to park the car for the night. We found a great meal at the Mayfly Restaurant and settled in for a relaxing evening at the cabin. We all slept soundly in the dark and thin air of the mountains, although at one point I awoke to what I thought was the sound of cows outside our door. I convinced myself I was hearing things and rolled over. In the morning though Erin confirmed my experience, and as we left for breakfast we noticed the dozen or so cows camped in the garden and field next-door. Much to the amazement of our boys, we also were lucky enough to watch as a rather irate farmer drove the bulls and bovine with a switch off the lot and back up the road.

Most of the shops, as well as the Birds of Prey Sanctuary, opened late on Sundays, so after a very European pancake breakfast, we called it a trip and returned to the heat of Pretoria. I left with a sense of accomplishment and also one of excitement. If the rest of the country holds as much wonder and beauty as this one 75 mile drive, four years will not be long enough to see and experience it all. On our next trip, I really want to spend more time in Sabie and Graskop. I want to get in a long run at 7,000 feet. I want to go fishing. I’m bummed we missed the hike to Lone Creek Falls, but it will certainly be on top of the list for the next adventure.

The Big Swing, anyone? Also, I’m accepting applications for co-adventurer for a twelve or fourteen day cross-continent drive in 2020. I’m thinking Cape Town to Nairobi to Kampala to Addis Ababa probably. Let me know if you are interested.

Be good, and keep in touch.

An Exit Interview (Part 1 – The Problems)

(I deeply value my time and experiences with the people with whom I spent the last decade working with and learning from. However, there are some issues that I feel need to be aired on behalf of the teachers who are back in Nashville, and I feel they can’t speak up for fear of retribution. I know because I was one of them only a few weeks ago. I would still love to have a proper exit interview, even if it is done from 9,000 miles away. Part II will address and promote many of the outstanding things that I saw happening in classrooms. It is my hope that through these posts I can affect change and promote the people and initiatives which are changing lives.)

When I left my teaching position there was no exit interview. No survey. No request for feedback from the district.* At the very least I was anticipating an email from H.R. I gave my notice and letter of resignation roughly 115 days ago, and I left my classroom on February 9th. So my departure wasn’t a surprise for anyone. Either they assume to know my professional opinions or they don’t want to hear them. Both are deeply troubling to me as teacher, a tax payer, a voter, and a parent. I’m not sure what kind of leadership doesn’t want feedback, but I’ve never met any great leaders who have insisted that they knew everything. Additionally, this district has difficulty recruiting and retaining teachers, support staff, and bus drivers. Some of that stems from the low pay, and some of it stems from the culture. If I’m a district leader and I can’t do much about the one, I’m sure as heck going to try and improve the other. As a teacher I’ve found that when students don’t care about the feedback I give, it is because they didn’t care about the assignment whether that is an essay or a presentation or a project. I end each semester asking about my teaching practices and how they can better align to student needs. I’m not sure what it says about an institution that doesn’t want feedback from it’s employees, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t good.

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“Who do you think you are? What gives you the right?” One of the best exit interviews of all time.

#ThanksMetro is a phrase I started using a few years ago to express the frustration of working in an organization that often and in many ways works against itself. (Example: The IB scores that were the best in recent memory and by far the highest in the district, were announced by the district’s media team at the same time as they announced finding high levels of lead in the water of some schools. One announcement obviously overshadowed the other.) And this is a tough post to write because for much of my time as teacher, I absolutely loved teaching and coaching and collaborating with students and my peers. Many of the teachers that I was fortunate enough to work with were outstanding professionals and even better human beings. They are people I continue to look up to and be inspired by. Overwhelmingly the experiences I had as a teacher were positive. I had great mentors and leadership who coached and supported me. So why do I harbor so much resentment toward the institution and the profession as a whole? I really hope my four years here in South Africa help to provide distance and assuage the negative feelings because I love teaching. I really do.

