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The Need to Read Part 2

Here we are again. Two years later and I’m still not the reader I want to be.

I know I’ve said this before, but as an English teacher you feel a real pressure to be reading all the time. Your students expect it, your colleagues expect it and even you, yourself expect it. In this world of tempestuous TV and the allure of social media (to which I fully indulge), I often feel the responsibility to keep book culture alive (and thriving). However, if I can’t be bothered to read, and literature literally pays my bills, then really, who else can be bothered?

In January 2015, I made a New Year’s Resolution to read more. I put forward a challenge to my classes that I was going to partake in my own ’20 Book Challenge’ from January to the end of the school year in July. Now, this was met with various reactions which I’m sure will be of no shock to you:

“Uh…do we have to do it?”

“What if our books are toolong?”

“What happens if we don’t read 20?”

And so on and so forth.

To which I essentially explained that the challenge was a challenge, not a punishment, not a threat, just something to put forward and see where we got to. Considering I was reading zero books (aside from books I read with my classes of course), ANYTHING would be considered a win, for them and for me. So we began. I put charts up on the wall with all of their names. They put stickers when they had completed a book. I checked and chatted with my students about their books everyday, gave them targets to read towards, encouraged them to continue, to allow them to give up and find something else if they wanted.

I think there’s also an expectation (certainly among my students) that if you’re a lover of books, you’re a lover of all books. That because I’m a reader I’ll read anything that’s around, ( I mean I would if I had zero options) and while I would defend all books and their right to exist, I don’t love all books. I think you can split readers into the ‘finishers’ and ‘quitters’ when it comes to a books that are difficult to get through. I’m self-admittedly a ‘quitter’ and while I think I’m quite determined in other aspects of my life, I believe deeply that life is too short to read books I don’t enjoy. I shared this openly with my class of students who thought me a ‘finisher’; to be honest even the most apathetic reader was shocked. I, Miss Drysdale was a book ‘quitter’.

Now that’s another thing, I’m trying to make ‘book talk’ cool in my middle school classroom. Reading is not cool at my school because I live in a community where reading is seen as a ‘posh’ or ‘educated'(in a bad way) it means people don’t want to be perceived as thinking they’re somehow better than others, or that they’re trying to change themselves. Not only do I have to combat the allure of the world of social media that makes reading seem boring, but a culture where socio-economic factors make people afraid to read.

“You’ll never get me to read Miss, I hate all books, all books are boring.”

“Okay, first of all, that’s not true, you loved ‘Of Mice and Men’, you said you never knew you could love a book before you read that”.

“Yeah, but that was different.”

The difference is that we read it together. I forget sometimes that I’m responsible for creating the magic of book loving in my own classroom, like my own English teachers did with me. How did they transfer that magic to get me to read and love books on own? I wrack my brain often thinking about it.

I’ve learned that some of the deterrents are people’s confidence, people are afraid. My colleague, a Math teacher confessed to me that she was a ‘bad reader’, and that she could never finish reading 20 books before July. She had almost written herself off as hopeless. It was this all too real moment for me, thinking of my own childhood experiences with Maths, that I had labeled and still label myself ‘bad at Math’. And sometimes, in rare moments, you’ll remember that they’re just that, labels, that can be peeled off, and tossed away. My colleague did just that, she decided to partake in the 20 book challenge. My heart fluttered. The world gained another reader because she seeks to imagine a self beyond her own.

Just today, while I was on duty in the library, I saw a student standing at the adult section of the library. Now, when a student stands in that section, it’s either a.) a mistake, or b.) because he’s been sent there by a teacher to find a specific book. I approached him asking what book he was looking for, he said he didn’t know. This is pretty common, students are at a loss when looking for books and often need help finding something. But this was different. He said he was looking for ‘surreal fiction’. Wanted to read the classic Russian authors. He was looking for a book just to read. Because he wanted to. Not because he had to, but because he wanted to read something beautiful. My heart swelled. Again, the world gained another reader because he seeks to understand a place beyond his own.

Fear motivates so many of our decisions, and it’s easy to understand why. But that doesn’t mean we should give into it. We should be afraid not to read. Particularly when the world is fast becoming a heartbreaking place, a place I struggle to understand (did I ever?). It is at this time that books offer so much. Remembering history so we don’t repeat it; understanding others’ perspectives’; seeking refuge from the harshness this world currently presents; finding ways to better ourselves, to care; and so many other countless reasons. Even if you don’t believe in books for love’s sake, then why not for the benefit of making people better communicators and more empathetic? Words, knowing their nuances, impact and possibilities creates for us societies full of people who are eager to understand and be understood. Readers are people who can change the world around them because to read a book is to commit to deeply listening, without speaking. And in times likes these, it could the most powerful and necessary communication of all.

At the beginning of my teaching career here in England, I wrote a blog post about reading entitled ‘The Need to Read’ which you can find here:

The Nature of Things

Out of all the words that I would use to describe myself, ‘outdoorsy’ wouldn’t be one of them.

Now, just to be clear, I was not a city kid who never understood nor experienced nature. I lived in a place called “Goodwood” for heaven’s sake. My father was an avid outdoorsman. He considered the woods an extension of himself, something I wish that I shared with him. When I speak to others about where they grew up, I know I was a fortunate child to have grown up in a house outside of the city, with an expansive forest behind it. Looking back it was incredible, trees on three sides of the house, it should have been a child’s dream.

I wanted absolutely nothing to do with it.

My sister, keen to explore, would always be begging me to go outside with her, to which I would flippantly turn down. Why would I go outside, when I had a whole world to explore inside (where it was either cozy and warm in winter, or cool and shaded in summer)? Sometimes my mother would be so flabbergasted she would implement a no indoor afternoon, to which she would ceremoniously lock us out, (well let’s be honest, me out) so that my incredibly pale skin had any chance to see the sun. My sister I’m sure would always be thrilled that finally we’d get to play outside together. However, locked out or not, I’d always make sure I’d quickly grab a book during my temporary banishment and seek shelter under the largest tree I could find. I’d sit there smugly, feeling like I had fooled my mother. Essentially, I had found the indoors of the outdoors. In hindsight, it would have been kinder for me to have played some make believe in the woods with my sister, and it probably wouldn’t have hurt my shockingly pale skin to get some Vitamin D, but alas, hindsight is 20/20.

Now don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the outdoors. I’m not one of those people who hate the outside. I’ve had many, many positive experiences. As I said, my father has a deep love and appreciation for the outdoors, and would take us on beautiful hikes where I’d see the most unseemingly gorgeous places, that were literally in my back yard. I was a Girl Guide that didn’t shy away from camping in any weather or season, and enjoyed the camaraderie that being in the great outdoors allows in a group of people. I have attended many camps, outdoors camps, with insects galore, dutifully putting on the deet to head outdoors, rain or shine gleefully participating in any activity that was asked of me.

There was one defining moment though that brought me over to the nature loving side, even only for a brief moment.

In fifth grade our class went on an over night class trip. It for three nights and four days outside Lunenberg in Nova Scotia. I mean obviously, I was excited about the trip because what kid isn’t excited to go away with their friends on a trip where they get to hang out for days on end? Being a teacher now, I understand that excitement even more, it’s really the beginning of independence, kids having a fun time away from home that doesn’t involve their family. It’s an ongoing coming of age story, really. Anyways, I knew in advance that this trip was going to involve nature in a big way, which was the part I was the least thrilled about, considering the name of the trip was called “Earthkeepers”. We arrived off of our school buses and I was struck at the beauty of the place, it was across the street from the ocean and the land around was endless.

Now, I don’t remember the trip in great detail, primarily because it was 20 years ago.  What I do remember was being enthralled with the outdoors. There was so many diverse areas in such a contained region. The part that I was particularly taken with was this place that was an old saw mill. It was this expansive field that was completely filled with sawdust. What’s more, is that walking on it felt like what I imagine walking on the moon to feel like. We as students were asked to look at our surroundings in a completely new way that I have never considered before. I had turned a temporary new leaf. When we returned back from our trip we were given additional assignments that we had to do at our own houses. One of these activities included going into a wooded area behind our house and picking an area to explore throughly giving it a name and describing it in great depth.

One autumn afternoon shortly after the trip, I trekked out behind my house. Now a word about my backyard: behind my house is a path that leads down to a cemetery. Even though my childhood house was off of a main highway, the entrance to the cemetery was not obvious to naked eye. In the grove of some overhanging trees between the house of mine and my neighbour’s, was a wooded path that felt hopelessly romantic (it was later gravelled, which now makes the road significantly easier to drive on but makes it feel far less secret). When you got down to the end of the road, it was not yet clear there was anything important there. When taking a left, and heading down a slight clearing, there was one of the most beautiful cemeteries I have ever yet to see. I know beautiful is a strange word to describe a graveyard, but it really was. It was nestled in what felt like a forgotten patch of land quietly tucked away. Nature had reclaimed most of the gravestones within the plots. The graves weren’t orderly like in most cemeteries I have ever visited, they were scattered, making it feel almost personalised for each person laid to rest there. It’s was an intimately small cemetery, and I think the last time someone had been buried there was ten years before. As a person who is intensely disturbed and petrified of death, for some reason, I did not fear that place. Instead, I found it to be a peaceful hideaway where I could get my young thoughts together.

