Thursday, September 30, 2010

Banned Book Week

This post is different from my usual anecdotal and/or introspective posts on my year teaching here in Costa Rica. While that has been the focus of this blog, I have made sure not to imply that I would only write about my time here. I have written about other topics  and will do so more often as my time here winds down and I return to the US.

This is Banned Book Week in the US. In answer to a post by the Rejectionist, I am writing about To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (from this list) . This will not be a review, as Le R called for, but more focused on why To Kill a Mockingbird is important to me and why book banning is misguided at best. I am focusing on one book to keep this post from becoming book length, since I struggle with brevity in my writing, not because any other book deserves to be banned more.

To Kill a Mockingbird is my favorite book that I read in school, from 1st grade through senior year of college. It is also one of my top 5 favorite books of all time. While it is hyperbolic to say I would not be the same person without this book, to say it opened my eyes to a power of fiction I had previously not experienced is simple truth. It makes me incredibly sad that this book might have been banned from being taught1 at my high school or even from being shelved at my library.

When I was in middle school and high school, I read as a form of pure escapism. I liked it when the novels addressed weighty issues under the surface, but the majority of my reading was science fiction and fantasy novels (SF/F), with an emphasis on fantasy. Within fantasy, I gravitated towards simplistic Good vs. Evil tales. I loved the unimportant youth grows up to be the Good warrior fighting Evil trope, be it Harry Potter, Wheel of Time, or Tamora Pierce's Alanna (not to say these books are simplistic, since these are three series I still reread). This still holds true, but much less than ten years ago. If my local library had a fantasy series, I had read it by the time I was 14.

To Kill a Mockingbird was the opposite of my normal reading choices. It is a "serious" novel, both in its themes and in its literary style. It deals with shades of reality and how people are while also showing the consequences of the character's choices. Furthermore, I was required to read it for school. While I never had an instinctive dislike for reading assigned work in school, I think To Kill a Mockingbird had a lot to do with that. On the surface it is surprising that I would love a book set in the 1930s, in the Deep South, but that's the power of To Kill a Mockingbird (not to mention the assumption that boys won't read books with girl main characters, but that's a whole other post).

To Kill a Mockingbird taught me about a specific time in US history and social justice. I learned about a time in US history often overlooked in school. I also learned the importance of the day to day grind of fighting for equal rights and that disappointments are a part of the struggle, not a reason to stop. The stake which even the poorest white had in a segregated society was eye-opening, as well as the obviously rank injustice which a black man could face in that time (remember, I was 14).

Are these lessons I would have learned without this one book? Undoubtedly, but not as viscerally, not with the immediacy that To Kill a Mockingbird gave these issues, being as sheltered as I was from such concerns. Much of the book I knew intellectually, but not the stakes nor the ordinariness of the people involved.

Sometimes a self-centered middle class white boy needs to read a great book to see beyond the end of his own concerns and angst. That is what is lost when such books are banned. Be it a classic, such as To Kill a Mockingbird, a book about an all boys high school, The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier (thankfully my all-boys high school was nothing like that), or a book I have not read yet, but will, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, a highly regarded YA book about dealing with rape, they are all important and all should be shelved in libraries available to all youth, since book banning is always framed as for the sake of the children.

If parents wants to stop their own child from reading a book, fine, but children age at different rates. Some age faster because they can and some because there are forced to against their will. To deny them the books to deal with and understand life as it is, not as we wish it to be, is a tragedy.

1. On teaching this book. I understand that the depictions of race relations and the language, in particular the n word, used in the book could cause trouble depending on how it is taught or the situation in which it is taught. I can only imagine if this book were taught to immature middle schoolers the damage it could do. My opinions on whether a given book should be taught are not nearly as strong as about book banning, though I value the lessons I learned from To Kill a Mockingbird in school. Heck, I'm more likely to argue for more nonfiction in high school English classes, not about the choices of fiction.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


One thing I have noticed as my fluency in Spanish has increased is that there are some words/phrases or just feelings which do not exist in Spanish.  Either that, or I do not have the ability to express them the way I wish.  Awkward is the example confounding me now.   Awkward is a word which I use all the time, as do many of my English-speaking friends, both here in Costa Rica and in the States.  Numerous occasions, situations, comments, people (myself included) are at times awkward.

However, I have yet to find a word which even sort of translates into Spanish. Yes, I can feed it into an online Spanish-English dictionary. For instance, spits out for awkward: torpe, poco elegante, and incomodo.  While those work for some cases torpe is clumsy, poco elegante is inelegant, and incomodo is uncomfortable.  None mean awkward in the sense I usually use it.  When I asked my WT volunteer friends last week, they said raro, which works, but really means weird (not to mention just not something Ticos say, ever).

