An unexpected ending

As April seems to be poetry writing month, I have been teaching my classes in Meghalaya, something about poetry and wondering how they’ll manage to understand it, given their first language is not English. It’s quite hard to explain poetry via zoom, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by some of our students’ poems just in their first week of poetry.

This one in particular came through today:

I think it was the unexpectedness of the last line that got me, I’ve had students who love whales, elephants, tigers and other wild animals, but to date not a single polar bear.

I feel a tinge of regret, as I read this delightful poem, because I realise that Haban will probably never see a real polar bear in his life, just as it saddens me to think that most of these kids will never even glimpse the ocean.

But they can still learn to write poetry!

The dolphin holds my final digraph

I have always loved dolphins; truth be told there aren’t many animals I don’t appreciate, but the fun dolphins have and the glee they exhibit is something extraordinary. They just take pleasure in being…!

Over the years I have seen dolphins behind a ferry cruising from one Greek island to another; frolicking out at sea off various beaches around Australia and even dipping and flipping behind the boat that brought me to Australia dozens of years ago.

But my best and most up close encounters came late last year, in our local river that runs through many of our city’s suburbs. A biking and walking track extends around most of the river’s banks on each side. I use it frequently. It’s a great way to exercise, meditate on writing, listen to podcasts and observe nature.

One afternoon I approached a small footbridge across a narrow part of the river close to many fancy apartments and a few cafes towards the end of my walk, before turning back to retrace my steps. I noticed a couple of people walking down to the water’s edge and pointing at something. Suddenly a fin broke through the surface of the water. It took my breath away. Because I live in Australia my first reaction was ‘shark’! We have shark patrols on all our beaches and people get mauled and eaten by sharks occasionally, but the warnings are frequent all summer, with helicopters blasting an ear splitting siren to warn swimmers whenever a fin is spotted.

Then I realised, it’s a dolphin, as its steely grey back rose shimmering and smooth above the surface and then disappeared below. I stood on the little footbridge and it swam right underneath me (about six feet below). I could not believe my luck, as I turned and watched it surface on the other side. It swam towards the concrete side that supported the river bank just there and swivelled in a half circle, almost above the water on its side. It was on its right side as it turned and its mouth and one eye, well, they might be fixed in that expression permanently, but it was definitely GRINNING at me!

I don’t know how much dolphins play to the crowd and appreciate an audience and it only had limited spectators that day, but this one was totally enjoying itself, as it swished back under the bridge and out into the middle of the river. I think there were three of them altogether but the others remained mainly in the background until they slowly swam away and disappeared.

The footbridge is just to the right of this photo so the dolphin really ‘came to town’!
I missed all the spectacular shots as I was so surprised!

When I got home I discovered there is a pod of dolphins living in and around the river, maybe about twenty to thirty of them. But some people have been here all their lives and never seen one so I felt very privileged.

A month or so later I was standing on the water’s edge, checking out a couple of black swans and their two cygnets when a fin again came into my line of vision, moving very slowly and just dipping below the surface, as the water was obviously quite shallow there, so no room for acrobatics.

Cruising close to the shore
I was watching the swans and their cygnets when I spotted the dolphin.

I wondered if it was the same dolphin I’d spotted by the footbridge, the location was different, but not that far away.

In the local Khasi language, the ‘ph’ sound is pronounced as a soft ‘p’ sound, so it takes a while for students to get accustomed to the ‘f’ sound of ‘ph’. It comes up in early vocabulary in words like ‘phone’, ‘elephant’, ‘dolphin’ and ‘photo’.

This is my third year of slicing and I have so appreciated this community of writers and their encouragement and comments! Even though I live so far away from everyone, I’ve been able to feel connected through the common bonds of writing and teaching. Thanks to all involved and especially to those who organise this every year. It is so worthwhile.

I’m going to close with some more wild orchids from Western Australia (these were exhibits at a show and not in the wild like the last one) and, because Fran Haley mentioned them in her final post, a magnolia that graced our table for a few short days in all its superb finery.

A spider orchid
Love these soft mauve hues
magnolias are magnificent!

Tropical sprue, not my favourite words…

I digress today from the normal run of slices to dwell for a few moments and then hopefully never return to it again, on tropical sprue.