Beyond it, was a small path that led down to a tall tree with a ladder leading up to a small seat at the top. Despite my fear of heights, I climbed up the tree valiantly, reaching the top, sitting and overseeing the treetops. I was gobsmacked that someone had built this treehouse that allowed me the opportunity to see the forest in a completely different way. (I later learned from my parents that this ‘treehouse’ was a hunting blind that belonged to my neighbours, which I have to admit slightly tarnished my first memories). Down from the ‘treehouse’ was this fairly large area that was almost completely covered in moss, which I referred to as “The Emerald City”, as an homage to my second favourite film, “The Wizard of Oz”.

I note now that even with the loving tone in which I refer to my childhood walkabouts, I still don’t embrace the idea of being outdoorsy. Even though, I would lying to you if I told you I didn’t head out to that place as a way of momentarily escaping from a crowded too small house containing five people that all needed more space. Nature kindly enough, provided that space for me.

In September, I was walking home from school along the paved road that eventually, very eventually, leads to my house. On previous occasions, I was curious about the opening of a wooded path on the other side of the road, but passed along it, eager to be home. One day, I instead decided to walk down it. It was the beginning of autumn, there was plenty of daylight left, it was the beginning of the school year and I inhabitually had some time to spare, so why not? I crossed the desolate street and decided to venture in. Almost immediately upon entering, I breathed in the familiar scent that is September on the cusp of October. There are few smells that I love more, I could cry of happiness thinking of it. How can the smell of decaying leaves represent such sadness, newness, and somehow joy, simultaneously? Memories of my childhood flooding back making me feel the same age as I was in my memories. I walked along a well worn path towards a destination that is completely unknown until I come to an opening clearing in the woods. I then see this:

IMG_0536IMG_0538To say I felt like Alice in Wonderland was an understatement. And then I saw this:

IMG_0537Then I suddenly felt a little afraid. Where exactly was this going to go?  I imagined a beautiful little brook and a humble meadow waiting patiently for me through the other side. So I walked through, and I’m pretty sure I held my breath the entire time. I hurried through to the other side, and felt myself faced with a sunnier side of the forest. I continued walking and came out of the path. It was neither the brook nor field that I envisioned. It was instead pavement, along with a string of houses, and here’s where it gets better. I am looking at the school I work at.

That’s right, I took a cute little detour in the woods, just to bring me back to exactly where I just came from, just minutes before. With a shake of my head I turn around and head back to where I just came from. However this slight disappointment does not ruin my overall romanticisation of this adorable little path I found, and on the way back, it was even more cute, if that’s even possible.

IMG_0542I mean look at it. Look at those adorable leafy stairs.

When my colleague and I walked home from school, I enthusiastically showed her this lovely little find, to which she told me she was already aware of it. Here’s where the story gets a little sad, apparently it’s where our students do their smoking and other badass activities that are done by teens in wooded areas. Suddenly this quaint little nook in the woods showed me its cigarette butts, graffiti and copious amount of litter.

[Insert a heavy sigh here.]

Months later, I was reminded of this place, the other rainy morning as my cab passed along the paved road with the string of little houses along it, the path unbeknown to anyone who doesn’t already know it’s there because it blends in with its’ surroundings. I saw a student, walking towards the path, and hour before school started, saddened that I knew where he was going with a pretty good idea of why.

In my teacher mindset, this upset me. However, in my human mindset, I completely understood him. Many years later, even if the needs it served us are different, the woods continues to give space freely to anyone who needs it, where maybe they too can get their young thoughts together.

Sometimes I do this thing where I choose to do the hardest things first. When first learning how to drive (I know this is a continuing journey) with my friend Graham, I insisted on wanting to learn how to drive a standard before I learned how to drive an automatic. I’ve always figured why not? If I do the absolute hardest thing first, then everything else would seem simpler in comparison. If you’re already gathering up the gumption to do something new, (which is in itself difficult) why not just muster all that energy to do the hardest thing right off the bat?

I guess you could say that I applied this logic when it came to my decision to teach in England.

A year and a half ago, I made the decision to move to England. One of the reasons I decided to move here was because well, who are we kidding? It’s ENGLAND.

However, my bigger reason for moving overseas was so that I could finally become a full-time classroom teacher. I had finished my Bachelor of Education degree in 2010 and had made a go of it substitute teaching in New Brunswick and Saskatchewan. During that time, I had a consistent, ongoing, honest-to-God fear of being a teacher. As indecisive as I tend to be, I was even worse when I kept going back and forth about whether I should even be a teacher. I knew I liked working with youth, but was I good enough to be a teacher? My friends and family reassured me, they seemed to have zero hesitation about my ability to be a good teacher. I however, was terrified, what if I singlehandedly ruined the educational year of a group of young impressionable students? It was a tremendous responsibility that wore heavy on my mind.

Then I bit the bullet.

I decided that substitute teaching didn’t make sense if I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to be a teacher. So I decided to get my feet real wet by jumping into the deep end of the pool. I decided that I was going to teach full-time so I could decide once and for all, if I was supposed to be a teacher. Anyone in most parts of Canada knows how difficult it is to obtain a full-time teaching gig, so I looked abroad. I decided that England was where I was going to make a go of it for the academic year of 2013-2014.

The world needs teachers. In terms of global flexibility, teaching is a profession that is well in demand. Most of the teaching positions that are available overseas are in non-English speaking countries. Many of these schools are private and many of the students in these schools tend to be from higher socio-ecnomic backgrounds. As lovely as those students might be, I got into teaching because I wanted to work with students from lower socio-economic backgrounds who had a difficult time in school. Cue England. The thing that attracted me to teaching in England was that it was a difficult place to teach. My friends who taught in England would tell me horror stories, and my ears would perk up with interest. 50% of teachers quit within the first 5 years here because the teaching climate is so demanding. I was incredibly intrigued. I thought that if I could survive in one of the most difficult teaching environments in the world (I’ve heard teaching here referred to as “the trenches”), then I could really teach anywhere. So I packed my bags, said goodbye to my loved ones and set off across the ocean to see what I was made of.

Settling into England, relatively speaking was a piece of cake. Settling into my school was also relatively easy that first week, with no students. When my recruiting agency put me with my school, they assured me that they were really welcoming to their staff, and they were right. I was incredibly lucky to be working at my particular school this year. First of all, roughly 10% of the teaching staff is international, so I was in good company. Secondly, I was in an extremely nurturing department that was used to people from Canada coming over to teach. Thirdly, I was surrounded by an incredibly amiable and supportive overall staff.

That was the good news.

Here was the bad:

1.) Teaching in England is a monumental culture shock.

2.) Teaching is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

I’m not going to mince words here, I’m an almost thirty year old woman, I’m no stranger to hard work, normally I thrive in brand new situations, but I almost quit, and I don’t quit easily. It’s also difficult because there’s your first year of teaching, which in any culture is going to separate the weak from the strong. Then there’s doing your first year teaching abroad, where you’re never quite sure if teaching is that hard, or if teaching in that particular culture is that hard. I’m going to sum it up to teaching is difficult but teaching in England is incredibly difficult.

Anyone who knows me, knows that I’m an unfailing optimist. I can take even the most crappiest of situations and find some kind of silver lining, to the point where it’s annoying. This year I met my match. I met my Everest of circumstances I couldn’t just slide my rose coloured glasses and stride through. Oh God no. The first half of this school year was ugly, and I was ugly in it. It…was not good.

I can summarise my struggles in three categories:

1.) The Students are Tougher

It took about two weeks before my first student told me to eff off. It took me a month before I realised that I could actually send kids out of my class for misbehaviour. It took me a month and a half before I finally bawled in a cupboard after my class verbally ganged up on me. Kids are kids all over the world. A teenager with raging hormones and half a developed brain tend to act similarly no matter where they’re from, to a point. In my experience, kids are mouthier here, and respect for teachers is not automatic. As a teacher, my style was described as “Calm and Assertive”, things I came to admire about myself, and that benefited me  in my previous work and teaching experiences. In the beginning, it did not serve me well here. My students saw it as me not being assertive enough, as me being passive teacher. Furthermore, as an chronically indecisive person who tends to see the shades of grey in everything, I was a serious target for my students. To be fair that trait would have been unhelpful no matter what system I taught in, but that trait was particularly bad here. Throughout this year, I’ve become the most polarised I’ve ever been. Individually, with each student, I can be as shades of grey as I like, but in a classroom full of middle school students that are just screaming for boundaries (literally and figuratively) I grew a serious backbone. The thing that I didn’t really think about enough was that I was the leader of my classroom. Normally, I tend to be very communal in terms of leadership and like things to evolve organically. That is not leader enough for my kids, they needed a ruler that say the yeses and the nos, firmly with no over-analysis. Which, let’s face it, does not come easily to me. Let’s not forget, I teach middle school kids who need to understand the profound differences between appropriate/inappropriate, acceptable/not acceptable, on task/not on task, ready for learning/not ready for learning and I’m the one who needs to define and enforce it for them. I never understood the expression “iron fist with a velvet glove” so clearly before this year.

