Holidays Without Hallmark

Maybe it’s because I’m cynical, but I have never been a fan of Hallmark. I always thought it was cheesy, cliché, and above all, a marketing tactic to get people to spend unnecessarily. But before I go any further, I need to add a disclaimer; this post isn’t a Hallmark-bash. I’m not aiming to put down the company. I’m simply trying to convey an opinion – MY opinion – on the industry as a whole and the effect it has on our perception of the holidays. Let me explain.

February is Valentines Day. Yes, that’s right. The whole month is one holiday. Why? Because Hallmark (and various other companies) spend the first two weeks marketing their products. Come buy these chocolates, come pick up your cards. You need more TEDDY BEARS!! Beginning on February 1st, we’re bombarded with commercials and images reminding us that Valentines Day is around the corner, and if you don’t get these things for your loved ones, then you obviously don’t love them. After Valentines Day, all the stores need to get rid of their stock, so they drop prices while the commercials alter their message to say, don’t worry if you forgot, there’s still time to remedy your mistake.

The consequence of this marketing scheme is that the original meaning of the holiday becomes lost. Valentines Day has become something that most people dread. If you’re in a relationship, you may feel forced to spend exorbitant amounts of money for your significant other. If you’re single, you’ve never felt so alone. Very few people know the history of Valentines Day, or even who Saint Valentine was. All we know is what Hallmark tells us, and they’ve completely hijacked the holiday.

Very cool VDay facts on a very cool website.

Living in [rural] Jamaica has offered a reprieve from the demands Hallmark. It’s also allowed me a chance to see what a holiday is like without it. I have no TV, so I see no commercials. My parish is a very rural one, so I see few billboards. I do listen to the radio, but I don’t recall hearing too many advertisements for Valentines Day. The point I’m trying to convey – perhaps very poorly – is that without being hijacked by Hallmark, the holidays mean something a little different.

Take Christmas for example. In America, people adorn their homes with lights and lawn ornaments. The malls hire a Santa Claus to make a little extra cash, and every single store is having some sort of Christmas sale. While the holiday is still celebrated in the company of loved ones, it’s become more about the giving of gifts than about the birth of Christ. But in [rural] Jamaica, there are no lights, no trees, and no stockings. Some stores decorate, and some stores have sales, but for the most part, there aren’t too many seasonal changes. And, while I’m sure it’s a little more about the weather than the decorations, many PCVs have lamented that it doesn’t feel like Christmas without these things.

Easter is another big one. In America, we dye eggs and hide them. We give out chocolate bunnies. But in Jamaica – a more religious country, void of colored eggs and bunnies – the holiday retains its original, holy meaning. In fact, between Good Friday and Easter Monday, the whole island pretty much shuts down and goes to church.

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When it comes to the more secular holidays, like Valentines/Mother’s/Father’s Day, the Hallmark industry has some influence, but not much. Jamaicans do buy little trinkets to give out on Valentines Day, but no one is going to break the bank for it. Mother’s/Father’s Day is more about respect and recognition. And while you may argue that we respect and recognize our parents in America, I’ll argue that no one in Jamaica is running out to Kay or Jared’s to buy a diamond necklace.

All right, so maybe my position is more against consumerism than Hallmark, but Hallmark wouldn’t be able to survive outside of a consumerist economy. In a developing country like Jamaica, people don’t have the luxury of spending lavishly on these types of things. And without the demand for a “Hallmark Market,” the original intent of these holidays is not lost.

Personally, I enjoy it much more this way. It’s a relief not to be force-fed a notion driven by Big Corporation’s monetary gain. We live a world where money is meaningless (or at least it should be) and people are what matter. The spirit of a holiday, regardless of its origins, is to be with the ones you care about. When a company like Hallmark pushes a product and makes you feel guilty for not buying it, it casts a shadow over the entire holiday. A man may love his woman fiercely, and still feel as though he let her down on Valentines Day because he didn’t get her the good chocolate, or because he only brought her a dozen roses, instead of two. And why does the woman want these things to begin with? Because Hallmark told her she did. Giving to someone – whether it be a lover on Valentines Day, a parent on Mother’s/Father’s Day, or a child, adult, friend, colleague on Christmas – should come from the heart. We give (and celebrate) because we want to, not because a company told us to.

