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Looking Up

9 Jun

She pulled the small, square paper out of the bucket, slowly unfolding the brightly colored sheet to read the next question aloud.

“Okay,” my student said.  Continuing the pattern we’d followed all evening during our TOEFL conversation club, she started her sentence hesitantly. “What would you do if you never had to sleep at night?”

She smiled and shifted in her chair. My student “A” loves these sorts of hypothetical, what she calls “goofy” questions. You can almost see her synapses firing, her thoughts pulling together and forming a clever, imaginative response. If it were up to her, every class period would be spent discovering what life would be like if we were 3cm tall, or what she would do if she had 10 eyes, or deciding where to go if she could live anywhere in the world.

“What is the question asking you?” I said, encouraging her to re-word the question to ensure she had the full understanding.

She started to respond when my other student, “N,” jumped in. “I know,” said N. “Every night, if you could not sleep, what would you do with time?”

We all nodded, a collective “oooooh” settling throughout the classroom.  My two students smiled, ready to consider this newest ridiculousness as they had the other questions throughout the evening.

Up to this point, their favorite question had been “What would you do if all the houses in your city were made of chocolate?” These young professionals, in their early 20s, could not help but giggle as children when imagining a sweet, edible city at their fingertips.

“We could eat all day long!” A had said. “I never bring a gift when visiting family again – we just pull off the window to share!”

“Everyone would have – how do you say – really bad… acne,” N had added. They loved it.

I personally had been rather interested in their responses to “What would you do if you woke up tomorrow and there were no longer any laws?” After pulling through the difficult verbs and getting to the heart of the question, my students answered quickly and surprisingly.

“Oh I know,” A laughed. “I would drive a car,” she said.

“Me too!” N added. “And then I would go to another country, where I wouldn’t have to get a visa. It would be easy!”

Their responses, sincere and honest, came out so thoughtfully and happily it made me nearly wish for this lawlessness, to live in their dystopian future where women drive cars easily and young adults can travel where they please.

When it came to our last question, though, “What would you do if you didn’t have to sleep at night?”, they were slower to respond.

“Maybe,” said A, “I would spend a lot of time on Facebook. I would study my Spanish and learn another language, like France.”

N agreed, nodding slowly. She paused, and then said. “I would watch movies. I’d have to. I don’t like this question. Why would I not sleep?”

I wasn’t sure if I had offended them or if they just didn’t want to imagine this world.

“What do you mean?” I asked. “Why does this question bother you?”

N thought. “At night, I sleep. If I were a man, I would go to the park or visit my friend. But I spend this time sleeping.”

“Yes,” A added, tugging at her long, curly black hair. “I would be sad to be awake all night, staying at home. I like to sleep so I can wake up to the sun.”

“Well,” I said, “what if you could go anywhere? If you never needed sleep and could visit anywhere in the evening, what would you do?”

“Maybe,” A said, “we could go the cinema, if we had a theater. Or even to a pub!” she laughed. N agreed, then thought some more.

“I would sit outside. I sit outside and stare at the stars. I did when I was child!”

“I did that too!” A added. “I remember when I was child, I would stare up. I would stare up and try to count each and every star. I would count and count and get so mad. I remember getting so mad and crying because I try so hard, but there were too many. I count and count but I never count them all.”

“Why were you mad?” said N. “Isn’t that big? There are so many stars. I’m happy because I can never count them all.”

We all smiled in response and a heavy pause fell over the room.

“It is good we are friends,” A said to N, several moments later. “Now we can just look at them together.”


Just a Little Rain

26 Feb


After what feels like weeks of dark heavy skies, this evening all broke open into a soul washing downpour of spring.

On the trek to the bath house, it was cool and dark and damp and perfect. And the scent! Nothing announces spring better than that deep, full smell of rain in the air.

It couldn’t have picked a more perfect day, either. With all the great things that have been moving and shaking, and with our clubs picking up momentum, a smooth re-beginning is exactly what we need to push us through til summer.  And what could announce that better than rain showers and buds on the trees?  So glad they have made their return to our city.

And, so as not to miss a day: yesterday I received the closest to a compliment I have ever received – and probably the closest she’ll ever get – from my counterpart. After a long hour of conversation lessons with my group of teachers, she looked me in the face and said, “You worked hard today.”  With a nod, she took off.  I’ll take it! Glad for that, my friends.

