28 December 2011

Operation Santa 2011

After polling several veterans of this field trip, I was apprehensive about taking my students to Operation Santa. This is what it reportedly entailed:

Four thousand students with special needs are seated at tables in a large square surrounded by parade fencing, in the middle of an aircraft hangar at JFK airport. After an hour or so, the hangar doors open and Santa taxis in on a jumbo jet. Then Santa boards a train/float and rides around the perimeter of the square as students variously try to get closer looks or try to avoid the noise around them.

The best thing my colleagues could say about Operation Santa was that it was a “rite of passage.” So I was naturally concerned it could have been a difficult trip for my students, given the close quarters, noise level, cool temperatures, and limited movement available.

However, I was pleasantly surprised by the trip. Organized by the Community Mayors (who also hold an excellent annual trip to the USS Intrepid Museum), there were numerous characters (including the Pink Panther) walking around to keep most of the students' attention while we waited for other schools to file in and for Santa to arrive. In addition, the square enclosure had been divided into four smaller squares, allowing for closer views of the anthropomorphic teapots, high school bands and Santa's train, as well as lessening crowding and providing easier exit points for accessing the Port-A-Potties. A pair of noise-dulling headphones I brought along for one student were also a great help.

In all, two of my three charges enjoyed the trip (a fourth would have found it too noisy and constricting), and I had a fairly good time myself. While a visit to El Museo Del Barrio and the aforementioned Intrepid Museum trip were superior, Operation Santa exceeded understandably low initial expectations.

16 November 2011

Speech Therapist Science Theater 3000

During the lull between Parent-Teacher Conference sessions, a colleague and I decided to watch X-Men: First Class while laminating worksheets and communication symbols/PECS. Our speech therapist joined us sporadically, variously interrupted by phone calls, errands, and lunch.

Given her pedigree, perhaps it was only natural to report observations on similarities between First Class and other movies, and to compare and contrast them. After all, she spends time helping our students do this.

The first film that merited comparison to X-Men: First Class was Pirates of the Caribbean: "Doesn't that guy [Johnny Depp] have superpowers?"

Next came Avatar since one, and later two, characters in First Class are blue.

Finally, there was Star Wars, since Beast resembled "What's his name? Chihuahua?"

Our SLT's contributions made for an enjoyable viewing, even though I was occasionally distracted by cutting and attaching velcro. It was a nice chance to bond without talking about students.

29 October 2011

Chebo Ceesay

Today I learned that Chebo Ceesay, my host father in Njau, The Gambia, passed away yesterday, October 28, 2011.

Chebo was a kind and thoughtful man, and an independent thinker. He travelled for work as a younger man, spending time in Mauritania, Cote d'Ivoire, and on a Spanish merchant ship that plied the west African coast. He even lived in the Bronx for a spell.

I could always rely on Chebo for useful advice, and contrarian perspectives on Gambian and international politics. I enjoy chatting with and listening to him as we took in BBC World Service reports.

One of my favourite memories was sitting under the mango tree by Chebo's radio listening to the penalty shootout between Cote d'Ivoire and Cameroon in the 2006 Africa Cup of Nations quarterfinals. After the first five players from each team made all of their penalty shots, it was time for sudden death. We listened incredulously as the commentators announced an amazing 11 shots made by each side, until Samuel Eto'o missed the 12th shot for Cameroon, leaving Didier Drogba to finally win the match.

Chebo always had humourous stories to share. These included Chebo's getting lost on his way home during his first night in New York, when he wandered around the Bronx for eight hours. Another favourite was about the time his Njau neighbour (and Bronx hot-bed mate) Ebou Secka got food poisoning from monitor lizard meat and Chebo could hear him groaning through the night from his compound across the way.

Perhaps the best story ended with Chebo urging me to ask the Alkalo (chief) of the Sey Kunda section of Njau "Ana sa beneen dalla?" ("Where is your other shoe?"), a cheeky reminder of the Alkalo's youthful indiscretions.

Chebo was a good husband to his wife Maram, and a good father to Omar Dye and Alhagie Sait. I wish them all well and they have my sympathies.

24 May 2011

The Seder

In advance of our stay in Bogotá, Becky looked into possible Passover Seders she could attend there. With some general directions, we set off on the Transmilenio to points north.

We got off at Calle 100 – well, Amy and I did. Becky didn't get out in time and continued to Calle 127. We decided to wait until Becky returned, presumably by the same bus line. Eventually a young man came up to me and asked “Are you Chris?” and pointed towards the exit. There we found Becky buying a bus ticket to enter, despairing of the effectiveness of yelling “Chris!” repeatedly. Becky reportedly managed her quick return to us by boarding a taxi and yelling “Calle 100! Mis amigos!” between bouts of laughter.

With this hiccup behind us, we proceeded along Calle 94 to the site of the “Israeli backpacker” Seder, which should've been a less formal affair than the one hosted by the Jewish community in Bogotá Having wandered past the pedestrian overpass, we scampered across one intersection and were promptly soaked by cars driving through the numerous puddles/ponds.

At this point we realised that we had passed the block the address suggested, although it soon emerged that the address was, in fact, incomplete (i.e. with block and street number, but no building number). At a hotel I began asking about a “sinagoga” nearby. Rather than being ushered back where we came from (perhaps on the other side of Calle 94?), a kindly, portly, moustachioed middle-aged man suggested that we continue along Calle 94 for several blocks. I was a bit dubious as this contradicted the partial address we had, but we set off nonetheless.

After several minutes' trudging, we decided that we should head back to the side of the block we missed on the walk over. Our friend from the hotel caught up with us though, and pressed on with us. I tried to ask him if there wasn't a synagogue behind us (“sinagoga” being the only known Spanish word that even approximated what we were looking for), but he said, “No, that's a hotel.” I attempted this line of inquiry a few more times, but had no way of fully explaining that I knew we'd met him outside a hotel, but was wondering if there wasn't anything further back.

Five minutes later he pointed to the left and said, “Es casi una sinagoga.” - That's almost a synagogue. He was pointing to the rather garish Farhaad Rugs: Persian Carpets emporium across the calle.

I felt compelled to ask, “But it's not...?” To which he declaratively stated “No!”

We went on a couple of more blocks before our friend said that it was just a bit further ahead on the left. He tacked right to catch a bus home.

We remained doubtful, but shortly afterwards we saw a brightly lit building with well-dressed people greeting each other and heading outside. The building was called “Lubavitch,” which turned out to be the synagogue for the resident Jewish community, earlier deemed by Becky as too posh for the likes of us in our (sodden) backpacker getup.

At first Becky protested that she couldn't enter in her current state (under-dressed and over-soiled), but Amy and I insisted that they go in after all the effort we made in finding the place. So Becky and Amy headed in while I searched for an affordable place to drink in the zona roja, finally settling on a quiet bar nestled amongst car dealerships (but still quite expensive).