Friday, February 21, 2014

Remembering Joaquin...

Today I was going to take on one of the expat blog posts I skipped this week and write about the trait I possess that most equipped me for life abroad. I'd probably write about my general independence or adventurous spirit. Instead, I find myself reflecting on my life as a teacher.

I write this with a heavy heart today, as a "shout-out" (of sorts) to the memory of Joaquin Mendoza Jr. I taught Joaquin when he was a 4th grader in Liberty. Earlier this week, he was killed in a car crash. He was only 20 years old. Many times you hear these stories of kids who had 'everything going for them', only to have their life cut short. Teachers like myself mourn for the future that they will never get to have - no happy marriage, great career, money, happiness, etc.

But that's not necessarily why I mourn for Joaquin, although those things might have still been on the horizon for him.  In truth, he was a troubled kid. He had flunked some classes in jr. high and high school and ended up at the alternative high school. He had gotten into drugs and had even spent some time in jail. I'm not sure if his future was one that many people were optimistic about. Being an optimist, and learning that he was working at a couple of restaurants in the Liberty area since getting out of jail, I'd like to think he was turning the corner and on the verge of figuring things out. Sadly, we no longer get to find out what was to become of Joaquin.

I want to write about the Joaquin I knew over a span of 7 years or so (? hard to keep track of the time/years that go by). I have spent the better part of today thinking about him. While I hadn't seen him in probably 4 or 5 years, I have thought of him more than once during that time. Granted, I think of lots of former students on occasion - when they pop up on my facebook feed, or when I hear word of them through their parents or other friends. But Joaquin was different. I wasn't friends with him on facebook, and the only thing I'd heard about him in the past 4-5 years was that he had been arrested and was in jail. But that doesn't tell all there is to know about Joaquin, certainly not the Joaquin that I knew.

I smile as I sit here and picture his crooked smile and that cute voice he had as a 4th grader. I don't think I'd call it a lisp, but his voice sounded a bit of that of a little boy, and it melted my heart. He was well liked by his classmates, as his natural personality and sense of humor were ones to gravitate to. He wasn't the brightest kid in class, but he was smart enough and he worked at learning and being a good student. It was during his 4th grade year (or just before) that his brother and sister (twins) were born. Sometimes Joaquin didn't do his homework or have his agenda signed- which were whole class expectations. I remember there was one time when it had been a few days in a row of this occurring so I chatted with him to see what was going on. He looked at me with those big brown eyes of his and talked to me about how he was trying to help out at home with the twins, because his mom was really tired and would sleep when he got home. He loved his baby brother and sister and was such a proud big brother.

Joaquin was an at-risk kid from the get-go. I was well aware of this. His dad was in prison during his 4th grade year, and I already knew it was going to be tough for Joaquin to break the cycle and stay on a  positive path. I knew he would be OK while still in elementary school at Doniphan, but I was already worrying about him for what lied beyond.  After 4th grade, I still got to see him every day. He walked down my hallway to get to his 5th grade room. And every day, I would smile when I saw him coming because I knew what else was coming - a hug for his 4th grade teacher. Even as the year wore on and many of the 5th graders became "too cool" to stop and talk to their 4th grade teacher (it happens, I get it - no hurt feelings former students, if you are reading this), not only would Joaquin still stop to say hello, he would always sidle up for a 'side hug'. It was our thing. And even today, I cherish those hugs.

Students often gave teachers one of their school pictures when they were passing them out at school to their friends. I remember I kept some of them beyond the year they were in my class. Joaquin had given me a picture of his from 4th grade and when he was in 5th grade. They stayed taped to the file cabinet behind my desk until I cleaned out my room to move to Morocco. I liked taking a moment to look at those pictures of students and remember what they had brought to my life as a teacher. I also remember looking at Joaquin's pictures with 'a hope and a prayer', as I had started to hear that he was falling into the wrong crowd and wrong decisions in middle school. My fears for him during his last years at Doniphan were becoming reality and it made me sad. Looking back, I wish I'd reached out more and tried to help. No one can know if it would have made a difference long-term, but I wish I'd have tried.

