11 Lessons from Student Voice Live!

On September 20, Student Voice held its second annual conference, Student Voice Live! in New York City at shootdigital studios.

Student Voice is a non-profit organization that is powering the global education conversation and geared towards amplifying, aggregating and empowering youth voices on big-issue topics. Research shows that only 47 percent of students believe they have a voice in decision-making and this dips to 36% in the 12th grade. Student Voice strives to enhance the overall effectiveness of education by ensuring students are regarded as equal stakeholders in their education experience. Including students on decisions pertaining to their education has been known to reduce absenteeism, enhance school climate, promote civic engagement, and build character amongst all students. Starting with weekly Twitter chats, Student Voice has become the world’s largest and most consistent online student dialogue, reaching more than 5,000,000 people worldwide.

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Student Voice Live! 2014 — hosted by Hunger Games actress Jaqueline Emerson and with talks by high school senior and cancer researcher, Jack Andraka; author of the New York Times best-selling novel, “The Smartest Kids in the World,” Amanda Ripley; and The Director of the Office of Education Technology at the U.S. Department of Education, Richard Culatta – had more than 200 attendees!  The conference was full of poignant takeaways; in no particular order, some of the many important lessons discussed at and gleaned from Student Voice are:

  1. Actions speak louder than words.  Walk the Talk!
    Student Voice advocates for students to take charge of their own education and get involved with what they’re interested in — a mission that was visible at the event. Firstly, Student Voice Live! itself was put on by a team of 18 students who collaborated virtually across multiple schools, states and countries. Furthermore, the conference was the set for the first episode of the Student Ignite Show — which, as a web show produced, directed and filmed by students is a prime example of student voice in action.
  2. Entrepreneurship and education is like oil and vinegar.
    Entrepreneurs are not created — they’re empowered. This statement ties back to a broader argument that these more “intangible” skillsets and mindsets can’t necessarily be taught, but with proper guidance and concentrated effort, anything is possible.
  3. Growth happens when we become comfortable being uncomfortable.
    Change is the only constant.  Just as muscles get built only after exerting them to point of tear, so does growth come only when we keep pushing past the comfort zone.
  4. Innovations stem from constant problem solving.
    In trying to tackle a big issue, solving one problem creates another hurdle that needs to be surmounted in order to achieve the desired result. For example, Jack Andraka mentioned that after finding a tentative cure to pancreatic cancer, the problem was finding a lab that would allow him to test his theory.  Once he accomplished that, he had to find and conduct further research to support his experiment.
  5. Education isn’t about books. It’s about people and making connections.
    Sure book knowledge is useful but tapping into the knowledge gained from a network of connections and collaborating across this network can be a powerful, alternative source of education.
  6. Knowledge shouldn’t be exclusive.
    Many academic article and journals are locked behind pay-walls, as are online version of articles in many common publications. Beyond this, in some developing countries, girls are still denied the right to an education.  Also, globally, as well as in the United States, education seems to go to the highest bidder; people without the financial means to pay for it often can’t get a quality education or sometimes any education at all.
  7. Students deserve the same rights as everyone else.
    The 1969 US Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. Des Moines, affirmed that schools could only restrict speech that interferes with the education of other students or the operation of the school. Erik Martin and other students recently drafted a Student Bill of Rights that attempts to uphold this ruling and expounds upon the additional rights to which students are entitled. At Student Voice Live!, a panel of students, lawyers and teachers explored this draft bill, the evolution of student rights, which rights students are currently lacking and what students can do if they feel their rights are being violated.
  8. Students deserve to know how their school is run.
    School is theoretically for the students so direct conversation between students and the administrative team and transparency on scholastic decisions and actions builds an effective, inclusionary educational environment.
  9. If society repeatedly labels people as failures, at a certain point, they start believing it.
    This is a large part of the reasons why many minorities don’t engage in STEM or seek out mentors. They don’t think they are entitled to the same opportunities as everyone else nor qualified enough to get involved. This lack of diversity in STEM has inspired countless initiatives, many of which incorporate art — a universal language and globally relatable medium — in an attempt to draw in a larger and more varied group of people beyond the stereotypical Asians and the white men.
  10. Mentorship is organic.
    It’s not like online dating—you can’t pair people up randomly and force a relationship. The best partnerships happen when both parties can stand to gain from the interaction and want to help each other.
  11. Don’t take no for an answer. Rejection isn’t the end.
    Overwhelm the critics with evidence and support for your cause.

