All the feelings! This time of year is wild/ unfun/ sad/ exhausting/ promising for international teachers. I wanted to find a way to put all of the following in one coherent piece but I’m tired and decided to just share the whole deal in three parts.
Sometime Two Weeks Ago: Selling The Car
I’ve been fraying. A few weeks ago my friend Pamela looked around the apartment and said it could be emptied in three hours. You’d be surprised, she said. At the end of our first year here, someone in the singles apartment shoved a couch out the window and since then I’ve imagined doing the same, just chucking stuff out the window to watch it smash. My high school art teacher told me that’s what he did when his pottery didn’t fire right. He took the contents of the kiln behind a building and threw the plates, bowls, pots at brick wall. Clay leaving chalk marks on the brick, the fine sift of dust. I don’t need to throw anything out the window, it’s just something that sounds fun that I should have done when I was twenty because now it’d get me in too much trouble. When Grant picks up a loose paving stone on a walk and drops it again and again to see how it lands in the grass or sand or on concrete, I tell him to watch his toes. I’m curious how many drops before it cracks too.
A couple of weeks ago I asked Justin what he needed. I’ve been doing this for months, asking what he needs or what Claire or Grant needs, because I’m so keen on having a good farewell to Kuwait that I don’t want to error as wife or mom, missing a moment or experience or conversation that will best exit us from here and shuttle us on to Seoul. On Saturday I realized this was a reach from the start. I took the kids to the Avenues for a last walk around before Ramadan starts. Claire said it was dumb, why’d we have to go, Seoul will have malls too. And I said to her, But I can look around here and see you and Grant when you were toddlers. I won’t have that in Seoul. She patted my arm, gave me a hug. This is difficult, to pay attention to four people at once. Later that afternoon, after a tremendous cry in my bedroom, after Claire and Grant apologized for not listening the first time, after I assured them it wasn’t that, not really, I did say: We have to figure out how to do this together.
Claire and Grant are big enough to get that we are a family together. They get that Justin and I can only do so much. Claire and Grant need to help us be a family too. Some of this has nothing to do with moving. That’s how being a family works. We have a lot going on. And some of what’s happening – not listening, scrapping in the backseat, me yelling in the kitchen – it would happen if we weren’t moving. We’d still have to figure things out. But since we are moving, each of us has heightened emotional responses. Like dropping a grocery bag and breaking glass jars lands me in my bedroom sobbing. It’s like being a teenager. Or pregnant.
When I asked Justin what he needed he said he needed to sell the car. We’d sold his Pajero, but still had my Kia. He posted the sale online, I called a name another teacher passed along, we stopped at car rental places after school. Our Kia is two years too old, one rental agent said. There are too many cars, he said. We asked what a fair price would be, to ask for our too old Kia, and he suggested we knock about two thousand dollars off our asking price, already down about the same from expected US resale. He shrugged. No one wanted the car. I thought we might just give it away.
Then we got a call from Sathvik on a Friday afternoon. He showed up with cash in a plastic grocery bag. We sold just below the Kuwait range, on argument that to pass inspection Sathvik may need to replace the pocked hood and chipped windshield. Fair enough. This year when Justin took his car for reregistration, the inspector turned him away for thumb sized scuff on the front passenger door. The guy must not have liked the look of Justin. Sathvik is Indian. A few guys might not like the look of him. In a land that runs on stamps and squiggled signatures, you need a little right place right time luck and a lot of acquiescence. Some nationalities need a little (lot) more luck and acquiescence than we do. I remember years ago asking Adam, a Sudanese man who helps the school with paperwork, how he handled the seeming whim of offices: you go one day and are told to return the next, you return the next and you are told you need an additional stamp, you get the additional stamp and you are told the date on the original document is wrong and now you must begin again. We’d just watched a woman behind the counter shout and fling a file of papers to the floor. Adam said, Sarah, no, when he sensed I was about to stand. We both needed me to be nice. We were next. He has managed nearly two decades of paperwork by letting others be bigger than he is, by saying yes with a smile. Justin painted white out on the scuff and was waved through the next inspection.
