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  • Carly likes to say the bravest thing her parents ever did was drive to Boston.

    It always makes me smile.

    It is a long way from Maine School Administrative District #34 serving the towns of Belfast, Northport, Searsmont and Morrill to the high veldt city of Johannesburg in the republic of South Africa. Whether you measure it in miles, time zones, cultures, or history it is a long way. We didn’t set out to end up in South Africa but afterwards the signs emerged, the way they sometimes do in hindsight’s light.

    When we moved to Belfast, Maine we swore we would be barnacles and need to be pried loose. We'd moved around after leaving the island. Philadelphia, Vermont, then bounced back to Maine. I had worked on a survey crew, been a caretaker on an estate, a one-on-one aide for an emotionally disturbed boy, and then bounced back to commercial fishing. Moving to Belfast was supposed to end the rambling times. For a while it worked.

    I went back to school, got a college degree, got certified as a learning disabilities specialist. Claire taught grade 1 in town and I was a resource teacher in a couple of the small schools out in the country towns.

    In the early 90s we bought a little house a few streets up from Belfast Harbor and settled in.

    The District’s new technology specialist arrived fresh from schools in Japan and Mexico. He was a totally tech kind of guy and he was brought in to bring us up to speed.

    Ben, he stopped me one day in the hall. It was late afternoon. Dark. The school was empty. The other school, he said.

    I nodded.

    I’m not an empathy guy, he mused.

    I nodded again.

    That place makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand straight up. I tell you if I had an emoto-meter rigged up for negativity it would go off the charts.

    I laughed, but, well, small is intimate, small is family and connections. But small is also having the grandchildren of your first students, if you stay long enough. Small means everyone knows everything about everyone. Small is being an outsider even after 20 years. A revealing saying in Maine is: If the cat had kittens in the oven you wouldn’t call them biscuits. There is small and then there is small.

    When the District made him promises it couldn’t keep regarding budgets and administrative priorities, Jim packed up and left.

    I got a job in Japan again, he said.

    Claire was curious and Jim shared a heap of papers from recruiting agencies who stocked international schools with teachers.

    A whole new world opened up. The internet was new and with a connection that sounded like a dying cappuccino maker, indeed you could get up and get a cup of coffee and let it cool by the time a page loaded, we were soon writing to schools from Chile to Romania.

    Carly was finishing grade 8. We were ready to take a sideways step again. Time to step in a whole new direction. Time to open up to a whole new world.

    The culminating event in the international school recruiting season is a series of job fairs around the world. We made professional pamphlets, toned our resumes, created beautiful portfolios and drove to the fair in Boston.

    In the Westin Hotel in central Boston 800 applicants and several hundred school directors and headmasters gathered to fill positions and dreams. The job fair is a four-day marathon of interviews, presentations, job offers, and decisions.

    In many cases applicants have only a brief time to consider and to decide when a job is on the table.

    Schools left notes in applicant’s mail boxes like some high stakes Valentine card game. Our mailbox was full of offers to interview from special education academies in Kuwait and Qatar. We declined. We came down expecting to capitalize on a long conversation with the school in Bucharest. We were so confident we had studied Romanian history, culture and vacation opportunities.

    Trouble is we blew the interview. Never even took the portfolios out.

    On day two there was an invitation from the school in Johannesburg.

    Africa hadn't even been on our radar.


    I remembered reading the Power of One and Cry the Beloved Country.

    I remembered reading Michener's The Covenant.

    I remembered a roommate in college back in ’76 singing, What’s the word? Johannesburg.

    We’ll see, we told Carly.

    In a 34th floor suite overlooking Boston, the director showed us pictures of the Cape Peninsula, the ranks of aloes in bloom, the extravagantly stark beauty of the Cape Floral Kingdom. I could have sworn he said we’d fly business class. It sounded like I was going to be starting up a whole new resource and learning disability program. It sounded like the children were angels, the parents relaxed and positive, the funds plentiful, and the vacation opportunities out of this world.

    He stood up and hitched up his pants. I can give you two hours, he said.

    We walked to the elevator.

    Claire looked at me. I looked at Claire.

    We stopped the doors before they closed, walked back and knocked.

    Yes, we said
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