Tag Archives: American Embassy School

AES Graduation 2016 – Tony wows ’em

For 20 years, I’ve watched Tony grade essays around the world – in his cramped study at our old house in Kansas, at the ruins of Troy and cafés in Istanbul, by the Great Wall of China and Starbucks in Shanghai, on the deck of a rainforest lodge in Borneo, along the banks of the Mekong River in Laos, among the terraced rice paddies of Bali, and at the beach in Phuket, Thailand. “Everywhere, every city we’ve ever been in,” Tony says. “I’ve graded papers everywhere.” It’s true. Even on vacation, we’re never alone. For as long as I can remember, I’ve shared my husband with William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Toni Morrison. In part, that’s the life of a high school English teacher. (“Why don’t you just give multiple choice tests?” I whine, staring out the window and wishing I had brought a friend on this trip, every trip. “Because I’m supposed to be teaching them how to write,” he responds, exasperated.)

For 20 years, I’ve watched Tony get to school at the crack of dawn and stay well after the final bell. His classroom door is always open for students who want extra help with an assignment (even assignments from other teachers) or who need a letter of recommendation for their university applications. In his free time, he reads the novels, plays, and poems he plans to teach, even when he’s read them a million times before. He highlights, color codes, writes notes in the margins, fills the pages with sticky notes, and always finds something new.

Tony jokes with his students, “Most people will tell you they became teachers because they love kids. They get energized by you. Well, I don’t. You suck my energy away. I became a teacher because I love books. I love literature. I love the academic life.” But everyone knows that he really does love kids and worry about them and care about them. The students know it best of all.

That’s why I felt especially proud of Tony when the high school seniors chose him to be the faculty speaker at their graduation this year. “The odds were in my favor,” he said when the announcement was made. “I have taught almost all the seniors.” True. Still, it feels good to be appreciated, he admitted.

Tony’s speech perfectly captured his quirky sense of humor, reflective teaching style, and connections with the graduates. He spoke to them, weaving together themes from his classes with life lessons. He referenced inside jokes that only the students would get, and – best of all – in my opinion, he reminded them to carry on the values that AES instilled in them: compassion, service to others, and a growth mindset.

Here’s the American Embassy School of New Delhi graduation video. Skip ahead to 44:50 to see Tony’s speech.

A few people have asked for the script. Here you go. Feel free to share. Tony later realized he misattributed the phrase, “Pavements gray,” so he fixed it in this version.

I am truly honored to be speaking to you today. But, before I begin my speech, I would like to say something that is actually important.

Simply put, I care about you – many of you. I’m fond of you. I’m proud of you. You’ve earned my utmost respect. And when you are gone, I’ll think about you; I’ll remember you; and I’ll miss you, starting Monday, when you definitely should be gone.

OK, the speech.

Earlier this year a traveling salesman came to our school. OK, he wasn’t actually a traveling salesman. He was what Paul Johnson would call a teacher trainer.

But, I like stories about traveling salesmen, so here we go . . .

Anyway, this salesman made us all think about what AES teachers do, and he tried to make us worry and wonder if we were, in fact, preparing you for “the real world.” And by “the real world,” he meant – I guess – life beyond AES, where you will all go and exist, starting in about 40 minutes.

Now, I was a little traumatized by his premise that AES is “not the real world.” We aren’t real. Ironically, in the place where we teach you “to be or not to be,” we are … NOT.

Let’s think about what this means.

You can’t BE a student at AES. Apparently, you can only NOT BE a student at AES. When you move those tassels, of course, you won’t be students at AES anymore, but for a few more minutes you are students at AES … NOT.

This happens in every class, I’ve lost a few of you. Don’t worry about it.

The idea that AES isn’t the real world is sort of a great contradiction to Descartes and the fundamental keystone of all western philosophy: Here, at AES, “we think, therefore we are” . . . NOT. In Latin it would be: Cogitamus, ergo NON sumus.

Now, I did wonder if, in fact, I had prepared you for “the real world.”

But, I’ve been an academic all my life. So, I guess I never have actually really been in or seen the real world.

Oh, I’ve heard of it. It comes up occasionally in class. It’s what the poet William Butler Yeats called “pavements gray.”

And Wordsworth said,
“Where getting and spending we lay waste our powers
For the little we see in nature that is ours.”

That’s from Mr. Glennon’s favorite poem by the way.

Indeed, the real world, as I understand it, is what the Romantic poets, and Walt Whitman and Thoreau and even Huckleberry Finn on his raft were forever trying to escape.

So, maybe I didn’t teach you how to live in “the real world,” but I know I taught you how to escape it – you can pick up a book. You can pick up a book, too.

Here, in “NOT the real world,” we spend way too much time trying to teach you something totally irrelevant out there: how to be self aware.

What we teach at this school is how to look at the world critically, logically, creatively, theoretically, artistically, mathematically, communally, politically and compassionately

And I have always tried to do that without taking away the sense of wonder that 5-year-old you initially brought with you to kindergarten.

Now, some of your parents don’t know what I mean by wonder. But it is the most important thing I teach!

Socrates taught us that “wonder is the beginning of knowledge.” So I’ll teach you the way I taught your children: Do you remember when you were a kid, probably 3 or 4 years old, and you were riding in the back seat of the car. It was night and your parents were driving. For some reason it was quiet and you looked up and you noticed that the moon was following you?

Amazing that you still remember the emotion! You remember because you wondered.

That emotional joy of discovery is why I teach literature, a topic which has always been an exploration of what it means to be a human being. When you examine everyone from Macbeth to Gatsby, Frankenstein to Elizabeth Bennet, Job to Hermione Granger, you learn something.

I mean that here, in the “NOT the real world,” we think about the infinite possibilities that is man all the time. “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculties!” as Hamlet says.

Twenty-five hundred years ago, Socrates (who, by the way, they poisoned right out of the real world) said, “The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.” I do verily believe it.

And so let me give you my one bit of advice for people about to go into the real world. Don’t go! Don’t go! Some of you girls couldn’t walk very far in those shoes you’re wearing anyway. So, don’t go!

Don’t go into the world that Willy Loman describes by screaming: “The competition is maddening!”

I don’t know if we prepared you for the real world. And I’m not sure I’m ready for tomorrow either. I do know that AES is special though.

Here, in “NOT the real world,” we constantly strive to better ourselves.

Here, in “NOT the real world,” we value community, and the noblest trait is caring about others more than ourselves.

Here, in “NOT the real world,” we think about learning as a lifelong goal, something we continue to do until our very last breath.

Here in “NOT the real world,” we know that what you spend a lifetime building can be torn down in an instant, and yet you should spend your life building anyway.

Here, in “NOT the real world,” we actually mostly try to teach you how to continue living in a world like this one, by being awake to the infinite possibilities that is humanity and your own unlimited potential.

So, did we prepare you for “the real world”?

I don’t know. I worry about it. Most of you can’t drive or make an omelet or write a check or iron a shirt. I had to tie four ties before we could get these kids out here.

No, don’t worry. None of that matters.

Truthfully, I kind of assumed you were ready for “the real world” the first day I met you. You were probably ready for “the real world” when you graduated kindergarten.

