Tag Archives: education

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The Rainy Season: “this is our life, but we do not give up”

An excerpt from The Rainy Season, by Tucker Elliot

28

I’m not sure who was more relieved—Soukpa, that I was in Laos, or me, that Soukpa was dressed in jeans and a nondescript blouse instead of the traditional skirt and blouse that she’d worn every day in Jakarta. I clasped my hands in front of my face and bowed. “Hello, Sabaidee. It’s good to see you again, Soukpa.”

Soukpa said, “I really happy you come Laos.” Eel-lee.

“Is this your brother?” A young man stood beside her, and if not for the age difference—Soukpa was mid-twenties, he was mid-teens—then he could have been Soukpa’s twin.

“My boy brother.”

He offered a strong grip and we shook hands.

Soukpa laughed and held her hands about two feet apart. “His name more than your student. I think you call him Pete. Is easy for you.”

Pete’s head was shaved. Maybe he was going to be a monk. I shrugged and said, “Okay, Pete. Nice to meet you.”

Pete wore jeans, tee shirt, and sandals. He smiled and said, “No English.”

“Me no Lao,” I said back, and we all laughed.

“You have more bag?” Soukpa asked.

I had my backpack and the carry-on size suitcase-on-wheels. The duffel bag was in a locker inside Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport. “No, this is everything.”

Soukpa cinched a plastic trash bag around my suitcase. “It rain soon.”

I thought, soon? I was nearly drenched just from standing on the tarmac. I smiled and said, “Khawp jai deuh.”

Soukpa made a big O with her mouth. “So good!”

“Well, that’s all I remember. Hello and thank you.”

Soukpa cinched a second trash bag around my backpack. “I teach you more okay?”

“Sure. I’ll try to learn.”

Soukpa gave my backpack to Pete. “We go now.”

The arrivals hall was empty and quiet. No placard conventions in Pakse. Pete lugged both my bags, and I felt naked without my backpack. Just saying. The parking lot in front of the airport was also empty. A lone tuk-tuk was curbside with its driver asleep in the back, and I didn’t see any taxis. The sky was gray and a steady rain fell. I told Soukpa, “Thanks for picking me up. I hope you didn’t have to wait long.”

Soukpa smiled, but said nothing.

I was curious though. “When did you arrive in Pakse?”

“I worry it heavy rain so we come early.”

“You got here this morning?”

Soukpa shook her head. “Three day ago, after Indira call and say you will fly Pakse.”

Three days ago?

Three days ago I was planning painful deaths for Wallach and Mandiri. Three days ago I went to the Monas with Indira’s students. Three days ago … I gave Irma a piece of paper to give to Indira.

Was Indira’s faith really that strong?

I thought, maybe.

Probably.

Yes.

Soukpa’s motorbike was a black Honda. It had a few dings, but it was a Bentley compared with Pete’s bike-with-a-motor. Pete’s bike had a large frame—like an adult ten-speed—but his pedals were missing, and in their place was a two-cycle motor with just enough juice to trim your hedges. The motor and wheels were connected by two well-used fan belts. A sheet of corrugated aluminum was welded to the frame above the rear wheel. It made a platform that was handy for transporting items like my backpack and suitcase-on-wheels. Pete used twine to secure everything and then yanked the pull cord to start his engine. It took Pete a good three or four yanks before the engine coughed and spit its way to life.

I gave Soukpa my best “this is normal” face.

Soukpa gave an embarrassed smile in reply. “Sorry.”

“It’s actually kind of cool.”

Soukpa lifted the seat on her Honda and pulled a light jacket from the storage area underneath. “You will see more like it. I think you will be surprise what you will see in my country.” Soo-pies.

“Pakse is a lot quieter than Jakarta.”

Soukpa laughed, Indira-esque. “I almost die when I see Jakarta airport. Oh I feel so scare. I never see life so big. I never see many people or hear loud city. You will not find it here. Lao people are quiet. I think you like it here.”

I nodded and said truthfully, “It sounds great.”

Soukpa had the jacket on now, along with white cotton gloves and a cloth mask that covered her mouth and nose. “You ride with me okay?”

I thought, as if Pete’s bike is really an option…

I said, “Okay.”

Soukpa secured her helmet and asked, “You ready?” Her eyes were big and alive, and her voice was filled with excitement—the way she had been on the train to Bogor, as if this was a big adventure.

“I’m ready, but where are your bags?”

“Sorry?”

“You came three days ago. Where’s your stuff?”

“Oh, here.” Soukpa indicated the storage area beneath her seat. “Okay?”

I straddled the seat behind Soukpa. “Okay, let’s go.”

Soukpa sped onto the main road. Pete puttered along in our wake. The rain fell with slightly more urgency and the wind buffeted Soukpa’s jacket. In the distance I glimpsed the Mekong, and I thought about my dad. Maybe this felt like a big adventure, but in reality it was a struggle between life and death that began beside this same river more than four decades ago. Maybe it would end here as well.

The asphalt road gave way to red clay and we could have been in rural Georgia if not for the rice paddies and nón lá hats made famous by Vietnamese farmers and now ubiquitous to Southeast Asia. We shared the road with peasant farmers who used tractors to pull flatbed trailers piled high with fruits and vegetables. An open-air bongo truck filled with women and children sped past, going in the opposite direction, and I spun to take a second look because I didn’t believe it was possible to fit so many people into one vehicle.

“You okay?” Soukpa asked.

“Fine.”

“Hungry?”

I hadn’t eaten a full meal since yesterday afternoon with Indira’s family. “Yes, a little.” Up ahead was a roadside canopy with wooden tables, plastic lawn chairs and a fire pit. A few older women stood in the road and waved meat skewers at passing vehicles. No one seemed bothered by the rain. Fast food, Lao-style. “What are they selling?”

Soukpa began to slow the motorbike. “Meat.”

Well, okay…

Soukpa’s lack of specificity was a bit troublesome. I thought, chicken, beef, pork? Mystery meat? I said, “Maybe I can wait.”

“You sure? Can buy if you need.”

I noticed a man tending the fire pit. He was also urinating. I said, “It’s okay. I’m not that hungry.”

