Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Pumpkins and hedgehogs

I guess that I should backtrack to Turkmenistan’s Independence Day (Happy 18 years Tstan), which I spent in Ashgabat.  While our apple carrot muffins were baking, the apartment walls shook before we heard the bangs of the fireworks.  We bundled ourselves and went out to the street to watch.  The Turkmen driving by and walking with friends didn’t seem at all interested in the fireworks. As for me, there was a moment when it felt just like the Fourth of July.  My favorite fireworks are the big white kind that explode and then trickle down until they fade.  They remind me of the fairy dust I once had for a Halloween costume.  As I gazed up at the sky, and gasped and applauded at the ones I liked, I felt like I was home.  It is amazing how something familiar can trigger so many memories and make you feel transported elsewhere.  It only lasted a moment, but for that brief instant it was me, fireworks and the feeling of home.

Back in the classroom after my trip to Ashgabat made me remember how unpredictable and hilarious my teaching experience can be.  I was teaching one of my sixth grade classes a Halloween song.  I was singing the song and pointing to the lyrics on the board.  The song went like this: “Halloween is coming soon, coming soon, coming soon.  Halloween is…Oh my god, what is that?”  The last sentence isn’t part of the song, but my reaction to a tiny critter that I saw scurry across the back of the classroom.  One of my students had decided to pack his hedgehog in his backpack and bring him to school.  The student scooped up the hedgehog and plopped him on his desk, where the little animal politely remained for the rest of the class and didn’t attempt to escape again.

Most of my students are familiar with Halloween from seeing it in movies.  They know about pumpkins and scary costumes, but I promised them a Halloween party to show them more of the holiday traditions.  I asked each student to bring a little pumpkin and I had parents come to ask me why their children needed a pumpkin for English club.  We played pin the eyes on the jack o’ lantern and decorated pumpkins.  I taught them about trick or treating and they went around the school to knock on a few doors where I had teachers stationed with candy.  They brought lots of candy, cakes and cookies and I completely underestimated how much junk food 22 young children could devour in a short amount of time.  When all of the little ones were out the door, leaving behind a mess of feathers and crumbs, my older students arrived for their Halloween party. 

I haven’t tried bobbing for apples in over ten years, but I got it in my head that this was a worthwhile American tradition to teach.  Their first attempts at feebly poking at the apples, trying not to get wet, were not successful.  I decided that I should demonstrate, and quickly dunked my head in the water and came up with an apple.  I was soaking wet, dripping all over my floor but my students had got the idea.  In the end each student got at least one apple and we took a photo of all of us triumphantly soaking wet.  Teaching about this American tradition and some others of equal absurdity make me wonder what people would think if that is all they were exposed to of American culture.  A people who catch apples in tubs of water, dress up in weird costumes and demand candy from strangers…really?  Take it all out of context and it starts to sound bizarre; I suspect that is true of many traditions.  Bobbing for apples was definitely something that took my students out of their comfort zone, but in class I often ask them to try to think outside the box and to take risks.  Practicing this odd tradition was another opportunity for them to see that there isn’t only one way of doing things and that acceptance and tolerance are important parts of learning about anything new.  Teaching about my culture is an opportunity to teach my students about a different way of life.  Even if it is silly to them, they are being exposed to a new culture and I believe learning about cultures is invaluable on an individual level and salubrious to the overall development of a country.

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