Death by a thousand paper cuts. It’s another phrase I’ve used to describe the petty form of treatment (sometimes unintended) that teachers endure. Like the analogy, a single paper cut by itself hurts, but can be overlooked. It can be dismissed. It can be forgiven. But as cuts accumulate, the emotional and psychological toll can be, at best, demoralizing and, at worst, dehumanizing. There are differing severities of cuts too. On one hand you have the daily grind. No matter how great my lessons or interactions with students, I would have an overwhelming number of emails, phone calls, texts, requesting my time and energy addressing “just” one more thing. I’ve come to hate the word to such a degree, I tell my students not to use it in their writing. “Just” shoot me an email. “Just” call a parent. “Just” log it in Support and Intervention. “Just”stop by the meeting. Any phrase that starts with “can you just…” is a paper cut. One task by itself is never a big deal (and that is how we always perceive it, in isolation) but the requester seldom considers their ask in the greater context of all that teachers are expected to do. Amplify that ask times the hundreds of interactions we have daily and suddenly the time I wanted to use to develop relationships with students or co-plan with other teachers or provide effective and timely feedback has been replaced with a hundred “can you just…”

The leaders in the district who protect their teachers’ planning and grading time are loved and respected by their teachers. The other ones (and fortunately for me my time with them was limited) would contribute to the paper cuts by being petty or nickel-and-diming teacher time and energy. I can only imagine that they believe that by demanding more from their teachers they were somehow improving their school. Instead of having a positive effect, I saw them breed resentment and animosity.

Then there are also the major paper cuts. These are the one that are infuriating to me as professional and a human being. Want to know one from a parent’s perspective? Last fall we enrolled my five year old in kindergarten. A little less than a year ago we had his immunizations completed. I remember because it was a traumatic day for everyone involved. Immediately after we had the records faxed to his future school. At the open house last summer we were informed they never received them. The next day we asked the doctors office to fax them again. On the first day of school we received a letter saying the school didn’t have them. We checked the fax number. It was correct. We had the doctor stay on the phone while they faxed them again. Three weeks later we recieved a letter photocopied on bright orange paper. Our son would not be allowed back to school if they did not receive the record of those immunizations by Friday. We had the doctor fax them again. This time we also asked them scan and email a pdf to us. We emailed a copy to the main office and copied the principal and my son’s classroom teacher. But on the first day after Labor Day weekend, I was called to the elementary school in middle of my teaching day to pick up my son because the school had no record of his immunizations. I lost count after six attempts at trying to get them what they were asking for. I printed a copy of the PDF and handed it to the office staff. It was the same form that had been sent many times over. We were doing everything that was asked and nothing was working. The communications home came as more and more urgent and demanding. This is by no means an isolated incident. I have experienced this kind of bureaucratic nightmare from within the system as well. Want to go on a field trip? Good luck. Fundraiser? Ha ha ha. I laugh in the face of your optimism. I’m not saying these things are impossible, lord knows there are great people who will help you navigate the forms in triplicate and clear the hurdles. I’m merely pointing out that as a teacher there were many educational experiences and fundraising opportunities that I let go right on by because getting approval on short notice would have been too tedious of an undertaking. Many teachers subscribe to the feign ignorance and apologize later method.

(Note: I did not get fired for taking an unapproved field trip once. I probably should have been. I’m not sure if I wasn’t fired because I was well liked or because firing me would have been (ironically) too much paperwork. Either way, I’m grateful for the pass.)

The countless meetings that could have been an email. The emails that should have been a meeting… I know teachers can be stubborn and not follow directions, but the district should model the behavior it wants teachers to use in the classroom. That kind of leadership was rare my experience. I’m not talking about my school leaders, mind you. I would walk through hell (and many teachers are) with the principals and school based leaders. I’m talking only about the communications or lack there of from central office.

I can also recount literally hundreds of episodes where parents needed help, either with attendance issues or grade change, or in one particularly embarrassing instance for the district, getting a straight A student into an art class so they can graduate. As further personal evidence of this functional breakdown, we are now in South Africa and want our son un-enrolled from his kindergarten class. We called the district office and they told us to call the school. We called the school, and they told us to call the district. He’s been enrolled and attending school here in Pretoria since last Tuesday. But everyday in Africa, as the sun is setting in a blaze of beautiful reds and yellows above the savanna, I get a call from our old district telling me that my son is absent. Paper cut.