Bob Fulghum sums up the kindergarten curriculum this way. This is what you were supposed to learn:
Share everything. 
Play fair. 
Don’t hit people. 
Put things back where you found them. 
Clean up your own mess. 
Don’t take things that aren’t yours. 
Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. 
Wash your hands before you eat. 
Live a balanced life. 
Learn, think, draw, paint, sing, dance, play and work some every day.
And take a nap every afternoon. 
That’s why your teachers have couches in their rooms.

Kindergarten … I swear to God, that’s really all you needed to know to live and be happy in the real world.

Not ready for the real world? You knew everything the day I first met you! I’m not worried about you! I’m jealous of you, and I’m hopeful about the world because I think you’re going to change it. I think you’re going to make it better. I think every one of you is going to make it more like AES. And that’s what I was preparing you for!

Change the world and make it better. That’s your homework! That’s your homework, too. When is it due? Well, life takes a lifetime. How many days do you have left?

Eventually, when you’re done, they can dig a hole and bury you right in the actual real world. Nothing in the real world really lasts, anyway.

But in the meantime, don’t get sucked, pulled, drawn or contracted into the real world. Don’t ever surrender any part of your soul. That moral truth, by the way, is what you were supposed to learn from every tragedy I’ve ever taught you.

Now, if you’ve ever looked at “Cliffs Notes,” and I think some of you have, and I think some of you have, and I know some of you have … you will learn that the theme of almost every book not written by Jane Austen is “man’s inhumanity to man.”

Man’s inhumanity to man!

Well, from what I’ve heard, that happens out there in the real world. So, don’t go! Don’t contribute to it. Stay here – at least in your hearts.

Thank you.

AES Board Farewell Dinner – too teary to talk

Tonight is the AES Board Farewell Dinner, where our school honors departing board members and staff. The “leavers” are invited to get up on the stage to say a few words about their time in Delhi. Some give heartfelt speeches; others perform a little skit, sing a song, or show a clever video. Historically, it’s been an evening fraught with emotion.

I recall a particularly poignant speech in 2012, in which a teacher asked people in the room to stand if they had ever taught his children. Many pushed back their chairs and stood. Then he asked people to stand if they had ever coached his children in sports or after-school activities. More rose. Then he asked people to stand if they had ever put a Band-aid on one of his kids, had a hallway conversation with them, talked to them at a birthday party, or otherwise interacted with them. By then, nearly everybody in the room was out of their seats, many of us in tears.

It was a powerful illustration of the interconnectedness of an international school community. We work together, play together, travel together, struggle together, celebrate together, teach and care for each other’s children, and grow reliant on one another. Then we wave good-bye as those important people move on to other places, year after year, until we are the ones leaving.

At previous AES Board Farewell Dinners, I’ve wondered, “What will we do when it’s our turn to go?” Well, now I know. Nothing. With less than two weeks before we leave India for good and kick off a new adventure in Santiago, Chile, we will attend this dinner, but we won’t get up to speak.

Trust me, I’m as surprised as you are. Everyone knows I love the spotlight, especially if it’s an opportunity to make people laugh. Over the last five years, I’ve toyed with many hilarious ideas that could have blossomed into shtick for tonight’s dinner.

I do want to honor Incredible India, where spectacular experiences are a daily occurrence. I want to express my deepest appreciation for a professional community that thrives on thinking and growing and learning from each other. I want to send a big shout-out to friends who supported us through the bumpy patches and laughed with us the rest of the time. This country, this city, this school, this community – all of it – has been unlike anything we’ve experienced in our 15 years overseas.

And that’s precisely why I can’t get up to speak tonight. I know I won’t be able to harden my heart against the tears when I look out at the crowd. And nobody wants to see this girl cry. It ain’t pretty.

So know that this is my way of telling you how much you mean to me, from the bottom of my tear-stained heart:

Please stand if you ever prepared food, booked travel, arranged a visa, handled money, set up a mobile phone, drove a car, mailed a postcard, or signed official paperwork for me. Please stand if you ever answered an urgent email from me. Please stand if you ever delivered, painted, fixed, cleaned, or moved something at my home or classroom.

Please stand if you ever exercised, ate out, shopped, danced, visited a historic site, took a walking tour, discussed books, played cards, got massages, lounged by a pool, ventured out to community events, walked in the park, or otherwise played with me. Please stand if you traveled with me.

Please stand if you taught me something or if I taught you something or if we learned something together. Please stand if you and I were part of the same department, task force, committee, focus group, or grade-level team.

Please stand if you ever gave me a hug or I gave you one. Please stand if you’ve heard my cat stories, student stories, mom stories, niece and nephew stories, and/or poop stories. Please stand if I ever cried in your presence.

If you’re standing, it’s because you made a difference in my world. Thank you.

I’m not quite ready to say good-bye. So, if I see you tonight, please don’t dwell on our departure. Let’s just share a few more laughs for the road.

Dalai Lama brings bliss to American Embassy School

Recently, global news has filled my heart with sadness and anxiety. As a teacher of little kids, I try to maintain a light-hearted demeanor and a smile on my face. With adults, I joke about suppressing my feelings as I sing a song from the musical, “Book of Mormon.”

When you start to get confused because of thoughts in your head, don’t feel those feelings! Hold them in instead. Turn it off like a lightbulb! Just go click. It’s a cool little Mormon trick.

Sometimes that helps.

However, I can’t stop thinking of fear in the eyes of Syrian refugees. I lie awake at night angry over the helplessness we all feel when innocent people die in pointless bombings in random cities. I worry about fear breeding intolerance leading to hate resulting in rash laws and unlawful actions that ultimately shred the fabric of humanity. I stress about American politics, which presently seems to offer no viable option for making the world a better place. I wallow in my own personal uncertainty: so many unanswered questions and conflicting emotions related to a new life on a new continent and saying good-bye to a place and people we have loved for five years. In addition, India has been throwing us curve balls with confusing messages related to visas and taxes, creating a tense vibe among our staff.

So, yeah, I’ve been a little stressed lately. So stressed that I almost skipped a speech at school Friday by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of the Tibetan people. As a support teacher, I didn’t have to accompany a class, so knowing the rest of the school would be at the speech, I almost stayed in my room to get some work done. Still, I knew I would regret missing this opportunity, so I headed to the gym.

DSCF3342Photo courtesy of Alan Rubin

Children in pre-kindergarten through second grade lined up outside to greet the Dalai Lama. Everyone agreed they wouldn’t benefit from sitting on the floor of the gym for his lengthy speech, but a receiving line was better than nothing. Many teachers had front-loaded his visit with wonderful lessons featuring his own quotes on kindness and compassion, so children were eager to see him. Inside the gym, we packed grades 3 through 12, teachers, and a few special guests from the top bleacher down to the floor, within a few feet of the small stage. Several teachers managed to secure invitations for their Tibetan maids, who stood at the front in traditional dress, nearly bursting with excitement. Each held a khata, a white scarf, which they would present to the Dalai Lama for blessing.

DalaiLamaAES64Photo courtesy of Tim Steadman

An overflow venue was set up for parents to watch the speech via live streaming video.

