The Path of Christine McDowell and John Tecklenburg from Villanova to Sturgis (Summer 2015)

Christine, John, and Olive in Nantucket

Christine, John, and Olive in Nantucket

Faculty Profiles provide an opportunity to learn more about the lives and previous work experiences of Sturgis faculty.

By Christine McDowell and John Tecklenburg

As Christine teaches Theory of Knowledge (TOK) and John teaches Environmental Science, we are constantly seeking ways to encourage the students we teach to take a look at their own perspective and challenge it.  There’s no better way to do this than to travel.  Traveling doesn’t mean leaving the country.  Traveling means exploring unfamiliar territory, whether that means taking walks along the National Seashore or visiting Georgia (the country or the state!).

Our travels started in college at Villanova University outside Philadelphia, PA.  Villanova was relatively far from our hometowns as John grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan and Christine grew up in Granby, Massachusetts.  Obsessed with food, Christine hosted weekly BBQs at her house the summer before senior year in college and, also obsessed with food, John attended those BBQs.  A cross-country bicycle trip took Christine across the country the following summer, and the following fall brought Christine her first teaching experience.  Working at a middle school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn was challenging in a number of ways, and Christine finds it difficult (and embarrassing) to reflect on those early teaching days.  Wanting to teach English, but being asked to teach math and science, Christine would frantically study the content the night before she taught the lesson.  Christine would have never guessed that the student who threw a stapler at her in the beginning of the year would end up copying (by hand!) a three page recipe for red velvet cake to give to her.  New York City was home for a while, but the temptation to go abroad was pretty strong, and after two years Christine and John set off on a bicycle trip in Europe.

Biking in Ireland

Biking in Ireland

The intention was to explore Europe by bicycle for a while before securing teaching jobs in Eastern Europe.  (Eastern Europe didn’t quite work out as planned and instead we headed to South Korea, but more on that later.)  Starting in Dublin, we didn’t make it far on our bicycles before Christine left her wallet in a hostel and we took a bus back to the town in which the wallet was left.  Our trip seemed further doomed when we spent our second night in the home of an Irishman with two black eyes who spent the entire night playing the spoons.  Our only comfort came in the baseball bat that he had left conveniently next to our bed for protection.  We were camping, and carrying all of our belongings on our bikes.  Camping meant sleeping in fields of black midgies, or bike shops, or the yards of people we had just met (looking back, that was probably not the safest idea).  We made our way through Ireland before taking a ferry to Scotland and traveling up Scotland’s majestic west coast.  We were told that we were experiencing one of the greatest stretches of weather in the history of the UK when we saw two straight weeks of sunshine, but finally the Isles revealed their true character with two weeks of rain.  Our travels eventually led on to the European mainland where we ate french fries for breakfast, lunch, and dinner in Brugge, Belgium and enjoyed the beauty of the European countryside from our bikes.

John and Christine combining two of the things they like to do most: eating and hiking

John and Christine combining two of the things they like to do most: eating and hiking

South Korea was a popular place to go for young teachers.  Jobs paid fairly well since the U.S. dollar was worth a lot of Korean Won in 2006.  We were provided with our own apartment that was heated via hot water pipes below the floor as South Koreans sit on the floor to eat and socialize.  Our electricity bill was $14 per month, there was an awesome octopus restaurant right at the corner, and the best street snacks (rice cakes, sushi, fish cakes) were in our neighborhood.  South Korea is a very small country, and it was very easy to take buses to surrounding mountains for the weekend.  We became avid hikers there, and every chance we got we traveled to a different mountain.  It was a place where we carried a pig head to the top of a mountain, received beetle larva as a gift from a student, and were welcomed into mountainside monasteries to meditate.

