Friday, 2 April 2010

I really can't get my head around this one

A story caught my eye earlier, while I was passing another fruitless hour trawling the internet (and recovering from my hangover).

You may have seen a story a few weeks ago about a school in Mississippi which decided to cancel its annual prom because one of the students who planned to attend is a lesbian, and wanted to wear a tuxedo and bring her girlfriend. She petitioned the school board to be allowed to do so, but her requests were denied and a memo was circulated advising everyone that same-sex dates were not permitted. She challenged this decision with the help of the Mississippi ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) who agreed that the decision was a clear violation of her constitutional rights and urged the board to reverse its decision. Instead of doing so, the school decided it would be preferable to cancel the prom completely, due to the "distractions caused by recent events". They also stated that it hoped that the local community would organise a private prom as a replacement (note: apparently a private prom would be perfectly within its rights to prevent gay couples attending, if it so wished).

Needless to say, the young lady involved was upset a) by the school's decision not to allow her to bring her girlfriend and b) at the idea that she now felt responsible for the prom being cancelled and that many other students would feel badly towards her about it.

Now this story alone is enough to have me shaking my head in disbelief, but it gets stranger.

The Mississippi Safe Schools Coalition decided to organise the aforementioned "private" prom and asked the Mississippi ACLU to help with the fundraising. A couple of days ago, the American Humanist Association offered a $20,000 contribution to the fund, a substantial sum. However, the donation was rejected by the ACLU with this explanation:

"Although we support and understand organizations like yours, the majority of Mississippians tremble in terror at the word 'atheist'........... Our staff has been talking a lot about your donation offer and have found ourselves in a bit of a conflict. We have fears that your organization sponsoring the prom could stir up even more controversy." 

Wait. WHAT?! So a civil liberties group, whose own website states "The right to practice religion, or no religion at all, is among the most fundamental of the freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights" decided that atheists are so controversial and terrifying that accepting money from them to assist in repairing another case of discrimination is simply impossible? Yes, apparently that is exactly what happened.

In a world where religion is still responsible for the vast majority of wars and terrorist attacks, and where the Catholic church is being brought to its knees (stop making up your own jokes) by the paedophilia exposés, is it really feasible that us atheists/humanists can be seen as subversive dangers to society? Quite honestly, it simply shows what a terrible stranglehold religion has on society as a whole, where the mere presence of people who think for themselves and have chosen not to believe, actually frightens them.

I have just found a recent update on this story which shows a potential light at the end of the tunnel. Apparently the Safe Schools Coalition has the final say on who to accept donations from, and they say no decision has yet been reached on the one from the AHU. They also said that the Mississippi ACLU "made an error in judgment (sic)" in sending the email to the Humanist Association, and that the ACLU has apologised. I'll be interested to see whether the donation is finally accepted.

Let's hope that Constance McMillen, the girl who, in standing up for her fundamental rights, set the ball rolling on this ever-expanding story, finally gets to go to a prom, in a tuxedo if she wishes, to share a slow dance with her girlfriend. What the hell - make them Prom Queen and Queen!! They deserve recognition for bringing the narrow-minded bigotry of some people to the forefront again.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Vim, verve, vigour and vocab at Valdelavilla

Now there's a tongue twister for the Spaniards!

So Sunday 21st March saw me back on another long bus journey, this time to Soria, for Vaughan Town. The venue was Valdelavilla, a previously abandoned village in the mountains. It's beautiful, remote and perfect for an immersion English program. I'd been there before, last August, but with Pueblo Inglés. Sadly for them, the contract was up at the end of 2009 and it reverted to Vaughan who used to go there when the two companies were one and the same. It would perhaps have been nice if they'd sent a bus driver who either knew the way, or who had a map or GPS, which would have saved the extra hour on the already interminable journey!

I'd half-expected to spend the week tucked up inside away from freezing temperatures and potential snow. But the weather was kind to us and, apart from a couple of afternoons of rain, it was clear and bright. Seemingly my reputation as a "hard" girl continues, given that I didn't wear a coat or jacket pretty much all week, yet others were wrapped up in coats and scarves. What can I say?

This was the smallest group I'd been part of - 12 Spaniards and (yet again!) only 10 Anglos. 2 Anglos who had been scheduled to attend simply didn't show up - they weren't at tapas on the Saturday night which gave a clue, but they could still have made it to the bus. No. So, as in January, both Dade and Marisa had to be Anglos as well as doing their actual jobs, which is totally unfair. I think I said last time that it baffles me why a program would be set up with only the exact number of Anglos booked, leaving absolutely no margin for error.

