Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Whale Shark: A shark so large that it eats whales

Off of the coast of Mozambique where I live there occurs a yearly migration of whale sharks. They are the biggest fish in the sea, growing up to 15 meters long. There are very few in the world, and getting harder and harder to find. But you can snorkel with whale sharks right off the beach in certain areas along the coast. It was on the bucket lists of many volunteers. Though whale sharks are technically sharks they feed on krill like whales do, thus their name, and pose no danger to people.

That being said, the idea of swimming with an animal (a shark) bigger than a car and longer than a bus was terrifying to me. I had been having nightmares about hungry beasts in murky water for months in anticipation.

My friends and I met in Tofo to check off the whale shark from our bucket lists. Everyone was excited the morning of, and I acted like I was too. I’m sure that I was white as a sheet by the way my friends kept asking me if something was wrong. I said I was nervous about sea sickness.

There are no guarantees of seeing a whale shark our anything else on these “ocean safaris”. You just drive around on a boat and hope you see something. We met a group of college age guys (fooling around and giggling like kids in a ball pit) who had gone the day before for three hours and seen nothing at all.

The chance that I wouldn’t see one gave me some cowardly hope. Hope that was squelched fifteen minutes after leaving the shore when the skipper shouted, “All right get your fins on!” We scrambled to get into our fins and cram our masks onto our faces, “IT’S OVER THERE GET IN GET IN GET IN!!”

In the grip of terror I fell like a sack of potatoes into the water. I put my head under, my whole body electric with anticipation. The visibility was only a few meters, “IT’S RIGHT THERE OVER THERE LOOK!!!” The skipper screamed at us. I turned numbly in the direction he was pointing.

And out of the murkiness came the sleek, enormous head of the largest fish in the sea, coming straight for me. Every nerve in my body fired at once (no I did NOT soil myself) and I stared wide eyed and helpless. Was it going to hit me? Was it going to eat me? A childlike terror/wonder overcame me. It passed underneath, its dorsal fin cutting the water next to me.

Everyone says the same thing about seeing a whale shark. They move with an effortless grace, not seeming to rush at all as they cruise. They are majestic; despite their size they move in utter silence. I looked down at its skin—so close I could have touched it had I been capable of any motor function—which was a deep grey with white spots, which under the broken light of the surface twinkled like (give me a break here) stars.

I remember the moment when my (baseless) fear turned into wonder. As it passed I turned and swam after it. I followed as long as I could until it’s huge tail swished back and forth back out of sight.

We followed the same shark and swam with it twice more. We later saw humpback whales. Great day.

Cheaters/Team Players

It occurred to me that it’s a little late to update my blog. But my mom has asked me to, and I like the idea of having a few memories written down about the end of my service.

There are many difficult aspects of my job. I teach my students only two 45 minute periods a week, the curriculum is comically impossible to follow, the inefficiency of standard procedure is worshipped, and my students perform poorly. But perhaps the most frustrating part of my job is testing my students, not because they don’t do well, but because they cheat.

They cheat and cheat and cheat. If you look away from the class for a moment, they look at each others’ answers. They are constantly ready for any opportunity. You turn and write something on the board and you can hear their whispers behind you. You bend down to pick up a dropped pen and whip your head up and sure enough their eyes have already begun to wander. Their focus on your focus is impressive, and unwavering.

So you punish them. I have structured, unvarying means of punishing them that they know well. I don’t hesitate to punish them publically, ceremonially, to show the class that cheating has its consequences. I take tests away and kick students out in almost every test I give.

The problem isn’t in actually catching them—as far as we Peace Corps Volunteers can tell (because we ALL have this same problem in all parts of the country), that is to say I don’t think they are getting away with it under my nose. We catch them all the time. It’s easy: who is looking at you? “The test is not written on my face” I bark at them: I know you are waiting for my attention to falter, please just use your brain and suck it up and take the &^%*# test. They use what we call “cabulas”, which are like cheat sheets. Students hide them in their collars, waist lines, under their ties, and up their sleeves. But I still catch them all the time.

And when you do they never EVER admit it and apologize. It’s silly most of the time. Here’s a good example: in one of my tests a student was hiding his notebook under the desk. I caught him looking at it and took it from him, telling him (and all the class) that he would receive a zero and was hereby banished from the room. He denied that it was his. He began to raise his voice in protest at the injustice. I showed him that his name was written across the front. His denials became more impassioned. He swore it wasn’t his, that I just couldn’t give him a zero, that it was wrong and that I was cruel. I threw the notebook on the ground in front of the class. He sat in his desk and refused to leave for a few minutes. Then he got up, took the notebook and left in silence.

I get so angry after test days that I want to scream. I find myself saying they are all a bunch of unrepentant liars and cheaters.

I have a reputation in my school for enforcing cheating. I stalk the classroom in silence, waiting for someone to turn and look at me (the cheaters almost always do). I wear sunglasses so they can’t see my eyes. I bark at anyone doing anything suspicious. But when I walk into the classroom to control final exams the students whoop and shout and sometimes cheer. I never understood this, why cheer?

The answer to that question helps elucidate why they cheat so much. I believe that they cheer because I am one of the only teachers that even remotely enforces the rules on cheating during exams. If you walked classroom to classroom during final exams you would find teachers grading exams in front of their classes, paying no mind whatsoever to the students. It is just as common to see teachers outside chatting to each other, or on cell phones, maybe-sort-of-near the door to the classroom they should be controlling.

Cheating is supposed to be wrong, none of the rules in Mozambique are technically different. But it isn’t enforced at all, so in a way the words “cheating is wrong” are empty, and the honor and morality that those words defend is meaningless. But I remind them of the rules, and my zealous defense of them reinforces their sacredness—or what their sacredness would be, if I wasn’t absolutely the only teacher doing this. That isn’t to say that I am the last bastion of honor in Mozambique, but that in this one little way my behavior does preserve a moral code, or at least reminds them of it. And people like that.

But I come home fuming mad. Why? I ask myself, why do they cheat and lie? Some volunteers have teased out an answer that I think makes sense: they don’t see themselves as disobeying the sacred rules of honesty, they see themselves as helping each other. The students know that grades are important, in some ways they are more important than the material they are supposed to represent. If their friend is failing, they may try to help them. Especially if there are no consequences i.e. if their teacher is outside playing snake on their phone. The educational system here is a disaster, but graduating will at least give them some pedigree, however small. So what I see as cheating and wrong, they might simply see as a good turn. They are more community minded than Americans, they are not nearly as competitive with each other. It’s not so much “why not help a friend?” as “you have a responsibility to help a friend”.

Why they deny it afterwards is still a mystery to me, and it gets under my skin even after two years. I’ll scold them and give them zeros. But interestingly they never hold it against me. After their theatrical displays, accusing me of being unfair and callous, after they storm out of the room, they are never mad the next day. It’s a wonder about Mozambicans in general, they don’t hold grudges. It takes the edge off of everything.

I pondered this as I sat in a meeting at school. I wondered how many of the grades we give were earned with cabulas and cheating, and if any of the other teachers ever thought about it or cared. As my mind wandered I looked down at the desk I was using, a student’s desk from one of the classrooms. And there, meticulously carved into the wood were a matrix of English words, definitions and conjugations. It was all of the material for my final exam.