I can't remember exactly when it was that Joaquin and my paths crossed by chance after his elementary years were over. Or maybe it wasn't chance. I have a feeling he came by Doniphan hoping to find me. I think it was when he was still in Jr. High. I was standing outside at the end of the school day helping out with car-rider duty (making sure our students got safely into vehicles for parents to take them home). I looked off to the right and saw a young man walking towards me. I think his hair might have been spiked and colored? If not colored, it was an interesting hairstyle. He was pierced and tattooed, pants hanging down, looking rough/tough - the kind of kid I would usually avoid. And then this young man got closer and I saw that face - the one I had been looking at for so many years on my file cabinet. It was Joaquin. What did I do? I gave him a hug. I saw that smile that I loved from so many years before. And I smiled as well. He stood there with me while I finished up my duty. His mom actually drove by picking up his little brother and sister and asked if he wanted a ride home - he said he would walk home after a bit.  I can picture the whole scenario as if it were yesterday. I probably gave him a hard time about his piercings and tattoos, and I asked him how he was doing. He was so honest and up-front with me. He told me he hadn't been doing so well. That he had failed too many classes and was now having to repeat them to try to get the credits earned to pass (?) grade. I asked him what was going on, and I think I asked him if he had gotten into drinking and/or drugs. He admitted to both, saying he did them to make his problems go away. I distinctly remember looking at him and asking him "Did it work? Did you problems go away?" And he just hung his head and said "No." We talked more about how the problems will still be there, and maybe even multiply. The only way to work through a problem is to face it head on - to go through it. He agreed, and said that he was going to turn things around. We talked a bit more about his family, his little brother and sister, etc. He was the same sweet, kind, respectful boy I taught in 4th grade - but with a different look and now some baggage to add to the mix. We talked a bit more about his school work and I told him that if he ever needed help or just a place to sit and work, he was always welcome to come to my classroom after school. He said that he might do that. I reminded him that he was smart and that he could still accomplish good things if he stayed on the right path. We hugged again, and he eventually went on his way. That was the last time I ever saw him.   Not long after that talk we had outside of Doniphan, his mom had made a point to tell me how much that meant to Joaquin and to her; that I had always been his favorite teacher and that he knew I cared about him.

It was while I was teaching in Morocco that a friend told me he had been arrested and was going to jail. I tried to get in contact with his mother thinking I could maybe be a pen pal (if that would even be possible) while he was incarcerated. But I don't know if she ever got the email, as I never heard anything back. It didn't stop me from thinking of him though, hoping he was OK. Even as recently as a week ago, he popped into my head - making me wonder if he was still in jail or how he was doing. I don't know what made me think of him the times that I did over these past years. It would always be random. But I made a point to stop and go with the thought for a moment whenever they came - always sending a mental message of "I hope you are OK. I care about you."

I knew school and life in general were going to be an uphill battle for Joaquin, but I always held out hope that he would win that war. That his love for his family and their love for him would help him figure things out. It wasn't meant to be in his case.

As teachers, we inevitably have students who stick in our hearts and/or minds more than others. Sometimes it's the really good, smart kids. Sometimes it's those really naughty kids who give you stories (and gray hairs) to tell for years to come. And sometimes it's those kids like Joaquin who you know aren't going to have an easy path in life. I know there are probably a lot of other teachers who had Joaquin in class that might not have good things to say about him. I understand that. But when we get them as children, I believe we see their hearts more clearly. We get to see who they really are. At age 9 or 10, they haven't yet been tainted by the ways of the world, or tempted into the trouble that potentially awaits. We are lucky to get them in their 'purest form' in a sense.

I believed in Joaquin because he had potential and I think he deserved a chance. Whether he knew it or not, I was always in his corner, rooting for him to win. I wish I had those pictures of him that I looked at for so many years so that I could include them here. I know they are tucked away in a folder of other letters, pictures, thank-you cards, etc. from that year's class in a box at my parents' house. I know I'll have a look through them this summer when I'm home.

In thinking about my life as a teacher, I think the trait I possessed that most equipped me to be a teacher is that I care. So many of these kids work their way into my heart, probably more than they even know. They are my 'kids'. Loving them is what we are supposed to do, right?

Rest in Peace, Joaquin. You are gone, but will not be forgotten.   - Ms. Junge

Monday, February 17, 2014

That's a Lot of Sand

Day 17-   Photo: Something I never would have seen if I'd stayed home

Where do I even start? The ruins of Pompeii? Rome, with the Trevi Fountain, the Colosseum, etc.? Or perhaps the gorgeous Algarve coastal region of Portugal or the beauty of Madrid or Seville in Spain? Any of them would do the trick really. Because none of them are things I would have seen had my life continued on stateside. I guess maybe I would have made a point to get to Rome at some point in my life, but I'm not sure Spain or Portugal had crossed my mind much. But the place I most definitely had not considered, nor would have seen, was the Sahara Desert in the southeast part of Morocco.

