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On Life and Time

Hello Readers,

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Throwback to when I had no idea what I was doing!

First off, let me apologize for how long it has been since I’ve written last. Unfortunately I don’t have a good excuse, other than I didn’t feel like it. You see, when I first got to Thailand I was very motivated to live up to my title of “cultural ambassador.” I think that a part of me was scared that Fulbright would discover that I did not live up to the person my application made me out to be, and that they would regret bringing me here instead of someone better. Therefore, I made a bigger effort to share my experience as a way of cultural exchange.

This second semester has been a bit different though. I think that as the newness has worn off and now that I’m a bit more assimilated, I find less things to be amazing and blog-post worthy. Also, despite what my highlight reel may have made it out to be, I actually have quite a bit of down time here, which is really quite un-glamorous.  I watch way more Netflix in Thailand than I ever did in the States! And while there are things that I can definitely do to fill my time (such as writing a blog post), I find that after time my self-motivation wanes and anything that doesn’t have a deadline is pushed to the recesses of my mind. I’m much more productive when I have less free time. I guess it’s true what they say: an object in motion stays in motion.

If we’re being honest here, then I’ll also admit that I’ve also been in and out of a funk. Homesickness didn’t bother me too much my first six months, but now that I’m getting closer to returning I’ve been thinking more and more about the things at home I’m looking forward to (and that I also miss). On top of that, my grandpa passed away and just being away from everyone made those few weeks a bit more difficult. My Thai friends were super kind though and took me to a temple to do a small Buddhist style funeral.

But all things aside, I’ve been doing okay and have been chugging along. About a month ago my school participated in Sports Day (which is actually 3 days). This is a big track and field type competition between the different schools in the area. It was a neat event to get to experience, so I have hopes of writing another post dedicated just to that (assuming I work up the motivation to do so). I’ve also been working on my cooking skills with my good Thai friends. They taught me how to make sushi, coconut chicken soup (tom kha kai), and penang curry. Perhaps I’ll make another cooking video for you all, but in the meantime it was just nice having good food and better company.

Another new event was the four day English Camp in my friend’s school district that I assisted with. That was a relatively fun experience, with just a few challenges concerning the space we had to actually do activities and the sheer number of students. I led a listening activity with 100 students and just a handful of Thai teachers for assistance. It was pretty successful and was definitely a confidence boost. Although I must admit, leading a bunch of Thai students is quite a bit different than leading a bunch of American students.

Because of the days I missed for these events, I doubled up my teaching schedule in order to makeup my classes. While sometimes I get nervous about a busy day, I really find that I’m much happier when I have less down time at school. Fulbright limits the number of classes the schools have us teach, but now that I have better repertoire with my students and am more confident in teaching English I really wish that I could teach more. I think that a part of the reason why I was in a funk for a bit is that I didn’t feel like my day was filled with meaningful activity. Perhaps I’ll go home, become busy with whatever new job I get, and then regret not appreciating my free time more. But in the meantime I want try to fill it with activities that are at least somewhat productive. Let me know if you have any suggestions! So far I’m thinking of actually finishing my crochet project, watching more documentaries (instead of tv shows), and maybe finding some good podcasts to listen to.

Anyways, there’s my update. I thought that it might be good for everyone to know what has been going on in my Thai life outside of the highlight reel. Before I traveled here I would get jealous of my friends who were abroad. However, I’ve come to realize that even though traveling is really worthwhile and a great chance to grow and see the world, you’re still essentially the same person you are as when you left. I still do a lot of the normal, ordinary, day-to-day activities that I was doing before I left here.

Ordinarily yours,

Madison

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Like a Fish in Water

Greetings friends and family,

Anyone who has learned a thing or two about culture has probably heard the analogy of fish and water. The water obviously plays an important role in the lives of fish, but because it’s constantly there the fish probably don’t notice it (assuming they have that intellectual capacity in the first place). After all, I don’t usually notice the air I’m breathing unless someone lets one rip! Culture can be compared to this because it’s a constant influence on our behaviors, but it’s pretty difficult to determine the things that are “normal” and the things that have become a part of our lives based on our location the goings on that have happened there for generations. That’s why travelling is such a good way to learn not only about other places, but more about yourself and where you come from.

A few weeks ago I got to help run an English Camp that my school had for some of my students and this is what really got me to thinking about culture. You see, not only were students working on learning English, but they were also being taught about what it means to be Thai. For example, the sheer number of snacks that students were given throughout the day really reflected Thai people’s love of food and the importance of making time to share it with friends. Along with that, we had to get up at five am in order to go to a nearby dam to get fresh air and take photos. If this were done in the states I’d imagine a few upset phone calls from parents about how early students were expected to get up. But not only were the kids all on board for it, but every single student managed to get up at the appropriate time and meet at the designated spot. Impressive. This helped normalize early mornings for the kiddos and set a precedent for the kinds of responsibilities that were expected of them. From there they worked on selfie taking skills at the dam, because in Thailand there is always time to take a selfie, or two, or three…

Of course these things weren’t consciously taught or a part of the agenda. Similar to how in America students may complain about early mornings because that’s what they observe their coffee chugging teachers doing, I saw these Thai cultural norms being shared not through explicit instruction, rather, through the teachers’ actions and what was observed by the children. After all, so much we learn is from the power of observation. But not only was this English camp a cool way for me to experience seeing another culture passed on from one generation to the next, my take-away from this experience was to try and be more aware of how my actions may be inadvertently affecting the youngsters in my life.

For example, when I was playing a game with my Thai students where they were to decided if something was easy, difficult, fun, or boring, when math was used as the example I chose “difficult.” All things aside, I’m not too awful at math and actually really enjoyed geometry in high school. But saying that it was difficult seemed the most natural thing to do. After all, it seems to be a cultural norm in the US to dislike math and willingly profess one’s inability to do it. Consider this in contrast to reading. No one I know goes around bragging about being illiterate. It’s simply not done. So in order to help change this cultural norm, of having a society full of mathematically disinclined individuals, I really want to become more aware of the implications of the things I say and do.

