Don’t get me wrong. I am guilty. I started having lazy days when I lost sight of the essential question. When those days started getting closer, I left. I took a break from teaching two years ago. …
Source: The Essential Question
Students are practical beings. Their essential question is why are we doing this, or what are we doing today. The teacher should ask herself over and over again why is what I teach the most essential thing my students needs to know?
Think of all of the students who sit in straight rows day after day listening to a teacher teach the same thing that they could read out of a book. How is that valuable? How can anyone believe it is valuable? Charles Schultz coined this with the teacher in all of his comic strips. Blah, blah, blah. As I write, two teachers sit opposite me writing an e-learning module that is not worth the fifteen minutes that they have been talking about it.
There is value in it. Teachers spend hours figuring out how to teach their meaningless lesson. They bring in someone else to consult so that they can flex their intellectual muscles by lifting elementary math problems. Others will join, scratch their heads with looks of consternation. They speak too loudly so that other people can see how hard they work. How intellectually impressive they are.They bring out their calculators to prove their prowess in technology.
Then they return to their cubicles forgetting everything that they just talked about because it is so meaningless. But they have spent so much time talking about it that they don’t want to flush that time away. Still, they inflict their wasted time on a captive audience of unfortunate students day after day.
Don’t get me wrong. I am guilty. I started having lazy days when I lost sight of the essential question. When those days started getting closer, I left. I took a break from teaching two years ago. Now, I want to go back because I have a chance to work in an essential school that puts a student’s essential question at the forefront — where learning is essential for students and teachers.
When I was teaching, I wanted my students to learn so badly. I wanted them own what they learned. I wanted to experience the thrill that comes with learning how to solve a problem. When I had the freedom to run a critical skills classroom, I could do that. At the end of the class, we would talk about what happened, what we learned, and what we were going to do with it.
Then my classes kept getting bigger. The wall that used to open between my classroom and the next was plastered shut. My co-teacher started teaching AP English by himself. Then the textbooks crept in: first ninth grade, then tenth. I stayed ahead of them by teaching 11th and 12th.
When the superintendent sentenced us to textbooks, my colleague asked, what about passion? Does this mean that we teach literature in snippets of cropped fiction, that students will learn that all poetry has notes in its margins? That all writing fits into a series of nice neat little drafts of 500 words — no more no less? The response was yes. The prospect of pre-packaged teaching frightened me, so I ran away.
Now I have one more chance. A tiny glimmer of hope that all is not lost. I applied for a job at an essential school that I found tucked away on Indeed (the world’s number one job post site). I went through two interviews. Now, if I prove my passion and my commitment to essential learning in a one-hour Skype session, there is a chance that could embark on a new and essential journey at an essential school.
How will I answer the essential question?
People like to compare places. Would you say that India is like Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Mexico, the U.S.? How does one compare India to anything? India is India. Ask me a question that lets me pour some of India into your soul. Ask me about the contrasts of color, people, nature, plastic and poverty, but don’t ask me to compare.
Ask me about the woman on her way to Sri Lanka who would “never go to India; where men grab at the women and rob them blind. Where danger lurks behind every corner.” How do people get through life thinking that way? I forget that some people think I am a brave and gallant traveler who hopped on a plane to Mexico three years ago to find “home” but has yet to return to the comforts of New England. I am not brave, spirited yes, but I associate bravery with gallantry, valor, and nerve, not with the hapless delving into other worlds that I do.
Delving was not my approach to this trip to India. The man with whom I went to the Everest Base Camp (not to be confused with summiting Mt. Everest) encouraged me several times to join the Happy Hiker India trip. At first, I was reluctant, I am not a group person, as Ganesan would be the first to point out. It turns me inside out to be in a group. After three or four pushes from Ganesan, I relented and joined the 27-member tour of Southern India. Since it was with the Happy Hikers, I trusted it would be something that it didn’t turn out to be, but that doesn’t mean that it was not a splendid experience. Despite the fact that the cluster of women on the trip whose priority was shopping drove the trip, I managed, as usual, to hop off the bus and explore the nooks and crannies of India, while others pursued their interests.
We bounced about in a government jeep early one morning. The forest shared the blue hue so familiar to me from new England hikes in the winter minus the cold. The shopping women in the back were so loud that the driver had to remind them that we were scaring the animals away.
