Gutsy Sonia Marsh Guest Blog

I always wanted to belong to a writer’s group, yet never felt I had enough talent to write nor stayed in place long enough to join. But when I moved abroad, Internet made everything possible; I have discovered hundreds of people out there driven to make a difference by sharing their journey and inspiring others through words. Serendipity of cyberspace.
From my blogging buddy, Kathy Pooler in Virginia, I met Sonia Marsh on the Californian coast. Sonia Marsh is known as a gutsy lady who can pack her carry-on and move to another country in a day
I am honored to have the opportunity to present Sonia Marsh in a Meet and Greet! And while you are still in the voting mode, please hop over to Gutsy Living and vote for my story.

As a teacher, mom and ex-pat, I know the perils of living outside one’s passport country and the challenges of parenting, I marvel at your guts. Before you recount your year in Belize, could you give readers a brief background of your nomadic childhood?

My first adventure started at the age of three months, when my Danish mom and English dad decided to raise me in Nigeria, a country in West Africa. There I grew up with a Great Dane to protect me from the occasional thief who broke into our family’s colonial house outside Lagos.

When I was six, we moved to Paris, and three years later, my parents sent me alone on a plane from Paris to Los Angeles to visit my cousins. I knew from that day on that I would live in California one day. After boarding school and University in the U.K., followed by internships and jobs in Glasgow, Brussels, Strasbourg and Paris, I wanted to see life in the U.S.

In 1983, I moved from Paris to California. I was twenty-five and knew I wanted to marry an American. At age 13, I was fascinated by NASA astronauts, and fell in love with their rich, deep voices. I knew I would marry an American man with an astronaut voice. I met my husband, Duke, in a “gutsy” way: I responded to an ad in a magazine. I fell in love with his voice first.

I’ve lived in Orange County, California since 1983, except for the year we uprooted our family and took our three sons to Belize, Central America.

Making any move with children is challenging, especially in the teenage years, what compelled you to do this?

Many things, all building up to a point where my husband and I couldn’t wait to leave Orange County’s

comforts and move to a hut on stilts in Belize. My husband was overworked and fed up with Los Angeles’ gridlocked freeways. He longed for adventure. I was fed up with our oldest son’s teenage defiance, peer pressures facing him, and the entitlement attitude of kids in our neighborhood. And lastly, I was selfish and wanted my own Caribbean paradise.

Did your boys continue academic programs during their time in Belize?

Our initial plan was to send our three sons to the local school in Corozal, northern Belize. All the guidebooks mentioned how good the schools were in Corozal, however, when we purchased the high school English language book, here’s what happened. (Excerpt from my memoir.)Read more

Basketball Lessons Transfer to Medical Career

When my daughter was born in Paris on a cool October day nearly three decades ago, I prayed for the strength to help make her resilient. No easy task as I was still enduring chronic pain from a car accident and I would be raising her in France in a cross-cultural marriage. As she grew, I dreamed of watching her run, jump and play. Like my dad once taught me, I showed her how to shoot baskets in the driveway and before long I was following her to games in the French and then later Swiss club leagues.

playing ball in apartment in Paris

playing ball in apartment in Paris

When Nat entered the international school, I coached her and her friends. Every time she came out of a game pouting about an elbow to the face or knee in the back I encouraged her to brush it off and get back in the action.

Was I pushing her too hard or not enough?

When I had her play one-on-one against a boy and he accidentally broke her ankle, I could’ve kicked myself. I always pressed the limits. Nat played with exercised induced asthma, so I subbed her out of games, insisting, “Breath, Nat, breath. But tell me as soon as you can go back in.”

In all fairness, what coach likes their 6’2” center to sit out? After all, I had been raised by get-up-and-walk-it-off father and grandfather coaches.

I never knew if what I said made sense to a girl growing up in Europe where the emphasis is less about winning and more about participating. What good were my lessons?

