Sunday, June 18, 2017

(Maybe) the Last Dispatch; or, l'll Be Loving You For Always

It's been a long time since I first wrote these words:

Sunday, October 21, 2012
First Dispatch; or, You Don't Get This in Texas 
Hola from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, our new home!

And it kept rolling from there. 

I really didn't think after the first few months I would stick with it, but I'm glad because it made me get out of my comfort zone and write something publicly and on a semi-consistent basis.

It hopefully answered some questions people have about GTMO, gave some of you a glimpse into life at The World's Most Bizarre Military Base (or something like that), and helped you understand why someone would choose a crazy life overseas instead of a more comfy one in the U.S. For our many, many friends who have come and gone, I hope it gave you good memories. 

This is blog post #186, and you can scroll through the other 185 to catch up, if you are just getting here. I think a few posts are the best writing I've ever done; others are really rather wretched. However, I'm leaving it as-is, at least for now, to keep as a record of our time for almost 5 years. Overall, I'm happy we were able to share a little of our lives here. 

Four days and a wake up, and then we are en route to new adventures starting in late July in Spain. We are trying to take care of many last-minute things, so I'm staying offline much more until we are back in the U.S. 

Hasta la vista, and hopefully in a couple of months, I'll be back to posting pictures and stories about Spain.

In the meanwhile. . . I made this to commemorate our time here. There have been many celebrations here (sadly, many, many without a camera---maybe that's a good thing), and there have been MANY goodbyes. It's been tough on my kids to lose so many good friends. It's been tough for us adults, too. As they say in the military, "It's never goodbye, only see you later," and I really hope to see our GTMO friends who have become our GTMO family in the future. 

Crank up your sound, feel free to clap and sing, and behold the beauty of the people and places that have made this our home. As the song goes, "I'll be loving you for always." That goes for GTMO, as well as our many precious friends we've met on this adventure. 

(If you can't get the video to open on this page, go to: GTMO Memories

Friday, June 16, 2017

Connections; or, Finding Bliss

The end of any school year is difficult. 

Class of 2016, my son's class. I got to teach
every single one of them (including my son),
and I absolutely loved his class. 

I worked in eight schools (six as a teacher, two as a librarian) before moving to Cuba to do a little of both jobs. I have a bad habit of doing a "cut and run" when it's time to leave. I don't mean I leave my employers hanging at the last minute; I just usually don't tell students I'm not going to be back. 

Before you think, "you horrible, heartless wench," there is a reason. I found out early in my career that students sometimes take it personally when you leave. They get attached to you and vice versa. They guilt trip you (why are you leaving us??) or give you the cold shoulder, sometimes even flat-out refusing to talk to you the last weeks of school after you've announced you are leaving.  You can tell a teenager that you are doing what's best for you and your family, but many of them are still at the stage where it's all about them. 

I've taught at schools that primarily consisted of military students (even one on a military installation), so you would think at least those students would understand. But many times, they don't. They don't want you to leave, and sometimes, you don't want to leave them, either.

I have some very mixed feelings about leaving a handful of students here. I hope some specific students find teachers who get their quirky senses of humor, or see through their tough exteriors, or refuse to look at their school records and instead focus on the present, not their pasts.  I hope a few will make better choices and not follow the footsteps to some family members. I hope the kids who think they are just average will push themselves into taking Honors classes and will aim to be the first in their families to go to college---because they definitely have the brains to do it, even if nobody at home has ever told them that. 

Unlike most other places I've left, I told my students a while back that I was leaving. Actually, a co-worker burst in with a very enthusiastic, very audible, "I'm so happy you are moving!!!" as soon as the transfer gossip had made it her way, and all I had to do was look at my students' faces and say, uh-oh. Not cool, lady. She had no idea that many of my students have been here for years and have dealt with several teachers leaving in the middle of the year (and more often than not, never being replaced with a certified teacher). So I quickly explained that I'm leaving after school's out, and their demeanor quickly changed. Whew. Honestly, kids here also get the "I have to get out of here" feeling more than most kids in other places. It's understood. This place is tough. Leaving doesn't mean you're giving up; it just means it may not be for you. Or for your family. 

Knowing you live in a tough place connects me to my students. A collective eye roll at what we have to do without this week (food items, flights, working restaurants, THE MAIL) or the way small things seem to be larger than life, not helped at all at how gossip spreads like wildfire, makes it hard to live here for many people. That connects me in ways I've never connected to students before. 

This guilt of leaving students is one reason why the end of this year has been especially exhausting for me. Then there are other factors. 

There's what another colleague calls "survivor's guilt." I got the golden ticket out of GTMO. And by "golden ticket," I mean any way out. I feel guilty that some of my other colleagues who have wanted badly to get out of here will be here yet another year. 

Is it that horrible to teach here? 

No. Not at all. 

Is it an easy place to teach? 