Another thing I really came to understand is that Uniforms Matter. The first day you see a large moving sea of children in uniform, little suits, blazers, ties, skirts, black shoes from 11 year olds to 16 year olds is a jarring sight. Previous to moving here, I was so anti-uniform because it was so foreign to my upbringing. In the beginning, I’m going to be honest, I didn’t give any cares about uniforms. That was my first crucial mistake. Kids wearing their uniforms properly is a sign of respect. I know it sounds crazy, but it really is. When students show up to your class, before they’re allowed into your classroom, they are supposed to be in perfect uniform. Which means they have to have their shirts tucked in, top button done, and their ties or skirts at an appropriate length. Again, I know a Canadian is likely reading this entry and are thinking “really?” Yes. If a student isn’t going to do up their top button for you, then it’s pretty likely they aren’t going to follow any other instruction you’re going to give. Being in perfect uniform is so engrained socially with them being ready to learn. “Sort your uniform out” was one of my most uttered phrases this year, much to my own shock. As the year went on, and the tougher I became on uniforms, the better the kids behaved. Obviously there are other correlations here, but trust me when I say (as a previously huge skeptic) uniforms matter.

The Workload is Tougher

In England, pretty much every single piece of paper that a student writes on needs to be marked by a teacher. To anyone who is not a teacher, this might not sound like it’s a big deal, but let me emphasise that it is in fact a big deal. Especially for an English teacher. Anyone who teaches English knows the pains of correcting work. You’re correcting the ideas in addition to the actual structure they’re using to express said idea. Usually in Canada, the kind of work you’re correcting is the kind of work that students take a little more care in.  Students usually pass in assignments, tests, exams and projects; those are typically the things that a teacher marks to give a student a grade. At my school students are given notebooks that all of the things they write down go into. So imagine the notes that students take during class, that’s the kind of work you also need to mark. They don’t carry their own binders or work, the teacher keeps and corrects it all. Not only do teachers correct it, but their corrections are looked at by their supervisors, which then can be looked at by the Ministry of Education (OFSTED). Essentially, OFSTED could walk into your classroom, pick up your books and if your books are not up to standard, or don’t show a student’s progress, you could be in a lot of trouble. In addition, students also write an actual assessment at the end of the six modules, which are also corrected. This is of course in addition to the other many things a teacher does in the run of a day like teach, lesson plan, manage behaviour, go to meetings, call parents, etc.

The System is Tougher

I knew England was standardised before I moved here, I did my research. What I did not know was how difficult it was going to be for me to adjust to that. I don’t know why I didn’t know, it should have been pretty obvious to me that I spent a great many years in university greatly contesting and fighting against the standardisation of education. Yet, here I was willingly putting myself right in the middle of it. It wasn’t easy, but as they say “When in Rome…”

The schooling here is very traditional. Standardisation is still very much a defining feature of the education system here. Things are heavily, heavily standardised. The Ministry of Education (OFSTED) is a group of people whose job it is to ensure that all children in the UK are receiving a similar quality of education. They come down very hard on schools that are not providing that high quality of education in something called “Special Measures” where basically, the school is completely overhauled. New staff are brought in to manage and teach at the school, and then the school is consistently monitored over a three year period. The school that I work at had recently come out of this procedure, and has worked very hard to ensure that they are following a very strict educational procedure because they want to maintain the extensive progress they’ve made during and since Special Measures. Speaking of progress, that is how everything is measured here, it’s the magic word. Teachers are observed several times a year, and during these lesson plans you need to ensure that every single student in your classroom is making some kind of progress in your lesson. OFSTED considers ‘progress” to be some kind of real evidence that a child knows new knowledge and has gained a new skill at the end of your lesson that they did not know at the beginning of your lesson. You need to be able to demonstrate this clearly. Even if one child is not making progress during your lesson, then technically you’re not doing your job in making sure each of your students are making overall progress. This is an immense amount of pressure, and it has certainly been daunting. During this year, as I’ve struggled with the idea of standardisation, I’ve come to some kind of peace in knowing that OFSTED is taking great care in ensuring that that the education of every single child is held to some kind of standard and that educational institutions and teachers are held to a very high accountability to ensure this happens. In Canada, the accountability is very much student focused, students are responsible for showing up, wanting to learn,wanting to do well, doing the work. In Britain the accountability is very much teacher focused, even for your most difficult students your expectation is to convince them, and ensure that they’re doing the highest quality of work possible, and if they don’t, that comes down to some kind of problem with the way you teach or conduct your classroom. It’s definitely a game changer and to be honest it was something I really struggled with at the beginning of the year.

Exploring the differences between one culture and another, educationally, is a very tricky balance, as I’m sure anyone teaching overseas can share. On the one hand, for the most part, people are typically exclusively educated in one country or system. Even post-secondarily, a system reflects its’ primary and secondary school. So when that same system trains you to be an educator, it’s an interesting shift when those skills take you abroad. On the one hand, you’re invited to teach because your skills and education are recognised as being valuable for the new system you’re teaching in. On the other hand, this system may be completely foreign, so it’s sometimes difficult to figure out the balance of who you are innately as an educator and person, and what you need to be and are expected to be as a professional. It’s something that I’ve spent the last year in deep thought about whenever I had a spare second to contemplate the meaning and reasons as to why I’m here.

I’m here because I wanted to figure out if I could be a teacher or not. It turns out I can teach.

I’m here because I wanted to figure out if I wanted to be a teacher or not. It turns out I want to be a teacher.

I’m here to figure out if I could teach in one of the challenging education systems globally. It turns out that after stumbling and fumbling through the earlier parts of the year, that with a lot of support, encouragement and determination, that I can teach in a challenging education system, and not only come out on the other side relatively unscathed, but sign up for another round to see what else I’m made of.

Maybe there is some kind of method to my madness?

While living in Saskatchewan I became a huge fan of the show, “Gordon Ramsay’s Best Restaurant”  on Netflix. Although I wasn’t initially a huge Gordon Ramsay fan, I was very quickly won over by him on this show. The premise of the show is that diners from all over the UK submitted votes about their top local restaurants within the UK. The show broke up the restaurants into different categories:

Best English: The West House (http://www.thewesthouserestaurant.co.uk) and The Milestone (http://www.the-milestone.co.uk )

Best Chinese: Kai (http://www.kaimayfair.co.uk/kai/kaihome.html ) and Yu and You (http://www.yuandyou.com)

Best French: Winteringham Fields (https://www.winteringhamfields.co.uk ) and La Garrigue (http://www.lagarrigue.co.uk) Best

Spanish: Fino (http://finorestaurant.com/about/) and El Pirata Detapas ( http://www.elpiratadetapas.co.uk)

Best Thai: Mango Tree (http://www.mangotree.org.uk) and Nahm-Jim (http://nahm-jim.co.uk)

Best Indian: Brilliant (http://www.brilliantrestaurant.com) and Prashad (http://www.prashad.co.uk)

Best North African: Azou (http://www.azou.co.uk) and Momo (http://www.momoresto.com/restaurant/london/momo/)

Best Italian: Casamia (http://www.casamiarestaurant.co.uk) and Mennula (http://www.mennula.com)

In each category there are two restaurants competing against each other top title in their food genre, those restaurants then go onto a semi-finals round, then finals. What I really like about the show is that Ramsay judges each of the restaurants through three different categories. The first is that he surprises each restaurant with a drop in crowd of thirty diners who will be ordering starters, a main meal and dessert all within a two hour time period to test their abilities when working under a high level of pressure. The second test is that they send a undercover food critic to test the level of service and food quality when they aren’t expecting visitors. The third, is a test where Ramsay brings in the two head chefs from each of the restuarants to his Flagship restaurant in London to cook their best meal in their genre for a group of people who are highly knowledgable about their dishes.

The show does a really great job of showing each restaurant’s strength and weaknesses through the three rounds, particularly when focusing on service as well as the food itself. It really humanises these chefs and other working staff within the establishements. For some of these restaurants even being voted into the top 16, gives them an important title that would put some of these restaurants on the map. I also like that it educates viewers on the different types of dining experiences that are available throughout the UK. Obviously when I was watching the show I was very close to the time where I was actually moving to England; while watching the show it was not lost on me that I could soon be potentially eating at these places. However, after a quick initial mapping out of the restaurants over the UK, I quickly realised that only about half of them were actually going to be close to where I was going to be living. Aside from the London restaurants, the only  restaurant that was going to be on my turf was The West House restaurant. Once I actually started living here, I realised that Kent is a much bigger area than I initially thought, and also that it’s pretty rural in places. So I put my hopes to visit The West House on hold.

At the end of the 4th Module in April, I was off to my first British wedding. My boss Bernie was getting married and our department was off to Maidstone to celebrate in the festivities. I primarily spend my time in three places: school, home and London. I really had very little knowledge of how to get to Maidstone or any other parts of Kent for that matter, luckily, I was in the great care of my co-worker Nadia. We left at about noon on a Sunday afternoon, planning to take our time through the British country side, stopping for a bite to eat, finding our hotel room and getting ready for a night of celebrating.

As per usual, it was raining when we left my house. As we drove along the highway, I got to see a scene outside of Dartford and London, a rare occurrence. We decided to stop by this little town to take a little walk along this beautiful cliff overlooking the countryside. One of the reasons I decided to move to England was because of the gorgeous countryside featured in classic British films that I used to watch wistfully. Even though day to day I spend next to zero time in said countryside, being able to drive through them on that day continues to cement all of reasons why England is a perfect place for me to live. Nadia being very familiar with the area and having a vehicle was very kind to point out lovely sights of misty waters, and vast plots of land.