I’d never heard of it until about nine years ago, when unbeknownst to me, it entered my life (no one really knows how it enters a person, so I can’t say more). I didn’t discover what it was, I just felt nauseous and food tasted like cardboard and my energy disappeared and I was trying to run a school! It lasted for months, I had to sit down while I was writing at the board and I could barely climb the stairs to our room. I was stubborn (it’s just another Indian thing, it’ll pass, but it didn’t). Finally I decided to go to a gastroenterologist specialist in Shillong. In India you can go direct to a specialist, he charges more than an ordinary doctor (but still very little) no referral needed.

He was working in a hospital and wanted me to get all these tests done, which the hospital charged for separately, an ultra sound, a blood test, an endoscopy. I had the blood test, but refused the rest, as I was really starting to feel so much better. He wasn’t very happy, but gave me some medication which I took. I completely recovered, back to normal.

Months later my husband started to have similar symptoms, he endured them for a while and then went to this specialist and had all the tests done. His diagnosis, tropical sprue. It’s very rare and he said doctors in the west would not pick it up. He sees about 25 cases a year, so it’s not common. He said prisoners of war in Burma building the railway often suffered and died from it. It causes malabsorption and you basically waste away. But it’s treatable. My husband was on medication for over six months until he was declared cleared.

Obviously mine was never properly cleared up and has returned. I have been going downhill over the past two years in cycles. The nausea has returned sometimes, I don’t like the taste of coffee any more (that makes me so sad), one time I got ulcers all over my tongue. Now my ankles are swelling with fluid and it’s painful to walk, my arms are bruising for no reason and my muscle fibre is disappearing!

There are little frondy things in your gut called villi and this disease stops them standing up and absorbing the protein and whatever else from our food. It just flattens them. And my liver is not coping. I’ve been tested for HIV, diabetes, coeliac disease, my arm has turned into a pincushion, I finally had an endoscopy and survived. My liver counts of various hieroglyphical bits and pieces are heading fast in the wrong direction, too high or too low.

I had this suspicion at the back of my mind, but my doctor kept saying ‘it’s a liver problem’, so today I went to a liver specialist and he agreed, it’s my intestines, causing the liver problem and he is fairly convinced it’s tropical sprue. Tomorrow (after he’s checked with colleagues and done some more research) he’s going to put me on a course of antibiotics, folic acid and whatever else I need to combat it.

Tropical sprue I hope this is the last time I ever have to write about you. And I’m closing with a picture of lovely Western Australian wildflowers. not you!

So fragile but so brilliant, a wild orchid

Shine on….and show the world…

After reading Fran Haley’s post about golden shovel poems, I decided to have a go at writing one using a line from my post yesterday about girls and how we can help them to shinethrough education (that’s my digraph for today, ‘sh’ so a golden shovel poem fits right in!)

The line I chose was part of a quote about the girl child and reads: she is fierce, she is courageous, she has learned the value of peace.”

I am also posting, a little randomly, a couple of pages from my students in Class 1 who have just put together and published a Thankful Book with their teacher’s and my help, via a few zoom lessons recently. The only rule was that they all had to be thankful for something different and I was impressed by their diverse ideas and of course the illustrations. This should have come under the ‘th’ digraph posting, but I didn’t receive them in time. Their Thankful Book will now go into our school library. I am planning to get students to publish as many as possible this year in their writing classes. The only frustrating thing is that I can’t actually hold and read them for myself!

Being thankful for your knees gets me every time!

Not much to say about the ‘sh’ digraph, it is the softer version of the ‘ch’ sound and again two letters form one sound that students need to learn and recognise by sight.

Children….education needs a chance to change!

Quote from Inger Ashing, CEO of Save the Children International:

The poorest and most marginalised childen are being hit the hardest. Around ten million children may never return to school – this is an unprecedented education emergency and governments must urgently invest in learning.

500 million children had no access to distance learning during the lockdown. So children now face the increased risk of child marriage, teen pregnancy, forced labour or recruitment into armed groups. This situation is of course happening in some countries in Africa, but educational difficulties are faced worldwide in developing countries.