However after shining in the Swiss basketball league, as a freshman Nathalie moved to the States and as a college freshman played in the DIII Final Four tournament for University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point under Shirley Egner, who became the most decorated coach in the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WIAC).

mom & daughter share triumph & defeat

mom & daughter share triumph & defeat

The final game of Nat’s career ended in an upset. The athlete in her collapsed, but her fighting spirit will remain in the gym, another brick in the wall, forming the foundation of UWSP Pointer’s tradition. That athlete kicked the bleachers and cried in the shower, but the scholar in her rose early the next morning to ace the biochemistry exam.

I who once majored in “basketball,” floundered, searching for a career. So driven by my obsession with the game, I was lost when I could no longer play. My daughter knew instinctively that brains would outlast the body. Four days, after the disappointing end to her basketball career, Nat nailed her interview gaining admittance to the University of Minnesota Medical School.

But I will always remember that night when we stumbled off the purple and gold court at UWSP. I slipped my right arm around her waist as she draped her left arm over my shoulders. She leaned on me for support and I clung to her waist for balance; where my strength ended, her courage began. I drew on her calm, logical ability to see the big picture; she relied on my humor and spunk to make it through the moment. I marveled at her ability to memorize the chemical compositions of molecules, she admired my tenacity to keep fighting each day faced with debilitating pain. We are tougher, more resilient, and more compassionate because of each other.

When I was a child, women had no more chance of playing pro basketball than being CEOs, neurosurgeons or college professors. Yet during her college career, Nat guarded the superstar of Milwaukee School of Engineering, a woman whose job at NASA awaited her graduation. Nathalie became the first international player in the WIAC to receive the Scholar Athlete Award (2006-2007). She juggled the demands of academics, college basketball, and dual nationality, crossing between cultures. And in 2011 she took the Hippocratic Oath at University of Minnesota Medical School to become the first doctor in the family.

Today Dr. Lechault uses that same tenacity she learned on the basketball court to work incredibly long hours teaching adolescents good health habits, answering a pager in the middle of the night, calming distraught parents, and making tough, split second decisions in her work as a pediatrician. Happy Birthday, Nat, and hey, thanks for listening!

Med school grad

Med school grad

Stop Trash Talking Teachers

“If you can’t get a job, become a teacher. If you can’t teach, teach PE.”

A student told me a joke that he heard from his dad. Teachers get a bad rap.

Too many people see teaching as the fall back venue when more profitable career choices fail. No one ever enters the field for the pay, yet critics argue that overpaid teachers have too many vacation days.

Though poor teaching exists, do not dis teachers in front of me. My grandparents, parents, sisters, sister-in-laws, and many high school and college classmates dedicated their lives to educating youth.

Teachers give back to society with no string attached. My grandparents offered free room and board to athletes unable to afford college tuition, my parents provided meals before and after games, rides to and from extracurricular activities; and every summer, my sisters and I exchange professional development strategies.

teaching in the streets of Obernai (Alsace, France)

teaching in the streets of Obernai (Alsace, France)

Every teacher I know has lain awake at 4 am, wondering how to inspire students to calculate faster, write more accurately and read more comprehensively.

Each year, I learn how to teach another concept, in a new way, with the latest, greatest tech aid. All of which are programmed to DELETE personal contact at a time when society is moving so fast, few have time to attend to the real needs of the next generation of kids. Then once we alter everything, some guru of education develops a new groundbreaking theory that looks exactly like the model we used a decade ago.  In the end, like my mom knows, “everything I need to know, I really learned in kindergarten.”

Teachers may be our last link to kids, who are becoming increasingly more in sync with electronics and less tuned in to human beings.

Teachers are often blamed for society’s shortcomings, from children’s lower IQs and falling test scores, to lack of social skills. When the family disintegrates, the school is expected to pick up the slack by developing the children’s self-esteem and social graces that are no longer acquired in our homes and neighborhoods.

Cushy job? Summers off? Holidays a go-go? Teachers I know give up weekends, work late nights and put in overtime without pay. They do homework, grade papers on weekends, counsel kids during their planning time and coach on weeknights.