I traveled to Tibet in 2009, and in 2012 I visited Dharamsala in northern India, where the Dalai Lama lives in exile. I know his story. I empathize deeply with the Tibetan people. Although I’m not a Buddhist, I do embrace many Buddhist values. Yet I never could have anticipated the visceral impact of the Dalai Lama’s presence. I cried all day following his speech, but they were tears of gratefulness and hope. Even now, my eyes well up as I write this and my heart swells with happiness. I realize this sounds hokey and dramatic, and I don’t really understand it myself. One little octagenarian shifted my whole mindset and transformed my energy in less than two hours. How long will this last? Or maybe I should ask, how do I hold on to it? Or maybe even more importantly, how do I share it with others?

I’m still processing this myself, so I apologize in advance if my thoughts ramble.

IMG_4195Photo courtesy of Eric Johnson

I entered the gym and sat with Tony in the bleachers. The usual rumble of chatter echoed off the walls, which were draped with black and gold, our school colors. The stage remained quiet, Tibetan prayer flags stretched across the backdrop and a comfy chair awaiting the arrival of His Holiness. After awhile, the head of Indian Studies got on the mic and encouraged us to quiet down and get our minds in a more meditative space. A hush fell over the gym, and even our youngest students remained calm until we were dismissed, more than 90 minutes later.

Soon, AES Director Paul Chmelik announced the Dalai Lama had arrived and was greeting the children outside. Later I learned why it took so long from that moment until the Dalai Lama entered the gym. I thought he would walk past the receiving line outside with a wave and a smile to the children, but he apparently paused and chatted, laughing, touching foreheads in a traditional Tibetan greeting, clasping their little faces in his hands, asking questions and chortling at the answers. “How old do you think I am?” 99! 75! (In fact, he’ll turn 81 this summer.)

IMG_0418Photo courtesy of Eric Johnson

Greeting our friends, Scott White, ES assistant principal; Paul Johnson, HS principal; and Gary Coyle, director of technology.
DSCF3543Photo courtesy of Alan Rubin

As the Dalai Lama passed through the doorway to the gym, the crowd stood. One of the Tibetan maids began to weep, her cries breaking the silence. He worked his way toward the stage, taking his time and engaging with those along the way, sharing a good laugh with a wheelchair-bound guest who had met him before, blessing the khatas and gently patting the bowed heads.
HHDL AES16 Mark (57)

HHDL AES16 Mark (62)Photos courtesy of Mark Cowlin

When he stepped onto the stage, he put his hands together in namaste and faced the crowd. Then he greeted the children on the floor, waggling his fingers and wobbling his head with a big grin. After an introduction by Dr. Chmelik, a sweet song by our elementary school choir, and a welcome from two high school seniors, the Dalai Lama addressed the audience – without notes and standing for the first 30 minutes of his speech.

Photos by Tim Steadman

“Indeed, I am very very happy come here, mixing with young brothers and sisters,” he said, citing two reasons. First, the past cannot be undone, but the future awaits, and these young people have the power to create a vision and work toward a world of compassion. His second reason for enjoying school visits, he said, was “little bit silly.”

“I am old person, old monk,” he said. “When I met some old people, I feel, oh, hmmm, you go first or me go first? When I meet these young people, I also feel little bit younger! More fresh, more fresh, like that!” And he laughed, a good hearty guffaw, at his own silliness.

With a translator standing by, he peppered his speech with funny anecdotes, often cracking himself up and pausing for a deep chuckle. He told of being a lazy student when he was young and tutored, along with his older brother, by a teacher who had two whips: a regular whip and a “yellow whip, a holy whip for holy student, Dalai Lama. I think holy pain is same as regular pain,” he laughed.

In a poignant moment, the Dalai Lama answered a student’s question about pets at his temple. He recalled having cared for many injured animals over the years – birds, dogs and cats, noting that compassion pays off with animals, too. They appreciate our affection and repay us in kind, he said, acting out the kneading gesture of a cat while making a purring sound. I loved that.

Between stories and laughter, the Dalai Lama repeatedly emphasized the importance of compassion in the world. He stressed the need for “a sense of concern for the well-being of humanity, a oneness for 7 billion human beings.” Compassion is intrinsic to human nature, he said, noting how human bodies function best when our minds are calm. It’s biological. As the world’s population grows and climate change impacts our natural resources, there is no other option than banding together through compassion. He pointed out that a person killed by a tiger or elephant is big news, but we hardly notice anymore when a person dies at the hand of another person. “This we have to change,” he said.

Addressing human rights violations around the world, he said it was useless to merely condemn them. He called on people to think about the causes of human rights violations and then “try to tackle the causes.”

What are those causes? Discrimination and intolerance seem to fuel emotions that lead to violence, he said. “I always think of myself as another human being, and that makes a close feeling (with others),” he explained. “If I’m a Buddhist monk, particularly Dalai Lama, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, then I am myself a little bit isolated from the audience. Out off 7 billion people, only one Dalai Lama. If I have too much emphasis on Dalai Lama, then I feel lonely. When I feel I am another human being, then we are brothers and sisters. … Too much importance on status, race, faith, nationality, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, influential or not influential. All problems are caused by these things. The only solution to those problems is to believe we are all fundamentally the same.”

When people feel connected and care about one another’s well-being, everyone benefits, he said. As social animals, human beings cannot survive without community. “The very source of our successful life, happy life, depends on the rest of the society. So too much self-centered attitude, narrow mindedness, selfish thinking … is actually destroying your own happiness.”

Pondering the power of religion to hurt and heal, the Dalai Lama pointed out that all major religions teach love, tolerance and forgiveness. It’s only natural that different philosophies arose around the world in the quest for those things, but the goal is the same. “There’s no grounds to discriminate or fight; we can develop respect when we realize it’s the same purpose,” he said. However, the culture surrounding religion is where real challenges arise. Social habits and beliefs instilled by religious institutions may cause more harm than good in today’s society, even if they originally served a useful purpose. He specifically named India’s caste system and the Islamic Sharia law as systems in need of change. To prove it can be done, he shared his own decision to sever the political arm of the Dalai Lama Institution and turn over power to democratically elected leaders in Tibet. “Almost a four-century-old practice is ended,” he said. “The reality of a time leads to changes in religious practice.”

The Dali Lama wrapped up his speech with a plea to teachers. Nurture deep connections with students, model compassion, and explicitly teach the values of kindness, tolerance and open-mindedness, he said. (Even his teacher with the whips grew to show great affection.)

So many resonating ideas surfaced during the Dalai Lama’s speech. He talked about relations with China (it’s getting better); science and religion (no reason for conflict); courage (honesty leads to self-confidence); study and self-reflection (there’s still so much to learn); optimism (“Power of truth is much stronger than power of gun.”); and his favorite places in the world (depends on the weather). Bottom line: Any change has to start with one person. Show compassion, receive compassion, and pay it forward.

What a role model for teachers and children, alike. This man is powerful enough to change a Buddhist institution, yet humble enough to purr like a cat and giggle with children. The future of an entire culture rests on his shoulders, yet he bubbles with optimism and hope. He can talk about brain science or world religions with confidence, yet he has no problem admitting “I don’t know.”

After watching the video of his speech – re-playing until I plucked meaning from occasionally scrambled word order or his heavy Tibetan accent – I came away with even more to think about. One thing the video couldn’t capture, though, was the energy in the room. It was unlike anything I have ever experienced. At the risk of sounding like a Buddhist charlatan, I can attest that the Dalai Lama’s aura washed over me in a deep and profound way. I’m clinging to it, committed to at least striving to embody the compassion he believes can save the world.

