Chapter 29: I’d Rather Get a Root Canal in Mali Than Teach in the U.S.

Last year, during a severe sugar craving bout,  I found an old piece of hard candy in my desk at school. Despite the fact that this red sticky thing was probably manufactured back when Mali became a country in 1960, I still popped it into my mouth. Then it got stuck on my lower molars, and upon disengaging it I also yanked off a crown.

This is not a good situation to be in when you live in a developing country where some

My tooth, sans roots.

My tooth, sans roots.

dental work occurs roadside. But lo and behold, I discovered a Lebanese dentist (raised in Senegal) who operated a modern, dental practice in an actual building near our school, and he had a number of our students as patients. So off I went to have him reattach the old crown which I was sure would take ten minutes. Except the old crown was cracked and he needed to make a new one. And then he discovered that a root canal had not been done on that old tooth (thank you crappy Florida dentist).

So long story short, he did the root canal (even finding a 4th root which he said was rare), had a fancy new crown made in France, and made my mouth whole again…all at half the cost of a dentist in the U.S. My dentist in the U.S. checked his work and gave his seal of approval. However, this all took six lovely visits, some of which seemed like movie scenes: the time he and his wife/assistant had a huge argument in French during my actual root canal; our debate over whether I have a gag reflex or whether he just put too much of the molding material in my mouth because it touched my uvula, etc.).

The boys of Crimson Thorn. Rock on!  photo: Snipview

The boys of Crimson Thorn. Rock on, God!
photo: Snipview

I spent a lot of time in that dental chair, staring out the window and thinking about how I would rather be just about any other place than a dental chair. Truth be told, for me just about any other place would be preferable–a Siberian hard labor camp, a Crimson Thorn concert (Christian death metal band), a gas station bathroom, a party attended by everyone working at Fox News. I mean really, can there be worse places on this earth?

Why yes, yes there can.

My last school year in an American classroom started with a bang, and by bang I mean like being hit over the head repeatedly with a 2 x 4 until I was knocked senseless.

Usually those first few days before students arrive are when administrators pull out all the

Because every elementary classroom needs more noise!

Because every elementary classroom needs more noise!  photo: Oriental Trading Company

stops to get teachers pumped up for the year ahead–spreads of artery clogging breakfast foods, singing some upbeat pop song in which the lyrics are changed to something school-related (I’m sure the Black Eyed Peas can sue whenever a faculty croons, “I’ve got a feeling, that our school’s gonna be a good school, that our staff’s gonna enforce good rules, that data’s gonna be a good tool…”), and cheap but useful gifts from the Oriental Trading Company catalog such as lanyards, water bottles, and rum. Okay, alcohol wasn’t really one of the gifts but if Oriental Trading added rum-filled key chains, I’d be all over it.

Usually there are also fun activities to inspire the faculty, help them bond, and help set the stage for creative instruction, such as determining your teaching team’s multiple intelligences or participating in a talent show (where it was immediately evident which teachers did not possess any multiple intelligences related to performing).

Data binder or something to lift at the gym to gain upper arm strength...you decide.   photo: mikekenny.blogspot.com

Data binder or something to lift at the gym to gain upper arm strength…you decide. photo: mikekenny.blogspot.com

But for this particular school year, my very last as a U.S. classroom teacher, I knew things were different the moment I entered the meeting room—or as I like to call it, the chamber of horrors. At each place setting rested a cinder-block-sized, serious looking binder stuffed to the gills with inserts and tabs. On the front was a label printed with “DATA BINDER” in all caps. A screen in the front of the room glowed with the light of an LCD projector, showing a bar graph with words and numbers too tiny to read. There was no music, no animated conversation about how thin/tan/rested everyone looked. There may have been food but I really don’t recall because the gloomy mood sucked the appetite and life right out of me.

Todays torture choices: Electroshock treatment or hours of data PowerPoint slides.

Todays torture choices: Electroshock treatment or hours of data PowerPoint slides. photo: envisiontheamericandream.com

For the next three, grueling hours we were tortured with slide after slide of bar graphs, pie charts, line charts, histograms, and scatter plots from the school district headquarters, all showing us how crappy we were as teachers based on how low our students had scored on a single high-stakes test. Water boarding would have been easier to handle than this. Seriously, if the principal had said, “You can either watch this data PowerPoint or be shocked with raw wires attached to your private parts” I would have started attaching the copper wires myself.

The sad thing was, we all knew this test-focused mania sweeping the U.S. was hogwash, a movement led by non-educators with le$$-than-hone$t intention$. Since 2002, the law of the land told us that if we tested kids a lot (a whole, whole lot) and made teachers solely responsible for improving test scores, every kid would be “proficient” by 2014.

Yeah, not so much.

Maybe that’s why 500 education researchers recently signed a letter to Congress & President Obama saying, “We strongly urge departing from test-focused reforms that not only have been discredited for high-stakes decisions, but also have shown to widen, not close, gaps and inequities.” Now there’s a ringing endorsement.

At the end of this first day I loaded my Data Binder cinder block into a wheelbarrow and

Hope he doesn't have to use the bathroom anytime soon.