I even tried to ask my host brother last night because we were watching Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and there was an awkward moment with Ron and Hermione.  End of story, my host brother thought I was crazy and had no idea what I was talking about.  I even narrated a situation, like randomly seeing an ex with her new boyfriend, but nada.  He was like, "It didn't matter? Or you were mad?"  and I was like, "no, argh!!" in frustration.

Because I'm at the point where I can just talk in Spanish without having to stop and translate first, even though I make grammatical errors, it makes it more noticeable.  I'm going along with a story and then awkward pops into my head and my entire thought process grinds to a screeching halt.  I guess I need to just give it up in Spanish.  I'm used to giving up words and phrases (even entire tenses, future tense anyone?) but I guess awkward is harder for me to give up.

I do wonder whether Ticos are way more socially conscious and so have no need to describe anything as awkward. Or do they focus on other aspects of a given interaction and the relative awkwardness simply does not matter?   It's fun to try to make conclusions about why awkward does not exist in CR, but of course I'm most likely wrong.  Eight months does not give one expertise in another culture, it just makes you less clueless.

Also, related, I am good at Spanish, but there are thousands of words and phrases I do not know. Maybe tomorrow I'll find the perfect way of expressing that moment when you try to pass someone on a narrow sidewalk but you both go the same direction and almost bump noses.... and then do it again the other direction. I hope so.

Unfortunately, my Tico friend who is basically fluent in English is not teaching this week or else I would have asked him as research for this blog post.  Next time I have a chance I'll ask him his take on the differences in language (and possibly culture) which causes me such confusion.  I can't wait to ask him.  Is that awkward?

Since this topic probably interests no one but me, I will try to keep any subsequent posts short and sweet!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

TESOL course

I just returned to La Fortuna from a week spent at the beach on the Pacific Coast, more specifically Quepos/ Manuel Antonio.  I was there to take the first half of a two week course in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL).  As a WorldTeach volunteer, I'm doing the course in two weeks, rather than the normal month.  Second week is the last week in October, so in a month I get to go back.

While, the week was very busy and tiring, being a student was nice for a change.  I also learned a lot of different teaching ideas to incorporate into my lessons.  While the focus was not on teaching English content lessons (such as science), the instructor did have experience teaching ESL students in the US, so we brainstormed some ideas to help me teach better.

Rather than go on about everything I did during the week (eg. I really like grammar now and surfing is just as hard as I always thought it would be) I'll just talk about why yesterday was such a good day.  One thing that has thrown me this year is the amount of time I spend with people who speak English and its one thing I miss most about the US.

Either, like in January during orientation, or Monday- Friday this past week, I'm with people who speak English all the time all day and it can be overwhelming.  Even this past week when it was some of my closest friends in the WorldTeach group, it was still a bit much by the end of the day, from 6 in the morning till 9 or 10 at night with them.

The other extreme is here in Fortuna, where I speak English with one of the other English teachers, but other than that I speak in Spanish to everyone I know around here and will go weeks without speaking in English to anyone except for friends and family on Skype.  I've gotten much more used to that as this year has gone on, which has been a relief and one of the main reasons I am much more comfortable here now than I was 6 months ago.

Back to yesterday. I spent the morning and afternoon happily reading. napping, and drinking way too much delicious coffee by myself (for the most part).  Then, 4 friends and I went out to the all you can eat sushi place in Quepos and spent 3 hours having great food and fun.  The right amount of alone time and time with friends to make a relaxing Saturday. Now I feel recharged to return to teaching tomorrow and improving my Spanish.

Also, my WT friend's post about anonymity and autonomy is really good.  I have similar feelings and she's a better writer than me.  Win win!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Independence Day

I missed Independence Day in the US, but I celebrated Independence Day here in Costa Rica for the past couple of days  Yesterday, September 15 was Independence Day here in Costa Rica.  All sorts of events have been happening for the past week or so, but the important events happened the 14th and 15th.

On the 14th, in a reenactment of the notice of independence for Central America being brought from Guatemala to Costa Rica, a group of students and professors ran about 8 kilometers (5 miles) with a lit torch and the flag of Costa Rica.  About 20 students and 4 teachers began the run and I was one of the teachers running. I even carried the torch for a little bit.

It was somewhat surreal running in the hills around the volcano with a bunch of cars blaring their horns behind us and our police escort blaring his siren  Every few minutes the torch would go out and the principal, who also ran with us, would relight the torch with a box of matches he carried with him. Adding to those stops, occasional stops for water meant that the experience was not a very satisfying run, but it was worth it anyways.

