Tuesday, September 3, 2013

July 25: The Best Laid Plans

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

Before Edward excused himself last night to go home, he warned Meggie and I that tomorrow, the headmaster would be gone from the secondary school.

"Things may not be as well there tomorrow. When he is gone, Madame Sbarra is in charge, and she can like to hide. She pretends not to see things, her head in the sand, like the ostrich bird. So just be aware of this. And when teatime comes, do not have tea with the teachers. Come back here to the mission house. It won't be good there, and you shouldn't be there at that time. Have some tea and toast here, and then you go back for your next assignments with Onalina in the secretary's office and Adrian for planning the physical exercise."

We walk down early, for a 7:30 AM class of different English students (one 50-minute period, not a double period this time!).

And? Mr. Msugu is out - but his substitute sure is ready for us to take over. And this is in fact the same class of students as yesterday (we were assured it would not be).

!!!

I freak out - inside. I get wide eyed and silent; the sub does not know what lesson we taught yesterday or where this English class is in their curriculum. I think he said he's been teaching for about five months?

But Meggie steps up. She sets the expectation - no, sorry, our plan is to observe and observe only, and here is what we taught in the Standard 3 book yesterday. He says, "Oh, ok, yeah, and then you'll teach the next lesson?" She is firm and says we'll be sitting by, but we can mark the papers - if the homework was indeed done.

It was extremely unclear at the end of yesterday's class whether any homework was assigned. The pat little lesson about Mr. Tortoise included a homework assignment. If you recall, the tale of Mr. Tortoise was a fable about how he ended up with a bumpy and cracked-looking shell. The homework assignment was to write a creative and original story that ends, "And that's why the snake has no ears." 

No small task in your first language, if you ask me - much less your third! However, homework was a vague concept to us - sometimes done at home, sometimes done in class, but always corrected/marked during class time. The sub wanted to know if homework was assigned and we shrugged. It was explained (sort of) while the bell was ringing yesterday; did the students take that to be an assignment due today, or a suggestion? I guess we'll find out - and the sub doesn't seem overly worried about it. 


Teachers are dressed down. The bell rings. Students are slipping in, late to class.

"Good morning teachers!" That rigamarole.

And of yesterday's two star pupils (the two that understood), just one, the boy, has done the homework. The rest of the class just blinks back at us. And his story is wonderful - the Frog convinced the Snake to trade over his ears so that all animals could see and hear equally well, but then took the ears and hopped away quick - not trading in his own eyes to the pile of senses. (Never mind that frogs don't have ears either; the basic concept of his story is there and has enough logic to stand.)

The sub asks who understood the story (it was read by the boy in English, of course). No hands go up. No nods. No eye contact.

The sub has been switching between Swahili and English and now says to the students, "I want to understand why the assignment was not done - what part did you misunderstand? Is it not understanding what creative writing IS or did you not understand what this one assignment was asking, about the snake and the ears?"

So at the sub's direction, our start pupil reads his story again in English, and then paraphrases it in Swahili. I'm soaring, watching eyes light up around the room with comprehension of this specific story and what the assignment was - and perhaps even the very basic concept of creative writing - making up a story from your own mind! - and I'm thinking, oh my gosh, we can explain the 5 W's now, using HIS story! This could be a tiny piece of helpfulness; heck, even writers and journalists in America can use a brush up on the 5 W's from time to time.

And literally as he finishes the Swahili recap, and heads for his seat in the back row among the tallest boys, two young women come in, with tall bamboo sticks. With a swagger. Swinging the sticks. I realize they're teachers, and though dressed very informally they're impressive and intimidating, and I say later to Meggie I thought right away, "They do a very good SS officer impression."

Then they ask all the boys in the back to stand up, shouting at them. Meggie and I are seated in the front and between us is a woman teacher who had a prep period, and rather than work in an office, asked to observe this class so she could, as she whispered to me at the start of the class, "get all the wisdom from you." She whispers to us what they yelling is about.

"The headmaster is gone, and they did not clean their rooms, you know, their dorm areas, this morning, so they have to be punished."

The women begin beating the kids with bamboo sticks. It's not fair to call them sticks; but neither are they quite bamboo poles. Somewhere in between.

They hit them - hard. Full, lean-back and put your back into it, get-a-good-grip and a fulcrum point hitting. Go-all-out beating. A beating that breaks the bamboo sticks eventually - in a few pieces, leaving shards behind and leaving students crying in their wake.

I look away pretty quickly and take in only the sounds - sticks hitting, kids screaming, other kids laughing, some gasping. The women teachers yelling. Ostensibly, it looks like corporal punishment is normally doled out on the palms - but those who don't volunteer their palms up at about head height are beat about the shoulders, back, head.

I look up as the women leave the room, sticks fairly demolished, and many of the children are pointing at each other and laughing, even with tear-stained faces of their own. A couple are quietly crying; many are blowing on their palms to take the sting out. I had to look down as the beating worked toward the crescendo - to not cry, and also because I didn't want to appear to condone it. I ask the teacher sitting with us, "Is this common, is this a regular thing?" and she says it is, but these women are wrong to do it without asking the presiding teacher's permission.

I think I can make it through the rest of class. I haven't looked at Meggie yet.

But then the sub asks us to go. "The students... the students they have a fever now. From this. They cannot learn well now. You go, and you come back another time." I'm a little confused and affirm with him - we should leave? Now? I point outside. Out the front door of the classroom? I point at our own chests. Us? Now? He nods.

We don't make it down the four stone steps before Meggie's losing it; it'll be a little later for me. Instead, you might have guessed, I'm angry at these women - these backwards, gleeful, power-hungry teachers. So ror a second day in a row, we walk up the long red-dust path from the secondary school to the mission house, my arm tightly around Meggie as she sobs and I clench my teeth in anger so hard it hurts.

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