Hope he doesn’t have to use the bathroom anytime soon. photo: jokes.naij.com

glumly shuffled to my classroom. Along the way I thought about jobs I could do that would be more pleasant, less painful. Like cleaning out clogged sewer pipes without protective gear, tarring roads in the Gobi desert in summertime, being a bicycle brick carrier, exploring the growing field of ice road trucking, or having stun guns tested on you.

It’s a wonder that I made it through that year without developing a crack addiction or multiple personality disorder. It was tough trying to understand the new normal, that our schools weren’t places for inspiring kids to learn but places that made them develop irritable bowel syndrome over constant test stress. I should have been tipped off when we were given a series of procedures to follow in case a student vomited on the end-of-year standardized test. It was no coincidence that this would be my last year in a U.S. classroom.

Q: How do you eat a mattress? A: One bite at a time

Q: How do you eat a mattress? A: One bite at a time   Photo: TLC (My Strange Addiction)

So rather than go slowly insane and start eating my mattress, or hair, bricks, plastic bags, or paint pens (habits featured on “My Strange Addiction” on TLC), a few years ago Jamey and I moved to sub-Saharan Africa to teach at an international school. To ask me if teaching in an international school in Bamako, Mali is preferable to teaching in the U.S. is like asking if anesthesia is preferable to biting on a stick when you’re having you’re foot amputated.

Here’s how it went at our international school this past August during our first days before students arrived:

We began by discussing how we can strengthen our school community. Then we talked about our goals for the school year, like developing a meaningful service-learning program so our students learn as they help their local community. On subsequent days we learned about new developments in classroom technology, got a refresher on the Understanding by Design framework we use for the curriculum we develop, and had plenty of time to set up our classrooms and to collaborate with colleagues.

For the third year in a row I started the school year inspired, motivated, and full of ideas. And that was without the aid of the Oriental Trading rum. Okay, there was our Friday happy hour on the patio at the Mande Hotel, watching the sun set over the Niger River. But we weren’t drowning our sorrows as we so often did back in the States, but celebrating the start of a great school year.

Capping off the week with happy hour at the Mande Hotel, overlooking the Niger, and not talking about standardized testing.

Capping off the week with happy hour at the Mande Hotel, overlooking the Niger, and not talking about high-stakes standardized testing.

As the year has progressed, I can almost say that I’ve forgotten those scary days back in a U.S. classroom. But these memories are gone in the same way that I almost forget how I stuck my foot in a wasp nest when I was ten. For example, I’d love to forget that I heard an administrator, with regard to the annual state test, tell a colleague, “You need to get your student test scores up because right now, the assistant superintendent knows your name. And that’s NOT a good thing.” Ahhh, intimidation as motivation…the stuff memories are made of.

During my last two years in the U.S. I left the classroom to work as a resource teacher

Green glow courtesy of the overhead fluorescent lights, another charming feature in my cubicle away from home.

Green glow courtesy of the overhead fluorescent lights, another charming feature in my cubicle away from home.

with our school district, one of the largest in the country with 13,000 teachers and nearly 180,000 students. I had just been honored as the district’s Teacher of the Year, so a job at district headquarters was my attempt at a promotion to fancier digs with a higher level of respect. The first clue that I had made a judgment error was when I moved into my workspace, a windowless cubicle smaller than the closet in my former classroom. On Day Three, I discovered that my lunch bag had been removed from the lunchroom fridge and placed on top of it, plastered with a yellow sticky note saying, “This food takes up too much space.” Fancy, indeed.

But the worst part of that district job ordeal was the new teacher evaluation system implemented during my final year in cubicle quarantine. This evaluation system was two-part: half relied on your students’ state tests scores. As any ed researcher will tell you, using student high-stakes test scores to evaluate teachers is unreliable and misguided, but that’s another conversation.

High tech data analysis tool photo: www.ourwatercounts.com

High tech data analysis tool
photo: http://www.ourwatercounts.com

But what made my situation even stranger is that I didn’t have any students. I was a mere resource teacher with little exposure to actual students and just a bit of exposure to teachers—most of whom didn’t listen to me anyway because they were suffering from PTTS (Post Traumatic Test Syndrome). So nobody was sure exactly which student test data my evaluation would be based upon. Maybe the average scores of students in the entire district someone said. Maybe the student scores from the schools I visited someone else said. Or maybe they would ask the Oracle at Delphi or use a Magic 8 Ball (“Reply hazy, try again”). I would certainly trust a Mattel novelty more in this situation.

The other half of the new teacher evaluation relied on an observation system performed by an administrator. This system is a complicated mélange of domains and data marks and frameworks and elements and instructional categories and design questions. Here is part of an email I found on the district’s website, a simple little message sent to administrators about this evaluation system:

Please be advised that the Joint Evaluation Negotiations Committee has released an updated Observation Schedule for Category 1B and Category 2 for the second half of the year. Twenty data marks are still required to complete the Instructional Practices Portion of the evaluation for Category 1B & 2 Teachers and the data marks are derived from the elements rated as a result of an observation and any elements rated in Domains 2, 3, and 4. Administrators can view the number of data marks scored by running the following report in iObservation: Evaluative Element Scoring by Learner.

