Tag Archives: New Delhi

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.

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.

Culture clash, courtesy of a cricket

“Sorry I’m late, but traffic was insane this morning,” I moaned to Anil, my tennis coach. I left my water bottle and towel on a bench and walked across the clay court to greet him. He was staring through the chain link fence, past the bleachers, but he turned with a smile and replied, “I know, I got stuck, too. So many big trucks. That’s why air is so bad.” His eyes darted back beyond the fence, and then, distractedly, he pointed at the net where two baskets of tennis balls awaited. “Warm up,” he said.

We both stood on the same side, with Anil at the net and me at the baseline. He tossed balls to my forehand and backhand, and I attempted to hit them to the other side. Each hit elicited a comment:
“Beautiful, girl!”
“Nice try, girl!”
“Amazing form!”
“That’s your stroke!”
And so on. This is how my weekly lessons usually start. Very much still a beginner, I revel in Anil’s consistent praise and positive attitude. He has a bright genuine smile, and his cheerleading boosts my spirits. But on this day, he seemed fixated on something and his words fell flat.

When the baskets emptied, he picked one up, flipped the metal legs around to serve as handles and handed it to me to scoop up the balls scattered around the clay court. Usually, he would take the other basket to help, but instead he looked exasperated.

“What is that?” he asked. I followed his gaze but saw nothing unusual.
“What is what?” I asked.
“That sound!” he cried.
I set down my basket and paused to listen. Typical sounds in Delhi including drumming, honking, barking, mooing and shouting, the shrill sawing of rebar and clattering of bricks at construction sites, auto rickshaws revving, car alarms shrieking, random bells ringing, more honking, more barking and more, more, more, often all at the same time.

Yet, weirdly, all I heard was the chirp of a lone cricket.

“It’s just a cricket,” I laughed and resumed by ball collecting.

Anil stomped over the to the fence, a cloud of red dust in his wake. Suddenly, silence. He turned and smiled, “It stopped,” he said, relieved.

“It will start again,” I said, popping the basket onto a ball. “Haven’t you ever had a cricket in your house? They chirp and drive you crazy, but then they stop so you can’t ever find them.”

Anil shook his head in frustration. I handed him the basket of balls, and sure enough. Chirp, chirp, chirp. My kind, patient coach smacked the metal fence with his hand, quieting the cricket once again.

“Rally,” Anil said, his smile tighter than usual, his voice edgy. He walked to the other side of the net and hit a ball to me, counting aloud how many times I hit it back. At one point, he let my return zip by him. He grabbed a ball from the basket and whacked it at the fence. “It’s making me crazy!” he said with a forced laugh. I hadn’t even noticed the cricket’s encore.

Soon, a young man named Sandeep showed up. “This is new ball boy,” Anil said. Sandeep hung out behind the baseline on Anil’s side, sprinting back and forth, trying to catch the balls I hit across the net. I’m pretty new to tennis, but that didn’t seem like typical ball boy strategy. After awhile, Anil stopped, called to me, “One minute!” and then turned to Sandeep for a spirited conversation in Hindi. He pointed his racquet toward the fence, and Sandeep started to move in that direction, abandoning his ball boy duties.

Incredulous, I slowly and sarcastically asked the obvious question, “Did you just tell Sandeep to go find the cricket?”
“I can’t stand it!” Anil said. We both cracked up.

I tried to explain the irony to Anil. I tried to express how expats desperately seek out the sounds of nature in Delhi. I tried to make him see the silliness inherent in his obsession with an insect. But he just let that big smile spread across his face and squinted a bit, suggesting nonverbally that I wasn’t making any sense.

Driving home at the end of the day, I sat in traffic, enveloped in the discordant sounds of a developing city – street children rapping on my window with their relentless heartbreaking pleas for money, the bleating blaring blasting horns of vehicles pinned to the sides of my car, the rumbling cough of diesel bursting out of overloaded teetering trucks, the whiny tinny tunes erupting from open taxi windows, the reverberatating jackhammer of metro construction sending waves through my feet and up to my teeth. No way to escape it. Nowhere to go. Nothing to do, but take a deep breath and channel that cricket.

New Delhi Book Club Does Door County

As an international teacher, I sometimes struggle to find friends who are not international teachers. My teacher friends are great, don’t get me wrong, but I also love to learn the stories of interesting people with experiences quite different from my own.

