Tuesday, January 28, 2014


Have you ever watched a baby with the hiccups?  She just lies there.  She doesn’t even know that something unusual is happening.  Her body might twitch – I’ve seen some hiccupping babies who qualify for the word “convulse”, as their diaphragm muscles move nearly the entire contents of their torsos during a bout of hiccups.  But she’s not bothered, she just lies there, and the hiccups eventually subside.

A typical NIS elementary classroom.
And if you watch a schoolchild hiccup, you know that they take great enjoyment in the process.  I worked in a second grade class a few days ago, and the entire group giggled and smiled as one classmate continued to hiccup for about 20 minutes.  Even the “victim” enjoyed it.  He just grinned when his speech was interrupted, and chuckled when a hiccup actually turned his word into another word.  Hiccupping did not slow his participation at all – he volunteered questions and answers, and he read aloud when asked.  No one, including his teacher, considered his hiccups a disruption to the education of the class.

Why is it, then, that I (a supposedly mature adult) am so annoyed when I get the hiccups?  In those cases where I am close to a source of sugar, I can take a small spoonful and let it melt on my tongue for a sure cure.  But my point is that I am aggravated enough in the first place to seek out the sugar.  What is so aggravating about a case of hiccups?   If babies accept hiccups calmly, and children see them as a source of entertainment, why are hiccups irksome to me?

I have considered three possible reasons.  First, that I am embarrassed by hiccups, mostly because my mouth is more often open than closed as I hiccup, so the volume of my hiccups carries the sound well beyond anything considered “personal space.”   Second, that hiccups somehow demonstrate an incompetency, that hiccupping proves I lack refinement and social grace in the presence of others.   And the third reason is that I recognize that when I have the hiccups, I am not in control. 

Those who know me best know that the likeliest reason is number 3, since I am, after all, something of a control freak.  I have suffered embarrassment enough times to realize that I am not going to die of embarrassment.  And I acknowledge that there will be many more embarrassments before my time on this planet ends.  And as far as what others might think of me, that has never been a huge consideration for me, and the older I get, the less I care about social “stamps of approval” from People Who Supposedly Matter.

No, the fact of the matter is that hiccups show that I am not in control.  And for me, a teacher/leader, an aging diva, that is hard to accept. But the lesson here is to accept the fact that I’m not in control.  I haven’t really driven a car in more than two years, and I haven’t missed it.  I haven’t felt a loss of control from that.  Because Jim and I are isolated from our church community, we have attended church only four times since last July (and two of those times were in the US, during the Christmas holidays).  But since we have our own version of church every Sunday morning in our living room, I have accepted the loss of control that a regular schedule and a specific responsibility (referred to as a calling) has given me in the past.  Why then do I feel the need for control in other areas of my life, like control over an involuntary muscular response?

It’s a little funny how the things I can control are not the things that frustrate me.  If I enjoy a piece of pineapple cake in the school cafeteria and then notice I’ve gained a pound or two, I accept that as a natural consequence of my choice.  If I spend too much on a pair of boots, I’m willing to cut back on other stuff for a few months, in order to get back in line with our budget.  If someone comes to me for help with an issue, I will do whatever I can to help them address that issue – I can choose to have a greater or lesser degree of involvement with that person as the issue progresses.  I can handle that.

But the things I do not control are the things that frustrate me and make me crazy.  If I see teaching time being wasted, I want to improve it – I know how valuable time is in teaching.  I want to change the schedule of classes here so time isn’t wasted.  If I sit at my computer in the evening and yawn thirty times in a row (which I have been known to do), I get irritated, telling my brain it has enough oxygen thank you. 
You must understand, it’s not my job to schedule classes here.  I can bring my suggestions to my supervisors, but then it is up to them how those suggestions will be handled.   I can curse the potholes in the road, but that won’t fix them.  Years ago, my doctor told me that my yawning “fits” are caused by something like a short circuit in the sleep center of my brain.  No harm, no foul. So why do I still let things like these frustrate me?

