Saturday, 2 November 2013

Reflections on South Africa and the road ahead...

During one of my Skype chats with my mom while I was in South Africa, I told her that the next time I do something for nine months she better be getting a grandchild out of it.

Nine months abroad. It's what I wanted. I knew I was going to apply for a Fulbright from the moment I learned what it was during my freshman year. The opportunity to get paid to teach abroad? Heck yes!

After I found out I'd received the grant, 9 months seemed short, like it would fly by, but as I was boarding the plane to Jo-burg, 9 months felt just right. Now, I should say that my Fulbright experience was not typical. If you've read some of my previous posts, you know why. I should also say that Fulbright was very supportive and doing a Fulbright, whether as an ETA, like I was, or a researcher, is a wonderful, life-changing opportunity.

Going in, I knew I'd need to be flexible. I knew the internet wouldn't be great. I knew people would have lots of questions about America. I knew these things, and I expected them. What I didn't expect was to work at such a variety of schools. I expected to be in one school for the whole 9 months. I expected consistency. I loved my kids at the first school, but due to escalating violence, the embassy pulled my teaching partner and I out. They had to. It was the right call, but this happened 6 weeks in, and it meant that for the rest of my 9 months, I was moved around. I worked at another school in Pretoria for 6 weeks. Then I moved to Cape Town and worked at a university writing center from April to July. For the last two months, I taught second grade. Admittedly, there were times when I felt frustrated. Wasn't I supposed to be loving this? Wasn't I supposed to be having the time of my life? I wasn't, and I felt guilty that I wasn't. I did everything I could to make it better, and I kept being flexible, but I wasn't happy, and for a good chunk of my time abroad, I wasn't teaching. When I was at the university, there was little work for me to do, and the only thing that felt truly fulfilling was my work with my martial arts students. I taught martial arts at two high schools for a total of 3 hours a week. The rest of the time I hung out at the gym or wrote. I got a great deal of writing done (but then went on to do a complete overhaul of the manuscript and cut most of what I'd written. However, that's besides the point).

I've come to realize that what my experience lacked in consistency, it made up for in breadth. Had I stayed at one school for 9 months, I would have made a huge difference, because I know the difference I made in just 6 weeks. That was what I wanted. After I was moved around, I felt like I was making less and less of a difference, and this really took it's toll on me. I wanted to be teaching a real class, not sitting at a desk seeing one student every 8 hour shift at the writing center. Things picked up once I started teaching second grade though. I had a rowdy class of 42 kids, but I could see a difference in their behavior and academics by the time I left. I was teaching again, and I was happy.

So in 9 months, I taught primary, high school, and university students. I had 3 successful martial arts programs (1 in Pretoria and 2 in Cape Town.) I had nearly 30 students in Cape Town receive "yellow belt certificates" and had a reasonably successful adult self-defense class at the university too. I did make a difference and on a wider scale than I would have had I stayed in one place. I can see that now, and I miss my students, but I'm also really glad to be back in North America.

They told us at orientation last year to expect re-entry shock. I've had bits and pieces of it. Silly and minor things. I can use my kindle on the buses here in Vancouver without the worry of getting mugged. And my iPhone! I'm sorry, but Blackberry doesn't compare. (Now I just need to sell my unlocked SA blackberry.) Blackberry is popular in SA, and it worked fine while I was there, but I'd forgotten how fun the iPhone is. I upgraded my iPhone 3 to an iPhone 5 C when I got back and I'm still in awe of it. And then there's the fact that I downloaded a show on iTunes in under 10 minutes the other day. It took hours in SA. HOURS! I couldn't even download a song in under 10 minutes.

As for the other parts of re-entry shock, there's the understanding that the world has gone on without you, just like you've gone on for 9 months away from them. And yet when you see certain friends, it's like you never left. Cherish these moments and these people. For me, there was also a rather painful moment in which I expected a certain group of people to make a bigger deal of my homecoming than they did, but other events overshadowed my return.

Now, I'm back in Vancouver, in classes with a bunch of new faces. Most of my friends are in other classes, but life is good. I'm writing again. I didn't get much of a chance to do that during my last two months in South Africa because I had 42 second graders that needed to pass national tests, and I had to help prepare them for it--with no standardized lesson plans for help by the way. Thanks to some of the songs I got on YouTube, my kids were experts on place value and nouns, and thanks to one of my projects, "verb people" (pictures are on my facebook page) they had a better understanding of verbs after one lesson than some of my grade 8's in Pretoria did. They also loved the book Green Eggs and Ham. I once asked them what it was about and they all screamed, "NOUNS!" Then one of my students gave me a wonderful plot summary. They were sweet kids, rowdy but sweet, and my word, were they sad when I left. There are still mornings when I wake up and expect to go in and see them, to get hugs as they enter the classroom in the morning, to have to remind them to about their punctuation, and to play soccer with them at recess.

But I digress, the writing, I'd forgotten how good it feels to just write. My novel PODIUM FINISH will be published on November 14 from Astraea Press. I've seen the cover. It's awesome. I'm hoping to put together a book blog tour in December, once the book has been out for a little while and once it's a little closer to the Olympics, so stay tuned for that.

I'll also be posting a book review of Aimee L. Salter's BREAKABLE on November 11. It's fab so read it as soon as you can and then come back here on the 11th to read my interview with her as well as my review.

I've got two other manuscripts in the works. One is SIDE OUT, my master's thesis. It's an Upper MG novel about a girl who switches schools and finds solace in volleyball after an embarrassing video of her and her autistic brother goes viral. This project hits close to home, as the brother in the story, T.J., is basically my brother Danny, his love of Spongebob and Richard Simmons included. I went to private school too, like Cass ultimately does, but that's where the similarities end. I've got two more chapters to write this weekend and then the first draft will be complete!  I'm also working on ABBY'S KEEPER, a YA book about Gracie, a soccer goalkeeper, who in her grief after losing her sister, sets her sights on winning the State Championship title, the one win that eluded her sister. Are you noticing a pattern here? Girls and sports. :)

Well, that's all the updates I have for now. I've been a little slow on posting things with all the travel I've been doing, but there will definitely be lots more posts in the coming weeks.


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