Archive for ‘work’

October 3, 2013

JET-ting Off: The Epic Conclusion to My 2 Years in Japan

Note 1: Maybe it’s not actually epic, but it was pretty momentous to me.

Note 2: I have been meaning to write this post for months, so I am aware it is very very very late! Sorry about that!

In February 2013 I made the choice NOT to re-new my contract (which ended in July). I was loved at my job and in my little circle of friends, but I also felt homesick. The long winters and short summers of Aomori had worn on me. I missed family and friends back home in Texas. I also felt the need to get back on some sort of a career path, because teaching English/ESL was never my true career goal. Two years on the JET Program felt right. I signed the paperwork with my intent not to re-contract and that was that. Another chapter of my life had been signed and closed. All I had to do was enjoy the last five months in Japan.

The actual leaving preparations and goodbyes took about a month. Slow at first, and then fast & furious at the end. It’s enough to make your head spin and I don’t think I will be doing another international move for a very long time.

I thought I’d write about some of the things I did before leaving Japan.

 

I started teaching an English conversation class in the evenings. Three elementary school teachers came up to me and asked if we could have "English Conversation Time" together at a local coffeeshop. Of course I said yes. I liked all of the ladies a lot. We met three or four times and had a lot of fun together, talking about different subjects. One teacher bought me my first soy latte, which tasted pretty disgusting. I couldn’t even finish the whole thing, although I tried to drink as much as possible to be polite. :P They gave me a really nice send-off when I left.

 

Nishimeya Sports Festival [Sunday, May 26]

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I attended my first and last Sports Festival at my favorite junior high school. This is significant because of my position as a one-shot ALT with 12 different schools. When you have so many schools, you don’t have a "home base" and often don’t receive invitations to special school events like culture and sports festivals. I’d never been to one of my schools’ sports festivals in the two years I’d been there. I rode with a Japanese teacher (JTE) and watched my kids run relay races, do tug-o-war, and other events. I loved that day’s weather. I still remember it clearly because the weather was amazing. It was almost warm enough to wear a short-sleeved shirt (for me).

 

Lecture at the Office [Monday, June 27]
For an entire year and a half my co-workers have been saying that they want me to give them a lecture on something/teach them something. They were just so busy or something that it never got scheduled… It’s true, everyone was so busy and stretched so thin with school visits that it was rare that everyone was in the office at the same time. Well, finally… at the 11th hour… they scheduled me to teach them… something. I decided to make 45 minutes of the 1-hour lecture about conversational English. The last 15 minutes would be a slideshow of my 2 years in Hirosaki, the highlights. I figured they would be pretty interested about how foreigners live in their little city. The turnout for my lecture was pretty awesome. Almost everyone squeezed into the director’s office to hear me speak and I held their interest for an entire hour.

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May 19, 2013

My Life Lately: Spring Edition!

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View from the bus on the way to work…

Another edition of things that have happened lately but haven’t had time to write about yet! This might be quite long.

– I was talking to my supervisor about my successor (the person who will replace me in July) and saying to him, “I hope they aren’t vegetarian…” I say this because I always feel like a burden when they order a special vegetarian meal for me whenever we have work parties. I don’t mean to be a bother. But my supervisor totally surprised me by saying, “It’d be find if they were vegetarian. We know what to do now. We’re used to it.” I was really taken aback, but really happy too.

Here is the veggie spread I got at a recent work party:

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– I was at one of my junior high schools and my one (and only) glass that I had to teach got pushed back to the last period of the day, 6th period. The reason? Well, one of the 8th grade boys had confessed his love to a girl classmate. The girl turned him down, because the other boys/girls in the class had pressured her to say no. Well, naturally the boy got pissed and there was a huge rift in the entire 8th grade. My class was pushed back to make time for a meeting with all the students to resolve this issue. And there is where I roll my eyes and say, “… Teenagers.”

– The other Sunday I went to a local café/coffee shop with Tori and Kimberly. I ordered their grilled vegetable sandwich with french fries, no substitutions. It was vegan as-is. I was shocked. And it was absolutely delicious. I had a great time.

