Friday, July 25, 2008

Monster Love

The Hot New Puppet Extravaganza!

I’ve talked a lot about the crazy South African wildlife, its beautiful landscapes and awesome kids, but I’m not just teaching down here and enjoying the scenery. I’m also building puppets! Theodora Skipatares is one of the professors here and she’s doing a class on puppets. I know that sounds awfully random, but the whole idea is that she’s also teaching puppets to the kids and the kids will perform a show at the end of the trip. The show is being put on in conjunction with Ellen Stewart, of experimental theater fame. She got a Ford Foundation Grant to come and put on a show with the kids and us.

So, we have Theodora here and she’s teaching three of us the art of puppets, and hello, its awesome fun. It’s also very intense. This is normally a 16 week program and she’s cramming into 4 weeks. We’re doing shadow puppets now, by cutting out these puppets from black paper and performing with them on a shadow screen, a large white sheet on a frame with light shining behind it.

This weekend’s homework was to write a 2 minute story and be ready to perform it Tuesday. She encouraged us to use music. I had done this crazy monster head, and decided to use it, so I wouldn’t have as much work to do. My background song was My Beloved Monster by the Eels. It’s sort of a goofy song, so my story was goofy. It went like this:

Once there was a monster.
And he loved a monster girl.
One day, the villagers captured her and put her behind a wall of fire.
The monster terrorized the villagers, but they would not let her go.
So he pleaded with the villagers.
They were moved by his love for the monster girl and freed her.
Together they ate the villagers and lived happily ever after.

It’s a simple silly story. Piece of cake, right? Alyssa and I taught at Sivuyseni (not Steve Buschemi after all), the elementary school for a few hours, Monday. It was an intense experience, but we were home by noon. I rested up from that, and then went right into making puppets at one o'clock. I finished at about 10 pm. Sure I took a quick dinner…and wine break, but then I went right back to work. My friends had to stop me as I made 12 puppets for my 2 minute production and I was going to need to bring in janitors to perform the thing. Clearly I had lost my mind. They were considering bringing in professional help when I figured out a way to cut down to 9 puppets. Tuesday morning as I ate my breakfast I figured out a way to eliminate 3 more. This would mean I’d only need my classmates to perform the story. Luckily, we have a student from Nelson Mandela taking the class too, so I still had a small audience.

Anyway, Theodora ended class by saying that I really have a flair for puppets and I’m an awesome storyteller. I almost hugged her, which would have been awkward, but it made me super happy as being a storyteller is what I’ve been trying to do with my drawings.

Next we're moving on to rod puppets and I've sculpted Kurt Vonnegut's head in clay for mine. We'll be casting it in plaster tonight.

So now I pretty much have decided that when I grow up I want to be a puppeteer… or a race car driver. You know, if teaching doesn't work out as I've planned. It's important to have something to have a back up plan. We’ll see how it all pans out.

Note: I know I haven't posted many photos, but that turns out to be a time consuming, tricky thing here. I have taken over 1100 photos though. So I'll get some up soon.

Also, I'm hoping to get up some video of my performances, including Monster Love. So stay tuned!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Take My Picture!

The children smile and wave as our van pulls up to the school. A few greet us in the front hall as we look at their artwork from last summer. We are introduced to the children.

-Can we show them our classrooms?

Sandy says they can, and a small girl with beautiful braids has taken a shine to Meghan. She grabs her hand and then mine. She takes us to her classroom and proudly shows us where she sits.

-What is your favorite thing to do in school?

We go outside. We take pictures. Meghan takes a Polaroid. There are several children now and they delight in seeing their faces appear on the small photo. More are taken. Since there isn’t enough to give to everyone, we take them to the teacher to keep and show in class.

Little girls are holding my hands and swinging them.

-This is like Ring Around the Rosie.
-Ring Ring Rosies!

They know the game. Suddenly we are dancing in a circle. We all fall laughing. It’s effortless. The experience has taken on a life of its own.

-Take my picture!
-Take my picture!

I take many photos, always showing the children their images in my digital camera.
They tell me their names, beautiful, musical, difficult names for my American brain to hang onto.

The girls show me clapping games. I don’t know the words but remember the rhythm. It is all so much the same but not the same.

-Take my picture!
-Take my picture!

Boys pose like gangster rappers, just like the little boys at home.
The girl with the braids sings an Usher song, “You’re much too beautiful girl…..” She knows all the words.

-Take my picture!
-Take my picture!

Now there are older girls, about age 15. They share their names. One wants to be called Vu Vu. I can do that! One is Yolanda. I know that name! They all laugh.

Yolanda is well-spoken, self-possessed. She is the leader, the voice of the group.

-What do you think of South Africa?
-It’s beautiful. Do you know how beautiful your country is?
-Yes, we love it!

And she means this. She says is almost reverently.