(Cross posted from the Smart Girls Loop)

I Remember…

I remember cold nights and knit hats snatched up from the arms of someone else, in an apartment that seemed to house half the inventory of the storied shops on the street below.  I remember feeling giddy in my toes, so numb they might fall off but imbued with the teenage fire to keep marching on. I remember grey skies and raindrops that fell like manna from the heavens and buses that never came. Late nights spent restlessly tapping my feet, checking my watch and trying to send an iMessage to reassure my parents with the one bar of internet that occasionally blew my way.

 

I remember those girls in crisp dresses and weathered boots, faces tilted like an open invitation, lips parted in open scorn– walking enigmas. Laughter floated on the humidity as it evaporated towards the shingled rooftops, indistinguishable from the man-made smog streaming out of the dimly lit cafés with their plastic tarp overhangs and overpriced café au lait– a midnight heaven.

 

I remember reckless abandoners. The boys so haunting you forgot they too were haunted. And the promises that never materialized, disappearing as the words hit the air. All smoke and no substance. Just shiny coins and pretty thangs and hugs that smelled like fresh air.

 

Backstage at sunset on Madison Avenue, far away from reality, I remember neon lights and the slow feeling as smiles worked their way through bodies.  Nestled in the crook of a stair step, leaning on concrete and each other. Hair tangled up in words and eyes caught up in the glow. Arms linked, zigzagging through the dark, wet, streets with bright hearts and frost on our cheeks.

 

(This post was originally an English assignment to capture a moment that meant something to us.)

100 Things I Learned After a Year Abroad

Inspired by my dear blogging buddy Nat and in honor of the fact that this year’s class is currently on their way to the small lovely city I called my home for a year, here are 100 things I learned while living in France. 

