Riding the Tram in Mannheim, 4-20-17

Riding the Tram in Mannheim, 4-20-17

A sweet little black girl, running around a flower bed at the parade square, her braids bouncing. She stops when she sees her mother trying to take a picture or a video, and does that cute little girl pose, half shy and half in love with herself.

I see a branch of the bank I used back in Salzburg, and feel a surge of homesickness.

Three young guys at a park bench, eating ice cream and laughing together.

A man and his short-legged dog stand in front of McDonald’s. The man is watching a woman help a little girl with her bike, the dog is intent on the door that leads to the good smells.

I hear “Servus” and “Grüß dich” and get confused about where I am.

The post-modern church with the minimalist clock.

I still haven’t made up my mind about Mannheim. It isn’t pretty and it isn’t funky in a cool way. It is, however, decidedly German.

I keep my eyes on the ground at the tram stop because it feels less intimate, I worry about making eye contact. An ant steps into a tile valley under my foot.

I had to take a picture of the Vietnamese Restaurant, which has the same name as one of my cats.

There is a castle, I’ve watched it go by while riding on the tram. It isn’t much to look at. I suppose I’ve seen too many castles, how can this dinky little thing in the middle of Mannheim compare to Neuschwanstein or Hellbrunn?

My view of the Rhein is kind of ugly, full of factory buildings belching white smoke, metal pipes and run-down buildings. Still, there’s a beautiful late afternoon sun making the water shine, and the trees are vibrantly green. It’s a beautiful kind of ugly. Squinting against the bright sunlight, one of the factories almost looks like a castle.


Higher Education and Me

I had lunch with my aunt on Wednesday, and we talked about several things, but one that stuck in my mind was our discussion about education.
I’m pretty sure I never want to go back to school to get another degree. Although there were a lot of things I enjoyed about both my experiences in higher education, there was a whole lot that I found intensely stressful as well, and most of it had to do with how academia is set up.
I actually really love learning, as most people who know me are aware. As a child I loved watching History Channel and Animal Planet (back when they had actual history and actual animal footage, rather than the current lineups of reality show after reality show) because of what I learned. I love inserting random factoids into conversations, and talking about what interesting things I’ve learned recently.
What I don’t love is sitting in lectures, being assigned readings (especially for “required” classes that have little bearing on what I actually intend to do), and having to regurgitate information I barely absorbed for tests. I don’t like feeling like I’m under a microscope, or that my grade is resting on one final project, or dealing with professors who care too little about their students and too much about their egos. I don’t like how anxious and unhappy I feel all the time, how difficult it is for me to deal with my procrastination (which for some reason I’m usually much better able to handle when I’m being paid, I still haven’t figured that out yet), how often I feel like I’m letting people down by not doing my best work.
Again, I don’t want to imply that higher education is horrible and I hated it. But what I know is that I enjoy learning when there aren’t high stakes attached to it. I know that once I get settled with my career and living situation, I’m going to want to find a local college where I can audit classes as a “lifelong learner”, simply for the fun of it, to stay sharp by matching wits with young people who think they know everything (and may surprise me in my jaded old age with what they do know), to learn about subjects I have only minimal knowledge of currently, to improve my understanding of subjects I’m already fairly well-versed in. Some of my happiest memories from my time in undergrad were classes I took for fun, things I didn’t even really need to graduate and had nothing to do with my major, just things I found fascinating and wanted to know more about.
And I hate writing essays. Free-form writing like this, the kind of writing I can do for blog posts and social media, I love it. Essay writing is torture and I hate it. Even worse when I have to write essay questions on tests, when I almost always run out of time because I try to write too much or think too long before starting. Essays are evil and I hate them.
I have many friends who’ve chosen the academic life, and I have the utmost respect for them (they wouldn’t be my friends otherwise). Like teaching, it isn’t the life I want, I don’t enjoy it and I’m not good at it. I’m so thankful that there are smart, talented people who love it, because that means I’m free to choose another path.
Of course, I expect that I’ll take classes in the future, get certifications of various kinds (I definitely want to get my C1 in German, and eventually Japanese as well). But I don’t plan to have a “Dr.” in front of my last name. And for the foreseeable future, I don’t plan to go back to higher education. That isn’t where I want to be. That isn’t where my joy is.