From a teacher’s perspective the larger transgressions are far more serious. Lack of communication or respect from central office breads animosity and a culture of mistrust. Schools are not factories. Teachers do not produce students or even graduates. I hate referring to students as future employees. College and career ready. That was not my mission. Life ready? Maybe. Absurdism ready? Yes, there we go. Teachers grow people, and anyone who has ever grown something knows that it takes time and energy and patience. No mandate or initiative (no matter how important or beneficial) can replace the value of the positive interactions between students, teachers, and content. But yet so many top-down priorities took me away from or out of that equation. The worst one, the one that took me the furthest away from my students almost took me out of the profession for good.

In 2012 I was part of a professional development session which provided training in conjunction with the police department. Active shooter training. In my school hallway an officer fired blanks “to help us recognize the sound of gun fire.” In addition we also had to develop a response to our hearing of the shots. Some people were asked to play students. I was asked to be a teacher helping students seek shelter in my classroom. The drill started with shots coming from around the corner of the hall. I ushered as many people into my classroom as possible. I saw the officer come around the corner firing shots at the ground, and I suddenly felt like I was in danger and being chased even though he was clearly walking and meant no physical harm. Because this was a drill we were told not to lock any doors. I closed my door and moved people to the far corner where the lone window was. There was a bottleneck at the window and people panicked when the officer open the door, came into the room, and fired a dozen more rounds. Everyone scattered. Some people screamed. I can still hear the shots. I KNOW they weren’t real, but in the moment my mind didn’t. Thirty minutes after the drill ended everyone in the room was still visibly shaken.

I had a very difficult time sleeping for the next few weeks. I lost my appetite. I was either anxious or angry. My students could sense it. My wife saw it. I was short with people. That was the beginning of my worst year of teaching. I started seeing a therapist about a month after an active shooter drill took place. A shell from one of the blanks landed and stayed on the top of my bookshelf all year long. I couldn’t touch it. The kids couldn’t see it, it was too high, but I could. That professional development was also one of the reasons I left that school and almost left the profession later that year. The district’s health insurance plan did not cover the costs of seeing a psychologist. My then-administrators were evasive when I inquired about a workers’ compensation claim to help with the cost of the therapy (and actually the principal laughed when I spoke to him about it, which made me feel even more embarrassed and ashamed about how I was dealing with my response to that day). I feel I endured a traumatic experience as part of my job, and when I needed help dealing with this, the leadership and district balked. We can debate the merits of active shooter training for teachers. In this day and age, I can’t say that they shouldn’t happen. They certainly shouldn’t happen the way mine did. But what isn’t up for debate is the very apparent lack of emotional and psychological support offered to teachers after events like Sandy Hook or Stoneman Douglas. Ironically, the district health plan is willing to help if you want to quit smoking or lose weight, but if you ask them to help with the stress and anxiety caused by the job, you’ll be out of luck. Over the ten years I spent teaching, I lost half a dozen students to gun violence. I know of others who lost a battle with drug abuse. I’ve seen first hand the effects of generational poverty. I’ve been to the ER with students in the middle of night. I’ve been to funerals and visiting hours. I cried in my classroom after learning about Sandy Hook, Boston, Paris, Orlando, and Las Vegas. Every day teachers need to find the courage to talk about the realities of this world. And everyday there is a cost to teachers’ emotional well-being that is never acknowledged or addressed. The worst kind of paper cut is the one that is never allowed to heal.

In my opinion, I was most successful when my primary role was to provide students with inspiring and relevant challenges and to support their progress towards successfully answering those challenges. In my first five years teaching I feel like I did this a couple time a semester, at most. I wasn’t very good at it because I was always trying to stay on top of all the other parts of the profession. I felt like I was always putting out fires, instead of teaching. I really began to excel when I started teaching 9th grade English. My lessons and units consistently started to produce lively discussions, exemplar assessments, and most importantly, student growth. Instead of a great lesson a month, I was creating them multiple times a week. So what happened? Why the big difference between the fifth and sixth year of teaching?