My heart bleeds; I’ve seen the struggles with our own students, trying to learn after a year off school. One reason we try to keep our girls at school through to twelfth and even into college if possible, is to avoid the risk of them getting pregnant too soon. For the boys there is the risk of delinquency and drug and/or alcohol abuse. After twelve years in operation, we are at the stage, where a few students are now doing Class 10 (board exam) and Class 11 and 12 and one has just entered college. They leave our school in Class 5, but we keep in touch wherever possible and often help out in various ways including financially with school fees. We also hold reunions every couple of months so we can continue to encourage and support them.

One of our original students had to be rescued from a small leaky hut, when her mum left her there with three sisters, just taking her youngest toddler with her. Fortunately, her grandmother took them in, for three years. Her older sister was too old to attend our school and fell pregnant at fifteen after her mum abandoned them. Iuniki is a very attractive girl and I have fought to keep her in school. She is now doing first year college. Her results are not great, the pass mark in India is an unbelievably low 30%, but she’s home, studying and just passing, working part time and looking after her younger sisters. Her mum has fortunately disappeared (physically) out of her life again, after returning for a while, but she has caused a lot of grief along the way. She herself didn’t study past Class 3 and first gave birth aged fifteen.

This is a quote from the @justice_rising account concerning the girl child:

She is fierce. She is courageous. She has seen war, she has seen violence and she has learned the value of peace. Every day in conflict zones, girls are overcoming the odds and pressing on to create change.

This is a girl sponsored by the Asha Society. You can see the extreme poverty she is living in and her story also reveals major heartache, her father has died and her mother is a cancer survivor, her sister is severely malnourished. Yet despite all this, she studied hard and achieved a final score of 96% in her matriculation exams, which is outstanding. When we give children a chance, amazing outcomes may follow. The Asha Society is now going to sponsor her through university.

Today’s digraph is of course the ‘ch’ sound, that students just need to be reminded to read as one sound and not two separate letters. To alleviate today’s tough subject, I’m ending with a photo of one of Western Australia’s fragile and delicate wildflowers that bloom in abundance in spring.

It is a purple fringe lily (this photo is larger than life size)

This has been fun, thanks for coming along!

For the past twenty-six days I’ve chosen a different letter of the alphabet in no particular order and found a word or words to go with it and anything else that comes up and is relevant. Tonight’s slice is going to be super short because my brain has been working on overload and I’m just breathing a sigh of relief that I covered everything and it all worked pretty well.

For the last five days I’m going to remind us of some of the phonics digraphs we use in English (two letters, one sound). Today’s digraph is TH which is probably the trickiest one to say, because it is NOT present in any other language, so everybody says ‘tuh’ or more commonly ‘duh’.

Many times in a day I will tell students to put their tongue between their teeth and say ‘th’ (the soft sound as in think or ‘th’ the hard vibrating sound as in ‘the’).

Some kids pick it up pretty well, some are a bit lazy and need reminding, some do it for certain ‘th’ pronunciations and not others, it’s just one of those things that needs to be on repeat in an ESL classroom. There are after all, very few sentences without a ‘th’ word to be pronounced in them, somewhere!

A whirlwind of weddings and …the wonder of writing

In the month of December we had two family weddings within the space of a week, as two of our three daughters were married. It was a wonderful time, despite certain restrictions and a few guests from overseas and interstate unable to come. Our daughters took care of all of the preparations themselves and kept the ceremony and the reception simple. That made it super easy for me to be there and just enjoy the day.

They both chose to have gorgeous bouquets of mainly native Australian flowers, that turned out to be surprisingly heavy! The two in blue are twins.

They both married in one of our magnificent local parks in the afternoon and then had an early evening reception in a nearby hotel. They were each other’s bridesmaid along with our third daughter. The families of both husbands were unable to attend, as one is from the US and one from Kenya.

Our oldest daughter was the first to get married. These enormous trees are Moreton Bay Figs, their root system is as impressive as their height.

Joy and laughter, the essence of a wedding day.

I love romantic wedding poses!

A very good friend of our family who is a wedding photographer took these stunning photos.

So 2020 was not the best of years but it definitely ended on a high for our family!

The letter w is easy to pronounce with your mouth forming a circle. It’s not difficult to write either as it is basically two ‘v’s or four short diagonal strokes, joined together on the line in both the small and capital letter form. I love the French word for ‘w’ which is ‘double v’ (dooble vay) because it tells you exactly that, it is a double v!

