Monday, October 3, 2016

what a difference a year [or two] makes

I never thought I would be sitting in the Franklin Avenue & Eastern Parkway Starbucks, drinking a [double] tall French Vanilla latte and grading papers for my students at Brooklyn Friends School. What a difference two years makes.

Although I am eternally grateful for my experience in Cairo [the good, the bad & the ugly], everyday I feel I made the right decision to leave Hayah International Academy. When I left my Maadi apartment on June 26, 2014, it was surreal that I had survived nearly 12 months of sexual harassment, Cairo highways, mummy tummy, deep depression, anxiety attacks & draft beer from ACE. I was leaving with an acceptance letter from the Harvard Graduate School of Education [#Hug-Z], a desire to eat Mexican food for an entire week and a need to walk in crosswalks. I also left with doubts if I should teach again. 

Shortly after arriving on Appian Way, I decided I wanted to go back into the classroom and teach high school students. I realized the majority of my classmates at HGSE did not have a desire to teach K-12 and chose to focus attention and passion on state and federal policy, consulting and higher education. [Cue 1996 Paula Cole...Where have all the teachers gone? doo doo do...doo doo do...]. Four take-aways from my experience at HGSE are as follows...

1. Do not let students at an Ivy league Institution [or anyone, really] make you ever feel bad about who you are or question your true self. 

2. A heightened awareness of my identity & my privilege.

3. I love teaching high school students.

4. College is fun, especially with the unicorns [cohort pic to the left, to the left].

In April, I decided to take the leap and move to New York City for someone I love [a move I had not made since 2005]. I had a place to live, incredible food cooked for me and four subway stops to Manhattan. All I needed was a job.

I applied for high school teaching positions & felt incredibly privileged that I got a call from Brooklyn Friends School. I went through the most thorough interview of my life-teaching an entire history lesson to a class of juniors, lunch with the History department, a meeting with the  head of faculty, a meeting with the History department chair, a meeting with the head of Upper School and I had to grade a paper. I felt like Brooklyn Friends was where I wanted to be this fall.

Fortunately, I was offered a position to teach at BFS and I honestly feel like teaching here is a breath of fresh air. I feel respected by faculty & my students, I feel like my daily lessons and my desire to build community with each class is encouraged, instead of criticized. Although I am exhausted every morning at 5:30, I no longer dread going to school. I feel like I am becoming a New Yorker, taking the subway in to work every morning, stopping at my local Starbucks [my first of two caffeinated hot beverages] and greeting Goody at 7:00 as I enter my Downtown Brooklyn high school. Students [a lot of whom I do not even teach] greet me with a smile and a hello in the stairwell on the way to my first floor Humanities Office. I just feel happy to be here.

As I was reading my previous blog post, I realized I went on quite the rant about my middle school students, notably calling me by my first name. I automatically equated students referring to teachers by their first names as inherently disrespectful. Which is why at Brooklyn Friends [where the norm is to call teachers by their first name] I was filled with so much anxiety from my previous experience with this protocol that I initially wanted my students to only call me by my last name. But after working at BFS, I realize that it does not matter what students call teachers [with the exception of the A******B****C*** words], what matters is how they treat you. I feel so grateful that my students, whether they call me Erika or Hillstead genuinely respect classmates and teachers. Students listen when teachers teach. Students ask thought-provoking questions outside and inside the classroom.

I was wrong to make this general assumption about students, simply based on an entirely different context, time period and school culture at Hayah International Academy. That is the wonderful thing about teaching...everyday I learn something new about my students or myself. I still have a lot to learn [as a teacher and as a person]. Therefore, I would like to alter the those who can't do, teach adage to those who do want to better themselves and support others to become their best selves, teach. 

Ciao for now,

Friday, November 21, 2014

102 Days in Egypt

Red Sea
South Sinai Peninsula 

Sitting in a Dahab pub with the Red Sea in front of me, I have finally found inspiration to write again. The past two months have been filled with sadness, dread, mummy tummy and heartache. But I am excited to reignite my passion for travel and storytelling. Thank you for reading...