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– My supervisor is really on the ball with things. He’s already reserved my flights home and arranged to be my tax representative (so that I can receive my pension refund after I return home. This is a large chunk of change.) By the way, I am leaving Aomori in the morning on Monday, July 1st. Then I will stay in Tokyo for a few days and leave for the U.S. on July 4th. Going home on July 4th had a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?

AMERICAAAAAAA!
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– I went to watch Tori and Kyle at a snowboarding event last month on Mt. Hakkoda. Although I only lasted out there until lunch, it was fun to watch them (and other people) do awesome tricks. Plus, Tori was wearing her awesome Link (from Legend of Zelda) costume.

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Driving there~

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March 28, 2013

Thank You Always

March 8th was a special day for me because I was invited to my favorite junior high school’s graduation ceremony. I went last year, but at that time I had only known the graduating class for a little over 7 months. This year was a little more special because I have been with these kids for two years (since they were 2nd-year students). There were only 9 students in the graduating class (5 girls and 4 boys). One of them I was especially close with because I coached her for the English Speech contest in 2011 and 2012. But really, I have grown quite close to all of them. It was awesome to see them graduate. I almost cried.

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I arrived at the school at 12pm (my supervisor let me spend the morning at home, thank goodness). I ate lunch with the 1st and 2nd-year students and then waited for the 3rd-years to arrive. The ceremony began at 2pm. There were a lot of speeches, as usual, and I could understand a lot more of their speeches this year. I especially loved the 2nd-year kid’s speech and the graduating class representative’s speech. By the end of her speech, many were in tears. And then they had to sing their farewell song. Half the girls couldn’t sing because they were crying.

My favorite part is always at the end where all the teachers stand in a line at the front of the gym and the students all come up and say their thank-you’s with a bow. It was a loud, heartfelt, teary “Thank you.” Then they turned, wiping their tears, and marched out of the gym to end the ceremony.

 

「ありがとうございます」

 

The words “Thank you” are especially meaningful in Japan, I feel. For graduating 3rd-year students, that “Thank you” encapsulates the students’ feelings of gratitude toward their teachers for helping them through three years of junior high school. For helping them learn, have fun, and prepare for the dreaded high school entrance exams. Teachers hold a position of respect and honor in Japan, so graduation is a time to recognize the students’ accomplishments and also the teachers who helped them through it all.

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March 3, 2013

March is here

I’m done teaching for the school year. The next school year begins in April. I won’t see my junior high school 3rd-years anymore, but I will see the others again.

Next week I will be heading to my favorite junior high school to watch my students graduate. The entire graduating class is only 8 students. I’ll put on a suit and participate in pictures like a real teacher. I went last year and it really was a lot of fun. There were a lot of tears, but the kids are also really good at singing so there was good music as well. The whole school is only 29 students, but they always do a good job at putting on a ceremony.

The weather these past few weeks has been absolutely horrible. People right and left have been telling me how this is the worst winter they have seen in their entire life. Actually, my supervisor told me that we have received TWICE the amount of snowfall than usual. Last week I had two school visits where it was nearly impossible to get to school. One time I needed to ride the train into the next town, but the trains were stopped and the buses were late. I waited an hour outside in a blizzard for a bus that never came. I ended up taking the train-substitute-bus (sponsored by the railway company) and missed my first class. And then the second time I waited an hour outside… It wasn’t snowing, but the snow clearing crews just couldn’t keep up with the snowfall. The roads were too narrow for the buses. Finally my supervisor came to rescue me in his car.

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This definitely did not happen last winter… This winter is a doozy. Gee, how did I get to be so lucky? I am proud of myself, however, for getting through February without any major depressive episodes. Last year I would get home from work and glue myself to my couch most of the time, but this year I have been able to get myself to the gym regularly. Four or five times a week, actually. Plus, I have been doing yoga with my mom twice a week and that helps a great deal as well. Like the title says: March is here! Wednesday and Thursday were sunny and it did not snow. I hope we can have more weather like that.