Conflict, Anxiety, and Emotional Violence in Teaching

[CN: discussion of violence, emotional violence, sexual assault, emotional manipulation, anxiety, fear]

So as the semester wraps up, this is the last week of teaching German 101 for me. And I am so ridiculously pleased about that, because I hate teaching.

I want to get one thing straight: I hold the vocation of teaching in very high esteem. I admire teachers. My mother has worked in education for most of her career, either teaching teachers or helping create and sell software for teachers to use. Now she’s working as a school librarian and actually teaching kids directly, and she’s very good at it. I’ve had some good teachers over the course of my life. I have friends from my undergrad who are now teachers. I respect teachers and teaching. When I say that I hate teaching, I don’t mean that I think it’s worthless or that it’s a waste of time or that it’s beneath me. What I mean is, it’s a job that’s the culmination of several of my anxiety triggers in one neat little bundle. I hate speaking to small groups of people. Put me in front of a huge auditorium and I shine, but in front of less than 20 people, I want to collapse and cry. I hate putting a numeric number on someone’s performance, especially when I get to know them and find out they have stuff going on outside my class (like a relative with cancer, or a really nasty break-up with their SO). I hate all the work of preparing and trying to figure out how much time each activity will take (which I always get wrong, it either takes way more or way less time than I think). I hate it when students ask a question and I have no idea what the answer is. I hate being put on the spot in all the many ways a teacher is every day. The bottom line is that almost nothing about teaching is enjoyable for me. And it isn’t worth it to me to do a job that’s not the slightest bit enjoyable. Even at my last office job, which had a lot of problems, I could take pride and pleasure in doing a task efficiently, making sure everything was error-free, and being one of the fastest in my unit at what we did. The stress and anxiety that I get from teaching far outweighs the very occasional pleasure of having a student improve, or seeing one of them reach an “aha!” moment.

So what does any of that have to do with conflict? Well, it has to do with a very specific experience I had yesterday afternoon. It started a couple weeks before the midterm. One of my colleagues who teaches a German 102 section had a student who wasn’t doing well. She had tried to help them, but they were still struggling, so she told me they had decided to transfer to my 101 class, because they felt it would be easier, and they needed it to graduate. When the student transferred to my class, they proceeded to show up for class only about half the time, didn’t buy the textbook (which is necessary to do the online homework for the class), and didn’t make up any of the tests or quizzes they’d missed, and missed a few more on top of that. So when they came to my office yesterday to make up one of the quizzes they missed, they brought up their grade, and asked me if I could do anything to help them. Even though I hadn’t counted any of the in-class assignments before they transferred to my class, the fact that they’d done none of the homework and hadn’t made up any of the tests or quizzes meant that there was no way they could pass the class. And they were very upset, and said a lot of things about how they couldn’t afford the textbook to do the online homework, they felt they had been lied to about what was expected, they thought they hadn’t been given a fair chance to succeed, and how this was going to mess up everything because they needed this class to graduate this semester. They asked if there was any way we could make a deal, if they could do book work, I tried to give them some other options (retake the class, take an incomplete, etc) and they refused all of them. And every time I said “I’m sorry, but this is the reality” they would launch into another line about how it was unfair, how they needed to graduate, wasn’t there something I could do… And it made me more and more uncomfortable, because I had given them the only answer, and they wouldn’t leave, and I was getting more and more anxious, but finally, after I said I’d think about letting them do some book work, they left. But I was so upset by then that I could hardly compose myself, and it was time for class to start, and I hadn’t finished all my prep because they’d taken so much of my time, and the class didn’t go very well because I was feeling so anxious I was almost manic.

Afterward, when I was talking to my colleagues, I was so upset that I almost cried. Even just talking about it almost gave me a panic attack, and my colleagues didn’t understand why I was so upset. They asked me if the student had threatened me, which they hadn’t, and when I said no they said “then it’ll be fine, just be firm” and it made me feel like they hadn’t heard anything I said, because this wasn’t about being firm. This was about not feeling safe telling someone no.