As we inched through the forest sanctuary, part of me yearned to be walking in this emptiness, but I appreciated that I could be there at all. Although I get down on India’s lack of infrastructure when it comes to hiding the trash as well as we Americans do, India’s efforts to preserve the wildlife there touched me. My thoughts were rewarded when we saw an elephant taking its morning drink in a shallow pond at the base of a ravine. Seeing an elephant in the wild is an honor, and on this trip, I was granted that honor several times. This elephant was undisturbed, peaceful, and graceful. The scene was so still, and I could imagine this animal’s solitary life as he swayed out of the pond and into the manicured landscape, which reminded me of the woods I used to tromp through growing up in New York.
All of the elephants that I have seen up until now have been captive. Hindus revere Ganesh, the elephant god who removes obstacles and carries the attributes of strength, honor, stability and tenacity. Most of the captive elephants that I have seen lumber through India’s crazy streets carrying barefoot men or stay chained by one leg to a post at the bottom of a temple’s 700 steps eating bananas or wads of rice shoved into their mouths by their owners.
On my trip to Northern India last year, Dolores and I rode two elephants who had been rescued from the circus. The story went something like this. Years ago, royalty owned a herd of elephants. A caste cared for the elephants from generation to generation. But when the dynasty dissolved, the elephants were sold into labor and circus acts where their keepers brutally abused them until someone called a halt to elephants in the circus. When the elephants were released, there was no question that they return to the next generation of royal elephant keepers.
After the morning safari, three of us we took off from our place on the edge of the reserve to walk into the town of Masinagudi. We passed by washerwomen and fishermen at the riverbank and never-ending piles of plastic that continue to swallow India.
Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.
Masinagudi’s small main street had its version of “pearls, corals, ebony and sensual perfumes” with its goat’s heads at the butcher shop gazing beyond the long line of chicken butchers on the other side of the street. Women in bright saris women waited in line while the butcher pulled one live chicken after the other from its cage and de-limbed it on a runny red slab of wood. Men carried away livers and legs, but the women stuffed the live chickens in their bags for later execution.
We wandered up a hill off of the main drag of the town to find India in its vibrant pink, purple, turquoise, and striking white houses, amidst white-toothed children as curious about us as we were of them. We bought a bunch of bananas and discovered that cows, dogs, monkeys, and birds eat them skin and all.
Seeing women in their brilliant saris, the men in their lungi and the openness of the poverty that surrounds them baffles me. Living this way, and smells that curl my nostril hairs is understandable on a certain level. This is their normal. It is the contrast that astounds me: the brilliance of the people, their clothing, and their smiles. I am the anomaly for them, wandering through their village with my Samsung while the men, women, and children stare at my long, white, uncovered limbs and titter behind polite hands.
India doesn’t hide its poverty and its pollution the way that Americans do. I know we have the same amount of plastic, maybe less poverty, but it’s still there hiding behind the dumpsters, or in those secret landfills where They take our non-recyclables and nuclear waste. We Americans just take better care to filter it, which has its merits. Our infrastructure provides our country with a means to deposit its waste, finish its roads, and clean its public toilets, but that is not to say that it doesn’t exist.
The rawness and honesty in India give me a realistic sense of the state of the world. India opens my eyes wide open to humanity, which is glorious and colorful, wretched and raw. India is loud and chaotic, soft and spiritual, ancient and wise.
We non-shoppers left the Tea Nest in Conoor reluctantly after a peaceful night on a tea plantation. We had spent the short evening before meandering through the tea plantation as the sun set. We twisted our way through the paths that the tea pickers make as they pluck one ripe tea leaf after the next and deposit them into their white burlap bags. We came upon a group of pickers – all women – weighing their day’s labor. Then they broke camp and left where they would start again in the morning.
We continued upward until we reached the top of the endless rows of tea, and bought tea and eucalyptus oil at a tea stand on the roadside. Meanwhile, I had to spend this time finding discrete places to take care of my India belly. Indian food is rich and eating it night after night takes its toll. I learned that sticking to veggie fried rice has its merits.
Despite my stomach, wandering back through the tea plantation we came upon several bisons on our path. We were not quite sure how they would feel about us, so we dodged them by taking a narrow path to the road where we met up with another bison. These animals are giants with threatening horns, but they seem more concerned with the grass on the roadside than they did with us. Two schoolboys returning home seemed relaxed enough about the bison, so we let it lumber past without consequence.