  1. Bread + butter is a severely underrated combo.
  2. Tea makes everything better.
  3. When life sucks go for a run. 
  4. Don’t dismiss the blond lacrosse player from Florida or the fashion-loving party girl from Cali. The former may turn out to be a serious bookworm and fellow quote enthusiast, the latter a budding poet and running buddy. 
  5. Music makes everything better. Make playlists for running, for sleep, for when you want to throw things and scream, for when you’re sad, for studying (an all classical one), for when you just wanna dance and for when you can’t stop smiling…soundtracks to a lifetime. 
  6. Public transportation is a beautiful thing.  
  7. Sometimes, it’s just a sweatshirt and leggings kind of day. And that is ok.
  8. Cheese is dessert.
  9. Dessert should be had after every meal (excluding breakfast cuz it practically already is just dessert). 
  10. A good pair of shoes can make or break a day. For example, a colorful pair of rain boots on what seems like the umpteenth dreary, rain day in weeks provide a splash of happiness amongst swathes of grey.
  11. If the bus is late, don’t wait, just start walking. 
  12. Friendship is impromptu ice cream dates after bombing a math test, cram sessions over cups of caramel tea and bringing each other chocolate when they’re having a bad day. (Vanilla dark chocolate is like a universal pick me up).
  13. Don’t forget to show people you care. 
  14. Watching French movies is ALWAYS a good idea. 
  15. Don’t judge the family-friendly Catholic movie your host parents invite you to. It may turn out to be an actually funny backdrop to bonding, complete with caramel kettle corn.
  16. Speculoos is heaven in a jar. 
  17. Blood meat sausage is just as oily as it sounds. Try at your own risk.
  18. Every now and again, one just needs photo shoots with street art. 
  19. The French will judge you. 
  20. Europeans don’t do backpacks. 
  21. The effortless French style is a lie. Effortless actually means at least 30 minutes, a lot of perfume, red lipstick and varying amounts of black eyeliner.  
  22. Beauty is pain.
  23. Friday afternoons should be spent in the company of friends, sprawled across the floor of a loft watching badly dubbed movies projected onto a skylight.
  24. It’s ok to act like an obnoxiously loud American teenager every once in a while.
  25. Running clothes aren’t meant for grocery shopping.
  26. Going to an outdoor market is still a surprisingly authentic and worthwhile experience despite the ubiquity of supermarkets. 
  27. Brunch is a cute word and an even cuter meal.
  28. It is possible to get mentally, physically and emotionally lost in an art museum. Two out of those three are actually rather pleasant sensations.
  29.  Hostel food is generally not appetizing or all that cheap. Lose-lose situation…
  30. Meteorologists are often wrong. Forget the apps and just look out a window. 
  31. It is possible for a social media junkie to go 2 weeks without any real outside contact and almost 9 months without steady Internet.
  32. Don’t forget to live a little. Go for a run in the rain, grab tea after class or go out to dinner with friends.
  33. Good friends are the family you choose. 
  34. There’s nothing wrong with a cathartic cry every now and again. 
  35. Nothing good happens after 2am. Unless you’re in a hotel room somewhere in the middle of France with 6 of your best friends.  
  36. The metro will close eventually. Even in Paris. 
  37. Notes are more fun to take in pen.
  38. There’s no such thing as too much black.
  39. February is inevitably dreary. 
  40. French people like American music. They don’t understand why Americans want to listen to French music.
  41. Most “popular” musicians who sing in French aren’t actually French. 
  42. This too shall pass.
  43. A good bus buddy shares their music and food. 
  44. It is possible to sleep on airplanes and buses (especially if you and your seat neighbor are willing to fold like pretzels).
  45. If you think you couldn’t possibly eat an entire sleeve of Langues de Chat cookies, think again. Just let it happen.