I want to first bow down to any teacher who has survived a middle school classroom. Pre-teens are certainly a different human breed. I have never in my life experienced students like the ones that grace me with their presence at Hayah International Academy. These kids come from a crazy amount of money. I overheard one student offer to have their personal driver pick up their friend to work on a school project. Students have personal maids, which may explain why they leave their crap everywhere. I literally found a half eaten apple in my bookshelf, old juice boxes shoved into their desks and nutella smeared across the floor. One of my seventh graders told me that she was not able to turn in her interactive notebook because her maid put it somewhere and now she cannot find it. Most of my students do not understand the concept of a line. And I never knew how sacred the contents of a pencil case are until I started teaching sixth graders.

Ever since I started working with my Social Studies crew at Tracy High, I have embraced being called Hillstead. I loved when my students called me Miss Hillstead. I felt respected and honored to be an educator. In Egypt, students are supposed to call their teachers by their first names which I am not a fan. A fellow TUSD colleague whom I am very fond of (who has incredible bi-planing skills and an impressive board game collection) calls his students by their last names which I love. However, Haydock may have a hard time getting through his lesson at a Cairo school because each of these students have at least three last names. I also have five girls named Nour, four Ahmeds, three Mohameds, two Omars and a partridge in a pear tree. Most students address me as "Ya Miss" and it drives me freaking crazy. I have reverted to calling them "student." And. these. kids. never. stop. talking. The past two days have been good at Hayah where I haven't broken down in tears or had an anxiety attack at the incredible amount of disrespect and attitude exhibited by the majority of the students. I have actually had a chance to teach and build a shred of rapport with them. Coming from a place where fostering relationships with students at Kimball came so naturally and happened so organically, this has been the most humbling experience for me as an educator.

My very dear friend Mary Connors left Cairo about a month ago to go home to Miami. Although there is nearly a 30 year age difference and we have only known each other for 102 days, I consider Mary to be one of my closest friends. Experiencing insanity and daily chaos certainly brings people closer together. Simon and I threw Mary a going away party with Gringos Mexican food, our ex-pat family and the hits of the Rolling Stones. Oh, and of course several bottles of Omar Khayyam white wine. I miss her so much, but I know that she is happier on the East Coast. Mary has inspired me to apply to the Harvard Ed School. She is an alumnus and has offered to recommend me to the program. It is absolutely a long shot to apply, but I am going to do it as it has been a dream to live in Boston. And having Harvard on your resume?!  How do you like 'dem apples? #goodwillhunting

Side bar-Phil Collins is playing in the background and I can't help but sing along. 

To elaborate on the heartache reference, Alex and I broke up last week. I once again bow down to all the couples who have survived and thrived in a long distance relationship. I truly wanted our relationship to work. I love Alex very much. But we were not getting what each other needed. I was not getting communication and Alex was not getting proximity. After we broke up, I did the healthiest thing I could think of. I went day drinking at ACE. I fell off a curb on the way home and sprained my ankle. It is still swollen, but I use this as a reminder to...
A) always take a cab home
B) rely on your dear friends to make you feel better
C) eat before I drink

Thank you for reading and I promise to make a concerted effort to continue to share my stories with you. I will leave you with my shout-out list of middle school teachers...

Ma'a salama,


Mr. Parra
Mr. Huffman
Miss Flowers
Mrs. Adams
Mr. Sato 
Mr. Vickers 
Suzette Mendonca
Crystal Wong 
Scott Anderson
Cassie Champeau
Maria Bassett
Ghaidaa Naguib
Hanan Deyab
Reeham Darwish 
Kristi Bergamini
Allia Hassan 
Simon Glogiewicz
Jason Romey 

Friday, September 26, 2014

Cairo Commute

Morning Carpool
Ring Road, Cairo 

It has been 47 days since I have driven my Toyota Camry. And while I am not complaining about mass transportation, (although I don't feel like this is reducing Cairo's carbon footprint) I certainly miss my morning routine-the freedom of waiting in line for my double tall pumpkin spice latte and seeing my former students totally killing it as baristas.  Not only can they perfectly craft an espresso beverage, but they also spell my name correctly and put a happy face next to it.  

