Tuesdays with Morry
“Okonkwo began to feel like his old self again. All that he required was something to occupy his mind.”
It is the third week of classes already and I’m still trying to figure out where the first two went. I am greatly enjoying teaching my 11th graders since this trimester we are studying Chinua Achebe’s book Things Fall Apart. I’m taking it slow with them and they are doing pretty well so far. I love teaching literature (as opposed to mundane things like grammar and writing) and I think I will be perfectly happy for the rest of my life if I can only find a teaching position where I just sit around and discuss books with students all day. I’m plugging along with the 9th graders. I’m trying to teach them how to write summaries using who, what, where, when, why and how as a guide. It is working pretty well; previously they wrote “summaries” just by copying down every other sentence from the story until they filled up the required space—sometimes stopping mid sentence. I’ve also taken a new approach to teaching them vocabulary words. To teach them “ferocious” we all practiced making ferocious faces while making our hands into claws and growling like a lion. It’s quite entertaining for me at least, and they seem to enjoy it. They now can do very good imitations of a drowning person gasping for air and when asked the definition of the word “drown” they will eventually say “death by water” after several false starts of “getting wet” or “drinking water.” So they’re learning something at least—whether it’s at all relevant or exam-worthy time will tell. But I’ve decided to throw myself back into teaching with renewed zest since I failed to summit Brandberg Mountain and well, I’ve got to leave this country with some feeling of accomplishment, right?
Now, allow me to tell you about today (Tuesday), and I will let you surmise your own conclusions as to the society, culture, people, etc. I would say this is a typical day, but no day is really typical—each one is randomly drawn out of a hat and thrust upon us.
06h00: We wake up and eventually convince ourselves that it would be best to get out of bed in order to teach, as our classes probably wouldn’t fit under the mosquito net that envelops the bed.
06h20: We go about our morning routine in a chilly stupor (inside temp: 63 F; outside: 52 F). I have my giant bowl of cereal while Zac scorns my morning gorging by having approximately two large bites of cereal.
06h58: We leave our house, but are forced to pause at our gate to wait for our neighbor, Mr. Shikomba to back his car out of his yard so he can drive to school. Zac and I chuckle to ourselves with the morning joke of how we should ask him for a ride. We walk to school and arrive at the door soon after Mr. Shikomba, as the entire walk to school only takes two minutes.
07h00: We sign in while the principal stands nearby, which is unusual. We soon discover why: there is a note by the sign-in book requesting “all colleagues to attend a brief meeting.” Now, we normally have meetings at 6h30 every Monday and Friday, and yesterday was no exception, so I’m wondering why we are having this emergency meeting. We enter the staff room for the meeting, a bit apprehensive as the meetings are never brief but are often long and quite confusing, leading to post-meeting conferences where we all try to figure out what happened and what we are expected to do as a result of the principal’s latest requests. This particular meeting turns out to be due to a letter from some head-office saying that all schools were required to hold HIV/AIDS awareness activities during HIV/AIDS awareness week, running from June 22-28. Next week. Now, this may seem short notice to palm-pilot-wielding Americans, but here it is the norm and I was actually shocked at such advanced notice.
07h05: After introducing the topic, he insisted the activities were mandatory and some inspector was going to make sure that each school performed accordingly. Then, he addressed us, “so colleagues…what are we going to do for that week?” All the teachers sat in silence, studying the table, a habit that never fails to frustrate the principal.
“What should we do?” he reiterates. Pause. “We must do something! The inspector is coming.” Nothing. “Silence? You just sit there in silence.” For once, I feel, I can be of some help. Now is my big chance, my first opportunity to contribute at one of these highly-productive meetings. I tentatively raise my hand. He nods to me, apparently relieved that someone is going to say something.
“Uh…I have a list of organizations that will provide speakers to come and talk to schools about HIV/AIDS—”
“Yes,” he interrupts, thumbing through the notice he had received, “it says right here, ‘you can contact the RACE committee at 240-024. It says right here. So, what are we going to do? You know, we must have some activities planned for when the inspector comes.” I’m a bit confused because it seems to me that I had just suggested an activity. I wasn’t exactly sure what it had to do with the RACE phone number though. A few of the other teachers appeared a bit confused as well. He continues to ask for suggestions as if I had said nothing. I was prepared to give it up, thinking maybe he just didn’t like my idea and this was his odd way of telling me so. He continues to ask for suggestions until Mr. Nuuyoma raises his hand. “Yes?”
“What about the suggestion to bring in a speaker? That would be an activity.”
Ms. Noonga contributes, “Yes, I know there is a group we can contact that is for HIV+ people.”