Okay, so just to show you that I am not kidding with the whole winter and snow thing… Go to this page on BBC and watch this video about Aomori:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-21625702

And a few random thoughts:

1. I’ve been wondering lately… Why do Japanese people talk to themselves so much? Or is it that Americans talk to themselves just as much and I’ve never noticed? Japanese people seem to have an entire repertoire of sounds and things that they mumble to themselves. Sometimes my co-workers mumble to themselves during work. Most of the time, it is in the gym that I hear the most self-talk. They walk into the locker room and make these “Shhhhhh”, “Oooshhhh” sounds… or mumble to themselves. It’s quite curious.

2. If you ever want to shock or surprise a Japanese person, pull out a raw carrot (peeled or unpeeled) and start eating it like Bugs Bunny. Carrot sticks, the ubiquitous American snack, also work too. Many Japanese people I’ve met (my students and co-workers) can’t fathom the idea of just eating a raw carrot. I get reactions and exclamations of, “I’ve never eaten a raw carrot before!” and “…Is it good?” My students will stare at me with googly eyes when they see me eating my carrot sticks with my lunch. It’s really amusing.

Biting into a whole, raw, unpeeled apple will also produce the same effect. When I first arrived, my co-workers were quite surprised by my apple-eating. Tori told me that her co-workers call her “wild” for eating apples like that. Here in Japan, they peel all of their fruit. I got a free calendar from the school lunch company last year featuring important Aomori food products. One of the months was the apple and there was a little blurb written about how apples are good for you. The blurb talked about how you should just rinse off apples well and eat the entire thing, peels too! What a novel idea!

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February 25, 2013

Greetings

This post started out as something else and turned into something completely different. But I guess that’s what happens sometimes when you just sit down to write! Sorry if this is kind of all over the place. My brain cannot think linearly today.

Yesterday I was visiting one of the inner-city elementary schools and had a strange feeling. At some schools, they don’t have a desk for me in the teacher’s room (where all of the teachers have their desks), so they either tell me to sit in the area for guests or put me in a different room entirely. Sometimes I sit in the principal’s office. At this school they had another little room next to the principal’s office with a table, chairs, and heater. I guess it was just a general tiny multipurpose room. I couldn’t see through to the principal’s office (the glass on those doors were frosted), but the doors to the hallway also had glass panels that you could see out of. And people could see in.

I sat next to the heater trying to thaw from this morning’s commute. During the breaks between classes and afternoon recess, the students would run and play in the hallways. It’s winter, so they tend to stay inside. These children would press their faces and hands up to the glass, stare at me, and yell, “HELLO!” over and over again because it’s the only English they know. Some of the older kids will say “NICE TO MEET YOU!” if they remember. I guess it was the combination of being in a small room and being yelled at from behind glass, but I kind of felt like an animal in a zoo. “Look at the foreigner! Look at the English teacher! Do you think she heard me?!” I could almost feel my ears ringing at one point.

After the bazillionth “HELLO!!” I decided to leave the room and see if that was any better. The kids still shouted HELLO at me, but they also stood back and stared at me with wide eyes. They made sure to let me know that I was very big and tall. “Yes, I know,” I say in Japanese. “But I’m pretty normal in America.” To that they just stare in disbelief and scamper away. Every school is different, for sure. The young kids are either extremely friendly or extremely shy. But I can’t blame them for trying to greet me in the only way they know how.

One thing I learned upon coming to Japan is that students are required to greet their teachers. And it’s not just a “Good morning” when you walk into class first thing in the morning. You are supposed to say the appropriate “good morning”, “hello”, or “good afternoon” every time you pass a teacher in the hallway as well.

I’ve even had junior high school teachers stop a student and ask them where their greeting was. Some students are shy towards me, so they will forget to say it to me or just get nervous. If I happen to be walking with a JTE (Japanese English Teacher), they will stop the students and make them say “Hello” or “Good morning/afternoon” to me.

At elementary school the kids are encouraged to greet me in English, but sometimes it comes out in Japanese. When a small child comes up to me or passes me in the hallway and says “Hello!” they are rewarded with a “Good job!” by their homeroom teacher. Sometimes applause, even.