Collecting I traverse the garden the world, but soon I pass the gates,
Now along the pond-side, now wading in a little, fearing not the wet,
Now by the post-and-rail fences where the old stones thrown there,
pick’d from the fields, have accumulated.    – Walt Whitman


The Days are Getting Longer

24 Feb

Thank goodness for the solstice and increasing sunlight!  Our days here are filled with more sunlight and more work and I love them both.  I’ve been on a real kick lately repeating our country director’s mantra regarding Peace Corps: it’s all about the work. I mean, a lot. I think people are going to get sick of me.  I can’t help it – it helps me get through some of these days in which I feel like I am forever playing catch up.  Because, despite what I find to complain about – no heat, no water, missing my family, my list goes on – I wouldn’t change any of it for the great projects I’ve been fortunate to work with lately. I think I’m at my mid-service high and I’m hoping the momentum continues. There’s a lot going on here, team!

And isn’t that weird to say? Mid-service? We’ve been here nearly a whole year. Though we don’t know our exact close of service date (and won’t until July) we will potentially be going home in May 2015.  There’s finally enough going on that I don’t go stir crazy and I don’t know that I’ll ever fit it all in.

While I don’t always use my time in the most appropriate fashion, I do feel just real exhausted lately.  We discovered some intense black mold growing in our kitchen; who’s to say if it’s the culprit or not, but I’m blaming the extra fatigue on that culprit! Combine that fun fungus and long days and a heck of a stiff bed, and I’m pooped before I even start my day.

So, let me blame my lagging behind-ness in my Year of Gladness on all that, but I’m hoping this energy refocuses into some stellar movements. I’m fortunate to be so busy and I do hope it stays that way.

To catch up, let’s go back and recount this missing week and a half:

13th: Thursday! We had our first community village meeting with TONS of community members show up to talk about the school project. A great day with lots of energy.

14th: so glad to spend, truly, one of the best Valentine’s Days with my partner. We made our famous Cajun pasta, drank a little wine, the power went out to make the candles even more perfect, and had a lovely evening chatting in the glow of our gas stove.

15th: first weekend back at site in a long time! I was able to enjoy the sunshine and do tons of laundry and clean our bath house – the joys of warmer weather.

16th: spent the day in a village with friends and food. Saw the weirdest turkey in the world, met some very kind people, and explored a new part of our region.

17th: back to work! We had a solid meeting regarding our school project between the volunteers and our counterpart. I finally feel that I have a good handle on where to move from here and we enjoyed some delicious pumpkin pilaf.

18th: held my first teacher conversation club. It’s been in the works for ages, and it was truly a success! We had 20 great teachers and I look forward to continuing the discussions.

19th: hooray for TOEFL Wednesday. It has quickly become one of my favorite activities. We had a great discussion on some English phrases and I am forever being impressed by their wit, knowledge, and energy.

20th: one of the highlights of my service so far. I was able to lead our next community village meeting. In front of a room full of village elders, respected staff and community parents and members, we discussed the project and how the community can contribute and what we need in a school. It really is the toughest job you’ll ever love.

21st: made my way to the south to lead a teacher training seminar with my fellow teacher trainer. We met up with my dear friend and her host mother and had tacos with REAL AMERICAN TORTILLAS sent from the states. Perfection.

22nd: had our second teacher training seminar. Thirty-two teachers! It was a great group of people from all over the region and much more than we expected. That evening, I had a dinner with one of the coolest families I have had the pleasure to meet. A lovely evening of good food, good conversation, and a picture of a man standing on a giant potato. Love it.

23rd: despite a 7 hour ride to get home, it was a good day and I had a lovely lunch with my partner. He’s the best.

AND, that’s today. Let’s hope this busyness continues  – I love it.

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large — I contain multitudes.  – Walt Whitman

Club: Day One

12 Feb

This evening, we had our first TOEFL club meeting – a project that’s been in the works for a few months. Despite the slow start, it was utterly fabulous.

We had a great turn-out and I’m anxious for it to continue. Good conversation, new friends, and a united passion for learning – what could be better?


The future is no more uncertain than the present.   – Walt Whitman

5th Grade

11 Feb

With my counterpart this morning, we made some teacher observations and held discussion at a village school.