How does one measure the value of a good teacher? What test score reflects the life of every child successfully nurtured into adulthood through the guidance of an educator? TLC does not count on appraisals. No one is paid extra for kindness. Yet the teachers, who shaped my life, took the time to wipe away children’s tears, to console troubled adolescents and to stand in for kids when others couldn’t.

Ask a grown child who was the most significant mentor in their lives outside of family members, they will name a teacher or a coach.

My son, a senior at one of the Midwest’s best academic colleges, is studying to be a teacher. Yet teacher’s pension programs are depleted, salaries blocked, and stress levels are at an all time high. I applaud his career choice, for the greater the social instability, economic distress and global strive, the more our world need more bright, capable, caring teachers.

Teachers never get enough credit for the great lengths they go to to motivate kids!

Check this out! The Armstrong staff in a Minneapolis suburban school show support before homecoming, Shaker Heights educators in Greater Cleveland area use ingenuity to teach the Making of a Molecule, and teachers at my alma mater, Sterling High School, step up to stay on beat to the modern day demands of our profession before a Homecoming football game.  Let’s give it up to the teachers for getting down to inspire kids!

Historic Cowsheds in the Alps Transformed to Contemporary Swiss Chalets

Midwesterners head up North to Wisconsin to escape. The Swiss just head up. Second home Swiss chalets tucked in alpine meadows are so common that there is a great migration upward every weekend. So when Cathy, a colleague, invited us to her chalet in the Vaudoises Alps, we couldn’t wait for Sunday.

meadows in the mountains

meadows in the mountains

The adventure begins with the drive to Les Ormonts, a village 1,200 meter high between Leysin, Les Diablerets, and Villars. We wind around hairpin curves carved into a mountainside, where hardy grapevines cling to the porous soil and cows appear to stand on two legs grazing on the sheer slopes.

Cathy and Jan’s chalet was tucked on a ledge in Les Vöettes, a hamlet of chocolate-colored cubes spill across the verdant valley like tossed dice. My friends bought the chalet in late 90s, but it dates back to 1755 when it was a herder’s shed sheltering livestock brought up for the summer. A historical landmark, like most of chalets in the area, any alteration must be approved by the Swiss government.

In the 1950s, the chalet was restored, renovated and expanded, yet retaining the original wood. The facade facing south across the valley from Leysin was a darker brown toasted by the sun. The faded red shutters, nearly 3 centuries old, were as light as cork and like the mushroom clinging under window ledge had turned to petrified wood.  In pots lining the balcony, red geraniums swayed in the late summer breeze.

geraniums on the front porch

geraniums on the front porch

Ducking into their front door was like stepping into a museum especially with Cathy’s antique decor. Three wood burning stoves heated the two-floor chalet in the winter. Even in summer the thick walls with small windows, maintained a temperature ten degrees below the one found outside. A cowbell, old farm implements, an ancient clock, and other antiques hung from the chalet walls. A four-poster bed, armoire, rocking chair like my grandma’s, and other family heirlooms, made me feel like I stepped back in time.

dining room

dining room

At a height of only 5’8, the doorways were made for the small statured people of yesteryear and only Cathy could enter the room without ducking. Both of our husbands had to stoop in the dining room.

On the veranda overlooking the valley, we enjoyed the picnic lunch that Cathy purchased in the village that morning. We savored the regional specialties: freshly baked, brown pull-apart rolls, sliced ham, aged sausage and cheeses, Tomme Vaudoise, a soft creamy cheese stuffed with garlic and a year old Etivaz, and a tangier 3 year old version. Dessert was a thick, creamy yogurt mixed with fresh raspberries.