Soukpa sped up. “We almost there. Can buy food beside river.”

A few minutes later Soukpa left the main road and we began to bounce along a poorly grated clay and gravel secondary road. It led to an elevated berm with tall, wispy reeds, wild grass … and the Mekong.

“Here is river. We go boat now.”

There was a staggering amount of commerce taking place. A wooden U-shaped quay jutted into the river and tied alongside it were dozens of boats—square heads, freighters, fishing—and nearly all resembled the traditional wooden boats synonymous with French Indochina. A dozen smaller, flat-bottomed canoes with long-tail outboards cut swiftly through the Mekong’s turbulent current. As we got closer, I noticed little kids were piloting many of the canoes. A market of sorts was set up alongside the river. A lot of cargo was being carried back and forth between boats and bongo trucks.

Soukpa barely slowed.

She navigated through a crowd of people, down a steep embankment, and then eased the motorbike onto the quay. A freighter was moored at the far end. It might have been twenty meters long—about sixty feet. A wooden plank about fifteen feet long and maybe two feet wide led from the quay onto the freighter’s aft deck.

“Hold on.”

I thought, what else would I be doing? I could already picture us on YouTube. We would definitely go viral. Maybe even earn a Tosh.0 Web Redemption.

Soukpa accelerated…

Halfway across the plank began to sag. In front of us the freighter began to roll with the current. Or maybe it had been rolling already. I wasn’t sure, but I was a little worried. I glanced down, but I barely glimpsed the water because by then we were safely aboard the freighter.

Soukpa said, “I go pay.”

Soukpa climbed from the motorbike and made her way to an enclosed cabin where the ship’s crew was conducting its business. I took a deep breath and began to look for some shelter. A moment later Pete caught up to us. It sounded like he was riding a Weed Eater. He never hesitated, just drove right up the plank. I cringed, because my backpack held all my electronics … but Pete and my luggage arrived safely on the deck. I told him, “Different way of life.”

He smiled. “No English.”

Soukpa came back and I could tell something was wrong. “You okay?”

“I so sorry.”

“What?”

“It rain soon.”

I laughed. “It’s been raining this whole time.”

Soukpa shook her head. “It rain soon. Cannot take boat today. I so sorry.”

“What should we do then?”

“We find guesthouse okay?”

“It’s fine. Don’t worry.”

Soukpa and Pete had a brief conversation and then we made our way back across the plank and onto the quay. A fast-minute later we were on the main road toward Pakse. I could see buildings ahead in the distance. I thought, a kilometer, give or take. Maybe three minutes on Soukpa’s motorbike. A steady rain had been falling, but now the sky had different plans. A brilliant cascade of electricity lit up the distant horizon. Fiery red streaks fell from the heavens and shook the earth. A far-reaching arc lit into a magnificent shade of blue as it danced across the Mekong’s turbulent waters. The sky had been gray, but now it shone brilliantly in reds, blues and pinks until finally, and suddenly … everything went dark. The world around us was eerily quiet, and ominous. It stayed that way for an exceptionally long beat. After which it began to rain.

29 

The Mekong itself could not have been more turbulent than the waters that flooded the road. Its clay surface was pulverized by raindrops the size of cherry bombs that fell with devastating velocity. If I had blasted the clay pointblank with a shotgun, that’s the image you need to understand how intensely the rain assaulted the earth. A streak of lightning gave us a reprieve from the darkness. It was reddish-orange, and close by, and the thunder chasing after it shook the whole world around us.

In that brief moment of light, I could see Pakse, maybe a hundred meters ahead … but I also noticed the water had nowhere to go—

“Soukpa, watch out!”

—and it swelled and gathered strength until it had only one option left: the water cascaded violently toward us and I feared we would be swept into the river and never be found or seen again. Soukpa struggled mightily to remain upright as the motorbike shuddered and its engine quit. In a matter of seconds the road had been transformed into a riverbed. My feet were under water. In fact the water was halfway to my knees. Soukpa desperately tried to restart the engine. It whined and spewed a mix of smoke and water. But it didn’t start. I quickly climbed from the motorbike and grabbed hold of its frame. I planted my feet in a wide, strong base, and lifted until the engine was fully clear of the water.

I said, “Try it now.”

Soukpa flipped the key and the engine sputtered to life. It raced for a quick three-count, and then it died again.

My feet began to slip, and I was losing my grip. “Hurry!”

Soukpa flipped the key a second time. The engine clicked, but wouldn’t start. She flipped the key one last time. Nothing at all. Soukpa jumped from the bike and we began to push it furiously against the oncoming and rapidly rising deluge. Soukpa glanced anxiously behind us. I did too. No sign of Pete. For ten long minutes we trudged toward Pakse. Maybe one hundred meters. For sure the slowest time anyone has ever run a hundred-meter race. And believe me, it was a race. The storm gave no sign it was abating.

Soukpa said, “You see tourist hotel?”

Ahead and to our right was a modern western-style hotel. It had a circular drive and a covered area for curbside drop-offs. “I see it.”

Soukpa and I began to push harder, but I don’t think we went any faster. All we did was breathe heavier. But at last we made it to the circular drive and higher ground. A slow-minute after that and we were safe beneath the front portico. Soukpa secured her helmet and motorbike and immediately went back into the storm.

“Soukpa, wait. Call Pete’s cell before you go back out there.”

Soukpa shook her head and kept walking. “He no have phone.”

I left my Birkenstocks on the sidewalk and peeled off my ruined socks, and then I chased after Soukpa.

The earth beneath my feet and a violent storm were not new experiences—after all, I grew up outside and barefoot in rural Florida with sixty lakes, forty churches, a solitary stoplight and a devastating hurricane season … and after surviving adolescence I’d gone to college in Oklahoma where new student orientation included a session called “Sirens & Shelters.”

And yet I was unprepared for Pakse.

It was difficult to see more than a few feet in any direction. The water stirred the clay, and as it flowed relentlessly through the streets it was shockingly cold and disturbingly blood red.

“Soukpa? I won’t be able to see you if you don’t slow down.”

“Please go more fast.”