For anyone who became too tired, they were told to jump in one of the cars driving behind the runners.  I'd estimate about half the students and all the teachers made it the entire way.  We arrived at the school after maybe 45 minutes of running with intermittent breaks.  The torch was put in a stand and an honor guard of 4 students stood behind the torch, with different students rotating  in every 15 minutes for the next hour and half.

At 6 pm an assembly of the students and the parents all came with paper lanterns which had been made by the students in various shapes indicative of Costa Rican culture.  I saw a large ship, an oxcart (the Costa Rican symbol of work), and squares with pictures of various Costa Rican symbols (seal, bird, tree, those types of things) on them among many other designs.

These pictures from San Rafael are a good example of what I am talking about.  The paper lanterns (faroles in Spanish) were judged and then everyone walked around Zeta Trece in a little parade.  This was really pretty and impressive and I really enjoyed being able to witness the celebration.

Yesterday, actual Independence Day, was a lot more like the 4th of July in the US, except without any fireworks.  I spent most of the morning carrying a cooler of water to hand out to the members of the Zeta Trece band as they played and marched in the parade. I saw most of the parade, and some of the bands were quite good.  There were also traditional dancers and the best students from the surrounding schools marched with banners.

I managed to get sunburned like a 4th of July parade in the States because yesterday happened to be the hottest and sunniest day in months, even though we're supposed to be entering into the height of the rainy season.   While that was less than ideal, I really enjoyed the entire experience.  So much of this year is hard to appreciate in the moment, only afterwards can I appreciate what I've done and experienced here. This holiday was one of the few moments this year that I am grateful for both in the moment and afterwards.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Day of the Child

Today was the Day of the Child here in Costa Rica.  This meant that there were no classes and all of the classes had little parties.  I spent the day helping out with one of the 1st grade classes, which was fun if a little hectic.  I blame the candy, ice cream, and cake all before 10 in the morning.

Next week, September 15th, is Independence Day in Costa Rica, which means Costa Rican flags and various other decorations in red, white and blue all over the place. I'll be assisting the parades next week, which should be interesting.  The only annoyance has been the drum band practicing every morning this week and last while I try to teach, but they do sound better so that's something at least.

This week and next week there are assemblies every morning about various nationalistic themes, yesterday was songs and today was the various flags Costa Rica has had.  Apparently, the reason the Costa Rican flag is red white and blue is in imitation of the French Flag, in admiration of France.  Then again, the combination of Spanish and the poor loud speakers make my understanding of the assemblies iffy at times, so take that with a grain of salt.

One more week of classes, then I'm off to the beach for a week of classes to get a Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) course. I'll do the second half of the course at the end of October, rather than miss two weeks straight of classes.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Came and went

A week goes by really quickly when my family is here.  Other times it feels like time is crawling but not when I'm showing people around and trying to figure out how to get from here to there and back.  I've changed the picture at the top of the blog to one of Monteverde, because while I live in Fortuna, I love Monteverde.

As I said in my previous post, my parents and sister arrived last Thursday.  The next day they visited one of my third grade classes.  This was pretty hilarious as the students tried out their English on my parents and sister.  It worked out overall though, as my family got to experience over 20 third graders yelling in random English, which was pretty funny.

We went to lunch at this restaurant right near my house.  The restaurant was really good and I'm glad I tried it, since I've been tempted this entire year but did not want to spend the money to go by myself.  Some of the entrées came with side dishes which in Spanish is guarnición.  The confusing part was that the English translation was garrison. I was not prepared to eat two forts.

I then badly misjudged how difficult of a walk it was to the waterfall.  Sorry, Mom.  But still, the waterfall was pretty and we took a cab down from the waterfall to meet my host family.  My host family was very nice and we had some good coffee and tortillas.  The 2 year old was adorable and did not resemble the earthquake which he can be sometimes.

Saturday was taken up with me showing my parents where I use the internet and then a tour of the national park next to the volcano and hot springs.  Eco Termales hot springs is the best in my opinion.  I have not done Tabocón yet, but Eco Termales was not that expensive and the food was good and the springs were pretty and relaxing.

Sunday was a lazy day, sitting in the hotel and swimming in the hotel pools.  Monday and Tuesday were very busy. We took the jeep-boat-jeep to Monteverde from Arenal. After checking into our really nice cabin, we went on a fascinating insect/ butterfly tour.  Then we did a night hike in the cloud rain forest where we saw coatimundi, a large rodent type animal which I forget the name of, Mexican hairy porcupines and lots of spiders.

Tuesday we went on a coffee/ sugar plantation tour.  All very interesting with delicious candy and good coffee during the tour.   Then it was time to say good bye which came too soon, but it was great to be able to show them around and do new things with my family.  8 months is a long time to have been gone, at least for me.