Another example I’ve been thinking about is the culture of stress in the US. In contrast to my Thai co-teachers who take everything in stride with a smile and the typical sabai-sabai Thai attitude, I feel that being stressed in the US is seen as a kind of rite of adulthood. Perhaps I’m wrong, but it seems to me that if one is too relaxed at work it is questioned if they’re really working hard enough. Stress is very commonplace in the workplace, and given that my workplace is usually around children, I worry about what I’ve been teaching them about it. The tone in my voice, how I carry myself, and the way I interact with the kids during those challenging times throughout the day all normalize a stressful working and learning environment, which is not healthy for anyone, especially if I’m not then showing them coping mechanisms and turning my own stress into teachable moments.

**As a side note, now that I’m trying to be more aware of this, one thing that I’ve been doing is started all of my lessons with some simple stretches. This is a fun way to get the kids moving and practicing words like left, right, up, and down, but it’s also a way for me to recenter myself and relax a bit before another round of teaching.**

I feel that during my time here, even though I’ve learned so much about Thai and American culture, there is still so much more to it that I may never fully appreciate or be aware of. Nonetheless, I feel that being more aware of not only the current culture, but what I’m doing to change or continue it is important in order to shape a more positive and healthy future for the impressionable kiddos in my life. By being able to see Thai-ness being taught during English camp I’ve been reminded to ask myself, “What kind of culture are my actions creating?”

 

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Water Fights, Ancient Ruins & Sunsets

Hey all!

It has been awhile since I’ve last written, so get ready for the highlight reel!

After my month-long internship I got the opportunity to take my last month of summer to travel around Thailand. While I didn’t go out of the country like many of my fellow Fulbrighters, I am happy to say that by the time I am finished teaching here I will have traveled to most parts of Thailand. map

As you can see on the left, the places that I traveled to were:

-Chiang Rai
-Chiang Mai
-Sukhothai
-Ayutthaya
-Bangkok
-Surat Thani
-Khao Sok
-Phuket (including Koh Yao Yai island)

Since I can’t possibly tell you about everything I’ll give you just a little information about my favorite things at all the stops. That way if you’re ever on this side of the world you might have a bit of an idea about where to go. But as always, speak up if there’s anything else you want to know! And feel free to skip around or just look at the pictures. It’s probably going to be lengthy, but this is for my own memory purposes as well 🙂

CHIANG RAI
Also where I spent my internship month, this is a nice town that’s smaller than its cousin, Chiang Mai, but still has a lot of the same things going on. In my opinion, the best parts are how many cute coffee shops there are, the fun night brazaar, the unique temples, and Singha Park.

CHIANG MAI
I was here for the Thai new year and water festival, Songkran. Unlike small towns, who stick to smaller and more secular activities, Chiang Mai was positively crawling with tourists. It’s basically a three day water fight. And while some will have mercy for locals, elderly, and children, if you’re in the streets then you’re fair game. I thought that the first day and a half were fun, but I quickly got tired of being soaking wet everywhere I went.

SUKHOTHAI
I love all of the history in Thailand and got to experience a bit more of it in the historic town of Sukhothai. They have a very well maintained historic park that I got to ride my bike around to view the ruins. I spent a day in the newer part of the town as well, but it was very hot and it had a very local feel without much for sight seeing, so I ended up spending the day coffee shop hopping.

BANGKOK
For this chunk of my journey I was joined by my lovely boyfriend who traveled all of the way from the U.S. to come and see me! Some of the highlights of our time in Bangkok were going to the famous temple Wat Pho, taking a cooking class, and spending our evenings at Asiatique.

AYUTTHAYA
I wanted David to experience some of Thailand’s history so we took a two day detour on our trip to visit the ruins at Ayutthaya. The park here was a little less well maintained than Sukkhothai, which was a little sad, but gave it a more authentic feel. There were soooo many ruins as well. We didn’t get to all of them, but had a good time biking to quite a few.

SURAT THANI
In order to get to Surat Thani we took a flight from Bangkok. We spent just a day in the city since our real destination was Kao Sok. It’s not much of a tourist destination, but we had a nice time just walking around together. I was glad that David got to see a bit of local life, especially when we stumbled upon a three story market building. There was also a nice night market by the water and a delicious pizza place that we had bbq chicken pizza and cold Singha beers at for lunch. It was the perfect lunch after having spent all morning walking around.

KHAO SOK/RATCHAPRAPHA DAM
Perhaps the bourgeois-est place on our Thai tour, we stayed two nights on a floating raft house in the national park. Included in our stay was a boat tour, nature hike, cave tour, and all meals. The meals were really feasts and so delicious. They had a little netted area in the water with big fish that they used for one of our dinners. Talk about fresh! By the time we left I didn’t have a food baby… I had a food triplet!

PHUKET
In the biggest party city of Thailand David and I decided to spend our evenings playing drinking games to Seinfeld and eating market snacks. But after a day in the sun sometimes that’s the best way to bring it to a close. Phuket is a very popular tourist destination, but I prefer many other places. It was fun jumping in the beach’s waves at sunset, but there was lots of litter and dead fish on the shore that made me sad. Also, walking around was stressful due to all of the traffic and street vendors hawking their wares. If you’re in to pre-packaged tourist excursions, however, this might be a more suitable place for you.

KOH YAO YAI
Off the coast of Phuket, this is an island that is much less touristy than other places. It has a large Muslim population, which tends to be more conservative, so I hope that this island can avoiding becoming too overcrowded with raucous travelers. We stayed at a nice resort with a pool, but David had gotten food poisoning from some bad market food (always something you need to be careful of in Thailand), so I spent the day doing a “spa day” with face masks and whatnot from 7-11 while David spent the day recovering.

We spend a last little stint in Bangkok before David flew back to the states, but otherwise that concludes travel month.  I feel some pride in the I’m now much more confident in travel planning and being able to trust my Thai in finding my way around. I really lucked out, though, since most people I talked to were very friendly and willing to point me in the right direction.

Now I’m off to try and teach my Thai munchkins some English. Wish me luck!

Madison

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Eating with the Locals

Sawadii Kha!