“I can’t see anything and the electricity is out in these buildings. If there’s a live power line in the road, we’re dead. If there’s a curve in the road and we walk into the river, we’re dead.”

“Please.” Peas.

We trudged onward as debris raced by and brushed against our legs. I had a few thoughts about rats, diseases and tetanus. But mostly I thought about the Mekong, and how its muddy water had been blood red many times in the past. Soukpa began to shout something incomprehensible. It sounded about two feet long, and must have been Pete’s given name. No response. We came across a bongo truck stuck in the road. Three men sat in the cab—one was asleep, and the other two were smoking cigarettes—but the open-air bed was filled with women and children. Lao-style, perhaps. Though I didn’t see any better options. Soukpa spoke with a woman, but seemed discouraged by what she heard. No one else had seen Pete either. We came across an abandoned motorbike. No sign of its driver. The motorbike was on its side, and like a mighty boulder it made the muddy floodwaters into rapids. We left it untouched, and trudged onward. The rain fell in blinding sheets. I had no sense of time or distance, and no bearing for the road or hotel—and yet the river had a presence all its own. It was just out of reach, a few steps into the darkness.

Soukpa yelled her brother’s name.

No response.

An onslaught of debris pummeled my legs. Soukpa yelled some more. Then in the blood red waters we came across a bike. It was built like an adult ten-speed but without any pedals. It had a platform made with corrugated aluminum and a long strand of twine was twisting in its rapids.

Soukpa was seized with panic.

She yelled her brother’s name again, and again, and again.

Ahead in the distance a wispy shape took form. Pete emerged from the storm. He was lugging my backpack above one shoulder and my suitcase-on-wheels above the other. He waded toward us, against the current.

I lifted Pete’s bike.

We secured my luggage once more on the platform, and the three of us began to push.

30

The tourist hotel had a generator and its lobby was our lighthouse. It was surrounded by darkness, and water. My shoulders ached and my lungs burned. I had a rip in my jeans but no idea what caused it. My feet had a thousand cuts and scrapes and the rain beat against my face with such ferocity that I could not look skyward.

The world lit up again.

For a brief moment I could see Soukpa’s face. It was remarkably passive. We trudged onward, through a blood red river that should have been a road. I don’t know how long it took us to reach the hotel for the second time, but when we finally made it beneath the front portico I felt like collapsing onto the sidewalk beside my Birkenstocks. I shivered, and my legs and feet were numb.

“You are okay?” Soukpa asked.

I doubled over, hands on my knees. “I think so. You?”

Soukpa shrugged. “This is our life.”

When I asked the desk clerk for two rooms, Soukpa said, “We no have money. You stay here. We go guesthouse okay? Is more cheap.”

“Wallach is paying for it,” I lied.

Soukpa hesitated a beat. “It is okay?”

“One hundred percent.”

“Khawp jai deuh.” For lying and the room.

“How do I say you’re welcome in Lao?”

Soukpa laughed. “We say it bo-ben-nyung. It mean everything is good.”

“Bo-ben-nyung? It’s all good?”

Soukpa nodded. “It is Lao-style, our life. Bo-ben-nyung. Everything is good.”

“I like that. I’ll try to remember it.”

The rain was steady now—more melancholy than violent—and the sky had lightened considerably. Pete was on mechanic duty beneath the front portico. He had borrowed some tools and was tinkering with Soukpa’s motorbike, but so far the engine had made a few clicks but was steadfastly refusing to start. A group of men had gathered around to watch him work. They didn’t look like hotel staff or guests. I had no idea where they came from, but the scene was reminiscent of Jakarta. How many Indonesian men does it take to park a van?

“Is Pete going to be okay?” I asked.

“He fine.”

“You rely on the motorbikes for a lot, don’t you?”

“For everything.”

“Pete looks frustrated. What will you do if he can’t fix it?”

Soukpa spoke confidently, “He will not give up.”

“I’d offer to help but…”

Soukpa laughed. “I think he have too much help already.”

“Is he good at fixing things?”

“It is his job in our village. Do not worry okay?”

“My grandfather was a great mechanic. He knew everything about engines.”

“He teach you?” Soukpa asked.

“He taught a lot of people—my mom and uncles, my brothers and cousins—and he even taught auto mechanics to high school students. He tried to teach me, but I never learned. My grandfather loved engines though. He had a big shop beside his house with engine parts everywhere. He would take old cars and restore them like new. The bodies, engines, interiors … everything. He also taught me to drive.” I thought for a moment, and then added, “I wish I had listened more. Maybe I’d be able to build or fix things.”

“You are okay?”

I nodded. “Jetlagged, not sad.”

Soukpa was confused. “What?”

“Nothing. I’m fine.”

“You are hungry?”

“A little, but mostly I’m just tired. I think I’ll go upstairs now. I’ll get cleaned up and probably just sleep.”

“I ask they send food to your room, okay?”

“Thanks.”

“I also ask they take your clothes and clean.”

“Even better.”

“Your computer is okay?”

“Don’t worry. The clothes inside my suitcase are wet but my computer and everything inside my backpack are dry. That reminds me though. I have a gift for you.”

Soukpa’s version of oh come on was the wide O her mouth made when she was surprised or excited. She made it now, and her eyes lit up much as the sky had done when electricity was dancing across the Mekong. “A gift?”

“It’s from Lucy.”

“Lucy?”

I gave her the Ziploc bag from my backpack. “Open it.”

Her eyes welled with tears. “Oh Lucy, Lucy.” Soukpa’s hands trembled as she unzipped the bag. When she saw the necklace, the tears fell freely across her cheeks. “It is so beautiful. I not have something so beautiful before now.” For a long moment Soukpa held the necklace tight against her heart, and then very carefully she put it on.

“Lucy still sings the song you taught her.”

Soukpa made the O again. “Really?”

Eel-lee?

“She sang it for me in English, too.”

Soukpa began to sway back and forth. She was dancing with Lucy again.

“Where did you learn a Christian song?”

Soukpa brought Lucy’s handmade cross to her lips and kissed it softly, and then she began to sway some more. “My mother teach me many song to help learn English.”