What bothered me so much about this experience wasn’t that the student was being violent or combative. What bothered me was that the student wouldn’t accept my no. They kept pushing me, kept trying to get me to change my mind. They wouldn’t just accept what I had to say, and that made me feel anxious. Not just anxious, but unsafe.

As a woman, I’ve had to deal with men who won’t take no for an answer. I’ve had to deal with it my entire fucking life. I have the privilege of never having been assaulted, sexually or otherwise (threatened, yes, but not assaulted), so it’s not like I’ve ever actually experienced the worst, but I know, every woman knows, what the worst is. Every woman who lives in this world knows that she must always be vigilant, analyze every situation, because she is not safe. She is not safe out in public, she is not safe at home, she is not safe anywhere in between.

So when I’m dealing with a conflict like the one that happened yesterday, the fact of the conflict itself isn’t what makes me anxious, makes me panic, makes it hard for me to breathe. What made me feel unsafe was the fact that this student wouldn’t accept what I said. The fact that they kept pushing, kept trying to get me to change my mind, made me feel all the weight of the life I live as a woman. I felt like the entire world narrowed down to that one moment with them in my office and I felt trapped, I didn’t feel like I could stand up and ask them to leave, or stand up to get a colleague to help me, even. I didn’t feel safe.

It didn’t have anything to do with physical violence, or even the threat of physical violence. It had to do with the kind of emotional manipulation that I and other women have dealt with our entire lives. I sympathize with the student, I really do. I understand when they say they don’t have money, or time, or that they’ve had circumstances this semester that made it difficult for them to focus. But I can’t change the facts, and the fact that they want to manipulate me and try to do that makes me feel unsafe.

The student said they would come by to drop of a project today. I spent most of the afternoon in a state of heightened anxiety, hoping they wouldn’t. I knew that once they came in, I would feel trapped again, I would feel unsafe, and I don’t know how I would have dealt with that. The simple fact is that as a 6′ tall, 400 lb woman, I significantly outweigh and tower over almost all of my students (one of the other students is an inch or two taller than me, but I still outweigh them). But that doesn’t change the fact that I would have felt trapped and powerless. I probably wouldn’t have been able to call for my colleagues to help me, or ask the student to step outside.

Emotional violence is a reality, especially for people like me, who feel emotions deeply. When someone purposefully tries to manipulate my emotions, that’s a form of emotional violence. When someone won’t listen to what I tell them, tries to debate when I explain how I feel, that’s a form of emotional violence.

Emotional violence is experienced differently by everyone. Some people can shrug it off if it happens once or twice, and only start to feel the impact when it accumulates over time, like lead poisoning. Some people feel pain even if it only happens once or twice, like being stabbed with a short knife, not deep enough to put their life in danger, but enough to give them pain and leave a scar. That’s how it feels for me. Every time feels like a stab wound. I’ve learned over the years how to protect myself sometimes, but there are still times, like yesterday, when I’m totally unprepared, and the knife goes deep. There are certain situations where I have no choice, and I try to simply steel myself as best I can, preparing myself for the cuts. Sometimes I wonder how I’m not just a walking mass of scar tissue, and I wish I could just stop feeling emotions so deeply. Sometimes it doesn’t feel worth it, especially when I’m in pain.

I’m sure that the student didn’t intend to hurt me. They were likely doing something that has worked on other professors before, in hopes that it would work again. But this is what I mean when I talk about how teaching triggers my anxiety. This isn’t a situation that people in other professions usually have to deal with. I don’t remember ever having anything similar in any of the jobs I’ve worked. I’ve never been a manager or HR person, and don’t intend to be, which are the only other professions that come to mind that might have similar situations.

The student never showed up today, either to my office or to our last class meeting. Next week is the final exam, and I don’t know if they’ll be there for that, but even if they do, I’ll have support, as it’s a combined exam with my colleague who teaches the other German 101 class. I’m sorry for their situation, but I can’t do anything else for them, and I just don’t want to feel unsafe again. And once the final exam is over, I will be able to put teaching behind me, and that will be a great relief.