  46. Write letters. The people who care will always write back. Plus getting snail mail is like Christmas in a tiny envelope.
  47. Cathedrals come in all shapes and sizes (like people) but they’re still all breathtaking and have beautiful windows. 
  48. It’s ok to fall. 
  49. Always have water, an umbrella, gum, a hair tie, headphones and a book in your bag. 
  50. There’s no such thing as goodbye. 
  51. Anything can happen.
  52. If you want something, go for it.
  53. Write things down. Words. Quotes. Images. Feelings. Ideas. Save them.  
  54. Everyone’s a little messed up somehow– even diamonds can be flawed.
  55. Accents are endearing.
  56. A night in with good friends and a movie generally beats a night out with strangers. 
  57. Internet is not guaranteed.
  58. A year without AC is doable. A year without heating is not. 
  59. Sometimes it’s better not to have a detailed plan. You never know where your wanderings may lead.
  60. There are few things more comforting than the sound of rain. 
  61. Always buy the metro tickets in Germany. Even if you think your 24-hour passes should still be valid. Just buy another ticket. 
  62. Being in a country where you can’t speak the language is like being an infant all over again. 
  63. Crêpes in Paris don’t hold a candle to crêpes in Brittany. 
  64. Don’t ask “why?” Ask “why not?”
  65. Everyone does pizza differently. 
  66. There is no better feeling than being told by a native that you don’t sound foreign.
  67. Pickpockets are real and prevalent.
  68. Napoleon was almost not French.
  69. People are too complex to be judged and labeled as any one thing.
  70. You can spend an entire semester studying the American efforts in World War 1. 
  71. La Shoah is not the same thing as le choix.
  72. Lunch should be an hour-long, five-course affair.
  73. Rachitique does not mean ratchet.
  74. The French don’t have a word for awkward.
  75. Learning a new language in your second language is mind blowing.  
  76. Old people have the best stories. 
  77. People change.
  78. Une bouteille d’eau is bottled water that’ll cost you. Une carafe d’eau is from the tap and free. 
  79. Study abroad bucket lists are meant to be completed, edited, and elongated. 
  80. When everyone’s asleep, the city breathes. 
  81. Sometimes, buses just won’t come.
  82. Paris is always a good idea.
  83. You can’t make buttercream frosting without powdered sugar.
  84. When you usually get a two-week break every two months, going three months without a break is killer.
  85. People who say they love rain have probably never lived in a place where it rains constantly.
  86. Listening to top 40 music from back when you lived in America will either a- make you really nostalgic and sad or b- remind you of fun times back home (which oftentimes inevitably leads to “a”).
  87. Homesickness will wear off (eventually). 
  88. Not sticking out as a foreigner is an art. 
  89. Getting lost can be both a blessing and a curse. 
  90. All umbrellas are not created equal.
  91. Don’t underestimate the power of the little things.
  92. If you can’t parallel park, don’t even think about driving in most of Europe.
  93. Losing yourself in a language is an incredible feeling.
  94. Go to museums. When you’re under 18 they’re free in most places.
  95. If you’re feeling down, it’s clearly the dementors’ fault so it’s perfectly acceptable, in fact it’s advisable, to consume large amounts of chocolate. 
  96. A large part of study abroad is hanging out in cafés and people watching.
  97. The French drink lots of liquids like hot chocolate, milk and juice, out of a bowl.
  98. Everything is relative.
  99. The girl you sat next to on the bus and the girl from Alaska and the tall lanky blond boy and the soccer jock from the middle of nowhere-Maine and the crazy theatre girl and even the girl who once lived 15 minutes away but to whom you’ve never really spoken before might just turn out to be seriously kindred spirits and lifelong friends.
  100. Everything will work out and be ok in the end. (If it’s not ok, it’s not the end).

