The Game that Plays Itself
* * *
It’s Saturday morning. I’m in a taxi, reading the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “The Shipping News.” It’s written mostly in fragments- subject or predicate omitted. It reads like poetry. An epic. I get the rhythm of it in my own thoughts. It takes place in Newfoundland which is stormy, wet, cold, windy, and dark. The story wraps itself around me and I have visions of the jutting black rocks with the ocean’s moods always just beneath the plot.
I look up. I’m surprised to find myself moving down asphalt, cutting through warm, sandy fields. Cattle eating the mahangu stalks. A funeral. Little kids chasing goats. Hardened women standing by the road. Not even a cloud. Grains of sand always in everything.
I spend the taxi ride alternating between Newfoundland and Namibia. Reading two stories. One written in words, enclosed in a book. One observed in images, enclosed in my mind.
* * *
Thursday afternoon. I’m in the computer lab, amidst a mayhem of learners. “Miss, how do I make this space go away?” “Miss, my CV disappeared.” “Miss, how do I get my CV out of the computer?” “Miss, my password isn’t working.” “Miss, I want these to be straight.” “Miss, why are there red lines under all my words?”
Tomorrow is Friday, and an out-weekend. All of grade 12 simultaneously realized that they would need their typed and printed Curriculum Vitaes so they could apply for bursaries, election committee jobs, and University when they went home. Completely unforeseeable.
Access to the computers isn’t exactly systematized yet. On weekends and some evenings, the Learner Representative Council members are given the key, with instructions to maintain order, prevent food consumption, and lock it up by nine. Zac and I sometimes take our classes there for informal computer training, during afternoon study. For P.E., Zac teaches them Mr. Potato Head, miniature golf, connect four, and Tetris. They’re focusing on hand-eye coordination and manual dexterity.
So they’ve had plenty of opportunities over the last month to type their CVs. After all, they’ve managed to find time to repetitively type their own name in bold-italic-underlined-size 48 font, make lists of the nicknames of their friends, write self-encouragement letters, type lofty prayers to God beseeching him to assist them in passing grade 12, and master the internal e-mail program. I feel no sympathy.
In fact, I’m a little bit peeved.
* * *
The Game that Plays Itself
Tuesday morning. I’m reviewing the novel, Things Fall Apart, with 12C. We make a chart, diagramming the pros and cons of the effects of development on Ibo society. Then we make a graph, plotting the rise and fall of Okonkwo, the protagonist of the book, listing all the reasons for his success, the climax, and then all the events that led to his demise. A parabola-shaped life. I throw out a few questions, things for them to think about, consider, roll around in their mind, or forget about until the questions mysteriously reincarnate on their exam.
Then it happens. It takes me a few moments to realize it. But the class, a small class of only 10 learners, is having a spontaneous, impassioned debate about whether or not Okonkwo was really successful in his life. About whether or not his fear of failure and weakness was ultimately good or bad. My questions. But I’m not doing anything. I’m not holding their hands, walking them through it, step by step, coaxing opinions, explaining how one idea logically follows another; how, if you believe this, then what about this?
I sit there, listening to them argue, in awe. They are supporting their ideas, pointing out contradictions, referring to passages in the text. Self-propelled. I am reminded of favorite verses from the poem “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman:
“He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher… I teach straying from me, yet who can stray from me? I follow you whoever you are from the present hour, My words itch at your ears till you understand them.”
Has this miracle actually occurred in my classroom? The bell rings. They ignore it and keep arguing. 12A comes, and they reluctantly begin to leave. Freddy and Mike continue arguing even as they walk out the door and into the sand, voices escalating over the noise of classroom changes.
* * *
Early July. 12A is laughing hysterically, snickering into their hands. I’m teaching them the word “poignant,” one of the vocabulary words for the day. I repeat the second syllable, “nyunt” to emphasize the unusual pronunciation. Uncontrollable laughing. This has happened to me before. “Ok, what does “nyunt” mean?” Sometimes words, or parts of words, in English resemble words in Oshiwambo, their mother tongue.
Saara quells her laughter enough to squeak out, “Ask 12B.”
Not wanting to go into it blind, I ask, “Why? Can’t you just tell me? What does “nyunt” mean?” More peals of laughter every time the word is said.
“Miss, it’s Steven Shimbilinga’s nickname.”
“Ok, but what does it mean?” This is really annoying.
“What’s a squealer?” I’m thinking of a pig in George Orwell’s book, Animal Farm.
“A ground squealer. Those small animals.” Miss sure is dumb. Doesn’t even know her animals and thinks she can teach us English.
“Oh, you mean a squirrel?” Their confusion of Ls and Rs is disastrous sometimes. I write the word on the board and try to teach them the correct pronunciation. They nod their heads, continue to say ‘squealer’ and laugh.