Edit, May 1, 2016: The student showed up unexpectedly at my office on Friday. I was completely unprepared, but I managed to send a message through Facebook to my colleague across the hall, and she came over and pretended to do some work on the computer while waiting for a break in the conversation to back me up. I had an appointment with another colleague to go somewhere, so when that colleague showed up we ended up leaving the first one to deal with the student, which we both felt rotten about. But after we left, one of the professors showed up and managed to help her and talked to the student briefly, then told them she’d talk to me about the situation and get back to them. So now the entire story is being laid out via email with the professor, and I feel a bit better because at least I now have some help, but at the same time I’m really anxious because I don’t want the student to show up at my office unannounced again (I didn’t even tell my students I was going to be there on Friday, I’m normally not) and I really just want this whole situation to be done with, because it’s causing me more anxiety the longer it draws out. I’ll post more updates if anything of note occurs.

My Journey through Language(s)

[CN: super long post. Seriously, take a bathroom break and get some coffee before you start reading. Also discussion of financial privilege and education]

When I was in middle school, I was in a gifted program. My family had made the move a few years earlier from Durham, NC to Springfield, MO, and I had been forced to go from a very liberal private school to a very conservative public school, and I didn’t handle the transition well. The public school tried moving me up a grade, since I was ahead of most of my class, but the other students at my new middle school picked on me mercilessly, until my parents pulled me out and tried to home school me, which also failed (mostly because I’m a very stubborn person and my parents were both working full-time and thus couldn’t force me to work). So as a last resort, I was placed in a program at a local high school, where middle school gifted students were given the chance to take high school classes and challenge themselves. For the most part, it worked pretty well. The teacher was kind but no-nonsense, the other kids and I understood each other better than we had the other kids our age. Most of the high school kids viewed us as an amusing curiosity, but didn’t bother us. But one of my favorite things about those two years was learning Latin.

Like most American students, I hadn’t had any real language education before that time. I vaguely remember a couple weeks of Spanish instruction in elementary school, and my liberal private school had focused a lot on being multicultural, so I was somewhat familiar with other cultures and knew a few words here and there, but Latin was my first introduction to learning a second language. And I loved it. Not the grammar stuff, really, but I loved how our teacher made this ancient civilization come to life, I loved reading the mythology, and I loved making connections between Latin words and English words. There was a particular game I remember us playing, where the teacher would write a Latin word on the board, and we would have to list as many English words from that root as possible. Us middle schoolers usually lost because our vocabulary wasn’t as big as the high schoolers, but it was still really fun, I remember it to this day.

When it came time for me to start high school, my family moved back to NC, this time to Chapel Hill, and I started high school there. This was a blessing, as CHHS was a well-funded public school with a lot of academic achievement and a great music program. The only downside was when I started Latin 3 that year, the teacher was awful. She had no personality whatsoever, she never played any games in class, just droned at us about conjugation and declension and I often found myself falling asleep or just utterly bored for the duration of her class. I stopped doing my homework, my mom found me a tutor (who was a really fun and interesting guy) but the damage had been done, I’d decided that I hated Latin, and being my usual stubborn self, I refused to do anything for my tutor or for my class. I finished the year with a C or D (I don’t remember) and when it was time to choose my classes for the next year, I was surprised and pleased to learn that CHHS was going to offer Japanese 1. I’d become an anime fan in my last year of middle school (watching Dragonball Z dubbed on TV), and upon starting high school and meeting some other anime fans, I’d discovered even more and become thoroughly immersed in the anime fandom. So the opportunity to learn Japanese was incredibly appealing to me, and although my mother warned against it, I signed up for the class.

CHHS had a strict policy at the time that a student had to take 3 consecutive years of the same language to graduate, and there were some struggles getting all 3 of my Japanese years. For one thing, the first year my class was mostly seniors, who were taking it simply for a fun filler, as they’d fulfilled their requirement already. For another, the teacher was fired after that year, for reasons unknown, so the following year they almost canceled the class, until I and the 2 or 3 other people who needed our 3 years made a fuss. The second year we had a woman who spoke almost no English and wasn’t a trained teacher for the first few months, then her replacement came and had to try to bring us up to speed, with varying success (I was also dealing with my parents going through a divorce at the time, so I had other things on my mind). Finally in the 3rd year, there were only 2 of us left, so they combined us with the Japanese 2 class and we were largely ignored or given similar work to them. But despite all the setbacks, I have a lot of fond memories of learning about the Japanese language and culture.