As an aside, when I write about living in Kuwait, I am aware that some of the situations and experiences I tell sound ridiculous or may show the country in an unflattering light. I am glad for my time in this country. This land is as beautiful and messy as most. Every once in a while I reread Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech to remember nations develop in different directions at different paces. And not every country needs to find a same way of doing things. But sometimes I am less generous of this view, like when we go to sell the Kia. First we are told we need a piece of paper saying the bank loan is finished before we complete the title transfer, which is reasonable, and then we are told any bank branch will be able to do this but learn after trips to two branches in one night that this is not true. I left Justin and Sathvik at the first bank, taking a cab to the airport to lease a car now that we were carless, which is where I learned I wouldn’t be able to do that because my leaving Kuwait renders me an in-between status: I am not a visitor or a resident and had no documents except an expired credit card and my Wisconsin and Kuwait driver licenses, none of which could buy me a month’s car rental.
I started to cry. The Budget Rental man was unmoved. I leaned over the counter and said we live in a country where sometimes things are one way and sometimes things are another way and could he make it work for me to rent a car? No. I got a little gaspy. I think I was overtired. I’d woken up that morning at one thirty and hadn’t gone back to sleep. I’d just sold my car. Then I’d romanticized the piles of sand I’d passed on my way to the airport. Now I was told no to a rental. I took an airport cab back to the apartment. The driver looked at me crying quietly in the backseat and made big breaths, gestured opening his chest with his hands. I said I was okay. I was not really okay.
We have lovely neighbors who bought Justin’s Pajero. At the sale, they said we could drive the car through the end of the school year. Now I went to them and asked if the offer stood. Yes. And more, they said to ask, anything we need help with, ask.
I don’t know what I need help with.
I am finally ready to be done living here. But I’m still living here, not a visitor and not a resident but something in between.
At the second bank branch, Justin learned he’d need to wait seven to ten days for that piece of paper saying the loan was finished. He and Sathvik were about to drive off when a traffic officer waved him to stop, explained Justin had parked illegally, took Justin’s license and registration and directed him to the Salmiya police station where the officer on duty said it’d be another hour or so until the traffic cop would be back from rounds. Justin and I had been messaging back and forth. I was home as he headed for the police station. I called him and his voice was tight. I called my parents. I said please pray this gets fixed. It was already late and we’d be up again at four thirty. At this point I was like an infant who needed a swaddle and dark room. My skin was tired. I remember Mom praying for resolution and favor but also that Justin would be cheerful. I remember that because a couple hours later when Justin came to bed, I asked how he was and he said, I’m so happy. He sounded happy. He’d just caught a cab with an Egyptian guy about our age who kept pleasant conversation the whole way home, who played a cd about converting to Islam while talking about his country, a place Justin missed visiting a few months ago. I’m so happy, he said again. I lay there thinking about God answering a prayer for cheerfulness.
The next morning I wanted to know what Justin meant, that he was so happy. He said there were answers at each step. Like when the traffic cop came back to the station, Justin got his license and registration back without the added hour of requisite paperwork. Sathvik had some pull through his work, knowing a few officers who obliged. They laughed about the mess of the night. Justin handed over the keys and agreed to officially transfer the title once the bank paper was in hand. When Justin left the station there was this cab out front, with the talkative Egyptian, and then he was home in bed, bed feeling so good by that hour.
This afternoon we finished the car title transfer. It took ten minutes. I waited in the parking lot while Justin and Sathvik went inside the low brick building, found the man who’d told them any bank branch, got all the right papers stamped and signed. We left Shuwaihk. Justin said he felt good that was done. That was what he needed, to sell the Kia. We spent two hours in traffic, as if to make up for the unexpected ease of the title transfer.