It most definitely surpassed any previous ideas I had acquired while reading about it in social studies books as I went through school (ha ha) And? I got to experience it with my parents, and long-time family friends Jack and MaryAnn. I know they would all agree with me in saying that it was a once-in-a-lifetime type of trip. And they might even say it was worth having to listen to the awful Moroccan music that our driver kept playing while driving rapidly along the winding roads of the Atlas Mountains. The jury is still out on whether it was the music or the elevation/winding roads that caused a few of our crew to get car sick.

A photo prompt needs photos, so without further adieu, I present: The Sahara

One of my favorite pics

Iowans on camels in the Sahara. Very cool.

Sunset dividing line

No photo shop needed - perfect dune

Looking at mountains of sand. A once-in-a-lifetime experience

...because none of this would have been possible without these guys. (wink)

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Dueling Lives (not banjos)

"It is a bittersweet thing, knowing two cultures. Once you leave your birthplace nothing is ever the same." - Sarah Turnbull

I was never one of those people who dreamed of exotic lands and far off places. Growing up, our family vacations mainly consisted of traveling to Minnesota to my aunt and uncle's lake house for a few days (which, btw, was the vacation my brothers and I requested every year). As I got older, I thought it would be cool to travel to the likes of Mexico - you know, to one of those nice resorts I'd seen pictures of or heard about from people older and/or with more money than me.Or maybe Hawaii (still on my list); or just to someplace like San Francisco or California wine country. Even as recently as 10 years ago, I'm not sure I'd given much thought to traveling outside the U.S.  Heck, I felt pretty worldly when I went to Jamaica for my friend Amy's wedding. (I guess that counts as international travel - kind of?)  Yet, here I am - living in my third country in four years (counting the U.S.).

Which brings me back to the above quote that is the prompt for Day 16. Bittersweet? I'm not sure. I think I lean more towards the 'sweet' than the bitter. Which I feel pretty good about. This quote/prompt makes me think about the 'dual lives' thing. Living and working internationally like we do sort of feels like we are living two different lives. One of those lives is here - where we work - with our other expat teaching friends and/or others we might have met out and about experiencing life. The other is the life we had before - the one we go back to in the summer and maybe at Christmas time - that involves friends and family.

Living dual lives has definitely had its challenges. I've always been one to keep in close contact with a LOT of friends I've made over the years. I keep them in my heart the same way I keep a steady supply of Burt's Bees lip balm with me at all times. It's a necessity. Yet it has also proved difficult at times. There are lots of factors - time difference, distance, and the fact that we are no longer together doing the same things, to name a few. People naturally drift apart, but that doesn't make it an easy thing to accept. I wish all of those friendships were the same as when I left, but that would also be sad because it would mean that none of us were changing, growing, or evolving. And that is where I find comfort and am able to smile and be happy - not sad - about the changes in some of those friendships. They are still there; still in tact. They just have a different twist to them now, as they involve different phases of our lives. In many ways, it makes me appreciate the friendships even more. I can only hope those same friends are able to look at it from that perspective as well. I miss them all dearly, and at times miss that life I had with them. But in the end, we are all doing bigger and better things in one way or another. And that's pretty awesome when you think about it.

Iowa is another part of this 'dual lives' scenario. In many ways, I love Iowa more now than I ever have. I feel like I am now old enough (and wise enough?) to appreciate its gifts. Every summer, it feels like our friendship is renewed through the quiet country evenings, leisurely mornings and afternoons, and time spent with family and/or friends from around the community. There's nothing quite like going back to the farm. It opens its arms and wraps you up before you've even had a chance to unpack your bags. And I like that. I like that my parents still live in the big farm house I grew up in, and that my younger brother lives right up the road on the same property where my grandparents used to live. I like being able to walk up the gravel road and be engulfed in a hug from my niece Zoey (and maybe nephew Cole if I'm lucky). There really is nothing like home.

So you see, knowing more than one culture isn't so bad. I feel pretty lucky most days - lucky that I enjoy being an expat, living and working internationally. Yet also fortunate to look forward to the 'other life' when the time comes as well. This post makes me keep thinking back to a conversation I was having with my friend Jens a couple of years ago in Casablanca. He has been traveling around for work and pleasure for far longer than me and I had confided in him about finding some difficulties 'reintegrating' when I went back home (I think it was after year 2 in Casa.) Yet once I was home for a while, it was hard to leave friends, nieces, nephews, etc. behind to come back to life abroad. He put it in perfect perspective for me- "Jodee, you are lucky. You enjoy both of these lives you live, even though it might be tough at times. Keep in mind that there are many people who live this way and don't enjoy either one of the lives they participate in."  Yep, I'll keep what I have, thank-you-very-much!

