Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Kaleidoscope Fishbowl Podcast: Episode 1 - Potassium

I've been a little light on posts this summer because I've been working on a podcast.
Last year I wanted to create an education podcast (based on interviews) because I was frustrated with the existing education podcasts (based on interviews).

And I thought it'd be fun.

But scheduling interviews was nerve-racking. It was both a strange and busy year... not at all conducive to scheduling interviews. 

This summer I decided to jumpstart the education podcast by reformatting it. 
No Interviews. Just Me. 
Talking To Myself.

So no interviews.
Just me.
Telling stories and talking to myself.
But each story has to be something about teaching, or a lesson, or the classroom, or an education system, or an education anomaly. 

Here is episode 1 of "Kaleidoscope Fishbowl". I was teaching math and science at Ombuumbuu Junior Secondary School in Namibia from 1998 to 2000. 

Potassium: A story in Namibia

I definitely want to do the interviews at some point. But in the meantime, I'll tell my stories first. 

You can find the podcast on itunes here. 


This is the Kaleidoscope Fishbowl. A podcast of rotating, refracted anecdotes and stories of education from around the world. 
I'm Ryan.

South West Africa, a territory of mostly desert with a long stretch of treacherous coast, had a tumultuous 100 years leading up to its independence. It is an area scarred by the first genocide of the 20th century. Between 1904 and 1907 about 100,000 Herero and Nama died during the rebellion against their German colonial rulers. 
After World War I the territory was passed to South Africa and subject to their Apartheid policies. By 1966 the liberation movement against South Africa, led by SWAPO, was in full swing. When Angola became an independent country in 1975, supported by both the Soviet Union and Cuba, it offered SWAPO the use of its land to aid their guerrilla campaign.
It's one of the curiosities of the cold war that South Africa, in an effort to maintain its grip on its territory, found itself fighting not only SWAPO, but almost 20,000 Cuban soldiers... in Angola to keep its territory.
International sanctions though probably were the major reason why South Africa ceded control.
And in March, 1990, the territory known as South West Africa officially declared independence from South Africa... and the country of Namibia was born. 
A year later, English became the only official language of Namibia, and became the new medium of instruction in schools. This not only acted as a bridge to the several regional dialects in the country, but the young government also no longer wanted to be tied to Afrikaans,  the language of their oppressors. In many aspects of life and culture, Namibia was trying to reinvent itself.
8 years later, I'm teaching 9th grade science in Oshifo, a tiny, dusty Northwest town in Namibia, 5 kilometers from the Angolan border. 
This story isn't about the Herero Genocide. It isn't about Apartheid, and it isn't about South Africa fighting Cuba. 
This was just the background noise that laid the base for a small internal explosion, which then led to a small external explosion, which gave away to a core memory.
But some of the details of the memory escape me. 
For starters, I don’t remember this girl’s name.
And I don’t understand what she’s doing here in my classroom door. I thought I had made it clear yesterday that none of my kids should be late to this class. Yet here is this girl who I have no name for, walking in seven minutes late, grinning wide and no big deal.
One thing I do know is that this girl does not speak five words of English. Her dialect is Ovambo. 
I cup my hand around this-girl-who’s-name-I-can’t-remember’s shoulder and lead her back to the door,  not sure what my next step will be as my principal steps in. He’s a short man, round and bald, and his skin is milky sienna. He has a moustache and quick, rapid speech. I like him a lot, but this is the first time he’s been in my class. He asks me if this girl-whose-name I-can't-remember is just arriving. 
I nod in answer to his question and watch as his face tightens. He orders this-girl-who’s-name-I-can’t-remember to stick out her palms. When she does, my principal takes out a truncated rubber hose from his pocket.
Before I figure it out, he lifts the two-feet piece of rubber above his head, and brings it down hard against the girl’s palms. She winces, surprised and defeated, and before I can process what is happening, he's already raising the piece of hose and quickly whacks her hands again. And again. Each stroke harder than the next. Each stroke makes his face tighten in determination even more.
The rest of my students have their heads down. My mouth is twisted and my eyes are a meter wide.
What the hell is happening? 
My thoughts twirl and spin around, bumping and crashing into each other. They flip and twist to the mayhem of the rhythm of hard rubber on bare flesh. I am lost and confused by the unnatural percussion, and so I walk away, but only as far as the end of the classroom. And then, trapped in this space, I have no choice but to turn around and walk back towards the front.
And maybe I could stop this. Maybe I could say…
And then it was over. Mr. Savimbi tucks his hose back in his pocket and adjust his pants. He lets me know reassuringly that if I have any more problems with tardiness, just send the students to him. I nod a weak little nod as he rushes out the door.
My thoughts are still crashing into each other, and I need to heal at least some of the defeat that is lingering in my classroom.  This-girl-who’s-name-I-can’t-remember is rubbing her palms as she finds her desk. She sits down in her seat, her grin long gone and her eyes full of water. She isn't crying though. She’s been through this before. But she is broken and the air in the classroom is toxic and I absolutely need to make this better for her and for me and for everyone.
I rush to the front of the room and announce to my students to take out their notebooks and date a new page. I’m pretending like absolutely nothing had just happened. But my crashing thoughts are already forming a plan in my head: I can’t address this directly. I’ll move on. I’ll make it better through my treasures. I know how to fix this and to avoid this. I know how to usurp the abuse without usurping my principal.  I can still save this girl from this memory. I have my treasures. This’ll work.
As I hear the rustling and opening of notebooks, I dig into my book bag for my amazing treasures I had found last week.
The school is about three kilometers of sand from the village. When the children aren't there, it looks like several abandoned trailers. Some of the trailers are set up as classrooms, and some are empty and dilapidated. Most of those empty rooms are filled with broken pieces of cement from the crumbling walls, and rusty sheets of corrugated tin roof clogging the ground. That’s all I thought there was in those wrecked rooms, until I found the kids playing soccer with a piece of shrapnel that looked like the casing to a mortar shell. 
The remnants from the SWAPO revolution were everywhere here, and the kids absolutely should not be playing with old artillery. Undiscovered land mines and undetonated artillery shells were a real threat. I asked the soccer players where they got this dull gray mortar shell as I confiscated it. The children pointed to one of the abandoned buildings, and I’ve been scavenging the crumbling remains each evening ever since. I was looking for any shrapnel. I didn’t want the children to play football with bombs, but I still thought the spent munitions were mysterious and historical and just plain cool, and I was willing to forget they were kind of dangerous because I wanted to use them as pencil holders and paper weights. But it wasn’t until last week that I found my treasure. Behind a sheet of roof, stacked neatly in a corner, were seven large cardboard boxes. I kicked away a triangular chunk of cement, and lifted up the top cardboard box. It was heavy. I set it down carefully on the ground. Inside, in neat little rows, were 12 one-liter bottles of concentrated hydrochloric acid.
I looked up at the other half dozen unopened boxes. I grabbed the next one, set it down, and peered inside. There they were, staring back at me: 12 one-liter bottles of hydrochloric acid. I spent the next 30 minutes unpacking and exploring these mysterious boxes. In the end I had discovered over 50 liters of acid, a small box of about 21 test tubes, and two small yellow plastic containers, filled with oil and what looked like clumps of metallic clay. On one of the lids, in faded black marker was written, “Na”. A capital "N". A lowercase "a".
It took me a second to realize “Na” was not an Ovambo word. It was a chemistry word! I honestly did not know what I could possibly do with even a small amount of acid, but I knew the exact purpose of this sodium! 
I stacked the boxes back in the corner as best I could, rushed to my Nalgene bottle, unscrewed the top of one of the containers, and pulled out a small glob of shiny, oily clay. I ripped a very small piece off, and dropped it in my water bottle. There was an immediate fizzle and puff of smoke.
Just Beautiful.
I took a bigger piece this time, and dropped it in the bottle.
The mettal fizzled. Then it popped. And in a puff of smoke, it was gone. 