I remember an old TV show that began “Do not adjust your television…We control the vertical, we control the horizontal…."  If I can remember that Someone Else is in control of my life, perhaps I will be more willing to put down the remote that I want to use to control my life, and surrender control. Let go of the steering wheel. Hand the reins over.  Then, although my life’s road will still be full of hiccups and potholes, I will be more likely to enjoy the ride. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014


Some years ago, Allen Say wrote a children’s book called “My Grandfather’s Journey.”  In it he describes his grandfather’s two loves, Japan and America.  The grandson telling the story also falls in love with America, and moves back and forth between the United States and Japan.  But his biggest problem is that while he is in one place, he longs for the other. 

This is my experience.  I am happy here, but I still long for my friends in the places where I have lived before.  I miss my wonderful Japanese friend Okanosan, who helped me with my housekeeping and became an honorary grandmother to my boys when they were very young. She was a classical music lover who almost fell down the stairs laughing when she walked in on my boys watching Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny’s version of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nieberl├╝ngen.”

I miss my Primary (LDS Sunday school for youngsters) class in England, where one eight-year old  perfectionist used to sing “the Lord can depend on me” and then added “sometimes.”  That boy set the bar high for himself!

I miss my little sister, with whom I had a wonderful visit over the holidays.   She has endured many things and hopes to be able to endure all things, and teaches me to be a better person.  I am grateful for her influence in my life.

But I love Kazkahstan as well.  I love the sense of safety here.  It is safe to be a child here in Kazakhstan – they are shielded from the ugliness of the world by their parents and teachers alike.  It is safe to show affection for a child – nearly every student of mine greeted me with a hug on the first day back at school.  It is safe to greet a child – in fact, most children greet us first, whether or not they know us.   I am safe as I walk to and from school.  It’s only the distance of 6 or 7 city blocks, but in many places in the world, that is more than enough distance to be risky. 

I love the sense of calm here.  Yes, a blanket of snow definitely contributes to that feeling, but winter here seems to have the additional effect of slowing people down.  People are not in a hurry to accomplish tasks.  Yes, there is a lot to do, but the pace seems more relaxed than it did in October or November.  People work with fewer complaints, and students understand that we can succeed if we help each other, and we are ready to work again, even while we celebrate the “Old New Year” – the celebration of the New Year following Russian Orthodox Christmas.  
This year, that celebration came on January 14th, our principal’s 50th birthday.  Quite a momentous occasion, New Year and a culturally significant milestone birthday.  Jim and I were part of a not-quite-spontaneous celebration and enjoyed our time in singing, clapping, and listening to the good wishes teachers had for each other and for our principal.

I am grateful for the loves of my life – the United States, France, Sweden, Japan, England, Netherlands, Korea, Italy, Tonga, and now Kazakhstan.  Each love has enriched the other, and although I sometimes long for the green of Tonga, or the trains of Tokyo, or the nearly endless fields of daffodils near Feltwell, England, or the awe-inspiring scale of history in Italy and Korea, still, I love where I am, and I am grateful for the lessons I am learning here.  Many happy returns from the wintry calm of a noble land and people. 

Thursday, January 9, 2014


A scene along the road here in Kazakhstan.

A typical classroom at our school.  Yes, those are
teachers, not students.  Oh well.
Living in Kazakhstan is both very ordinary and very unique.  I spend my day working with teenagers, like millions of other teachers.  But after a lesson, my students come up to me to hug me  – I’ve even received applause for a counseling lesson.  I watch students who put their arms around each other while walking down the hall, talking and laughing like brothers and sisters.  I watched one girl who held the hand of another girl who has trouble walking, supporting her to help keep her balance. (Neither was a student of mine.) I congratulated them both and they were completely taken by surprise, since it was second nature to them.  Then I took the helper’s arm and said, “Here, help me too,” and we all laughed together.  I never would feel comfortable doing that to an unfamiliar student in an American school.  But here I am family.