With an already pretty lovely start, it got even better. Nadia and I were walking around the city of Maidstone trying to figure out where to go for lunch. We were discussing great restaurants when I brought up the show Gordon Ramsay’s Top Best Restaurant, and more specifically, The West House as a topic of conversation. Miraculously, Nadia knew exactly what I was talking about. After jumping up and down and gushing about our mutual love for the show, she decided to take action. She found their number, called and  made a reservation for 40 minutes later. After figuring out that it was a 30 minute drive, we sprinted out of Maidstone city centre and made our way to The West House. On our way through the quaint country roads we continued discussing how wonderful the show was. While waiting for lunch, we explored the possibility of visiting more of the restaurants on the show.  Our meal was INCREDIBLE. So incredible in fact that it deserves its’ own post. If you want to read my review, you can read it here: (*link to soon follow). After our mind blowing experience for lunch, we decided that we were going to visit every single restaurant on that list.

The West House 

After lunch we drove through twisted country paths with wooden fences and trees that hugged over the road. It was blissfully quaint and even though I knew we had a gorgeous wedding to go to, I didn’t think the day’s limit to seeing beautiful things could be surpassed.

We then pulled up to this sign:

 

Chilston

 

I, having no idea where we were, or what we were up to next, was immediately taken by what I saw of the grounds. We then saw this:

 

Chilston Day

 

Excitedly, I assumed that we were going to walk along the grounds and perhaps go in for afternoon tea. When Nadia got out of the car, she went to the trunk to get our stuff out of the trunk. I was confused,

“What do we need our bags for?”

“Lill, this is where we’re staying”, she said laughing.

This is where we were staying.

To say I squealed with delight would be an understatement. Nadia then explained that this is where Bernie’s wedding was going to be taking place and that we’d also be staying there. All of a sudden I felt like I was on set for the film “Four Weddings and a Funeral”. Walking down the hallway we walked into this foyer and walked up the staircase:

. View of Staircase

 

Put a skeleton key into our doorway and was introduced to our bedroom:

 

Our Room 2

It all felt so unapologetically (and wonderfully) English.

What was really evident about this hotel room was that it hadn’t changed a whole lot since olden times. There were an incredible amount of cupboards that I could only imagine people unpacking their huge trunks for their month long stay after getting out of their carriage. There were these beautiful window sills, where I imagined someone sitting looking out onto the back gardens, writing a letter to their loved ones who were waiting impatiently for a letter that would arrive three weeks later. The room was magical. We gussied ourselves up, and walked down the Beauty and the Beast staircase to meet our boss on her special day. We walked into a room with a beautiful grand piano, meeting her family and friends. We assembled as an English department in the library (fittingly) and took hilarious pictures together as a group. We danced our faces off, and later assembled outside to watch the bride throw her bouquet. As I walked back in, the sound of my heels on the gravel, thoughts of joy filled me as I witnessed Bernie’s profound happiness at marrying the love of her life. I saw this same beautiful building lit up, under the moonlight, with crickets chirping in the background.

Chilston Night

I sighed at my own happiness, looking back at the scene of guests milling around the fountain. Rain, countryside, a delicious lunch, great friends, a beautiful bride, and a whole night of dancing. England, I really love you.

Casting the Dye

One day my year 8 class and I were talking about discrimination. Discrimination is a tough concept to teach to twelve and thirteen year olds.

So how did I do it?

I said to them, that essentially we make two different kinds of judgements about people: things people can control about themselves and things people can’t.

I understand there are some huge gaps in my explanation, but for most part, it does cover a lot of my bases.

Judging someone based on their skin colour (something they can’t control) is something that my class understands is something that is never acceptable. I then explained that we should be judging people on their personalities because for the most part people have control over the way they treat other people. This was an important distinction for me to make because I was doing double duty, I also wanted them to understand that it’s okay to not be friends with someone if they’re not being good to them and that it’s perfectly acceptable judgement to make towards someone.

Obviously this situation becomes even more complicated because, simultaneously, I’m trying to explain situations where it’s not okay to judge someone, and situations where it is, even though it’s much more complicated than that.

As I said earlier, judgement of skin colour is off bounds, it seems to be a universally understood truth that is practiced in my class. However, I knew there were three other looming topics that I was going to bring up that I knew wouldn’t be as easily accepted. The three topics I hear repeatedly talked about among many students are their hatred for:

-people who are polish,

-homosexuals

-‘gingers’ (people with red hair).

Now, in my year 8 class, they didn’t seem to have any particular problems with people who are polish, or people that were homosexual which is in vast comparison to the opinions of my year 9 students. My year 8 students were under the same understanding as skin colour, that being polish or gay, they were not an acceptable basis to judge people. This was a relief to me because in my year 9 class, it’s a whole different story.

My year 9s have a real hate on for polish people. To some of their understanding (and let’s be fair here, it’s most likely their parents’) polish people are “immigrants” that are coming in and taking their jobs, and they’re pretty angry about it. When I tell them that I’m an “immigrant”, they always say,

“oh no miss, we don’t mean you”

To which I tell them that we’re the same, they whole heartedly disagree. To them, being canadian, is an okay kind of immigrant. Being polish, however, is really not. They also feel the same way about homosexuality. Being gay, is really not okay either. I’ve had students from that class blatantly tell me that I’m not going to change their mind in accepting homosexuality because it’s wrong, and not something they support.  I know it comes from somewhere else, an overheard word from a friend or family.This digs me in a way I didn’t know words could. I sometimes am able to muster up the words,

“Your beliefs are your beliefs. But respect towards everyone, no matter what your beliefs, is mandatory”.

However, my year 8s completely disagree,

“who cares if people are polish miss?”

“It doesn’t matter if people are gay or not, we should accept everyone”.

To which I sigh a huge sigh of relief.

So when we had settled on the previous two topics, I thought bringing up hair colour would have been an easy sell.

Nope.

“So, is it okay to judge people if they have red hair?”

“Yeah Miss! They’re GINGERS.”, one kid says with an air of distain.

Aside from the fact that my mother’s side of the family are full of red heads, I’m also so shocked that I was so wrong about the direction of this conversation.

“Why can’t they just dye their hair?” says one of my best natured students.

“Do you understand that telling someone they should change their hair colour to prevent you being mean to them, could be a lot like telling people to change their skin colour so that people aren’t mean to them?”

“That’s different, Miss.”

“Is it? How? Can someone explain to me how?”

“‘Miss, GINGERS don’t even like their OWN hair colour”.

“Well…do you think they always hated their hair colour, or do they hate their hair colour because people don’t accept them for who they are?”

My class stopped and pondered this for a moment, and admittedly, so did I. Now I know I’ve been discussing discrimination here, but just bear with me while I switch gears here for a bit.

My question “do you hate something about yourself because you just do, or do you hate something about yourself because someone has made you hate it?”,  had accidentally triggered a memory for me about my sister.

Now, I’m going to be honest here, this me sharing something with you that I’m not particularly proud of. In fact, when it comes down to it, I still feel awful for my actions and words.

I was an overweight kid that got made fun of a lot because of it. It probably wasn’t, but I felt like I was under a lot of scrutiny about it by my peers. Whenever my sister and I would get into an argument when we were younger, she used to say

“yeah, well at least I’m not fat”.

To which the end of the conversation would end with me in tears and most likely hitting her and running away or talking to my mom. One day that changed. One day, in response to my sister’s comment about my size, I retorted:

“Well at least I don’t have a humongous nose”.

That stopped my sister dead in her tracks. I knew I had come up with something that was equally as painful. I knew it had stung her like her words had stung me. I knew I had hurt her.

My sister has never had a humungous nose. She has a beautiful nose, and to be fair it would be beautiful whether it was larger or not.  But it’s important for me to acknowledge that it wasn’t. My sister was a tiny child, very skinny, pretty, and there was nothing at all for me to make her feel bad about. So I created something that I knew would bother her. I created an insecurity.

For the duration of my childhood, it would become my official “come-back” for any terrible comments that I might have had coming my way. It made me feel like I had some kind of leverage.

A few years ago, my sister and I were hanging out and somehow it got brought up that my sister hated her nose.

“I hate my nose, it’s too big”.

I was shocked that the dye I had cast over ten years ago, had permanently etched itself in her self-image. I had done that. Me.

Even now, more years have passed since that conversation, and I still can’t believe I was responsible for taking something my sister had probably never given any thought to, and then presented it as a flaw, an imaginary one at that, but real damage had been done, whether my insult was real or not. This memory especially hits me hard because I work with kids whose identities are developing before my very eyes. That students who have never given a second thought to themselves being polish are now suddenly ashamed because of what someone else makes them feel about it. Students tell me about passing comments their mothers make about their weight, and weeks later they mention it to me, words not forgotten. A boy makes a seemingly innocent comment, but says it with such venom that the innocent word cuts into another kid’s conscience like an infinite cut. The self loathing they inspire, whether it’s related to race, sexuality, religion, gender, or just looks, is damaging. I think one of the things I find most disturbing is that the drastic change in mindset between my Y8 and Y9 students. That my months of being able to change minds, and introduce perspective are so limited and to what end?

I wish it was just as simple as ending the discrimination against the polish, homosexuals, and gingers. However, I think we all know another kind of discrimination, equally as toxic, will be waiting impatiently in the wings to take their place.  Will we invite it in?