“The necklace you gave Lucy also had a cross.”

Soukpa nodded.

“Was it a gift from your mother?”

“My mother give to me when she come home after learn English in Vientiane.”

“I thought your family was Buddhist.”

“We are.” Soukpa wiped away her tears. She hesitated for a long beat, and then she added, “But my mother was Christian. Are you surprise?”

Soo-pies?

“Maybe a little, but it actually explains a lot.”

“You are Christian?”

“Yes.”

Soukpa fidgeted with her necklace. “Lucy and Indira are Allah.”

“I know.”

“I am Buddha,” Soukpa said, though this time she didn’t sound too sure of it. Soukpa swayed with Lucy one more time, and then she told me, “Thank you for come to Laos. My father will listen for you.”

“Soukpa, that afternoon at Starbucks—”

“No, no. It is okay.”

“Thanks. I am sorry though.”

“Bo-ben-nyung. Everything is good.” Just then Soukpa’s motorbike roared to life. The men that had been watching Pete work began cheering and clapping him on the back. With a triumphant smile, Soukpa added, “This is our life, but we do not give up.”

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The Rainy Season: “make room for teaching”

An excerpt from The Rainy Season, by Tucker Elliot:

1

June 2012

I go online, click on Uncle Google. In the search bar I type “education” and then click “news” because I’m not interested in websites. It’s the issues I care about and I’m curious what’s important in the world to which I used to belong. My results are delivered in a mere 0.16 seconds but it’s not Uncle Google’s speed that overwhelms, it’s the sheer volume of results: more than eight hundred million. I could narrow my search by typing “education issues” or “problems in education” or “U.S.+education+sucks” … but what’s the point?

FYI, searching for “U.S.+education+sucks” on a filtered network from my old classroom on a U.S. military installation in Germany yields an ACCESS DENIED banner under the category of “Pornography/Adult Content.”

Just saying.

You probably didn’t need Uncle Google to figure this out, but here’s the deal: we’ve got problems. Probably not eight hundred million problems, but we’ve got more than just a few, and they’re all serious for someone, and some of them are serious for all of us.

Teachers earn on average 17% less money than “other professionals with an equivalent education.” Apparently that’s a problem for teachers. The “other professionals” seem okay with it. One survey claims teachers are “overworked” and another survey shows “the more we spend the less our students achieve.” One article details how school districts are “cutting back on professional development,” but on the next page of my search results is an article with the caption “professional development is linked to student achievement.” Hmm. Maybe we’re not spending our money well? Hardly a unique problem, but there you go. Dropout rates are soaring. Graduation rates are tanking. Don’t even start on math and science scores in Asia. I was a teacher. I’ve heard too much about that already. Oh, and budget deficits. Or is it no budget? Maybe both? You’ve seen the news. You know what I mean.

Educators are in the news, too.

Usually that’s bad. I had a favorite college professor. He used to tell me, “If you make CNN as a teacher, you’re probably going to jail.”

Teachers do things every day that are good and newsworthy. They’re tough to find, though. Apparently the New York principal busted this week for having sex with a teenager is more newsworthy—and when the news anchor reported on further “shocking developments,” he seemed less shocked than he was giddy that both the principal and the student were males. I guess it made for a better story. Last week it was a teacher in New York replying to an online personal ad with pictures of his “privates” from a not so private shared e-mail account at school. In the same news cycle, a teacher in Europe let kindergarten students sample her blood—sample, as in touch and taste. There’s an article about Chicago closing dozens of schools and I should probably read it because it seems important and relevant—but to be honest, the headline about the professor in Florida telling students to “stomp on Jesus” has really got my attention. A lot of people are upset in California. LGBT-themed books are in the public schools. Parents are criticizing teachers who support the policy, but everyone else is criticizing the teachers who oppose it.

There are a lot of issues in education, a lot of problems we need to figure out.

It’s a seemingly endless list.

That’s why I was delighted with myself when an invitation arrived in my inbox to speak at a conference on education leadership being held in Jakarta, Indonesia. I accepted immediately, congratulated myself for being invited, ignored the fact they’d probably exhausted every other option before extending my invitation, and then I jumped right into the research for what I was sure would be the most talked about presentation of the conference.

Don’t worry, the smugness doesn’t last.

The topic was teacher leadership and, specifically, I’d be discussing how certain tenets of emotional intelligence are consistently shown to be present among people considered to be successful or quality teachers … further, I would argue, is that the reason we should care is because those same tenets of EI are not fixed traits. That means they are things we can teach and learn. Old school leadership studies always identified traits that were fixed—you were born with them or you weren’t—which made the selection of leaders a Darwinian process. Well, forget old school. I was ready to show the world—or at least the teachers and administrators attending the conference—that this new leadership paradigm has the power to change schools and solve many of our problems.

I prepared my remarks and tweaked my PowerPoint. I even bought a new suit.

I was still teaching in Germany at that time and my plan was to fly from Frankfurt to Jakarta via Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur. I had to make an unexpected trip to the states, however, just days before I was scheduled to leave. It forced a change in my itinerary and by the time my return flight from Atlanta arrived in Germany I had only three hours to rest—inside the airport, mind you—until my flight to Amsterdam. My itinerary change also forced me to make an additional layover in Bangkok, wedged in between Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur, and by the time I finally arrived in Jakarta I’d been traveling non-stop for fifty-five hours.

I was relatively smug-free by that point.

I was also somewhat amused by the friendly reminder on the Indonesian immigration form that drug smuggling is a capital offense in the world’s most heavily populated Muslim country. You see I get frequent migraines, and the only medicine that’s really effective for me is delivered by way of a needle. My bags had been searched a thousand times in airports the world over and not once had any airport employee taken a second glance at the injection kits I carry in my backpack, but I still had this brief image flash in my mind of an Indonesian customs official seeing a needle and then detaining me for another few hours while he “sorted things out.” I needn’t have worried. The immigration and customs process in Jakarta proved to be relatively fast and painless—unlike the traffic and the heat that was waiting outside the colossal, sprawling mass of humanity that was also known as Soekarno-Hatta International Airport. There were people everywhere and, despite being winter on this side of the equator, the humidity was suffocating.