-Do you like school?
-Yes, it is important for making a life.
-What do you all want to do when you grow up?
-To be a lawyer.
-To be a doctor.
-To be a social worker.
-To be a doctor.
-To be a social worker.
-Those are important things.
-It is important to give back to our country.

Again, this is not a platitude. She means this.

They are baffled when I tell them my son attends school just a little more than 9 months out of the year.

-What does he do with all that extra time?!

They are elegant and mature. I want to stay and talk. There is much to learn from these girls.

But, it is time to go and I make my way back to the van, stopping along the way to take more photos.

A boy stops me.

-Will you be my friend?
-Here is my card.
It is a postcard photo of him. His name is written on the back, Thembelani Mtshengu.
-We are friends now.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Kids

Or Cindy Teaches for the First Time

So a lot has happened. It seems like a week's worth of events take place in each day here. If only I could pop online each night and share it all, but it's just not possible, given the internet situation at the hotel.

Once I get the 800 plus photos I've taken situated there will be more talk of Capetown and the end of Travel Week, but I want to skip forward now to the past week, and the kids, those amazing kids. Also there will be pictures of them as well. So check back maybe tomorrow.

I fear that any words I use here will seem trite or overly sentimental, but if you could know what I am feeling, what all of us are feeling you'd know it's all very real. Sandy told us during Travel Week that as amazingly beautiful as South Africa is, it's the kids you come back for. We all sort of poo pooed that. We felt she was being a tad over sentimental. We were wrong.

Tuesday was our first day at the high school, Ethembeni. The kids are, for the most part, township kids, mostly Xhosa (prounounced with a click and then Kohsa). Most of them are on waiting lists for more prestigious schools, but their parents have waited in line for a day or so to get them into this school. The pass rate is 100%. They are not allowed to be absent and there parents must be active in their education. Those are the rules.

We all wait for them in a small seatless auditorium. 80 or so kids file in. I steel myself for jeers and teenaged attitude, but it's just not there. They are thrilled to see us. We teach in teams and are all introduced as such. We talk about what we'll be teaching. The kids are very excited about the puppetry and drama, but very nervous about drawing. We only get 8 students the first day. That's okay as I've never done this before. A small group is fine with me.

We all file into our classroom. Alyssa, my teaching partner and roommate has been teaching in Brooklyn for a year. She takes the first class which is still life drawing. She speaks to them about what she wants them to do as she demos for them. Then they start to draw.

It strikes you how quiet and focused they are. Alyssa whispers, "This situation you're seeing now doesn't exist in the US." And, I notice as I am going around helping them that some of them are trembling. This breaks my freaking heart. I go around and I ask one girl in a whisper, "Are you nervous?" She looks up at me wide-eyed and grateful. "Yes, I've not done this before." I touch her on the shoulder and tell her she is doing very well. "Just relax. It's okay. We're all learning here." And she does relax. She's smiling now. It's amazing!

More amazing than that is how well they draw. My teacher, Sandy comes in and I whisper, "I think some of this have done this before." "No, most of them have never drawn in their lives. They haven't had the classes and they usually don't have paper or materials." I'm floored.

I tell the principal later how focused they were, and how nervous. She comments, "Failure is not accepted in their culture. They'd rather not try than fail." However if an adult tells them to do something, especially a teacher they will give it their all.

Yesterday was our second class, and my first as a teacher....ever. I am teaching them about storytelling in art, and as an introduction I talk about cave art and I decide to have them do a simple story about an animal or animals in two scenes. First, we talk about their homework which was to draw an object that has significance to them. They each tell us what it means to them. One girl is shy about her drawing and will only show it to me, but explains proudly that she drew a calculator and books, because she loves school and is "a bit of a bookworm." She is beaming about telling us this. School is important to these kids. It's not something they have to do. It's a chance at a better life, and this is not a platitude here it's reality. Education is the only way to something better for these kids and even then only 10% will go onto college. They fight hard and study hard for what they get.

Then, I demo the drawing using my dogs, Tobey and Max as example. I get a little choked up when I say their names. I miss my boys. But, Alyssa says that wasn't noticeable. I'm told they enjoyed hearing me talk about my dogs and my silly story drawing about them.

Then we tape up paper for them on the walls. They immediately get into it. They really seem to understand the concept and are natural storytellers. I believe all kids are, really. Two kids are having a hard time because they are frustrated about how their animals look. I spend a few minutes with them and presto, they get it too!

It was the most amazing feeling ever. I wasn't sure about teaching, honestly. But, it's very rare in life to have that feeling that you are exactly where you should be. I felt that yesterday.

My post tomorrow will focus on the kids at the Steve Bushcemi* school. Also, come back as there will be pics on this post and much much more! :-D

*Okay so the name just sounds like Steve Bushcemi, but for the longest time we pictured there being a oil portrait of the actor in the front hall. There wasn't though.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Breaking News! Baboon Attack, South Africa


Sandwich and two quiches stolen. Film at eleven.

