Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Confessions of a TOY on a February Wednesday

I can’t get my grades done on time.  I yelled at my son this morning because he whined about having to eat cereal with no milk.  I was 15 minutes late to work.  I run 3 miles a few times a week on the treadmill, even though my body is craving 6 outside daily.  There is literally no food in our refrigerator or cupboards. The laundry is pouring out of the chute, and I had to wash one load twice because it sat in the washer so long it began to smell musty.  And speaking of smells…somewhere in my house is a piece of rotting citrus.  I’m not sure where it is exactly, as my fruit bowl is empty, and I’m not sure why none of my other family members can’t smell this, but I guess eventually it will get bad enough that perhaps they will be the ones to unearth it.  I have a suitcase that still hasn’t been emptied from Dallas and one that still isn’t emptied from New York sitting in my bedroom next to piles of unfolded, clean clothes.  It’s 4:49 pm and I’m enjoying a few moments to myself with a cup of cocoa and a pastry at Panera Bread after a meeting…and I know I should be grading or cleaning or parenting…and in fact, I’m not even sure where all my children are at the moment, but I just needed to sit in peace for a while.  But the peace is barely tangible since the guilt of having a few moments to myself is so loud in my conscience.
This morning, driving to school, I had to wipe away the tears that were freezing to my cheeks, blurring my vision.  How do I get everything done?  How do I parent and wife and teach and clean and lead all at the same time?  Is it even possible to do it all well?  Or do I have to succumb to doing everything half-ass?  Is it in fact true that once you win teacher of the year, you spend the next year being a bad teacher?
2007 National Teacher of the Year, Mike Geisen, sat with me in Dallas one evening and talked about Balance.  Be honest, he said, and people will understand.  Be honest to your students, your children, and your husband—tell them you can’t do it all, and they’ll support you.   They’ll get that.   I try that, and they do understand, I think, but it’s not them who always impose these expectations—it’s parents, colleagues, administrators, and probably most of all, me.  Ironically, the ones who understand the most are the ones who pay the most. 
February is the month when days start to get longer in New Hampshire, and our ambitions start to emerge from the snowbanks of a long, dark January.  But we need to remember that we are not superheroes—no matter what our movie directors or unions say—and we need to keep our ambitions in check.  We are people who need to run and play outside.  We need to watch TV with our kids on Friday nights and have dates with our partners.  We need to sleep late on weekends and hike mountains.  We must strive to find that balance by stepping back and examining the expectations others have put on us and prioritize.  We must step back and examine our own expectations of ourselves and eliminate the unnecessary.  We need to remember to feed our souls—and—to be honest, as Mike instructed—it’s okay to do that at Panera Bread on a Wednesday evening by yourself.  It’s okay.


Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Sudan Becoming Reality for My Students

For the past few weeks my team and I have embarked on an interdisciplinary unit about Sudan with grades 6-8.  I have found, in the past, that to make cultural studies real to students, you really have to put a face to the issue.  Yesterday, Achier Mou, a Sudanese "Lost Boy" with impeccable grace, kind-hearted humor, and an astonishing perspective on life, presented his reality to my students. 

Our classrooms must have no walls--we need to bring our students out into the world and bring the world in to meet them.  Yesterday, the offical results of the Sudanese referendum were announced--and how amazing that our youth (and we!) are witnessing a new country being born! There is great hope in Southern Sudan, and with the median age being 18.4 years, we can anticipate this country being part of our students' reality for years to come.  I hope that they will grow to be helpers...

This is the newspaper write up from our local paper:

Sudan Survivor Brings His Story to Holderness Central
February 08, 2011

Achier Mou, one of the “lost boys” of the Sudan who were separated from their families during the African nation’s long and bloody civil war, shared his story of survival with students at the Holderness Central School Monday. (Brendan Berube)

HOLDERNESS — It's one thing to read about tragic events like the long and bloody civil war that plagued the African nation of Sudan for nearly 20 years in a book or magazine, but quite another to hear about those events first-hand from someone who lived through them.

