Pomp and Circumstance in Cerulean Blue

In 2010, I finished graduate school while in Poland, six thousand miles from my university campus. It only took three years, one Fulbright grant, and a 180-page thesis. My mother hauled my academic White Whale around campus for the needed signatures and the requisite margin-measuring (in which each page is measured with a ruler to make sure you are within their strict guidelines), and I was notified via email that everything had been submitted and I would, in fact, be awarded a degree. My classmates walked at the Kings’ stadium, Arco Arena, (RIP) in May; on the day, I was camping in the Polish northern lake district, Mazury. My classmates partied (and then probably curled up in fetal positions and cried); I might have been ceremoniously dumped out of a canoe and baptized in lily pond in honor of my newfound credentials.

When I got back to the States, a classmate gave me his graduation gear: square black mortarboard, traditional hood accessory in gold and white for my university and department, and the long, judicial-looking robe with batwing sleeves. The only time I wore the robe, sans hood, was to the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 midnight premier. My friend and I donned our black commencement robes, Gryffindor-striped ties, and round tortoiseshell glasses; she bought us Slim Jims to take along: makeshift meat wands. Today, four years from HP7-2 and nearly five years from the completion of my degree, I could fit into the Potter subculture crowded into that Sacramento theatre. It’s graduation day for students at my Rwandan university, and I’m dressed the part of a Ravenclaw prefect in a massively oversized blue gown and six-sided mortarboard with a frizzy blue tassel.


Second shot at being an M.A. grad, INES-style

The gown was marked X-Large. When I tried it on in the office, another lecturer doubled over in wheezing laughter, which continued when I exited the room, though I could still hear him going into humor-driven cardiac arrest halfway down the hallway. XL was the only size available: apparently, only tall, hefty people are allowed to be lecturers at this school. I’m 5’4″ on a tall day, so the robe dragged on the gravel and fully engulfed my hands, morphing me into a Muppet-colored ghost. I could hide a lot underneath the voluminous tent of polyester, elegantly made with gathered pin tucks at the shoulders: a pregnancy, a humpback, perhaps a vestigial tail.

Waiting in the morning for the festivities to begin, my graduation partial-burka and I find a seat in a corner, shadowed by the second floor of the building. A camera man stands twenty feet away from me with a camera pointed unapologetically at me on my corner bench- infamy for being a white woman swallowed by a polyester gown trimmed in bronze satin. Or for just being a white woman.


The hat: Ph.D.s, all of us!

Today’s commencement circus is far different from American proceedings. My own cerulean robe and turquoise hat are just the beginning of the Crayola box that surrounds me, a rainbow of colors and styles marking faculties and positions. Jade green for undergraduate students in biotechnology and the sciences, royal blue for business and economics, sunny yellow for education and languages, and black- the usual drab tone of American undergraduate proceedings- for the faculty of law. Professors with full qualifications wear the regalia of their degree-granting institutions: colored robes with sleeves gathered at the wrist and marked with wide stripes. Tan with blue stripes, purple with white. Several INES deans wear green with a wide yellow bib, matching the university flag. One man, clearly a graduate of the School of Fabulousness, wears a ruby red gown and puffy cap, similar to those I saw last year at Georgetown Law’s commencement, sort of King Henry XIII chic, like he had just stepped (or, more accurately, sashayed) out of a painting surrounded by grouse and busty servant ladies. The traditional PhD arm stripes and the inset back of the gown are an ostentatious leopard print: so much fabulous on one man. (Sadly, though, no picture.)


Hats! More hats! Oh the hats!

I like the pomp of academic ceremony, and the tradition that accompanies it. Graduate gear has roots that are nearly a thousand years old, and yet has elements that are mostly common across continents. To be here is to be a part of a tribe that I love and hate in equal measures. I line up with my fellow lecturers, individuals who have studied in Africa, Asia, and Europe, and we prepare to enter in procession behind the crowd of 483 graduating students. We move slowly forward, one strange, colorful blob, toward to the soccer field where a quadrangle of tents has been arranged. The volcano looms above us, the blue beveled peak of Gahinga obscured by the haze. It’s a warm day, no rain to clear out the dust in the air.

Ahead of me, I see large groups of women, some brave enough to balance on pencil stilettos, teetering down the volcanic gravel rock paths. Today, more women than men will graduate, outweighing only by a small margin: 245 women, represented strongly in Accounting and Statistics, and 238 men, also in Accounting, but with large groups in Land Survey and French and English Education. I hope these women continue to advance in their fields, to pursue graduate degrees and return to the institution, injecting much needed gender balance to the academic teaching ranks. Then, at least, the university will be required to invest in some S- and M-sized robes.