I’d been given instructions to exit to the right.

The arrivals hall felt like a placard convention. The frenzied mess included a smallish Indonesian man dressed a bit more professionally than most of the other drivers. He held a placard that read: MR. TRUCKER. I guess the first sign that I really wasn’t so important after all was a literal one. Maybe the driver would be embarrassed if I told him. Or maybe we’d share a good laugh. I had no idea if he would be disappointed leaving the airport alone. He’d likely be worried about it affecting his job in some way.

Department of Defense civilians have access to a secure government travel agency for official business—but in this situation it was the conference that had covered a portion of my airfare, and my itinerary had come from a Jakarta-based travel agency. The huge downside to that is an untold number of complete strangers had access to my itinerary.

I had never been to Jakarta, but I had been a teacher on U.S. military bases in Korea and Germany long enough to know there’s a legitimate reason the DOD inundates its employees with training and PSA’s on force protection and operational security and anti-terrorism. It’s because there actually are bad people in the world, and sometimes they try to hurt us.

Vigilance isn’t a part-time job.

It’s not about being nice. It’s about reality.

I made a terrible mistake once. I saw monsters in black and white, and was ignorant to the fact true monsters often lurk close to home.

That’s my reality.

In the arrivals hall, I wore my hat low, but my head was up and my eyes forward and alert. I slung my backpack across my right shoulder and rolled my carry-on and checked bags right past my would-be driver.

My shirt was drenched by the time I reached the taxi queue. It clung to my back, and I felt about as nasty as a traveler can get. High nineties, high humidity … and it was nighttime.

I ignored several men who tried to take my bags and lead me to unlicensed cabs. It’s a scene that plays out the same way at airports the world over, but in a foreign country where I was at least six inches taller and a whole lot whiter than the average male, the unwanted attention was a reminder that blending in with the local population was going to be a real challenge. I finally settled into a random cab with a driver whose name was Hadi.

“Where you go?” he asked.

“I’ll show you.” Hadi didn’t know I had never been to Jakarta, and my odds for a hassle free ride were greatly improved if he thought I was already familiar with his city. “Just stay on the highway toward the city,” I said, because large airports always have a highway toward the city. The traffic was a nightmare though, and we weren’t going anywhere in a hurry. There were car headlights and brake lights as far as I could see, in every direction. Motorbikes were weaving in and out of traffic with reckless abandon.

Hadi glanced at me in the rearview mirror. “You are USA?”

“France.”

That caught him off-guard. “You are France?”

“Oui.”

“You not USA?”

“France hates USA.”

We sat in traffic, unmoving. Hadi scratched his head, thinking. Finally he laughed. “You are USA. You test if I hate USA, but I do not. I love USA. Very good USA.”

“Oui,” I agreed. “Very good, USA.”

The traffic yielded for a few minutes, we made some headway, and soon the outline of tall city buildings lit up the night sky. Hadi said, “I pass test. Now where you go?”

“The JW Marriott.”

The Marriott and the Ritz-Carlton were the Jakarta hotels that had been hit by terrorists a couple years earlier. The Marriott had been targeted because it was hosting a breakfast for CEOs affiliated with the United States Chamber of Commerce. The Ritz-Carlton had been targeted because the Manchester United Football Club was going to be staying there. Apparently the terrorists thought United had some Christians on its team, though as a Chelsea fan I wasn’t so sure. It was a devastating attack by suicide bombers that killed seven innocent people and injured dozens more. It also made life even more difficult for Indonesia’s overwhelmingly tolerant and non-violent Muslim population.

I began to recognize landmarks as Hadi drove us into Central Jakarta. The towering National Monument came into view. It’s called the Monas by locals and it was built to symbolize their independence from the Dutch. It looks like someone inverted a pyramid, stuck it into the ground, and then pinned it there with the Washington Monument. The inverted pyramid houses a museum and the entire site was one I looked forward to visiting on this trip. I also recognized Istiqlal Mosque. Kind of hard to miss it, considering it’s the largest mosque in Southeast Asia. In person I was taken aback by its beauty and size. The pictures I’d seen beforehand didn’t do it justice. Hadi drove past the mosque and into a large roundabout and finally the hotel came into view.

The security checkpoints and vehicle inspections outside the major hotels in Central Jakarta came as a result of the suicide bombers, and they made arriving outside the JW Marriott an interesting and time-consuming experience.

“You stay here?” Hadi asked, just to be sure.

“Yes, this is it.”

He obviously didn’t want to deal with the security hassle, especially if I was lying to him, which I was. A gate lifted and Hadi parked in an inspection area that was essentially a secure “lock.” Security guards carefully examined the cab’s undercarriage and trunk, my luggage, and even my travel documents.

Hadi’s fare meter was north of 200,000 rupiah.

It might sound expensive, but the Indonesian currency had been devalued so much in recent years that when I’d exchanged two hundred dollars before leaving the airport I’d been given an incredibly thick wad of bills that totaled nearly 2.5 million rupiah … so in reality, I only owed Hadi sixteen dollars for the pleasure of sitting in his cab for the last hour-plus. A second gate lifted and Hadi was free to pull up in front of the hotel.

I gave Hadi 400,000 rupiah. “You’re a good driver.”

“I love USA,” he said.

“Me too.”

I climbed from the cab and a bellman already had my luggage. The bellman said, “I take you to check-in.”

“Wait, please.” I wasn’t going anywhere until Hadi drove away.

Hadi sat for the longest time, though. He shook his head and held his hands in a questioning pose, palms up, as if to ask, really pal? He finally stepped out of his cab. “Where you go? I drive you, please.”

I shook my head. “I made a mistake once.”

Hadi was thoroughly confused when he drove away. I’m sure he thought I was the strangest American he’d ever met. It’s not a part-time job though, and it’s not about being nice.

I gave the bellman some rupiah and said, “I changed my mind.” I took my luggage and headed for a shopping center adjacent to the Marriott. I went inside, walked its floors for twenty minutes, and then I exited the other side and found my hotel exactly where Uncle Google said it would be.