Sidebar: The fact that this system required creating a Joint Evaluation Negotiations Committee (JENC, pronounced “junk”) should give one pause.

So administrators observe teachers a bunch of times and rank their performances with a

Better pay, more respect than teaching. photo: www.ourwatercounts.com

Better pay, more respect than teaching…order up!
photo: http://www.ourwatercounts.com

five-category scale that ranges from “this person should be working in the kitchen at the Cheesecake Factory instead of a classroom” to “this person is so good they should immediately leave the classroom to work in a closet-sized, windowless cubicle at the school district office.” Actually the categories were Beginning, Developing, Applying, Innovating, but I like my scale better. To receive the top category, Innovating, one had to “Adapt and create new strategies for unique student needs and situations.”

Again, this system was set up to evaluate teachers in the classroom so my situation as a resource teacher didn’t quite fit. Perhaps I could be judged on the way I was able to write curriculum in my cubicle within an open workspace, surrounded by secretaries chatting about green bean recipes while 20 other resource teachers talked on the phone or to each other and someone else was sharpening 250 pencils for an upcoming state test and the fax machine continuously beeped after each page it spit out from a 100-page fax.

Or maybe I could be evaluated on the clever way I camouflaged my mini-fridge (a banned appliance in cubicle world) as a box of supplies, complete with a false front that opened to reveal an array of cold beverages and my (apparently) very large lunch bag, now safe from the lunch police.

I wasn’t too concerned about the way this observation would happen, though, since just months before the district has knighted me as Teacher of the Year for my “innovative approaches in the classroom.” It was as simple as changing the suffix on “innovative” to the present participle “innovating.” I mean, once an innovator, always an innovator, right? Even though I wasn’t in the classroom I continued writing and teaching others how to use innovative, arts-integrated curriculum. I still presented innovative sessions at national conferences. Besides, wouldn’t it look pretty stupid ranking your Teacher of the Year as a moron who still hasn’t quite the hang of teaching after 8 years in inner city schools and 6 years as a national education trainer?

Madame Curie,: Innovator or slacker? photo: bookcoverimgs.com

Madame Curie,: Innovator or slacker?
photo: bookcoverimgs.com

So imagine my surprise/shock/nausea when I discovered that administrators were told that, for this first year, they should NOT award any teacher with the highest designation of “innovating.” That would leave them without room for improvement, they reasoned, without any motivation to do better. I mean, just look at how lazy Steven Jobs became after his success. Or Ben Franklin. Or Marie Curie. All slackers, every one of them. Thank goodness my own administrator fought back and in the end I was ranked as Innovating, even though my mood at the time would better be described as Loathing or Abhorring. I didn’t see those designations on the form though.

So you can understand how nostalgic memories like these don’t fade so much. The good news is that in my Life 2.0, phenomenal educational experiences are crowding out the crappy ones in my head. Here are a few recent classroom events worthy of being stored in my long-term memory:

When Lessons are More than Just Lessons

The think tank...coming up with the plot for our new graphic novel on malnutrition.

The think tank…coming up with the plot for our new graphic novel on malnutrition.

For the third year in a row my class of Grade 4 and 5 students is partnering with a local NGO, Mali Health Organizing Project, to create a health-related graphic novel for distribution to local school children. It always starts with a science unit in class that provides the kids with basic knowledge. From there they spend the day visiting the neighborhood where the school children live, a slum adjacent to Bamako. They visit a school, a clinic, and walk the dirt streets in order to understand the context of the health problems we are trying to address. Then a group of local school children visit us at our school, and collaborate with my students on the plot, illustrations, and comic software work.

The end products are professional looking graphic novels in both French and English—one on malaria prevention (The Adventures of Anti-Malaria Man) and another on rotavirus prevention Agents of HEALTH: When Rotavirus Attacks), and another one on malnutrition currently in process—that are given to hundreds of local children and just may save lives. You can see the last graphic novel here:  https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1oBcyWe5BkyS1FCcE0teWtyNkk/view?usp=sharing

My students say the same things every year: I never realized how lucky we are and how nilbad it is for other kids. I never thought a kid could help save lives. This project makes me feel good. Can we watch Frozen?

And to think we spend about 25 total hours on this life-changing project—about the same amount of time on average that US students spend taking standardized tests and practice tests. I actually read that some U.S, schools allocate a quarter of the year’s instruction to test prep, and that some schools have daily two and a half hour prep sessions and test practice on vacation days. I vow right here and now that the last words that will EVER be in the same sentence for me will be “vacation” and “test prep.”

 Andy Warhol in My Classroom

I’m a diehard proponent of arts integrated instruction, an approach that should be welcomed in test-obsessed U.S. schools because it helps kids become critical thinkers, develops creativity and problem solving, allows kids to retain information longer, and leads to world peace (sorry, got carried away on that last one, but you never know).

Half Pint's schoolhouse.

Half Pint engages in drill-and-kill school fun.