Christine and John with students in Cheongju, South Korea

Christine and John with students in Cheongju, South Korea

We worked really hard during the week, usually from 9 AM to 7:30 PM.  Our school, or hagwon as they’re called, operated as a kindergarten in the morning and an afterschool program in the afternoons and evenings.  Many South Korean children go to school from the early morning to late evening (sometimes 11 PM!) as they attend different hagwons (maybe piano, math, English, etc) after regular school hours.  It was our first experience with young kids (we both had a class of 3 year olds) and our last experience with young kids until our daughter was born.  Each student was given an English name at the hagwon, and we were asked to help name the students.  Christine named one student Mabel after her great-grandmother.  We thought it was strange that the classrooms didn’t have windows, but then realized it wasn’t that abnormal when we visited Sturgis East a few years later.  Video cameras in our classrooms made it possible for parents to log on to observe our classes at any point during the day, but even that didn’t seem strange by the end of the year.  However, the preferred method of dealing with sickness (a shot in the bum, an IV for 45 minutes, and a pack of pills) is one thing neither of us miss about South Korea.

Christine and John in a Tibetan area

Christine and John in a Tibetan area

Our school’s director told us she would buy us a plane ticket to either home in the U.S.A. or to anywhere in the world.  We decided to go to Nepal to do more hiking in the mountains.  After flying into Kathmandu, we met our sherpa.  Pema, named after the day of the week he was born (Thursday), was under 5 feet tall but had the strength of a yak.  He later proved this strength as we watched him be run out of town in the middle of the night after a fist fight with a local in the Annapurna Region.  We didn’t see him until three days later.  Pema walked with us to Everest Base Camp, which took us almost two weeks to get to.  We were awestruck by the 8000m (25,000 ft) mountains that surrounded us.  We drank Nepalese milk tea by the gallon and ate two meals of dahl (lentils) and rice a day.  We experienced the clean mountain high of the Himalayas and the nausea and headaches of altitude sickness.  It was common to go to bed at 6 PM when the sun went down and the temperatures started to dip.  At night if you could wrestle yourself from the sleeping bag to go outdoors you would see massive glaciated peaks illuminated by the moonlight.  The Himalayas were a place of unbelievable beauty.

Our wedding invitation, painted by John

Our wedding invitation, painted by John

Returning from Nepal, we applied to the Peace Corps, which has a very lengthy application process.  We had a lot to do, including getting our wisdom teeth removed in order to get medical clearance and getting married in order to be placed together at the same site.  Our ten day engagement seemed hasty to our families as Christine has been known to spend longer ordering a meal.  But we had a small, simple, and beautiful wedding.  Our family still likes to point out in photos from that day that John was not wearing shoes during the ceremony.  Although we were all set to go to a Spanish speaking country in January 2009, at the last minute we were told we were leaving in June for China.  In the meantime, John worked at a school in Springfield, Massachusetts and Christine worked at Red Fire Farm, an organic farm in Granby, Mass.  We would soon go from living in beautiful, blue skied farm territory to living in a polluted Chinese city.

Starting our Peace Corps service in Chengdu, China, we lived with a Chinese family for a few months during the training period.  On our first weekend in Chengdu, our family wanted to bring us to a movie thinking it would help us adjust.  We saw a 10 AM (yes, AM) showing of Transformers dubbed in the local dialect with Mandarin Chinese subtitles.  The following weekend we went to a traditional Chinese tea house at 9 AM and stayed there drinking tea until almost 8 PM.  Patience was a trait we knew we needed to develop, as there were so many things about the culture we realized we didn’t understand, and may never really figure out despite how hard we tried.