When I graduated from high school, I was all set to start a degree in classical singing. For my degree, I was required to take two semesters each of French and German (my university didn’t offer Italian, or that would’ve been required as well). In addition, we were required to translate every piece we sang word-for-word, even if it was in a language we hadn’t taken, so we would know exactly what we were singing. I took French first, with an awful teacher who made me dislike the language and almost failed. I re-took it the following year, with a different teacher who was lovely, so that ended well. Then I started German, and found it fascinating. My teacher was a Jamaican German, the son of white Germans who had fled to Jamaica during World War II, and he had the most interesting accent, a mix of German and Jamaican. After two semesters, I was really interested in the language, and managed to convince my parents to pay for me to do the summer study abroad program, which would condense two more semesters of German into a single summer, and allow me to go to a higher level the following year, as well as spending a month traveling around Germany. When I got to Germany, I fell in love. Everything about it spoke to me, in ways that few places had before. Everywhere I went there was beauty and life and history that breathed and spoke, and I ached with longing to stay there. When I got back, I had been changed in ways I didn’t fully realize.

Unfortunately, the condensed summer session had not been as intensive as promised, and when I started with the third level of German in the Fall, I was utterly lost. And it wasn’t just me, pretty much my entire study abroad group was in dire straits, and we fumbled through the rest of the semester with our teacher getting more and more frustrated with us. When I tried to take the following class, I failed it because it was simply too hard. Although I’d been strongly considering a minor in German after the summer study abroad, I ended up dropping that idea, as it was already the end of my 4th year and I only had one more semester to go before I was done. I had terrible senioritis and I just wanted to finish my degree and leave.

It was many years before I even thought about German again. Even though I’d loved the study abroad and still had a fondness for German, I was drifting in a post-bachelor’s haze of shitty jobs, adjusting to a new city (I’d foolishly moved to Cincinnati, OH, leaving all my family and support systems behind), trying to collect myself enough to apply to graduate schools again (as I’d failed to get into any of my choices the first time I applied). My life was going nowhere, and I was miserable, until I was given a financial gift from a family member that was contingent on my going back to school. The catch was that music wasn’t really an option, and although I still clung to the idea that I wanted to be an opera singer, I’d become more pragmatic after several years of real-life experience and getting to know myself better. While discussing my dilemma with some friends on an online forum, one of them mentioned that she was working on getting a certificate of translation for French (a non-degree program, but through an accredited university). I said “well, I did take a bunch of German several years ago…” and it was like a light bulb came on. I remembered the joy I’d felt in Germany, and I’d already given some serious thought to moving there (with only a music degree, two cats, and no savings, it would’ve been pretty hard), and I’d always liked writing and languages, so it seemed like a perfect fit. I quit my job, went to Berlin for a two-month intensive program to get my German back into the shape it’d been in before (with my family’s financial help), and when I got back I did a semester at my current school as a non-degree-seeking student, getting to know the professors and department so when it came time for me to submit my application, they knew me and were happy to admit me.

The first year of the program was studying abroad in Salzburg, which was a delightful experience, although definitely different from my previous study abroad experiences (Austria is a different country from Germany, after all). The second year, which is drawing to a close, has been back in the states, where I’ve been teaching beginning German to undergrads and working on my master’s project (a translation of a set of travel essays). As I gear up to graduate, it’s interesting to look back on my journey thus far.

I love language and languages. I love writing, and reading. I love translating, although it’s still a challenge (my German is intermediate advanced level, which means I can communicate fluently with minimal problems, but the more complex nuances still escape me). I love the little ways languages differ, and are similar. I love the history of languages. For instance, in Japanese, they use the word アルバイト (arubaito) to mean a part-time job. This comes from the German word Arbeit, which means job or work. This is a direct result of the German influence on Japanese culture during World War II. Learning things like that thrill me to my core. I love seeing the ways language and culture interact and change each other. I love watching culture and language evolve. I love languages.