Unfortunately if it doesn’t look like a test prep workbook or a drill-and-kill exercise that Laura Ingalls Wilder did on the prairie in 1877, it’s probably not going to be welcomed in a U.S. classroom these days. Which is why when I arrived at the American International School of Bamako, I felt like a refugee who just escaped from North Korea and landed in the middle of Candyland or Disneyworld. Sure we implement standardized tests at AISB, this one on a computer. But students spend just 2.5 hours in September doing so, and another 2.5 hours again in April. The results are immediate, so teachers can use the data as one of many measures to inform their instruction. That frees up the rest of the year for…….wait for it……actual learning! I know, it’s a radical, revolutionary approach, but I hope it catches on.

So I always hit the ground running in August, and this year Andy Warhol was with me. This

Marilyn sets the tone at the door. Oh, the wonders of butcher paper and stick glue.

Marilyn sets the tone at the door. Oh, the wonders of butcher paper and stick glue.

was going to be a Warhol-inspired kick-off that would have all the fun and excitement of pop art. I started with a Warhol quote and the door. Next the kids made Warhol-inspired portraits in which they used color to define their personalities. Then we created our classroom rules for the year, but this time expressed in Warhol-style posters. We read about his life, and how his experiences as a commercial artist and aficionado of movie star life helped him develop a unique style as an artist, then analyzed many of his works to look for references to his life experiences.

be respectful nilNow, despite the fact that of my 19 students just one speaks English as the first language at home, and that a quarter of my class had a year or less of English instruction, they all thrived during these Warhol activities—analyzing, critiquing, comprehending, evaluating–all those things standardized tests are SUPPOSED to measure. In addition, these activities fostered creativity, critical thinking, motivation, curiosity, enthusiasm, empathy, self-awareness, self-discipline, resourcefulness, sense of beauty, sense of wonder, honesty, and integrity—all those things standardized tests CANNOT measure.

Social Studies is Actually A Thing

Unlike my experience in U.S. schools where I heard more than one administrator say,

Live at "The Pharaoh's Court"

Live at The Pharaoh’s Court….the Master Sculptor did, I swear!

“Forget about social studies; it’s not on the state test,” I teach it daily at AISB (this last statement would raise eyebrows across the pond).We study river civilizations by exploring ancient Egypt. Students take on roles as actual ancient Egyptians (a vizier, a dancer, a tomb painter) and are challenged to solve an actual tomb robbery, something that requires them to develop their own alibis and to question suspects in “The Pharaoh’s Court” (which I must say was much more exciting than the past-due rent cases on the People’s Court).

Tableau from Odysseus, in which he is lashed to the mast to avoid the deathly sirens.

Tableau from Odysseus, in which he is lashed to the mast to avoid the deathly sirens.

To study the spread of ideas we explore ancient Greece, anchored by a daily dose of Homer’s The Odyssey. As students complete challenges (one of which involved creating a tableau scene from The Odyssey) they moved their team ship on a big wall map, following the path Odysseus took in his many adventures. Safe to say that all teams did arrive in Ithaca at the end, and were treated to a viewing of the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts. I’m still scared by those skeleton soldiers that grow from Hydra’s teeth that are planted in the soil.

Science Too

IMG_6625Unless you teach Grade 5 in Florida., the grade where students take a science state test, science is an afterthought at most elementary schools, usually shoved into the few remaining weeks that follow the completion of state testing. At AISB I teach it daily. Students make their own handmade books to create an earthquake survival manual for our unit on earth building and breaking. For our unit on microorganisms they engage in the service learning project described above. For our sound unit they’ll create their own outdoor sound sculpture. Students analyze songs that relate to our science themes….John Denver’s Calypso during our unit on ocean ecology, The B-52s Planet IMG_6254Claire and Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite The Planets during our unit on outer space.They act out the three types of tectonic plate movements.We watch clips of the cheesy Earthquake movie to see if it accurately portrays an earthquake.

So it’s discouraging to hear that a national 2007 study by the Center on Education Policy reported that since 2001, 44% of U.S. school districts reduced the time spent on science, social studies and the arts by an average of 145 minutes per week in order to focus on reading and math. No B-52s for you American kids! Get out that damn workbook!

 All the School’s a Stage

IMG_7065My kids engage in acting every day, well, beyond the fake No-I-really-didn’t-at-all-mean-to call-her-a-heifer-and-I-am-truly-so-sorry kind of acting. In reading, the students show their knowledge of vocabulary words or important plot points in a novel by performing quick tableaus (frozen pose). They engage in story dramatization to explore major characters and events, or to predict how characters will fare after the story ended. In science they use their bodies to demonstrate the way white blood cells attack bacteria.

IMG_7249

My clever thespians doing a tableau for the word “reflection.”

To be engaged, or not engaged, that is the question. Being engaged in so much performance work leads to confident kids who don’t know what stage fright is. I suppose that’s better than what education researcher Gregory J. Cizek discovered in studies that show how U.S. testing. produces “gripping anxiety in even the brightest students, and makes young children vomit or cry, or both.” I’ll choose performing a tableau over vomiting any day.