While the above quote is true in that "...once you leave nothing is ever the same.", the change that occurs isn't necessarily negative. It's finding the good stuff in those changes that makes knowing two (or three) cultures so rewarding. So I'm gonna keep on keepin' on...

Who wouldn't want to go back and hang out with a crew of friends like this!?!?

This about sums us up!

Iowa in the Summertime...

The farm, after a summer thunderstorm
The Port-O-Jonny ,on the golf course, next to the cornfield. Aaah - Iowa!
Two of the best things to always come home to!

Monday, February 10, 2014

It's Not Always Black or White

Today's Prompt:  “‘Expat Syndrome’ is a condition whereby many expatriates see mostly either the best of their own nationality & the worst of the locals, or see the opposite.” -T Crossley

This prompt is one that really gets you thinking once you've lived internationally. There is a difference between being a tourist in a country, and living among the local culture of that country. Living there makes you become part of it; you have to, unless you want to be miserable and bitter and 'that guy'. And being part of it, part of the culture - well that's what it's really all about. I think that's why most people choose (and it is a choice for most people) to live the international lifestyle. I KNOW I have learned more in the past 3 1/2 years than I probably learned in the 10 years prior to that.

One of the things I have learned (& truly experienced) is that there is more than one perspective, or point of view, with most everything. This prompt is even an example of this, in my opinion. At first I looked at this prompt and thought of it as an 'agree or disagree' type of deal. But then I read it as it is, a definition of a syndrome - one that I am proud to say I do not have. I do not see the 'best in America and the worst in (insert country here)', and I don't see the 'worst in America and the best in these other countries.'  For me, it's not an 'either/or' type of deal. Fortunately, I have many friends I have met from different countries who are 'non-examples' of this definition as well.

Many people have heard me say that doing this international thing has made me appreciate America more, but at the same time it has opened my eyes to the many, glaring 'wrongs' of our country. That whole Freedom thing? Yeah, that's pretty damn awesome. It is something that should truly be appreciated every day. But the horribleness that goes on in our government (the same government that is supposed to run on the founding principles that gave us that freedom) is so appalling that it takes away from the very things that make our country great. However, seeing places that don't have those rights - those freedoms - is sad. Living in countries where speaking out against your government can get you jailed (best case scenario) is a real eye-opener. While I do appreciate the freedom of speech, I think that Americans take it WAY too far. I also think that too many Americans have taken this liberty and applied it to everything, everywhere. Even when traveling, that stereo-typically 'bad' tourist will often demonstrate this by talking about anything, to anyone - and doing it loudly, and sometimes rudely. Americans are often too easy to pick out of a crowd - the shoes, the sports teams shirts/jerseys/hats, the obesity (yes...I can honestly say that I see this way more from Americans than any other country. Out of 45 kids in a class in Morocco, there was maybe one obese child.)
I say this about Americans, but will also say that you can often pick out someone from the U.K., or  other countries as well based on a few 'stereotypes' as well. However, Americans too often give off that aura of "I'm an American, therefore you should look upon me as being superior and for traveling abroad." Whereas the people from Europe or other countries just see the traveling as a way of life. They take it more in stride, if you will.

I think the biggest thing I have learned from leaving America is this - 'Different' does not mean 'Wrong'. This covers a lot of territory from religions, culture, traditions, food, transportation, lifestyle, etc. I still think America is a pretty great country. I miss it and I love it and I'm proud to be an American. No doubt about it. But I am also proud that I'm not the American who can't see fault or room for improvement in so much of what we do, what we say, how we say it, how we act, and how we treat others. There is much to be said for trying to acquire understanding from those who are different from you; those who life differently than you.

There are a lot of cultures, and people in those cultures who don't like Americans. Some of them might have legitimate reasons for that disdain, and some of them probably do not. There are also a lot of cultures, and people in those cultures, who think America is the greatest thing ever. It's like Hollywood or Disney World in that you will hear people say they want to visit America someday as if it holds celebrity status of some sort. These are the things that make it interesting to see people's reactions when you say you are from America.

In the end, this world we live in is a really big place. The U.S. is a big country in this big world. It offers a little bit of everything, for everyone - this is certain. But so do other places, other countries, other cultures. If you give them a chance, they might surprise you with their gifts and what they can teach you. And maybe America will someday surprise me again in that way as well. In the meantime, I will keep on experiencing whatever is thrown my way, and try to not pass judgement too harshly or quickly.