Sharing and Chocolate Economics

I don’t teach sharing all that much.

It’s not that I don’t believe in it, I promise.  I just get the impression that it’s a huge lesson in elementary school–getting kids to share the scissors and markers without too much drama–but since I never went to elementary school (gasp!) I can’t be sure.  By the time they get to high school, we expect students to share, depending on those elementary reflexes to cover for the kid whose entire backpack gets stolen or locked in a locker with a truly unbreakable combination.  It’s educational courtesy, the unwritten code of “today it’s you; tomorrow it could be me” that keeps up a healthy commerce of loaned school supplies.

With high school students, the teachers have discovered another important motivator: competition.  In our nobler moments, we push the race for self-improvement, encouraging students to write a better paper than the last one or score just a few more points on the next test.  We know that pitting the students against each other is risky business, even in the friendliest classrooms.  The debate over Mark Twain, in its best case scenario– the one in which students are engaged and knowledgable, passionately arguing their cases–ends with a class divided as I flail for reconciliation.  Yet those days are filled with energy, and the spark of competition tempts us to return, again and again, to the battles of wits that make for the liveliest classes.

That said, several factors coalesce to bring Canadian History class into game-playing mode on Valentine’s Day, this fascination with competition among them.  A third of the class is taking make-up tests from Friday, and I couldn’t find a good story to read in celebration of love, despite having spent ages over the weekend typing “Canadian, World War I, Love Story” into Google in different permutations.  Feeling guilty that English classes would be delighting in one of my favorite short stories, I tried to make up for the inequity by playing one of our favorite games in history class.

The game is called “That Relates to Canadian History Because.” Its rules are simple, and few:

  1. As a class, we examine something.  (A board game, a movie clip, a map)
  2. Students raise their hands and offer connections, literal or metaphorical, from the item examined to a feature of Canadian History, and explain the connection in great detail.
  3. For example, while one boy reads aloud the rules to Monopoly, a girl interrupts him and says:
  4. That relates to Canadian history because… in the game you go to jail for no real reason at all, just like how in the West the RCMP would arrest people for really small things, and then they’d stay in jail for a long time.”
  5. Then she gets three chocolate Smarties.
  6. The student with the most Smarties at the end of the game wins!
  7. (Everyone gets to eat their own Smarties.)

This game has worked well in the past, as generally the students surprise me (and themselves) with the depth and variety of their connections.  Today’s are a little shallower, but I suspect it has to do more with the artifact than the students.  We are watching an episode of the 90’s Disney Channel show “Road to Avonlea.”  It does relate to Canadian history, as it was filmed in Canada, set on Prince Edward Island and based loosely on short stories by Canadian author L.M. Montgomery.  Still, after the first few students comment on the Scottish heritages of the characters and the fact that they “still lived, like, in the country, like most Canadians were doing in the late 19th century,” we begin to lose steam.

It’s only then that I notice that one girl, always the greatest connector, has been collecting all the Smarties.  From everyone.  Someone makes a connection, mentioning railroads or telephones or politics, and she deposits their three winning Smarties onto a paper plate.  I watch as every few minutes, she passes the Smarties down the row of students.  Each of them take a few before passing the plate around and back to her.  They all contribute with answers, but it’s clear that three or four students are doing the majority of the intellectual work here.

I’m momentarily ruffled. They’re not competing! What is this? Then start to laugh.  These students from Ontario and the prairies, they’ve been raised outside of their home country, and yet even in the simplest of games their manners are inescapable, their economic outlook indelible.  I laugh as they model their economy in chocolate, equalizing their wealth so that the poor in information are served by those rich in knowledge.

“You’re all so Canadian,” I tell them.  “Sharing, caring.  It’s just beautiful.”  They nod seriously, pass the Smarties down the row.

A few minutes later, I seize an opportunity to play the game.  “That relates to Canadian history because her dad is killed in a factory accident, much like the thousands of non-union workers killed in accidents in the Maritimes,” I declare triumphantly, all in a breath.  I award myself three Smarties.

“Do you want to put them on the plate?” Great Connector asks, pushing forward the plate of Smarties suggestively.

“I’m American,” I shrug.  I eat one, then put the other two onto the plate with a grin.