 

Reflecting on ISTE 2014

Going to a conference alone is an unusual experience. I like my independence, but to a point. About a month ago, I had the fabulous opportunity to attend the International Society of Technology in Education’s 2014 conference  (ISTE). However, unbeknownst to me, the morning of the first day was dedicated to set up, so I spent a large portion of this time wandering around by myself trying to get my bearings. I soon decided that there was strength in numbers and befriended a group of teachers from a local high school. Together, we explored the conference center, exchanging secret codes for the “networking game” that turned making connections into a competition. Sure, you met more people but if the interaction was nothing more than a a few words, did it really count as networking?  For me, the highlight of the first day was the cool people I met (many of whom I knew well from Twitter), followed closely by actress and activist Ashely Judd’s opening keynote. Her touching speech highlighted the importance of teachers in the lives of their students.

The following day was a whirlwind of networking. As luck would have it, a former teacher and mentor of mine was at the conference and I enjoyed getting to reconnect. I also managed to link up with some of my Student Voice friends/colleagues with whom I discussed at length the benefits of technology in the classroom and how it should be carefully leveraged so that it’s a tool on the path to deeper learning instead of an end result.

Many of the sessions I attended also supported this premise. The first session I attended was a series of Ignite talks and round table discussions, a rapid format designed to squeeze the most ideas into a limited amount of time. As a result, I ended up hearing a multitude of ways teachers are expanding their classrooms past the brick and mortar walls. For example, UNICEF has come up with a collaborative online portfolio of international education resources that can be found at http://teachunicef.org/. Mail-order elephants (modern day flat Stanley), mystery Skypes and international e-pen pals were a few that truly stood out. Many teachers also suggested asking the students what they want to gain out of the year and how global learning could help. Each project was designed to foster not only knowledge of other areas of the world but also form relationships with people outside of the students’ cities and build an international community.
In that first ignite session, I spent my roundtable discussion with Vicki Davis, co-creator of the Gameify project, an intergenerational learning experience. Her students tried to identify what makes an “effective” game, linking ed-theory with game theory. They joined MOOCS and tested over 50 games to see their benefits. Only a few met all the students’ criteria of an effective game – one that is both engaging and informative.  Sadly, the conclusion they reached with a majority of the games was that the highly engaging ones didn’t teach much and the highly educational ones aren’t very interesting. As a next step, the class wants to partner with older, more experienced coders to create the “perfect” game that would pass the rigorous judgment they’ve become accustomed to passing. I got a chance to see some of the educational games currently available up close and personal on the second full day of the conference. I sat in on a session between Dell and Brainpop that gave me the opportunity to play a handful of online games in science, math, and English, that targeted different specialties and professional fields. I was surprised at how engrossing some of them were and how completely boring others were. Despite having seen the research, I hadn’t realized how obvious the difference was between a game that was good (engaging and informative) and bad (monotonous, too general and/or not actually educational).
On the first real day of the conference, I visited the general poster session, a hall full of different projects and teams from across the world, eager to share how they use technology in education. One of the booths that particularly intrigued me presented a “student voice and choice” curriculum. These teachers had their elementary students blogging and tweeting about what they learned and did each day, allowing them to learn by doing rather than having the teacher talk at them all day. Furthermore, 20 minutes of each class were dedicated to a project chosen by each student. The project guidelines were few and simple; the students didn’t have to be researching or solving a problem, just pursuing something that they were passionate about and producing a final result at the end of the year, be it a presentation or a product. I found this model simple yet very effective and admired how technology simply helped the students gain control of what they were learning.