On these visits, I am often surprised at how vastly different the schools feel from the U.S. schools I am used to; the buildings, the classroom organization, the teaching schedule, the teachers themselves, the students’ behaviors –  so many of these paradigms I believe to be so concretely associated with education and students and kids arrange themselves in a very different manner here.

While working with a fifth grade class today, I was surprised at their level of intensity. The English lesson was very traditional: a lot of memorization and heavy repetition and recitation. The students, while antsy, modeled their best behavior for us guests.

I was beginning to view them as an almost new variety of student – some vastly different beings able to push away anxious energies in order to call out “Teacher, Teacher!” with waving hands to translate the grammar topic for the day.

And then someone farted.

A small boy in back let out the loudest toot that ever tooted. The whole class burst into boisterous, uncontrollable fits and giggles.  The teacher, having none of it, tried to regain their focus, but it was too late. For the remaining ten minutes of class, all students shot glances at their peer, waving fingers in front of noses and rolling eyes at the poor little fellow who just couldn’t help it. It turns out, despite organization and structure, kids are kids no matter where you are.

And farts, of course, are always funny.

A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands,
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.  – Walt Whitman

A Saturday

22 Sep

As a Peace Corps Volunteer in the TEFL program, my official title is that of “Teacher Trainer.”

Lemme be frank: I’m not entirely certain I’m qualified enough nor savvy enough to carry this role out, but I’m also irrationally excited about the opportunities this opens up.  Rather than serving in a school, I have been assigned to work with the Ministry of Education in my city, partnering alongside an English Language Methodologist (or Methodist, as they refer to it here, which forever will make me chuckle) to work with teachers.

In theory, at any rate.

Many of my posts have been me blabbing about some of the struggles kicking this relationship off has brought. My enthusiasm is still super pumped, team, but I do have to admit to feeling a bit defeated at some points in time – and we haven’t even really started yet!

Therefore, yesterday could not have come at a better time. While it wasn’t how our day was initially supposed to unfold, it turned out to be exactly what I needed.

Here in Azerbaijan, the group of volunteers two years before us are winding down to the end of their service (which I will wine and lament about at length in another post, don’t worry).  It’s an exciting/emotional/busy time for everyone, especially with the ending and passing along of projects and ideas and information – there’s a lot going on, you guys!

Two fellow teacher trainers are ending their service soon. They have been working with this amazing project, often referred to as the Training of Trainers Workshop. Started a few years ago, the two volunteers travel to various regions throughout the country. There, they lead a seminar with two goals: first, to pass along some stellar information about interactive methods and some really hands-on, low-prep activities for teachers to use in their classrooms; second, the attending teachers are then given some strategies and techniques to allow them to teach this information to fellow teachers back at their own school – things like public speaking, planning the workshop – essentially, giving them some knowledge and skills and encouraging them to lead their own small workshop and share the information with others.

I love this project, both for its perfect simplicity and sustainability.  It just has such a clear focus: “Here are some cool teaching skills! Now share these ideas with your coworkers!”

Yesterday, my fellow AZ11 teacher trainer and I were to head over to a nearby city and engage in one of these workshops, observing how the current leaders carry out the workshop and figuring out how we might work this project once they close their service.

Unfortunately, due to various issues, we had to cancel the workshop. Instead, since the two current leaders were already in the area, we met in one of my favorite cities and had our own small meeting.

With the simple act of stepping out my front door, it promised to be a great day. For once, the weather was cool and calm – no more sweating buckets at 8am! After walking to the corner, the bus to the station arrived within a minute (seriously, this is major!) and made great time.

There, I ran into some local friends, one of which was also heading to the city for the day. It was lovely having a seat-mate I knew – no more awkward questions and close encounters of the old-lady kind. The windows were down, a cool breeze lead us, and we didn’t make a single stop (seriously, again, this is major, as usually we stop every ten minutes or so to pick up another traveler).

I arrived about a half hour before my fellow volunteer. Normally this would make for an awkward time wandering around the city, trying to look like I belong and avoid drawing attention and infinite questions to myself. Lucky for me (and anyone who has the fortune to visit!) the city has LITERALLY the most perfect, charming bus station with an actual waiting room with actual benches and actual windows and actual floors and real live janitors and perfect, unperturbed silence.