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Remembering

We are the Dead.  Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
from “In Flanders Fields,” John McRae, MD

This pin keeps poking me.  The experienced girls in the class, the ones who grew up in Toronto and Saskatoon instead of the Congo or Kandern or Seattle, told me to put an eraser on the pointy end.  But then, they also told us how when they were little, they’d take the bent pins out of their felt and plastic red poppies and bore them through their fingernails.

This is my first Remembrance Day.  Three weeks ago, one of my colleagues told me she’d written to the Canadian Legion, asking “if they’d mail some poppies for our Canadian History class.”  I’d smiled, thanked her, and then then gone online to find out what she meant.  A week ago, she proudly handed me an envelope full of red plastic poppies at the ends of bent silver pins.

“Remembrance Day is a big deal in Canada,” she’d told me then.

The news of Remembrance Day’s status struck me as important.  Given the relative briefness of Canada’s history, our course has taken on a few extra goals as the year has progressed.  In addition to the political, social, economic, and geographic factors that have conspired to make Canada who she is today, we on occasion explore the identity of Canadians themselves.  What do they do?  What do they like?  What upsets them? What do they celebrate?  We’re uncovering a culture, hoping in the end to have more of a reply to the question “What is a Canadian?” than “NOT an American.”

We could celebrate this holiday, I thought dimly, plunging into research on the rituals of Remembrance Day (called Armistice Day in continental Europe and Veterans’ Day in the US).  I soon discovered that while we can with food and crafts play our way through Canada Day and Thanksgiving, Remembrance Day must be solemn and reflective.  I read through prayers and readings, the program of the first service in Canada in 1933.  I listened to recordings the “The Last Post” and children reading “In Flanders Fields.”  Thanks to the miracle of online museums I read dozens of letters and telegrams, journal entries and postcards from front lines.  I heard the memories of individuals, men and women living out their darkest days in defense and honor of their countries.

I confess that I struggled to put together a program for Remembrance Day, because I cannot recall as a child ever participating in a meaningful ritual for Veterans’ Day.  Though this is hardly the case everywhere in America, my experience with the holiday has been one of detachment and perplexity, sometimes little more than an extra day off from school.  Like many of my generation, I have trouble mustering patriotism when I think of the wars that I’ve lived through, seeing narrow interests and injustice more often than the defense of the defenseless that drew both my grandfathers into military service as young men.

Yet today, as I listen to my students reading the words of their ancestors, words of despair and hope, love and loss, I realize that I don’t get to decide where honor is due.  We read the words of those who held their own lives loosely, willing to let go of future, life and love in order to preserve them for posterity.  In unearthly paintings, we see veterans’ landscapes of surreal horrors, places that humans should never have to go.  As we read a month ago, from a trench in France, wars are fought by individuals, people whose sacrifice commands my gratitude.

“For those of us born during peacetime,” reads one of my students from the Canadian Veterans’ Affairs Office website, “All wars seem far removed from our daily lives….On Remembrance Day, we acknowledge the courage and sacrifice of those who served their country and acknowledge our responsibility to work for the peace they fought hard to achieve.”

On Remembrance Day, we remember that honoring veterans doesn’t mean we give up on peace or glorify war.  Rather, we gather together in gratitude, pausing to be thankful for those who’ve fought for us already.

So thank you, Romaine Dahlstrom and Ed Michaelsen.  Thank you, countless generations of young people, all over the world, who’ve set your lives as the ransom for your children and grandchildren’s future.  Let us never forget you.

Where They’re From

We Are the World: Korean students of an American-run boarding school in Germany, seeing the sights in France.

It is approximately the third question we ask each other.  Unless we’ve found something interesting in the answers to “What’s your name?” and “What do you do?” we move on to “Where are you from?”

It’s the most universal of the first-conversation questions.  After a while you just can’t tell if someone should be in school or not, thus whether it’s appropriate to ask where they attend.  That college student might not have a major; that guy you meet at church may have gotten laid off yesterday.  And contrary to German language lessons, it’s creepy to ask anyone older than ten how old they are.  Since not everyone can be depended upon to have a major, or even a career, we ask for origins. Everyone, after all, is from somewhere.

Unless, of course, you’re from everywhere.

~

“Do you want to come forward, Ms. Dahlstrom?”

They’ve asked me several times, affable and self-sacrificing, motioning their sticks down to the other side of the concrete multi-purpose court where we’re playing.

“Do you want to play goalie?” No reply.  “Then I’m fine here,” I shrug.