NO. To work at the secondary campus here, be prepared to teach 5 completely different classes (and sometimes, multiple subjects). There are limited resources at the school or on base, so wait 2-3 weeks to get supplies or professional books you've been wanting to use. Yes, I may have 35 students---but I prepare for them a helluva lot more than I did for 160 kids for only 2 classes. It's HARD teaching here. Give me 160 students and 2 preps over 35 and 5 preps ANY DAY. I think most secondary teachers will agree. 

Plus teachers don't have an end-date here. We can be here 3 years, 5 years, 10 years, or more before we get a chance to transfer. The budget for transfers is shrinking (as well as the number of DoDDS schools world-wide), so knowing you got one of 120 transfers out of 800 or more applicants feels like you've won the lottery. 

Is it an easy place to live? Um, no. I'll just leave you with this: my husband was left behind while a Cat 4 hurricane was coming this way. Am I bitter? Damn right I'm bitter. I wish I could say I am a better person, but I'm not. I blame a lot of people for incompetence, lack of communication, horrendous planning, and downright stupidity. (I have 5 days and a wake- up, as they say in the military---I really don't care who I offend at this point). Roll your eyes, but I am still dealing emotionally with thinking for 48 hours that my husband was going to die. I don't think I will ever get over it. 

During the "evacuation," they lined children up by height because they ran out of room on the last plane, and that's how they determined who got on it. They didn't get as far as the teenagers. This included several of "my kids," some students whom I've known for 3 or more years. I sobbed until the ferry turned around in the middle of the Bay and went back and got them. 

That event was the nail in the coffin. I HAD to get my family out of here. And seeing those kids today and knowing what we've been through---some have seen me sob inconsolably for hours---connects me to them in a way I have never connected to other students. Sadness, disappointment, a real, palpable fear, and yes, bitterness connects us, both colleagues and students. 

Packing up the few things left in my room is also mentally exhausting. I've found notes from students, graduation announcements, and other things that make me wonder, again, what will happen to them. You never stop worrying about your students. Never.  I will miss them. And dare I say it? I will: I will miss them more than I will miss many adults here.  They are why I've stuck it out after being reassigned to a position I didn't want to do (teach English), which ended up working out sort of beautifully because I have relationships with students on a level you just don't get as a school librarian. I love my students and they know it. Even when they drive me crazy, they are my heart. I hope the knowledge that I want them to succeed in this crazy world is another thing that connects me to my students. 

So onwards. My previous post was all about the wonderful relationships we've forged here, all the wonderful things that have connected us forever to GTMO. And those are the things that will stay with me more than others. But I do feel in fairness I have to explain why I am so ready to move on. I have friends who will probably leave here in a wooden box (crass, yes, but true). There are things to love. However, I don't want to paint this as the Most Perfect Place on Earth. Quality of life and basic safety issues aside, I've also written before---I am not a small town girl. And even in my small town of Monticello, Mississippi (1500 people---Sa-lute!), as a teen I spent many a breezy evening riding through the countryside, windows down, music turned up, smelling pine trees and dreaming of moving to bigger places, but always knowing I could come back any time to people and places I love there. 

You don't get that here---either the ability to ride around more than 10 minutes or so on this tiny, fenced off base, or the ability to come back any time you want. That part is what makes this move bittersweet. 

People have told me, "Oh, you are moving to an isolated area!" Rota, Spain has apx 29,000 people, and Puerto de Santa María, where we may possibly live, has apx 88,000 people. I've managed to keep busy on this small, VERY isolated base; I have a feeling we will be just fine, even if we don't venture far from home the first year.  One of my favorite novels, Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays, has a main character named Maria who aimlessly drives in the desert and on freeways to clear her head. I relate to that feeling of aimless travel (maybe it's even a metaphor for my life in general). To have to ability to get in a car, to get lost: that's bliss.  Even if it means I have to ride around, windows down, music up, and thinking back to people I've left behind, I will be HAPPY.  

Monday, June 12, 2017

Going, going, not quite gone; or, The time is nigh

We have been physically preparing for moving all of our earthly possessions for months now.

Every since I got the transfer notice in February, and even without official orders, we started downsizing even more. And this is something that has been ongoing since I arrived four years, seven months, and twenty three days ago. I landed on island on a Saturday, started work on Monday, and was told by one of my new colleagues, "You know, you are a little overdressed for what people here wear for work. You have to dress for the weather." Well. I immediately took some of my dresses to the thrift shop, and went to the NEX and got a few pieces of casual, warm weather clothes. It's the land of eternal summer and you dress accordingly. I had left Texas in a chilly October and a school that considered "dressing down" the occasional jeans and college shirt on Fridays; otherwise, we were told to dress "professionally"----no shorts, no tee shirts, nothing that looks like something you'd wear to a beach cookout, and never, ever sandals or flip flops.

