By ANGIE ALVARADO
Growing up in a family of creative individuals including writers, photographers and educators, it was only natural that Jennifer Thomason would follow those footsteps first as a journalist and then into the classroom. But the outgoing, vivacious blonde also had an itch to see the world.
Her thirst for adventure has taken Thomason on a journey that few educators experience, to teach in Cairo, Egypt.
“I’ve always been fascinated with Egypt and Egyptian culture. At one point I thought about becoming an archaeologist or an Egyptologist,” Thomason said. “I just knew I wanted to go explore Egypt.”
Eventually, she said, she figured out that the kind of work involved in those careers would be too tedious for her personality.
“But teaching is even better, because now I get to live in Egypt and experience the culture, while also teaching a whole new type of student. It seemed like such a great challenge.”
Thomason, who teaches seventh- and ninth-grade English at the Global Paradigm School in Egypt, graduated from Palestine High School in 1994 and attended the University of North Texas in Denton where she majored in Radio, TV and Film. She graduated from UNT in 1998 and worked at the Herald-Press from 2000 to 2001, then the Texarkana Gazette from 2001-2005. She then moved to Little Rock and worked for several years at newspapers in the Little Rock area.
In 2005, Thomason attended the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and earned a Master of Education in Secondary Education. Following graduation, she began working for the Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District teaching English for eighth- through 12th-grade students. She taught at Creekview High in Carrollton for two years then Barbara Bush Middle School in Irving for three years.
Thomason left that position in August to move to Egypt with her 12-year-old daughter, Chloe.
“I knew this would be a great experience for Chloe as well,” Thomason said. “How many 12-year-olds get to live in a place like Cairo?”
If Thomason’s name is familiar, that’s probably because her father, Michael Thomason, owner of Ranger Air & Heat, writes columns for the Herald-Press. Her mother, Linda Andrews is retired from the Palestine ISD central office and now does consulting work for districts across Texas. Her stepbrother, Joel Andrews, was a longtime photographer for the Herald-Press. Her stepfather, the late David Andrews, owned a photography studio downtown for many years and also was a freelance photographer for the newspaper.
Thomason’s sister Christina McDaniel, is a teacher in Krum, while her stepmother, Judy Thomason, worked for years at Westwood ISD and is now is the principal at Oakwood High School.
The former Palestine resident said it was her desire to “make a difference” that inspired her to become a journalist and then a teacher.
“I wanted to be a person who makes a difference,” she said. “I love the day-to-day life of a teacher and seeing the students grow up and have those ‘ah ha’ moments throughout the year. It’s good to know I might make a difference in a few lives, even in a small way.”
Looking for Adventure
Just a few years into her teaching career and still fascinated with Egypt, Thomason began looking into working abroad through a company called Teach Away.
“They told me the schools they work with in Egypt wouldn’t accept a teacher with dependents, so I started doing my own research through online contacts I made through Teach Away on Facebook. That’s how I found an ad for teaching positions at Global Paradigm School and here I am.”
Her contract with the school is for two years. After those two years, she will have the opportunity to renew her contract if she and the school choose to do so.
Thomason said the whole process of interviewing and getting hired was relatively simple.
“I had a Skype interview with the principal after sending him my resume and then he offered me a position that same week. At that point, getting together all the paperwork was the hardest on my end, but I had already started that process, so it wasn’t all that difficult,” she explained. “All I had to do was get everything notarized. The school took care of everything else on their end such as buying my plane tickets and helping me find an apartment.”
Preparing to move to Egypt was a little more difficult, according to Thomason.
“I think the hardest thing for me was consolidating my life in preparation of the move. I only packed three bags to take with us, so most of our possessions were sold at garage sales and through Craigslist.
“It’s funny how much ‘stuff’ I had that turned out to be expendable. The mementos and some household basics like beds and couches are in storage until we get back.”
Still, the decision to move to another country for two years, was one that Thomason put a lot of thought into.
“It was a tough decision to make. Having to move us both away from all our families and friends was a big decision. Ultimately, I decided the unique experience outweighed any of the negatives,” Thomason said.
“Thank goodness for Facebook and Skype, though!”
To say that the Egyptian culture is different from the American culture, not to mention the Texan way of life, is an understatement.
“It hits you a hundred times a day,” Thomason admitted. “But, you really do get into a normal pattern and things that were so strange and odd at first become a matter of course. For instance, the call to prayers that are broadcast five times a day. I still hear them and always enjoy the haunting and exotic quality of them, but now I’m almost used to them. Now, though, I don’t stop what I’m doing to listen.”
