Monday, December 28, 2009

Sidewalk Images #2

Wherever one travels, they are there. People who live on the streets exist in all parts of the world. Some are there by choice, others through misfortune. Whichever it is, they all have a story to tell, if we take the time to hear it.

These men crossed my path in Northern Thailand a year or so ago. I was out for an early morning stroll when I saw them pushing a cart full of recyclables, pausing now and then to play with their puppy. After a brief hello, we laughed as the pup raced through throngs of pigeons that exploded upward, then fluttered back down mockingly in the young dog's wake. The faces of the two friends told a tale of a hard life; the fresh scrapes and tired eyes betrayed a rough existence, but their laughter conveyed an as-yet-undampened spirit.

We spoke haltingly, using a great number of gestures: Names, country (or region) of origin, the small talk that first engages strangers. From the poor northeast, they had come to find work; recycling was their momentary career. Wide smiles appeared when they learned I am American ("New York, number one!"). They broke small pieces from their khao neeow (sticky rice) to feed their canine companion as we walked along the otherwise deserted plaza. They then asked me to take their picture, proudly posing with the puppy.

I offered to treat them to breakfast. They smiled and wai-ed low, we exchanged hugs, then I waved goodbye as they moved on to the nearby noodle cart, the pup trotting close behind. How many opportunities to learn more about people do we miss, out of fear, ignorance, or pride? Once in a while I'm blessed to have the chance to hear another story. It helps me understand humans a bit better, and to know that we are all pretty much the same; we just have drawn different cards of fate.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Philosophy of Being

Sitting in a leafy canopy's shade, I place my finger to hold the spot in my book, and turn my face into the breeze blowing across the lake onto the deck of a restaurant in the Bangkok suburb we call our second home. The location of the newly-opened establishment is brilliant, taking advantage of the atmosphere's obligatory observance of the laws of thermodynamics. Warmed by a San Miguel buzz, I bask in the pleasures of just being: this zen moment is nestled in the barks of distant dogs and the rustling of leaves overhead. Murmurs of conversation drift out from the bar where wide screen TV displays the Buffalo Bills-New England Patriots game, and wind chimes jingle in the trees.

Although our technological world has doomed us to an unpleasant ecological future, it nonetheless has afforded the willing to live in any corner of the world of one's choosing. How oddly comforting it is to sit in a tropical garden, conversations in Thai, English and French floating about, the NFL and Premier League playing simultaneously on TV screens, and in a strangely surreal twist, songs by The Monkees and John Denver begin to seep from speakers suspended overhead.

I watch airliners slowly descend into Bangkok's airport in the distance, one thread in the techno-web that physically links us in an increasingly global society.

Thursday, December 17, 2009


After three days of marking exams and getting caught up with my project and lab grading, I found myself rushing to finish and export comments today 35 minutes after the deadline. Students wandered by to check on final grades--they are not required to be at school once they have finished their exams--lingering a bit to chat with friends or teachers, and for seniors, to be sure they have all forms in for college admission. One can sense the deflating energy level as the hours tick by. Teachers exchange holiday plan notes over lunch at the deserted canteen.

I sit back and relax, part fatigue, part reflection, as my last comment speeds somewhere into cyberspace, seeking my class record online. I notice the most recent note left by a student in one of my biology classes, and smile. This break comes none too soon.

A questionable sentiment, but I'll take it!

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Best Schools in America?

US News and World Report just ranked the 100 "best" US high schools. In reading the demographics of each school, it's easy to see that many on this list are selective. Take the two schools in Tucson, for example. Coming in at #9 is a school that only accepts high achieving students, requiring--among other things--that everyone take AP courses. Tucson's University High School will only accept students who have scored in the top 5% of state tests. The top school (in a Virginia suburb) accepts students based on "merit;" they have 4.9% minority enrollment, and less than 2% of their students are economically disadvantaged. How tough can it be, then, to end up in such an elite group? How easy to teach at such a school!

Those aren't America's best schools! Check out #13, the IDEA Quest Academy in Donna, Texas, with 96% minority, 77% economically disadvantaged student body. Now that has to be considered a real success by comparison. The best schools are those that take on the challenges of its culture by including all those who struggle and devote resources to meeting the needs of all children. The best don't hide from the disadvantaged, but find ways to help everyone reach their potential in an atmosphere of collaboration and mutual respect.

Whenever some polling body decides to rank anything so difficult as America's high schools, I don't get overly excited about it. Usually they have some over riding or vested interest in the outcome. I seriously doubt that the lists would look anything alike if it were done by, say, the U.N. or the International Peace Institute.