I think Japanese teachers and students might be really shocked by the way American students don’t greet their teachers religiously. I think back to all the times I just entered a classroom, sat down at my desk, and quietly waited for class to start. Then the teacher would say hello to everyone and start the class. A response from all the students wasn’t really required. It’s pretty different from Japan, where students are assigned on rotation to be “on-duty” to lead the class in their greetings. The student group greeting vary from school to school, but they are usually a variation of “Good morning/Good afternoon” and “Now begins/concludes 4th period”. Sometimes it reminds me of a military call-and-response.

With all these greetings going on around me, I’ve gotten pretty used to using the ones that are required of me too. I’ve gotten pretty used to the myriad of greetings that I use in the office and at schools. For example, you are required to greet the entire office when you enter for the first time that day. It’s usually “Good Morning” for me, but sometimes I have a school visit in the morning and come back to the office in the afternoon. Then I say, “Good afternoon, I’ve returned from ________ School.”

And at one school I visit there is a vice principal who loves to practice his greetings in English with me, even though he says the same exact thing every time I come. It goes like this:

Me: Good morning, how are you?
Him: I’m fine, thank you. And you?
Me: I’m good, thanks.

Sometimes I try to switch it up with a “How’s it going?” but that seems to catch him off his guard.

But okay. What I’m really trying to say is…

Greetings are a really interesting part of their culture. An essential part of it, too. Without greetings… things don’t start. Communication is not smooth.

Many times in my life I have spoken with a Japanese person and have used a Japanese greeting like “こんにちは | Konnichiwa”. The Japanese person immediately said, “Oh, your Japanese is so good!” or “You speak Japanese very well!”

I only said one word. How is this in any way indicative of my ability of speak the language?

Well, thinking about it now… Greetings in Japanese are basically half the battle. If you know how to greet well, you will be praised by Japanese for knowing their language and culture. Pretty sweet!

February 10, 2013

Year-in-Review: 2012

I’m a little late with this post this year, many apologies!

On the whole, 2012 was not an easy year. I learned a lot and experienced a lot. There were highs and there were lows; and I am ever-so-grateful for the people who were there to share in the highs and catch me in the lows. I couldn’t have done it without you.

I am proud of what I have achieved last year and am very much looking forward to what 2013 has in store.

And now without further ado, I bring you… 2012:

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December 17, 2012

Working, working, working…

It’s been far too long between updates… I keep meaning to write, but things just kept piling up. Two months, though? I am ashamed!

This post is mostly about my job lately and daily things that have happened.

Me in Pictures:

Here is a picture that my student drew of me. Don’t ask me why I am blonde…

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A Weird Conversation

The principal of one of my schools asked me why Americans were so against eating whale meat. That was an interesting conversation. I told him it was because they are endangered and we want to protect the whales we have right now on our planet so that they do not go extinct. He told me that Japanese people don’t eat a lot of whale, just a bit. I countered with: if everyone ate a little bit, wouldn’t that amount to a lot in the end?

Angels and Demons

It really surprises me how some 3rd graders can be sweet little cherubs who hang on my every word and look up at me in awe… and then some 4th graders can be screaming monkeys who don’t give a rat’s you-know-what about what I say. It’s crazy. Needless to say, I prefer the younger ones.

Commuting

The snow came early this December and I had to put up my bike in my storage shed. My only methods of transportation were buses, trains, and my own two feet. Last Thursday I walked 4.6 miles to work and back in the ice and snow. By the time I got home, it was very dark and I honestly cannot say I have ever been as happy to see my couch. But this week the snow has melted a bit and it has been raining… I have been able to use my bike a few times. Carefully, mind you! It only takes me 10 minutes by bike to get to work from my house.

Coloring

I have recently learned that coloring is a godsend. A simple coloring and listening exercise can get even the worse-behaved boys to be quiet and concentrate. The teacher came up to me after class and basically said, “Thank goodness you brought that coloring activity… It would have been bad if we didn’t have that.”