Another big shock was the traffic in the city and simply getting around.
“When we first got here, I was completely lost every moment of every day. The streets and neighborhoods here can be a challenge to navigate. Especially with all the crazy driving,” she said.
After just a few short weeks, Thomason is happy to report that she can navigate her way home from just about anywhere in the city.
“And I’m not as afraid of taking a taxi and negotiating fares, now that I know what the fair price for rides around the area are,” she added.
“It’s funny how quickly you get settled into the normalcy of everyday life. The first couple of weeks were hectic and weird and sometimes difficult.”
Thomason said she and her daughter were unprepared for the effects and length of the jet lag they both experienced. Initially, they didn’t have “normal hours” for a while.
“Neither one of us could go to sleep at a reasonable time, so we would stay up until 3 or 4 in the morning and then get up at noon or later, take a nap, then stay up late again,” she explained. “But it actually worked out perfectly because we arrived during Ramadan, when all Muslims are fasting throughout the day, so they keep weird hours, too.”
She and her daughter made the best of their situation by getting their shopping and everyday things done at odd hours, including grocery shopping at 1 a.m.
The pair’s first night in Egypt was bizarre, however.
“It was in the height of summer and Ramadan, so the electricity was in full force after sunset. Because of the high electric use, our neighborhood had a blackout at around 8 or so,” Thomason said. “I remember laying there in complete darkness and almost having a panic attack until the last prayer of the day began playing and that soothed me enough to go to sleep that night.”
Settling in to New Home
The native Texans have found themselves settling down in their new home.
“I miss having a yard,” Thomason said. “I have adjusted to my new home and our new flat. I love the green area of our neighborhood. Everyone thinks of Egypt as all desert, but we’re in the Nile region, so there are a lot of green areas.”
Hanging her laundry out to dry outside her balcony has proven to be a challenge for Thomason. So has all the dust that quickly makes it’s way onto clean laundry and even into the flat.
“It’s nice having a ‘boab’ on the premises, who is like a general handyman, security guard and doorman,” she said.
Since arriving in Egypt, Thomason and her daughter have visited the pyramids at Giza, some of the mosques, churches, and synagogues in Old Cairo, the big market, the Egyptian Museum and Tahrir Square.
“We were also able to visit the Mediterranean Sea at Alexandria and also the Red Sea at a nice resort about an hour from here,” Thomason said.
Communication is not that difficult as most people there speak English, although Arabic is the national language.
Teaching in Egypt is remarkably similar to teaching in America, according to Thomason, with the main difference being in procedures.
“For instance, we have women that take care of everything for us here, from cleaning to moving furniture, to escorting students, to making copies. And there are forms for everything,” Thomason explained. “I thought America had perfected red tape.
“Other than that, though, the faculty meetings are similar, the pedagogical strategies are the same ones we learned back home, and the teachers all still have the same gripes – tardies, rowdiness, and getting the grading done.”
Being an American teacher in Egypt has been relatively smooth for Thomason. She is her daughter’s English teacher.
“Working and living here as an American has been very pleasant,” she said. “Everyone is very friendly, and, in fact, I feel a little guilty at times when talking to other Egyptian teachers because the expat teachers are given more benefits, such as free health care, higher salaries, living expenses, local trip allowances, and travel back home. However, Westerners are looked upon as rich in some ways, so the prices are increased for things like rent, so that evens it out a bit.”
According to Thomason, when she factors in the low cost of living and the room and board expenses that are paid by the school, the pay is comparable to what she was making in the Dallas area.
Egyptian students are very similar to American students, the English teacher said.
“The students here are very grade conscious, so that is a good motivator. The Egyptian students ask a lot more procedural type questions, which can bog down the classroom, but they are so respectful and friendly that I try not to let that get to me,” Thomason said. “I can honestly say I have not a single mean-spirited student. They are just a bit more rambunctious at times than the students at home, but that goes along with the Egyptian language and culture, which overall is very open and giving and expressive.”
After the recent protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Thomason said she makes sure to keep her eyes open for any anti-American situations.
“There have been absolutely no moments where I felt my safety was at risk,” she explained. “But we live in an area of Cairo called Ma’adi where most of the expats live, so the Egyptian residents are used to seeing Westerners out and about.”
The recent Mideast protests were stirred by a film made in the U.S. that denounces Islam’s holiest figure.
“There have only been a couple of times when I was nervous about my safety and that was in the first week or so and only when we were out with some of the other new expat teachers at night,” she continued. “There was also a couple of moments in taxis that made me uncomfortable.”
