There is an ironic quote on the calendar of Ministry of Basic Education that says, “Every minute lost learners suffer.” I always scoffed at the quote, because all they do around here is waste time. But I think I’ve figured it out. Learners only suffer if minutes are lost. If an entire month is lost, well, that’s ok. Exams began on April 7th and will continue until the end of the month. During this time, learners do not have classes. Exam month occurs every trimester, meaning approximately 3 months out of the school term are spent on exams. Now for English, we use old exams that are set by Cambridge. Essentially, the exams are standardized tests, which we all know are quite controversial in America. Here, their entire trimester grade will be based entirely on the result of this exam. Never mind anything I’ve taught them in class.
The whole exam system here is entirely new to me, so I have no idea what I’m doing and I made several mistakes. For example, I foolishly gave my ninth graders an exam from the subject file without thoroughly investigating it. When I came to mark it, I discovered that there were several errors in the question paper that confused the learners. But that was a very minor problem in comparison to the fiasco with the 11th graders. I thought they knew all about the exams, so I didn’t prepare them by explaining the format and time limits. I essentially sent my poor learners into the exam cold. The primary mistake I made was to remove the cover sheet of the exam. My subject head had suggested this, since we are using old exams, as a means of preventing the learners from knowing which exam they are taking. Two problems ensued. Without the cover sheet, the learners did not know what the time limit for the exam was. When I gave the question papers to the teachers who were invigilating the exams, I told them it was a 2 hour test, and I had it clearly marked on the folder. However, the learners were mistakenly following the timetable, which had allotted 2 hours and 30 minutes for the exam. So even if the teacher told them it was only two hours, they were still thinking it was 2 ½ hours. Even my best students did not complete the exam because they were counting on an extra half hour. The second mistake was that without the cover sheet, the pages were off one, meaning that the text was printed on one side of the sheet and the questions on the back, making it impossible for the learners to easily look between the questions and the reference text. But with 108 copies of a 10 page test already made, what could I do? I realize my mistakes too late. Tuesday was only the beginning though.
On Wednesday, my 11th graders had the listening comprehension section of the exam. As the owner of one of the three tape players on the school premises, I invigilated one of my own classes, 11C, for this part of the exam. I emphasized that the exam was only 45 minutes long, regardless of what the timetable said. Then I passed out the question papers and instructed the learners to put their names on the papers and also glance through them to familiarize themselves with the format. I happened to notice one learner in the front row start to write something under the first question. I thought he was just confused, so I jokingly reminded the class that they had to wait until they listened to the tape before they could answer any of the questions. The class teetered with nervous laughter. Ah, the foreshadowing of life that becomes evident in retrospect. I started the tape and they took the exam, while I watched them vigilantly. After the exam, I collected the question papers and gather up the tape player to go to my next invigilating duty. On my way out the door, I notice a large group of my learners huddled together studying something. What could be so interesting right after the exam? I went to them and discovered that they were all eagerly looking over a copy of the exact question paper they just took. But this one has already been marked, and had the corrected answers penciled in. Ah-ha! This explains a lot. I confiscated the paper as evidence and stormed away amidst a barrage of protests.
I was so angry! I know there is an inherent danger in reusing previous exams, but my supervisor assured me that it was a common practice and so the question papers are never given to learners to keep. Teachers are supposed to return the exams, go over the correct answers with the learners, then re-collect them. There was evidently a security breech somewhere. But more than this, the naïve optimist in me was angered by the learners’ incessant drive to cheat. This is why I am a critical cynic: humanity keeps disappointing me. But I was also angry at myself. Maybe if I were a better teacher and could prepare them for the exam better they wouldn’t feel the need to cheat. I was also upset about a system that put so much emphasis on one exam. And maybe I should have gone to great lengths to set my own exam, but make it parallel to the Cambridge ones. I was also frustrated because I didn’t know what to do. It would be impossible to pinpoint everyone who had cheated, and I still don’t know how they knew which exam I would be giving them. I couldn’t count on anyone being honest.
