Thursday, August 29, 2013

July 24, Pommern - Real Post.

(As written in my journal that day; grammar and minor edits only. Italicized portions are additions written after the trip.)

Picking up where I left off with yesterday...

Edward asked us for the day's rose and the day's thorn at dinner tonight.

Well, thorns first... so Meggie and I were assigned last night to our first real job: the secondary school. This morning, despite the pained glances last night and anxiety all through breakfast, we were delivered to Mr. Lemphoid Msugu (or at least that's what Edward thinks his name is; Edward is not great with names and I said to Meggie that if he struggles with pronouncing "Lemphoid" then I am perfectly fine calling him Mr. Msugu the whole time, which I can at least pronounce). 

He is an absolutely handsome young man in a sharply tailored narrow suit. The male teachers wear suits here - though they usually don't match coat to pants. And I saw more than one young man with the label still affixed to the outside cuff; I am guessing it looks cool, English writing, rather than incorrect, as it does to me.

With high cheek bones, almond eyes set wide, and a hefty dose of cologne (but hey, considering the alternative, it smells great), Mr. M is so eager to talk with us, to learn from us. We spend the prep hour or 75 minutes he has in the English Department office, talking. (The office is so small that we have to move the lone desk to sit in the two chairs. Then we pull the desk back over our laps, and Mr. M gets another chair to join us. There is now no room to walk in or out of the office, but perhaps the sign on the door is what keeps students away. "No English, No Service." The other English teacher is prepping - by reading a newspaper about futbol. He asks us if we know Thierry Henry and we try to describe America's MLS soccer and how there are few teams nationwide and we're watchers of the NFL (or I am at least), but on in our city, to have a popular team, is very rare... none of it lands. We clearly must live in a place where every city has professional futbol and everyone loves it; Americans are smart and it's a great game; you all love it, right?? Sure.) 

Mr. M asks me how people apply for jobs in America, and not being sure what he means, I stumble to explain that most jobs are posted on the internet, but that you would find one you liked and could do well, and then send in a resume and a cover letter. He doesn't know the word resume - but he does know curriculum vitae, of course, the British version! Then he shows me the lesson he designed on how to apply for a job, and it was excellent. Not only did it teach the proper steps of how to respond to a Help Wanted Ad and how to craft a CV, it was creative enough to teach persuasion (convince the business why you are a good fit), as well as some descriptive and instructional writing. He showed me his lesson on poetry, and a poem he wrote about love using a prompt in the syllabus (book) - and it's not Keats but it's not bad at all! Sprinkled through our time together, he says he is starting a unit on creative writing with his students today - who are about 9th/10th graders.

Since he first mentioned it, Meggie has been furiously writing ideas on how to talk about creative writing - what goes into it? How do you describe such a vast concept to students totally new to the idea? I'd rather ignore the ticking clock. But Meggie is making an outline. Character descriptions, motivations. The 5 Ws. Mr. M has never heard of the 5 Ws and really likes the idea. He asks if we will teach the lesson.


Edward told all of us - except those on the water tower base construction project - that today was observation day. We'd be in classrooms (everyone else is at the primary school or the kindergarten; only Meggie and I are at the secondary school) to watch the teachers, and get a sense of the pace, the lessons, the students, the process.

But we stumble. We don't communicate with each other. I answer quickly and suggest we observe for ten minutes, and then take over. I believe the class is 50 minutes long. It's not until we're in the middle of one of those anxiety attacks where everything feels simultaneously sped-up and slowed-down that I realize it's a double period, and class is 100 minutes long.

We go as a group of three to the Academic Office to pick up the books. This is a pink book: English for Tanzanian Classrooms, Standard 3. Madam Sbarra, second in charge behind the headmaster, glares at us from behind her walled-in Academic Office, covered in dust and stacked with messy papers, and checks out the books for two days, begrudgingly. We get eight books - they are beat-up paperbacks in a totally British style, plodding from one little lesson - title, objective, reading, conversation questions, homework - to the next. English in a box, from literal language to concept.

We go to the Standard 3 classroom with the ringing of the bell.

"Good morning, teachers!" greets us all, in a shout.

Mr. M introduces us. There is a bit of giggling and lots of staring. There is a world map painted on the abck wall. Meggie speaks in her teacher voice. "Hello and thank you for having us. We are from America. Here is where we live in America..." and she walks back, through the deep rows, and puts her finger on a green bit of land on the far side of the United States. Boisterous and hysterical laughter erupts. I'm not sure still why this was funny. Was it because it is even farther than the side of America close to Africa?

Mr. M recaps the previous lesson to blank stares (it was about how to identify and complete those various types of writing - descriptive, instructional, persuasive, expository) and then turns to us, sitting on the side, in the front. "Now, you want to teach creative writing?"

"Oh God." Explosively, but under my breath. Just to Meggie. And away we go.

So many things we did wrong, and so much was laid bare. We were fooled yesterday by the uniforms, the polite and well-behaved room of about 56 students (my count was a little shaky; 53? 56?). All, all, ALL the talk of education so far as the only savior from the greater minds around us.

