You’re stuck on an island


“We’ve been trapped on this island for days and there’s no hope of getting rescued,” I say. Everyone nods in comprehension. “If we don’t decide whether to build a raft and get to safety or stay here and live off the island in ten minutes, I’m going to flunk everyone.”

Nervous laughter.

I’ve been trying to spruce up 9th grade conversation class – a difficult task when you consider how few games and activities there are which keep some twenty 15-year olds mostly engaged for 45 minutes, while reaffirming the lesson material and giving everyone at least a small chance to speak. If I’m being totally honest, most Tuesday mornings melt into chaos around minute three and I spend the rest of the class period trying to keep the volume at a humane level and the number of broken chairs / bones / feelings to a minimum.

So today we played a new game. Two teams were given a topic to debate, the other teams sat back and picked a winner. All survivor themed – all intensely dramatic.

After a mildly successful first debate where eight of my students reasonably argued (in somewhat legitimate English!) whether or not to leave the island on a raft, group two came up. Their topic was a touch more provoking.

Dan has killed Marika. Should we kill him in order to maintain justice?

— The following excerpt is an almost verbatim account of 9B during fifth period English class in which Mary discovers much about her students that she never knew, nor would ever have dreamed of before —

First Round: Petr v. Honza

Honza is a fluffy-haired boy with lanky arms. Petr is the size of a 5th grade girl and has as much spit-fire as a room full of baby dragons.

Honza and Petr giggle anxiously at each other like they’re not 15 year old boys and squabble over who should begin first.
“You start.”
“No, you start.”
“No, really, you can start.”
“Petr,” I say. “You start.”
“Okay, I think we shouldn’t kill Dan.”
Honza jumps in with conviction.
“I think we should! We have no food!”
“You want to eat Dan?” asks Petr with a curious glint in his pitch-black eyes.
“No, I didn’t say that,” says Honza, backing up slightly.
Petr’s tone changes into an accusatory laugh. “You want to eat Dan!”
“I didn’t say that!” Honza insists. Then he pauses. “But that’s not a bad idea. We have no food.”


[That’s the bell. Back to your corners. I’m not about to let them go on about cannibalism this early in the debate. Especially not with Dan present in class, sitting on a desk in the front of the room, restlessly awaiting his fate.]

Second Round: Julie v. Monika

Julie is a short, chocolate-haired girl with a sweet spirit and little inclination to talk. Monika is her twin soul set in a tall, fair-complexioned body.

“I think we should kill Dan because I don’t want him to kill me,” says Monika quietly.
“But we can’t,” says Julie simply. “We aren’t killers.”
“He killed Marika,” says Monika.
“What if we made him our slave?” suggests Julie with an innocence that makes the worst offenses against humanity seem like great ideas.

[Uproarious moans and commentary in Czech rise from both sides as team captains shout inflammatory things they don’t want me to understand. Julie and Monika remain quiet.]


Third Round: Ivana v. Gabi

Ivana is a large girl, polished in manner, princessy in poise, and very good at English. Gabi is a swearing, slouching, tomboy baseball-star and also very good at English. They size each other up.

“Let’s eat Dan,” says Gabi, just going straight for where it hurts.
“You can’t eat Dan,” says Ivana. “That’s disgusting.”
“He killed Marika,” says Gabi. “That’s disgusting.”
“We need to keep him alive and have him do all the work on the island for us.”
“We need food,” drawls Gabi with insistence. “Besides, if we kill him, we won’t have to listen to his stupid stories anymore.”
Ivana has nothing to say.

[“Oh, come on!” says Dan from his desk.]


Fourth Round: Petra v. Vojta

Petra is a swan – regal, dignified…a little prissy. Vojta is a gentle-giant, standing head and shoulders (and chest) above everyone else in school. I think the top of my head barely reaches his ribcage.

“You don’t have to eat him,” Vojta begins, swaying over Petra like a tall tree blowing kindly in the wind. “But the rest of us are hungry.”
“We can’t eat Dan. We aren’t killers,” she says, picking up Julie’s argument.
“We are now!” says Vojta, pointing at Dan with a ‘he-started-it’ look. Dan grins sheepishly.

Team Captain Petr jumps in from the sidelines (illegally) and shouts in Czech, “Don’t become the monster! Don’t be like Dan!”


Fifth Round: David v. Sara

David is a huge, doe-eyed teddy bear. He is literally Winnie the Pooh incarnate. And he’s shy. Sara is the class sweety – innocent, kind…Definitely not capable of cannibalism.

“We have to kill Dan,” says Sara with modest sincerity.
David says nothing.
“We have no food,” she says.
David still says nothing.
“And he killed Marika,” Sara presses. David blinks twice and then says with a voice softer than butter, “I have a better idea.”
He blinks again.
“Let’s eat Marika instead.”


Final bell. We vote to save Dan (it’s a close win) and he whoops and jumps around like a madman, causing some to regret their generosity almost immediately.

The shy kids go back to being shy and the princesses and giants and little dragons push and shove their ways back to their desks. Everyone is tussling with or teasing someone else. Everyone is friendly and happy – or at least amiable and content.

Their echoing footsteps disappear with the sound of their shrieks of laughter as they round the bend at the end of the hallway. Lunch time.

As I lock up their classroom I think to myself that if I ever get stuck on an island, I hope it’s with this crew.

Lost in Rome

Roma 20142“I’m kind of worried,” said Deborah, scanning Piazza Navona one more time. “She’s like two hours late.”

“I’m sure she’ll be fine,” Omar reassured her. The newlyweds watched the crowd shift and change around the elaborate water fountain with the mini-Washington monument and creepy drowning horse sticking up out of the middle.

“Did she check a bag? Maybe it got lost.”

Deborah shook her head. “Wouldn’t she have messaged us if she was stuck at the airport?”

“She could be stuck in traffic on the bus or something.”

“Maybe.” Deborah bit her lip. “Maybe she went to the apartment first and saw we weren’t there and went looking for us…”

“Should I go back and check for her?” Omar offered. Deborah shook her head again.

“I don’t know,” she said. “But this is Mary, so most likely she’s lost and confused somewhere out there.”

And lo, 500 yards away, just around the corner and sitting in a sidewalk café, I was on the verge of tears and desperately trying to get a signal on my phone.

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A Colored Thread

IMG_8116I suppose it doesn’t cross your mind as a Kindergartner that the girl sitting next to you who is so much better than you at drawing the hand-traced Thanksgiving Turkeys will one day be sitting next to you on a bench in Vienna at 7:30 a.m. eating salami-cheese-and-butter sandwiches made the night before.

But life does happen like this, as if it’s really an intricate tapestry where everyone’s threads crisscross in a frenzy of color and panic and beauty and not until we reach the end of the spool will we see just how elaborate a craftsmen the Weaver is.

I think cities can be like this too. Just looking at the U-Bahn maps in Vienna is cause to give those of lighter constitution a small case of nausea. (And to tie it into the tapestry metaphor, those maps ARE really colorful).

Wait a second, Mary – what are you doing in Vienna?

Oh, awesome question. In order to obtain my visa I have to apply outside the country. So at 00:30 on Tuesday morning (that’s 12:30 a.m. for normal people), my good and long-time friend Lydia and I trekked across Prague to the Student Agency Bus station in Florenc. We were guided by eldest daughter of my missionary hosts and cherry-picker extraordinaire, Autumn. She pointed out our stops and explained how the maps work and then left us at the bus station to catch her tram back home saying, “Just pay attention and you’ll be fine!” . . . Right.

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