Long time no read my friends. I’ve been busy finishing up my internship month and now I have a month to travel before starting the second semester at my school. During the last few weeks of my internship at Camillian Home of Charity I got to help drop off students at their homes for summer break. This was a great opportunity to learn, first hand, a bit more about the culture of the hill tribes in Northern Thailand. I felt so fortunate for this opportunity since not many people who come to Thailand get to experience the real local culture up close and personal like I did. So naturally, I thought I’d share it with you. 🙂

Let’s do a bit of a briefing before we begin, though. If you’ve been following my blog then perhaps you’ll remember that in Northern Thailand there are many different hill tribes (even though “mountain” tribe would make more sense). Many of the tribes originally immigrated here from surrounding countries, and, because of this, they often don’t have i.d. cards. This puts them in a tricky situation where finding jobs can be difficult. Due in part to this, many of the hill tribe families live in poverty. This is why some of the children stay at the Camillian Social Center (where I interned) during the year.

With that being said, please keep in mind that every family has a different background and that any generalization should be taken with a grain of salt: differences can stem from things other than economic limitations. For example, many of the homes that I visited often didn’t have couches. Is this because they couldn’t afford them or because in Thailand couches aren’t seen as a staple in the home? It’s amazing how comfortable most Thais seem to be with squatting or sitting on simple floor mats when they get tired of standing. Couches and comfy chairs just don’t seem to be as important here. Also, I’d imagine that couches, carpeting, and many decorations would be difficult to maintain during the rainy season when everything has a tendency to mold.

But without further adieu, please take a walk in my shoes and do some observing of your own. Pretend that you have been warmly invited into these homes, but that you don’t know how to speak their local language. All you can do now is smile, graciously accept the food and drink they give you, and take a look around to see if you can notice a thing or two that you didn’t know before about the hill tribes in Thailand.

Food

It was common to go to homes and be offered water and some sort of fruit. If it was lunch time then the families would prepare that for us as well. Most of the families we went to were a part of the Akha hill tribe and therefore we got to enjoy Akha-style meals that were eaten around little woven tables. Most meals had some sort of spiced meatball, vegetable soup, pickled greens, and nam prick with plenty of foliage to dip in it. Nam prick is a type of chili sauce/dip that is common throughout Thailand, but varies a lot depending on where you are. I don’t like nam prick down south because it has too much fish oil in it. Here, however, it was one of my favorite dishes (but I think a part of that was due to the smugness I felt for being able to tolerate its spiciness when the other volunteers couldn’t).

Outside the Home

Some things I noticed about the homes were that many generations of families tend to live with or by each other. Garages aren’t common as many families just use motorcycles or mopeds to get around. It is also common for homes to double as little convenience stores for families who don’t farm. Other than that it’s difficult to really sum up what the houses are like since each one is so different.

Inside the Home

Living spaces tend to be very open with just sheets to separate the rooms. Therefore, it wasn’t uncommon to see cats, dogs, or chickens wandering around the living spaces. The most universal fixtures in living rooms were t.v.s, little stools or mats to use when watching it, and big wood cabinets with the debris of day-to-day life within. Compared to the candle warmer, end table, fancy cushion, and seasonal decor kind of lifestyle that I’m used to seeing in the states,  decoration at these houses was pretty minimal. Photos were the most common thing to see and they were often of graduations, the royal family, Buddha or Jesus (depending on their religion), and pictures of the families in their traditional hill tribe attire. It was also common to see a shelf with various religious artifacts (I was actually quite surprised at how much more common Christianity seems to be in the north).

As far as kitchens go, many families had some sort of small wood burning stove, often in addition to a small gas top stove (minus the oven part). At these homes sinks weren’t common and dishes were hand-washed by a spigot outside.

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Plants & Animals

Every house that I went to had chickens. Pigs were also common to have. Most houses also had cats and/or dogs, but they weren’t babied like pets in the states. A lot of times I think they were strays that lived outside and got fed by the families. As far as plants go, fruit trees were plentiful, and areas that weren’t so high in the mountains also had bamboo. At all of the meals we ate leaves that I’m not sure came from a garden or just grew by the house and were harvested. This foliage seemed to be a staple food item though, so I think it’d be safe to assume that many families had some garden or growing area for it.

Bathrooms

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Most houses had bathrooms that were in a separate little building. “Squatty potties” were most common and to flush you’d just dump some water in from the bucket nearby. My friend actually googled how to use a “squatty potty” and we learned that you’re supposed to face the wall, which was weird at first, but was a bit of a game changer when we realized that by facing that way there was no more spray hitting our legs. Sometimes there would be a hose to spray yourself off, but at these particular houses those were few and far between. Instead you do the “drip dry” method or bring your own tissue and then try to discretely find a garbage can afterwards. Hand washing isn’t much of a thing either so I’ve gotten into the habit of carrying hand sanitizer wherever I go. Perhaps Thai people have a system of things that I don’t know about, but I’m not about to ask them how they go to the bathroom.

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Now that we’ve covered inside and outside of the homes, food, animals, plants, and even toileting, I’m not sure what else there is to discuss. But, as always, if you have any questions please feel free to ask! Until then, peace out!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Welcome to the North

Hello hello hello!

I know that it has been a few weeks, so let’s get right to it. Currently I’m in Chiang Rai, located in northern Thailand, doing a month long internship at Camillian Social Center Chiang Rai. This is one of many locations throughout Thailand that performs three main functions…

  1. It was started by a Catholic priest, so there are seminaries for those wanting to become priests as well.
  2. There is a school and living facility for children with disabilities (which is where my work is focused).
  3. They also provide housing, care, and transportation to school for any children whose families don’t have the financial means to support them and/or their villages don’t have schools for them to go to. This is pretty common as there are many minority groups living in the mountains who have a difficult time finding work.

As a part of Fulbright it is a requirement to do a month long internship during the time when our host schools are on summer break. I think that this is a cool way to let Fulbrighters explore areas of interest that go beyond the classroom. That being said, one month is a relatively small amount of time, and I feel that the biggest benefit of it goes to the interns and what we learn at our placements. And, similar to voluntourism, there are some pros and cons to this that I was concerned about. My biggest fear was that I would make a more negative impact here by building relationships with the children just to leave. However, foreign volunteers often come here and since the kids also have their constant Thai staff they seem unaffected by how fleeting their relationships with volunteers are. Also, despite my initial concern about the lack of organization in their English curriculum, the children here speak English fairly well thanks to how many farang volunteer here.