We begin our lesson by reading the story out loud as a group - thank god for Meggie the teacher knowing how to at least start off a lesson; I stand there frozen - and it's like me reading Spanish. I can do it, all day long, reasonably well. But do I know what I'm saying? No, and neither do they. The reading has hit or miss inflection and zero comprehension.

We get to the questions (the best part of class so far was the every-other-paragraph that I read, in an overly animated theatrical style, making them laugh at my expression even if they don't know the words) and it rapidly becomes clear that this is rote memorization at best, and bureaucratic plowing through a fucking British style textbook at worst.

In the next day or two I learn that they say, "Good morning, teachers!" And we say, "Good morning." They reply, "How are you?" and we respond, "Good, and how are you?" and they say, "Fine, thanks for asking!" But if I were to say, "Good morning," and then they asked how I was, and I said, "Why don't you go shit a brick?" they'd say, "Fine, thanks for asking!"

45 kids don't what is going on at all. 10 are muddling through, at 30-40 %. 2, one boy and one girl, get it nearly all of it. 2 of 56. Sharing seven books because sadly, Meggie and I take one to share so we have something to cling to, to teach from. "Teach" from.

The structure of class, the homework and the marking (Brit for grading) - it's all a goddamn sham. At least in America we don't lie to kids. We straight up tell them that money, fame and athleticism equals success and happiness. These lies... that this English class and this joke of an education system is the path to safety, security, income and success? Please. It's just another imperial/colonial trick. Well done, us. Too bad for you.

We're supposed to teach creative writing based on a fable about Mr. Tortoise - and how his selfishness and trickery landed him the bumpy, cracked-looking shell he has today - but they don't understand the fable's actual words, much less their metaphorical meaning or lessons about being kind to others. I don't think they know what a tortoise is. During the vocabulary section - structured AFTER trying to teach metaphorical language!!!! - Mr. M asks me what "great orator" means. Jesus. We need to go back to fundamentals. But these are 9th and 10th graders. That ship sailed. They learn in English all day - WHY!? Teach them about similes, characteristics, and proverbs in fucking Kiswahili! Get the concept in your second language before your third.

And this is one class in one school on one day in all of Africa.

A good school! (They tell us.) A respected school! (They tell us.) But when I give it up as my thorn, even Edward first asks if we marked papers today, or will need to tomorrow.  Bureaucratic habits. They can't go to their next class, see, until marking is done. So you're telling me (I say this in my head, not out loud) that they do the reading, learning, homework AND wait for grading of 56 assignments to take place during class? Well that's a great use of class time. Great use of limited teaching resources. Glad the teachers have hours of prep time each week to pull some non-sensical shit out of a book handed to them by the government and not expand on it at all - but they'll be godddamned if they don't get a 30 minute teatime break with hot mandazi, yes sir. I come to realize all the teaching and learning happens in the classroom and not a minute happens outside of it. Think how hard your teachers worked, and work, outside of the classroom!? My brain hurts. 

But it's not their fault either, and I know it - but to see the entire show, the entire joke of a system in concert with each ridiculous moving part at once, and how generations of this crap got us here... in a single moment... is... overwhelming. Dejecting. Anger and guilt inducing. And then the blame sets in, elsewhere, off the kids and off the teachers and off the system.

I never should have said OK to leading the class after ten minutes (that was actually two). How did I not see the true level they were at? Was the wool pulled over my eyes - as I feel - or is that a cover to protect myself? Why didn't I listen to my intuition when he asked for ten minutes of observation, then teaching? I cry a lot tonight; I hate the lesson of the great pain that comes from ignoring my intuition - but this lesson comes again and again and again, so I have much to learn.

And I ignored it because I can't say no here.

Sure, I can say no to giving away all my money. I can say no to food or water I know will make me sick. I can say no to things I'm too afraid to try - walking outside at night. But I can't say no to an emotional ask - there are no boundaries when it comes to a rural African teacher with just a year and four months' tenure asking me to pick up a book, in English, and teach it, in English.  I don't get to say no to that. That's an entitled person's boundary to set.

But then here I am, having not let myself set it, sobbing to Meggie, and in so doing failed myself and failed Mr. Msugu.

We let him show the kids that he thinks we're superior - and what? After two weeks, we go, and the next white American volunteer is also superior? We all are? There's my imperial system. It was our job to empower him by observing, encouraging, and maybe later suggesting. Our job to build him up and assist and serve him. I failed at it, because I couldn't listen to my inner voice and because I couldn't set a boundary, and that first world issue results in me causing hard to the third world. And with the tiniest bit of time I get to spend here, using it to hurt?... that feels significant enough to make me want to run away right now.

1 comment:

  1. I wouldn't categorize your attempt to teach as "using your time to hurt." Not at all. Maybe waiting before responding to his request would have served you better in the long run--but you were trying to do what you could, there in the moment.