Leadership. I was given permission from my administration to focus on what was most important, and what I was best at, instruction. In the words of the outstanding Artisan Teacher professional development series (why the district discontinued the use of his workshops is beyond me) founder Mike Rutherford, I was given the time and resources to “focus on and develop my strengths and manage my weaknesses.” I no longer had to do everything that was on my plate at the level that was being demanded. I could be great at stagecraft and planning, and could be acceptable with other asks without being regarded as a failure. I stopped responding immediately to emails. I gave them 24 hours before responding and most resolved themselves without me doing anything. This freed up time to plan more and better. I saw that my great lessons and units happened more frequently. I saw an increase my student achievement results, not only quality but quantity of students succeeding. In short, I was a TVASS level 1 teacher when I carried the burden of doing all the “just one more” things to make people happy. But I became a consistent level 4 and 5 teacher when I became laser focused on good content, good instructional practices, and coaching my students. I learned to abandon what wasn’t helping me to reach students. I need to thank those leaders who gave me the confidence and ability to say no to the curse of “just one more” thing. I also appreciate my peers who kept me focused on the job and not on the slights, both major and minor. My peers, who also became my best friends, often kept me from quitting and probably from being fired.

The major paper cuts were less frequent, but they hurt more. A school board member who endorses and promotes a tweet which disrespects me and the teachers in my school. Learning from the local news about a promised salary increase evaporating. A lack of communication from central office which leaves school leaders and teachers to guess intention and to explain district policy changes to students and parents themselves. These all contributed to the mistrust and dissonance between the district and teachers. These are all evident in #thanksmetro.

Need more evidence of paper cuts? Here is a list that comes immediately to mind.

  • No paid maternity-leave policy beyond using sick -leave. I wrote this opinion on Facebooklast fall… “Here are my problems with a lack of paid maternity leave policy. 1) Having a baby isn’t the same as being sick. Period. Teachers get sick leave because teachers get sick. Often. Starting a family isn’t contagious, it can’t be treated at the minute clinic, and it sure as heck shouldn’t be relegated to the ever evaporating seven week summer break. 2) Almost 80% of the district’s employees are women. Not having this benefit is simply negligent and a flagrant disregard for the health and well-being of the majority of their employees. It reeks of blatantly sexist decision making. 3) The government should be the model employer, but in this (and many other instances) it puts the bottom line above the individual and social benefit. 4) As stated, the district is bleeding teachers. Nationwide, teacher turnover is problem. Currently in Nashville the problem is even worse, especially for teachers with 3-10 years experience, or those in the prime family starting years. A smart person once told me that happy parents raise happy kids. I believe that the same is true with teachers. Happy teachers (and by extension those who feel like their employer is taking care of them) are infinitely better for students than the teachers who feel nickel and dimed and exploited by policy and a system which only looks out for itself. If you want the investment the district makes in teachers to pay dividends, you have to keep teachers in the district more than three years. Start here. Nashville taxpayers and elected officials and school administrators… If you are fair to your teachers, they will be fair to the students and the district and society. That’s transitive leadership. We all know it. But if you are brave enough to be generous with your teachers, they will reward your generosity with loyalty and dedication and the relentless pursuit of helping students succeed, which will in turn pay for itself tenfold. That’s transformative leadership. Don’t get me wrong, providing maternity leave is the expectation. It is not generosity, especially if teachers are having to plead for it. But in providing any benefit, please be generous. Teachers who are proud to work for a responsive community will always outwork those who see the profession as a job. While I still consider twenty days paid leave to be insulting, it’s twenty paid days more than we have now. Read more on my facebook here. Big paper cut.
  • The recent (2015) pay raises to teachers with 1-5 years of experience who DO NOT have a Masters degree, but still nothing in the last ten years for those teachers who have chosen to invest in our profession either by earning another degree or who have stayed in the profession longer than five years. The costs of living in the “It” city has skyrocketed. But with that our property taxes have increased which I think means more money for services. We certainly have enough money for a new baseball stadium, convention center, outdoor concert venue, and transportation plan, and downtown development. We have a booming local and state economy. We have shown we have the money for massive pay raises for central office leadership.  It appears we even have money for rookie teachers (TFA) with one to five years experience. And they are the ones most likely to leave the profession! What we don’t seem to have money for is teacher pay increases for these mid career professionals who are staying in the system. Paper cut.
  • The 3% cost of living pay raise last spring that was, then during Teacher Appreciation Week wasn’t, then somehow was again. It is difficult to have gratitude for something promised when you must fight for it as part of the budget. Paper cut.
  • Teacher Appreciation Week that includes a bridge lighting and a website for “affordable housing” which is actually only a mortgage calculator. (I know this is the Mayor’s thing, but it still counts for me as talking about appreciating teachers without doing anything.) Meanwhile the district hosts a holiday office parties with gift cards and giveaways. It is out of touch with the reality that we face. During a central office appreciation week a few years ago, while teachers were re-entering grades (see next point) central office was having yoga and massages during the week. These rewards are not undeserved. Good people, hard working individuals make up central office. But they are all examples of a district that is being insensitive to the sacrifices teachers are making. Paper cut.
  • In 2015 an IT computer glitch wiped out student grades and S&I information at the end of the grading period. No apology was ever issued from the district. Our school leaders empathized and apologized. But the tone of the email from central office lacked understanding and dodged responsibility. It simply demanded the data be re-entered by the specified time. Paper cut.
  • A new health and wellness center located in the most difficult part of town to reach, but is conveniently located next to the central office. I would like to know how many employees who live in Joelton or Antioch or Bellevue use the facility. Why not YMCA passes for all employees? If the health and well-being of teachers and support staff was truly important, it should be made far more accessible and to more people. Again, this looks like insensitive decision making. Paper cut.
  • Changing from Gradespeed to InfiniteCampus without adequately training or supporting teachers BEFORE the school year started (more on tech use in this district later). Paper cut.
  • Newly minted and mandated I.F.L. assessments (high school literacy units) which do not provide copies of the texts which are to be taught. Essentially what the mandate says is “You will teach this. You will assess this. But you need to supply copies of the texts for your students” Paper cut.
  • The communication regarding the lead in the water which in addition to students dangers, all teachers use for drinking, for making coffee or lunches. Some of these readings are high enough that I’m concerned for all the pregnant women working in schools affected. No apology or empathy. Paper cut.
  • Much has been made of the great eclipse fiasco of 2017, so I don’t need to rehash it here. But this combined with the numerous weather related openings and closings (the “Seriously people” tweet) reflects poorly on all of the professionals working to improve the perception and communication of the district. Paper cut.
  • A school board which has members who have actively attacked and who promote attacking teachers on social media. Paper cut.