 Art Attack

IMG_7216

Maimouna’s Basquita-inspired art

The Grade 4 – 5 students demonstrate their learning visually too. After exploring symbolism in a novel, song, and poem, students create their own symbolic artwork. But they are challenged to do this in the style of one of the symbol-heavy artists we studied, such as Keith Haring, Marc Chagall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, or the Malian artists who create carved Dogon doors. That means they have to get inside the artist’s head and embrace his approach.

IMG_6783 IMG_6767 IMG_6758Students also created cubist portraits of characters from the novel we read, Shiloh by Phyliis Reynolds Naylor.

IMG_6241In writing we explore figurative language through visual art, creating self portraits to learn about alliteration or comic strip panels to show onomatopoeia. My classroom is plastered (in a neat, organized manner, mind you) with posters of famous artworks, movies, musicians, and Broadway shows because I think these are a bit more inspiring than the pacing schedules and anchor charts about verb conjugation that I was required to post back in the USSA.

Not only does this arts-integrated approach help kids learn valuable content, it fosters creativity. Remember that stuff? Maybe not if you’re in America. A 2010 College of William & Mary study found Americans’ scores on the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking have been dropping since 1990. Says researcher Kyung-Hee Kim, “If we neglect creative students in school because of the structure and the testing movement… then they become underachievers.” That’s enough to make Haring, Changall, and Basquiat turn in their graves.

Professional Development

In my old life, professional development meant another visit from a district “specialist” with

Teaching my colleagues about story dramatization.

Teaching my colleagues about story dramatization, which is apparently more fun than data analysis.

a dull PowerPoint full of words in Comic Sans font, touting the latest focus/fad (“You and Data Analysis: A Match Made in Heaven”). Lots of chart paper, and if they were really fancy, lots of sticky note posting on the chart paper. At the PD session I recently led at AISB, my colleagues (all of whom weren’t even required to attend) engaged in the story dramatization of an American Indian folktale to see the connections between drama and literature.

A break in the conference in Addis Ababa gave us time to inhale platters of Ethiopian food.

A break in the conference in Addis Ababa gave us time to inhale platters of Ethiopian food.

Our last session on standardized testing at AISB could have been dull, except for the fact that beer and wine were served (hey, it’s 5:00 somewhere). Back in the States I’d get excited about PD sessions held outside of school, like sessions in the cafeteria of a nearby high school. Yeah it smelled like old food and the tables were sticky, but at least it wasn’t the same old media center we always met in. Contrast this with my last out-of-school PD session here…in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Not only did I get to present a session on service learning, and get to meet educators from across Africa, and become addicted to Ethiopian coffee and food, but we even had a baboon-on-the-loose alert during the conference. And the cafeteria was outside, so no old food smell.

Granted, one has to consider the cost of sending teachers to conferences. But U.S. states seem to have lots of money when it comes to testing. From 2009 through 2012 Texas spent $88 million per year just to test students.

 Celebrate Good Times, C’mon!

There wasn’t much to celebrate back in my old teaching life, except maybe the end of the

At the school Halloween extravaganza, I worked the drinks table dressed as Sharknado.

At the school Halloween extravaganza, I worked the drinks table dressed as Sharknado.

week or the school year. But here, I celebrate on a regular basis…including Halloween. Yep, Pat Robertson and the 700 Club have not convinced international schools that Halloween is Satan’s birthday (yet) and we actually have a traditional Halloween party where kids and adults dress in whatever they want, not some stupid literary character, and enjoy trick-or-treating, a haunted house, and tons of sugar-laced food and drink.

Epilogue

Jamey and I will be leaving AISB and Mali after three adventurous and enjoyable years, and I look forward to filling my head with even more excellent memories at our new post in Shanghai. I’m happy to report that, again, I won’t need rum-filled key fobs or episodes of paint-marker-eating to get through the school year. Because I do hate the way that mauve paint stains my teeth.

Note: Thanks to the website ProCon.org for the fabulous standardized testing facts.

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Chapter 28: Go Ask Alice (or Hazel, Rosario, Rosie, Mr. French, Charles in Charge, or Fati)

For many years everything I needed to know about household help I learned on TV. The

Alice always makes it better. Source: alimartell.com

Alice always makes it better. Source: alimartell.com

Brady Bunch taught me that maids wore powder blue frocks, gave you something fresh-baked when you were down in the dumps, and lived in some mystery room located in a vague part of the house (Alice rocked!).

Hazel, along with Rosario from Will & Grace, taught me that maids had smart mouths. Mr. French from Family Affair and Geoffrey from Fresh Prince of Belair taught me that butlers had facial hair and vague English accents. Charles in Charge taught me that teen idols looked great as a

Rosario lets Karen Walker have it.

Rosario lets Karen Walker have it.

nanny but probably weren’t the best choice in terms of teen girl supervision. Rosie from the Jetsons taught me that robots can totally pull off a French maid’s uniform. And really, what else does one need to know besides that?

Well, maybe a little more. My first real life exposure to a domestic happened when I was a 16-year-old exchange student in Peru. I lived with a middle class family—two teachers and their four kids—and a maid who would just sort of materialize at times. She was young, probably about my age, and unlike Hazel or Rosario, she hardly ever uttered a peep to her employers (least of all some witty, Rosario-like retort such as, “I’d ring your neck, but I don’t want to be standing in a puddle of gin!”).