Our school faculty and staff had a dinner party in December, celebrating the end of the second quarter of school.  There was music, dancing, and even silly games, and I watched a wonderful camaraderie in action, as some of the men played a game of musical potty chairs and the women trying to count how many rocks were on the seat of the chair where they were sitting – without looking, of course.  And at dinner, as I have seen many times in the school cafeteria, teachers laughed and hugged as they visited, alternately teasing and reassuring each other of their friendships. And when they danced together, they celebrated with a joy I have seldom seen in a group of teachers.  It was marvelous to be a part of a celebration of brothers and sisters.

Jim and two of the teachers here at NIS
My three co-teachers and I.

We got back from our stateside Christmas holiday trip on Wednesday the 8th of January, and January 9th was our first day back at school.  Even before I got into the school building, one of the teachers saw me coming and threw her arms around me, telling me how happy she was that we were back.   Kazakh women greet each other with a hug and a kiss on the cheek, but the hugs and kisses today have been especially sweet.  Kazakh men shake hands with their right hand, but draw each other in by clapping each other on the back, and Jim’s been welcomed back a few times today as well.  We've  also had happy greetings from our fellow international teachers, and our supervisor came to check on us before the day even started, because he was concerned about us, since we had lost our luggage on the way back. 

Sunrise from our bedroom window.
Cold is a way of life here...no polar vortex needed

In all our years of marriage, this is only the second time the Szokas have lost luggage.  We got to the city of Almaty, the largest city in the nation (1.5 million), and zhok!  No bags! It made it easy to come through customs, as we really DID have nothing to declare!  But waiting for us outside the customs doors were the Carters, a missionary couple who have befriended us.  They are assigned to help the small LDS congregation in Almaty.  They gave us bags of brown sugar and ranch dressing mix, since we can’t find those items in Taldykorgan.  (We brought them a couple of bottles of vanilla extract from the US.)  No worries about the luggage, though - after we got to school, our Kazakh international vice principal Alisher (say Ah-lee-SHAIR) traced our bags through the airlines,  and provided a driver to go get them and bring them to us (about 8-10 hours round trip - whew!).  We had our bags delivered by Alisher at 9 p.m. that night - he wouldn't even let me come downstairs to carry one bag up.  He is younger than both Jim and me, but we call him Papa, because he cares for us as though we were his own sons and daughters.  We're happy to be home, where our hearts are.  We're with family - even though many other members of our family are far away.

Thursday, November 28, 2013


I was part of a wonderful lesson today, and it may just have a lasting effect on one student.  That is why I teach – to change one life.   I tell this story not to brag, but just to demonstrate that God is in the details, and express my gratitude to Him for putting me in a position to serve. 

I have no lessons in the high school on Thursdays, so I volunteer my time with the elementary/primary grades on that day.  I work with 2nd, 3rd and 4th grades, and consider my time spent as playtime, because I’m really only supporting the lead teacher in the class.  I can teach the students a song, or help them read in small groups, but I’m not planning or running the lesson, so it’s very easy for me.

One student in fourth grade is new this year, and he is finding it hard to participate, because he has a severe stuttering problem.  His name is Damil (Dah-MEEL).  It is hard for Damil to speak more than two or three words without taking 5-10 seconds to get the next word out.  So naturally, he doesn’t speak much during class.  But he is good in math and is a good writer, and understands Kazakh, Russian, and now some basic English.

When I was introduced to Damil, he had a hard time even just telling me his name.  And When I came back to class today, an idea that had occurred to me when I met him came back to my mind, very strongly.  I asked the teacher for permission to take Damil aside and work with him one-on-one.  I briefly described what I wanted to do, and she told Damil in Kazakh what we were going to try to do, and he agreed to give it a try.

Instead of speaking to each other, I sang my questions to Damil, very quietly, and he responded by singing.  We practiced the strategy for about 20 minutes, and he found himself not only reading more smoothly, but being able to converse more smoothly as well.  He could sing-read the questions in his book, and then sing to compose his own answers.  I sent him back to the rest of the class, and he read (sang) three sentences in a row, all smoothly, while his classmates sat there open-mouthed.  At the end, they even applauded for him.