As I strongly consider leaving Asia this June, I can’t believe how unaware I was of how other people live, how ignorant and shallow my perspective of the world was before I came here. Raised in an isolated and privileged world of country clubs and private schools, the closest I got to India was through Burnett, Kipling, and later, E.M. Forester. I, like these British authors, was captivated by India. Now their influence is buried behind the mask of what India truly is. Shrouded in the myths of religion and the past, poverty, food and color, India is a sensory experience that hopefully will stay with me if I return to New England.
Since I left Mexico, my adventures have taken on a different flavor and mood. I am not charging forth as much. Instead, I am absorbing the world in a way that I never have before. India has left me full of wonder for a second time.
I think of all of the places that I have not been – the Middle East, Russia, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South America, Africa, and the bits and pieces that I have missed on my travels—knowing that I have only scratched the surface of the world.
I have a feeling that I have always been one, even in my own country. It is my normal to feel like a foreigner. Being an American in Asia or Mexico makes my foreignness more obvious, because of the language and the color of my skin. Living in New England makes it easy to hide the foreigner in me.
Living and traveling in Southeast Asia, makes me realize how small America is. While you, we, are grappling with the election of our new president (He Who Shall Not Be Named), he is a passing fancy here. Here in Malaysia, America is no big deal. When locals ask me where I live, I usually say on the New York side or the opposite side from California. Sometimes, I just say I live near Canada. Most of the time people just cannot imagine where that might be.
I’ll admit that as an American I always felt privileged, maybe a step above the rest of the world. Living among expatriates in Kuala Lumpur has made me realize that I am not. Nor am I the center of the universe, which may seem obvious to you, but it took me a while to realize that.
Still, I find myself missing my country. The regularity of starting my car on a cold winter day. Wondering whether I will make it out of the driveway if I get enough traction as I charge our of the garage full bore. I miss going to Twelve Pine for a latte. I miss crashing around the woods with Beth. I miss lunch at Plowshare Farm. I miss clipping on my cross country skis and skiing out of my basement door in a raging snowstorm.
I miss the normalcy of my New England life. The question is can I sustain the personal and emotional growth that I have gained in the past two and a half years, or would I slither back into my old skin again.
Yes. I want to come back and live in a room with a kitchen, a bed, and a bathroom. I want to live in the woods, off the grid and write.
I certainly have taken risks before. I am capable of doing anything. But I’ll need a car. I’ll need to pay first and last month’s rent. Oh and I’ll need a job. Isn’t it funny how leaving the country was so easy, so dynamic, unpredictable and challenging, but grappling with a possible return stops me dead in my tracks? All of my protectors leap out at me and yell be careful, it’s not the way you think it is, you will fall into a rut again, you can’t teach, you can’t earn a living writing, you will end up right where you started two and a half years ago. But I can keep them at bay. I have taken to propping those voices on my shoulder and telling them to settle down and watch me take care of myself.
I finally get it when Tiresias gives Odysseus the oar and tells him that after he returns to Ithaka he will have to go somewhere far away and plant the oar in a place where no one has ever seen one before. It’s because Odysseus is not that person anymore. He made it back to Ithaka a different man, and Ithaka was not the same either. Plant the oar, plant your old self somewhere far away and your return will be complete.
So I can go back. I can take my oar with me. And after I have settled into my life there, I can pick up my oar and take it to say, Louisiana or Kansas, and plant it there. Because home is in my heart. I know that it is not in Peterborough, Katonah, or Kuala Lumpur.
It sounds so simple.
Why is it so hard?
We hiked through thin air and dense fog. Intermittently, the sun pushed the clouds away to reveal a majestic mountain peak for a fleeting moment. Everything inside of me was breathing — my stomach, my eyes, the blood in my head. We climbed to 5,100 meters taking baby steps up the mountain with little oxygen.
When we returned to the tea house, I just lay back in the sun and let it burn my headache away to a dull functional throb. The cure for an altitude headache is to lie in the sun and wind until it dissipates. It may take 2 cups of masala tea, two pieces of buttered toast as well. Tomorrow 5,100 meters.
As you approach your final destination, your head starts to throb, and you place one foot in front of the other with every effort you can – baby stepping it but slower. Then you go inside and you’re not sure what to do, so you take ibuprofen and sit outside to will away the headache. Then you can stumble back inside and sit still, still, still and close your eyes willing the oxygen back into your blood.