From their chalet, we hiked up another 500 meters along a winding path. The woods opened up to green pastures where cows grazed savoring their last weekend in the mountains before the traditional désalpe, migration to lower lands. Back at the chalet, Cathy served apple struddle and Jan poured unpasteurized milk, compliments of the neighbor’s cows, from a silver milk jug of yesteryear.

hiking with friends

hiking with friends

The fresh cream, milk and cheeses were as good as those from his Normandy region, Gérald confessed, « But don’t tell anyone. The French maintain strict loyalty to their home regions. »

Then, as the sun began to sink behind the mountain, we bid farewell to Heidi land and followed the caravan of cars snaking down the mountainside toward modern civilization in the cities of Lausanne and Geneva.

Unforgettable School Trips Across Europe During Fieldweek

Every student longs to hang on to summer just a little longer. At my school, the start to the school is every student’s dream. The 2nd week of September we head off on field week known as semaine verte.

wandering in an Alsacian village

wandering in an Alsacian village

Oh no, this is not just any school trip to the local museum. With Europe at our doorstep, our back-to-school adventure includes corralling bulls in southern France, climbing mountains in the Swiss Alps, and riding gondolas down the canals of Venice.

Jewish district in Venice

Jewish district in Venice

Each grade took off for a different destination. The 8th grade headed to the mountains, 9th grade bused to Provence’s paradise, the10th grade to visit concentration camp and cathedrals in Alsace, and 11thgrade flew to Barcelona, Edinburgh and Berlin.

strolling the streets of Strasbourg

strolling the streets of Strasbourg

In the past I traveled with my daughter’s 11thgrade to Venice,

Nat & friends waiting for the vaporetto

Nat & friends waiting for the vaporetto

and my son’s class to Provence.

field week in Camargue

field week in Camargue

When graduates look back, the favorite memories of high school revolve around their week of bonding in places most kids only dream of visiting.

Join me on our back to school extravaganza – education at its best in a room without walls.

Camargue's cowboys

Camargue’s cowboys

Back to School Keeps Me Young at Heart

Some of my old high school classmates retired from teaching this year and though I envy them, each fall I think ‘oh heck, I can make it one more year.’

international festival at school

international festival at school

My students keep me going.

Last spring a sixth grade student, who loves PE, raced from the primary building to the gym door.  She blurted out with enthusiasm. “You look just like my granny!”

Taken aback, for I never considered myself the age of a grandma, I asked incredulously.

“Really! How old is your granny?”

“She is 70. And just like you.  Tall and fit.  And she still plays basketball every week.”

I burst out laughing. Go, granny go.

Should I be insulted that she sees me old enough to be a granny or proud to know she considers me fit enough to still play my favorite ball game?

talking tactics at the alumni game

talking tactics at the alumni game

A graduating senior told me she remembered having me in first grade.  Ah yes, in my early days at our school I had to teach every grade between first and twelfth grade.

Until moving to Switzerland, I have never stayed in one place, but now I have been at my school long enough to be one of the elders. Students that I once had in class are returning to campus to teach!

Aging seems to be a popular theme with all my students. A favorite 10th grader gave me a homemade gift. On a Scandinavian Airline travel bag designed to carry official papers hanging on a strap around my neck he printed, “Old Timer coming through”.

“ It’s to help you keep from losing your dark glasses so much,” he told me.

But one of the most endearing compliments was a card made by my 6th grade PE class last June.

Dear Mrs. Mackenzie

You have been the best PE teacher we ever had. Whenever someone didn’t have a kit (PE uniform) instead of yelling at them, you would give them a job. You have helped everyone in our class improve stuff they couldn’t do. Everyone wants to have you as a PE teacher in secondary.  We are so attached to you that if you retire or go somewhere we would follow you. We did not expect to learn so much. But we actually learned something. We all learned millions of games.

When I ask what my colleagues miss most after retirement, their answer is unanimous, “The kids. And the buzz.”

Our school halls are definitely buzzing with the energy of bright minds from around the globe, eager to tackle the future challenges facing Planet Earth.

So every year, though my body creaks a little louder, my joints lock up a bit tighter and a part of me longs to retire from the relentless demands of teaching, the kids keep me young at heart and fill my days with joy and laughter. Yup, teaching is one big ball game.