Last Week: Necessary Disenchantment
I’m reading about transition which is different than change. Transition is internal and change is external. A change (like moving to Seoul) can prompt transition or not but transition necessarily prompts change. In September or October when I was fretting about professional prospects and moving a family, Tara gifted me a copy of Transitions: Making Sense Of Life’s Changes which I have picked up and put down all year. The book reminds me of reading Emotionally Healthy Spirituality in that both require a slow, gapped read so you can absorb what the authors say. This morning I read a chapter about endings, fitting for the day after our high school staff farewell, fitting for the end of a school year and the close of eight years in Kuwait.
Last night I couldn’t sleep again. I fantasize about sleep. Over spring break I slept eight, nine, ten hours at a stretch and woke so rested I was dizzy. My face filled out. My appetite curbed. Last night muscles in my shoulders and hips tightened. I couldn’t get comfortable. I was waiting for sleep to sneak up, knock me out. I read 1 John. I went sparkle blind on Candy Crush. I gave up. Justin woke when I opened the bedroom door to go out. He asked what was wrong. I have words for what is wrong: I am afraid of next year. I am afraid I won’t know who to be, how to be. I am afraid for our marriage and family, not because I expect catastrophe but because I know the coming changes will be difficult even as they will also yield blessing.
Two years ago I returned to teaching full time. I taught seniors. This was a gift. The first year as my seniors put together college applications and chose majors, drafted personal essays for admissions committees, I recognized my own question about who I was, mostly settling the split of being a teacher and writer. This year as my seniors prepare to leave for college, I’m also ready to go somewhere unfamiliar, glad and scared.
Two years ago Justin and I decided this current school year would be our last.
One part of an ending is disenchantment. The idea is that we reckon with a new layer of understanding. I think the point is to name old beliefs that were fine for a particular time but then let them go to allow your mind to take hold of new beliefs for the present. When I first started teaching I thought my class mattered a lot to my students. I spent a lot of time and money at bookstores on the weekend, finding titles I hoped my students would like. I was a little high on Dead Poet’s Society. During those three or four years I needed to matter as a teacher. Don’t we all. But I am not Captain, O Captain. I don’t think I ever really expected to be so inspiring but teachers are fed a steady diet of you-matter-so-much that we end up really wanting to matter so much. (Freedom Writers kind of matter, a sainted kind of matter). Anyway, when I returned to teaching part-time, after a couple of years in Colombia, after having two kids, my perspective was new. I’d dumped the old enchantment that my classroom was super-duper important, that my literature selections and writing assignments should generate a kind of revelatory bliss. Instead I was startled to realize I was okay seeing my place in the school or my students’ lives as off to the side. Recognizing my class is not the most important thing in the world freed me to enjoy my profession more. I still connect with students and think about best practices for my classroom and content/ assessment but I also trust that students continue to grow their reading and writing after leaving my class. I don’t negate the responsibility or importance of teachers but what a relief to see a broader scope of learning, to trust that lifelong process for myself, my kids, my students.
This morning I was thinking about an enchantment I had about our school. For years I said I could be happy in my own classroom here. I could ignore issues the school faces and instead concentrate on my own work. For years this worked. Justin and I knew our tenure here was coming to a close. Maybe that knowledge allowed me to start shedding the enchantment that I was fine just enjoying my classroom.
I do love what I teach here.
But maybe halfway through our time in Kuwait, I started hearing more criticism from newly arrived teachers, some or much of it valid. By then we were invested in the school. Our kids were enrolled. I liked the students. But when I heard a teacher comment about crowded elementary classrooms, I saw my daughter’s grade one room in a new way. When I heard a parent question her son’s education because his teacher is inexperienced, I thought of conversations I’d had with colleagues about desiring structured learning support for students, mentoring and professional development for teachers. There are unaddressed educational issues stemming from the business side of the school which seems to seek greater profit margin over academic excellence. And there is little recourse for teachers to press for whole school change. As invested as we may be, many decisions that affect our campus and classrooms are not our decisions.