The lead teacher has taken on her own shoulders the responsibility to inform all of Damil’s teachers that he can learn to speak more smoothly by singing.   I am aware that singing doesn’t always lead to long-term fluency in speaking, but it can be one success along the road.   Both Damil and I left the class much happier today. I have researched the issue, and I will continue to find ways to support Damil in his quest to speak more fluently – in all three languages. 

Jim and I often include in our morning prayers the request to have the chance to serve one person that day – to influence for the better one person’s life.  I have no doubt that the Lord answered that prayer today in a rather dramatic way.  And I am grateful to have been prepared to help meet a child’s needs. 

Saturday, October 26, 2013


I walked through a city park this morning.  It’s been a long time since I’ve done that.  Even longer since I did it in the fall.  My heart is full tonight, as I reflect on the thoughts that have woven themselves through my mind all day long.

As we walked, the sun worked its way through the leaves of the oak and elm trees in the park.  Spots of shade and sunshine alternated like sugar and salt on my senses, cooling, then warming me, as the leaves of the trees filtered green, yellow, gold and brown light on the ground next to my pathway.  The sounds were muted – most of the birds were pigeons, being fed by children on the plaza nearby.  But there were a few others flitting about, and though I couldn’t spy a squirrel, I heard one chattering at us from the trees.

The change of seasons here is more subtle than in many parts of the world.  The carefully tended rosebushes have been trimmed back just in the last few days, and soil piled around the roots, to preserve them.  Where there are patches of grass, it has been allowed to grow long, to protect itself.  The leaves on the trees here change color individually, not in groups.  I smiled as I walked past three elms – one completely bare of leaves, another dressed in yellow, and the third still clinging to green.  But what stopped me in my tracks was the smell.  Not since experiencing fall in Virginia have I smelled fall, but I did today.  That damp-earth, soft and sweet smell of decaying leaves in cool air.  I had to stop and just breathe it in, in three different spots.  My mind whirled with memories of the woods where I played as a child, and the shores of the Shenandoah river, where I have spent many an autumn day.  I understand that smell is the physical sense most strongly tied to memory; today was evidence of that claim, for me.

There is something sacred about autumn.  I think it is in the gracious acceptance of the natural world – acceptance that the bloom of summer has ended, and the respite of winter is coming.  Animals either migrate, hibernate, or prepare to meet the harsh conditions of winter.  And non-evergreen plants drop their blossoms and leaves, and conserve themselves for spring.  May I learn to accept the changing conditions of my life like these great trees, and conserve my efforts for the opportunities that will cross my path in their own due time. 

Wednesday, October 2, 2013


Prayers are answered in three ways:
1.     Yes
2.     Not yet
3.     I have something better in mind.

Jim and I have prayed to understand what we can do to shine the light of the gospel in our circles of influence while we are three hours away from the nearest LDS congregation.  Our mission president has given us permission to hold Sunday church in our living room, so we have an opening song, Jim administers the sacrament, and we listen to talks by church leaders that are available on the internet.  We take the time to discuss the talks, we have our Sunday School lesson, and Jim reads out loud to me every morning from the scriptures before our morning prayer together.  We also try to reflect on the day and the lessons of the day during our evening walk home. 

But we do miss the association with other Saints.  And our prayers have reflected a desire to have spiritual moments with others.  While we were in Tonga we learned from a much-respected church leader that he and his wife pray that the Lord will place one person in their path during the day, one person over whom this leader and his wife can have the opportunity to positively influence.  Since then, Jim has regularly included in our prayers together the same request.  And here in Taldykorgan, we have more or less expected that we would be the givers of the light of understanding, and others would be the recipients.  But the Lord sometimes has something better in mind.