With a scarf, a warm fleece jacket and two orange cones marking the goal on either side of me, I truly am fine.  Better than fine, actually.  It can’t be above freezing on this cloudless autumn morning, I’m playing hockey with my Canadian history class.

We’ve met the challenge of the second period Geography class, whose Canadian teacher leads students raised in Russia, Korea, the Netherlands and China, among other places.  Lone American on my team, I’m the goalie for the Canadians, dodging or being hit by the orange ball when it comes my way.

Though it’s only second period, news of this match has gotten around the school already.  I overheard it as I came in today.

“D’you hear about the hockey game?”

“Yeah, the Canadians are going to win, right?”

“For sure.  They have to.”

That’s my team.

Now the score is 3-3 (owing to my inexperience as a goalie) and I’m loving every moment of this.  We have three too many players, so the Canadians generously rotate themselves in and out.  A Saskatchewan-born girl declares that she can’t play, because she has a mock job interview next period, but after only ten minutes of cheering from the sideline she accepts the first handed off stick and enters the game.  They are all gleeful laughter and mischievous grins as they intercept and pass and steal the show, taking the ball up and up.  They are good at this.

Geography Teacher and I are heroes for devoting class time to a hockey game, but I know I’m only a spectator today, really, taking up the space between two cones so that the real players can weave their intricate game across the court.  The other team really isn’t bad, either, but I’m overwhelmed by the sense of pride and ownership that the Canadians take in this.  I try to imagine a group of similar Americans playing baseball somewhere, but the analogy fades in translation.

One of the things I’ve loved about teaching this class, I realize, is that together we’re uncovering where they’re from.  Or at least one of the places.  The Canadians don’t all claim to be from Canada, and maybe they never will.  Some of these students have never lived for extended periods in this country whose name is on their passports, whose national history they’re compelled to learn.

Yet as I watch them play hockey together, I realize that this is more important than just a morning of playing in the cold.  The hockey game is a point for them to gather around, a living piece of their history that they can pick up and examine together.  Though we joke about it often, I can’t take them on a field trip to Canada, can’t show them around Victoria, BC, which I know so much better than they do.  But we can do this.

~

The children of missionaries may have been born in a place they’ve never lived, may have moved more often than they’ve had birthdays.  They don’t know what it is to be “from” somewhere, and answer my go-to question with a sigh of frustration.

We talk about it frequently, what it means to be anchored in something more or outside of nationality or address.  How home isn’t a specific building and how nations are bigger than their borders.  We talk about being at home in God’s will or safe in the communities of family and friends, no matter how temporary.

And I like that about BFA, the international, many-rootedness of it, linked together with an intricacy that is itself a testament to the marvelous, creative work of God.  I love that our students are from everywhere, and they often claim several countries rather than none when asked to identify their origins.

Today, though, I love that my Canadians are playing hockey–some of them for the first time, some for the hundredth–and that I get to experience fromness with them, if only for an hour.

The Canadians

A patriotic Canadian carries maple syrup for three days before he can find snow to put it on. Oh, Canada.

It’s about pace, the First Nations versus the European explorers.  Like shopping.  If you’re just looking, you might spend ages in the store, trying everything on and deciding if you need it.  If you want a white tank top, you go to the store, find the tank tops, pick up the right sized white one, pay for it, and leave.  Done.

So the First Nations were browsing, following the food and looking for a nice place to settle down.  Explorers: white tank top.  To shoplift.  And they wouldn’t stop until they found it and took it back to the king.

Canadian History class, Black Forest Academy

It’s Friday morning, and my Canadian history students are taking their first geography quiz.  Far from being upset or shocked, they are excited about this quiz.

What? Memorize all the provinces, territories, capitals, major cities and Alert?  (Alert, where only five people live permanently, isn’t a major city but is the farthest north town in the world, which makes it significant to me.)

Yes, Ms. Dahlstrom.  We’d love to do that. We’ll take that quiz with confident glee, chuckling to ourselves about how much we love our nation’s geography.  Because we are Canadian, and that’s how we like it.