This came to mind… Here, have a meme:

ilovecoloring

Mistakes, Attitude, and Discipline

A few weeks ago I was at an elementary school, teaching those little 5th graders. I was telling them how the Japanese language even has some loan words from Spanish (or words that sound like Spanish). I thought I wrote “Spanish Language” on the board in Japanese, but instead I had written “Spine Language.” The kids cracked up and started laughing and kind of mocking my Japanese mistake. Last year I probably wouldn’t have said anything, but I have a bit more of a backbone this year. I spoke up and said, “Hey. Everyone makes mistakes. I’m still learning Japanese and I’m not perfect, so it’s okay to make a mistake. You’re learning English too, aren’t you? It’s better to try and make a mistake than to not try at all.”

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October 17, 2012

Random Observations as of Late #6

Aaaaaaaaaaaand it’s time for another catch-up post. I haven’t posted a “daily life”/random observations blog in a while, so here we go! Warning: This is long.

※ I was wondering…Why is everything I do so interesting? To everyone? For example, every time I come to this one school, the office lady asks me, “Did you bike here again today?” She asks me this and she is amazed when I answer “Yes”. The weather is nice and it only takes 30 minutes. Why is that so interesting? Also, people are amazed when I mention that I like exercise. And that I like to go to the gym after work. You’d think I qualified for the Olympics from the reactions I get. This stuff is normal, but since I am a foreigner in Japan… I guess everything I do is just interesting?

※ At one of my schools, there is a transfer student from another country. His father has already been here for a while, working, so he just recently came to join him. The rest of their family is still in their home country. I think it is interesting, because this kid speaks little Japanese and little English. Man, that must be hard. Plus, his name when put into Japanese katakana means “Ant.” I talked to the teachers about him recently and they said that the kid is being teased a bit and has few friends. The situation kind of makes me sad.

※ For the month of October, Kyle and Tori’s tradition is to watch one Halloween movie per night. So far I have joined them for Nightmare Before Christmas, Slither, Idle Hands, The Witches, and The Ring. The Ring (American version) is one of the scariest movies I have seen. I had horrible nightmares the night after I watched it the first time. I even slept-walked in Sam’s house and woke up on the floor in her bedroom’s entryway with a huge bruise on my foot. Still have no idea what happened there. Since then I’ve gotten a little desensitized by it and was okay to go to bed by myself. After we watched it last week, I went home and got in bed. I reached up to turn my overhead light off, but then froze. My lamp that hangs above my bed is a circle-shaped light, resembling a ring. The line from the movie played in my head: “Before you die, you see the ring.” So I bravely turned off the light, knowing what I would see. The room was completely dark aside from the ring of light, which faded into the dark seconds later. Pretty scary.

※ I’ve been cooking a little more lately. I’ve made a new curry recipe and this one is rocking my taste buds right now: click here for the recipe! And also, I rediscovered some of my Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-free baking flour that Tori and Kyle gave me for Christmas last year. I still had some left! So I decided that I was going to try and make carrot cake. I even bought nutmeg and everything. I used this recipe from Chocolate Covered Katie and while the results were not as visually “pretty” as a normal carrot cake… The taste was incredible. I hadn’t tasted carrot cake in probably over a year, so it was pure heaven for this carrot cake lover. Plus, it takes 5 minutes and you can make it in the microwave. I don’t have an oven here in Japan, but… This carrot cake can be made anywhere in the world with a microwave! I need to order more gluten-free flour. :)

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Another thing I made was… CHILI. Oh my gosh. I have not had chili in… two years? I can’t remember the last time I ate real chili. I am so looking forward to eating this with a nice ripe avocado on top. I used this recipe from Oh She Glows.

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June 29, 2012

Guests and Beverages

お客様と飲み物

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I’ve heard some people say that customers/guests are treated like gods. There is even a Japanese phrase about it: “お客様は神様”. It is kind of similar to our phrase in English, “The customer is always right”… But if I take the Japanese phrase literally, it says that customers are gods.