This list doesn’t even begin to address the state’s culture of over-testing, politics, and anti-teacher policy. After all this is only an exit interview for the district. Those complaints will have to wait for another time. I want to also find the time to talk about what I saw that was going right. There are SO MANY examples of outstanding outcomes that go under the radar. It is important that even if no one reads this, even if nothing changes, that I speak my mind on these challenges facing teachers. While paper cuts can heal, some can also leave a scar. And the most poignant scar is a memory of a time that we weren’t treated with respect as professionals or as human beings. I urge the people who have some say to evaluate and implement every decision after considering the cost to and the effect on teachers exactly the same way we ask teachers to make every decision with their students best interests in mind.

I have much more to say, but the phone is ringing. My eldest son was absent from school again today.

To be continued…

*My executive principal always had an open door policy and I always felt comfortable talking to him about our school. And one of my A.P.’s did ask for feedback on their leadership. I was deeply impressed by this humility and desire to reflect and improve. I will happily answer any questions they have for me. This post is more of a reflection of the district’s operations rather than the leadership of our immediate supervisors.

Here and There

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“People love to say,  ‘Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.’ What they don’t say is ‘And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod.’ That’s the part of the analogy that’s missing. Working with Andrew was the first time in my life I realized you need someone from the privileged world to come to you and say ‘Okay, here’s what you need, and here’s how it works.’ Talent alone would have gotten me nowhere without Andrew giving me the CD writer. People say ‘Oh that’s a handout.’ No. I still have to work to profit by it. But I don’t stand a chance without it.”  Trevor Noah, from his book Born A Crime.