You go to take a piss in a hole in the ground that smells like everyone-who-has-passed-through-here’s piss, and you can’t squat because your knees are too stiff. Your piss hits everything but the hole, mostly your shoes and socks. Since your ass is so high in the air, your piss starts to trickle down your thermal underwear. You decide that today will be the day that you throw away the underwear that you have been wearing since Namche Bazar where you had your last shower and changed your first pair.
You get your sleeping bag and wrap your damp, sweaty and piss-laden body in it as if it might actually help get you warm. You force yourself to order potato soup because if you have another cup of garlic soup you will die. You realize that the grey liquid floating in the bowl in front of you is garlic broth with some uncooked potatoes in the bottom, and you cannot eat it because as the oxygen tries to creep back into your bloodstream, it makes you want to vomit everything else out of your system.
You lean your head back against the window and fold into a semiconscious state. You open one eye and it doesn’t seem so bad, and by the time you open the other you start to hear someone talking about horses, so you join in realizing that you can talk now and it makes you feel better.
You realize that the sky is blue and if you go outside you might catch a glimpse of a towering mountain peak. But that would mean putting on your shoes, which are all the way on the floor near your feet. You remind yourself that you should drink water by the liter-full, but you pack is over there and you cannot ask anyone to bring it to you because they cannot move either. So you do it, you drag your soggy backpack toward you and perch it on the bench closest to the light and take a sip, then rest.
While doing this you hear some American-sounding English on your left and you just have to invite in that sweet sound with more conversation even if it is about sports. Four pm is the magic hour for the yak dung fire to be lit. You get that delicious Mad River Glen after-ski glow when your itchy wool hat can come off and you actually considering peeling your socks off your puckered white feet.
This is the time of the day, when people sit around, talk, play cards, which vary internationally with clubs called crosses and the queen of spades the black bitch.
After we sent two of our team off in a helicopter with AMS, I took our team leader aside and told him that I could not make it to base camp. I could walk a little way, but then I needed a day before we moved on to the base camp. He seemed fine with that, and I knew that Danya, who was more sick than I was, was relieved. When we reached Gorak Shep (5,140 meters/16,863), I was clear about not making the now two-hour trek to base camp. I was so sick at this point I did not care. Since there was no sun, my sun treatment was no longer a remedy. It was not hard for our team leader to convince me to make the two-hour trek to base camp. After all, I had come that far…
The highlight of the Everest Base Camp was a little pink bird that did not want to fly. He was more beautiful and peaceful than the gigantic cairn where people took turns taking selfies and group photos for Facebook. I felt little pride or sense of accomplishment. My anticlimax was heightened by the realization that I had to make a two-hour trek back to Gorak Shep. I do not know why I thought there would be a teahouse waiting for us at base camp. We slogged our way back for two hours.
That night when I drew a thick blanket over my sleeping bag and tried to keep the blood pulsing in my temples at bay I prayed, which is not what I do. I took the only prayer I know (the serenity prayer) and I repeated it to the rhythm of my pounding head.
By the time we reached the town below Gorak Shep, I looked at Danya and said, let’s ask for a helicopter. At this point, I was vomiting and walking at a snail’s pace. I wanted the relief of lying in the hospital, breathing thick air and pumping IV fluids into my veins until I felt better again.
I baby-stepped it to the next stop repeating the serenity prayer the entire way. I do not think that I was accepting the things that I could not change, and at that point, courage was not a part of my vocabulary, and I had left my wisdom with the pink bird at Base Camp or somewhere before.
The great irony – you knew it was coming didn’t you – was that we did the trek so quickly that we finished three days early. Our leader had followed a typical regimen for acclimatization, one that would fit most hikers. For some reason, it did not fit Danya and me. For the first time in my life, I was asking someone to slow down. For the first time in my life, I was the last one in line because I couldn’t move any faster.
This irony was a good lesson for me. Should we have gone slower? Maybe, maybe not. Altitude sickness is not something anyone can control or predict, it just happens. Two out of the six of us who started the trek showed no signs of it at all. They could have gone faster or slower and gotten altitude sickness, but they didn’t.
In the midst of feeling so horrible I wrote, adventures should be fun, not so ridiculously challenging that they make you sick. Trekking to Everest Base Camp challenged me beyond my capacity. It taught me how very small I am in this universe of glaciers, and rivers that start as tiny rivulets from a leaking glacier and turn into raging rivers to be crossed by swaying suspension bridges.