Oil La Dee, Oil La Da

As indicated in my Glass Class Post, I’ve always held this innate curiosity for places that I pass by day in and day out and have no idea what’s going on inside. I’m pretty sure I got this trait from my father. He would often entertain his curiosity by exploring everyday places to see what was there. I grew up outside the city, and along the beautiful community I grew up in, there were ample places to peek around in.

One Sunday afternoon when I was about eight years old, we were heading home when I decided that I wanted to see a place called “Helen’s Arts and Crafts”, I couldn’t really explain to you what possessed me to ask that day, and I can’t really explain to you what possessed my father to say yes, but as he pulled into the parking lot, I beamed with excitement. I remember it being late afternoon and that it was winter, and I remember seeing that beautiful deep pink and orange colour of the sunset, colours that seems especially crisp in the winter months. The store was an extension of the house the owners lived in, it was a garage that had been converted into a store/gallery space. I walked into the store before my father, being surprised by what I saw inside. I don’t know what I was expecting to see exactly, but I remember just feeling so happy. There were paintings all over the walls, and there were shelves full of different kinds of things I couldn’t now describe. Helen came down from her house and warmly greeted us. My father and I being quite a scene; because my father being deaf, couldn’t talk, and I, a child was speaking quite a lot for someone my age. I don’t remember all the things I might have said, but I do remember point blank, asking her how much it would cost for me to learn how to paint. I don’t think Helen ever expected to teach people how to oil paint in her store, particularly to a nine year old, but she came up with a sum she thought was reasonable, and I excitedly interpreted the conversation to my father. In my childhood, I can’t count the amount of times I had already gone ahead and made plans without notifying my parents beforehand, something they became reluctantly used to as the years went on. I told him at that moment that I wanted to learn how to paint, and that it was going to cost this much and could I do it? Talk about being put on the spot, but my father looked down at my pleading face, and looked at Helen’s kind face, and then gave his slow nod, letting us know without words, that we could go ahead and paint.

The nice part about living in a rural area is that you get to know your bus driver pretty well, on Wednesday afternoons he would drop me off in front of Helen’s instead of my house. I would walk inside and she would be there to greet me; I’d take off my backpack, and my jacket, and hang them up inside of her house. She’d have an afternoon snack ready (which in hindsight is a really telling quality about Helen), and we’d sit and chat about my day at school before we did anything. After about 15 minutes or so, she’d lend me one of her old, worn, painted shirts and we’d sit down and get to work. I’m going to be honest, when I first embraced the idea of oil painting, I imagined bright, beautiful colours, instead we started with the ocean. Now, I loved the ocean then, and I certainly still love it now, but it’s not exactly what I had in mind when I envisioned myself as an artist. For my whole life I get this incredible sense of happiness when I see an array of colours. Be it a hardware store in the paint department, a new box of Crayola crayons, a stack of construction paper, I am in bliss. While we were painting the ocean,  I would longingly looked at the gorgeous colours surrounding me and ask if we could use them. She patiently told me that in future projects we could pick any colours we wanted, but until that time, we needed to focus on the colours in the ocean. Whenever Helen and I would paint, we would talk about the most interesting things. I loved that she talked to me as a person where I felt my opinions and thoughts mattered, she treated me as if I had insightful views to offer. We would talk about the most mundane things that I thought were fascinating, I don’t know why this particular topic of conversation sticks out to me, but we talked about whether the taste of the tap water from the bathroom was different than the kitchen. Of course we both agreed that kitchen water was far superior, but we couldn’t really explain why.

One of my closest friends when I was growing up was (and is) an unbelievably talented artist. I used to be around her in this constant state of envy, she could draw and paint the most beautiful things. For the amount that I loved colour, it didn’t seem fair to me that I had no artistic ability. At the moment I finished my first painting with Helen I felt an incredible sense of pride, I had painted something recognizable, and it had some depth to it. I’m under no grand disillusion, Helen probably painted most of it, I mean I was nine; left to my own devices it would have looked like something a dog had accidentally walked across with paint.  We then moved onto other things, more tole painting based projects, which meant I could use as many of the different colours that I so desired. I picked out some wooden figures and painted them with whatever colour tickled my fancy, and Helen would help me put the nice finishing touches so that it would be a somewhat presentable item to show  to my parents when I’d bring them home (although to their credit they pretended to love everything I created). I loved the one on one time I had with this woman, as a chatty child (that’s an understatement), and as a curious one at that, it was amazing to me that I could sit with this woman once a week for an hour and a half, paint pretty things, and have enlightening conversations.

As per usual, something else came along and I abandoned oil painting. My school started offering after school ballroom dancing lessons, and my parents asked me to choose which one I wanted to do more. I chose dancing, and to this day I really don’t regret it, I was never a really good painter (to be fair, I was never a really good dancer either, but I enjoyed it so much more.)

I did go back to Helen a few years later. It was summer time, and I was one of those children that tried to her best ability to be independent. I was one of those kids that insisted on making her own sandwiches, cooking meals, and planning actively for the future. On the day I went back to Helen (I think I was ten at the time). I asked her for a summer job. Again, I can’t even imagine what Helen must have thought about me at that time, probably amused, but she did hire me. I basically, cleaned, dusted, sat to answer the phone and greeted any customers that came in. To be honest, it was pretty boring, and didn’t exactly fit into the working girl’s glamour that I initially imagined. However, I was paid for my work, I think it was a whole $10.00 a day at the time, and I was never prouder of the money I earned. During these days I would eat lunch with Helen and her husband Gary. Gary cut wood and so spent most of his hours (no matter the season) outdoors. We’d all sit inside the kitchen and have a little chat and eat lunch. It was the first time I’d ever seen the inside of Helen’s house. It was incredibly cozy, there were paintings everywhere, it really represented who Helen and Gary were as people. One day I remember going up to the attic of Helen’s house to help her bring down some things to put into the shop, and it was exactly the kind of attic you would see in a movie. It was pouring down rain, and I remember just falling absolutely in love with the place, I was too busy looking around, taking in every object. She asked me to stop and listen, and it was the first time I had ever noticed the sound the splendid sound rain can make on a roof. The summer came and went.

I didn’t see Helen again until probably a year later, she had hired me (and my best friend at the time, the same unbelievably talented artist I was referring to earlier) to help her during this community wide craft sale that took place over two weekends in October. I was unbelievably excited, and to be working with my best friend was obviously any  pre-teen’s dream. There was an artist working collaboratively with Helen and did metal work. It’s funny now to think that the same friend who was with me, now works with metal as a professional artist.We basically spoke to customers, cleaned up and served refreshments, and tried to stay out of the way, which again, pre-teens don’t tend to do very well at.

Helen looked different, her hair was shorter, and really patchy. She seemed to be thinner. She had cancer. I remember feeling really stunned by the casual way she had mentioned it. My friend didn’t seem too fazed because she had a few family members affected by cancer. However, Helen was the first person I had ever known to have cancer. I don’t remember the kind of cancer, but I knew that from the time I had previously known her to now, she looked and acted differently. I was profoundly worried those weekends I worked with her.

It was the last time I ever saw her. She died a year later. She was also the first person I had known that had died. I don’t know if this makes sense to you, but no one I had ever known, had died. I knew her, and then she was gone. It was difficult for me to wrap my mind around, but obviously, life carried on.

Eventually, the Helen’s Arts and Crafts Sign came down, Gary continued living there, and did wood cutting, but the store was no more.

Years passed, I still loved the arts, but didn’t pursue any visual mediums, I stuck with drama, and dancing, I eventually moved away from Halifax.

It wasn’t until about I was twenty four and living Fredericton that I decided to take on visual arts again. I saw this poster called “Let My Stick People Go”, a sketching class for beginners. The instructor was formally a high school teacher, and also had a Masters in Fine Arts. He was fantastic, and there were twelve other people in the class, of all ages, and all professions. It was at this point that I realized how mathematical art can be. I’ve always struggled with math, and it seemed to click why I’d always struggled with drawing, but I learned some things and carried on with his next class where he taught water colours.

I was sitting in my living room one night doing some art homework when I thought about Helen. It had always been a regret of mine that I never got to buy one of Helen’s paintings, it made me wonder if after all these years, were there any left to be purchased? I called Gary. I introduced myself and he remembered me, we chatted about what I was doing in Fredericton, and how he was doing. I inquired about the paintings, and he informed me they had all been divvied up among family shortly after she died. I assumed that would have been the case, but I told him I called just in case. He then told me the story of how he and Helen met. It was a cold, winter day in Halifax. They had both been skating at Chocolate Lake separately. Suddenly, Gary tripped on the ice and fell down, when he looked up, he saw a beautiful woman, to which she said to her group of friends:

“See ladies, I told you, men are constantly falling at my feet!”

She helped him up, they talked, they fell in love, they married. He said that never in his life did he expect to meet anyone who he loved in the way that he loved her. He also said he didn’t expect to again,

“If you find a person like that for you once in your life, then you should consider yourself lucky, because so many people don’t.”

I couldn’t believe this story. We spoke for a little while more, and then gave each other our best wishes. I felt a strange sense of closure I didn’t know I was looking for.

Now at 29, in England, I’ve given visual arts another go. There is this little shop at the bottom of the hill I walk down often. One day instead of passing by, I decided to walk in. It was this outdated, but lovely little shop full of lovely paintings. Inside was an outgoing, but kind older man who told me about his oil painting classes on Tuesday evenings, he asked if I would join, I told him to sign me up.