John and Christine meeting some locals on a hiking trip in Yunnan, China

John and Christine meeting some locals on a hiking trip in Yunnan, China

It turned out our site was in Chongqing, which used to be part of Sichuan Province.  We were headed to a small city (yes, considered small!) of 1.5 million people.  We were going to one of the three furnace cities in China where people didn’t leave their house during the summer.  It was also known for its good food and spicy hot pot, and as the main relocation city for families displaced by the Three Gorges Dam built a few years prior.  Our town was famous for pig intestine noodles and barbecued whole fish.  Tofu skin was one of our favorite foods, and cow’s stomach and congealed blood were so often served that we eventually began ordering them ourselves.  We thought we were going to China as vegetarians but we soon found out that the concept of vegetarianism didn’t really exist where we lived.  Cheese and butter were just about impossible to find and not worth buying, due to the high cost and poor quality.  We earned slightly over $100 per month, which was plenty as going out to dinner cost us less than $1 each.  Despite witnessing extreme poverty, we also witnessed extreme wealth.  We were often the celebrated guest as we were the only foreigners some people had ever met.  We were treated to dinners where plates would cost over $100 each.  We had students who grew up in caves in Shaanxi Province and those who were the sons of high ranking Communist party officials.  We made incredible friends in China.  We have yet to experience such generosity and compassion as we did in China.  Our closest friends included a local artist and restaurant owner who both painted leaves and ballroom danced and a friend who was lovingly monikered Fei Fei, the Chinese term for gorilla, for which he was said to resemble.

John and Christine with some of their students at Chongqing Three Gorges University in Wanzhou, Chongqing, China

John and Christine with some of their students at Chongqing Three Gorges University in Wanzhou, Chongqing, China

We lived on the college campus in which we worked, like all of the other native Chinese teachers.  The morning wake up bell heard through the campus loudspeakers made sure to wake the entire campus up at 6:30 AM.  The high school next door had 6,000 students (most of whom lived on campus as that is the norm), which is more people than in Christine’s hometown of Granby.  We will never forget the day that John walked into his Environmental Science class expecting 25 students (as that’s what he had been told) and finding out that in fact he had 125 students in class. His lesson plan, prepared for small group work, had to become a last minute 2.5 hour lecture.  We worked a lot, took Chinese classes at the university, and spent a lot of time with our students.  Our students would come to our apartment often as that was the norm and ask to cook and bake items that aren’t common in China.  We got a kick out of the English names some of our students choose.  We suggested to Whiskey, Brandy, Vino, Kobe Bryant, Lance Armstrong, Empty, Cup, Kiwi, Seven, and Watermelon that they change to more traditional names but we were unable to convince them.

While in China, we did things we wouldn’t normally do.  We performed the “Macarena” in front of thousands of university students during our university’s Halloween celebration.  We sang “Auld Lang Syne” in the school’s Winter Concert.  In the Twas the Night Before Christmas performance, John dressed up as Mr. Claus and Christine dressed up in Christmas pajamas as one of the children in the story.  We were forced to do all these things, really, since the word “no” doesn’t really exist in the Chinese language.  Plus, everyone in the entire city knew where we lived, so it wasn’t possible to hide from the ones begging us to participate in these events.

We were part of the team that developed Peace Corps China’s first Eco Camp for Chinese students. The camp was held at a panda research center in Sichuan, China. There are now multiple camps each year.

We were part of the team that developed Peace Corps China’s first Eco Camp for Chinese students. The camp was held at a panda research center in Sichuan, China. There are now multiple camps each year.

After our Peace Corps service ended, Christine was hired to train the incoming Peace Corps volunteers.  John decided to head back to Nepal and India to do a bit of hiking while Christine stayed in the sweltering Chinese heat and ate hot pot all summer.  We reconvened in New York so Christine could attend graduate school at Teachers College, Columbia University.  During this time, we went to Sturgis East to talk to Christine’s uncle’s English class about our experience in the Peace Corps, and the next thing you know we’re sitting in Mr. Hieser’s office talking about the possibility of working at Sturgis.  John got a job at Sturgis East first, and Christine joined him the following year at Sturgis West after completing her graduate work.  Moving to Cape Cod hadn’t really been in our five year plan, but we are not very good with five year plans anyway.  Like many teachers who work internationally, sometimes you never know where you’ll end up next.

Olive likes being outside as much as we do

Olive likes being outside as much as we do

This summer we are setting off on another adventure.  Together, with Olive, we are headed to San Francisco to begin a one month journey through Oregon and Idaho to Seattle.  We are crossing our fingers that Olive likes to travel as much as we do.

In our free time, we like to eat, cook, garden, walk, hike, go shellfishing, make art, read, practice yoga, and hang out with Olive, our 1 year old.

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