For years I could live with this order. I had lovely conversations with colleagues and administration about education and the school. I care about the school. But I am disenchanted. I no longer believe it is good for me to just enjoy my classroom and circle of students.
For years I was dismissive of teachers who stayed only the initial two-year contract, or less. They complained. They expected too much. When we arrived to Kuwait, there were a number of teachers who’d been at the school for three or four years who later left at year six, seven, nine. How do you decide how long to stay in one place? I picked three or four years because I hurt to leave Colombia after two years. But not everyone hurts to leave after two years. I respect that better now.
This Week: Aiming For Present Tense
Well, half of us are fraying now. Justin and Grant seem fine. Justin is busy breaking down our apartment, that’s why he’s fine. Grant got a mohawk haircut, that’s why he’s fine. Claire is leaking her feelings everywhere. I am not fraying so much as trying very hard to be present.
The last essay my seniors read is titled “Present Tense Africa” by William Harrison. This was a perfect end of the year read for me too. The whole narrative is Harrison navigating his way around Africa, before wireless networks and online check-in. I cannot imagine showing up at the airport in Addis Ababa and just booking the next flight out because if you miss the plane showing up tomorrow you might have to wait another three or four days for a flight out. Sometimes I think I’m great at just going with whatever. But then I read something like this or listen to other travelers talk about how they met this tour guide and ended up spending a week hanging out in his hometown, eating his mother’s cooking, attending his cousin’s wedding or whatever. I lack the imagination right now. I over pack.
But I am present. Or trying.
This week I cleaned out my classroom. I have a lot of stuff. I filled two bags with books I want to take to Korea but that’s just delaying the inevitable when Saturday comes and the movers are shaking their heads at how many books I want to take along. Justin kindly offered no comment when he saw the flow of stuff leaving our apartment momentarily reversed.
I found folders from the first creative writing class I taught in Wisconsin. A calendar of the poetry unit, requirements for the portfolio. Photocopies of writing exercises. I remember that first group sitting with our desks in a circle. That class was my last year in Wisconsin and I had a lot of fun teaching something new. Now I see a few of those sophomores and juniors on Facebook. Dating, married, with children, moved around. I don’t know how many of them still keep a notebook.
I also found a sheaf of papers from my first creative writing class here. My classroom was the old science book room. When I showed up that August, I helped the science teachers carry out stacks of dusty books. I remember a weird glass and metal instrument on the back table and something that looked like a telescope. That room was great. There were two windows that looked over the middle school courtyard. Trees grew tall enough the branches scraped the windows. I had four students that first class and we sat around a table. One of the kids moved back to Florida during the second quarter. We wrote a lot. What I remember about that group was our workshops. Such different personalities, such surprising fun. I hope they are still writing. Or imagining. Making things with their hands.
I have a friend here who paints. She is very busy with many things but she paints too. We talked today about the pleasure of creating things, even just pieces shared with our small circles. I think that’s what I enjoy most about teaching writing, the joy of making something, that process that doesn’t always yield anything worth bragging but is fun and frustrating and feeds our innate need to create.
I threw away a ton of old portfolios, flipping through a few first. There are many names I remember and more that I don’t.
When my brother was student teaching, he told his mentor teacher the grading was piling up. She told him a story about a fellow teacher who, when he died, left a basement of student papers. The punchline of that anecdote was that those boxes were full of ungraded work. My filing cabinets were full of the four years of poetry and narrative before I switched to Moodle, Turnitin or Google docs. Because I like to see process, there were a lot of drafts with workshop comments too. I read through some of my comments. Now I mostly conference, offering more verbal than written feedback on work. It was weird to see all the words I’ve read here. Weird to think how most of these stories are forgotten even to their authors.