Last to walk in to the “stadium”

The reason for the XL is quite clear: the program informs me that out of 79 academic staff members, only 13 are women. I am one of five women in regalia in the procession. The other female lecturers have been recruited for the day’s organization duties and don’t wear robes and mortarboards. A small injustice, but a significant one. Female academics seem almost invisible in procession- just two foreign woman, one head of department, and two female lecturers.


Two female lecturers in traditional Rwandan women’s dress that resembles Grecian wear   

The fun of graduation tends to be before and after the actual event. The actual event is long and conducted almost entirely in Kinyarwanda, meaning that I stare more at the audience around me than focus on the delivered content. As per usual at a Rwandan event, officials are all introduced and thanked for attending, from the visiting church officials (INES is Catholic), to the local mayor and government representatives, to the military representative. Then the people who worked on the event are thanked, and the faculty, and the students themselves. Each thanked person or group of people stands and waves jubilantly, and some run out onto the lawn for a 360-degree thanking wave. It’s a process. I think back to my own undergraduate commencement when all of these activities were accomplished in one line: “Thank you, students, faculty, families, and honored guests, for being with us today.” More efficient, yes. But less colorful.

The humidity rises, both under the white tent and inside of my personal cerulean blue tent. There is something strange about sitting here, trying to pay respect to the proceedings, but being so far shut out from them due to language. I shame myself for this, having such poor skills in Kinyarwanda, but even six months of classroom work in the language probably would still not enlighten their speeches to me. There’s always more to what is spoken, what is subtext and underneath the words themselves. Between my American academic culture and Rwandan academic culture, there are some shared concepts and practices, sometimes the lexicon and even part of the wardrobe, but I am still a stranger to so much of what happens, especially what happens in the language, between the people here. I think of the thousand questions I have on a daily basis – and how those get condensed into one or two queries. Sitting for three hours and not understanding ten words- the mind wanders.

Ultimately, though, everyone is waiting for the end, when the speeches are done, the names are read, and the students can finally breathe: it is finished. For me, it is finished comes when I remove my Blue Monster and unpin my cap, hair matted with sweat underneath. Students continue their celebrations and photos in the field as the workers begin to disassemble the tents and fold the chairs. And I walk home, liberated from my academic polyester, free in the breeze.

Love and peace from Musanze.



You Really Didn’t Do the Reading, Did You

Teachers. Sometimes, it seems we have few joys. Long class sessions lecturing on topics only we care about (example: my American Women’s Suffrage lecture Friday night, at the end of which a student asked, “what country are you talk about?”). Sleepless nights preparing for the next day’s class, meticulously scripting lesson plans and formulating thematic arcs to get to class in the morning and find that NO ONE did the homework. Policing during tests and catching cheaters; screaming over copying and plagiarism in take-home assignments; deciphering hieroglyphic student handwriting; finally memorizing the names of the one hundred students in the section on the last day of class. It’s too often thankless.

But as an English as a Second/Foreign Language (ES/FL) teacher, life can get extra punchy. I’ve taught in a variety of classrooms for the past eight years, from literacy-level refugee learners crowded around folding tables to pre-graduate international students writing 15-page research papers in air-conditioned university Smart Rooms. We’re expected to be expert linguists and grammarians, able to answer nearly any question that starts with “Why does English…” You have to be an academic & Anglophonic jack-of-all-trades, able to oscillate wildly between grammar classes in language school or vocabulary of biomedical technology in an English for Specific Purposes class. This is nicely illustrated by the two classes I taught in the past seven days. Last Saturday, with Burkinabe English teachers in the sun-scorched West African nation of Burkina Faso, I facilitated training on effectively using Communicative Language Teaching techniques in a large classroom of 60+ students. In another episode from the past week, I taught my Staff English class, which veered off course from my original topic of irregular past tense verbs and somehow arrived with me miming the various stages of childbirth in order to teach vocabulary words like “placenta” and “contractions.” It wasn’t pretty. My teaching never seems to be a very photogenic performance, evidenced by a photo taken at the Burkina English Teacher Association conference that my fellow Fellows and I presented at last week.


English teaching typically requires full-facial commitment. You can’t half-ass “contractions.” 

If you live in abroad from your English-speaking shelterland, most people who learn that you are an English teacher invariably follow up with one of a few remarks:

  1. Non-English speaker: “Can you teach me English?” (What, in the next five minutes?)
  2. Non-English speaker: “How can I improve my English?” (I call this the “doctor” question.)
  3. Native English Speaker: “Oh! Me too! I did a weekend course in Prague!” (That’s when my M.A. diploma starts to weep.)
  4. Person with Proper Job: “Why?” (I have no idea.)