Here are some photos taken by my ex-pat colleagues and myself on Cairo's main highway on our way to and from school.  


Unfortunately the following Ring Road photos could not be captured quickly enough to include in this post. 
*Egyptian woman
wearing a niqab, veil & galabiyah

  • A family of three riding a crotch rocket with no helmets. The father driving, the small child in the middle and the mother wearing a niqab* and galabiyah hovered over her daughter.     
  • An elderly man taking a nap on top of a truck load of mattresses while the truck is cruising on the highway. 
  • A truck tipped over in the middle of the highway that was literally carrying a ton of bricks.  
  • Men selling ziploc bags of juice on the shoulder of the highway 

Fun Fact: Cairo holds the world record for the most number of traffic related accidents and deaths. Wishing Cairo cars made seat belts for their back seats...

ma'a salama

Should school really start this early? 

The burning trash gives the sunrise extra brilliance, and the kid next to me an asthma attack. 

Do you see the different lanes? Neither do I. 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

BMs from the Middle East

My new best friend in Egypt
Available in any pharmacy without a prescription

A friendly note: If you have never read my blog before, I tend to speak freely about body excretions. If this will gross you out, please refrain from reading the following. 
Cheers and may your movements always be painless and liberating, 

Before I moved to Cairo, people who had visited and/or lived here had warned me about major stomach issues that would ensue. I was naive and thought that since I had eaten semi-raw fish in the beautiful, yet developing country of Costa Rica, my intestines were immune to any parasite. 

I was wrong. 

If you have traveled outside of the States, you fit into one of two categories-you cannot poop or you cannot stop pooping. I thought I was in the clear when I first arrived- surprisingly, my bowel movements were nothing to report about.

Then I ate beef. 

I have never experienced this type of pain and discomfort before. Ladies, it is like having period cramps throughout your intestinal tract. I could literally feel the bacteria attacking me and it was defnititely on the offense. I had to be in close proximity to a toilet for the majority of the weekend, for fear of shatting myself. Luckily, I had not started school yet. (more on that incident in a bit) It was a reprieve hearing that my fellow ex-pat newbies were experiencing the squirtiness as well. I was afraid to eat or drink anything. Call it the Egyptian diet as I think I have dropped a pant size since living here amidst the pastries I have been consuming.

The worst night was a meet and greet on the Cornish, the promenade that lines the Nile River. All of the administration from Hayah treated us to a Benihana-inspired Asian Fusion dinner.  Everything was overly spiced, but not wanting to be rude or cause a scene, I ate everything in front of me including the head of a prawn. Like clockwork, 17 minutes after the meal I clenched and spedwalked to the ladies room. As I flushed for the third time, I ran in to fellow ex-pat and Peace Corps graduate Amanda. Amanda gave me some advice for surviving uncontrollable diarrhea. Mashed potatoes and plain white rice as the meal of choice. She advised me to stay away from vegetables and sugar. I thanked her as I exited the bathroom with a newfound empowerment and can-do attitude.  

Needing an IKEA trip the next day, with my spunky friend Mary, I enjoyed my mashed potatoes sans gravy, rice and deep fried chicken nuggets. #treatyo'self.  

I am not happy here in Cairo-deeply missing Alex, my family, my friends in California. But I will say that I am truly learning to appreciate simple life pleasures. For example, I high fived my ex-pat community when I pooped a solid for the first time in weeks. #winning I felt like I could accomplish anything. 

Then I ate a chicken. 

Cairo Kitchen came highly recommended. I ordered a half chicken, thinking that I was doing my body a service by ordering protein. After placing an order on Otlob and the delivery man making abnormally good time, I ate my chicken as the maintenance man worked on my internet and electrical issues. The rotisserie looked a bit pink, but I was starving and figured that BBQ chicken sometimes looks this way in the States. I ate the whole damn animal. 