Vapor hovered and swirled over the surface of the water in the bottle, and the lump of clay had disappeared completely.  It was divine!
And it would be my science lesson. I would keep the container that I’d already opened as my personal treasure of chemistry joy, and use the second container, which looked pretty much the same except didn't have the "Na" on the lid, as my treasure for the classroom.
So when this-girl-who’s-name-I-can’t-remember was nursing her red and swollen palms, I was fishing out my treasure reserved for science class: the yet unopened plastic container with globs of metallic clay swimming inside.
After a quick introduction to the class on what my treasure was and balancing the equation of sodium plus water on the board, I had the stage set to make everything right again in my classroom kingdom. The sodium-water reaction would be so beautiful that it would completely trump the ugly reaction of my beloved principal.
I walk over to this-girl-who’s-name-I-can’t-remember. “Okay. Come up here,” I plead. “Show us what happens.” I hover over the girl as I say this. I don’t want there to be any misinterpretation. This-girl-who’s-name-I-can’t-remember needs to have the best part in the production.
Bur right now, she’s not moving.
She doesn’t understand. Her eyes are locked into mine, questioning, asking what other punishment she needs to endure today.
This is too important for me and for her to let this opportunity pass. I need her to do this- I need her to be the lead scientist in the greatest chemical reaction this rural African community has ever seen. I’m going to make this hour right for someone.
So I break my instructions down. I asked the girl to stand up, and she does. I asked her to follow me to the front, and she does. On my desk, I have a knife and a bowl of water. I picked up the knife to cut the soft clay-like metal.
As I back up to the far end of the classroom, I give her instructions. I turn around so that I can see her and my entire class. To the last student, eyes are transfixed on the front of the room, and they are hypnotized with anticipation.
This-girl-who’s-name-I-can’t-remember figures out what I want her to do after I mime it a few times, and she holds the sodium for a few seconds over the bowl of water. Then she lets it drop.
There’s a small tongue of fire.
Then, in an instant, the tongue arches up, expands, and explodes in a brilliant spray of yellow and orange. A deep and sudden boom Is followed by my double realization that a) the unlabeled sodium container was actually potassium, and b) it had just exploded in this-girl-who’s-name-I-can’t-remember-but-was-just-abused-by-an-indignant-man-with-a-rubber-hose’s face.
Time stopped.
There wasn’t a sound. The class was stunned and the girl was shell-shocked.
‘That’s it,’ I thought. ‘I broke her. This is over for her, and its finished for me.'
Suddenly the class erupts in laughter. And then this-girl-who’s-name-I-can’t-remember first broke into a smile, and then started laughing too!
The whole class is excited and smiling and rapidly talking in Ovambo. Students begged me to show them again, and this-girl-who’s-name-I-can’t-remember sat down in her seat, grinning from ear to ear.
There is a lesson here for me I’m sure.
Maybe it is, “Never judge the contents of a container by the label of a similar container.”
Or maybe, “The path to redemption is pot-holed with good intentions.”
Or possibly, “Don’t try to overcompensate after the first time you’ve seen corporal punishment in action. You might accidentally practice irresponsible science.” 
I don’t know. It really could have gone either way for this-girl-who’s-name-I-can’t-remember, but it swung the right way, finally, at least for a few seconds of that day, despite my best efforts to muck things up.

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