I’ve been wanting to write about what I’ve seen and felt since our arrival here, but haven’t really been able to construct an opinion about the overwhelming contrast of poverty and wealth in this part of the world because my thoughts are so often at odds and never finalized. As soon as I think I have formed a logical opinion, I am witness to something that doesn’t fit within my construct. Two books have been instrumental in helping me to see more clearly the moving parts of South Africa’s racial, economic, and social inequality, but I realize it is still only a partial understanding. Bryce Courtney’s The Power of One and Trevor Noah’s Born A Crime (although it is soon to be released as a motion picture, I beg you to pick a copy and read it. Thank you to the Morgan family back in Nashville for sending me here with a copy. I devoured it.) both get my highest possible recommendations.

I read The Power of One as a high school student. At the time I thought it was just a wonderful coming-of-age story set in an exotic land in a far off time. Coincidentally, as I was reading the book which chronicles the rise of apartheid, the system itself was being dismantled. Also coincidentally, last year I assigned and re-read the book as a summer reading option before knowing about our impending move. The Power of One shows the conditions and rise of apartheid from an outside but still privileged point of view. I think it speaks to the feelings of many South Africans who opposed the segregation and brutality of apartheid, but might have been caught unaware of how quietly and quickly the system of oppression was being implemented and how deep it would infiltrate South African society. As I read about DACA and deportations last summer, the themes of the book and the front page of the newspapers overlapped in striking fashion. Born A Crime examines at the dissolution of and the persistent ramifications of apartheid with personal stories that are both humorous and deeply unsettling. Even with the help of these texts, I struggle to make sense of what I see driving around one of South Africa’s most affluent cities.

You can’t help but notice the economic inequality here. Just go for a drive. The main mode of transportation for white South Africans is automobile. The buses and minibuses, the taxies, the bikes cobbled together from miscellaneous parts, and the pedestrians walking along the muddy shoulders of the road are the primary means of transportation for black South Africans. On every street and corner, there are people standing and waiting. Some are selling sunglasses or phone chargers or straw hats. Some are holding signs with tragic lines like “My wife was kidnapped. I need money for ransom” or “HIV Orphan.” They are heartbreaking. Most people are just standing around passing time. There so many people and yet so few resources and opportunity.

The other day my eldest son tugged at my conscience when we drove past a barely clothed young man who was maybe 10 or 12 at an intersection. I’ve never been so grateful that my son can’t completely read yet. “What did that boy’s sign say, Pop?” I swallowed hard. David, our driver, was sitting right next to me, and I was ashamed to have to lie to my son. “He’s asking for money.” I answered. From the back seat came a resounding positive “We should help him! He needs help, Pop. We are the Bennetts, we help people, that’s what you said Bennetts do. Why are we driving past him if we’re supposed to help people who need it?”

I love the young men of character and integrity that we are raising, but what do you say to that? Do I say we only help when it’s convenient? Or maybe respond with the bitter truth that we only help when the person looks like us and we feel comfortable. Do I answer with the harsh but realistic phrase like we can’t help everyone?

I was at a total loss.

David chimed in. “Drugs. He only wants money for drugs.” Grateful for the out, I explained to my sons about drugs and how not helping by giving money would make it more difficult for the boy to buy more drugs, so in a way were helping by driving past him. The boys accepted this, for now. I wondered what David was thinking about my rationalization. We clearly could have given him a couple of Rand, and it would have meant nothing in the grand scheme of things for us. But I didn’t, and that’s how it happened. In that moment I taught my white affluent sons to use their imaginations to justify not providing help to a human being who is clearly in need. I felt like I was going to throw up. I still do.

Every morning on the four mile drive to their private American school, we pass hundreds if not thousands of people who exist on one or two thousand Rand a year ($100-$200). Over the last four weeks living in hotels, the four of us have spent more than that eating out every week. So what do you do? I’m not and have never been religious, but I do identify and try to live by John Wesley’s moral credo.

Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.

The guilt and embarrassment I feel is real. And it is only loosely held in check only by my ability to rationalize the limits of compassion. We can’t help everybody. I am responsible for my family, my friends, my students, my immediate community. But when and where I choose to help is so subjective, that I find I’m often disgusted by my own lack of humanity in the choosing. In those moments I feel completely hypocritical.