It hit me during episode 10 of Orange is the New Black. My tummy felt a bit gurgly, but I ignored this feeling, not wanting to pause my lap top and wait another 20 minutes for the episode to re-load. I was not going to wait another day to see what happens to Vi's vicious ways, Red's revenge and Sister's sustained hunger strike.  

I woke up in the morning and felt like crap. (pun intended) But as my fellow educators know, calling in and writing lesson plans is such a bitch. It is easier to suck up the sickness and teach. Luckily, I had my favorite sixth grade class that morning. As I was explaining the procedures and routines of Ms. Erika's classroom, a heat wave came over me. I started sweating in front of the class, wondering if the double dragon would reappear. I was panicking and walked out of the class. I had 19 girls in the classroom staring at me as I reached for the trash can and dry heaved in the corridor. Thank goodness the force did not let anything out the other end this time. #breakfastburrito 

After visiting the on-campus clinic, Dr. Rehma introduced me to my other Cairo best friend, Streptoquin. This antibiotic paired with Antinal was the dream team. In two days, I was back to drinking coffee and beer and dealing with a yeast infection. 

I hope this does not deter you from visiting the Middle East-the food tastes lovely going down. Take a chance and come to Egypt. I will treat you to a Shisha, foul and kosheri. And my bathroom plumbing is fantastic.           

ma'a salama, 

Foul (beans, peppers, onions, spices) and Eyptian bread 

Saturday, September 6, 2014


Maadi, Egypt

I am not loving Cairo as a place to live. My ex-pat family, my Hayah middle school colleagues, the abundance of food (now that I am pooping solids) and access to incredible sites are making me sane in this crazy third world.

Life is not glamourous here. And I don't know why I romanticized what my experience would be like in Cairo. Perhaps the exoticism of such a historically significant foreign country appealed to me. I thought that moving away would be an incredibly healthy challenge and give me an opportunity to become my best self. I was unhappy with aspects of my life at Kimball. I felt my family unit pulling apart now that my brothers were starting their own families. I felt lost, so ironically I move to a place where I do not know a soul, I do not speak the language and I do not completely understand the culture.

With 23 million people living, working and driving in Cairo, it is difficult to breathe with the polluted air. (which becomes worse on trash burning days, but the sunrise looks beautiful amidst the smoke) Poverty is rampant. Children are unbathed, unshoed and uneducated. Piles of garbage line the streets of Cairo. Oncoming traffic never stops for pedestrians to cross the road.

Even though I feel completely out of my element, (men and women relentlessly staring at foreigners certainly heightens the isolation) I realize that I have been damned spoiled in the States. I am grateful that I am experiencing life in the developing world, a lifestyle that the majority of the earth's population has no choice but to live. To have the opportunity to view life from a completely different perspective is rare. I feel like I have already begun to appreciate simpler aspects of life after living here for only a month-a helping hand, a cool breeze, a paved road, consistent electricity, a flushing toilet.

But I will say that Egyptians certainly know how to problem solve...

The following epic photographs are courtesy of the Ex-pat WhatsApp group-Crazy World Pics

No air conditioning? Crawl inside a refridgerator and rest your head on a bag of diapers.

Too many cars in the way to cross the street? Stick your hand out and walk in front of them-cars usually stop.

Can't find a bungee cord to tie down your furniture? Place several youths on top of the load.

Need a lift to work? Hop on a motorcycle with several other men.

And remember, even if you are in a developing country, you can always travel first class.

ma'a salama,


If You Ever Wanted to Get It Back...

