Monday, May 30, 2011

Farewell, Teaching (For Now)—Or, Back to the Writing Life

Welcome ever smiles,
And farewell goes out sighing.

William Shakespeare

Five years ago, after a twenty-seven year absence, I returned to the high school classroom. Although this is where I started my teaching career, I’d be dishonest if I said that this is where I planned to be in my 50s. After teaching in universities most of my adult life—including earning tenure—to become a high school teacher once more seemed, in the minds of my former colleagues, and sometimes in my own, a monumental demotion: a plunge into murky waters in which I never dreamed to tread again, at least not willingly.

But there were two factors that tipped the scales—and decidedly—toward accepting this challenge: one, my wife and I wanted to remain in Central America, where we had been living contentedly for six years—three in Nicaragua and Panama each—and, two, she had been working at Balboa Academy, in Panama City, and she absolutely loved the school. Trusting her judgment that Balboa was a good place to work, I gladly accepted their job offer.

In spite being in a supportive work environment, I confess that there were many times when I questioned the sanity of this decision during my first semester back among high-schoolers. Only weeks into the experience, I’d wake up most mornings ready to concede defeat. My past among respectful university audiences had begun to feel like a dream, a wonderful fantasy, something that had never happened. Instead, I was faced with students who demanded that I keep them challenged, constantly, as well as entertained.

Those first four months—from August to November—nearly cured me of my desire to remain in Panama. More distressingly, I started to believe that I would never succeed in a high school classroom.

Fortunately, a close friend intervened, offering wise counsel that I was smart enough to follow: “Start every morning by saying: ‘Today I am going to make a difference.’” I started to repeat the phrase while showering, and before long the mantra became a mindset. What’s more, the proud educator in me became increasingly stubborn—and as a result more ingenious—about finding ways to entice my young, energetic audience to collaborate in creating effective lessons.

Happily, soon into the second semester my time in the classroom started to become rewarding (and I am delighted to report that it has remained so throughout). What’s more, I’m now certain that I’ve made a difference in the lives—and studies—of many students. But more importantly, they have made a difference in mine, teaching me that I have to be at my best every hour of every day—for at that age they instantly see through false pretenses on the part of adults.

Working at Balboa Academy has been, as my wife had assured me years ago, a beautiful, life-affirming episode. And today, as I stand on the threshold of withdrawing from full-time teaching, I do so with sadness. I know that, as a writer, I’ll be able to touch the heart of an occasional reader. But it has been as a teacher, particularly at the high school level, that I have seen the difference I can make on a daily basis. It’s been here, in Balboa Academy’s high school, that I’ve seen ninth-graders—my favorite age group—set off on the path toward becoming productive and caring young adults.

Yet, alas, the challenge of writing more books—and articles—is too strong of a siren’s call for me to ignore. Thus, once again my life takes another questionable turn. And whereas my years as a high school teacher turned out to be vastly gratifying, I now pray that my choice to face a blank screen every morning is graced with comparable results.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Nowhere to Go: Nicaraguans in the Face of Indifference

In difficult and hopeless situations the boldest plans are the safest.
Titus Livius

The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference.
Elie Wiesel

When it comes to solving small, everyday quandaries—whether it’s repairing a car without the appropriate spare parts, or making a remarkably good baseball out of old socks—Nicaraguans are the most resourceful and ingenious people I’ve lived among. Nevertheless, in comparison to their neighbors to the south, the country’s workforce remains largely untrained. Over thirty years of self-serving power-mongering among the nation’s political elite, along with several abrupt shifts in systems of governance, have resulted in disjointed and incoherent educational policies. And, ultimately, in spite of vociferous claims of revolutionary or democratic triumphs, the Nicaraguan people have ended up the losers.

These factors, combined with the excruciating poverty that afflicts so many citizens of this nation, have resulted in a great many losing hope. The hardships of the past five decades include the bloody overthrow of a dynastic dictatorship, a civil war, a never-ending chain of blatant corruption on both ends of the political spectrum, a devastating hurricane, electoral fraud, and a void of honest, inspiring leadership. This seemingly endless cycle of wretched fortune has led the Nicaraguan people to the brink of despair.

In a recent poll conducted by M & R Consultores, 50.1 percent of Nicaraguans have stated that, if given the opportunity, they would leave their country.

The thought that three-million Nicaraguans are prepared to seek a new beginning elsewhere is disheartening. It’s difficult to imagine so many people willing to abandon everything they’ve ever known—home, family, and friends—to risk venturing into unknown societies in search of better lives.

Moreover, upon examining the catch phrase of the polling question—“if given the opportunity”—the notion of voluntary emigration becomes even more tragic, a portrait drenched in pathos. Although Nicaraguans are prepared to leave their world behind, where would they go? There’s not a single nation disposed toward receiving three million refugees. Costa Rica, the country to the immediate south, is already overflowing with Nicaraguan immigrants who’ve been arriving in a steady, abundant flow since the late 1970s. In fact, Nicaragua’s inability to stem the tide has contributed significantly to the growing tensions between the two nations. And the United States, the destination of choice among most of those polled, certainly will not open its arm to these tired, huddled masses—particularly now that immigration reform has become such a divisive issue.

Economics, the opportunity to study, and the current political situation are the prime motives Nicaraguans express for wanting to leave. The country’s current political power struggles have slowed foreign investment—the lifeblood of economic development in Central America—to a trickle. And now that the machinations of the ruling Sandinista party have Daniel Ortega poised for reelection—even though the constitution expressly forbids consecutive presidential terms—Nicaraguans are bracing for the situation to take a turn for the worse.

Given Nicaragua’s enduring state of chaos, there appears to be little hope for a genuine change that will boost the nation’s chances for sustained economic growth and employment. What’s more, the specter of armed conflict, with reports of former Contras regrouping in the north, is casting a dark cloud over the future.

Given these circumstances, then, one cannot express surprise that half of Nicaragua’s population would leave their homeland under the right conditions. The problem is that there’s no place else to go; and now that the good people of this country face the frightening prospect of a coming dictatorship through electoral fraud, and possibly the beginnings of yet another civil war, what’s most alarming is that the world beyond its borders remains, to all appearances, indifferent.

Monday, May 02, 2011

A New Start

And we sailed all around the world, looking for a brand new start
Van Morrison, "Listen to the Lion"

A clean slate. Everyone needs the occasional new beginning, particularly creative individuals. To reboot one’s approach to the craft—so to speak—is indeed important if a writer wishes to view her or his subjects from a fresh perspective.

When I started blogging, seven years ago, I promised myself that regardless of the obstacles—teaching, writing and promoting my novels, familial, and other obligations—I would post an essay every week, written to the best of my abilities. I’m proud to say that in spite of my hectic schedule I was able to fulfill that commitment.

But in July of last year (2010), the moment arrived when I needed to take a break. The reason that I was about to enter my last year of teaching full-time (at least for a while), and I wanted to focus on giving the end of my days in this blessed profession a stellar sendoff.

And now, as the end of the school year approaches (and the beginning of a long stretch of full-time writing looms on the horizon), I can begin once again to entertain the idea of producing weekly essays with a renewed sense of purpose.

With regard to those pieces written over the past seven years, they have been compiled in a soon-to-be released book titled Love Made Visible: Reflections on Writing, Teaching, and Other Distractions. This collection—because of the quality of the writing, the selection of topics, and the continuing relevance of the essays—has given me great satisfaction: I can say with pride that it reflects quite accurately my concerns and my development as a writer over the years.

Love Made Visible, then, stands as a testament to the past.

My writings, as of now, step into the future.