Tuesday evening came, and I walked in, supplies in hand, to this little room of about five other painters. I was the youngest there by about twenty years, they were so excited to have a new participant, especially a Canadian. My instructor and I picked out a picture, and I got to work. Again, I’m not a confident painter, but I loved all the colours, and figuring it out what I was going to do. I also love that, one of us will catch a glance of someone else’s painting, and everyone will take a little break to “ooh and ahh” over the work in progress. It’s an incredibly supportive and heartwarming group. I finished a painting, and am starting a new one. It’s my zen time. The instructor makes us all a cup of tea, puts it down beside us as we’re lost in thought. I don’t have to think about my job, expectations, or where I’m at in my life. I just take those two hours to mix, paint, and admire the work around me. Everyone is so different, but our reasons for painting are the same, to get immersed in something, just one thing, see what comes out of it, and momentarily leave the world behind.

How long will I be painting? I don’t know. Will something more interesting come along? Maybe.

What’s more  important at this point is that it reminds me that twenty years later, painting is still a pretty great way to end a day.

 

This is where I paint. This is where I paint.
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Palette and tea!

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First class.

Second class. Second class.

 

unnamed (1)2014-02-18 21.02.47

Third Class, finished painting, and the original picture.

unnamed New Picture I’m painting from.

 

unnamed (2)

First evening of new picture.

 

unnamed (3)

Second evening painting the picture.

 

Paintings of my classmates’, they’re beautiful!

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2014-02-18 21.34.43 My instructor’s work.

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2014-02-18 21.34.35 My instructor made an 8 ft. replica of the Titanic
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Here it is again, isn’t it incredible?

 

 

 

The Need to Read

When I was a child, I desperately wanted to be a librarian. Libraries were a huge part of my childhood existence. My father and I would often go to public libraries around Halifax, and in each one I would be overwhelmed at the excitement of what books I could choose. I would leave with no less than 10 novels at a time. While other children (my sister included) were out building forts, running around, exploring the woods, I would be happily sitting under a tree with my nose in a book.

When I went to University, I assumed that I was going to tackle my adolescent dream of becoming Prime Minister by taking Political Science. As It turns out, my childhood ambitions took over, and while I didn’t become a librarian, I became an English teacher instead. During the whole time I was trying to establish myself as teacher, I worked in a bookstore, which, I would say easily has been one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. I miss it dearly. My job aside from selling, was to help people find books to read.

Um, what?

My JOB was to help people to READ. Willingly.

“Can you help me find a book to read?”

“A book? How about a million books that will all change your life.”

While I really loved helping people find books to read, I was especially happy when I could finally get a reluctant reader to finally find a book they were somewhat interested in reading. Particularly children. Sometimes, I’d look over at the kids section, a family in tow, discussing how the child HAD to find a book to read, much to the child’s dismay.

“I hate reading”, the child would say.

This was my cue to saunter over causally, ‘tidying’ up books and asking if I could be of assistance.

Parents always looked at me with a huge HELP sign on their face, relieved they weren’t alone to find a book their child would refuse.

“What kind of things do you like?” would be my first question, directed at said child.

And we’d go from there. 9 times out of 10, I could get a kid to leave with a book that they and their parents would be somewhat happy with. The greatest feeling would be when that child would come back saying that they liked the book and if you could recommend anything else. Dream job.

Through this job, I met the most amazing teacher. He came in, I’m not exaggerating when I say, every second day. He’d come in, scour the new books, pick them up and buy them. It wasn’t until months later that I finally approached him about all the books he was buying. He had a classroom policy that if his kids wanted a certain book, he’d go and buy it, no questions asked. I heard this story and was amazed at the generosity of this teacher. To which he replied, “I try and read what they’re reading, our goal is to get every kid to read 40 books in a school year”. 40 books. And to top it all off, they actually did it.

Do you feel inspired? I certainly was.

When you work in a book store, you have access to almost any book you can imagine, and they want you to read books, so it was an oasis for bookworms like myself. I learned about books, I shared stories about books, I read my heart out.

Then, I became a full-time teacher in my very own classroom, where I get to talk to my students about books. It’s really easy for teachers to romanticize teaching moments. Especially me, I sometimes have a very airy fairy dream about how things will look, and I’m not going to lie to you, the reality can be crushing.

At my school there’s a reading program where students have to read a minimum of 15 books in one academic year. In comparison to Mr. 40 Books a Year, I thought it would be a walk in the park.

Turns out, I was real wrong.

Kids fought me tooth and nail. They would ‘pretend’ to read, ‘forget’ their books, not commit to a book, and complain to high heavens. These kids hated reading. Collectively, they were a huge non-reading posse who were dedicated to insisting to me they didn’t need to read, and there was nothing I could say to change their minds. To make matters worse, they were all picking out these 40 page little readers that were boring and that they hated. But it was an easy read, and if they “had” to read, they were going to pick the easiest, shortest way to get there.

So I did what I used to do, I sold books. Not literally of course, but during our library lesson once a week, I would take books I was familiar with and loved, and try and make a strong case as to why they should read it. Some just looked at the cover and said “Nope”. Some looked at the size of the book and asked me if I was crazy. Some took a chance on me and took the book out of my hand, either because they were interested or because they wanted me the hell out of their face. It didn’t matter, they had the book. Sometimes, I’d find these books left behind on the floor, sometimes on tables, sometimes put hastily back on the edge of a shelf, but SOMETIMES, I’d see that kid actually sign out that book. My heart would quietly soar.

It occurred to me one day when I watched kids trying to find books in the library that they didn’t know how to find a book.

“Guys”, I said to my class “you can’t just walk into a place full of books, pick out the first book you see and get out of there. It doesn’t work like that. If I picked out the first books I saw in a bookstore and tried to read it, I’d probably hate it.”

Then all the hands started shooting up.

“Do you finish every book you read? one student asked.

“Oh God, no”.

“Who’s your favourite author?” another asked

“Ooh that’s a tough one”

“What’s a Genre?” said a third student.

“How many people have never been to a library or bookstore outside of this school?” I asked my class.

90% of my class raised their hands. My eyes widened with absolute shock. Wowza.

“Okay, I’ll ask this question. If I was in a store or library, and I wanted to read a book, what could I do?”

We went from there. We talked about how you find books you want to read. How you talk to your friends and look for recommendations, how you look for things you’re interested in, how you stick with an authour or series because it’s tried and true. Things were buzzing in my classroom.

Slowly but surely my kids are reading real novels. That they finish, front to back. And to top it all off, they actually LIKE some of the books.

One afternoon, my class was absolutely silent during reading time. When it was over, I asked my class what the change was, what happened, why was it so quiet? To which one of my students replied,

“Well Miss, I like my book so much that I don’t really want to talk to anyone, I want to find out what happens”

“How many people actually like their book?”

All but two raised their hands, and then they begged me to let them keep reading, I almost died of pure happiness.

Another afternoon when we were in the school library, one of my students was picking out a tiny book based only on its’ size and nothing else, I said to him,

“Come on, let’s really find a book you want to read”.

“You don’t get it Miss, you read like 500 books a day.”

I don’t think I need to clarify here that I don’t read 500 books a day, because I don’t. However, his comment really hit me hard because…

I haven’t read ONE book since I arrived on this continent.

Not. One. Book.

The hypocrisy of this is overwhelmingly apparent. I, an English teacher, lover and chronic pusher of literature, haven’t read one book since I was on the airplane on my way over here. I had lots of valid excuses as to why I hadn’t been reading. It’s my first year full-time teaching, I work a minimum of 60 hours a week with over a hundred students, I’m so brain-dead when I finally get home that I can barely string together a sentence, let alone absorb a page from a novel.

But these excuses didn’t sit right with me. So, two weeks ago, I decided to come clean to my classes. I told them the truth. Some of them gave me a hard time about it, but surprisingly, they were all pretty forgiving. So I made a deal with them. I asked them to ask me if I was reading my book.

“Class, everyday I want you to ask me if I’ve been reading my book, can you make that deal with me?”

They all eagerly nodded their heads. You see, when a student looks at you and asks you a question, you want to be able to tell them the truth. I knew it would hold me accountable, I wasn’t going to lie to my students. I had to tell them that “Yes, I read my book”, or “No, I didn’t read my book”. I knew which answer I wanted to give them.

The first time a student asked me the daily question my answer was:

“Well…I had it open, but I fell asleep with it on my chest”

To which that darling child said

“Well, at least you tried Miss.”

My heart almost broke at how lovely that comment was. It’s been motivating to say the least. I’m still only reading a pittance, but at least I’m reading again. It’s helped me to remember how involved reading is, how much it grabs you, but also how present you have to make yourself. So now, when I’m pushing some of my straggling reluctant readers to get on the literacy train, I stop and think to myself, “monkey see, monkey do”.

And then I remind myself, “Did you read last night Lill?”

 

A Show of Talent

“Curb Your Enthusiasm”, and “The Office” are among some of my favourite television shows of all time. From time to time I will engage in conversation with some people who can’t watch these shows. I use the word “can’t” very purposefully here, some people are unable to watch these shows because of the awkwardness of human interaction demonstrated. It makes certain viewers too uncomfortable to be able watch it. While I don’t agree with their rationale towards the shows, I do understand feeling this same uncomfortable feeling when watching the awkwardness associated with Talent Shows.