Accepting his AES swag.
HHDL AES16 Mark (135)Photo courtesy of Mark Cowlin

Still mingling on his way out.
HHDL AES16 Mark (67)

HHDL AES16 Mark (136)Photos courtesy of Mark Cowlin

Here’s the video of His Holiness the Dalai Lama addressing the American Embassy School in New Delhi.

Horsing around on high school mini-course

Since moving to India, Tony has accompanied high school students on a mini-course called Marwari Safari at a horse ranch in Rajasthan once a year. Although all AES high school students and teachers embark on mini-courses around the country each spring, he always claimed his mini-course was the best. Students got away from the big cities, didn’t have to travel from place to place, learned how to ride horses, enjoyed a little down time every day, and ate delicious food, mostly straight from the garden. For the last four years, I wished I could go, too. This year, I did!

On Thursday, I received a call from the high school assistant principal, saying Tony’s co-chaperone was too sick to travel. Would I be willing to sub? I had a little panic attack. It meant missing a week of school and parent conferences, and this is my busiest time of year as Elementary School EAL coordinator. “Maybe this is just what you need,” she said. Turns out, that was true.

We left just three days later (March 13) on the overnight train: Inder Jit, our tour organizer and riding instructor; his assistant, Bijay; 14 high school students; Tony and me.

After 12.5 hours on the train, we arrived in Udaipur and went straight to a boutique hotel for breakfast in the garden. Afterwards, we toured the City Palace and the Sahelion Ki Bari gardens. I had visited the palace in 2014, but our local guide on this visit had a great sense of humor and pointed out details I hadn’t seen the first time. Many of the students were surprisingly attentive and curious, despite sleep deprivation.

At the palace.



At the gardens.


Following our tour, the bus carried us another 20 minutes to Krishna Ranch, our home for four days. We were greeted by ranch owners Dinesh Jain and his wife, Francine, passionate promoters of the Marwari horses and lovely people overall.

Marwari Horses
For a short time, I took riding lessons in Delhi with mostly sluggish horses that slowly and methodically walked the perimeter of the ring. At Krishna Ranch, we rode Marwari horses, which required a whole different approach to riding. Frisky and keenly alert, they were bred for speed and endurance in warfare.

The Marwari horses originated when native Indian ponies were crossed with Arabian horses. The traditional rulers of the Marwar region (in northwestern India) first started breeding Marwari horses in the 12th century. The horses come in a full range of colors and patterns, but their distinctive ears set them apart from other breeds. The ears stand up and curve inward, creating a whimsical and endearing appearance.

I love this description from the Indigenous Horse Society of India:

The head conveys the indefinable oriental presence of the horse and should be expressive with a high forehead, large sparkling prominent eyes, straight or slightly Roman long face giving a clean chiseled profile and well rounded defined jaws, the nostrils are large and gently flared set over firm fine lips and an even bite. The ears should be of medium length and shapely, curving and curling inwards at their points in a scimitar or lyre shape typical to the breed. They will be somewhat longer in the mare.

Narani, the cook at Krishna Ranch, shares everyone’s passion for these beautiful horses.

At Krishna Ranch, some light-colored horses had decorative henna socks painted on their lower legs and their Hindi names henna-ed on their flanks.

This is Komal. Well, this is Komal’s backside.

Dinesh and Francine own 14 Marwari horses, and they borrowed a few more for our group. They also breed and sell horses, cautiously entertaining offers from India’s growing upper class. However, Dinesh has been known to buy back a mistreated horse or refuse to make the sale if he feels the prospective owner can’t provide appropriate care. His genuine love and concern for the horses makes this place even more special.

One morning, he saw me peeking over a stall door to check out the youngest resident of Krishna Ranch, so he opened the gate and introduced me to Gori, a 3-week-old black filly with a white blaze. Gori’s father was last year’s champion Marwari stallion, said Dinesh, who petted and cuddled the sweet baby as we chatted. Usually, the young horses are afraid of people, he said, but the workers who groom the mama, Rupali, couldn’t resist brushing little Gori, too. She nuzzled my hand and let me pet her velvety nose.


The adjoining stall housed three yearlings, also heartbreakingly adorable.

Riding Lessons
Each morning and afternoon, we all crowded under the wide umbrella of a magnolia tree for lessons from Inder Jit. Dinesh and several grooms helped facilitate the lessons, sprinting alongside high-spirited horses and calling out instructions to the riders. They generally kept three horses going at a time, giving the students 5 to 10 minutes of practice each.


Early in our relationship, I took Tony horseback riding. He walked his horse to the middle of the field, dropped the reins and let his horse eat grass while I cantered around him for an hour. You can imagine my surprise when he confidently leapt up on his Marwari horse at Krishna Ranch and took off around the arena. After four years of chaperoning this trip, he has acquired a pretty substantial set of horsemanship skills. That’s my cowboy.

During the first lesson, my horse clearly wanted to exit the arena and get back to her friends at the stable. Dinesh told me to make the turn sooner, rather than riding the whole length of the ring. “Then she will know what you want,” he said. When my turn finished, we chatted more about that. He mentioned that he’s been working with Bollywood directors who need horses for their films. The director often just wants to start shooting as soon as the horse shows up, but Dinesh asks, “What will you want this horse to do?” Then he puts a trained rider on the horse to practice the scene several times before any filming starts. When it’s time for the actor to do it, the horse knows what to do.

Side note: John C. Reilly recently spent some time here with Dinesh, getting riding lessons and then shooting scenes for “The Cowboys,” a French film that came out earlier this year. “Some of our guys had to dress in Pakistani clothes with guns and everything,” Dinesh said.

One afternoon, we all struggled with the horses during our lesson. They were refusing directions, bucking, spooking at the fence line, bolting, and even rearing a bit. The kids got pretty nervous and started gasping and worrying when they watched their friends take turns. (A scary cow was hanging around on the other side of the arena’s wall.) As the last rider, I was ready to opt out. By then, the horses were full-on wacko. But Dinesh convinced me to climb aboard a skittish bay mare named Rani. He helped me convince Rani to turn left when she really wanted to turn right, which we practiced several times. After she realized she wouldn’t get her way, she completely relaxed and let me take control. Once again, I recognized Dinesh’s gentle genius.

Hack Rides

Between lessons, we went on a “hack,” or trail ride, each day.
Day 1: We rode single file with a groom walking alongside each horse to the nearby village of Bada Havala. I was assigned to Noori, a stubborn pinto, and told to take up the rear. We were supposed to keep a horse length between us, but Noori really wanted to get to the front of the line. I managed to keep her under control, just barely, but I bloodied a knuckle in the battle, and I worried that I was hurting her mouth by holding the reins so tightly. When we stopped to walk around another village, Chorta Havala, I whined to Dinesh. He told me to trade horses with Bijay, one of our tour assistants (and expert horseman/polo star). I swallowed my pride and rode Suresh, a gray gelding, for the rest of the hack (and the subsequent hacks). Calm and gentle, Suresh allowed me to relax and enjoy the scenery.

As we clomped through the villages and countryside, young children bounded out of their homes to wave and shout, “Hello! Bye bye! Dada!” (One of our students told me “dada” is like “ta ta” in English.) We passed homes of newlyweds where the outside walls were painted with a traditional wedding procession – camel symbolizing love, elephant symbolizing good luck, and horse symbolizing virility One house also had the groom on a horse and the bride being carried in a palanquin. “They can’t afford the real procession like a maharaja, so they paint it instead,” Dinesh explained.