That’s why I felt particularly fortunate to join a small book club in New Delhi comprising a diverse group of fascinating ladies – a nurse, an actress, a scientist, a dancer … and more. We met monthly to discuss and recommend (or not) whatever each of us had read recently, and we maintained a lending library of books donated by the group. Occasionally, we joined a few other ladies for a dramatic reading of a play. Although their husbands’ jobs brought them to Delhi and, unfortunately, took them away again last year, these women all left their marks on the community and on my heart. I have missed the camaraderie, reflective conversations and laughter.

In fact, I don’t think I realized how much I missed them until a plan was hatched to hold a summer reunion. Not everyone could make it, but a few of us did, and we had a wonderful time hanging out at Sue’s home in artsy-fartsy Door County, Wisconsin, June 25-28. Sue’s husband is presently working in Afghanistan with the U.S. Agency for International Development while she settles into their retirement home (which they bought sight unseen while living in India). The house sits high on a hill overlooking Lake Michigan with a steep staircase leading down to the wooded waterfront. It was idyllic.

Each morning, we lounged poolside with coffee and breakfast treats, re-connecting and catching up. Over the four days, we also walked to the Edgewood Orchard Galleries, where I bought a sculpture for my own lake house; took a bumpy ride on Lake Michigan in a rented pontoon boat piloted by Sue’s son, Brent; participated in a dramatic reading of “Fences” by August Wilson; held an official book club meeting (see the book recommendations at the end of this post); and visited a food fair and an art show. Cocktails in hand, we returned to the backyard in the evenings to watch the sun set.



Adrienne, Catherine, Henrietta and I clambered down to the lakefront.

Brent deftly handled the pontoon boat on choppy water, steering us to glassy Horseshoe Bay, where we lingered for a picnic lunch.



Monique and Henri take the dogs out for a walk to the art gallery.


The gallery featured an art-lined path through the woods.

I bought this sculpture of an ibis, which the gallery shipped to our Michigan house. Here she is at Lake Orion.

We bought this fish for Sue as a thank-you gift.

Afternoon cocktails prepared by Adrienne!

Back to front, left to right: Monique, Adrienne, Sue, Henri, me, Catherine.

Catherine’s party pants.

Henri and me at Gills Rock, the tip of Wisconsin’s mitten thumb peninsula.

My motto.

Brent took a summer job at Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant, where he herds the goats off the sod roof at night.

Reading “Fences,” August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play about black Americans in the 1950s.



Here’s the list of books we discussed. Fiction and non-fiction, old and new … in no order.
Beautiful Ruins – Jess Walter
The Saffron Kitchen – Yasmin Crowther
Don’t Let Him Know– Sandip Roy
A Dog’s Gift – Bob Drury
The Martian – Andy Weir
The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life– Bettany Hughes
The Children Act – Ian McEwan
Squatting with Dignity – Kumar Alok
Mornings on Horseback: The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt – David McCullough
The Expats – Chris Pavone
Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly: The Remarkable Story of the Friendship Between a First Lady and a Former Slave – Jennifer Fleischner
A House Divided – Pearl S. Buck
Imperial Woman: The Story of the Last Empress of China – Pearl S. Buck
The Child Who Never Grew – Pearl S. Buck
Various books by Leon Uris
Clara and Mr. Tiffany – Susan Vreeland
The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge – David McCullough
The Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy – Douglas Smith
The Lunar Chronicles – Marisa Meyer
The Devil in the White City – Erik Larson
In the Garden of the Beasts -Erik Larson
Thunderstruck – Erik Larson
The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry – Gabrielle Zevin
I’ll Give you the Sun – Jandy Nelson
All the Light We Cannot See– Anthony Doerr
Catering to Nobody – Diane Mott Davidson
The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins
To be Sung Underwater – Tom McNeal
Wild – Cheryl Strayed
The Orphan Train – Christina Baker Kline
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking – Susan Cain
The Cherry Harvest – Lucy Sanna
The Passion of Artemesia – Susan Vreeland
FDR – Jean Edward Smith
We Band of Angels: The Untold Story of the American Women Trapped on Bataan – Elizabeth Norman
I Served on Bataan – Juanita Redmond
Wild Swans – Jung Chang
Pillars of the Earth – Ken Follett

Until we meet again, happy reading!

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.

Halloween 2014 – Orange is the New Black

I didn’t realize how cliché our Halloween idea was until I checked Pinterest. Apparently gaggles of girlfriends around the globe dressed in orange scrubs and transformed into the Litchfield inmates of the Netflix show Orange is the New Black. No matter; we rocked it. Like Red on the show, I used a plant to smuggle in some contraband (gum).


We won the prize for Best Group Costume!