Many of my friends have been teasing me about being eaten by a zebra. Turns out, zebras aren't an issue, but watch out for those baboons! Today at the Cape Point Nature Reserve, I'm sitting at my table with some friends. We're at a deli, outside, behind electrified fencing, feeling all safe, happy about our quiche and tuna sandwiches. Next thing we know a lady on a cliff is making odd noises and throwing rocks, large rocks, and a man with a large stick is approaching. There are baboons, they are screaming. It didn't occur to us to move. It didn't seem possible that they were talking to us.

Just then a rather large baboon vaults over the elecrtified fence and onto our table. We moved away as if in a dream. I stood a few feet from the table and watched him eat half my tuna sandwich and inhale two little quiches. Then the people with big sticks got him to leave and we were ushered into the restaurant.

People, I didn't even scream, and I'm a screamer. If you know me, you know this. It was just didn't seem possible that a baboon had nearly landed in my lap and was sharing my sandwich with me. Luckily he left my chocolate alone, because otherwise he and I would have thrown down.

Here he is later, on top of a car after stealing a bag of food from another tourist.

We also went to a reserve on the beach to see penguins. The penguins were just hanging out looking us from the bushes and rocks, with this look on their faces like, whatever, we're adorable.

There were also, dassies. I'm told dassies are related to elephants, but they look like giant guinea pigs to me. There were like ten of them eating this flowers running around on the boardwalk around us.

They're sort of sirly looking. Yeah, take my picture and then leave me the hell alone. I haven't had coffee!

None of these pictures were taken with a telephoto. Apart from the baboon, but really he was pretty close too.

It's pretty clear that in Africa, it's their party and if we want to come that's okay. Just remember to step away from the sandwiches.

Okay, so I know you're looking for pics, but I'm dealing with dial up here and am being told it's time to go.

Check back tomorrow for critter pics!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Getting There is Half the Fun

A few months ago, I had an epiphany about my life. Many years ago I received a Masters in Fine Arts which turns out is a really good degree to get if you want to be a office manager. Still, I don't regret the experience and all roads lead to somewhere even if said road meanders a bit. But, I realized that there was something tugging at my stomach telling me it was time to move on to the next stop in the journey.

One night at dinner, I was speaking to a friend of my boyfriend, John's friend. Her name is Nicole. She's a teacher, and it hit me. That is really the direction in which I should be heading. That could be inspiring. Next thing I know I'm sitting in the office of Amy Snider at Pratt. Then before I knew it I was receiving a letter from Pratt saying that I'd been accepted and would I like to go to South Africa and teach children art as part of the program? And, it seemed insane and barely possibly that a 36 year-old office manager with a 12 year-old son, two dogs and a boyfriend could possibly do such a thing. Somehow, well, mostly thanks to the unbelievable support of my boyfriend, John, it all fell into place.

And so here I am, blogging from Cape Town, South Africa. Can you believe it? I know! It's nutty!

So anyhoo, I'll need to catch you up on the journey thus far. I'm going to backtrack a bit.

So maybe you're saying, "Hey! That doesn't look a whole lot like South Africa!" You're right. It's London. I had not planned a stop in London, but thanks to the folks at Virgin Atlantic I was delayed at JFK. We ended up taking off from Newark, and thus, I missed my connection to Cape Town. But, they paid for my room and food. So I got to see London for a day. I won't go into the drama at the airport that led to this happy accident, because it wasn't so happy. Heathrow is madness and I hate to say it but there were tears. It's not pleasant to be lost in a part of a foreign airport where they are starting to shut off the lights alone. And the whole time I kept thinking, "Crap! That's a British guy on that little golf cart over there. I'm sure the British don't cry in airports. He probably thinks I'm a nutbag!" But, like I said it's all good now. I lived.

People, I've never been anywhere outside of the US. So it was rather surreal. I would take a shower at the hotel in London and think, "Weird, I'm showering in London. This is British water."

I was also able to meet up with friends, Sarah and Daz.

This was after roaming around Trafalgar Square and going to the National Portrait Gallery. London is gorgeous. Hoping to do that again someday and see more of it. It was a great day. Thanks Sarah and Daz! This is one of they most lovely couples in the universe most likely. There are probably just a handful of truly lovely couples. There are criteria involved. I won't go into it now, but there they are right there in that group. I am lucky to know them.

Then they called our friend Yassir, who happens to work in immigration at Heathrow and he walked me through to my gate while we visited. Thanks, Yassir! So no tears at Heathrow that day.

Then it was off to Capetown. No major drama there. I was in Port Elizabeth with no real problems.

So that's how I got to Africa.

Next time I can get to a computer I'll tell more. There will be more pictures later, but it's dial up here and they take forever to load. Don't want to be late for dinner!

Stay tuned!