On our ride and walk, we noticed many animals with painted horns, most notably some bullocks with very long pointed horns painted bright orange, red and blue. Dinesh said the paint was a remnant of Diwali, the most sacred Hindu holiday. Farmers celebrate by decorating their hard-working animals in a show of gratitude. That includes expensive paint on the horns, henna decorations on their legs, beaded necklaces and other adornments. Another fun farmer tradition at Diwali: They set up a puja, or shrine, in front of the home, using animal dung to form idols of the gods and adding a little incense and other props. Then they open the gate and let their animals parade out of the courtyard to trample the puja and track dung down the path, leaving a temporary reminder to neighbors of their animal-owning status.

Day 2: Our group filed out the Krishna Ranch gate and on to the trail on the same horses we had yesterday. We rode to “Shilpgram – The Rural Arts and Crafts Complex,” a sprawling representation of villages in Western India. The place was mostly deserted, and the students were mostly apathetic. Still it was interesting to see how many villages cluster homes around a courtyard with a few key industries. According to the Shilpgram website, “Traditional village life was said to have been, to a considerable extent, self-contained and self-sufficient with a potter, a carpenter, a blacksmith, often a weaver, living alongside one another.”

Our silly students posing at the sculpture garden.

Back at the ranch, grooms unsaddled the horses and let them take turns rolling in a pile of sand to cool off. The horses looked ecstatic as they shimmied their sweaty backs down into the sand, kicking their legs in the air, but when they stood up again they were caked with grit.


After lunch, we returned to our horses for a brushing session. The grooms showed us the technique: vigorous curry combing for about 40 minutes on each side, followed by a softer brush. Suresh stood patiently while I groomed him and actually fell asleep while I gently stroked his chin. Sweet boy.

Day 3: This was my favorite trail ride. Astride our hyper steeds, we traipsed through the countryside and up into the hills to Badi Lake, a man-made reservoir that provides irrigation water to farmers in the valley. We passed the most fascinating people and scenery along the way.

Stone walls enclosed small fields of wheat, which were just beginning the transformation from green to golden. Bougainvillea draped over fences and climbed up walls, adding a splash of fuchsia, coral, baby pink and white to the dry, dusty landscape. At one point, it created a canopy overhead, dropping neon leaves on the path like a natural red carpet. Herds of little goats scrambled up the hillsides or mewed at us from their tethers. Water buffalo with curlicue horns lounged in the shade of their enclosures. Always a little cranky looking, they raised their noses in the air, rolled their eyes, and flapped their ears when alerted to our presence. We passed a camel that was nearly obscured by the towering cargo of hay on its cart. One enclosed field was cleared and brown but featured one towering tree, planted in a concrete ring, with branches bare of leaves but fiery with saffron blooms that rained down on the parched earth. The scene looked like a sepia snapshot with a Photoshopped splash of orange.

Village ladies always catch my eye as they labor in the fields or around their homes dressed in colors that offset the drudgery. Several times, a woman would hear our hoofbeats, pop up from the wheatfield, pull her dupatta up over her head and wave with a big smile. Others crouched by the irrigation channels to wash blankets, which they draped over the bushes to dry. Heads piled high with freshly harvested greens, a few ladies emerged from the fields and paused to watch us pass. Many stood roadside with their children. All wore saris in shocking hues of mainly red, orange and yellow.

We took a short break to check out the reservoir. Tony noted that the water level changes dramatically, depending on rainfall during the monsoon season. He pointed to a small temple near the shoreline, almost completely submerged with only a bit of its spire poking out of the water. “I’ve been here when the water is below that temple,” he said. “And I’ve been here when the water was up to the edge of this path.”


Down Time
Between lessons and rides, we sat on our porch or strolled around the property. Our building’s exterior was painted with traditional Rajasthani designs, including glued-on little round mirrors, and the jhali screen above the door featured an image of Ganesh. Sparrows had stuffed sticks and other debris inside the jhali (a mesh screen on the inside kept it all from falling on the bedroom floor), and they flitted in and out of the nest. It was like having pet birds that could come and go as they pleased.



Sitting in rattan chairs on our porch, we overlooked a large garden, where the cook, Narani, might be digging up onions or picking chilis. Next to the garden, workers collected water from a pump to wash big pots or to give the horses a drink. On the far side of the garden stood a long row of stalls, where horses lay in the straw or stood with their heads hanging out the windows, calling to their friends. To the right of our porch, just under our bedroom window, a farrier trimmed the horses’ hooves and tacked on new shoes. Cookie, the puppy that wandered on to the property one day and never left, curled under a tree to gnaw on the discarded trimmings. (Dinesh said the puppy enjoys riding in the saddlebag on multi-day horse safaris.)


Climbing to the roof of another building, we watched huge langur monkeys leaping from tree to tree and then pausing to snack. We gasped as a tiny baby monkey held on for dear life when its mother soared through the air, grabbed for a branch and swung to a perch. From our vantage point, we watched the soft green wheat sway in the breeze while peacocks wandered through the fields.

Behind our building, additional horses were tied up, along with a baby camel and a menagerie of chickens, goats and dogs. Watching the baby goats was better than TV.

On the rooftop of our building, we ate meals, lingered over chai and played Uno in the evening as the sun set behind the Aravelli hills.


On our final night at the ranch, Dinesh built a campfire for us. The kids roasted marshmallows, sang songs, pointed out constellations, and told stories.

Honey, I bought a camel.
Wandering slowly back to our room one evening, we encountered Dinesh and Francine. At the same time, the young camel came ambling down the path, led by one of the grooms.
“What do you do with that camel?” Tony asked.
“Even we don’t know what to do with it!” said Francine. “We’ll get rid of it, I think. They can be quite dangerous. Look!” The camel was tugging on the lead, trying to run.
We all followed the camel down to a small paddock. The groom let the camel loose inside, where it bucked and popped in the air, gangly legs kicking out at unpredictable angles. The puppy Cookie tentatively trotted into the paddock, ears perked at this curiosity, but then bolted under the fence when the camel’s wild thrashing came too close.
Although we all had a good giggle at the goofy camel, Francine repeated her protest about camel ownership. Tony and I joked about how most husbands get in trouble for buying a tech gadget or other expensive toy without asking their wives.
“How did you break the news when you brought home a camel?” we asked Dinesh.
He said the camel was a surprise even to him. He had been looking for one of his grooms, and someone announced, “He went to get the camel.” Sure enough, the groom showed up later with the baby camel that charmed its way into permanent residence at Krishna Ranch.
“He really was so cute and little,” said Francine.
Although the little camel is still too young to be useful, Dinesh plans to use him for hauling cargo on multi-day horse safaris in the future. “That is a good idea,” Francine conceded.


On the afternoon of our departure, some of the handlers demonstrated a few tricks. Dinesh said the horses often perform at weddings – dancing, bowing, rearing up high, and walking on their back legs. Then we gathered all the workers and our group together to express our gratitude. Our only Hindi-speaking student shared our appreciation and understanding that their long hours and hard work led to such a meaningful visit for us. We all shook hands, enjoyed a last glass of chai, hugged our horses good-bye, and trudged down the dusty path to meet our bus.