As with any transition, there have been some growing pains during my time here. I think the most difficult one has been the lack of organization in my teaching schedule and the fact that no one here knows English enough to communicate on a conversational level. I’m fortunate to know some Thai by now to have basic conversations, and it would be ridiculous of me to expect them to know English since I’m the one who is a foreigner, but nonetheless, I feel that I can’t develop any deep relationships based off of how limited we can actually get to know each other. This also leads to many situations where I just have to sit, smile, and become more comfortable with silence (which perhaps isn’t such a bad thing).

Fortunately my co-workers are all very kinds and have taken me around to explore the area. For example, last week I went to Phu Chi Fa, which is a mountainous national park that overlooks the Laos border. We got up early to see the mist on the mountain and it was quite beautiful!

I also got to feed some elephants this past weekend (which was my first time seeing actual elephants here). While I was there I decided not to ride the elephants because ethically there are a lot of things to consider. A friend of mine who worked at an elephant sanctuary in Thailand told me a bit about the issues so I’ll summarize, but by no means is it an easy one…

Essentially elephants used to be used for logging in Thailand and the ways they were tamed in order to do so were not so ethical. But then logging was outlawed and families had all of these elephants that they didn’t know what to do with. There is a saying that goes something along the lines of, “If you want to destroy your enemy then give them an elephant as a gift” since elephants eat so much and can bankrupt anyone. Therefore, families had to choose to either kill the elephants or find another use for them. This is where tourism comes in. And since elephants live a long time many of them were already trained before animal ethics became something to consider. On the other hand, the elephants that I saw were kept in small dusty stalls and were doing a swaying thing that indicates signs of sever boredom that, according to this website, can lead to mental illness. So is there a simple answer to whether or not riding the elephants is ethical? Nope. But I felt like feeding them was an okay alternative.

This grabby elephant was impatient about how slowly I was apparently feeding him. I also rode up the side of a mountain on a moped with this eight month old munchkin strapped to me. It’s a normal thing to do here but I was slightly terrified the whole time!

Anywhoozle, I have a lot of built up words thanks to my limited daily conversations, but I do value all of your time and will try to keep it short today. As always, thanks for taking the time to keep up with my journey. See you in another week or so! 🙂

Oh I almost forgot… if you are a climber, you should check out Tonsai beach in the Krabi province. It is internationally re-known for climbers. My friend is into rock climbing so I went with her during my week off before internship month. It’s some pretty hardcore stuff though, so I didn’t climb but I did enjoy plenty of sunshine, ocean breeze, and beautiful scenery. One day I kayaked out on the ocean and when I got out to snorkel I almost ran into a giant pink jellyfish!

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Reflections from the Water

Friends and fiends, greetings!

What is paradise to you? Is it an island getaway? How about a cozy cabin in the mountains? Even if you haven’t been there, I hope that you have some sort of idea in your head about what your happy place is like. Personally, I think that my happy place could be a lot of places. It really just depends of the company I keep. After all, even if I were to go on a luxury cruise with someone I dislike it still wouldn’t be as fun as taking a drive to the dump with my best friend. With that being said, I do feel like I got to experience a bit of paradise last weekend as I celebrated “Galentine’s Day” with my best gal pals.

Promptly after school on Friday we hopped on a van and headed to Trang province to escape for our three day weekend (we had an extra day off because Saturday was Makha Bucha Day for my Buddhist friends). We ended up at one of the most beautiful islands I’d ever been to. The water was crystal clear and cutting the horizon were jagged mountains that were topped with puffy clouds and blue skies. You could go there being a mediocre photographer and still go home with photos that look like pro took them because it was all so picturesque. But the scenery wasn’t the only thing that made it special. There were lots of cool sea critters among the exposed rocks during low tide. I saw a three different kinds of starfish, big hermit crabs, sea urchins, and even a spotted eel (which was cool, but made me want to stay out of the water for awhile).

20170212_185841In the evenings we splurged on farang food. The pizza we had was made by an Italian chef and it paired perfectly with a cold Chang (which is a cheap Thai beer that I normally don’t like, but what goes better with pizza?). I’m sure any kind of pizza would’ve tasted delicious because I hadn’t had it in so long, but this was superb. I think a day spent outside under the sun also adds to how satisfying food tastes, don’t you think?

The beaches were a bit crowded during the days, but the mornings and evenings were calm. And just when I thought my mini paradise couldn’t get more beautiful, there was a full moon in the evenings that lit up the beach. I’m sure it was the perfect romantic weekend for all of the couples who were there. My gal pals and I, on the other hand, had a perfectly fun weekend. After our tasty meal in a cozy cabana on the beach, we went back to our rooms and sang along to the ukulele that one of my friends brought along. It all sounds a bit cliché, but I suppose clichés are started because of how well they fit into whatever situation they describe…and similar to pizza and beer, islands and ukuleles just seem to go together.

20170211_165148One negative aspect of my generally positive weekend was the bit of sadness that I felt as I walked among the rocks at the beaches. While there were quite a few animals to be seen, I couldn’t help noticing how much dead coral there was as well. As I was thinking about it, I thought about how cool it is that if left alone, nature will inevitably heal itself. But the key thing is left alone and I realized in that moment that I didn’t believe that nature and human beings could coexist harmoniously.

I pride myself in being a generally positive person, so this realization came as a surprise to me as well. The thing is, I know that there are pockets of the world where people can exist with nature without having adverse effects on it. This kind of utopia is present and real. I experienced it briefly while working on a permaculture farm in Costa Rica. However, when I honestly think about the whole world with its masses of people and how deep our environmental problems are, I don’t think that peaceful cohabitation on a global level is something that is in our future without a drastic change in our current social and political world climate. That doesn’t mean that I won’t keep hoping for the best and that I won’t keep trying to do my part to be an eco-conscious member of society. We’ve still got to “dream big” after all. However, the realization I had is important for me because I want to recognize all of my beliefs in order to understand how they shape my actions. Then I can make a deliberate effort to change them. I want my actions to reflect my goals of having a healthier planet, rather than supporting this negative perspective on the world instead.