I hate Talent Shows.

There, I said it.

As a person that works with young people a lot, talent shows are a big part of social entertainment organised for them. I understand the premise, I really do. People are talented in ways that might surprise you, it’s good to discover these talents in an organised fashion where people really get to show their stuff. Here’s where the problem lies, some people don’t have stuff to show. I’m sure some of you are thinking about how bad of a person I am, but before you judge, can I describe a scenario for you? A shy, nervous, young person gets their folded, faded, piece of paper out, with a poem, they wrote, or worse, a song. Not only does this person share their lyrics, it’s goes even further. They sing. Even describing this scenario to you is making me feel sick to my stomach right now. That shy person, alone, standing up there in front of their peers, shakily holding that piece of paper, and singing their little heart out, and it sounds awful.

Is there beauty in this moment? Sure. Is there character building potential here? Absolutely. Is it cringe-worthy if it doesn’t go well? Without a doubt.

It’s that moment when the song is a little too intense, the singing a little too off-key, the person a little too vulnerable. As a person who basically just wants to scoop people up in my arms and prevent them from any kind of judgement, it’s all too much for me. I want to bury my face in my hands, and try not to throw up. The slightest whispering of people, I snap my head around, trying to suss out the potential meaness. To the human race’s credit, most people are unfailingly kind and supportive, which really is amazing. Sometimes though, because I have a tendency to make some amazingly good eye-contact, I’ll beam out a smile and clap so loudly that their eyes are on me, and then suddenly, they might think, “man, I’m incredible! I should think about doing this forever!”

This is the tricky line between general human support and being dishonest about someone’s actual talent. Again, it’s a notion that makes me feel endlessly conflicted.

Now you might think to yourself, what’s the harm? They’re only seven, or twelve, let ’em live.

Sure, but let me introduce you to the Talent Shows of Adulthood, i.e. Open Mike Night, and Karaoke.

Let’s get something straight. There are genuinely talented or personable people that grace the microphones at these events, I know a few of these people. They’re a joy to listen to, they’re really fun to watch and they can really get a crowd going. Once in a while though, you’ll get this one person that’s announced as a ‘newbie”. This person waiting off stage, giving themselves a mini pep-talk. They walk up slowly to the mike, and…

Yes, sometimes you get Susan Boyle. Sometimes (most-times) you get the person who’s been singing in the bathroom mirror for weeks on end and they finally decide to take the plunge. People are oh-so polite, but sometimes that’s even worse, because the air gets to be a little too quiet and they’re overly focused. Have you ever been in a room where you can’t make eye contact with anyone else at the risk of chortling out a laugh, because doing so means you’re acknowledging how bad, terrible or funny it really is? That makes for the longest four minutes of your life. Particularly if they’re wearing a cute, pre-planned outfit, they have dance moves, or they have another song lined up. Again, it makes me feel so uncomfortable, I just want to pull a scarf over my face.

On rare occasions, you’ll just get a person that’s not particularly good, but is pretty endearing. On others, you’ll get a person that doesn’t give a damn about their performance, but just wants to be up in front of people. This makes me think of a past camper, let’s call her Emily. On the Talent Show Board at camp where you sign up to put your talents she put “Cartwheels and Goose Calls” Emily was about eight years old. I was confused, was this code for something?

On the night of the talent show, when her name was called up, she walked up and took her stance. What do you think she did? She did a cartwheel, followed by a loud goose call. I’ve never laughed so hard in my life, and I was joined by every other person in that audience. To this day, I don’t know if she ever intended for anyone to actually laugh, it might have actually been a serious routine. I really think those were the two biggest talents she had to offer, so she put them together. Everyone laughed, she seemed unfazed, and she cartwheeled and goose called away.

I didn’t even have time to worry because of how entertained I was by her, how we all were.

So…I take some of it back. Maybe there is something to Talent Shows after all.

I know this post should be about London, and trust me there are some posts about London coming up. However, this post was sparked by a friend’s question on Facebook, asking: “what is the nicest thing a stranger has ever done for you?” This took me back on a walk through memory lane. Close friends of mine will have heard this story, but I thought writing it down would give due credit to the kind lady who really helped me out one crazy night in NYC.

This story involves my old roommate K. I was staffing an international summer camp that required me to go for training in Washington D.C. My lovely roommate’s boyfriend (now husband) lived in Connecticut at the time, and so we decided that we would drive down together so that I could attend training, and that she could visit her boyfriend. To say that it was under-planned trip would probably be one of the biggest understatements of all time.

K is one of the most solid, well organized, and reliable people that I know. Somehow, she ended up all the way up in Fredericton, New Brunswick to attend University at the same place as me. To this day, I still don’t really understand how she ended up there, but I’m so glad for our friendship’s sake that she did.

Our Easter road trip took place in April 2007. Something else you should know about my past roommate K, is that she’s from the Bahamas. This factors into the story for two reasons. The first being that because I don’t drive, (read past post: “Dude Where’s My Car?”) meaning that K stepped up like a champ and agreed to drive. Being from the Bahamas means that K had never driven on a highway, or on the right hand side of the road. It also means that she’d never driven through snow, or a blizzard for that matter. That is until, April, 2007. I don’t know why we didn’t check the weather, or maybe we did, and threw stupidly young caution to the wind anyways, but K started our road trip almost immediately by driving through a horrendously bad snowstorm in Maine. Even a seasoned pro would have had an extremely difficult time, but this little Bahama Mama drove through like a pro. We then moved onto five lane highways, driving through construction and through Boston’s rush hour traffic. This was all within a few hours. Miraculously we made it to Connecticut where we would continue our journey to Washington in the morning.

Driving to Washington took a little longer than we thought, but with the beautiful weather, and with K’s boyfriend driving, the pace was a little more relaxed and leisurely. I was dropped off, and had a great weekend. At the end of the weekend K calls me Monday morning, and asks if I can take a bus to meet her in NYC which is halfway between our two points, I agreed to this logic and planned to meet her in the East end of NYC at midnight later on that day.

Upon arriving at one of the Greyhound bus stations in Washington, I was struck with two problems. The first being that with all the business of training, I forgot to charge my cell phone. The second was my luggage. Now, I would just like to take a bit to explain my luggage. People travel really differently by car than they do by bus. We had traveled down with our rental car, so I brought EVERYTHING. I brought a small suitcase, a sleeping bag, a comforter, two pillows, a backpack, a laptop bag, and my purse. This is what I loaded onto the bus, like an amateur prima donna, much to everyone’s dismay. As I sat on the bus, heading up North, I started to have a feeling of dread. My cell phone was slowly beeping its’ way to death. I watched as it blinked sadly, and I prayed that K would be in the location that we previously agreed on. We pulled into a dark parking lot in an area of the city I had never been. This was before smart phones existed, so I couldn’t have Googled where I was, and even if I had one, it would have been dead, as earlier indicated. The overhead announcement came on and notified us that we were in the West end of the city. My heart sank, and my stomach filled with a quiet panic. Unsure of what else to do, I put on my coat, my backpack, and started getting my stuff together. In the hustle and bustle, I got one of my mittens on a string, caught in my backpack. The bus driver looked at me like I was a 9 year old girl, helped me to untangle myself, and asked me if I was alright.

“Yep!” I said bravely, even though I’m sure he knew I was lying, and I headed inside the station.

Walking through that station was one of the only few times in my life where homeless people looked at me with a great deal of pity. Some of them even asked if they could help me. Imagine if you will, a 22 year old, with a jacket with mittens on a string, with a backpack and sleeping bag tied to it, a laptop bag, purse, on my back. While carrying two pillows and a comforter with one arm, and pulling along a suitcase on wheels behind me. It was a pathetic image indeed.

I stood in the station, having no idea where I was, no idea where I was going, and no idea of how I was going to get there. I looked around and saw the subway station signs pointing to my right, so I turned around and headed towards it. I got to the ticket booth, and peeked up over my comforter and blanket, asking the woman if she could give me a ticket Eastward. She sat there chewing her bubblegum loudly, with large hoop earrings, her long 90’s style hairsprayed heavily to her head, looking at me, unimpressed. She pressed the microphone to speak to me through the bullet-proof glass.

“Where you goin’ ?” She says in a heavy New York accent, looking at me bizarrely with all of my things.

I say casually, “Um, to the East side, to meet my ride.”

She looks me up and down, and looks at my stuff, shaking her head.

“Uh, no you ain’t. You call your ride and you tell ’em to meet chu here”

“I…I can’t. My phone is dead.”

“Honey” she says as she reached for her flip phone, and slides it under the glass to me, her long fake fingernails clicking on the counter,  “you call whomever you gots to call to get you outta here.”

I sigh heavily, and look at her, and say

“I’m Canadian, I can’t call because it would be long distance. Oh, and because the number I need to call is in my phone, which is dead.”

“Honey”, she says again in her flat tone,, “You call as many people as you gotta, you do what you need to do”.

Gratefully, I take the phone, and quickly dial my other roommate L (who’s at our house in Canada). It’s about 1 am there, and I hear a groggy voice pick up the phone,

“Hello?”

“Hello! L, it’s Lill, look I don’t have time to explain, but can you give me K’s number?”

“Aren’t you supposed to be with K?” she says confused and worried.

