Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Preschool and the Mafia

The last weeks have been madness. From the blandness of my first weeks, slowly creeping by without a central theme, the last few have been a relative blur. I am a teacher now.

The challenges are epic. To teach English to overcrowded classes when they have sometimes as many as 12 other subjects and I get them for only 2 forty-five minute periods a week. Add to that no textbooks and poor English teaching in the past and I have my work cut out for me. At the beginning of the week my lesson plans bomb, only towards the end do they really shape up into quality lessons

But I don't want to write about that for now. I have two years to develop accurate pictures and generalizations.

In front of my house every day the mission puts on "Escolinha" or "little school" meaning preschool. There they learn Portuguese (remember that the people in my village do not speak Portuguese at home) and get used to the idea of being in a class and following a teacher's directions etc.

Escolinha just started, and there was a lot of crying. Moms had to stay and reassure their kids, and teachers had to coax them into the group. But the best part from a spectator's standpoint was not the crying kids, it was the children taking matters into their own hands...

Escape! There are perpetually a small group of intrepid four year olds who have no intention whatsoever of being subject to this Escolinha nonsense. They hover near the gate, and when it opens, bang! They're off. They sprint/waddle as small children do out of the mission and down the street. Do they know their way home? Obviously that concern is not as pressing as the idea of spending several hours among strange adults. It's hilarious how they watch the gate out of the corner of their eye, inching closer as a stranger approaches, praying that this will be the one. "Come back here right now!" The teacher shouts at them, but it only spurs them on in their furious sprint/waddle to freedom.

Secondly, the Italians. The Peace Corps presence in my village is dwarfed by the army of Italians doing aid work here. We affectionately refer to them as the Mafia, a jibe that they accept congenially. I've never met I real life Italian before coming here, but they are just about how they are made out to be. Lots of gesticulating when they talk, outrageous multi-course meals that we can never finish, and constant welcoming. "You are part of the family now" my friend Sam says over and over patting my on the back over and over.

They've all been doing aid work for years. Sam was in Sudan. Alberto has been here in Mozambique for five years. Others Kenya, Latin America--they're pros all. They add an interesting flavor to my life here.

Quick pause, a student just stopped by to say hi. Weird...

Anyways the Italians. Out here, far from home, just like me. But better at it than me, and welcoming to boot.

So life here is changing. The novelty of my life is wearing down, creating a new comfort and a new anxiety. There was a moment a few days ago when I thought about the career abroad like the Italians have had. A life of new languages and new peoples and new challenges. For a moment I thought about it. It passed just as quickly, but the fact that it crossed my mind I think represents something, a small checkpoint in my evolution.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

''con" whatever

Mango season is ending. Months of the best mangoes anyone has ever eaten is drawing to a close. It fills my heart with sadness and apprehension for the next month or so when we only have bananas. But hope springs eternal, and orange season is just over the horizon. Anyways…

I survived.

The first week of school came and went, and I survived. Learning by doing at it’s most raw.

My first day was the roughest. I have six classes in a row on Monday, and after the first one I was certain I had never been so exhausted in my life. My brain was fried, my Portuguese all but gone. I didn’t know how I’d make it through the next periods. By the fourth period I was numb from my feet (did you know teachers have to stay standing ALL DAY?! It’s crazy!) to my brain, which was about as good as a baked potato.

The high point of the day was when I saw on my schedule a class abbreviated “Con,” short for “cozinha” for the kids learning how to be cooks (my school is a professional school). I was thirty minutes into the lesson, I had already introduced myself and the class rules, I thought things were going pretty well. Then a colleague entered. “So it’s my time, eh?” he said. No, I explained, he was either thirty minutes too late or fifteen too early. No, he explained, “Con” stands for “Contabilidade” which are the kids studying to be accountants, not cozinha.

I sprinted across the school and tried to cram my lesson into 15 minutes for the accounting kids who had been sitting in their classroom without a teacher for the better part of an hour.

All day I was ready for a unified insurrection from my classes. I expected mutiny, but more than that I got confusion. Not from me (to clarify: I was confused all day) but from them. At one point I asked them to introduce themselves to three other people in the class in English. I figured this to be a relatively easy and fun exercise, allowing them to get up and maybe goof around a little bit. What I got was forty blank stares.

I explained three more times what they should do, and eventually a handful of the 40-student class tentatively stood up or turned to a neighbor. I was flabbergasted. What had I done wrong? I asked my Italian neighbors who work with the school, and they said that it was probably because they had never done anything like that before.

“They just came from primary school,” my neighbor explained, “they were trained to sit still, memorize and repeat.” A miserable fate indeed, but it makes their confusion (and mine) more understandable. This in conjunction with it being their first day of high school, me being their first crazy American teacher, and on top of all that me asking them to do something that they had never done before.

I am now “Teacher Colin,” a name that follows me through the streets as I walk to the market, on my way out of mass, as I nap on the beach. The title bears some responsibility, but I am grateful to finally have a real job and challenges to occupy my life. My sitemate said that a student referred to me as “gangster,” and it’s hearing things like this that get you through the day.