Welcome to GTMO. Everything is different with island life and the downsizing and a new mentality started the week I got here.

At the end of my first year here, my colleague Brock and I celebrated every week's end with "Flip Flop Friday."™ If you're looking for something small to look forward to, I suggest this small celebration.  (Just give him credit if you try to make money off of it---I trademarked this phrase so you won't feel like you have to. LOL). 

We are leaving with approximately five thousand pounds less than we brought. This is awesome because it is mostly small things that are now gone. I find it amazing because we've picked up a few pieces of furniture, but still managed to downsize. Our wardrobes are mainstreamed. We only have the toiletries we really need. We've gotten down to the pots and pans we really, really use. Same with kitchen gadgets. I had fourteen hair brushes. Have you seen my hair? I try, but even on a good day, it's not what you'd consider awesome or even good. How do you get so many hairbrushes? Especially when I've had days when students have asked me, "Did you forget to brush your hair today?" (true story)

It's so easy to accumulate stuff---sometimes it's gifts from well-meaning people who you have continuously told to PLEASE stop sending you things. If they don't listen, those things are re-gifted to people who need them. You want to give me something? Offer to watch my kids when I'm back in the US so my husband and I can go on a date. Take me out to a restaurant I haven't be to in over a year and offer to pay part of the bill. Sit with me on the back porch (or if it's too hot, indoors) and take the time to ask how I'm doing and LISTEN. Show me pictures of what you've been doing since I last saw you (especially if they are of your kids who have grown up while I've been away). These are the gifts I want.

Through two big moves in 5 years,  I've started thinking ahead to my children, and all the crap they will have to go through. I imagine the gift of my kids having only a few boxes of things to sort after I'm dead and gone instead of an entire house, garage, and attic. Wouldn't that be lovely? It is seriously my dream---that I leave my children wonderful memories and few possessions to choose to keep or give away.

amazing back porch---we will miss this!

waiting in the garage in the rain for the packout to complete


The best part of GTMO, as anyone who likes living here will tell you, is the friendships we have made. Before we had our second child, my husband and I played in an adult recreation co-ed soccer league and made friends with many other couples. I think it's important in a marriage to have other friends who are couples, because it really helps you see that everyone is working hard---because marriage is hard work----and your struggles sometimes pale in comparison to other people's struggles. Plus hanging out with just your spouse isn't healthy. People need friends outside of their immediate family, and sometimes you need someone other than your spouse to tell your troubles to, to share laughs, to tell stories. After all, my husband (and my good friends) have heard my favorite stories 1000 times by now. But life happens;  we had baby #2 and were hermits for a while, and when we started to play soccer again, most of our married couple friends had either moved or divorced. Our circle of friends disintegrated in a period of 2 years, and we spent most of the remainder of our time in Texas isolated.

Living here has given us opportunities to be friends with all sort of folks. I've hung out with people I would have never, ever been friends with in the US---my supervisors, my children's teachers. People who come from very, very different backgrounds and sometimes values, but through a longtime, simmering friendship, I realize I do have much in common with them and will continue to be their friends after leaving. I found friends who felt like I've known my entire life. This is the beauty of a small community.

When you have to knock on a stranger's door in the middle of baking and ask for an egg or some butter, or you know the new neighbor probably needs board games and other toys to occupy their bored kids, you venture out of your comfort zone to help or ask for help. Every Thanksgiving, our little commissary seems to run out of Thanksgiving meal basics. You see people asking on our community fb page for everything from sour cream to sugar to cranberries to cheese. Several people step up. Some folks also offer up their homes to single servicemen and women who will spend a holiday alone. This is how people do things here---you never run out of what you need, because someone will give it to you. You don't have to be a hermit, because people will literally drag you out of your house to make you socialize. (That would be Karin---thanks for making me come out and play poker, even if I did christen your new poker table by spilling a drink on it).

Living here has been challenging and I've done my share of bitching (and itching---the bugs are out of control right now!). But I have learned in my 40s that I have the courage to march up to someone I've never met in my neighborhood and ask them if they need anything (and mean it). I have gotten over some of my anxiety of having people over to my house for dinner or social occasions. I'm not kidding when I say the thought anywhere else of having someone over for dinner gave me a major panic attack. I've kept my social circles very small over the years because I feel awkward with small talk. Here in GTMO, you sort of skip the small talk. It's all about "how can I help you in this rather difficult place?" I've had people flying back to the U.S. mail important documents for us. We've had people lend us everything from linens to a car. My wonderful and amazing neighbor Kim called me the day we were returning from several weeks in the US at the end of summer and said, "I know you are exhausted from traveling. I hope you don't mind, but we cooked dinner for you. You can come over to eat or I will deliver it to you." SERIOUSLY. This is what happens here. You meet generous people who realize that we are all in this hardship location together, and the best of the best make sure you have what you need to make life a little easier.