All these problems, which seemed so dramatic at the time, were solved easily enough. It turns out the security breech was in fact committed by my supervisor, who was extremely apologetic. I don’t blame him, because these things happen. He simply suggested that he could choose a different question paper, one that he was sure learners did not have a copy of, and everyone would retake the exam. This was a very good solution for a number of reasons. I would retype the cover sheet myself, to include the duration of the exam, and make sure the copies had the text and questions on facing pages. Furthermore, the learners, those that hadn’t cheated, would now have an idea of what to expect and how to pace themselves with a two-hour limit. And maybe on the listening section, they would all have to wait until the tape started playing to know how to answer the questions.
I often wish I had a secret video camera, but I especially needed one today when I went to each of my classes to inform them that they would be taking a new English exam next week. I could have recorded the various reactions of the learners at the exact moment I broke the news to determine who had cheated. Most were happy at the prospect of having another chance, and the announcement was greeted with applause, but I noticed a few learners who looked genuinely disappointed. One girl was particularly angry and started to argue with me, until I hinted that maybe she was angry because she wasn’t going to be able to cheat on this one. She instantaneously plastered a smile on her face and feigned delight at being able to retest. Ugh. I keep teetering on the border of utter contempt for some of learners here. I just tell myself to remember all the good ones, and to not be discouraged by a few conniving ones.
After being here for over five months, I’ve finally gotten homesick. I don’t miss America per se; I just miss some people and a few things that happen to reside in that country. I miss my family and friends the most. There’s just something special about being around older people that care about you that I miss. Although we’ve formed good friendships with the other volunteers here, it’s not the same as people you’ve grown up with. We all sort of feel like we’re in this time machine together, and the vessel is lost in space. We like each other just fine, but our mission is to get each other through these two years so we can return to our families in a mentally stable condition.
Second to people, I miss food. Although we’ve become good cooks by necessity, there are only 20 items on the Arcaro Rest Camp menu, and we’ve been eating those same things, all of which consist of some combination of rice, pasta, potatoes and chicken, for five months. Don’t believe Zac when he says we can find almost anything to eat here. He’s just being a silly optimist. What he means to say is only that we’re not starving to death. Some days I would give anything for a chip burger (you know, those delicious creations with vanilla ice cream generously sandwiched between two giant chocolate chip cookies), a big slice of ham, a giant Olive Garden salad, a can of ravioli, a box of macaroni and cheese, a burrito, a kiwi, Indian food, a Subway turkey breast sandwich, tiramisu, cherry cheesecake, Papa John’s Pizza (that I ordered over the internet!), hamloaf, milk that is drinkable (we only use the milk here for cereal and cooking), cream soda, pretzels, etc.
I also miss entertainment. I didn’t think I would, but I genuinely miss movies. I miss watching classic chick flics with my mom or Shanu and Laura. I miss going to see dumb action movies at the theater with Zac and all his housemates. I miss ushering artsy movies at the Wexner Center. I miss NPR programs like Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me! and Terry Gross’s Fresh Air, All Things Considered, Morning Edition ….everything.
I miss understanding what is going on around me.
There is a little motto among new Peace Corps volunteers: Don’t Think. It just means you can’t even start thinking about home, because once you do…. well, two years in a foreign place is quite tolerable if you just don’t think about everything you left behind. It’s true that distance makes the heart grow fonder. It’s easy to remember only the good things about that life when it seems so far away and unattainable. I mean, I’m sure once I ate an entire package of chip burgers, I would realize they weren’t really as great as I remembered. I probably wouldn’t even want to eat one again for at least another day.
As much as I miss home at times, I know that I wouldn’t give up these two years for anything. All those things will be waiting for me when I get back, for now I must enjoy this bizarre time-machine voyage and all the experiences it encapsulates.
We send our love,
Sera and Zac