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(Coffee) Shop Talk

Welcome to the shop where I talk about things that go well with coffee, which is almost everything.

Here is another reason to hate Ayn Rand:

If you are the sensitive type with a naturally overdeveloped superego (Freud’s term for the part of your mind that wants you to do good, unselfish things), and then you read Ayn Rand, you may become completely appalled with selfishness and come away with a grim determination to “be good” and do lots of things that are helpful to other people at the expense of yourself.

If you have even the slightest, most hidden sense of self preservation, you will quickly get burnt out on this lifestyle and may then become rather cynical and slightly bitter. You may also end up very poor and/or in debt and needing help from other people, which makes the whole situation feel that much more pointless.

That whole process will delay another, extremely important life process: that of finding the golden balance between what makes you happy and what helps other people.

I like to think I have now found this balance to some degree.

I am the sort of person who naturally likes to help people and feel useful. Probably most people who know me do not automatically thing of me as “helpful” or “useful,” because I also tend to be absent-minded and occasionally make rather silly decisions. However, after I graduated from college, I set out to try and be those things via a very low-paying job in a high-cost city. This turned out not to be the best decision I’ve ever made. I don’t regret it; I had a lot of great, unique experiences along the way, and I did in fact help some people. I did get a little burnt out on the “unselfish” lifestyle and also realized that most of the people around me were doing what they were doing because they liked it and because it was not only helpful to others but also financially viable.

Later, I got my CELTA (Certificate of English Language Teaching to Adults) with the idea of finding short-term work in New York, then teaching part time while I worked on a masters degree. I did find short-term work, but nothing after that. I got into a graduate program but couldn’t afford the acceptance deposit. “Teach in Exotic Korea/Sunny Saudi Arabia/Tropical Thailand!!!!” ads kept popping up on my job searches. Finally I capitulated and decided to take the plunge and teach abroad.

Now I’m in Egypt, teaching kindergarten at a private school. Not exactly what I had in mind when I certified to teach adults. It’s not too hard, and it’s certainly not boring–“not boring” being one of my primary job requirements. It also lets me see the pyramids, Alexandria, the Nile, and unlimited amounts of minarets at my leisure. A couple of weeks ago I felt happy with my situation (aside from very much missing my boyfriend and cats), but I also felt like something was missing.

I found out about a place called St. Andrews Refugee Services through some friends and emailed them to see about volunteer teaching. As it happened, they were in immediate need of someone to teach a TOEFL preparation class. (TOEFL is a very, very hard English proficiency test required of non-native speakers by virtually all U.S. colleges and a lot of jobs. Imagine taking the GRE in Arabic.)

Now the person who gave up on What Is The What halfway through because it was too depressing is trying to teach a group of largely Sudanese refugees how to speak perfect English. Finally, I’m helping people AND I’m very happy. Teaching students who are so intent on learning is incredibly rewarding (as pretty much any teacher will tell you). Also, my students regularly ask me things like “what does ‘depiction’ mean?” I think I may have been waiting my whole life for a captive audience to let me explain exciting words and essay structures to them (kindergardeners are cute but their questions are more along the lines of “is it snack time yet?”). As a very big added bonus, learning these things is very important to their lives. Being a refugee in Cairo is better than still being wherever you came from, but it’s not great. Getting to somewhere better generally requires very strong English skills.

If Ms. Rand were alive today and willing to talk to me, I would suggest that she spend less time smoking very long cigarettes and more time appreciating all the ways that a person can help other people AND themselves at the same time.

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