Artists and acrobats aplenty!

I love art and everything creative, stimulating and visual. To me it includes music, dance, literature, drama, painting in all mediums, drawing, designing, graphics, sculpture, quilting and of course anything to do with writing…!

Art should be an integral part of every child’s education, particularly at primary and kindergarten level, but unfortunately, it is not. Where we are, no other schools have art as a subject and barely any form of drama or drawing classes. There are no creative writing classes and very little singing and dancing. All these creative skills are essential to a young child growing up and developing fine motor skills, hand and eye coordination and social and emotional skills. All of this development improves their brain functioning and sense of wellbeing.

Sport does not figure strongly either. Most schools start off the year with a couple of weeks athletic practice, followed by a whole school sports day and then that’s it, back to the academics. Fortunately most of the kids around our town are very active, as they usually walk to school and when they get home, there are always plenty of chores to do, including washing their own clothes, sweeping and doing dishes.

Most local schools have very inadequate playgrounds and their play area is just barren dirt. We have a metal slide, a few swings, a climbing frame, an area where they can play badminton and catch and space for them to hula hoop. They have sport once a week to learn how to cooperate in team games and during the year they practise for a cross country run (around the school grounds) and later for some sprint and relay races.

The tyre swing is an absolute favourite. It’s chain has broken a few times as they swing too high or with too many on board. Someone even landed on their head once, but they have tough heads!

Racing to be first through the gate in cross country practice.

The school grounds are small but varied with large rocks and steep narrow pathways for them to play around. As you can see, they are as agile as little gazelle and have very little fear of heights. Oh and we have no safety inspectors making the rounds to see if our play area is safe.

We learn a little bit about the elements of art, like line, shape and texture and I subscribe to a very helpful art program from the US, that delivers all kinds of different art themes at various levels monthly.

Collage is another great favourite and gives plenty of scissors practice.

We teach the kids something about Monet or Degas, Cezanne or Mondrian, Klee or Frida and then they paint, draw or colour their own unique pieces. We also look at art from different countries, modern art, the history of art

Fortunately an art teacher friend of one of my daughters, gifted the school a whole lot of acrylic paints, pastels and sketchbooks that should last for some time to come.

Even little ones can learn to paint in the style of Cezanne’s still life apples. I am always thrilled by their work which is usually displayed at school. I know that if it went home it would probably get torn or lost, so we only occasionally let them take a special piece home with them. When our ex-students come back to visit and spend time together once every six weeks or so, they mourn the fact that they can no longer do art.

The letter a is of course the first in the alphabet but I’ve left it till the penultimate…maybe because art has always been such an important part of my life and now I’m enjoying passing on that love to others. While flicking through some photos, I came across the sports shots and the word ‘acrobat’ became the perfect accompaniment!

The phonic sound is short, but the mouth needs to be wide while pronouncing, almost like a smile. It is a little confusing that the letter is also a word by itself, with an ‘er’ sound, that is neither long nor short Writing it doesn’t usually present problems as it is basically a half circle and a short stick on the line. The capital A is also quite distinctive with its two diagonal lines and a bar across.

On the colour yellow and yielding

I love the warmth and depth of the colour yellow, the soft pastel touch of its hue. It’s one of the primary colours and yet it’s so subtle. Of course it can be zingy and bright, vibrant and lively, but with the promise of spring, it’s just that soft elusive hint one looks for, budding up amidst the green shoots, as winter yields her grip.

I searched my mind for some other meaningful words starting with ‘y’ and felt that ‘yearning’ was just too strong a notion for me to tackle today and it doesn’t really tie in with yellow. But how about ‘yield’, yes, I think so, as one season yields to the next, some more reluctantly than others.

I have had a go at a couple of different poem formats about spring (bearing in mind, it’s not spring here, so these are from long ago memories with a bit of imagination thrown in) –

a Haiku

Snatches of iced snow

Yellows glimpsed in the melting

Daffodils are there.


Yesterday I watched as snow fell all day,
Yesterday dull grey clouds glowered overhead;
Yesterday my heart yearned for no more snow,
Today the clouds have lightened and lifted.