When I arrive at schools to teach, I am treated like a guest. I sit down at an empty desk or visitor’s table and get out my materials for the day. Then the office assistant usually makes me coffee or tea and offers me some sort of cracker or cookie. Sometimes the person makes me coffee with cream and I feel really bad because I don’t drink coffee and I don’t take cream either. I ask them if they have green tea instead and they look surprised, saying, “Oh! Can you drink tea? お茶飲めますか?” … Why yes, I am American and I love green tea! (Oh, and they never offer water…when actually that is exactly what I want. I usually go to the faucet and fill up my water bottle by myself.)

When I first came to Hirosaki and started working at my office, I thought serving beverages to office guests was just a polite thing to do. But then as the months went on, I watched and saw that every single time an important person came to have a meeting and sat down, they were served tea. A rather small cup of green tea with its own lacquer ware saucer.

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Sometimes the guest didn’t even drink the tea! They didn’t even ask the people if they wanted something to drink. And sometimes the guest would sit down for less than five minutes, finish their business, and then leave. The cups of tea sat untouched on the table.

I have been to 12 schools and every single one of them has offered me either tea or coffee when I arrived. Most schools still make me a cup of “obligatory” tea every time I come, but some do not. Maybe it’s because I have been there too many times to be still considered an “honored guest”.

Last fall, one of my co-workers here at the office had some friends at another elementary school where I would be teaching. He actually called ahead (or talked to them somehow) to let them know that genmai-cha (green tea with toasted brown rice) was my favorite. Then, when I visited the school the following week, the office assistant made me… you guessed it: genmai-cha.

Last week I visited an elementary school for the third time. I sat down and there was only one man working in the office at that time (everyone else was off doing something else). I had been served tea the past two visits, but the man made no move towards me… So I wondered if I had breached the point of not being a “guest” any more. But about 5 minutes later, he came up to me, looking slightly apologetic that no one had served me yet, saying, “Would you like something to drink? It is our custom in Japan to offer guests a drink, so what would you like?”

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June 17, 2012

Random Observations as of Late #5

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A stack of essays waiting for me to grade them..

– So, every week I do these reports about my school visits. These reports include a cultural observation section that can be anything I want to write about. Last week’s report was about the sempai-kouhai system in Japan. I wrote the following:

Basically, age hierarchy is an essential element of Japanese society. It really has to do with how you relate to people older or younger than you, especially at schools and in the workplace. If someone has more experience or is older than you, they are your sempai. If someone is younger than you or has less experience in an area, they are your kouhai. Because I am a foreigner, new to Hirosaki, and 24 years old, I am pretty much a kouhai in every situation. I guess I am the “low man on the totem pole (下っ端).”

Well, this report was translated by my supervisor and distributed for everyone else to read, as always. When the report reached my section manager, he turned to me and said, “ステイシー、Low Man On The Totem Poleじゃない。” Which is basically, “You’re not the ‘low man on the totem pole’.” I felt pretty validated at that point.

– I so very much wish that I could listen to music at work. My iPod would make things go by so much faster, I think. And maybe it would help me tune out all the other noise and concentrate too.

– I need a haircut. The ends are crazy and need to be cleaned up. I still want to keep my hair long for now. I quite like it long.

– Recently, I discovered something very wonderful in the bathrooms of my office building. You all know my irritation with the women who flush the toilet several times in order to mask the sound of them going to the bathroom. Well, they installed the Oto-Hime machines in the bathrooms! This means that I no longer have to listen to the Japanese women in my office building waste gallons and gallons of water just because they are embarrassed to use the bathroom at the same time as another person. Thank GOODNESS!

– Last week there was an 8-day stretch where I did not go into the office because I was teaching every single day. So I hadn’t been to the office or seen my co-workers for 8 days! When I finally returned, I was welcomed back warmly with smiles. I sat down, organized my things, and ate my lunch (since it was 12pm and I had just come from a school visit). But then my supervisor told me that all of my co-workers would be leaving in the afternoon on official business. “No!” I said. “Don’t leave me alone!” Then they asked me if I wanted to come with them. Of course I said yes. So that is the story of how I was able to escape from the office one Thursday afternoon in order to go organize textbooks at an elementary school a couple towns over.

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