Alfa Market merchandise

I do not consider myself an intensely materialistic person, but retail therapy has become such a comfort to me. When I first moved here nearly a month ago, the ex-pats went shopping to pick up some necessary amenities to cozy up our flats. Siri (who has been such a lifesaver in my transition here) had found this intriguing product. Seeing this on the shelf made me smile-one of the first times I had smiled in this country. I could not believe that Virginity Soap existed. Apparently ladies, you can feel like new every time you bathe with this miracle worker. Although, I don't know how many people would like to experience "the first time" ever again. If you are someone who wants to "tighten up," give me a shout and I will bring some back to the States with me. No need to be embarrassed, I would just be concerned about the aftermath of this scrub a dub dub. However, according to the advertising, you will be satisfied with the results. Skin doctor approved. 

ma'a salama, 


Friday, August 29, 2014

Holy Crap, the Pyramids

The Great Pyramids
Giza, Egypt

It has been a goal of mine to not only travel to six continents, (I will leave Antarctica to the researchers and the penguins) but to visit the Wonders of the World. Part of the reason I chose to teach in Cairo was to live in one of the earliest civilizations. Perfect for a history teacher nerd like myself.  #WHAP (shout out to my sophomore AP classes)

When I travel, I am a big fan of eye witnessing iconic structures. Suzette Mendonca can attest to this as I made her take way too many photos of me posing in front of the Acropolis. It is not until I stare in awe at the Eiffel Tower that I truly feel like I am in Paris. The Golden Gate Bridge still takes my breath away when I am in San Francisco. So, I did not feel like I was in Egypt until I saw 
1. the Nile River 
2. the Great Pyramids in Giza. 

The veteran and newbie ex-pats set off to Giza, a city located just outside of Cairo. Even though we left around eight in the morning, I was already moist from the desert humidity. And because I am a female in an Arab country, I faced the heat in more clothing than I would like to wear in the summer-skinny jeans and a sleeved shirt with a long sleeved shirt in case we were traveling to more conservative areas. After paying the entrance fee, we walked through the gates (and a metal detector). Up to this point, I had only seen the pyramids from afar. So when I set my eyes on this ancient wonder of the world, my profound  and thoughtful comment was "Holy Crap, the Pyramids." 

Even though it was at this moment I felt I was in Egypt, the experience was still surreal to me. I couldn't believe that I had actually made it here, to a place I had only seen in travel books and google image searches, a place that I had only taught my students about at Kimball High School. I was so excited that my childhood instincts kicked in, as I climbed without fear up to the point where the armed gunmen were posted. I wanted to share this experience on social media, hence my new Facebook profile picture. I love that picture because it captures one of the first moments that I truly felt at peace to be living in Egypt.

What I found so interesting though is that contrary to Wikipedia, the Pyramids are not necessarily in the middle of nowhere like so many images suggest. The city of Giza is within viewing distance from the pyramids. One can take a short taxi ride and have KFC and Pizza Hut for lunch, which takes away a bit of the exoticism and mysticism of this historical site.

I was also surprised when I went inside one of the pyramids. It is not one big open space, but merely a narrow and claustrophobic tunnel to a few tombs, most of which have been closed off. But still, freaking awesome. We took a short camel ride to the Sphinx, which I thought was much further away. However, I learned that the Sphinx was built to protect the Pyramids, which surprisingly paled in comparison to the size of the pyramids.                   

I am sure before the Arab Spring, there were tour buses upon tour buses here. But it was not even crowded and therefore the merchants were even more willing to take our money. Which leads me to introduce you to Hadi. Hadi is an excellent photographer, capturing angles I never knew were even possible (please see below). The great thing was that Hadi simply offered to take as many photos as we wanted to. I was going to be generous and give him a 20 Egyptian pound tip. But when I handed him the money, he looked at me and said, "What is this? I charge 200 Egyptian pounds for my photography services." Needless to say that he would do well as a venture capitalist in the States. Not knowing what to do and slightly intimidated by him, my friend Michelle gave him a bit of extra money. We went back and told our tour guide and fellow middle school colleague Hanan what had happened. And it was amazing because she totally laid the smack down on him, scolding him for being so selfish and taking advantage of tourists. With his shoulders slouched and his head down, he looked defeated and gave me all of my money back. I told him to keep the original amount that I had tipped him and then we were on our way for some lunch-which the aftermath of the beef schwarma deserves another blog post.

thanks for reading & ma'a salama,