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Reflections on Failure

Elusive English
1 May 2003

Hally: I don’t know.  I don’t know anything anymore.
Sam:  You sure of that, Hally?  Because it would be pretty hopeless if that was true.  It would mean nothing has been learnt in here this afternoon, and there was a hell of a lot of teaching going on…one way or another.
        —Master Harold and the Boys by Athol Fugard

 We’ve now been in Namibia for just over 6 months. Training seems like it was ages ago; America a distant dream. We’ve completed our first trimester of teaching. We’ve marked the first set of exams. We’ve seen the weather change from hot and dry, to hot and wet, and now cool and dry. When we came, the landscape was barren, but we saw it give birth to green fields and oshanas (large pools of water). Now the mahangu fields have matured, and all the learners have gone home for the month of May to harvest it. Zac and I relished our first day of freedom as if it were the first day of summer vacation and we were the kids just let out of school. Such is the life of schoolteachers.Our road, heading east towards the main road.

The first trimester was primarily a period of learning, more so for us than for the students, I’m afraid. We had to get used to new jobs in a new environment with a whole different school system. While marking exams for the past three weeks, I did a lot of thinking about how I could be a better teacher and prepare the learners for the exams better. I don’t like the standardized test emphasis here (it’s 100% of their grade) but that’s the way it is so I will have to adjust my teaching to this framework.

 I’ve also discovered that all the reasons why I love English so much are precisely the same reasons it is so difficult to teach: because it is elusive, there’s nothing to memorize, few things are straightforward, language is embedded with multiple meanings and many layers, it’s more about thinking and figuring things out than learning information, it’s always changing, there’s rules but if you’re good enough you can break them, there’s always something new, there’s a lot of room for improvising, it’s intuitive, it’s philosophical, it’s relative and subjective, it’s about life, it’s all-encompassing, it takes many forms. I’m discovering that, contrary to the adage, I can do English, I just can’t teach it. Especially not as a second language. What do I know about grammar? I just do it, I don’t sit there and think, “gee, should I write this e-mail in past perfect or past simple active or past continuous active or just present perfect?”

 While I’m touting my failures as a teacher, I should also add that on a test I gave my learners over things I actually taught them, one of the learners who had plagiarized and whom I made write the definition of plagiarism 50 times, missed that word on the vocabulary section. In another section there were a few questions about a poem we had discussed in class. It was even one of my better lessons, I was in my element, and at the end of the day I went home happy feeling like teaching English was my true calling in life, I love this job, I’m really reaching the learners, etc. Well, on my test, only about 6 of my 104 eleventh-graders got those questions correct. That’s 5%. I fail.

But if I can’t teach, by golly I can climb the highest mountain in Namibia! I’ve got to leave this country with some sense of accomplishment, right? We’ve changed our vacation plans again. It turns out that many of the other volunteers, simultaneously and independently, came up with the same idea of going to Waterberg Plateau to get trampled by rhinos. Not wanting to follow the herd, we’ve come up with a new plan: we’ll go climb Brandberg mountain, elevation 8445 ft. It’s in the western part of northern Namibia called “Damaraland.” That means the Damara tribe lives there, as opposed to the Owambo tribe that lives where we are, in “Owamboland.” The Brandberg mountain area is also home to many ancient rock paintings, including the famous “White Lady” that is actually anatomically a man. Planning a vacation in this country, with our/its lack of transport, is near impossible, so we just plan to set out with some ideas and see what happens. We’re aiming for the middle of May, around the 19th.

 Friday we’re going into town to spend some quality time on the internet at the computer lab at the college. I’m also going to buy some more trees at the Rural Development Center next to the college. Sunday is the beginning of our In-Service training, so they will put us up in the Cresta Lodge in Ondangwa for May 4-7. We’ll be living large with a swimming pool, restaurant food and a TV. Plus, from the hotel we can walk to movie theater so hopefully we’ll be able to catch a few flics. We haven’t seen anything since Lord of the Rings: 2 Towers in February. The down side is that we have to put up with Peace Corps bureaucracy for four days. I’m going to take a book.

I hope you’re enjoying the spring weather I imagine you’re having. Here, the sun now sets at 5:30pm, so even although we’re still wearing shorts, T-shirts, and going barefoot, it sort of feels like winter. Sort of. It finally got cool enough at night that we had to put a thin blanket on our bed. But we still have all the windows open, so I don’t think that counts. I’ve finally been able to ascertain from the learners that the trees don’t lose their leaves because it gets cold, they lose them because it doesn’t rain for 7 months and the sun scorches the leaves. Just the other night a teacher was at our house looking at our photos and I was explaining how the leaves fell off the trees in winter. She was surprised, saying, “I thought that it rained all year in America, why do the leaves die?” I then explained it was because it was too cold in winter. “But the trees don’t die?” she asked. Ah, the little miracles of nature’s resilience. What a fresh perspective!

 Take care,

Love Sera

I took this picture from our kitchen door, so you can see how close we are to the road that passes behind our house. But it is used for animals more than autos. Since all the grass is dying, the animals, like these donkeys, have taken to eating the green pricker-plants that grow at our fence as they pass by. You can see in the background how yellow the grasses are, in contrast to the trees which are mostly still green.


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