Teaching is like navigating a minefield sometimes. I never know when I’m going to accidentally stumble upon something, and it will blow up in my face, usually to the amusement of the learners. Like the nicknames. I don’t know if they’ve always been there, or if it’s some sort of fad sweeping through the school, but I seem to bump into them more and more lately. The kids generally get a kick out of having their teacher call them by their nicknames. So when 12B comes for Life Skills, I address Steven as “Nyunt” and the class laughs with pleasure. Steven is tickled.
* * *
Mid July. I finish the lesson with 12B early, and give them the rest of the period to work on their homework assignment. The silence is broken by John, who asks, quite randomly, “Was Jesus black or white?”
I’m not sure where this is coming from, or where it is going. “He was black. I mean, not dark black, but definitely not white.” I get up from my desk and move to the map. “You see, you just have to look at the area of the world that Jesus was from. The middle east.” I point my red pen to the general area on the map, wishing I could remember exactly where Bethlehem and Jerusalem are located, geography not being my strong point. “People from this area are dark-skinned. Jesus would not have been white. It’s just that European painters made him white.” John nods. The rest of the class is a bit confused. I search my mind for a good example that everyone would know. Aha! “Jesus looked like Osama Bin Laden,” I announce.
The class explodes into laughter. I think it is because of the unlikely comparison. Or maybe because Bin Laden is sometimes popular here, as the little man who fights against the empire. But the laughter goes on too long, and reminds me of my poignant lesson a few days earlier. A mine, perhaps. I ask Teopolina, “Is it someone’s nickname?” She nods. Here we go again. “Who’s?” She extends her chin, indicating someone across the room. I look. Who is acting funny? Eino and Jason are unruffled, but John is hiding behind his hands, laughing, shaking his head. Others are looking at him. I turn back to Teopolina. “Is it John?” She raises her eyebrows. Yes. “Why do they call him Osama Bin Laden?” Fresh bursts of laughter at the repetition of the name. Nobody will tell me why. They eventually calm down and return to their homework.
The next day. I am teaching 12B the word “chasm.” I say, “You geography people might know this word.” I turn to draw a chasm on the board.
Behind me, Katrina corrects, “Miss, we’re not the geography people. That’s 12A.”
“Some of you are,” I counter, knowing John and Petrus are studying it as an extra subject.
I reply without thinking, “Osama and Fipps,” using both of their nicknames. An explosion of laughter. I instantly regret causing the distraction. I’m a nuisance to myself, my own troublemaker sometimes. I continue to face the board, hoping it will die down by the time I’m finished sketching my chasm-two cliffs with a tree on each side, a deep rift between them. I explain that the empty space is the chasm, and that it can be a literal or metaphorical gap.
When I face the class again, ready to forge onward, I notice they are sober. John, usually attentive, is now slumped over his desk, only the top of his shaved head visible. He remains that way for the rest of the period. Maimed by an appellation.
After class, Onesmus comes to me and explains, “Miss, John didn’t give that nickname to himself. Those grade 12s from last year gave it to him.” An intricacy to nicknames that I should have been aware of.
I admonish myself, You should’ve considered that Osama Bin Laden might be a derogatory name. Stupid. Don’t use nicknames. You don’t understand these things. I vow to always use their proper names, to navigate the minefield more carefully-at least try not to harm others by what I inevitably stumble into.
John skips class the next day, doesn’t speak to me the rest of the week, skirts around me. Vocabulary in action, I’ve created a chasm.
* * *
6pm Mondays and Thursdays. We are in the computer lab with the teachers for the internet sessions. Mr. Iipito is deftly navigating the world wide web, clicking between soccer scores, e-mail, and news. Mr. Shikomba is repetitively typing in the wrong password, thinking surely it will work one of these times. Ms. Iyambo is using the internet as a dictionary, typing words into the search engine that she just needs defined. Mr. Mbumbi is shopping for a DVD player that won’t have regions. Ms. Tomas can’t figure out why her computer login name and password aren’t the same as her Yahoo! username and password, and is a bit upset that neither Zac nor I can magically conjure her forgotten password out of thin air. Mr. Nuuyoma wants to find a new job on the internet, but soon realizes that the Namibian Ministry of Education doesn’t post teaching vacancies on the internet, doesn’t even have a web site. Ms. Noonga is typing a cell phone text message to someone, via e-mail, but is oblivious to the word limit and wants me to make it let her type more words. Ms. Angula wants to find The Namibian (the main newspaper here) online, and begins by simply typing “newspaper” into the search engine. Ms. Nuumbala is doing research on the Vietnam war for her history class. Mr. Nuushona successfully searches for and finds a teacher’s guide to Things Fall Apart on the Random House website. Mr. Arcaro has four windows open at once, simultaneously downloading satirical articles from theonion.com, reading the latest election news, finding reviews of Fahrenheit 9/11, and sending the digital photos and bios of the twelve Learner Representative Council members to The Namibian for publication. Mrs. Arcaro is sending you this e-mail.