The last session I attended on the final day of the conference was all about changing the paradigm. The public school system of Manor, TX created an innovative student leaders program with a group of students who showed that they know how to integrate technology into their everyday lives. These schools realized that the students of my generation, the so-called “digital natives” are already well versed in a lot of technology and programs that schools are adopting. Therefore, rather than wasting time, money and energy, training certain teachers with no prior knowledge who in turn would teach others, the logical choice was to put the students in charge of technological professional development of all teachers.
In addition to the sessions scattered throughout the days, an entire level of the conference space was dedicated to a sponsor/vendor expo. There, big companies like Adobe and Google talked about their new products and their educational initiatives and tools to large crowds while smaller companies like Bretford took up just as much space showcasing their flexible, re-arrangeable furniture/desk sets that come with built in charging stations. One of the smaller companies that really grabbed my attention was Bizworld. Bizworld endeavors to teach entrepreneurship to elementary students. Their newest product, Bizmovie, is a project-based module on the film industry. Students are a part of the full movie-making process, from creating the film to publicizing/marketing it and generating “revenue” by selling tickets. It’s a hands-on, simulation of real life that’s fun for the students while also teaching them valuable, real-life skills.
Furthermore, ISTE showcased how technology can be used by students to make a real impact. The idea of introducing more technology into our schools receives a lot of pushback. But one only has to see the over 14000 attendees at ISTE and feel their energy and passion to realize that technology isn’t the demon it’s often made out to be. Despite what some people may say, technology hasn’t turned Generation Y into narcissists who live in their own little world. Far from it. Kids of today are more willing to support philanthropic causes and volunteer to work for the satisfaction of helping others, sometimes even going so far as to use their technological knowledge to make things happen. I witnessed this in action at ISTE with the DELL Youth Innovators Advisory Board (YIA). The YIA is a new Dell initiative that gives 12 student leaders from across the country a platform to enact social good and change while leveraging Dell’s resources. It’s a beautiful collaboration, and after spending a lot of time hearing their ideas, I’m excited to see where this all goes.
Overall, this experience confirmed what I already knew: when you are truly passionate about something, it doesn’t feel like work. Time truly does fly when you’re having fun. And sharing innovative ideas with such a fabulous cohort of like minded people was, in addition to being very informative, definitely fun.

To Enact Change, Focus on the “Why” before the “What” and the “How”

I turned right on Bolton Road… and it all started coming back. I passed the abandoned kennel, the towering walls of kudzu, the empty streets, the giant landfill, the rickety old rocket ship play structure and the Hottie Hog’s (the only restaurant within miles, categorizing this area as what is sometimes referred to as a “food desert”). These were all landmarks with which I had familiarized myself over two weeks last summer as part of Atlanta 2.0, a pilot course on urban planning and Atlanta.

 

As a part of this course, we were tasked to identify flaws in the Bolton and Riverside neighborhoods, choose an area we wished to help and devise a plan to fix the problems we had targeted. My group from last year suggested turning an abandoned lot into a food truck park and replacing the fields of invasive species with a useful park that could serve as an aesthetically pleasing community-gathering place. However, despite all of our conscientious plans, when I recently returned to the area a year later, it was as if we’d never passed through, with our heads full of ideas for change.

 

Regardless, this course last year opened my eyes. I learned what qualified a public space as “bad” or “good” and picked up on certain techniques others have used to transform the former into the latter. Being back in these neighborhoods, I began to realize that my home in Marietta is also somewhat in a “food desert,” like the neighborhoods of Bolton and Riverside. This type of characteristic is something one doesn’t notice until one starts purposely looking for it, in an active search to identify an area’s flaws. To me, my area is simply home. It is what it is and I don’t make any effort to change it, yet I was shocked that the residents of Bolton and Riverside hadn’t taken action to fix their little corner of the world. Realizing this hypocrisy has led me to better understand now why the projects we attempted to put in place last summer failed. My peers and I had lofty goals, and we recommended sweeping measures that we felt would solve the issues we identified, but we failed, in some instances, to fully take into account the key problems facing the Bolton and Riverside communities.