Nope, this gal kept her head down, no eye contact, and kept occupied doing things like boiling stuff on the stove. Now the first time I lifted the lid off one of her boiling pots it contained everyone’s white underclothes, and the second time it was fish heads, so suffice to say I didn’t do a lot of lid-lifting after that. She also went to the market every day to buy the foodstuff we would eat at lunch and supper. I went with her once, and credit her with making me understand that guinea pigs can be pets or entrees.

Our maid in Peru, rockin' the big cuffs.

Our maid in Peru, rockin’ the big cuffs.

One day I asked my host brother Paco where this maid lived. “On the roof,” he answered matter-of-factly. I immediately envisioned her curled up in an abandoned pigeon coop or sleeping under a lean-to propped against the chimney. Then I made my way up there one day and saw that there was, in fact, a little structure that I supposed was a maid’s room and while small, was really private with a great view of the neighborhood. I’m pretty sure that Alice on the Brady Bunch would have been pleased with this scenario as she could have easily smuggled Sam the Butcher up here without anyone knowing a thing.

I later found out that maids here came from poor families and only made a few dollars each week, which is why most middle class families could afford to have one. They certainly weren’t as beloved as Hazel or even Rosie the Robot Maid, and I sometimes winced at the way the family spoke to ours. I was even told by the family one time that I shouldn’t speak with ours unless I needed her to do something. Small talk be damned!

Years passed and I moved to steamy South Florida where once again the world of household help would come alive before my very eyes. I lived just across the Intracoastal Waterway from glamorous Palm Beach, an otherworldly island of warped fantasy where the uber-wealthy had mansions on the ocean full of maids, butlers, cooks, assistants, house managers, drivers, social secretaries, dog handlers, food tasters, and tiara polishers. Here were some of the highlights of my household help encounters in Palm Beach:

Human Video Game

In my previous career as a landscape architect, I designed the front lawn area for a media mogul whose mansion sat on the Atlantic Ocean in Palm Beach. At the firm where I worked we rarely did residential work and now I understand why. I was given the task of creating a preliminary design, and then a few of us paid a visit to the home. We, of course, had to park in the service area and were ushered into the back door by a gaggle of housemaids wearing crisp, black and white shifts. They led us to an area inside the door where we sat on a bench, and in hushed voices they told us to cover our shoes with velvety cloth covers, not to touch the walls as we walked up the stairs, and various other instructions that would ensure no trace of mere mortals would remain once we departed.

They led us up a sweeping grand staircase, and I couldn’t help thinking how much our velvety foot covers were polishing each marble step, or how easily we could have slipped right off and plunged to our deaths where, I was sure, no trace of our blood would be left behind. At the top they led us down a darkened hallway where every door was closed. We stopped in front of a set of double doors where one maid tapped so slightly I wasn’t sure it even made a sound. The door opened and there stood the mogul and his wife, bathed in glowing light, like some Renaissance Medici portrait. They glanced at our shoes (feet covered, check) and pointed us inside the master bedroom while the maids disappeared back into the dark hallway.

Our project director made quick introductions, but there were no handshakes, probably because we didn’t have velvety hand covers. Then she quickly explained that I had roughed out an idea for the lawn that included fountains, plantings, paving crafted from baby unicorn horns, and such. I unfurled my drawing and the mogul and his wife nodded as I explained each part. Then they explained why we were in their bedroom, thank goodness, as I was beginning to think this was going to turn in to one of those “Eyes Wide Shut” party scenarios. Mr. and Mrs. Mogul felt that from the balcony off the bedroom they would have a bird’s eye view of the front lawn, and could better imagine my design in place.

There were indeed fabulous sets of glass doors across the front of the bedroom, offering sweeping views not only of the money-green front lawn, but of the sapphire blue Atlantic Ocean. For a few minutes I tried to explain where each part of my design would happen (“Now, over there by the Central American gentleman trimming your grass with sterling silver scissors will be the first statue, and over where your Labradoodle and Chihuaweiler are enjoying their pâté and finger sandwiches will be the fountain, etc., etc.”).

Then because Mr. Mogul was having difficulty imagining the new design, he asked if I might go to the lawn and indicate the exact layout of each feature. We did have marking paint in the car, sort of a powdery, neon orange spray paint we used to “draw” on the ground, so I grabbed a can and a measuring tape and headed to the front lawn.

My actual design completed, photographed by a secret drone.

My actual design completed, photographed by a secret drone.

For the next hour I was like a petite video game character controlled by the Moguls up on high. I’d spray a line and they’d shout from above, “No, no, further to the left.” And I’d kick the old line away with my foot and respray. Then, “No, too small!” and I’d scuff away the paint and spray a larger diameter circle to represent the Dom Pérignon-filled fountain. To think I had pitied the housemaids who seemed so controlled over, and now I was the one with a joystick up my rear! But in the end (haha) the design turned out great, which just goes to prove that video game characters are people too.

