Friday, August 29, 2014

Underdressed Llamas

Few #firstworldproblems are worse than being under- or over-dressed. But imagine being responsible for a whole group of people being under-dressed? Horror upon horror.

Today saw my new middle school hold its spirit assembly. Each homeroom had to create a name and go present a little skit. Standard school stuff. Doing things in front of people always makes me uncomfortable, but in controlable situations like these I'm able to keep my anxiety manageable.

My homeroom proudly named ourselves "Lamoreau's Llamas." A few girls taught us a song they learned from summer camp with funny hand motions. We would sing it, then teach the group. We dressed up a boy as a llama, and he looked quite funny. I thought we were good to go.

Then the assembly happened. As kids poured into the halls I saw coordinated outfits, banners, signs, and more. One group of students was all dressed like clowns. Another had Angry Bird beanies. Some wore panda masks. Others all carried jars of Nutella. 

It looked something like this.
In the noisy gym, my kids looked at me like a puppy does when you accidentally step on its toes. Why did you do this to us? Why don't we have costumes? The fear of ridicule that all middle schoolers face racheted itself up a level or two.

To make things worse, I was over dressed. Not realizing the festiveness of the day, I wore my usually slacks and dress shirt. The rest of the staff costumed in some way, or at least had jeans and a t-shirt on.

Sucks to be "that" guy.
"Don't worry." I assured them. "Just do your song really, really well and everyone will like it."

Luckily, our group went towards the end. My whole group relaxed palpably as a few group's presentations were really awkward. Its impossible to have 200 middle schoolers in the room and not have awkward. One girl said excitedly, "maybe we won't be the worst group!" Not the nicest sentiment, but one we've all felt at sometime.

"Substance beats style" I told them, "Just sing the song really well and you'll do great."

Finally our turn came. Our llama, wrapped in butcher paper and if not for the llama ears looking indistinguishable from a burrito, hopped his way on stage. We sang our song. Kids said their lines a little hurriedly. The song didn't come out quite right. And the llama suit ripped. The audience clapped, not once, but 4 times, because they didn't know we were going to keep singing the song.

And when it was all over, a few teachers told me "Wow! Great job!" But mostly I suspect they were being nice. Teachers are usually really good at that. Either way, the moment passed. The kids did good, most of the audience sang along.

The thing that went unrealized by my students, as I often forget it too, is that in those situations everyone else is just as nervous as you. Even if everything goes wrong, unless it goes epically-Youtube-viral-video wrong, everyone will forget it in about 30 seconds when the next group goes up. We are never as big of a deal as we are to ourselves. Most people just don't care.

Really, there's not many times you get to go up in front of 200 people all staring at you intently. Instead of being afraid of it, why not live it up? In the end, they're only people. Just like you, just like me.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Monsters and Me

All humans are solar processors.

It's one of the more interesting ideas that I teach. Any plant life we eat obviously grew with help from the sun. Any animals we eat sustained itself off of those sun-grown plants, or other animals that did. So one way or another we are processing solar energy.

In studying latitude we learn that the amount of sunlight a place receives directly correlates to how much life it can sustain. Pole to Pole by Planet Earth explains it best (and in a British accent).

For example, you don't see trees above the Arctic or below the Antarctic Circle because there isn't enough light for them to grow. The closer to the Equator you get the more light you get. So first you get pine trees, then broad leaf trees, and finally you get to the tropics where there is direct sunlight year round.

Here we find jungles and rain forests, like where 50% of the world's biodiversity is found in rain forests even though they only cover 3% of the Earth's surface. There is so much light, so much plant matter, so many bugs and animals. And there is also me.

Living in a tropical environment means 1.) It's never cold. 2.) The sun sets around the same time all year. 3.) Your home will be invaded by weird and awful bugs.

To wit: in the week since I moved into my ground level apartment I have found inside my dwelling both a monster centipede and an unbelievably fast lizard.

I excitedly hurried off to tell my girlfriend about both of them, but when we returned they were gone. The lizard hasn't been seen since. We named him Gummy and presumably he is living comfortably in our spare bedroom eating bugs. The centipede reappeared and was smashed by my girlfriend's shoe. It sounded like the crunch of 1,000 potato chips. Haunting.

"I just wanted to cuddle."
Photo from
Though my school is miles away from the ocean, blue crabs wonder the halls on occasion, and I'm sure this is only the tip of the iceberg for weird bugs.

All new things I've experienced here fit into two categories: awesome or terrifying. Socially acceptable to honk my horn whenever I want? Awesome. Stepping on  hundred-legged Darth Vader clones while going to take a pee? Terrifying.