 

However, now I realize that the key to innovation and successful change is to understand the customer’s needs, something that this year’s group learned early on. They put a greater focus on identifying the true underlying problems of this neighborhood, which go further than its lack of food options or infrastructure. Simply put, the area of Bolton and Riverside lacks a sense of community. As a member of the Home Owner’s Association for a subdivision less than 5 minutes from Main Street said, Bolton’s biggest issue is that no one wants to go there. The area has fallen into serious disrepair but no one wants to fix it because they don’t see the allure or any potential dividends in doing so.

 

This lack of community engagement is what this year’s group of Atlanta 2.0 students is trying to change. This summer, I had the fantastic opportunity to sit in on their final presentations and hear their proposed plans to revitalize the area. Most, if not all of the plans focus on a sort of “pre-vitalization” to draw people to the neighborhood and to convince its inhabitants and store owners/potential investors that this area is worth saving. Using temporary and relatively easy preliminary steps such as recycling older tires to be used as planters, organizing a Farmer’s Market, and setting up mini green spaces known as “parklets” on the corner of deserted streets, the students participating in this course intend to elevate the public space.

 

It’s a noble goal, to craft a place where residents want to be, to make it more beautiful, more sustainable and more functional. This new approach focused on first creating the desire for change within the community (the “why”) and I was struck by how business-like it seemed. Even as a newly inaugurated intern for a local company, I’m well aware that in business, the customer is king. It appears that this applies to many other facets of life. In returning back to Bolton and Riverside, I’ve witnessed the importance of having the right intentions in everything you do. If it’s not what’s wanted, change is useless, and can even be a nuisance.

 

Reflections on SYA

Tell me “Rent,” how DO you measure a year in the life?  A school year is such a long time, that try as I might nothing seems strong or evocative enough to capture the raw sense of what it means to be a high schooler studying abroad in France, what it feels like to be an outsider and an insider, to have feet on either side of the Atlantic and be pulled in so many directions it feels your heart may snap. But it doesn’t. Instead it’s pumped full of love, greasy, salted-buttery love by the local French, those elusively great, maddeningly curious creatures.
Fitting in with them is a game of chance, a series of trial and error. One shockingly non-rainy day, I’m wearing what my mom considers to be my sister’s uniform: plain long sleeve tshirt and black leggings. Simple enough, it’s camoflage back home in the bubble. But on the streets of Rennes, I feel naked, stripped bare by the sly glances of the chic adolescents also waiting for the bus that can’t seem to get here fast enough. Three minutes have never dragged by so slowly. It’s enough time for me to feel absolutely certain that the entire country hasn’t heard of dressing for comfort. As time goes on my wardrobe is drained of color, bit by by, painstakingly culled to conform to the firm French belief that black is the new black. Looking like you belong is the easy part. Nestle the leathery strap of a Longchamp in the crook of your right arm and you’re practically halfway there.  Better yet, snag a coveted sparkly tote without a clasp whose impracticality is overlooked by the French school girl masses, redeemed by a wider range of color options, adding shades of grey to the arsenal of black and navy staples. These colors are your golden ticket: like the pens obligatory to suive the lectures upon which French courses lean so heavily and the only colors acceptable in the traditional striped Marinière.
The modern French man or woman still dons this classic, one of the only remnants of the stereotypical Frenchman that has enraptured the western conscious for years, appearing throughout the media, the darling of old Hollywood and the eternally bright muse of the pre-second world war literary cavalry. Gone are the effortless smokers à la Audrey Hepburn, elegant in their self-harm. In their place are the swarms of sagging, Nike-wearing adolescents who roll their own cigarettes like they were born doing so. The hipsters have gone totally digital, preferring their smoke in artificially flavored shiny e-cig format. Mastering their look of disdain, superiority and carelessness is an art. Walking down the streets with your eyes focused on absolutely nothing requires a level of godlike self awareness. Add to that the struggle of preventing your one functioning earbud from falling out of your ear and you’ve got a one woman circus, a juggling semi-pro.
After a year abroad, I’d say send in the lions, my life is a juggling act- reconciling or rather tactfully suppressing the American-ness, while retaining the essence of yourself (which given my youth is rather unformed and fuzzy) and absorbing as much of the French as possible. The outward gestures come easy, by now my blood is probably 50% cheese and the weather in Britanny is predictably unpredictable but could never be considered warm, at least by my southern standards so the all black becomes the unofficial uniform of the deplaced Americans trying desperately I blend. It’s the inner heart and spirit of the French people that I’ve been earnestly seeking these past nine months. Striving to perfect my breathy “ouai”, the seemingly required moniker of French mothers. Avoiding the goth-look while clothed head to toe in black. Looking flawless despite the weather, time of day, or day of the week. And how do they avoid what I have dubbed the france 50, like the mythical freshman 15 but brought on by decadence rather than ramen? What’s their secret?
A whole school year and yet I fear I leave with more questions than answers, so I turn to my ratchet jar of speculoos for comfort (thus making me the opposite of rachitique)  to drown out the sorrows at having to part from this magical world which has so much still to be discovered. Au revoir. And in the words of my obvious twin, Arnold Schwartzeneger, I’ll be back.
Then...