I’m grateful for all the languages I’ve studied, too. Last semester I took a Czech workshop because I wanted to know what it was like (answer: super hard). This semester I’m taking Japanese 101 as a review, because I miss Japanese and I think it’d be a great third language once I move to Germany (they still do a lot of business with Japan). Latin gave me a solid basis in conjugation and declination. Japanese taught me not to be afraid of different writing systems (although Chinese is still a little intimidating, I think I could learn Arabic or Russian) and how different languages from different families can be. German taught me a lot about my own native language, and how European culture affects American culture. While I doubt I’ll become fluent in more than three or maybe four languages, I still love languages, and I love that I’ve had a chance to study so many of them.

I just wish that language teaching and learning were considered more important in the American educational system. You can’t really understand another culture on a deeper level until you learn your language, and that cultural understanding is an extremely important part of connecting to another person, another country, another region. To really foster peace in our world, first we need to understand each other.

Welcome to “Sehnsucht und Fernweh”

My name is Chelsea and this is my new blog. I’ve had a lot of blogs over the years, but I took some time off from blogging the last few years, I’m trying to ease back into it. To start I’ll probably be writing about whatever pops into my head, or daily life things, or so on. I have a wide variety of interests and I’m not very well organized, so I can’t promise this will turn into any specific kind of blog eventually, so while you’re welcome to come along for the ride, please don’t expect too much right away.

The title of the blog comes from German, which I am finishing up M.A. in right now, and thus obviously have some pretty strong connections to. “Sehnsucht” and “Fernweh” are two words that can be difficult to translate into English, because the concepts behind them aren’t easy to explain. “Sehnsucht” is a longing or yearning, usually for something you’ve never experienced, or even for something that you have no idea what it is. “Fernweh” is a little easier, it means the longing for a far-away place, the opposite of being homesick. We sometimes use the term “wanderlust” in English (which, funnily enough, also comes from German), and it’s usually meant as a strong desire to travel, but it has deeper connotations than that in German.

So why did I choose these two words? Well, for one thing, M.A. in German. For another, I often feel those things. I feel emotions very deeply, and I often feel a sense of longing, and I’m not always sure for what. I also often feel like I need to “get away”, go someplace I’ve never been, or revisit someplace I haven’t been in a while. My family moved around a lot when I was growing up and only one of them is in the town I usually think of as my hometown anymore (not in the same house), so I don’t have a particular place I call “home” from my childhood, which contributes to the feeling of wanting to move, I think. At 30, I’ve been moving between crappy apartments for the better part of a decade, first in college and then the period between my undergrad and grad school, and now in grad school as well, and while some of them were better than others, I don’t know that any of them really felt like home. Hopefully once I graduate I’ll find my place, at least that’s the plan.

A little more personal info about me. I’m 6′ tall (1.82 meters), Caucasian, fat, brown hair and eyes, pansexual, cisgender, able-bodied. I have two older brothers, they’re both married and one of them just recently welcomed a son, so I have a cute nephew. Both my parents are alive but no longer married to each other, one is remarried and the other is not. All of us are animal people, there are a grand total of 5 dogs and at least 7 cats between us (I forget exactly how many cats my oldest brother has). There’s more family on top of that, but I’m trying to keep it simple right now. I personally have two of the aforementioned cats, Sen (boy) and Delilah (girl). There was a third cat, Kočka, until yesterday, but that’s too raw to talk about yet. I enjoy writing and reading, although I’ve had little time for either outside of school work the last few years. I also like video games, knitting, singing and listening to music, baking, eating good food and sometimes drinking good alcohol. I’m a passionate intersectional feminist, and I will probably sometimes write about social justice things on this blog, because they are really important to me. I always welcome being called out if I say anything that’s offensive to a marginalized person, because I do have plenty of privilege and sometimes go off half-cocked. I have anxiety and depression and have had them for pretty much my entire adult life (plus parts of high school), so this blog may sometimes be an outlet for those thoughts and feelings as well. I will try to make sure I put Content Notes on any posts that need them, but if I miss something feel free to let me know. Comments are moderated by me, so even though you can feel free to post whatever you want, I will decide whether anyone else ever sees it.

Because I have some grieving to do and because I might not be able to think of anything to blog about this weekend otherwise, please feel free to ask me questions in the comments, and I will answer them to the best of my ability in another blog post.