Complaining aside, though, we have our fun. Language learners tend to provide a never-ending stream of linguistic concoctions that even T.S. Eliot on mushrooms couldn’t hallucinate into being. Like the student who replaced “organic” with “orgasmic” in a paper arguing against the use of aspartame. Don’t think for a second that I am an unfeeling, unkind Teacher Who Would Laugh Until She Sobbed in the face of that poor student, shaming s/he into never attempting to write in English again. That’s what teachers’ rooms are for. Protecting student dignity while allowing us, in secret, to decompress and fall on the floor laughing over these gems. It sounds cruel, but we all practice a form of it, right? Nurses complain about patients. Taxi drivers tell stories about drunkards falling face-first out of the car and into mud puddle. It’s a pressure release, a sort of game to help us teachers vent and prevent us from taking out our latent rage on our students.

All of that serves as an introduction to a related, but even more beloved game than “Find the ESLness in the Paper.” I call it “You REALLY Didn’t Do the Reading, Did You?” and, to be fair, it’s a game that doesn’t even require an ES/FL class. It just gets more fun this way.

For your viewing pleasure, I present some of the greatest moments in YRDDTRDY of my 2014 and 2015 sections of American Literature. My fellow English and ES/FL teachers, be warned. Ahead lie atrocities against literature. (Identities protected!)


Gatsby… man of “Scott Fig,” Egypt, South America, and Madrid. 


WCW’s “Red Wheelbarrow” (glazed, sweet, cold): A poem about slaves that would walk like elephants in the rain from morning till evening. 


Reports on Robert Frost and Elizabeth Bishop got a little mixed up with our African-American Lit unit. 

Until next time, peace, love & YRDDTRDY from Musanze.


“Why Do My Office Curtains Smell Like Body Odor?” and other important questions

Living in a different country means that meeting other ex-pats often devolves into extended, philosophical dialogues. You spend a lot of time talking about life, culture, challenges, victories, and those moments when you want to punch people in the face. I’ve had these same conversations, over glorious ice cold Perła in Krakow’s Stare Miasto, among early-morning train drunks between Zelenograd and Moscow, sitting on a roof under a canopy of Haitian stars, sharing a warm Prestige. You sit with others who are outsiders, like you, and you talk, you drink, you ask questions – why do Rwandans touch their inner elbow when shaking hands? Why do Germans have insurance for everything? Do the British still care that much about speaking Queen’s English?

But travel causes you to question much about what you know or think. You spend a lot of time navel-gazing, thinking about your values and experiences, how you other life seems so far away from your current reality. You journey deeper into yourself, uncovering new tendencies, powers, or fears – which can be terrifying. I’ve learned that I will, in fact, throw a rock in the direction of a small child if that same child throws a rock at a defenseless dog (I didn’t hit him – it was more of a warning shot). I’ve realized how much baggage I carry from my other lives and how each day can be a struggle to question it.

However, philosophical musing aside, everyday life is filled with more banal inquiries. Influenced by Buzzfeed-driven listicle culture, I sample here for your reading pleasure my Saturday morning, riddled with questions.

Questions I Asked Myself (and Others) Today

1. Would I get more or less attention if I walked down the road in a full burka?

2. Why do the curtains (in my office) smell like body odor?

3. Will this electrocute me? (While attempting to plug in power strip in my classroom and the wall socket pops out of the wall in to my hand, with a few naked wires attaching it still.)

4. Can anyone name one American writer? (Spoken aloud, to my American Literature class. Answer: No.)

5. Does family planning indeed help you “avoid sex workers”? (While grading brainstorming cluster on Communication final exam)


Family planning: What? To avoid sex workers. 

6. Can one have lice if one’s head does not itch? (While putting on public-domain moto helmet)

7. If I turn around, will I find a) a child, b) a woman, or c) (yikes) a man lovingly stroking my hair? (While on the bus to Kigali, with hair being anonymous fondled- a common and usually child-driven occurrence.) 

8. Does everyone at the airport say, “You are going to Burkina Faso,” because, like me, they can’t remember how to pronounce “Ouagadougou”? (Beginning my 12-hour trek to West Africa for my program’s mid-year conference/pool fest). 

9. What will the next week, trading East for West, entail? (We’ll see, won’t we.) 

The stupid or the deep, travel begs of you a thousand questions. To Ryszard Kapuściński, it is all the journey: “travel is his vital exertion, his self-justification is the delving into, the struggle to learn—about life, the world, perhaps ultimately oneself” (p. 269).

But really, I’d like an answer to the lice question.

Kapuściński, R. (2007). Travels with Herodotus. New York: Penguin.