The Greyson Bed

I once accompanied a photographer friend on a shoot at another waterfront mansion. We had the run of the place since it was off season and this hotel-sized abode was merely a vacation house. As we were snooping, I mean, looking around for new angles to photograph, we found ourselves in the laundry complex. It was easily as large as apartments where I had lived, and included industrial sized washers, dryers, steamers, padded tables for clothes folding, an array of shiny silver irons, and some sort of medieval-looking contraption that I was sure was a torture device for maids who had disobeyed (or maybe it was a clothes presser, whatever). Of course this showroom of laundry appliances served a whopping two people (who apparently changed their clothes every 12 seconds).

Make sure the gauze curtains are tied JUST LIKE THIS!

Make sure the gauze curtains are tied JUST LIKE THIS! Source: aliexpress.com

Then, tucked on a shelf crowded with exotic detergents from Europe, we found the mother lode….a series of little wooden models of beds, complete with headboards, tiny cloth blankets, and little silk pillows. On the base of each model was a label that said “How to Make the Greyson Bed” (name changed to protect the innocent). Yep, the household staff was immune to bed-making blunders because they had a precise model to follow! We did look around for other models (e.g. “How to Wipe the Greyson Butts”) but came up empty-handed.

Merry Christmukah!

Both Jamey and I sometimes earned extra money by helping a couple of local companies decorate Christmas trees in Palm Beach for the holidays. We would arrive at a mansion with a massive evergreen imported from Lapland or wherever, then wrap the interior trunk and every branch with a gazillion white lights that could easily illuminate Carlsbad Caverns from top to bottom.

Next we’d open box after box of fancy ornaments from the Nuremberg Christmas Market

The Palm Beachers always asked for Christmas trees made of humans, but they were just too big to fit into their fancy parlors.

The Palm Beachers always asked for Christmas trees made of humans, but they were just too big to fit into their fancy parlors. Source: Flickr.com

—supplemented by box after box of even fancier ornaments we bought at overpriced local boutiques or antique shoppes—to hang on each bough, often along with fresh pears, apples, and pomegranates, as well as fresh roses and hydrangea with their stems in tiny tubes of water, as well as tiny baby reindeer that would wiggle and coo (okay, not really reindeer, but they would have if they could have).

And where were the families as all of these decorating festivities were occurring? Why, sitting on the couch watching, naturally! Apparently it’s an annual holiday tradition…the “watching of the help doing the Christmas decorating.” Which made it even a little weirder that many of these families were Jewish.

So that was my extensive background knowledge regarding household help. Mostly these were worlds I would really never be a part of, something I was reminded of each time I was scrubbing my own toilet bowl or scraping off some random, dried, really sticky substance from the refrigerator shelf. I was my own household help, without the powder blue uniform and crisp white apron Alice wore so well (although I was pretty good with Hazel/Rosario-style one liners).

So imagine my surprise when Jamey and I found ourselves in our own Downtown Abbey-like arrangement here in sub-Saharan Africa. After we had signed our contract to teach at the American International School of Bamako, we received an email explaining that we would have a guard posted at our home 24 hours/day, paid for by the school. Since we had pretty much sold everything we owned before arriving, these guards would be protecting such valuable commodities as our collection of Old Navy boxers and our rare assortment of toiletries purchased from Target (that’s tar-JAY, by the way…very French).

Our favorite Fati

Our favorite Fati

Then we were asked if we wanted to keep the maid, Fati, and gardener, Oumar, that were currently working at the house. The maid’s salary at the time was $150/month, and she worked 5 days a week, 8 hours/day cooking, cleaning, shopping, and doing the laundry. The gardener came twice a week for 4 hours at a time and was paid $50/month for cutting the lawn, planting and caring for the flowers, trimming hedges, watering, and sweeping paved areas. It took us 1.5 seconds to decide “yes.” Lady Grantham, eat your heart out!

Having household help was an interesting adjustment for us. Fati, our maid extraordinaire, certainly has made me feel like Lord Grantham. I remember that feeling I’d get back in Florida when I’d spend all day Saturday cleaning the house, doing the laundry, and taking care of the yard. I would be wiped out by evening, but everything looked so damn sparkly good that I didn’t care. I’d marvel at how shiny the fixtures looked, how the wood floors gleamed, how the yard looked so manicured. Now, that’s the feeling I get EVERY day when we return from school, except we don’t have to lift a finger and can just lounge on the sofa and eat bonbons and throw the wrappers on the floor (full disclosure: Not only do I NOT throw bonbon wrappers on the floor, I do a before-the-maid-gets-here cleaning so she doesn’t think we are cavemen).

One of the many downsides I’d discover about to doing your own housework is that two days after cleaning, everything is a mess again (I’m not blaming this on Jamey per se, but let’s just say that our ideas about cleanliness differ somewhat). Then you just start to dread the weekend when you have to do all of that housework yet again.

We fit right in.

We fit right in.