Earlier this week, a special visitor helped students at the Holderness Central School lift the Sudanese war out of the pages of their textbooks by putting a human face on it with the moving story of how he escaped from, and triumphed over, its devastating effects.

Born and raised in a small village in southern Sudan, Achier Mou was forced to flee from his homeland at the age of five, when he returned home from tending to his family's cattle in the fields (one of the responsibilities that he said all Sudanese boys are brought up with) to find that militia recruited by the corrupt and oppressive Sudanese government to put down a rebellion in the southern part of the country had attacked his village and burned the only home he had ever known to ashes.

Separated from his mother and two older brothers, whose fate he did not know at the time, and left with "no places to hide," Mou joined up with a group of fellow refugees who decided to travel across southern Sudan to neighboring Ethiopia.

Left without much in the way of possessions and able to carry only what provisions they could bear and still move quickly if necessary, Mou said he and the other survivors were forced to travel by night in order to keep out of sight of the government's roving militia units and the wild animals roaming the countryside.

If you were able to eat a meal large enough to fill your stomach during the journey, you were doing well, he said, explaining that the for the most part, the refugees learned to subsist on empty or only partially full stomachs.

Left with no shoes during the long trek, Mou also vividly recalls the painful blisters that formed on the bottoms of his feet.

Asked by one of the middle school students listening to his presentation Monday whether his band of survivors had lost anyone along the way, Mou said that one member of the group did fall behind, and was hopefully taken in by a sympathetic family (something that he said happened frequently, particularly with the younger boys).

"'Cause we were cute," the good natured Mou added with a chuckle.

Eventually, he said, the group arrived at a refugee camp in Ethiopia, where they joined 16,000 other children who had been separated from their families during the war.

After living at the camp in Ethiopia for four years, Mou and his fellow Sudanese refugees once again fell victim to political turmoil when they were told to leave the country after the Ethiopian government was overthrown.

Mou fled to Kenya, where he spent the next nine years learning English and furthering his education at a UN refugee camp until, in 2000, a bishop from Boston who had visited the camp persuaded the U.S. government to open its doors to some of the "Lost Boys" of the Sudan. Mou himself was able to immigrate to New England in 2001, shortly before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks forced a halt to the program. In the years since, he earned a Bachelor's degree from Tufts University in Boston, and is currently working toward a Master's degree in Global Health that he hopes to use one day in the service of his home country.

Mou never lost hope that he would one day find his long lost family, and returned to Sudan after the war ended, in 2006, to search for them. Although his efforts proved unsuccessful the first time, he visited the country again in 2007, a trip that culminated in a joyous reunion with his mother and brothers.

Now in his late 20's, Mou hopes to return to Sudan permanently once his education is complete, and has been heavily involved in efforts to bring relief to his long suffering people as a board member of the Sudan Development Foundation (SUDEF), an organization founded in 2009 by Abraham Awolich that works to break the cycle of poverty in southern Sudan and make the region self sufficient by raising funds for clinics, microfinancing, and sustainable development.

Mou also helped make Sudanese history last month by helping southern Sudanese refugees living in the Northeast register to vote on a referendum to separate from the rest of the country and form an independent government.

Voicing his hope that more people will step up and help SUDEF in its efforts to re-build and re-invigorate southern Sudan — "it can only go far if all of us chip in," he said — Mou challenged the students at Holderness Central to make a difference in their own way by joining the Peace Corps or other relief organizations once they finish their education.

"It's a good way to gain some experience and a different perspective," he said.

The students who heard Mou's story said his presentation brought the impact of the Sudanese war home to them in a way that no textbook could have.

Aurora Desmarais said that after hearing stories about Sudan and reading about what an emotional experience it was for so many, she found it interesting to hear that Mou "had a different side of the story" — that for him, it was purely a matter of survival, and that he never really had a chance to get emotional about what happened to him.

Hearing from someone who lived through the events in Sudan "really hits on a deeper level," said Jake Rossner.

Hearing Mou's story, he said, made him realize that "people can actually do something to help."