We are in the process of trying to hire a domestic worker. This is euphemistic pun. Domestic means both in-home and locally hired. We are hiring someone to help cook and clean and provide child care. We don’t really need the help. We’ve been able to keep our house running over the years without paid help. With me not teaching, I have what feels like an infinite amount of time each day to make the meals and keep the family in clean clothes and our accommodations in order. Hiring a domestic worker feels wasteful in that I can clearly do this work without paying someone to do it for me. But at the same time by hiring someone, we are providing consistent employment and a paycheck to someone for the next four years. This is where a second issue arises. How much is someone’s time worth? Is it the going rate (which is well below basic living standards)? Is it what we can afford to pay? Because those numbers are so far apart they can’t be put in the same sentence. I hate the negotiations for these reasons. They force me to confront this terrible economic power difference which is so much easier to pretend doesn’t exist. By ignoring it I don’t have feel about it. How selfish is that? Read that again. It is so much easier emotionally to pretend there is no economic power difference than it is recognize it and address it justly.

We have a waitress here at the hotel, and I would like to think that we have become friends. She is wonderful in the mornings with our grumpy kids, and she has a light about her. I know I don’t know her, but she exudes happiness, so I like her. We’ve asked about her family. She has two girls, ages six and eight, who live a day’s travel away. She doesn’t see them often because she stays near the hotel and works six days a week. We were heartbroken to hear this story. Kids need their mom. Always and everywhere. Just this morning a German/European mother and her teen boys were seated at the table next to us. And like us, the mom inquired about the waitress’s family. Upon hearing about the existence of the girls, the women whimiscally said, “You’re so lucky. You have girls.” And the mom looked at her boys. “Girls are so much cleaner than boys.” She signed her check, snapped at her boys, and left without knowing the irony and insensitivity of her words.

It is a scenario I see playing out again and again here. There is so often very little awareness of the tremendous privilege we move through our lives wrapped in. (If you’re reading this, I do not mean to diminish the challenges you are facing. They are real, and they are significant. But being here is changing how I see the factors which shape our lives and our responses to those factors.) I am guilty of too often treating inconveniences as problems. There is a difference. If you have nothing to eat. If you are in fear for your physical safety. If you have no home or family, you have problems. Just about everything else in this life is an inconvenience. And ten days into this adventure I’m realizing just how much of my life has been inconvenient and how few problems I’ve ever really overcome.

Maybe you were expecting this post or maybe you were thinking that I would come here and not be changed. I don’t know what I was expecting. I think I’m well travelled. I think I’ve seen enough of the world to not have much surprise me. I like to think that I have always been aware of the unfairness of our society. But I also know that in America we are so good at dismissing poverty as a result of inaction or ineptitude. Wealth is usually always perceived as “deserved” in America. But here that isn’t the case. Slavery was legal only 25 years ago. Here the most sophisticated form of social oppression was a part of everyday life while I was watching the Barcelona Olympics. Here I’m forced to wrestle with the inequity every moment I’m outside of my hotel room. It is overwhelming and readily apparent and difficult to square with my world view.

In another instance of people being out of touch with the world round them, we witnessed a family (mainly the father) visibly upset at a waiter for an order that was wrong. That waiter might have travelled hours to this job to work for a trivial wage. He might have to risk his life walking on the shoulder of dark roads to get home again. He might have messed up the order, so what? The people dining at this particular restaurant might have problems, I don’t know, but I guarantee that all of them went home with full stomachs to sleep safely in their homes, and awake to a tomorrow that has the potential to be better than today. For so many people here, tomorrow will look exactly the same. Next week and next year and 25 years from now will (if they are lucky) look exactly the same. And here’s the kicker for me, I have only experienced a tiny slice of life in this very affluent part of this city which is a very affluent part of the country. Just 3 miles north of here is the Mamelodi Township. Nearly 400,000 people live there, and even 25 years after the fall of apartheid most residents still do not have the opportunity or resources to see any part of the city beyond the remaining apartheid-established boundaries.

And here I am, at a loss for action because of the overwhelming nature of the problems. There are simply not enough fishing rods.