And on the topic of giving without spending for the sake of a holiday, let me take this moment to give a little something of my own. To my parents, with their respective holidays fast approaching, I give my gratitude. After all, I wouldn’t be who I am, or where I am without them.

Lastly, I challenge you – the reader – to think of a way in which you can honor and celebrate the upcoming Mother’s/Father’s Day without giving into Hallmark’s schemes. Did we all forget how easy it is to serve your mom breakfast in bed? Or do the dishes? Or, for once, complete your chores without her reminding you? For your dad, nothing could be simpler than putting a cold beer in one hand and the television remote in the other. Or perhaps a game of catch in the backyard? Take him fishing, if you’re able. No matter what you choose to do, just remember that is possible to keep within the tradition of a holiday without buying into the values of a multi-million dollar conglomerate. After all, your time, energy and love will always be worth more than the ever-fluctuating dollar.

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Miss Teacha

Growing up, my sister and I were like most children; we played pretend. Among our favorite scenarios were house, treasure island, and The Three Musketeers (inspired by our love for Leonardo DiCaprio after seeing Man In The Iron Mask and Titanic). The only game we wouldn’t agree on, however, was school. I’d make Devon be the student, using stuffed animals for classmates, and have her ask questions and complete assignments. Of course, my only living student did not share my enthusiasm, and the game always ended abruptly.

Years would pass, and as I began collecting a variety of experience working with kids, my mom made an unwavering prediction. “April,” she’d persistently prophesize, “you’re going to be a teacher when you grow up.” Every time I heard this, I would reply with the same answer; “No, I won’t.”

But what’s that old saying, again? How does it go?

Oh yes: Mother is always right.

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While the Peace Corps has provided me with a large number of firsts, this is not the first time I’m playing the role of teacher, and if I’m to be perfectly honest, I had my “ah ha” moment a long time ago. I’ve worked as a camp counselor, a horseback riding instructor, a gymnastics coach, a religious school youth group leader, and a substitute teacher.

But even in all my prior experience, there’s still so much about this role that is new to me. For example, instead of following lessons left behind by another teacher, I am writing the lessons. I am no longer a faceless substitute, swooping in for a day or two at a time and having to relearn all the student’s names. Nay, I am the full-time teacher, and I get to spend an entire year with them.

Now that I’m a teacher, I catch myself repeating lines I heard from my own school days. Things like, “I’ll wait until it’s quiet,” or, “Sound it out.” I feel a sense of divine power when I give out stars for good behavior at the end of class time. And certain mysteries, like, how did she know which student wrote the test answers on the desk?, have suddenly become clear. (Just match up the handwriting; it’s so obvious I don’t know why I never thought of it before!)

As rewarding as being a teacher is, it’s also a lot of hard work. I write all my own lessons, make up activity pages, and have to grade homework and spelling tests. Consider the amount of prep work I put in for one class, and multiply it by the five different levels I’m working with. Some weeks I don’t sleep.

Classroom management is also a challenge, particularly in a culture where corporal punishment is still widely practiced. Though I’ve implemented a behavior system with rewards and consequences, it’s sometimes still difficult to maintain control without at least brandishing a ruler at them. This is one part of my job that will not miss when I leave Jamaica. I would never hit a student.

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But the pros far outweigh the cons, and for someone who was reluctant about being a classroom teacher up until the very moment she became one, I’m having a pretty good time. I’ve laughed at my student’s jokes, and cried with them during times of hardships. I cheered for them when they ran the Jamaica Day Marathon and shared in their pride when they passed the Grade Four Literacy Exam after three tries.

I’ve gotten to know my students, both academically and personally. I know what they are capable of, and know where they are challenged. I can tell you that the troublemakers are the sweetest ones at heart, and I always know when someone gets some extra help on their homework.