A short flight later, we were back in Delhi, saddle sore but filled with bliss.

AES Rickshaw Rally 2015

Imagine … a new TV show that merges The Amazing Race, So You Think You Can Dance, Survivor, Project Runway and Cash Cab.

That show became a reality Saturday for participants in the 3rd annual AES Rickshaw Rally. Dressed in ridiculous ensembles – often with a back story – almost 60 of us scuttled around Delhi in auto rickshaws, driven by somewhat perplexed men forced to occasionally take part in the silliness.

We assembled at the campus housing playground in the morning for a quick photo shoot, a lot of laughter, and the first set of clues. Organizers also gave us a baggie filled with unusual props: a printout of AES Director Paul Chmelik’s face taped to the end of a ruler, several stick-on mustaches (which, rats! – I didn’t discover till the race was over), a few rickshaw stickers, a map, some Hindi translations of common questions, a postcard, and a fluffy shiny ribbon (ostensibly to tie on our rickshaw).
rickshawrally! 2

My partner, Saguna, a second-grade teacher and Delhi native, dressed as a typical American, and I went over-the-top Indian. Our team name was “Culture Swap.” When we dashed through the campus gate to find a rickshaw, we lucked out and jumped in one driven by Sunil Kumar – the same driver I had last year! Saguna and I taped a garland of Indian and U.S. flags around his rickshaw, and off we went. We couldn’t go wrong with Sunil Kumar’s proactive driving skills, Saguna’s Hindi and knowledge of Delhi, and my … well, I didn’t really bring much to this party, except a willingness to act like a fool.


During the morning, we posed in front of the Salt March statue honoring Ghandi, found the Queen Alizabeth rose at the India-Africa rose garden, chatted with a priest at a temple devoted to the monkey god Hanuman, and lit a candle outside a Catholic church. Saguna and I split up at one point. She took on the metro challenge, while I dashed ahead in the rickshaw to complete two tasks at Khan Market: Find the “key wallah” and collect a key that would open a lock at a later stop, and get a sticker from the phone battery seller.

We had been told our school’s director, Paul Chmelik, would make surprise appearances throughout the day, so a bunch of us were happy to see him hanging out by the phone battery kiosk.

We all met up at Nehru Park, not far from school, for a picnic lunch and some Bollywood dancing, led by local Zumba instructor, Deepak. A crowd of school boys cheered and slowly infiltrated our picnic until they, too, were dancing up a storm.

After lunch, organizers handed out the afternoon clues. At India Gate, we found a big family sitting on the grass, enjoying lunch. As per our instructions, Saguna high-fived one of them after instructing them all to smile at the camera (we got extra points for smiles). We searched a bit for the ubiquitous snake charmers for the bonus challenge of snapping a photo with a cobra, but we failed. On to the Agar Sain ki Baoli, a stepwell located near the business district of Connaught Place. Ironically, we weren’t allow in because the REAL Amazing Race show was filming! Some competitors – included Sharda, who was dressed as an Indian Army officer – sneaked in or arrived before the Amazing Race film crew, but we were too late. The last two tasks were pretty tame, which was a relief because Saguna and I were flagging. We visited a book store and bought two books to donate to the Hope Foundation‘s mobile library project, and we popped in to the post office to mail our postcard to Paul Chmelik.

Team Culture Swap was feeling pretty smug by the end of the day. We had earned almost all of the bonus points, which required photo evidence of these challenges:
* Get your hair cut by a roadside barber.
* Pay to get your shirt ironed by a coal iron. Extra points if you do the ironing!
* Take a picture riding the propane guy’s bike.
* Find a laborer and do their job for them.
* Stop for chai with your driver and serve the tea seller.
* Ride the city bus for one stop.
* Find your doppelganger and take a picture with them.
* Play cricket with a local group.
* Photo with a team member and different modes of transportation. (Saguna hopped on a motorcycle, a bike, a stranger’s motorcyle rickshaw and a bicycle rickshaw, and I climbed aboard a Delhi police truck, causing much panic in Sunil Kumar.)
* Live cows, monkeys, camels, peacocks, elephants, goats, chickens, horses, pigs, rabbits and cobras. (We found cows, pigs and a goat. Where were all the animals today? It’s rare NOT to see a monkey or a horse, at least.)





Our final stop on the tour was Very Special Arts India, a nonprofit organization working with disabled and underprivileged young people. Its mission statement is, “No mental or physical challenge need ever limit the human potential to create and excel.” The kids and volunteers engaged us in dancing, singing and block printing.

The AQI was pretty awful this day, so Paul should have been wearing his mask.

A plethora of Pauls.
IMG_1252 (1)

The AES Rickshaw Rally wrapped up with pizza, beer and celebrations at the Pint Room in my neighborhood. Despite our over-confidence, Saguna and I did not walk away with a prize. However, we had a hilarious time and got to know each other better, so that was a big win!

Clint, one of the Rickshaw Rally organizers, used storify to capture some of the day’s finest moments. Check it out.

Thanks to Clint, Allison, Kate and Maureen (and everyone else who made this happen!) for a spectacular day!

Falling in love again … India Week at AES New Delhi

Yikes, with only three weeks left in the school year, I’m looking forward to summer and family-filled stories that will overflow these pages. I’m also looking back at a busy spring that I failed to document. So, let’s catch up, shall we?

India Week at the American Embassy School always makes me fall in love again with my host country. The day-to-day grind of Delhi living can wear a girl down and make her long for clean air and tank tops. Then India Week rolls around in early February, and our campus morphs into a living laboratory of Indian culture. My little second graders – even the boys – sit quietly with cloth and wooden hoops in their laps as they learn the traditional craft of Gujarati embroidery. Outside, they cluster around the mehendi artist who decorates their hands with henna designs – peacocks, lotus flowers and the AES tiger. They watch a potter turn the wheel to form a terracotta pot, and then they take a turn. They press the sandy clay into moulds and pop out a diya lamp and a tiny Ganesh. Other artisans demonstrate their crafts, including batik painting, papier-mâché, wood block printing, leather sandals, paper toys, miniature painting, wood carving, silk weaving, embroidery, bead work and more. Student blogs transform into reflections about practicing yoga, screen printing T-shirts, sampling Indian snacks and walking the runway to model costumes of India. The week culminates with Indian Clothes Dress-Up Day, when our corridors explode in color and bling as students and teachers swish around in saris, lehengas, salwar kameeze and other finery.

Here’s a teaser for a fascinating (albeit too long and complicated for second graders) film.

Potter Mr. Ram Prashad.

Our second-grade team.

Allyn Goowin’s Balloowins may have been only tangentially related to India, but he did engage students to goofily re-enact a part of the Hindu epic Ramayana, and children were literally rolling in the aisles laughing.

AES Rickshaw Rally 2014

With the “Amazing Race” music pounding as our subconscious background track, about 40 American Embassy School teachers careened around New Delhi Nov. 15 for the second annual AES Rickshaw Rally.

Tony and I dubbed ourselves “Sarojini Style” and dressed from head to toe in gear from Sarojini Nagar, a local market and land of low-quality goods and butchered English. My T-shirt featured a drawing of a panda and read, “Cute banda. Sometimes you have to realize that you’re the one bringing the gloom around. Learn to let go.” Tony’s said, “Cances are never given theyre taken.” I even sported the split-toe socks that make flip-flops easier to wear in cool weather.