Then…

...and now

…and now

 

 

From the first school trip...

From the first school trip…

the Original crew (from L-R: S.V, A.N, G.O, me, D.G and I.C)

…to the last.

Vignettes of a year abroad

This is a spoken word poem derived from an English assignment that I performed at our final assembly yesterday. The transcript is found below. Enjoy.

 

9 months.  A roller coaster of emotions pitching back and forth turning you upside down inside out over and over so fast you can hardly breathe, hardly take a moment to stop. pause. And take it all in. Before the car tips and you plunge head first once more into the firey depths of the unknown, falling deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole, a never ending spiral of discoveries and cliches and heartaches and bellyaches from laughing so hard and stories, so many stories. The kind of stories you can’t wait to tell your grand kids as soon as they’re old enough. But my brain has a mind of its own: uncontrollable, my mouth lets it all burst out. A tidal wave of memories…cresting high, swaying indefinitely for a moment, /held/ by the sudden silence of anticipation till suddenly, it becomes unbearable and comes crashing down. upon. the shore.  Littering the ground with almost as many moments of note as there are grains of sand, decorating my life like the shells belle-ify the beach. Spilling the remains of a year well spent all over the primed stretch of previously pristine real estate.
Act 1
In the beginning, there was darkness. nostalgia would hit like a linebacker emerging from the blind side with all the force of an arch rival out for blood, blinding the senses and robbing me of reality, swapping it for distorted perceptions of life “back home” conjured out of my irrational fear of missing out. Personifying every demon I’ve ever had, dragging the retired beasts out of hiding for one last hurrah. Layer upon layer they piled up, encroaching on the new world I’d created. Like a mantra of my insanity: afraid of being alone, of drowning myself in the cliches, of disappointing “them”, of losing myself to become someone I’m not, afraid that no one cared; fear of regret, of not living enough and of going too hard. Little me at the bottom of this well built out of my worries, gone where not even a talking fish and Harry Belafonte could dig me out. Slowly but surely, the walls began to crumble from the inside, one brick at a time shoved aside, piled up and stamped upon. Making my way towards the light at the end of the darkness, on the carcasses of my old insecurities.
I left my old skin down there, shed among the ruined remains of my negative thoughts and fears in an ironic twist: I’m terribly scared of snaKes.
Out of the cold pit of a grey winter, chilling, depressing, & threatening to freeze my soul, I emerged sometime in the second semester to the serenity of what had become my city. Routines morphed, changed form and adapted to the novelty like an accomplished shape shifter and I found myself pounding the pavement in my capris ignoring the stares I received from the few classmates I passed and the other Rennais crazy enough to be voluntarily upright and moving as the sun steadily creeped up the sky. Pushing my tired lungs up the increasingly steep incline, rapping  formidable  to myself in the intimate recesses of my mind, planting one foot in front of the other past the wall that was white at the beginning of the year and is now covered in graffiti tags from grenier man to I heart sex, rounding the corner through the gate. Standing, breathless as the suns rays softly light up the newly bloomed rows of flowers that stretch out like a rainbow carpet bringing the parc du thabor to life to greet another day. I love for these moments when time slows around me and all I wish for is a photographic memory to freeze forever the way I feel right now, a sleepy contentment steals into my soul. the haphazard pieces of my life are at least temporarily aligned. This happiness is dangerous (bottled and hawked it’d fetch a fortune), but fleeting. Sneaking in and out, a thief in the moment, it’s presence reassuring and revitalizing, a sign that despite the rampant stress of teen life, peace is possible.
The calm Peace of an orderly mind gives way to the raucous happiness of a flock of juniors drunk on sunshine. Spinning, dizzy from the freedom. Playing tag like a bunch of school children, crying out I’m so out of shape and cursing out your closest friends for giving you the most intense cardio you’ve had in months. Giddily flopping on the ground in mock defeat, yelling eff you at the top of my lungs as a respectable old couple promenades by blissfully unawares.
Friday afternoons, liberated from the shackles of school, turn into nights spent doubled over, cackling over the pure horribleness of the human mind. Cards against humanity delivers guffaws and dark truisms, promising that “Only two things in life are certain, death and some really f***ed up shit”. Our youthful spirits are undaunted  by premonitions of darker days. For now, life is, simply, good.
But life is life, even in france. When the tables turn, things can and will suck. Whether the magnitude of suckyness drowns you to the ends of infinity or not depends. I give in a little and treat myself, wallowing French style (tea, chocolate, vienoisserie and les Intouchables), and trying to prove that a little fudge factor never hurt nobody
But one by one the fudge piles up, a veritable mountain of delicious goodies with a sad payback for anyone who isn’t born with the paradoxical metabolism of a French boy: those twigs with little tufts of hair Who can vacuum up twice their weight in one sitting and gain not a pound. Where back home I was short and skinny here I’m close to average height and on the relatively chubbier side of things. That’s my culture shock, guiding me back towards the culinary pillars for comfort. Burying myself in The 3 C’s chocolate cheese and carbs. Stuffing my face with soft squishy baguettes topped with Comte and its pungent, spreadable cousins, with slices upon slices of chèvre cleaved from the log in the fridge that’s half its size by the time my gouter is over, telling myself it’s ok because I’ve got to take advantage of it all while I can. It’s no surprise that I’ve avoided a scale all year especially when dessert is a fundamental course after each meal.
It’s one thing to blindly inhale the fruits of other peoples culinary prowess but after over 3 hours in a kitchen churning out a 20 min cupcake recipe, pulling out gingerbread that tastes like cardboard because molasses apparently doesn’t exist in france, making hot chocolate so thick it cools and doubles as frosting and frosting that melts into straight butter, baking sugar cookies that taste like the ocean I mean Is it really my fault that one white powder resembles the other? My one crowning glory is a pasta dinner cobbled together on the last day of October with my 7 new best friends, getting scared shitless by the asshole who keeps startling me in the middle of that zombie movie causing me to almost spill my tea.
Time seems to have compressed itself into a few medallion moments. it seems like no time has passed but who am I now is Tara 2.0. I know I’ve made it when it’s pouring again but despite having cried myself to sleep the night before and having had a total of 10 hours of sleep over the past two days, I look classy: all black, check. scarf, check. jean jacket, check. Longchamp, check. The only tell tale sign of my Americanness this morning are my combat boots, water stained and wearing thin: they were nearly new when I arrived. Those shoes are my story, that sole is /my/ soul objectified, in a good way. Urging me forward, just another step more. From the coast of Brittany to the streets of Rennes, in the halls of the Louvre to an open mic in an upside down bar, a travers the transepts of multiple cathedrals, through chateaus in the Loire and the gritty tunnels of the Parisian metro, capital hopping- from Berlin to Madrid to lisbon, scuffed from dancing at my French friend’s 18th birthday in a one bedroom apartment somewhere in Strasbourg, covered with a few drops of champagne and more than a few grass stains. Together, we’ve survived.