At some point during the weekend I also realized that I need to stop thinking of myself as “the other.” Even though I’m unlike other tourists in that I’m here for a whole year, I’m not too different than “them.” It’s easy to snub my nose at the gaggles of people in obnoxious orange life jackets who crowd to the shores of the prettiest beaches. However, the thing is, I’m the same as all of them. I also want to experience the beauties of nature and actually partook in one of those tourist trips a few months ago. And just because I’m aware of the environmental and economic impacts that these cause to tourist areas (such as all of the gentrification that I saw along the shores), it’s unfair of me to think that I’m somehow beyond that. Just by being on the island I used up some of its limited resources. Even if I recycle or try to be environmentally conscious while I’m there, perhaps the places I patronized did not. And even if they did, the natural environment has a capacity to which I may or may not have played a part in overextending and overusing.

A quote that aptly describes these thoughts is, “You are not stuck in traffic. You are traffic.” And while I think that it’s okay if I feel special and unique in my own ways (which, after experiencing the collectivist culture of Thailand, I’ve realized is not something that is so highly valued in other cultures), I think that this perspective does go astray when it leads me to believe that I am exempt from anything that I need to take ownership in.

Anyways, I suppose that about does it for this week. My apologies if the tone of this week’s post was a bit more serious. Sometimes that can be okay though. And this blog is just as much a way for me to reflect on my travels as it is a way for me to keep you all up to date on my goings on in Thailand. So you’re welcome for this little tidbit into my mind. I hope you enjoyed 😉

Toodles,

Madison

P.S. I’ve officially finished writing for Reach the World; a program that connects students in the states with travelers in order to teach them more about different cultures. If you want to check out what I’ve been writing for them these past few months check it out here!

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I’m not sure what I was trying to do here… but it made me laugh and life is too short to only share your “good” photos!
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You’ve Got a Friend in Me

Hey everybody!

For those of you who don’t follow my adventures via Facebook, recently one of my old high school friends came to visit me in Thailand. A month ago she started her own journey with Fulbright Malaysia, and after learning from a mutual friend that I was just a jump, skip, and a hop away, she took her time off during the Chinese New Year to visit me. The unique thing about us is that even though we hadn’t really stayed in touch during our college years, our lives paralleled each other in many ways. For example, we had met up once during college at a Model United Nations conference that we had both attended, and obviously our interests aligned enough that we both ended up being English teachers for Fulbright. Having her here with me made me reflect a little more on friendships and how my thoughts of them have changed over the years…

As what I imagine is pretty typical, when I was younger I always thought that my elementary friends would be my BFFLs (best friends for life). We even would buy cute

11221292_10209849725986663_6568865594731840297_n
My cousin, Beth, was one of my best friends growing up.

friendship necklaces to let the world know our friendship status. Then in high school I realized that people change, especially during those formative teenage years, and that it’s okay to change alliances and find new best friends. But now that I knew a bit more about who I was growing up to be, I was sure that these new best friends were truly the real deal. And no, I didn’t get best friend necklaces with them. However, my gal pals and I did make matching bracelets where everyone chose a different bead to represent themself. It was actually pretty cute. But then we decided that being “blood sisters” and cutting our hands/mixing our blood like you sometimes see in the movies was too unhygenic… therefore, one day we all spit onto the sidewalk and mixed that with a stick. That’s where the cuteness was lost. Haha!

In college I discovered how difficult it is to stay in touch with all of the people who you thought you’d grow old together with. After all, it’s difficult to really enjoy the present when you’re too preoccupied with the past. While I was in college I made a few good friends, but as classes and alliances changed, so did the status of those friendships. Near the end of college I was pretty discouraged as I realized how fleeting friendships can be. This perhaps isn’t the case with everyone, but for awhile I felt like all of my friendships were doomed to end eventually.

This brings us to my time working as a camp counselor after graduation. I had a few really great roommates and friends with whom I clicked really well. However, when our summer jobs ended and we went our separate ways I knew that while we might not stay in touch as much as we’d like, we’d still have those memories together and perhaps that was enough. I also thought about how maybe it’s not so bad to let long distant friendships take a back burner. I’ve often found that if they were really so good, then when getting back together you should be able to just pick up where you left off. I also made the realization that in order to make the new friends that then become equally important in your life, sometimes you have to let go of the old ones a bit. I don’t think that this implies a lack of quality of the prior friendships, rather, it indicates your willingness to make room in your life for other people. I also think that the fact that there are so many friendship-worthy people out there waiting to be met says something positive about mankind and how many kind and just decent human beings there are out there in our big wide world.

My final thought on the nature of friendships and even identity ties back to a time when I got coffee with an old high school friend of mine. I mentioned how I felt like I had changed a lot during college, but he seemed surprised by this. This made me reevaluate my statement and I realized that what had really happened was just that I had grown a lot in life experience. The true core of my being, however, had really stayed pretty similar to how I was growing up. Perhaps I let certain passions flourish and others die away, and perhaps I felt more confident in who I was, but was still the same quirky, creative, and friendly gal that I have always been (or at least I hope those are accurate personality descriptions). This epiphany was confirmed last weekend when my friend came to visit. We reminisced a lot about high school and our memories together, and even though we hadn’t stayed in touch for many years, we still were able to rekindle that old friendship we had. I think that a lot of this has to do with the fact that our core personalities were still there and what had brought us together as friends in the first place still remained.

So now, even though it does make me a bit sad when I move onto new chapters of my life and say goodbye to those I’m close with, I feel reassured that in doing so I’m making room for more friendships that I’ll one day cherish equally. I also trust that when the day comes to reunite with my old friends, we will be able to start up again just where we left off. Anyways, thank you for reading my ponderings this week. I’d be interested in hearing what your thoughts on friendships are.

Until Next Time,

Madison

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My Thai School: Part 2

Family, friends, and internet creeps..hello!

My travel adventures this past month warranted some down time, so I’ve been taking it easy the past few weeks. Because of this I don’t have anything too noteworthy to share, therefore, I thought that this would be the optimal time to tell you the rest of what I had about my school. This may be more interesting for educators, so I apologize in advance, but feel free to just look at the pictures if you prefer 🙂

Curriculum

In Thailand kindergarten is called aunuban, elementary grades are called prathome, and secondary grades are matome. For example, fifth grade is prathome 5. I teach prathome 3-5. Students start taking English while in anuban (kingergarten). Their other classes are pretty standard…math, science, social studies, etc. They also have a their project based learning class at 2:30 Monday-Thursday, and on Fridays that time is for groups and clubs. This is when I have an English club with the students. We’re doing a video exchange with a few classrooms back in the states. Something I’ve noticed about my school is that unlike back home, there aren’t as many after school programs. Perhaps this is because I’m at the elementary school, but I believe that the high schools (matome) also don’t have as many extracurricular activities that take place outside school hours.