The other teams were equally ridiculous. We all met at the American Embassy School’s Community Garden to collect the first clues of the morning. Our day would involve answering questions and snapping photos with my iPad to document our progress. We turned in our evidence at the lunch break and again at the end of the day for judges to calculate points.


After our major fail with the AES trivia questions, we received the next set of clues and dashed off campus in our assigned auto rickshaw. Our driver, Sunil Kumar, knew shortcuts to some of the destinations and eagerly kept on the lookout for anything that could earn us extra points, including five people on a motorcycle, specific animals (elephants, camels, monkeys, wedding horses), and an animal in a tuk-tuk. He even cheated at one point by asking some motorcyclists at the side of the road to pose on their bike without helmets. We thought that would be an easy shot to get, but Delhi’s new helmet law has met with a surprising level of compliance.

At lunch, I didn’t hear my phone ring, but I had two missed calls from Sunil Kumar, who told me later, “Madam I call you because there is elephant!” Rats, we missed it.

After a short ride in the Delhi metro, where I had to record the stops (two) and cost of a ticket (8 rupees or about 13 cents), I reconnected with Tony and Sunil Kumar to tackle our list of tasks at the following places. I’ve included the info we were given about each stop (in italics).

Buddha Jayanti ParkThis park was created on the occasion of the 2500th anniversary of Buddha’s enlightenment. It was dedicated by the Dalai Lama in October 1993.

This shot was our attempt to “channel your inner zen” with the Buddha statue.

Laxmi Narayan TempleMahatma Gandhi inaugurated this temple in 1939. At that time, Gandhi said the temple would not be restricted to only Hindus, and people from every caste would be allowed inside. The temple is spread over 7.5 acres and is one of the major attractions of Delhi and attracts thousands of devotees every year.

Here, we had to find a priest and ask a few questions about the temple. Photography wasn’t allowed inside, but it was a beautiful peaceful place. We’ll visit again on a less frenetic day!

Gurudwara Bangla Sahib Sikh TempleIt is the most prominent Sikh house of worship in Delhi. Langar is a traditional concept, which includes cooking, serving, and eating together in a communal dining hall. Every Gurdwara has a Langar facility. Volunteers prepare everything. Seva, selfless service, and the practice of sitting side by side without regard to caste, color, creed, or rank, in a common dining area both serve to nourish the soul cleansing it from the effects of ego.

This was one of our favorite stops. We popped in to the foreign visitors office, where a lady asked, “How many of you are coming? It would be easier if you all came at once.” True, but that would defeat the purpose. She tied a scarf on Tony’s head and led us to the huge kitchen. We donated a bag of rice, and Tony took a turn stirring the massive pot of vegetables. Volunteers sat at a low table, rolling out chappatis. Pretty fantastic!




We had to skip several stops on the itinerary, including India Gate and Safdarjung Tomb, as we knew the next destination was mandatory and clear across town: Very Special Arts India. The organization works with underprivileged local children and kids with special needs. Their motto is, “No mental or physical challenge need ever limit the human potential to create and excel.” The kids and volunteers at VSAI taught us a Bollywood dance (which was very challenging, especially in flip flops!) and showed us how to use block-printing techniques to make Christmas cards. We had a lot of fun interacting with the kids, and we donated about $300 to support the organization’s work.

Teaching us the dance steps. Yikes!





Afterwards, we all gathered at the nearby mall for lunch at Underdoggs, a sports bar. Rickshaw Rally judges worked quickly to tally our points while we rested, ate and laughed about our morning.

The judges handed out the afternoon clues and released us in order of points earned. Sarojini Style came in darn close to last. We ran out the door and met up with Sunil Kumar, who sped to our next destination, dodging traffic and even driving off the road at times. We arrived at Qutab Minar at the same time as the point leaders! Woo hoo! Here was our afternoon line-up:

Qutab MinarQutab Minar, the tallest brick minaret in the world, is an incredible example of early Indo–Islamic architecture. It was built in 1206, but the reason remains a mystery. Some believe that it was made to signify victory and the beginning of Muslim rule in India, while others say it was used to call the faithful to prayer. The tower has five distinct stories, and is covered with intricate carvings and verses from the holy Quran.

Here we had to find a tourist and pose like we were holding the top of the minaret. I grabbed the first person I saw inside the gate, and he willingly complied. Stupid sun!

Atre Yoga Studio – We met up with several other teams in this neighborhood. In exchange for help finding the yoga studio, I showed Bernie how to do the designated poses. We were rushing and trying not to identify bits on the dirty concrete sidewalk, so it’s not my best form.

Natarajasana – well, we didn’t quite nail this one.


Extra points for sirsasana!

Chittaranjan ParkIt was established in the early 1960s under the name EPDP Colony or East Pakistan Displaced Persons Colony. It remains home to a large Bengali community, and is home to Kolkata-style street-food stalls, Bengali cuisine, fish markets, temples and cultural centers.

Our task here? Take photos of four different kinds of food and write the name of the park in Bengali. Done and dusted.

Sarolini Nagar – Finally, our last destination, the market where Tony and I had shopped for our costumes.
Nagar means market in Hindi. Sarojini Naidu, who the market was named after, was a famous Indian freedom fighter and poet. Sarojini was the first woman to become the governor of an Indian state. She was the second woman to become the president of the Congress in 1925.

We had a few tasks here: I got mehendi. Tony pretended to be one of the roaming belt sellers. He also posed with the jalebi maker and ate some with a couple other teams. We snapped a creepy mannequin. And we collected a blanket from a specific stall to donate to a local charity.







With Sunil Kumar’s help, we got extra points for the two guys on the motorcycle, as well as this creepy monkey and the wedding horses. Tony spotted the dog in a rickshaw! We never did find five people on a bike.





Tony’s glasses didn’t survive intact. Bummer, they were so stylish.

We wrapped up the day in our own neighborhood at the Pint Room (after pausing for chai with Sunil Kumar and a few other teams).


Sarojini Style ultimately never came close to winning, but we had a great day (after some initial bickering…).

The winners? Craig and Holli – or Team Dengue Duo. Congratulations!

For more photos of the AES Rickshaw Rally, check out my flickr album – AES Rickshaw Rally. Thanks to Kate, Kathleen and Clint for organizing!

Math and English collide in cuteness

When I was in second grade, we sat at our desks and raced through pages of addition and subtraction problems. As a teacher of English learners, I’m sure my students often wish life could be so easy. However, today’s second graders learn math in an entirely different – and much better – way. They learn the concepts behind the place value work they do. It’s not enough to “carry the ten.” Kids need to understand they are conceptually regrouping ten ones for a single ten. I am not lying when I say I only just realized that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 40 years when I “carried the ten”!

Earlier this week, I was working with a second-grade math group, which included three English beginners: one Israeli, one Korean and one from Bahrain. We were practicing the strategy of “Read-Draw-Write” to solve a word problem. With help, they read the problem and I explained some of the tricky words. Next it was time to draw the problem before writing the equation and answer sentence. They had learned to draw a place value chart with symbols for the tens and ones. I turned to help the Bahraini boy, who had been absent the previous day and needed to catch up. By the time I got back to the Korean boy, he had finished his drawing to illustrate giving away 10 seashells. It looked like this:

So cute! And so wrong. I had to remind him that by “draw,” we mean draw a place value chart.
He did it, reluctantly, but then he insisted on drawing an arrow back to his original sketch. Fair enough.