There are ten Canadians (minus one who isn’t actually Canadian, but who for the sake of anonymity will henceforth be called one, anyway).  They are charming, enthusiastic and, of course, patriotic.  As a junior anthropologist, here is what a few weeks of observation has revealed about my smallest class:

  1. They are mostly from Ontario, reflecting the Mostly-from-Ontario population spread of their nation. I know more about British Columbia than my students, which is a refreshing change from knowing virtually nothing at all.
  2. Despite holding Canadian passports, they’ve spent between zero and twelve years in Canada. This leads to wide variance in their background knowledge about the country.  For some, it’s names and dates.  For others, it’s maple syrup with every meal.
  3. They are generally both proud of and curious about their national identity. When I ask them what makes them Canadian, they can talk about hockey and being “not American,” but little else.  Because of this, they enter the study of their history with genuine eagerness, like genealogists, tracing dusty paths that must lead, eventually, to them.

And if they are the genealogists, then I’m merely the one leading the study, perhaps a generation or so up the tree, asking questions we’re all thinking.  Why do people speak differently in the Maritimes? Why is French one of the national languages in Canada, while the British queen continues to age on each new coin?  What possesses the Inuit to live somewhere so cold?  We don’t know, but chances are good that the history of Canada will reveal some answers, the denouement of a novel of which we’ve only skimmed the last few sentences.

I’m excited because I’m learning, too.  Honestly, I’m excited for the first geography quiz because it’s the first one I’ve ever made, and I’m thrilled with how it turned out.  For me it’s learning to teach history, but it’s also discovering a whole new history, parallel to the one I vaguely remembered but distinct in ways that intrigue me.  For the first time in years, I’m teaching a subject that isn’t the most natural, where I can truly participate in the discovery in a way that I can’t always with English.  I already know those endings, and spend my time trying to get students away from interpreting plot and on to the art of the language.  Here, the plot is key, and it’s a story I don’t know yet.

“I’m going to call my mom tonight and tell her I know all the provinces!”exclaims one girl, finishing her quiz with a triumphant flourish. “I’m so glad I know this!”

Me too, I think.  I can’t wait to see what happens next.

E11 & CH

My new books, all lined up. Notice the Canadian library!

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.”  Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow.

James 4:13-14

“So you teach English?”

“Yes.  Eleventh grade.”

“And… you’re not Canadian?’

“Um… no.”

It’s a frequent exchange these days, the first of the school year, during which I’ve carried around a stack of adjustments, heavy and slippery like an upperclassman’s textbooks.  I’ve moved to a new country and apartment, started a new job and begun a new school year.  All of which have involved meeting literally hundreds of people, a tall order for an introvert like me.

I knew it was going to be tricky.  Knew when I left myself three days to travel from Schladming to Kandern, move in, and be ready for school to start.  I planned for it, spending a few raining Austrian afternoons reading books for middle schoolers and writing syllabi.  I wondered what I’d teach in Ancient Civilization class, daydreaming about mythology.  And then, hours before I got on the train to Germany, it all changed.  Instead of the sixth and seventh graders I’d planned on, I am now teaching two sections of Grade 11 English, and one Canadian History class.

“And are you Canadian?”

Why no, students.  I am not.

I can only laugh, most of the time.  I have taught this English class before.  It was my first period, my first year of teaching.  I learned a great deal from LA 11, because it was extraordinarily difficult.  Most kids at Ingraham didn’t like to read about Puritans, even if the Puritans were scripted by Arthur Miller and said salacious things.  Still, they were almost adults and we had grown-up conversations.  All in all, I am overjoyed to be teaching high school, to be starting the year having students write “This I Believe” essays.

I have never, of course, taught history at all, let alone the history of Canada, which so far is a distorted parallel of American History, most of the same events with the violence dulled and the names changed.  I also seem to lack the greatest qualification of all, being Canadian.  With a few binders of maps, a textbook, a shelf full of books from my predecessors which includes Canadian History for Dummies, we’ll all learn a great deal.

And I’m reminded of Paul teaching Gentiles instead of Jews.  Of everyone who’s ever been on their tiptoes in the deep end.  I’m tested in the belief that I chose for my “This I Believe”: I believe that life with God is unpredictable, because for me the moments, relationships and places of greatest beauty have been on the other side of doors I’d never have thought of trying.  Doors like Canadian history.

So I’m thankful at the end of this week.  Thankful for my 32 English students who give me confidence and a chance to try again with a class that challenged me.  Thankful for Canadian History, reminding me that the world is wide and I don’t know everything.  Reminding me to trust God and work hard, every day.