Time will no doubt round down both those edges. Maybe one day I'll wake up in Panama and smile at the lizard in peering down at me.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Ferguson, Facebook, Friends and Fakers

I let the internet outrage me occasionally.

At the moment, it's Ferguson, Missouri where an unarmed black boy was shot to death by a cop. The resulting outrage gained international notoriety when the police responded by rolling out armored personal carriers, troops equipped more for Iraq than main street, and started arresting reporters for reporting.

I post political musings pretty regularly on Facebook. A few of my friends are strong Republicans, who think Obama is a dictator (if not the anti-Christ) and Obamacare signals the fiscal and moral decay of our nation. I feel like I'm all over the board on issues, I try to support the best idea over political parties. I am strongly for Obamacare, for example. And I'm also very argumentative at times. So at times I get into epic back-and-forths.

I think it's great I have Facebook friends I absolutely disagree with. If I didn't, I'd be inside a dangerous echo chamber just reinforcing my own beliefs with lots and lots of likes.

One group I've had a love-hate relationship with is the Tea Party. I think many of their ideas are ruinous and downright horrible. I think their passion and commitment to the Constitution is admirable. Indeed, my second favorite politician is a Tea Party congressmen from Michigan, Representative Justin Amash.

The death of Mike Brown is horrible, and the police response unfathomable in America. You would think the segment of America who thinks that Obamacare is tyranny, and fiercely pushes back on any attempt to restrict any type of gun in America after another horrible shooting would be up in arms about a military style crack down on protesters and media.

But no. With few exceptions, the Right side of the spectrum has been silent. I would say "you don't get to pick and choose who the Constitution applies to" but the sad thing is, for a lot of our history we did. The rights and freedoms enshrined in the Constitution only applied to whites. One would hope that era was over, but a quick scan of any of the comments on any Ferguson news story will show you its not.

The crackdown on the first amendment in Ferguson separates the wheat from the chaff. If you only get all sentimental about the Constitution when talking about Obamacare or the Bundy ranch, but aren't when journalists get arrested and tear-gassed, you aren't really the Constitutionalist you think you are. The thing those self-proclaimed patriots miss is that when you don't stand up for other people's rights, you are only eroding your own. A classic poem explains it well.

When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn't a Jew.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Leaving Your Comfort Zone is Uncomfortable

There is a lizard loose in my apartment.

I left a fulfilling job, a comfy house and even my beloved puppy to come here to Panama.

Now I have a job that is really, really hard. I live in a small apartment with no dog. There is a small lizard that somehow got in through my bedroom window, and then scampered off to who-knows-where before I could take him back outside.

Back home I did have the occasional wild intruder. Mostly gigantic spiders nearly my hand-span in width. They were incredibly fast, and incredibly scary. One time a guy came to my door and told me they were hobo spiders. He then offered to exterminate them for a few hundred dollars, but I declined since my shoe worked just as good as any poison.

On the balance sheet of life, I suppose trading lizards for spiders is a plus. Trading a lizard for my puppy is a minus. Sometimes I play this accounting game to see if I came out a head or behind on my move to Panama. It's too early to tell.

I do know I left a very comfortable situation. 

I had life figured out where I was. 

Now I do not. 

That's part of the reason I wanted to move, to get out of my comfort zone and into the challenge zone where I'd be forced to learn, grow and adapt. That sounds awesome. And probably will be. But I forget that "leaving your comfort zone" also means "becoming uncomfortable."

So that is where I find myself at this moment. Work is hard. Very hard. I feel uncertainties as an educator that I haven't felt since I first started. 

Living in Panama is hard. It's much more than the driving I wrote about yesterday. My girlfriend and I are isolated from all the friends, family and community that give us a sense of identity. We left a small town where I could walk to the Saturday Market and have most people know the name of me and my dog. Panama City is a giant Latin metropolis where I'll never see the same person twice.

I do feel growth. And each day is usually better than the last. But I don't want this to be some motivational post about how "it was all worth it." There are a million of those.

I think it will be all worth it. I think I'll be very happy here. I sure hope it all works out. But maybe it just needs to be acknowledged that change is hard. If you really want to get out of your comfort zone, you'll be uncomfortable.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Driving in Panama

Panama City is a noisy, busy place. Traffic, construction, and music blaring out of cars at ear-splitting decibel levels. Cars and drivers here deserve particular note.
  • Cars merge in a way that is almost sensual, like Latin lovers dancing salsa. There is NO space between cars. Where the American driver sees clearly that there is no space to merge, the Panamanian just sticks his nose out in front of you, forcing you to stop, and in he goes.