Reminds me of another confused little Korean kid I knew in Laos. Check it out: Korean Math Warriors.

O, Man! Forensics and fun in Muscat

Forensics – Not just for dead people.
That’s the slogan on the back of our team T-shirts.
As one of the MESAC Forensics Team coaches, I heard a lot of surprised exclamations such as, “Wow! You guys do forensics? I didn’t know you were trained in that!” Sigh … It’s not “forensic science” à la CSI. It’s forensics à la Socrates. In other words, the students compete in debate, public speaking and dramatic interpretation of monologues or duet scenes.

According to the American Forensic Association,

“Forensics” is a word rooted in the Western world’s classical experience. The Greeks organized contests for speakers that developed and recognized the abilities their society felt central to democracy. These exercises acquired the title “forensics,” derived from the Latin term “forensis” and closely related to forum. Because the training in this skill of public advocacy, including the development of evidence, found one of its important venues in the law courts, the term “forensic” has also become associated with the art and science of legal evidence and argument.

Our school is a member of MESAC (Middle East South Asia Conference), which also includes schools from Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. As one of four American Embassy School coaches (a fifth stayed behind in India), I traveled with 20 amazing high-schoolers to represent AES at the 2013 MESAC Forensics Tournament, April 17-21 in Muscat, Oman.

The American-British Academy (ABA) played host.

Our fledgling forensics program fielded a debate team for the first time, and this was only the second year we participated in acting and speaking events. Nevertheless:
* Two of the debaters beat last year’s winners to earn a bronze medal.
* We sent 12 students to the finals.
* Seven kids came home with medals.
* AES placed second overall.

This is what we liked to see! Lots of “AES” on the results posters.

We adults felt excited for the medalists, but our greatest fulfillment came from watching the growth that occurred over the course of our season. This is a unique team in that students have an opportunity to express themselves in ways that take them far out of their comfort zone. For the oratory event, they wrote, memorized and presented powerful speeches calling for action. Our students addressed mental health in children, women’s rights in India, care of HIV/AIDS patients, Asian stereotypes and parental pressure for perfection. They spoke from the heart, revealing their deepest fears and biggest aspirations.

We may have seen the greatest transformation in our students competing in oral interpretation. They chose challenging pieces of literature to read, and some of the English learners required line-by-line explanations of the meaning before they could start interpreting. They worked so hard, begging for extra coaching time, meeting on weekends, shedding their inhibitions. When one of our 10th-graders took the stage to read “The Orange” by Joyce Carol Oates, she gave it everything she had, leaving the audience disarmed but in awe. Our only senior had brilliantly edited down a scene from “‘Night, Mother” and read the lines for both characters. Her subtle sophisticated performance tricked my mind into thinking there really were two people on stage and her last line forced a catch in my throat as I fought back tears.

There were so many success stories … not a slacker in the bunch. In addition to their work, our kids were kind, friendly and outgoing. They bonded with students from other schools and demonstrated admirable sportsmanship. So proud of them all! I feel incredibly fortunate to work at a school with this caliber of young people.

First day of the tournament at ABA … waiting in the auditorium.

My good friend Jacqueline, who taught with us in Turkey, now works at The American International School of Muscat. I was hoping to meet up with her during our visit, but the tournament schedule was grueling. Imagine my excitement when she showed up at the ABA coaches lounge! She hung out with us at the school a few times and then surprised me with a ticket to see “Madame Butterfly” at the Royal Opera House. I almost declined, exhausted from a lingering cold and the intensity of the tournament, but I couldn’t resist the lure of a cultural event paired with some Jacq time. The two-year-old Opera House was stunning inside and out. In fact, I may have appreciated the venue even more than the show!

So much elegance.

I NEED one of these lamps.

Jacqueline and me. (I’m the one who looks less like a posh opera-goer and more like a worn-out teacher at the end of a long day.)

Here’s a cool promotional video from the Royal Opera House website:

Our only other foray into Muscat was a traffic-y bus ride with all the kids and coaches to a souk, a fun market with Omani souvenirs and crafts. We spent about 30 minutes poking around before heading back to our hotel. Students stayed with ABA families, so coaches enjoyed a little downtime. In fact, one of the other coaches had issued a challenge: Which coach could find the best souvenir for one riyal (about $3)? Back at the hotel, the coaches met to compare souvenirs. The AES coaches nailed it. We had purchased a bizarre plastic pull-string toy featuring a Barbie-ish doll riding a sort of bicycle rickshaw with a green alien-ish baby and a rotating umbrella. We turned it into a trophy and gave it temporarily to our MVP. (I’ll post a photo when we get it back.)

Cue the cows … and … action! Mom and Dad see REAL India

India kindly handed my parents a genuine slice of life during their two-week visit.


Their taste of New Delhi’s daily grind included: pollution in the “red zone,” several power outages, taps running dry, driver had a row with his wife and didn’t show up to take us to work, housekeeper/cook took a day off for her uncle’s funeral, car broke down, dogs in the dumpsters, cows in the road, street kids tapping on the car windows at stoplights, and oh so many more sights, sounds and smells that keep our anxiety levels higher than healthy.



But set aside your disgust and frustration, and you see another side of India that sparks appreciation, or at least fascination. My parents also experienced:

The costumes, arts, crafts and music from the state of Karnataka (as well as the exuberance of school kids) at the annual Surajkund Mela.

The get-away-from-it-all Aravalli Biodiversity Park‘s twisting path through scrubby acacia trees and wild peacocks, just around the corner from our house.


The drumming, the dancing, the sequins of the over-the-top Epcot-esque venue and Bollywood stage show at Kingdom of Dreams.





The levity and intensity of eight Indian men desperately trying to pick out sunglasses for Dad at Ambience Mall.


The sneeze-inducing spice market, technicolor sari shops and gilded, spangly, tassled wedding accessories during a death-defying rollicking bicycle rickshaw ride through Old Delhi’s congested alleys.

The comfort zone of mini-America at our school and the American Embassy restaurant.




The time-travelling trip to the Mughal Dynasty in Agra (Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, Fatepur Sikri) and Delhi’s Qutub Minar.








The saris, the chaos, the smiles, the 10-minute alterations on vintage sewing machines at the local Sarojini Market.

The posh indulgence of a proper breakfast at the Imperial Hotel – twice.





The relative peace – not counting slum drumming, the high-pitched drone of construction equipment, and bellows of strolling cows – in our leafy Vasant Vihar neighborhood, with help from lovely Raji.



Poor Dad came down with the flu, or a cold, or pollution-related respiratory problems, poor guy. But overall, we had a great time! Tony and I enjoyed sharing the ups and downs (and fast curves and U-turns) of life in this place! We wanted to show them what we love about Delhi, but ultimately, they saw it all – the stunning and the heart-breaking. Because, really, there’s no other way to experience India.

(The iPhoto slideshows are a bit lame, I admit. I’m looking for a way to easily link photos from Flickr to make slideshows visible on Apple devices… in the meantime, you can check out the photos at my flickr photostream.)