I lost my group. As we left the double suspension bridge, we took a different path simply because it went down. The idea of going up was not something any one of us was willing to do if we had a choice. Peri had gone ahead at his steadfast pace. Ganesan and I were staying with Danya who was sick with fever, vomiting, and delirium. I went ahead to relieve myself after a yak team passed by us and that was the last I saw of my group for most of that day.
The trail was empty, which is unheard of especially this far down when the faint-of-heart have not yet given up. I ran into one more yak team and their driver, which did not surprise me because I was walking in a mire of Yak shit. I ran into an Australian coming from Lukla, so I knew I would eventually end up in the right place.
The trail was beautiful and woodsy, interrupted by waterfalls flowing through it. At the next suspension bridge, I looked down the way that I should have come – a bright, sunny, flat trail that ran along the river. This was not the first time that I had opted for the more challenging path in my life. Perry was not there, so I assumed that I must have fallen quite far behind due to my detour, which seemed much longer than the pleasant river stroll, which I could have opted for. I waited at the bridge for about 20 minutes to confirm my conclusion.
I happened upon a town five minutes from the bridge and peered into every tea house and café along the way to find my compadres. Then I stopped to take some tea on a wall outside of a little hovel where a woman and her daughter said they would deliver some tea. It was so warm and sunny there that I forgot to think of the yaks.
Yaks have the right of way – always. When a team of them approached me while I sat on the wall drinking milk tea, I dodged into the doorway so as not to be pushed off of my perch. The head yak stopped to take a lick out of the sugar bowl next to my tea. I threw an almond at it to get it to move on without much effect. With a whistle from his master, the yak moved on without getting a sweet taste of my tea.
I still had a residual fear that my group would be angry with me for dashing ahead if I was ahead, so I started telling people if they saw an Indian man and woman in green coats walking along, they should say that the American was ahead of them.
The more I thought about it, I realized that there was no way that Danya could have gotten that far ahead of me in her condition, so I took a pit stop, ordered some potatoes and two cups of tea and waited. I took note of where I was: Solukhumba – Riverview Lodge. And waited. And waited for two hours before I saw Perry’s green jacket and Ganesan’s orange pants bobbing down the trail.
We put Danya on a horse to Lukla and continued well behind her on foot.
It felt good to breath more easily with each meter that I descended. I danced across suspension bridges without trepidation, managed to piss without hitting my shoes or socks, made way for yaks and porters. I experienced my journey in reverse.
My favorite parts of the trek were below the tree line in the Rhododendron Forest where I could peek through the trees and the clouds to see Everest once on the way up and once on the way down. On the way down, the sky was the most brilliant and clear than it had been on the whole trip. When we got to Tengboche, the sky blew open and free of clouds. I could see the monastery where we had attended a prayer and tea drinking ceremony in a thick fog on our way up. I could see the bakery where we had eaten some of the best apple pie that I have ever tasted. AND I could see Everest in all of its majesty. Everest is almighty because it is Everest, but I found its sister and brother mountains to be just as spectacular. The unpredictable cloud cover made the mountains grander because I never knew if, or when, they would reveal themselves. When they did they were awe-inspiring.
While I danced down the mountain as people trudged up, I understood the lightness I had seen in people coming down as I had trudged toward base camp. Now I weaved among the yaks knowingly. I plunged through their dung and felt charged by my ever-increasing supply of oxygen.
Have I changed? Of course. Would I ever do it again? NEVER – well, probably never.
The third world continues to overwhelm me, but it is easier to digest in the mountains where beautiful people move in sync with the earth using every resource they can find — the river to wash their clothes, grass to cover the fertile soil, yak dung for warmth, tourists for profit.
Men work as porters bearing weight that exceeds their body weight. Women run tea houses. They also take the time to plant colorful gardens with marigolds and bright red flowers that peer over the stone walls that line the trail. The poverty is clean and quiet, unseemly and home grown. It is a subsistence lifestyle.
In Kathmandu, women and children buzz recklessly in dusty clouds on motorbikes tooting their horns at nothing, cows amble through the city not knowing which trash heap to lick. At the temple beggars with amputated everything lie twitching in the sun, and I wonder who placed them there so strategically. The beauty of a temple turns into a scam. I didn’t notice any prayer flags flapping in Kathmandu. Is there nothing to pray for in this wretched contrast to where I have been?
I wonder what the great Buddha thinks. The same Buddha whose eyes scan the peaks of the Himalayas from pale stone shrines along the Everest Base Camp trail watching people from all over the world make their pilgrimage to the great mother mountain.
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