At my school, students are divided into five classes per grade depending how how they score on end of the year tests. Prathome 4-1 are the better testers and 4-5 did more poorly on the tests. Personally, I don’t think that testing skills necessarily equate to knowledge or desire to learn, but as there are so many students per grade (around 200), this system does prove to be a bit useful when pacing my lessons. I’ve learned that other schools in Thailand don’t do this grouping system, so it’s something that’s up to individual schools to decide.

Technology

My school is still rocking chalkboards, however, each room has a big tv mounted on the wall that a laptop can be connected to. I don’t see too many teachers using this, but maybe it’s because they have to bring in their own laptops in order to do so. There is also a “Smart Room” with a desktop computer, big tv, white board, and air conditioning. This is one of the few places at school with AC. I’ve seen other sorts of computer rooms near prathome 6, but since I don’t teach there I don’t know much about how they’re used.

Uniforms

All students in Thailand wear uniforms (even university students). You can see from the pictures I’ve posted in past blogs that girls wear navy skirts and a white collared blouse. Boys wear khakies and a white collared shirt as well. In addition to providing lunch and books, the government also pays for their school uniforms. They have uniform haircuts (which vary depending on the grade) as well, and it’s not unheard of for a teacher to shave or cut a part of an offending student’s hair in order to make them go get it cut…

Scouts

They have a Thai version of  boy/girl scouts that is coed. From what I’ve been told, it’s pretty similar to scouts in the US (but I still haven’t been able to find girl scout cookies!), and that their activities mainly take part during the day. Students must pay extra to be a scout, so if they aren’t one, then they have time to play or study during the designated scout time. They all wear their scout outfits (see below) on Thursdays. The little boys remind me of the kid from Up. They even have little hats that go with their outfits. Too dang cute! The teachers who were scouts all wear their outfits on Tuesdays. The adult outfits are identical to the kid ones. Is that how it is in the US? I wasn’t a scout so I don’t know.. but seeing them in the same uniforms is pretty cute. 🙂

Specials Classes

Students have art, physical education, and music about once a week. The music and art classes are taught by the same guy. He is really impressive for being both a great musician and a very skilled artist. He told me that his favorite kind of music is bluegrass music from the US. I thought this was pretty neat that bluegrass was able to make its way around the world. I suppose this shouldn’t surprise me, but I always associated this type of music as being so grassroots and local.

In music class the students play some of the same instruments you’re probably used to…percussion, trumpets, etc., but some of their instruments are from Thailand too. I didn’t gather too much more information on them, but I took some photos at least!

Meds & Special Needs

Many of the things that children in the US have prescriptions for (ADD, ADHD, etc.) don’t seem to be as prevalent here. This isn’t to say that students do or don’t have these disorders, I just don’t think medications are as commonly used. If they were I think my scho20161222_133558ol would at least have a nurse. Instead, they have a room where students can go and lay down if they don’t feel well, but their teachers will just keep and eye on them. The “head nurse” position just goes to whoever happens to have some experience in that field. This being said, I think there’s a lot that I miss just because I don’t speak very much Thai. For example, some teachers found out that a student couldn’t see well out of one eye (they do eye exams and lice screenings here, too) and they said they were going to take care of him. I’m not sure how, but it’ll get done.

As far as students with learning or physical disabilities go, I have been told that there is a special education teacher, however I haven’t observed what her classes look like. She is primarily for younger grades with the idea that they will phase out and become integrated back into the classroom. As far as my students go, I have one student with a prosthetic arm and another who seems to have something along the lines of muscular dystrophy or maybe cerebral palsy. From what I’ve observed, my students are very kind and inclusive to the students who could be marked “different.”

There aren’t student aides here, and though it is a very minimal population, I find myself struggling to meet the needs of my students who do need some extra support in the classroom. The classes are sorted into five different levels, but I’m not sure how much differentiation (modifying instruction to meet different student needs) happens after that. Another thing that I’ve noticed is that it is common to walk by a classroom while students are working and a teacher is not in the classroom with them. Often they are working on projects, but nonetheless, this contrasts what I was taught about formative assessment (informally assessing student knowledge), being a support system, and just managing classroom behavior (even though the students at my school do seem to be able to be on their own and not lose their shit).

Now, if a student has more profound needs, there are boarding schools specifically for them. I volunteered for a morning at one such school and was pretty impressed with it. One student who seemed to be overwhelmed by the noise and commotion sat down and took a moment to meditate and calm down. Very cool! And even though it’s a boarding school, students go home with their families every weekend (families just may not have the resources to care for them on work days). However, it is an interesting contrast that the culture for dependent elderly people is to stay home and be cared for by families.

Discipline

I think that a good talking to is the most common type of discipline, however most classes have switch sticks on the teacher’s desk. I use them to help me point to things and would like to think that that’s their only purpose, but to think they’ve never been used for discipline may be naive. My friends and I have discussed this though, and we think that just the intimidation factor is enough for most students and therefore it’s there but rarely used. I know there’re used at other schools, but I’ve never seen it at mine.

Something that I have seen is playful hitting between students and from teachers to students. A smack on the back of the head for a cheeky student is not uncommon, but based on going from somewhere that I have to very carefully consider any physical action with a student, this was a bit surprising to see. Students themselves are very rough and tumble. They’re definitely not coddled here. In the states I would ration out band-aides since everyone wanted one for even the smallest of scrapes. Here most kids who fall just get up and start running again. It’s kind of refreshing actually. A little dirt in the blood is good for ya..connects you to nature 😉

Parent Involvement

I don’t think that there are any helicopter parents here. I think that a part of this is the respect and prestige that khrus (teachers) have. The job that they’re doing as trained professionals just isn’t questioned as much. This is another area that I think I miss a lot of  information about because of the language barrier, but I don’t think that the school to home connection is as emphasized. I certainly haven’t seen any classroom news letters go out.