I think the most beautiful thing about being a teacher is watching your students grow. Overnight, they’ve become taller. I look at my sixth grade boys and I suddenly see young men. My third grade girls now move with the grace of young ladies, rather than the clumsiness that comes with being a child. I’ve witnessed improvement in their self-esteem, and of course, their reading ability.

We only have a few weeks left of school. As I begin wrapping up the year and thinking about the next one, I also find that I keep asking myself one question: is this the career for me?

Mom predicted I’d be a teacher, and she wasn’t exactly wrong. Whether I’m in the classroom, in the middle of a riding arena, or on the gymnastics floor, I’ve been teaching. Every job I’ve had has included the transfer of skills from instructor to pupil. Now that I think about it, I can’t imagine having a job in which I am not working with kids.

Children are so impressionable! They see the world through a different light, and if we listen carefully, there is so much that they can teach us. Children are creative; they believe in miracles and magic, and they don’t know the meaning of hate or prejudice. Most importantly, there is nothing more incredible than witnessing that moment when a child finally learns something new. Their face lights up. Their eyes grow wide. The smile overcomes their face and you can literally see the joy and excitement pour out of them.

And there is nothing more rewarding than that.

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Newfound Adoration

Screen shot 2013-11-16 at 4.08.53 PMLet’s face facts.

Geographically speaking, I didn’t go anywhere. At 180 miles away from my hometown, I am closer to my family now than I was when I went to college. I’m in the same time zone, with the same flora and fauna, and the same tropical climate. Even the color of the water is the same – that crystal blue that’s so clear you can see straight down to the bottom…

With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that while my fellow volunteers are fawning over sandy beaches and discovering the joys of year-round tank tops, I’m sitting over here, nodding my head and saying, “Been there. Done that.”

It should also be a no-brainer that when asked where in Jamaica I’d rather live, I replied with, “The mountains.”

So the Placement Gods got it right this time, and stuck a city slickin’ beach bum in a rural community, deep in the heart of the Blue Mountains. At 2,000 feet elevation, with the clouds on a gloomy day settling in around me, I am as far from my norm as I could possibly be. More to my delight, while other volunteers were growing accustomed to a winter without snow, I was gifted with a brief reprieve from 80-90 degree weather.

I remember the first time I drove to Cedar Valley. I was about halfway up the mountain when I realized the air outside the vehicle had changed. It was thinner, and even in May, had a slight nip to it. Later that evening, I curiously stepped outside to feel the temperature. The night was brisk, and instantly, goosebumps rose on my flesh. I knew, in that instant, that I would experience a winter.

But allow me to digress a moment, and bring you back to my college years, when I attended a university in New York. I’d never experienced a winter before, and after four years of “seasons,” I was very much through with that nonsense. I yearned for my sunny home state and the ability to only require a sweater when seeing a movie.

So why, for crying out loud, did the idea of winter in Cedar Valley excite me so much??
Answer: It was the summer without A/C that did it for me.

I couldn’t wait for the excuse to wear long-sleeve shirts and sleep under a thick comforter. Or to snuggle up in a big sweater and baggy sweatpants with a mug of hot cocoa. At school, the wind blew through the valley and into my concrete classroom, where I shivered and some days felt my helpless fingers grow numb.

“Numb? What? Come on, now. It’s not like it was snowing or anything.”

No, but spend your life in the land of eternal sunshine and even sixty degrees feels like Antarctica.

And I loved it!! I was reminded again of how good it feels to sit in the sunshine and bask in its warmth, rather than spend day after day trying to escape it. I enjoyed walking to school in the morning, and not arriving a hot sweaty mess. I could actually wear my hair down. And the view from my rose-tinted window (aka: facebook) allowed me a chance to be thankful I was in Jamaica, and not in New York.

But the joy was short lived. Eight weeks later, and it’s summer again. Away goes my comforter. No more sweaters or baggy sweatpants; instead I just get sweat. My hair has returned to its permanent ponytail state. Before I know it, it will be that time of the year when your only option is to camp out in front of your fan.

On the plus side, I’ll welcome the cold showers again.

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