Yesterday dull grey clouds glowered overhead;
Today I feel the present hope of spring;
Today the clouds have lightened and lifted,
Today I can imagine the season is yielding.

Today I feel the present hope of spring,
I notice a spike or two of green beneath a tree;
Today I can imagine the season is yielding,
Today there is a hint of yellow daffodil.

I notice a spike or two of green beneath the tree
I spot a primrose cup unfurling
Today there is a hint of yellow daffodil
When will there be a whole parade

I spot a primrose cup unfurling
One more yellow trumpet turned to the sky
When will there be a whole parade?
If I walk along the path I may find spring.

One more yellow trumpet turned to the sky
Another shy bud is seeking the light
If I walk along the path I may find spring,
A few short days and winter will yield.

There could be a mistake in the pattern, but I think I got it right!

The letter ‘y’ has a strong sound that is easy to pronounce and it is similar to the ‘j’ or ‘g’ to write, starting with a ‘u’ shape on the line and the stick going down below the line and curving to the left as usual. Not a lot of 3 letter CVC words start with ‘y’, but everyone quickly learns to write ‘yes’. The capital letter is is usually written as two diagonals above the line and a short stick down to the line.

Nepal north of India

Nepal is a small landlocked country that borders on India. It is one of the poorest countries in the world. Most people probably associate it with the tallest mountain in the world, Mt. Everest. In fact it is home to eight of the world’s ten highest peaks in the Himalayas. It is very hard for Nepali people to make a living in their own country because of the economic situation, so many migrate south to India (Nepalis don’t need a passport to get into India) or to other overseas countries in the Middle East or south east Asia to earn money and then send funds back home to help family members.

The reason I am writing about Nepal is because of a man called Dr. Sanduk Ruit. I have just read his story in a biography by Ali Gripper, called The Barefoot Surgeon. He was born in Nepal into a low caste family way up in the mountains in the 1950s. His family was illiterate and very poor but his father realised the importance of education and sent his son off to boarding school in Darjeeling India. They walked across the Himalayas for eleven days to reach the school. Unfortunately three of Sanduk’s brothers and sisters died tragically during childhood.

His older sister’s preventable death from tuberculosis at the age of fifteen, when the family did not have enough money for medication, set him on the road to becoming a doctor. After leaving the boarding school, he was awarded a scholarship and went on to do medical training in Lucknow and then in Delhi. He decided to specialise in opthalmology when he realised how many Nepalis couldn’t work due to cataracts or some other vision defect, all of which were treatable. He eventually became a specialist in a small incision method of cataract surgery that would take minutes instead of hours at very little cost.

He started to set up clinics all over Nepal and his medical expeditions to remote villages sometimes meant he had to ford small rivers on horseback with his team and equipment. He works an opthalmological machine using his bare feet as he finds it more comfortable and has no formal airs and graces. Nepal has one of the world’s highest rates of cataracts which may be due to the altitude that many of the population live at.

Sanduk became friends with Fred Hollows, another world renowned cataract specialist from Australia and together they worked on a plan to introduce a quicker, easier and cheaper operation process into Nepal. Initially, they met with a lot of opposition from established specialists. Sanduk also built a world class hosital of Opthalmology in the capital Khatmandu. It now has such a good reputation that specialists come to train here from all over the world.

Dr. Ruit is definitely a workaholic and never stops from the moment he gets up until he goes to bed. He is always busy planning strategies, training new staff or doing operations. He has restored the sight of more than 130,000 patients worldwide and has even been invited to North Korea to operate there. He built his hospital to withstand earthquakes, so during Nepal’s recent devastating earthquake, he was able to provide other kinds of surgical relief as well as continue to operate on cataracts. He lives very simply with his wife and children and only recently moved into a larger house.

I am captured by his spirit of enthusiasm and energy and ability to give his all to the medical profession. This simple little operation is life changing to so many in Nepal who would otherwise be unable to earn a living when they become blind or abandoned by their families as they become just an extra mouth to feed. It proves yet again that the poorest of the poor can achieve so much, given the right support and with discipline and determination.

The letter ‘n’ is easy to sound with the tongue pressed against the upper teeth and quite easy to form as it is written entirely on the line. So many negative words start with ‘n’ that I guess it has that association, no, not, none, never, nobody, nothing, non-living and no one, to name a few.