“Yes, it’s a long story, that I promise I’ll explain, but not now” (not wanting to rack up this phone bill any more than I have to)

L gives me the number I need and I quickly end the phone call.

I frantically dial K’s number, and she picks up

“K!? I’m on the West side! And I don’t know how to get you!”

“I’m on the West Side!”

“You are?! We’re both on the West side?!” I say with pure joy. The toll operator overhears this and presses the microphone, and says,

“Ask  her where she is”

K gives me directions that I don’t understand I write them down on my hand, reading out the directions to the woman, she’s nodding, saying,

“You’re real close”.

“I’m close!” I say back excitedly to K.

We quickly confirm the directions and I hang up. I thank the woman profusely, and she tells me to come back if I have any problems, and I’m on my way.

I’m on my way up on the streets of NY, with all my belongings in tow, like I’m ready to move there. I quietly slip behind these men who are loudly rapping lyrics in front of me. A whole line of them, impossible for me to slip past, so I hang back, trying to look casual, while also trying to see where I’m going. I walk in fear of not wanting to get mugged, listening to some of the most misogynistic lyrics I’ve ever heard, and somehow laughing to myself at how hilarious this whole situation was.

When I saw that white rental car, my heart leapt into my chest, and I’ve never felt such a mix of happiness and relief. I slip into the car, thanking K profusely, telling her about my escapades in getting to her. To finish off the craziness of our driving adventure, K drives through downtown NYC, and makes it out alive and all of us in one piece. Blizzard, Rush Hour, Five lane Highways, Construction, and NYC, she’s done it all in one weekend. She’s a North American Driving Professional.

As we drove back to Canada, I couldn’t help but think about that woman at the toll booth.If it wasn’t for her, I would have ended up God knows where. I cringe to think about how differently my night might have been. Sometimes, when people complain about how there aren’t any good people anymore, I think about that woman in NYC. My friend’s dad once said,

“You should never let fear stop you from from helping people”.

I see kindness between family, co-workers and friends, thankfully, so often. However, there’s in someways, a greater beauty when a stranger acts out of kindness,  and in a way, a truer sense of generosity. On that day, a stranger, in one of the biggest cities in the world, handed over one of her most important possessions to me, and paid who knows how much for my random long distance phone calls. For no other reason than wanting me to get home safely. For that I will always be amazed and endlessly grateful.

Thank you.

London Calling

I live in England now.

Today marks two months since I made the trek across the pond at the end of August, and I must say I’m settling in nicely. I’m always amazed at how adaptable humans are, I live in a new community, with new people (with some old familiar faces), and a new job. The time I lived in Saskatchewan and the time I’ve lived here seem to have rolled over seamlessly and comfortably, which sometimes leaves me feeling bewildered if I think about it for too long.

I stick out, not necessarily meaning to, but wherever I go, my accent is sure to follow. In London, most people seem very unconcerned with it, but living in a little town, I am often stopped to ask if I’m American, I correct them by telling them that I’m Canadian, to which there is usually a smile, or some kind of other exchange about how they have family there, they either want to or have visited there, or that they might have guessed my accent was Canadian because it sounds softer than the other American accents they’re more familiar with from T.V. For example. I was in Lush when one of the employees came up to me:

“Are you American?”

“No, I’m Canadian”

“Ah, I should have guessed, you don’t sound like the people I listen to on CSI, I love CSI, don’t you?”

“To be honest, I’ve never seen it”

She has a shocked look on her face, and then proceeds to tell me about CSI.

When I first arrived here, I grabbed a cab and the cab driver assumed right away that I was Canadian, and when I asked how he came to that conclusion he responded by saying:

“Well, I find if I assume people are American, people get offended, but if I assume everyone with a North American accent is a Canadian, Canadians feel welcomed, and Americans feel flattered”.

I found this to be an interesting statement, but because I was jet-lagged and in a new country, I thought pushing this discussion piece would be best done at another time (if it ever came).

Moving to another country tends to test your common sense skills. Simple things you take for granted doing everyday, are now time consuming tasks that often leave you feeling humbled. During my first week here, I was kindly invited to stay with some other Canadians that had already been established here, so that I wouldn’t have to stay at my flat while I was waiting for my other Canadian roommates to arrive. They were gone one morning, and I needed to make a British phone call. This seemed like a simple task, but I soon found out it wasn’t. I had not yet set up my cell phone, and so I had this portable phone in my hand and every time I dialed different variations of numbers, the end result was the same, I wasn’t able to call who I needed. I then did the only thing I could think of doing, I went to the streets. I flagged down this lovely older couple who were visiting their grand children.

“Excuse me, can you help me?” (holding a portable phone)

“Uh, sure?” (says the older man)

“How do I call people here?” (handing him over the phone with a little piece of paper)

“Aren’t from around here?” (says the older man)

“No” (I just moved here two days ago)

He stands there fiddling with the phone.

“We’re not from around here either, so I’m not sure if we can help you” (says his wife)

“No, but we’re from England dear, surely we know how to dial a phone!” (he says to his wife)

He tries several times to no avail, even the man from Britain can’t dial the phone. He apologizes profusely going back along his way, and while I am so grateful for this help, I literally have no way to call this number. I stand on the front stoop of the house, staring at this phone, using every brain cell that is available to me, trying to figure out a solution. I then see the older gentleman running back towards me, yelling,

“Dial 0 before the number!”

I frantically dial the 0 and then the rest of the number, holding the phone to my ear waiting anxiously, the man staring at me, his eyes wide with expectation, I stand there waiting for the sound of ringing…and then I heard it! I don’t think I’ve ever grinned so hard in my life.

“It worked! It’s ringing!” I yell out to the man high-fiving him, thanking him profusely. He grins in return running back to his wife, she’s giving me the thumbs up from a distance.

It’s all in the little things.

That’s just one example of the many little frustrations and triumphs I’ve had living in this country. When people ask about the differences, they’re so subtle, they’re often difficult to explain, Canada and England are so similar but yet so different. Getting a bank card feels like a small victory, grocery shopping for the first time feels like one of the most mind boggling things I’ve ever done, and things like getting a GP are an ongoing process.

I live in a place called Dartford which is a town about 30 minutes outside of London by train. For a while I had very little to compare Dartford to aside from London (and is anything really comparable to London?), and it seems clearer to me now that Dartford differs from other towns I’ve been to in terms of its’ socio-economic standing. From the locals that I’ve been lucky enough to interact with, it seems that Dartford has taken a bit of a fall over the last thirty years or so. I’m not sure why, or if  that’s purely nostalgia from people who remember things differently, or if Dartford was indeed another kind of place. But it does seem to have a bit of a melancholic vibe, I’m not sure if that`s because it’s cloudy 90% of the time here, or if it’s something else. It does not have the hustle and bustle of other towns I’ve visited, it’s got a quieter feel, which I must say can be quite comforting after getting off the train, walking along the little river up the hill back to my part of the world.

So, how do I sum up my first two months here? It hasn’t been perfect, but I’m meeting wonderful people, seeing/experiencing lovely things and working in a job that challenges me in ways I’ve needed for a long time. With all things considered, I think I’m doing pretty well.

Image

 

These are vacuum cleaners that they use here in the UK that are absolutely adorable. They use them at the school I work at, and when I was gushing about adorable they were, I was told they had a female counterpart, a pink vacuum named “Hetty”, I nearly died laughing because it was so ridiculous.

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There are snails everywhere,

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View from my backyard

Some Bansky found at Notting Hill

Some Bansky found at Notting Hill

 

George Orwell at Notting Hill.

George Orwell at Notting Hill.

Local Pub (although strangely, I haven't been in it yet.)

Local Pub (although strangely, I haven’t been in it yet.)

Really beautiful park by my house that has this great view of the town. However what makes it even more unique is that there are gravestones all along the perimeter of the park, but it's not considered to be a cemetery.

Really beautiful park by my house that has this great view of the town. However what makes it even more unique is that there are gravestones all along the perimeter of the park, but it’s not considered to be a cemetery.

 

Some of the headstones in the park.

Some of the headstones in the park.

 

Super cute, "Little Queen St."

Super cute, “Little Queen St.”

 

River shot by my house.

River shot by my house.

 

Dartford Saturday Farmers Market. I love going here because stall owners yell back and forth to each other and call out deals to customers, it's a great experience.

Dartford Saturday Farmers Market. I love going here because stall owners yell back and forth to each other and call out deals to customers, it’s a great experience.

 

My street.

My street.

 

One of the houses I pass by on my walk home.

One of the houses I pass by on my walk home.

 

Another house I pass by on my walk home.

Another house I pass by on my walk home.

 

My tap, I love how it tells me the date it was made on the top part of each faucet.

My tap, I love how it tells me the date it was made on the top part of each faucet.

 

Self explanatory.

Self explanatory.

 

Greenwich

Greenwich

 

View of London from the top of Greenwich.

View of London from the top of Greenwich.

 

Big Ben.

Big Ben.

 

2013-09-14 16.24.552013-09-14 16.25.322013-09-14 16.28.12   All different views of Westminster Abbey, the tourist attraction I probably want to see the most, but I didn’t make it there in time to go inside.

A very blurry look at London Bridge lighting up when it is about to open for ships coming through.

A very blurry look at London Bridge lighting up when it is about to open for ships coming through.