That night I had a hard time sleeping, despite the long journey.

My room was on the fifteenth floor and I sat outside on the balcony to take in the view. Jakarta’s skyline was stunning. I could see the Monas and Istiqlal Mosque bathed in brilliant yellow and white lights and a dozen other places of cultural and historical significance. It’s an amazing, beautiful world we live in … despite Uncle Google’s abysmal view of American schools, the security checkpoints and vehicle inspections that seem to be everywhere, and the need to be vigilant because of the things we do to each other.

I’d have to sleep, eventually.

Finally, I did.

In my dreams I was back in Korea, inside the school where I spent my first overseas assignment. I was standing on a staircase beside a scared nine-year-old girl. She was tall, but her hair was short and dirty blond. She carried a backpack, she was jetlagged and tired, and she was trying desperately to tell me something.

I could see her lips moving, but I couldn’t hear anything.

Or maybe I just wasn’t listening.

2

The following morning I noticed a green arrow on the ceiling above the bed. I’d also seen a prayer rug, along with a white cap and a robe in the closet. It didn’t take long to discern the arrow was a not-so-subtle reminder for the Faithful.

I’m an infidel.

I don’t care which way it is to Mecca … although I did take a picture so I could show my friends back in Germany. All flippancy aside, the green arrow was a useful reminder—I was a guest, and it was important to show respect for the culture and religion of my hosts. I tried to imagine how successful my own students would be if I was as faithful and committed to teaching as my hosts were to praying. It was something to think about as I prepared for my first full day in Jakarta.

Social settings aren’t my thing, but I went to a welcome breakfast on the mezzanine because I needed to check-in with my point of contact and let her know I had arrived and was ready for the conference.

“I worried so much,” she said in near-perfect English. Her name was Indira and it was her boss who was in charge of the conference, which meant she was the one doing all of the work. She was Indonesian, of course, tall and professional, probably late twenties or early thirties, though I’m terrible at guessing ages. She was dressed modestly—which you’d expect—but she also had her head covered, which surprised me. It’s not something adhered to as stringently in Jakarta as it is in other Muslim countries. “I am so sorry the driver make a mistake.”

Hmm, I thought. “It’s fine,” is what I said.

“I call the hotel to see if you make it. They say you never check-in.”

I shrugged, like, what can I say?

“You stay here?”

“Yes.”

“Strange,” she said. Indira spoke Bahasa and had a short conversation on her BlackBerry. She translated, “Really strange. They still say you are not here.” Indira said “strange” one more time and I got the sense that she was really bothered by it. Maybe she was worried that I’d be upset. Maybe I should have told her I ditched the ride so she’d stop saying “strange,” but she’d probably find that even more strange, so I let her fidget in awkward silence until finally she handed me a blue folder with the conference logo on front. Indira explained the hotel map that showed where everything would take place, which forums I was expected to attend and which ones were optional, and she made sure I knew when and where I’d be giving my presentations. She also gave me breakfast coupons that could be used all week in the hotel restaurant and she told me how to find the Starbucks closest to the hotel in case that was something I’d want for later. She finished with, “Please wear your nametag all the time.”

I took everything and said, “Thanks, Indira.”

“I am sorry again that everything started so wrong for you.”

“It hasn’t,” I assured her, thus concluding the longest conversation I’d had in a month. Indira walked away to attend to someone else and I stuck the nametag in my pocket. I found an empty table in a back corner of the room where I sat and drank tea, did a lot of people watching, a little thinking and some listening, and I found some irony in the idiocy of a colleague that left me feeling the task of solving even half the problems we have in education to be insurmountable.

The colleague was a stateside professor that I’d agreed to accompany to some local schools for observations and data collection in support of an ongoing research project. He’d published multiple papers and lectured hundreds of times on social awareness—and whereas my invitation was essentially a fluke, he’d been invited because people would actually come to hear him lecture. Helping him would be a good experience and it might even get my name associated with a published paper at some point in the future. Well, he’d found the bacon bin that had been placed at the end of the breakfast buffet, in the far corner of the room, as far as possible from our hosts and the many teachers in attendance who were also Muslim. I noticed him loading his plate about the same time I noticed Indira crossing the front of the room, and this wasn’t the “beef bacon” or “beef sausage” that would normally be used by Jakarta hotels—a placard on the buffet warned it was the real thing.

My colleague approached Indira on the way back to his table.

Maybe there was a pressing issue he needed to discuss with her. I guess it’s possible. They were too far away for me to hear what was said, but I could see plenty. He put a hand on her shoulder to stop her, then leaned in close to talk to her, and he began wafting his plate full of bacon to and fro, right in front of her face.

Jackass.

Was it possible to be any less socially aware?

Indira’s composure was both remarkable and commendable. I was curious which was more offensive—was it the touching and invasion of her personal space, or was it assaulting her senses with a sight and smell that’s repulsive to many people in this part of the world? This guy is here to teach social awareness as a leadership strategy … and we wonder why there are so many problems in education? I’m not normally so enlightened, but it also occurred to me that someone had to cook the bacon for the invited infidels, and he or she had almost certainly been Muslim. I’m guessing that wasn’t a pleasant experience either.

I was scheduled to be on a Q&A panel later that evening, but since I hadn’t given my first presentation yet and no one knew who I was, no one asked me any questions. I made it the entire ninety minutes without saying a word—which, if you knew me, would not surprise you. Professor Jackass was also on the panel, and he talked pretty much non-stop—which, if you knew him, also would not surprise you.

The panel was all western and all male.

I didn’t choose it. I’m just telling you how it was.

The audience was an even male-female mix, but divisions were evident when they’d introduce themselves prior to asking questions. The male Asians were college professors or administrators but the female Asians were overwhelmingly secondary or elementary teachers. Most of the Indonesian teachers had come in groups of three or four. A number of foreign nationals were also in attendance. They were a mix of English-speaking westerners from the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States, along with some Asians and a few Australians.

The westerners and Australians were all teachers or administrators who worked in Jakarta’s large international school community—but the rest of the foreigners were “loners,” for lack of a better word, because they’d come alone from other countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam or Laos.