Now the dread has vanished. We come home from school each day to a sparkling clean house with tile floors so shiny we could skate on them, or at least do one of those Tom Cruise slides from Risky Business (except wearing pants because I don’t think maids should see our Old Navy boxers). The bed looks hotel-ready with plumped up pillows stacked squarely on top of each other, crisply folded edges, and the sheet turned down just so. The sinks, toilets, and showers glisten without a water spot in sight. Often there are fresh flowers on the table in a glass vase (which we now pronounce “vahz” because we are just like the Crawleys or the Moguls at this point).

Then comes the most wonderful, enticing fragrance of all: the smell of dinner that we

My favorite meal is the one someone else cooks.

My favorite meal is the one someone else cooks. Thanks Fati!

didn’t have to cook ourselves. Yep, every afternoon dinner awaits on the stove, a fully cooked meal in a sparkling clean kitchen. It’s almost like that device the Jetsons had in their kitchen, where they would press a button and a turkey dinner or massive plate of spaghetti would appear. Even better, when we finish eating we just leave the dishes in the sink, where, on the following day, we find them miraculously clean and put away in the cupboard.

But wait….there’s more! Next we wander into the bedroom where the dirty clothes from the previous day are clean, ironed, and folded. Fati even irons the socks. It’s the same with the yard. Just as the bougainvillea or the pomegranate tree or the lawn is about to appear unkempt, we come home to find it all trimmed to perfection. Our vegetable garden is planted, composted, watered, de-weeded, and harvested for us, but I still say, “Look at these tomatoes I grew in my garden!” In three years I’ve done dishes twice (emergency situation), and just a month ago I took out the garbage for the first time (I actually did not know where it went, and the guard took it for me).

Speaking of guards, we have two that take turns on 12-hour shifts. They open the garage door when we arrive or leave, carry our packages to and from the car, wash the car every day, water everything that grows, feed our cat when we are away, sweep the dirt road in front of our house, and pre-screen any visitors by ringing the bell and letting us know whose waiting outside the gate; we decide if we’ll will/won’t have an audience with the visitor (It’s all very Pope-like). The school pays their less-than-$200-per-month salaries, but we supplement that and also give them dinner occasionally because, well, we couldn’t sleep at night if we didn’t! It’s disconcerting to go from the near-bottom of the economic pyramid (lowly teachers in the U.S.) to the near top here in Mali. Our modest teaching salary, nearly 20 times higher than what Fati our maid makes, makes us the Palm Beachers of Bamako.

The sock drawer.

The sock drawer.

So before we ever make any requests, we always decide first if it is Mali-normal or Palm Beach-weird because we definitely don’t want to be one of THOSE guys. Take, for instance, sock folding. After Fati launders and irons our socks, she folds them, but individually, thenstacks them on the dresser. Now this means that I’m forced to unfold the two individually folded matching socks, put them together, then refold them as a pair before putting them in the sock drawer, which, by the way, I have arranged by colors from primary to secondary (red, yellow, blue, green, orange, purple, brown, black). Asking her to fold them as a pair and put them into the correct colored stack in the drawer? That would be Palm Beach-weird. So I do my own sock refolding, laborious as it is. We all have to make sacrifices, you know.

Audrey Hepburn and her trench coat. She has no medical conditions.

Audrey Hepburn and her trench coat. She has no medical conditions.

Unlike the help on Downtown Abbey or Will and Grace, our employees only speak French and Bambara. I’m great in both languages when it comes to greeting them, commenting on general weather conditions, and telling them I’m tired when we get home from school. Beyond that, it’s a crapshoot. Fati and I write notes in French back and forth nearly every morning, and thank goodness for Google Translate which sometimes is actually accurate. But when it’s not, it’s REALLY not. Like the time I translated a Fati note and told Jamey it said something about a problem with a trench coat, and we wondered why anyone would ever need a trench coat in sub-Saharan Africa, and why would she even bring up wardrobe issues with us anyway. Well, after a colleague did an actual translation, Fati was actually telling us about some medical issues she was going through. So it’s a good thing I didn’t write back something in French like, “Geez, just get rid of that trench coat and get a windbreaker—it’s Mali for God’s sake.”

And also unlike the Crawleys, we do take the time to chat with our household help every day, and get somewhat involved in their personal lives (our guard Niambele’s family picture is on our fridge). Now granted, on Downton Abbey there is no mixing of the help with the aristocrats—well, except for the chauffeur who married one of Lord Grantham’s daughters, but we don’t have a chauffeur, although we could for about what we pay the gardener. We’ve loaned/given them money (for school fees, to build a room onto a house, for driving school). On every trip we take we bring them all back a gift, and we give them a double salary during the Muslim holiday of Tabaski. We even bought a donkey for one of our guards whose previous animal was donkey-napped (it happens).

donkey3

We don’t take Fati or Oumar or Niambele or Sidibe for granted, and we certainly appreciate the hard work they do to make our lives easier (and much, much lazier). I would hope that Lord Grantham, the Bradys, Karen Walker, the Banks family, and the Jetsons felt the same way.

And I can assure you that I’ll never direct Oumar’s landscaping from my perch on the roof deck, nor create a model for Fati of our preferred bed-making style, or even have them decorate our Christmas Madagascar Dragon Tree while we watch. That’s just Palm Beach-crazy.