As always, the Spaniards were a varied group, from all walks of life, a mixture of ages and levels of English. I knew 2 of the 10 Anglos from previous programs, and the rest were all great fun too. As is always the case, it's a shame that the Anglos don't get as much time to get to know eachother as we would like, though mealtimes, house-sharing and time at the bar help!

The program itself ran as it always does - one-to-ones in the mornings, then group activities, more one-to-ones, entertainment hour in the evenings, with phone sessions and conference calls dotted around. The only fly in the ointment really was that Valdelavilla really does have very limited facilities - no music system, no projector, no flipchart paper (this week, at least!), no printer available, (not to mention the complete lack of mobile coverage and the very sporadic WiFi). This means that a lot of the usual entertainment activities - karaoke, the last-night party plus many of the sketches and presentations just aren't possible. Yes, that means that people are encouraged to help out more, by bringing presentations, telling jokes etc, but with no advance warning, most didn't know to do that. Having said that, the 2 nights of entertainment were fantastic, as always, with both Anglos and Spaniards throwing themselves into the weird and wonderful collection of sketches, readings and general silliness. Marisa's ballroom dancing lesson may well have been the highlight of the week, mainly because it meant a rare glimpse of Dade looking remarkably self-conscious (sorry!) and an opportunity to prove yet again that the Spanish do seem to have an inbuilt sense of rhythm and dancing ability that's distinctly lacking in the rest of us!

The food at Valdelavilla is fantastic. I'd hoped that things hadn't changed since last summer because the meals were something I was really looking forward to. After the disaster that is the food at Gredos, I was excited to get back somewhere where they a) understand vegetarianism b) give you a choice of dishes for each course and c) serve it with a smile!

Given the amount I ate (and drank) it's just as well that the place also lends itself to lots of exercise. With the exception of 2 hours on Thursday morning, I walked with my various Spaniards for the entirety of every one-to-one for the whole week. That equated to at least 5 hours' walking every day. On top of that, 2 impromptu excursions to nearby abandoned villages, both taking around 2 hours and with the entire return journey being uphill, mean that I think I actually lost weight during the week, and may have rediscovered my leg muscles. I could have lived without my face becoming absolutely beetroot-red on the uphill marches, but I should be used to it by now. I blame my capillaries, not my complete lack of fitness.

Quei Mada was fun, though the rather low ceiling in the dining room where it was held made it excitingly dangerous. Just for once, I think everybody had at least one cup of the lethal Oruja concoction which may have explained the unexpected joke-telling that came after. Blame the drink, but the only thing I can remember is that all the Spaniards jokes seemed to revolve around the Guardia Civil!

As always, I laughed, cried (sometimes with laughter, sometimes not!), and learnt a lot. The Spaniards almost without exception, were enthusiastic, keen, interested (and interesting) and determined to get everything they could out of their week. It's always the case that the people who have paid for themselves are perhaps a little more enthusiastic than those who have been sent by their company, but even if "forced" to be there, they generally try to see it as a positive thing.

As ever, Thursday evening rolled around far too quickly and, despite there being no "official" party, the group certainly made the most of their final evening and the oh-so-generous one extra hour of the bar being open and an impromptu party ensued. I hope Vaughan realise that the last-night "letting your hair down" part of the programs has always been very popular, both with the Spaniards and also with Anglos, whether veterans or not. Everyone has worked so hard over the course of the week that they deserve to relax and have a blast. Valdelavilla's meeting room is perfect for the party - plenty of room to dance, a bar can be set up in the room, meaning people don't have to keep leaving the party to negotiate the death-trap stairs in the dark to get to the other bar, and certainly last year there was a perfectly good music system up there (I can only assume it belonged to Pueblo Inglés who quite reasonably took it away).

Special mention should go to Elena for making it through her presentation despite being absolutely terrified, to Miguel for his hilarious performance in the 3 husbands sketch, to Monica for constantly "inventing" English words when she was stuck, only to find them in the dictionary and to Maica for creating a whole new business venture based around exploding kangaroos in Australia (don't ask).

It was also Dade's last week ever as an MC, after 3 years of bringing fun and laughter to an amazing number of people. Everyone in the group wishes him every happiness for his new life back in the UK as a photographer.

And so it was over! The journey back to Madrid was long and uneventful, fortunately and the usual sad goodbyes were said before we went our separate ways. But not for long. Fernando very kindly organised a get-together for those that could make it on Sunday. A group of us met at the Mercado San Miguel for cava, wine, beer, oysters (well, spinach croquettas for me), snacks, bread and chat. We moved on to various different locations, the group gradually dwindling until, at the end, only 3 of us remained, having completed 10 hours of non-stop drinking and eating! Diana and Anthony - you're a very bad influence on my liver!!!

Thank you to everyone for a great week.

As always, I was too busy having fun to remember to take many pictures, but what I have are HERE.