The questions were a bit tentative at first. When did you decide to become a teacher? What made you want to become a teacher? Is it hard to teach in the USA?

I tuned them out because Professor Jackass was telling a long-winded story about his early days in Wherever, USA, and I had discovered that there was a problem in my head. No, not like that. Not a problem with my head. I mean “the problem,” as in I’d clicked on something that Uncle Google had missed that was right there beneath the surface, and I was trying to kick it loose, to figure out what was bothering me so much. It felt like I was circling a big idea, but for whatever reason I couldn’t latch on to it. I began to focus on the Q&A again when things got more specific—less “where are you from” and more “how do I fix it.”

Occasionally they were heartbreaking.

I listened as a teacher described how teenage girls from impoverished villages were being lured on Facebook to go and meet strange men, thinking it was a chance to find a better life only to be kidnapped and trafficked for sex. She wanted to teach her kids English and she wanted them to be able to experience the benefits and wealth of information that the Internet can provide, but the more English she taught and the more access her students had to the Internet, the more her students were at risk. “What should I do?” she asked.

A teacher from outside Jakarta said about half of her students had access to clean drinking water. She asked, “Will my students do better if I can find them all good water?”

There was one teacher who came all the way from Laos. “My village is far from school,” she said. “No one send kids, is too far. I want make room for teaching.” You could see how nervous she was, that she was a “loner,” and I think she was waiting for a reply—but since she hadn’t really asked a question, no one answered. She quickly gave the microphone to someone else and sat down again.

You flew all the way from Laos for a school that doesn’t even exist?

That’s what I thought at the time … as if this teacher had committed some great act of folly. In the coming days I’d be humbled by the truth.

That night I walked around Central Jakarta. It’s not a city made for walking. Not like New York or London, although the traffic is British style. Cars drive on the left, but there aren’t any “look right-left-right” curbside reminders like the British helpfully give foreign pedestrians. The infrastructure is terrible, the sidewalks nearly non-existent, and the elevated pedestrian crosswalks at major intersections are nothing more than Erector Set-quality deathtraps. Plenty of Starbucks, though, including one right where Indira said it would be. I actually don’t drink coffee, but I assumed Starbucks had AC and Wi-Fi. True, I had both those things in the hotel, but I’m also not the kind of person to sit in a hotel room all night.

This type of conference, it’s common for groups to congregate in coffee shops, bars and restaurants. I don’t like the inherent stuffiness at formal gatherings, but impromptu groups are closer to my comfort zone.

My colleague whose behavior at breakfast had been so annoying was sitting with one such group inside Starbucks. His name isn’t really Professor Jackass, obviously. It’s Wallach. Imagine an aloof college professor with a New England accent, early fifties, whose clothes are never tailored well enough for an exact fit. That’s Wallach. He is brilliant in a lot of ways. He studied under Howard Gardner at Harvard and he is in fact a highly regarded professor … he’s just clueless sometimes.

Anyway, Wallach was blathering on about something.

To his credit, several teachers were intently focused on every word he said. Indira was also with the group. I bought a bottle of water and found a table where I could sit alone, with my back against the wall, and with a clear view of who was coming in or going out of the coffee shop. It’s not that I don’t want to trust people, really—but not too long ago, a suicide bomber had self-detonated on his way to hell about a hundred meters from my table.

The jihadists had chosen targets they alleged had brought harm to Islam by allowing Christianity and western cultures to influence Indonesian society. The jihadists would argue everyone at the conference was doing that as well. In reality, every person at the conference was a potential target. It would have been naïve to think otherwise.

I settled in and spent a few minutes online. Important things, like fantasy baseball. I also did some work, drank water to combat the heat and humidity, and tried to focus on my notes for the presentation I’d be making first thing in the morning. There was a lot of laughter coming from Wallach’s group.

I glanced that way and felt a good vibe, as if what was going on at the table was a positive experience for everyone involved. I recognized a few of the teachers from earlier in the day—including the “loner” from Laos—but as I looked closer there was something I couldn’t reconcile with the vibe and the laughter, a part of the image that didn’t fit.

I asked Uncle Google to search “education in Laos.”

I was still processing what Uncle Google uncovered when Indira realized I was in the coffee shop. She quickly got up and walked to my table.

“What did you think about the first day?” she asked.

“It was good.”

“I hope you had no more problems.”

“Stop worrying,” I said. “There were never any problems.”

“I am happy then. Will you join us?”

“Actually, I should go. My first presentation is really early tomorrow.”

Indira let loose a tremendously loud laugh, as in loud enough to turn heads our way. It caught me off-guard because it seemed so out of character. “Oh come on,” she said. “Can I sit?”

“Sure.”

Indira sat across from me and said, “It is funny because I make the schedule.” Then she shook a finger at me, as if I was a kid being scolded in school, and added, “But it was your fault.”

“My fault? How’s that even possible?”

“You change your flight schedule so close to conference. I was worry you would not be here on first day so I move your time, and early tomorrow was only space.”

“That is funny.”

“So come to other table. The teachers want to meet everyone, learn everything. I will say who you are and you say about the schedule so everyone can laugh.”

I glanced across Starbucks at the group of teachers. Maybe I’d have gone over and talked with them if Wallach wasn’t already at the table, or maybe not. I shrugged and said, “Another time.”

Indira thought for a second. She said, “You look sad.”

“Me, sad? No, it’s jetlag.”

“I do not think so. I am not blind, you know.”

“It’s jetlag.”

“You think about something, when you look at the teachers.”

“I wasn’t thinking anything,” I lied. I’d been thinking about what Uncle Google had just told me regarding education in Laos—specifically, teacher salaries and the poverty level.

“I do not think so,” she said again, clearly not buying it.

This conversation wasn’t on my list of things to do tonight, but I said, “It’s not so much what I think. It’s more about what I see.”

“I do not understand. I see people with coffee and good laughs.” Then with a humorous smile Indira asked me, “Do you need to examine your eyes? I will be happy to schedule you an appointment.”

“Oh you have good eye doctors in Jakarta?”

“We do,” she laughed.