I found some of my old work too. Revision examples. A few stray journal pages from 2005 (nothing reckless or interesting, but including the phone number for an old colleague). I found a picture of a man leaning face first over a fire hydrant. My dad gave that picture from a computer magazine ad, data flow maybe? We thought it was funny. I had it posted somewhere in my college dorm or classroom for years. I didn’t put it up here, just had it tucked in a desk drawer. Those stray pages are tossed but the fire hydrant picture is going home with me this summer. At my parents’ house there are Rubbermaids of stuff that’s just stuff but I can’t toss yet. Still, I feel this turn inside me, like I’m a little closer to letting go physical lines to childhood or adolescence or young adulthood. Maybe it’s like writing, when you write the same idea over and over to absorb or develop it and then you find a way to be finished with the topic or piece. So I’ve been finding all these little bits from our time here and before and now I’m more ready to let some of that go. There are old photos or scraps of paper I don’t need to come across again.
But I do keep my notebooks. That could backfire one day, but I’ll probably be dead then.
While we are going through our physical things, we are also digging around our experiences in Kuwait. We are all at different places. A couple of months ago I had a two week stretch of wall. Every day was difficult. I would have gotten on a plane. I wallowed. The end of something comes and we aren’t really ready for the end because there is always something more we need or want. An ending extends beyond the physical time or place finish. And the end of something churns up a lot of questions about what the whole experience means. Kuwait is a good and difficult place for me. During that wall time I thought about what I’ve done here that lasts past my presence and I got the image of abandoned buildings reclaimed by nature. We leave, go away, die and others grow in our place. That isn’t so bleak as it seems. I’m here now. I’ll always have been here. Years from now, this Kuwait will be part of who I am.
I encourage Claire to talk more. She’s leaking her feelings. I’d like her to say her feelings, name what’s happening in her mind and heart. But that isn’t easy or fun. The point is lost until later.
The last two weeks of the international school year are a soup of feelings, everything thrown in the pot to simmer, sometimes brought to boil. Some people hide. Some people leave without saying goodbye. Some people burn it down.
Right now time is slippery. There is a lot I want to do but won’t. When I was at that wall, I ticked off an anti-bucket list of things I probably won’t do before leaving. There are dinner guests I’m not hosting. There are writing projects I’m not completing. There are Kuwait landmarks I’m not visiting.
We don’t get everything we want in this life. Our first spring break with two kids we went to Jordan, rented a car and drove to Petra, Madaba, the Dead Sea and Wadi Rum. At Petra, I nursed Grant in a giant cavern with soot on the ceiling, graffiti on the walls. The corners smelled like cat piss. I sat near the entry and watched a path where a woman and her son sold trinkets to visitors walking toward the monastery. I’d wanted to hike up to the monastery and had this moment when I thought we could do it, Justin and I each carrying a kid, walking up those hundreds of steps, but then I thought I don’t have to. There are things I want to do now but can’t, not because I physically or financially can’t but because I have family and while I joke about the interruptions of marriage and parenting, having commitments outside myself is tough. That choice, to let the monastery hike go, is a touchstone of my early parenting. I don’t get everything I want and that’s okay.
So I’m thinking about that monastery hike now, knowing that I’m losing parts of Kuwait I haven’t lived. Near the end of this very long time in one place I don’t have energy to chase what I think I’m supposed to do. I wonder if I’d have wanted to hike to the monastery so much if Marcia hadn’t raved what it was like to be up on that hill in a rainstorm, all the rock slippery and cold but the view beautiful. I think what I need to do now is pay attention to what I need and want from these last three weeks.
The other day, I told Claire to go be by herself so she could think. I am doing that too. It can feel unnatural, even excruciating to unplug from a device or turn the radio or TV off and be quiet. But we need more silence. I use the time to pray or think or write. Cleaning out my classroom, looking through old rosters and drafts. At home, going through cupboards. On the road, driving past the same villas and apartments. I’m aiming for present tense.