Thursday, December 8, 2011

Happiest Country in the World

Well, the 2011 UN Human Development Index is out, and surprise surprise, Norway is number 1 on the list. Happiest country in the world. Happiest country in my world.

Bergen in the snow
So, Norway is happy for a variety of reasons, but it also makes me, personally, happy in a satisfying-my-soul way that is different from Ohio’s nostalgic effect, or Maryland’s patriotic vibes, or the miserable climate of Israel. It’s the first place I’ve lived that I love because it matches me, not because I was raised with it or in it. It has my weather, my manners, my opinions. Not in everything, but in enough that I can nestle comfortably into the place and feel like I belong.

Over the past few months, I’ve struggled with prepositions. A third of the edits I make to my students’ papers, at all levels, is correcting “with” to “from” and “of” to “by.” My Norwegian prepositions have been equally confused—there seems no particular order to the way in which they decide what prepositions go where when, either. And yet, I’ve discovered something: never yet have I been unable to understand something because it had the wrong preposition in front of it. Sure, meaning becomes a bit vaguer when you’ve “decided to stay from the house,” but it’s nothing a clever reader can’t decipher. And so, I’ve decide we ought to abolish prepositions. Not all of them. Just most of them. We can pick the ones we like best, and use those in any manner of situations. After all, “by,” “at,” and “near” really needn’t be differentiated between—we could just use “with” for everything. And with now with, I will.

Wednesday I struggled up Løvstakken to go to a stitch n’ bitch in Bønes. Bergen was incredibly beautiful in the evening fall of snow. My shortcuts had all been covered in snow, and I either slid downhill on ice, landing on my tush time after time, or slipped backwards to face plant into fluffy snow in the struggle up a slope. Still, I got there okay, and when I pulled out the kippah I was working on everyone oohed and aahed over the delicate workmanship. “What a cute little hat!” only wanted an explanation to turn into “what a cute little Jew-hat!”

On the way back, I made it to the bus stop exactly as the bus pulled up. As I stepped towards the bus, I skidded and nearly fell, catching the door to pull myself back up. When I looked up, the bus driver was laughing and saying something that sounded like, “kjempegod.” Nothing like bonding with your bus driver over klutziness. 

This morning I woke up early, very, very early for a meeting with Anita. I’d asked her to give me feedback about my teaching, and wanted to spring a whole ton of ideas. We were going to talk for hours. But I arrived at Katten, and sat, and graded, and waited, and wondered. Usually she’s there by 6:30 am, so my 8:00 arrival ought to have been greeted with a cheery “god morgen, hvordan går det?” Instead of which I spent a while helping one of the other English teachers decide on a version of Hamlet (we went with Dame Judy Dench). Finally, the principal came rushing into the room.

“You! No, not you, you, Hannah!” I knew he meant me even as the other English teachers looked up. “Anita’s sick.”
“Okay, no problem, I can take the classes.”
“Can you do it? And we will pay you.”
“Er, you know the US government does that, right?”
“They pay you to teach with Anita, this is a different responsibility, now you’re officially a substitute. And after that first time, you'll make enough that now you need to get a tax card.” Erggg! More bureaucracy.
“Okay, I got it, the tax place by the main bus station, I’ll pay it a visit.”
“Will you be okay with the class?”
“Yep, no problem, I have a lesson plan” (four of them).
“You have a key, si?”
“Si.” His face shot up hopefully.
“Do you speak Spanish?”
“No, only a tiny bit, why, is that teacher sick, too?” He nodded hopefully at me.
“Sorry, no, my Spanish is pidgin.” Reminds me of when I used to sub for my Jewish Studies teacher back in high school. The principal nodded glumly and tramped out, no doubt nervous that my kids would set the school on fire with only me to look after them. Which, considering it's covered in snow, would have been a considerable feat.

But instead, they had a really great discussion about George and Lennie’s relationship in Of Mice and Men, and then about the novel’s representation of the American Dream. I played lots of tricks on the kids, getting the quiet ones to speak up. It’s fun to play at so many different levels, honing the thinking of the kids who are already articulate and maneuvering the rest into speaking through a mixture of humor (“You guys aren’t allowed to even think the words Jante Law in here, I’m an American!”), comfort-zone creation (“Absolutely not what I was looking for and yet a brilliant answer, keep ‘em coming even if you’re not sure they’re right”), and force (“Ah, M had something to say about that when we spoke before, what was it, M?” –Cue doleful look from M, but then speech).
As S, my star pupil, trooped out, she stopped in front of me.
“This was really great. Thank you.” It’s funny, but I think she may be as eager to communicate approval as I am. It means a lot to me, coming from a bright student like that.

My adult students were more difficult. I hadn’t read the selection that I was supposed to teach, or known it was the topic until that morning. Luckily, they like to read things aloud in class, so we learned about the oppression of the Native Americans together. At the end, we segue-wayed into a discussion about what gives a person rights to a land, what makes them part of a country, and ourselves responsible to them. We ranged over the history of the Sami to current immigration. Finally, they decided that if someone pays taxes –puts something into the system—they deserve to get something out of it. I liked the answer, though I tend to think that if someone is a human being they have a claim on all the rest of us human beings.

As they shuffled out, the cheerfully tousled redhead who sits in the front row waved bye. “Hannah, du er flink.” Regardless of the fact that I’m supposed to be teaching her to say that in English, it felt good.

I’m given to understand, from my sister, that her friends back in CTA (our old high school) enjoyed my blog the other day. The exact quote on her fb wall says, “your sister Hannah became a decorated CTA veteran yesterday when we spent a whole AP Comp class reading her blog.” Now, I’m not sure whether they were reading it with the permission of the teacher or not, but I do know this: I started the war, kiddo. So stop handing out posthumous (err, post-graduate) medals. 


  1. I do happen to know that Mr. Guinan purposefully used your blog in his class last week. Not sure what war you started?

    As for prepositions, I think I'll forever have the jingles at the ready, taught my German teacher when I was only in 8th grade. Certain prepositions require one of their 4 cases. So we memorized lists of prepositions, by singing them, ready to apply the correct set of articles and noun endings for that case. Prepositions seem more important in some languages.

  2. One Scottish teacher I worked with an assistant many years ago said that mastering prepositions was the most difficult thing in learning a European language. I am not sure about it being the most difficult thing but she had a point.

  3. Funny you say that, Mrs. Delman, because the Germans seem to have the best grasp of Norwegian prepositions of anyone. And Ilana, I'm not sure I agree either (being able to differentiate words in conversation?) but it's sure high on the list.