    If you try to be courteous and stop to let someone into traffic, you will often cause more harm than good. The driver you are trying to help, confused by your behavior and possibly sensing a trap, will not budge until you've both stared at each other for awhile. He will then rapidly enter traffic once you give up in frustration and try to move on.

  • This, and all other driving, is accomplished with much honking. You honk when you pass. You honk when you see someone on the side of the road. You honk if you are in traffic so bad the street is a parking lot.

    Two honks seems to be the standard greeting. One long, unbroken honk generally signals frustration. I've taken gladly to this habit, and try to greet every honk I hear with two friendly honks of my own.

  • If you see someone with their hazard lights on, they are telling you they are about to do something crazy. Like pass on the shoulder or weave in and out of traffic.

  • Windows here are tinted to a crazy degree. Like many cars here, my CRV came with near black windows. I do not exaggerate in saying I can barely make out headlights from the driver and passenger window at night time. As a result, I drive at night with my windows down.

    The scary thing is, I'm the only person I've seen driving with my windows down at night, and some windows are even more tinted than mine.
Despite all this, I've managed to manage. I even drove across the continent to the Caribbean side this Saturday (takes about an hour) without incident. Still, driving here is intense.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014


Nothing is worse than finding out you are terrible at something you thought you were decent at.

The first suspicions crept into my mind when I saw my girlfriend looking at me oddly as I struggled in a reservoir earlier this summer. "Why you are you doing that?" she asked. 

"Doing what?"

"Why are you swimming like that?"

"Like what?! I'm just swimming."

I usually consider myself an athletic guy. I'm decent at most sports I play. Yet, somehow my girlfriend raced past me like a torpedo in the hotel swimming pool this evening.

Apparently, it's funny to watch me swim. In water I'm gangly and uncoordinated, just like I was in middle school when I tried to dance to any song that wasn't slow. Like a shark sensing blood, my girlfriend spent the next 20 minutes in the pool chasing me making the Jaws sound, and I flailed in vain trying to get away.

Worst of all, it makes you wonder "What else am I doing that people are laughing at?" Maybe just watching me walk is funny.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Panama, So Far

I had to squeeze this in before I reached a whole month without blogging.

To be fair, I moved some 3500 miles and have been living out of a hotel (albeit a very nice one) for the last 3 weeks. All while starting a new job. In fact, our first day of school was today.

Panama City is surprisingly modern. I can't imagine a foreign city more like America. The skyline is modern, the old colonial area disappointingly small.  Nearly everything we have, they have. Most everyone speaks some English, and the taxi drivers hardly try to rip me off.

Still the city has some charms. In the morning and night the climate is amazingly comfortable. Jungles, beaches, and Panama Canal are all an hour or less away. There is a stunning array of tropical fruits, and I saw a sloth.

Being completely honest, the transition from America to here has been difficult. A quick catalog of problems I've run into:
  • Shipping my puppy down turned out to be much, much harder logistically than I imagined. Due to his size and the heat of summer, he's really limited on the type of planes he can fly on. He is happily summering at my parents.
  • Used cars are super expensive here. I found a 2006 CRV online, had a mechanic check it out while I was at work. Got the A-OK. Paid $9,000 for it, only to find it has no airbags. There is a flap cut into the steering wheel so big I can stick my fist into it.
    Apparently this isn't a big deal in Panama, so the mechanic either didn't notice it or just overlooked it. Fortunately the school is helping me resell this death trap.
  • The in-service week was the hardest week I've professionally as a teacher. At one point, 9 of the last 10 hours spent there had been in meetings. It was so refreshing to actually teach today.
It's been challenging, especially for my patience, but I think that's a good thing. When we are challenged, we grow. Without a doubt, I will return to the states a much better teacher. My school is amazing in a lot of ways. The campus is beautiful, my classroom has amazing technology, and the president of the country sends his kids here (he was at our morning assembly). Plus, they hired my girlfriend as a pre-school aide, answering that thorny question of what exactly she was going to do while here.

Most of all though, it is incredibly demanding of its teachers. Expectations of planning, communication, and collaboration are higher than I've ever heard of in the states. But they keep class sizes low (22 max) and give you ample planning time, so they make it manageable. I'm excited to see what I'll learn, and what I can accomplish here.

I'm tired. I'm weary. But I'm really, really glad I'm here.