Saturday, August 11, 2012

Memories of Saparua #1: The Classroom

Sorry for the long silence. Strange how a tipping point is reached when you move somewhere new--as I get accustomed to my surroundings I lose the urge to relate them to others.

My ten months in Saparua has shifted my perspective in a few subtle but significant ways, so I'd like to try to get some thoughts down now, three months after the end of my grant. This may become a short series of posts...

The Classroom is a dangerous place

It's dangerous because, in a grossly underfunded and underdeveloped education system, the classroom is too often a place where children go to have their natural curiosity systematically crushed. Maluku is not unique in this, I witnessed it in all three of the high schools I attended in the United States. The difference in Maluku, especially the smaller islands like Saparua, is that the local economy has nothing to offer the handful of students whose curiosity and love of learning is not crushed by the years of rote memorization and well-intended shaming that their minimally trained teachers put them through. In Saparua, a young man can become a farmer, a fisherman, a motorcycle-taxi driver, a shop-worker, a teacher, and very little else. Unlike the way things were 30 years ago (according to my 72 year-old friend Piet, featured in a previous post), these professions seem to barely allow a man to feed his family, and it's getting tougher every year.

What's happening? Well, the fish are disappearing for one. Many of us have heard the reports from marine scientists on the decline of fish populations, but villagers in Maluku don't need reports. Their memories serve just fine. Every year, they say, the fish are fewer, smaller, and more expensive. But that's a topic for another post.

There is so much I don't understand about the way these kids operate. For example, if I ask someone a question, they avoid my eyes and whisper to their nearest classmate while I wait pointlessly for them to attempt an answer. Eventually someone somewhere in the room mutters an answer, which makes its way from ear to cupped ear until the student I asked finally delivers it in a barely audible voice, still avoiding my eyes.

After a while I gave up asking individuals to answer questions or repeat things. I tried instead to get groups of them to do things together. This worked a lot better, but felt like we'd never get past the repeat-after-me stage.

One day I had my eleventh-graders improvise a market scene to practice some useful English. Harvesting the school's garden for effect was their idea.
Once in a while, like the day pictured above, I'd get an explosion of participation, but it would be difficult to channel it in useful directions, and more difficult to repeat it.

Then there were the distractions. Check out the pic below, you can see the next classroom through the makeshift classroom wall. As it turned out, when I taught in this particular room the class next door had a teacher-free hour, which happened fairly often. The school didn't have enough teachers maybe, or maybe their schedules were poorly organized. The result was I couldn't hear myself speak over the excited chatter, let alone hear the timid voices of my students.

Dela, an eleventh-grader with a brilliant wit and joyful personality, nearly always covers her mouth like this when she smiles. She does this because several of her front teeth have rotted away. We never really talked about it, but it's easy to see that she's painfully aware of the effect this has on her otherwise very pretty face. I can't tell you how many times I've wondered the extent to which her life will be shaped by the lack of some good dental work.

Sometimes I'd be teaching and suddenly my students would jump up and run out of the classroom in mid-sentence to check out a fight or some other disturbance. Despite the novelty of having a foreigner as a teacher, most days it felt like it was all I could do to keep them from checking out completely. And really, how could I blame them? They were years behind their English curriculum, but still laboring along anyway, memorizing a word here and there, passing exams by cheating, waiting out each school day hour by hour until they could go home and do this:
Definitely more fun than school.
About 5% of my students were seriously talented and engaged. For those few, who could go so far given the right opportunities, the classroom seemed to me like a tragic tease, a place where their awareness will grow enough for them to realize how far behind their Javanese peers they are, how peripheral the concerns of their province are to the national government, how wealthy the earth and water they inhabit has been, and how powerless they are to stop its being looted by the powerful.
They don't seem to see it that way though. They can't wait to go to college, to learn more about the world around them. Many want to get out of the island paradise where they were born and move to a big noisy city to find and take part in the bloated society whose music and motors and plastic packaging
bleed solvent onto their beeches and into their minds, for better or worse. It's what they want, and for better or worse, I want to help them do it if I can.

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