About once every few month teachers will have office duty on the weekend. This just ensures that if someone needs to get in contact with the school on any day of the week, there will be someone there to talk to. When school was cancelled due to the floods parents would call in to confirm this. There was also a sign on the school gate. More importantly, the school Facebook page made a post about it. Due to Facebook’s popularity here, this was probably adequate notice (assuming all families still had working wifi at this time).

The King

Every morning students sing the king’s song. His pictures also have a prevalent place in the school. I don’t know to what extent they learn about him, but I thought you might be interested in seeing all of the pictures. I’m not sure when they’ll put up the new king’s photos, but I believe that they’ll leave many of these ones up.

Around School

I don’t want to overwhelm you with words, so just read the captions if you’re interested. My school has several different buildings, so we get a lot of sunshine throughout the day!

Potty Break

Instead of flushing toilets, a big bucket of water is at standby and then you scoop water from that into the toilet to “flush.” For the most part this probably saves water, so that’s cool and whatnot, but it means that often the seat is wet when you sit on it from the water that splashed during the pouring process. This is pretty typical for Thai toilets. Oh and used toilet paper is thrown in the garbage.

 

Anyways, that about covers everything. If I’ve left anything out that you’re curious about please let me know. Otherwise, thanks for taking the time to read this all of the way through. I hope you learned something new!

 

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My Thai Road Trip

Sawadii kha tukkon (hello everyone),

Did you have a happy new years? Any resolutions? I made lots of goals to do while in Thailand so I think I’m just going to stick with those, rather than making a bunch of new ones.

captureThe past week and a half I have been travelling all over. Apparently every year each school can take a week for teacher vacation and my school chose dates that just happened to fall on the same days as a standard US winter break. Therefore I spent my Christmas in northern Thailand with a bunch of teachers from my school.

This trip was the most intense road trip I have ever taken. We rented out a double decker van and spent the next week visiting so many different provinces! My teachers also pooled their money and paid for my entire trip. Their generosity just seems to overflow.

The 3 highlights of the trip were:

  1. Building relationships with teachers with whom I rarely get a chance to interact with during the school day.
  2. Becoming much more comfortable in speaking Thai and learning many new words.
  3. Getting to experience Northern Thailand and be up in the mountains.

That being said, this trip was also a test of patience and cultural sensitivity. Do you know how if there is a baby or cute animal in the room everyone’s attention will focus on it and will comment on everything it does? Well that’s kind of what it was like being the only foreigner, and the youngest, on this trip.

Additionally, I got to experience Thai love of picture taking to its fullest… While we did go to many different places, I didn’t feel like I always got to enjoy them in their entirety because we would hop off the bus, take a bunch of selfies, buy some food, and then go. It seemed that the goal was quantity of locations rather than quality. Nonetheless, I’m thankful that I got to experience a Thai style of vacationing.

…I was incorrect in thinking that I’d have to take less photos if I started making silly faces.

Now, for a bit about Northern Thailand:

-It is much more mountainous that where I’m living, and we got up before sunrise a couple of days so that we could watch it from the mountain tops. It was very beautiful. I was also happy to be in a colder climate, if only briefly.

-Many of Thailand’s ethnic minorities live up in the mountains. I do not know much about Hill Tribe people, but from what I’ve gathered, many of the problems that plague minority people in the states are similar to what Hill Tribe people also experience. Here’s a few articles if you’re interested in learning more. First Article & Second Article

-There is also an abundance of different types of produce there. I saw orange groves, strawberry fields, corn fields, bell peppers, avocados, and a variety of other fruits and vegetables. Apparently drug plants used to be grown up on the mountains, but Thailand’s late king brought in foreign fruits and vegetables for them to grow. This also drew in more tourists which further helped the economies of these communities.

capture2I had a quick turn over from this trip, and as soon as I got home I was off to Malaysia with one of my Fulbright friends. We went to George Town, Penang in order to celebrate the new year. George Town is really unique in many ways. It has the largest collection of pre WWII buildings in Southeast Asia and the older portion of town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There is a plethora of street art there that we got lots of selfies next to (I think some of my Thai trip was wearing off on me). George Town is a cultural hub and while there we saw a Chinese temple next to a Muslim mosque next to a Hindu temple. We also got some very tasty Indian food in little India. Due to these things it was very touristy, but I’m glad I got to go and spend some time with my friend. This trip was also a valuable learning experience as we figured out how to exchange money, use public transportation, and get correct visas. I feel like it really improved my confidence and would consider it a gateway trip to many more awesome adventures.

Bon Voyage,

Madison

*In other news, the south is flooding again and my school has been cancelled for two days. I think it’s worse than the last time that this happened because the canal that kept my school from floods last time is starting to flow over. There were even landslides in another province.

Bangkok Post article on the floods. 

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My Thai School: Part 1

Hey everyone!

I know that the holidays are very busy, but just in case you have a moment to spare, here’s another post for ya! Today I thought that it might be fun to share with you a little bit about my Thai school. Even if you aren’t an educator, you went to school once too… so hopefully it’ll be interesting for everyone! Please note, though, that this represents just one Thai school and, as it is in the states, all schools do things a bit differently. I have tried to get everything as accurate as possible, and one of my Thai teachers was kind enough to check this over for me, but with the language/culture barrier please keep in mind that there is still a potential for error. Nonetheless, happy reading!

Morning Routine

Each morning there are a few Thai teachers who wait at the gate to greet the students. When I greet students I usually give them high fives, which maybe isn’t too sanitary, but fun nonetheless. However, the typical greeting is to wai, or head bow with your palms together. How high you put your hands depends on the hierarchy of the person. For example, when wai-ing to a monk you would bring your thumb up to your nose. Teachers wai to each other as a way of greeting in the morning as well.

Students do the main cleaning of the school, which is pretty cool if you ask me. All of prathom 4-6 (equivalent to 4th-6th grade) are assigned a certain day of the week and location to clean. This happened at 7:30-8:00. This is also a time when they can buy breakfast at school. There are several little food stands in the canteen that have various Thai foods, but also foods I’m familiar with, such as chicken strips. Students buy their breakfasts if they want (which are very cheap), but lunch is free. They also have a school store where snacks and school supplies can be bought.