I spent the most blissful thirty minutes reading without a single man asking me what I was doing or a woman sitting on top of me to join ourselves together. When my friend arrived, we easily found our way into city and met our fellow volunteers.

sunlight + quiet = perfection

sunlight + quiet = perfection


From there, the afternoon just kept getting better. We had a wonderfully productive afternoon talking over the project, followed by a beautiful lunch down by the river, and when it was all said and done, a smooth ride back to the station where my bus was waiting and set to leave in ten minutes (with an open seat by the window – hollah!) and within the hour I found myself right back where I started, infinitely more optimistic and relaxed and sweatier (so the coolness didn’t last, but come, now.)


chatting with my fellow PCVs

lunch by the river

lunch by the river


ah, beautiful scenery!

ah, beautiful scenery!

I loved the chance to speak with others about their work and more than anything, I loved the way they welcomed me into their project and gave me the confidence to join them and serve. Sometimes I feel like I’m just spinning my wheels trying to get things to make sense and suddenly, here’s this amazing project with solid direction and support and a project-mate who is a former PCV in Ukraine and the sweetest, most thoughtful woman you ever did meet.  While that’s not to say it’s all downhill from here – really, the work is just getting started – but it helped to remind me of the great things people have done and the wonderful people they have met and all that is waiting out there.


Do anything, but let it produce joy. – Walt Whitman

The Start of the Year

17 Sep

Forget January; for me, the real start of the year will always be September.  Tightened schedules, fresh starts, fancy new binders and notebooks and sharp pencil tips and full boxes of crayons and straight folders and notebooks with no frills and clean white pages and organized backpacks…

So, maybe I have a thing for school supplies. But more importantly I just have a thing for school.

Seriously you guys, I love school. If I could get paid to attend school and sit through classes my whole life I totally would.

While I find myself not directly working or studying in a school for the first time in TWENTY YEARS, I still caught the excitement and back-to-school bug.

Yesterday, my site-mate presented  at the opening of the soccer field she helped to build. Seriously, one of the most amazing and proudest moments you ever did see. In front of hundreds of students and parents she stood and spoke about her three year service. And while her time is coming to a close, its strange to think ours is just beginning and the long road ahead. And she is one of three leaving; there are some big shoes to fill here, team. For real.

It was also the first day of school and I cannot tell you how darn cute these students were. I think it is a fact of life small kids – especially in freshly pressed new uniforms – are adorable no matter what country they are from.

One of the cutest moments: the first form students performed a small dance in which they put their toys in the middle of a circle, waved goodbye, and prepared for a year of growing up and learning. It was both adorable and a little sad!



After the ceremony, we had an amazingly delicious lunch together with a few teachers as well as our country director who came for the presentation.

And honestly, the day just kept getting better. While the students slowly meandered into their classes for a hectic first day, I spent the rest of the afternoon with another site mate working on her upcoming grant project. Any time you tackle a big project with another PCV, it always seems to be infinitely more entertaining and delightful than any adventure solo.

But the coolness didn’t end there. At the end of the day, we had our weekly yoga get-together. On the walk home, a strong breeze turned into a freezing rain. Which, in the endless heat in the palm, felt amazing. AND, afterwards, we saw a rainbow, literally over the moon.  While only 7 o’clock or so, the moon was extraordinarily bright and full.

THEEEEN, the rainbow turned into a double rainbow. (I obviously quoted it way too obnoxiously. ) AND THEN, a flock of doves flew right in front of said duo. AND THEN, a woman came out of an alley holding two big bags and balancing a giant bowl of apples on her head. It was so perfectly serendipitous.

When we turned down the road to our house, this adorable little man popped out, tipped his hat and bid “dear mademoiselle a fine evening.” Then he walked away. I don’t really run into a lot of short, French-speaking Azerbaijanis quite often, nor do they tend to pop out of thin air.

Finally, after a lovely dinner with host aunt, we made a giant batch of popcorn (hollah!) and drank some Cola and I won Bananagrams and our INTERNET WORKED! and honestly, it was just a great day.

Call it a Monday or consider it the Magic of the School Year – either way, I loved it.


Seeing, hearing, feeling, are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle. – Walt Whitman


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