Egyptians, according to Thomason, are so willing to help you and look out for you.
“There is always someone around that wants to help you out. And the Islamic culture and religion have basic tenets that are strongly ingrained in the general population, so you can be guaranteed that even if someone is acting in a way that is forbidden or frowned upon, there are always others around that will subtly remind them that their behavior is not appropriate.”
One of the biggest obstacles Thomason has faced so far is her adjustment to the staring and general behavior of some of the men towards her.
“There is a definite stereotype of the blonde American female that is not exactly positive in this culture. Of course, if you watch American cable, it’s not a surprise that they have that image,” she explained.
Thomason said she can deal with the comments and the stares, but some of the behavior has a negative vibe. With time, however, she believes this will work itself out.
“As I have gotten to know some of the people in our little neighborhood, and they see we’re living here and not just tourists, a lot of that has decreased.”
A Typical Day
In Egypt, students go to school Sunday through Thursday. On those days, Thomason and Chloe get up around 6 a.m. and get ready for the day. They catch the school bus at 6:55 a.m. at a corner near their flat.
“The bus goes around and picks up the other expats and our principal each day at staggered times. We got lucky and got the latest time,” Thomason said.
They arrive at school around 7:30 every morning and at about 7:45 a.m., everyone lines up in the courtyard. There, Thomason said, “the students sing the national anthem, recite the pledge, and then a couple of students read/sing a passage from the Quran for the student body.”
Afterward, everyone heads to class after any administrative announcements. The school bus picks them up at the school at 3:45 p.m. and they head home with the other expats.
“I love our bus. It’s not like the ‘yellow dog’ I was expecting, but like a chartered bus,” Thomason explained.
Most days she and Chloe are home by 4:30 p.m.
“Typically, Chloe and I will stop by the Ace Club a few times a week after school and have a bite to eat and chit chat with friends and enjoy the general ambiance,” Thomason said.
The Ace Club is an expat club which includes a restaurant and features free Internet and activities such as live shows, dancing and karaoke.
“They are always playing Western television shows and sports where big game nights can get lively,” Thomason said. “It’s a small little Western haven in the middle of the lovely chaos of Cairo. There’s always something to do here if you just start walking.”
After initially being surprised by the many street vendors selling soft drinks, chocolate, chips, and other forms of junk food, Thomason has found some unique restaurants that deliver.
“I personally like the small hole-in-the wall Egyptian and Lebanese restaurants. I feel like it’s a shame to move somewhere like Cairo and only eat what you know,” she said.
She has become familiar enough with the area to know where she can get good fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods.
Eating healthy and staying fit is something she plans to do while in Cairo. That’s one reason she joined a local rugby team.
On Tuesdays she has rugby practice and on Sundays she conditions with the team.
“I pulled my ACL at the first game of the season, so conditioning and practice will not be as participatory as I had expected, but I’m still going to show up to continue to learn the game and have fun with the team,” she continued.
Thomason also plans to start working out a local gym she has joined, adding that it’s just as hard to stay motivated to work out in Cairo as it was back in Texas.
Eventually, she would like to start taking Arabic lessons and get Chloe into some extracurricular activities.
“We finally got satellite at home with a few English speaking channels, so Chloe gets her MTV watching in on most nights as well.”
For friends back in the States, Thomason said the time difference is seven hours. For example, when it’s noon in Palestine, it’s 7 p.m. in Egypt.
Thomason credits the friendliness of everyone at her school and in Cairo in general, to making their adjustment to life there “remarkably smooth.”
Although the school year is young, she and Chloe have yet to experience homesickness for the States or Texas.
“I think it’s helped having Skype and Facebook and my blog,” Thomason said. “We’ll be coming back (next) summer. My sister and mom will be coming to visit in the spring, so we’re looking forward to that. I’m sure the closer it gets to summer, the more homesick we’ll get.”
Spending the holidays, especially Christmas, in Cairo is something she is not exactly looking forward to.
“It’s the first year in my entire life that I will be away from my family,” she said. “I’m trying to figure out something for us to do around here that will make the day special.”
During Thomason’s second year of teaching in Cairo, the school will pay for her and Chloe’s trip back to Texas for Christmas.
Global Paradigm School also will pay for them to travel to Texas next summer.
Recognizing the remarkable experience she and her daughter have embarked on for the next couple of years, Thomason has been documenting and sharing her Egyptian adventure through her blog.
Readers can follow her blog, Jennifer’s Egyptian Adventure, at: http://egyptwordsmith.blogspot.com/