The morning is also the time for students to stop by the school bank. This is an actually bank for students to put money in as a way to practice saving money and knowing how to manage funds. Students run the bank with a teacher supervisor. Recently, the student body saved a total of 4 million baht (which they’d been saving over the course of 3 years), so there was a little assembly where they had a drawing for students to get gifts. This replaced their usual holiday celebration (where a Santa handed out presents and they sang carols) because, due to the passing of their king, the government said not to have big parties/celebrations for the year long mourning period.

Every day at 8:00-8:30, we have morning assembly. During this time students raise the flag, sing the national anthem, do a Buddhist Prayer called Flowers Bloom, and then sing the king’s song. This is also a time for announcements. Something special for this week was that students performed some of the songs that they’ll be singing/playing at a nationwide competition that’s going on this week. From my understanding of it, it’s a bit like All State, but rather than being just for fine arts, it’s for all areas of study. They compete at the regional level and then the winners go to Bangkok to compete again.

Classes

Classes start at 8:30 and are an hour long. Students take their shoes off before going into the classroom, but teachers wear their shoes. I’ve tried to walk around school with my shoes off a few times (it’s just easier when there are so many puddles), but this is a bit scandalous.

At the start of every class there is a certain dialogue we follow. In my classes they say it in English, but they say the Thai equivalent in their other classes.

Class leader: Please stand up. [everyone stands]
Class: Good morning/afternoon teacher!
Me: Good morning/afternoon class. How are you?
Class: I’m fine thanks. And you?
Me: I’m fine thanks. Please sit down.
Class: Thank you teacher. 

Student Lunch

Lunches are staggered based on grade. When it’s their time for lunch, the students grab their silverware, which they bring from home, and then go to the canteen area. Teachers help serve their food and then they choose where they sit among all of the tables that are set up. When they are finished they clean their own plates, brush their teeth, and then play outside.

Teacher Lunch

After getting the students settled with their lunches, teachers go to a separate room by the kitchen to eat. It has air conditioning! All of the meals are prepared ahead of time in massive woks and are then put in big silver serving trays. The biggest portion of the tray is reserved for your daily helping of either brown or white rice. The meals often are a piece of fish which is served in traditional Thai style with the scales, fins, and head still intact. There is usually some sort of curry or soup to go with that as well. For fresh veggies there’s always a try of cucumbers and Thai eggplant. Another source of veggies are edible leaves of some sort. The first time I ate the leaves I had no idea how to eat them… wrap around food, chop up, eat plain? I’ve since realized that you just pick the leaf of the little branch and eat it like that. They tend to be pretty bitter though, so I stick to cucumbers. The cooks at my school are very kind and always make sure that I have food that isn’t too spicy to eat. This sometimes means that I get to eat what the kids are eating that day or sometimes they make a special omelet for me.

One of my favorite meals is massaman guy. This is a chicken curry with sweet potatoes and peanuts. It’s very delicious. I like that there always seems to be more chicken breast in it (rather than other chicken parts). This is important because meat here is much less processed than in the states. This means that there is still gristle and bones in most dishes. Since knives aren’t standard eating utensils, it took me awhile to figure out how to get to the good meat with a spoon and fork. The spoon is the main utensil and the fork functions the knife.

Recess

Recess is a pretty informal affair when compared to the States. There aren’t any playground monitors or teachers on duty. There isn’t a designated area to play either. There is play equipment, but most students play with their friends throughout the school grounds. Many of the girls like to play a jumping game where they have a giant rubber band chain that two students stretch around themselves. The other students then jump between the bands for X amount of times before the bands are raised. It’s super impressive how high they can get their little legs to go! I’ve tried playing it with them a few times but am pretty bad at it. Mainly I worry about flashing someone or falling and breaking my face. The boys like to play soccer/futbol with various little balls they have. I sometimes play this with them too and have lots of fun. It’s nice building relationships with the kiddos outside of the classroom.

My Kitty

20161216_124045Stray animals are pretty common in Thailand. There is one particular stray kitten at school that I accidentally adopted. The kitty was pretty scrawny, so one day I saved my fish from lunch to feed it. I asked the kids to help me find her, and ever since then they all know her as my cat. That means that whenever I’m walking across the school grounds usually someone comes running with the scared little kitty to give to me. This happens as I’m on my bike leaving school, trying to do work in the library, anytime… So while I do really enjoy Orange, she is kind of hard to escape. I’ll set her down to go teach and then a new student will “find” her to bring to me.  lol

Afternoons

In the afternoon they have class for another few hours. At 2:30 they all do some sort of project based activity to improve their 4h’s: health, head, heart, and hands (handicrafts). This is a new government initiative for Thai schools. One day I was really confused to see a whole class sitting outside making sandwiches. I believe that this was a part of the initiative. However, the sandwiches they made looked pretty disgusting. They ate them anyways, but I think that more practice is in order.

Handicrafts are another part of the 4h’s, and I have joined my fourth graders a few times to make some. It’s lots of fun! So far we’ve made flower garlands, cut fruits/veggies into flower decorations, and made flower bouquets from the long leaves of a local plant. My goal is to do another separate post on some of the things that we’ve done in the future. For the health part of the initiative students play sports and once a week we also do school wide aerobics. This is a great idea in theory, getting students invested in their health, however the follow through of the aerobics is a bit chaotic.

In the afternoon the students also have their second milk break. They don’t really drink milk at lunch, so they get a break in the morning and afternoon in order to do so. Also in the afternoons, I find that students often surround my desk wanting to play card games and hangout. I thought that maybe they had another recess. Turns out that this is often not the case and they just know that I don’t know the schedule well enough to send them away. Oops! Today I learned how to say, “go back to class,” so hopefully we’ll fix that soon. Although generally I like their company and take it as an opportunity for informal English lessons.

Going Home

Students go home at 3:30 (2:30 for anubon) via lots of different types of transportation. They take song taos, buses, and mopeds primarily. There are also snack stands that are set up in the afternoon for the kids to purchase all sorts of different goodies.

 

Well guys, that about wraps up the school day! I hope you enjoyed it because next week I’ll have more about school. Happy holidays! Eat some extra cookies on my behalf, please. 🙂

Madison