Monday morning, I had a very sweet, calm, tender conversation with another teacher here.  I will call him Adam, though that is not his real name.  Adam is a British citizen, though he was born and spent his childhood on an independent Caribbean island.  He spoke about being drawn to a group of friends when he first arrived in England, a group of friends who were very committed students and hard workers, and who had very happy, loving homes. He described to me the peace he felt in their homes, and how he admired their parents and the way the family members all treated each other.  When they invited him to come to church with them, he immediately accepted, not because they quoted scripture, not because they taught him something, but because he had spent time in their homes and loved the feeling there.  He ended up joining the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, and is a wonderful example of the careful teachings of that sect.

As I listened to Adam, I reflected on my own habits.  What does my home feel like when others come to visit?  We had 17 teachers over to have a light supper and snacks on Jim’s birthday last Saturday, and we had a very enjoyable time visiting and learning more about each other.  But how did they feel about being in my home?  Other than being physically comfortable, and being pleased with the food, I must say I do not know how they felt.  I need to pay more attention to my home’s spiritual atmosphere, so that people will notice an increased peace, calm, love and reverence when they visit. 

I listened to Adam as he spoke about working with one especially challenging student.  This boy was scrawny and small for his age, so when the boy physically attacked Adam, he did no damage.    Adam caught him by his arms and said, “If you continue this attack, you will lose your opportunity to complete your secondary education anywhere in this country.  If I report this attack, you will be expelled, and no other school will admit you.  But I am not going to report this attack.   I am going to give you another chance.  I am going to write a report that will result in a two-day at-home suspension for you, and at the end of those two days, I want to meet with you and your parents.  Then you will be invited back to my class.”

Adam followed through on his plan, even though the boy was angry at being sent home for two days.  On the third day, Adam met with the boy and his parents, and explained that his goal was to help this boy complete his secondary schooling, so that he could find a decent job, earn a decent wage, and contribute to society.  The parents and Adam both agreed to the plan, and over a period of months, the boy gradually changed his behavior and his attitude, and even wept when Adam left the school.

Having an impact on one person’s life?  Here was a shining example right in front of me.  Here was Adam, a model for me to imitate.  I thanked Adam for his experiences, and for being willing to share them with me.  Then he turned to me and said, “I think God has brought us together for a purpose.”  I think so, too, Adam.  I don’t pretend to know what that purpose includes, but I’m grateful it’s happening. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013


On the way home from school this evening, I told Jim that this job is turning into the easiest teaching job I’ve ever had.  Coming from an elementary experience where I was responsible for 6-8 lessons a day, 5 times a week, I feel like I’m being spoiled in a high school setting where I teach six different groups of 11th grade students for 80 minutes three times a week – what, three lesson plans and I’m done for the week?  Really?

Jim’s schedule is more strenuous than mine – he meets with eight groups of students, on two different grade levels, so he has to do at least six lesson plans a week.  Plus, his teachers change their minds more often than mine do – so he has to be flexible (see the Jello post). 

We both work as twice-monthly counselors with an assigned group of students, and I’m working with two elementary classes as well.  And then there’s the staff development – I’m working on a literacy team, and Jim is working on a team to help teachers take advantage of moments during lessons where we can document student understanding, rather than just handing students a quiz every lesson.

But the best part of this job is working with these students.  Granted, this is a school for the elite, but these students are so well-behaved, so polite, so dedicated to their school work that I am amazed.  They use their time well, they keep each other concentrating on their work, and they want to do well.  It’s a great atmosphere.

Of course, they’re still kids.  And they make me laugh.  Daniel, who is a bit reluctant to speak in English, finally joined in at the end of class the other day.  I asked for a show of hands to see who had spoken at least three times in English, and Daniel’s hand shot up.  “I spoke three times in English!” he repeated.  We all laughed  - it was the first thing he had said in English during the whole class!  He’s doing better, with encouragement.

So we’re happy, and we have good people to work with, good students to teach, and we’re making good friends.  Life is good, even on the far side of the world.