“I guess it’s hard to explain.”

“Try.”

I shrugged and said, “I see one professor and eight teachers.”

“Good. You can count.”

“Five of those teachers are Indonesian and they’re all from the same school here in Jakarta.”

“How did you know that?”

“They’ve been walking around together all day.”

“But how did you know they are from the same school in Jakarta?”

“It says so on the nametags you gave them.”

“Oh come on … you make fun of my nametags,” Indira said, teasingly. “I also see you do not wear the nametag I give to you. You wish to hide your name from my teachers?”

“No.” Yes.

“If you do not wear nametag, then you give me no choice.” Indira smiled and made a face like she was deep in thought. “I think Mr. Strange is good. Do you like it?”

“Good? Like? For what?”

“I must call you something. You hide your name from my teachers so I give you new name. I will inform all my guests as soon as possible.”

“I’m guessing strange is the first English word you ever learned.”

“You do not like your new name? We can discuss it later. After I see you wear the nametag I give you. But now I need explanation about the teachers because I still do not know what it is you see.”

I shrugged, rather amused. “Look over there. You see the teacher from Laos?”

“Yes.”

“She’s a loner. What I mean is she came alone to the conference. The two teachers at the table from Vietnam are also loners.”

“They came a long way and alone, so you are sad? Really, so strange.”

“Jetlagged, not sad.”

“Sad,” Indira said, and again she was smiling, perhaps teasing … but her countenance took a hit when she glanced at the “loners.” Maybe she glimpsed the picture in my mind. The one stirring jackhammers behind my eyes. “Tell me more.”

“What is Wallach drinking?”

“A latte, I think. Why?”

“The teachers from Jakarta all have coffee or whatever, too, but look at the loners.”

“They do not drink anything.”

“They can’t afford anything. A cup of coffee here costs more than what they make in a day of teaching back home.” Uncle Google had shared that tidbit when I was asking about Laos, and something along those lines is why the image hadn’t jived with the vibe and laughter.

Indira took another look. “Now I feel jetlagged.”

I went back to her original question and said, “It was a good first day. You did a great job organizing things.”

Indira nodded her appreciation. “Do you have loners at conferences in your country?”

“It’s different. In my country, most teachers go to training so they can renew or add categories on their teaching certificates. They go because it’s required, but the training is usually close to home and can be finished in one afternoon. If they go to a conference that requires travel and lasts more than a day, then it’s more like a holiday than it is work. I don’t mean any disrespect to your city, Indira, but your loners didn’t come here on holiday. They aren’t out exploring the city or enjoying your culture. They’re sitting in a coffee shop where they can’t afford to buy anything because they think the stranger they’re sitting with has got answers to the problems they have back home.”

“Jakarta eye doctors are good, but if only color you see is sad I do not think they can fix it.”

“Jetlagged, not sad. You know what else? Wallach doesn’t have any answers for them. None of us do.”

Indira took out her BlackBerry and started hitting keys in an exaggerated manner. “One moment, please. You have no answers so I must delete your invitation for next year.”

I drank some water and gathered my notes. “Anyway, I should go.”

“Oh come on,” she said. “I was kidding. You can come again next year but no more sad talk. Tell me something else, like, why did you change your plane?”

“My grandmother died. I went to her funeral.”

“Oh my god,” she said, palming her face with both hands. “I am so sorry.”

“You mean Allah?”

“No, I mean oh my god why are you here? You should stay with your family.”

“It’s okay. My mom knows this is important. She told me to come.”

“When you leave here you will go see your mom again?”

“No. Eventually, sure, but not for a while.”

“You should be a good son and go to your mom.”

I was going to be a good son and go to Vietnam, actually. I didn’t say that, of course. I’d have to explain about my uncle, my name, and the flag my grandmother had left me—and even if Indira’s first language had been English, best-case scenario I still would have sounded like a “headline” from The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

I thought:

COPS MAKE ARREST IN BATHROOM AFTER SMELLING CRACK

In my case:

MAN’S GRANDMOTHER DIES, TRAVELS TO VIETNAM

“You know what my problem is?” I asked.

“Oh come on. Only one?”

Maybe I hadn’t kicked it all the way up, but the thought that had been bothering me most of the afternoon came out as: “I’ll fly halfway around the world to humor someone else’s problems, but back home, I’m not sure I’d walk across the street for a solution to my own.”

“I have no idea what you said.”

“The teacher from Laos earns three dollars a day. Do you really believe her school paid for her plane ticket? She was eating raw string beans in the hotel lobby during lunch. She probably brought them from Laos. I know you’re not supposed to bring that kind of thing through customs, but my point is she’s not spending money on food. I have no idea how she could afford a plane ticket or a hotel, and yet she traveled to a foreign country to sit in Starbucks with a social awareness professor who hasn’t even realized that she can’t afford a cup of coffee. She came here because she wants something. Whatever it is, she’s desperate.”

I took a deep breath, slouched a bit in my chair, and tried to decompress.

We sat in silence for a long moment. Maybe Indira was trying to kick something loose in her own mind, or maybe she was just grateful for the respite. Finally, she said, “Now I am curious, too. How did she get here? Why did she come?”

I dug into my backpack and took out the breakfast coupons that Indira had given me about twelve hours ago. “She’s relentless,” I said. “That’s how she got here. That’s why she’s here.”

“Relentless?” Indira repeated. It was the first time she’d struggled with an English word. “It means what?”

I thought about a staircase in Korea, a hacky sack, and a girl who used to be a soccer prodigy. I said, “It means she’s a better teacher than I am. Will you give her my breakfast coupons, please? Tell her … something, whatever.”

“I will. Do not be sad, Mr. Strange.”

I stood and said, “Watch this.”

Indira and I walked over to the large group of teachers. Indira sat with them again. I said hello and introduced myself, and then I said, “I’m sorry I can’t stay. Maybe I can join you all tomorrow night.”

They all nodded happily, saying, “yes, yes, we will come back” and “you come join us.”

I looked at Indira and then touched the corners of my mouth with my index fingers, pushed them up slightly, and asked her, “You see?”

Jetlagged, not sad.

Right.

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