“Well, okay,” he submits, but then adds, “and we can have our biology teachers talk about HIV/AIDS. It is definitely a biology subject.” The science teachers protest.
Mr. Teofelus tries to help the situation. “I’m sure these organizations will talk about that information. They will do it.”
The principal is just not getting it, and to pacify him, someone suggests the learners could also perform a drama, as another activity. He quickly delegates this task to the arena of the language teachers, namely Mr. Teofelus. We come back to the issue of the speaker again: how will we contact them?
I try again. “I have a list of people we can call who will come and give talks. I think it will be good for the learners because it will personalize the issue for them.” Some teachers nod in agreement.
“Okay, so who will call them? You know, we must have someone who can call them.” No reply. “Who can call them?” The teachers are fascinated by the table.
“Ah, since I have the list, I wouldn’t mind calling them…” It seemed obvious enough for me to do the phoning.
“Yes, but we must do things together. Who else will call them?” Ah-ha! I had forgotten about the ultra-necessary over-staffing of the simplest tasks that accompanies even the smallest of projects. No one volunteers. The principal uses his latest tactic: “Ms. Alweendo, you are volunteering,” he commands. She utters an immediate negative, mumbling some sort of excuse. I try insisting that I can do it, hoping to rescue the teacher, to no avail. “Okay…Ms. Angula, you are volunteering.” His consistent misuse of the word ‘volunteer’ is a bit frightening, especially for us as it is an integral part of our job title. His choice of the ‘volunteer’ or ‘victim’ is a bit frightening to me as well. Ms. Angula, who, amongst only my brain cells, I refer to as the “grim-reaper” is one of the more formidable characters teaching here. In the past six months, I have literally only seen her smile once.
07h20: The principal triumphantly departs, having thwarted our do-nothingness once again. We begin our post-meeting discussion. I tell Mr. Teofelus I have a manual with some HIV/AIDS related drama ideas that I can give him. Then Ms. Angula comes over and we agree to meet at 14h30 (since we have some workshop at 3h00) and to make the phone calls from the office (as that is the only phone). Simple enough.
07h25: Class starts at 7h15 every day so ten minutes are already lost (and “Every minute lost learner’s suffer”). I rush to my classroom to find 11A awaiting me. Due to the creative timetable, I didn’t have 11A on Monday, so I still need to pass out their Chinua Achebe books, which are actually just photocopies of the first four chapters, since that was all the secretary could copy before the school ran out of paper—as they frequently do. Apparently it never occurs to them to buy reams in bulk. Also, since I only have one copy for every two learners this requires a little bit of diplomacy on my part to get some people to share. As I’m passing out the books I try to impress upon them that although it may appear to only be sheets of paper, they need to treat it like a book—not write in it, not eat it, not damage it etc. Then I introduce them to the book, explaining such important things as the copyright page, which says Chinua Achebe owns all of the words in that book and so they cannot copy them because that would be plagiarism. A clever girl informs me that I already plagiarized the book by making copies of it. Then I explain that plagiarism is when you try to pass the work off as your own. I challenged them to find anywhere in the book that I claimed to write it. By the time all of this is done, first period is over.
08h00: My next three periods consist of 9th grade classes. 9C is pretty good today, as we are reading one of the few stories actually contained in their English books and all the kids like stories. 9A is too clever for their own good, as usual. 9B then comes, and I soon discover it high is time for a lesson in the art of hand raising. “What should you do when I ask you a question and you know the answer?”
“Raise our hand!” they all shout gleefully at once. They’re always quite excited to know the answer to a question.
“You should do what?”
“Raise our hand!” they shout again. 9B is the needlework/home science class and they’re not the sharpest grains of sand in the oshithema.
“So why are you all talking?” They clasp their hands fully over their mouths, realizing their folly with embarrassed giggles.
“Let’s try again. What should you do when you want to answer a question?” About half the class raises their hands, some answer out loud again, and some overzealous learners raise their hands while snapping their fingers (as is the custom here) while also saying “Miss!Miss!Miss!” in rapid succession in hopes that I will call on them. I then model how one ought to raise their hand, and I generously say they are allowed one, but only one snap. We still have to practice several more times before the whole class is able, when I tempt them with questions, to raise their hands in silence.
10h15: I walk home for break. Break is a crucial part of the morning. It allows me a chance to visit the toilet, drink some water, re-boost my sugar levels, and relax for a little bit. Since the weather has been cooler lately (70’s during the day) I have been having my snack out on our back stoop where I can enjoy the sunshine and watch the animals go by. Before heading back, I grab the Life Skills manual for Mr. Teofelus.
10h45: Mr. Teofelus is the other English teacher, and his classroom is right next to mine. I take the book to him, then go to my class. I stand in the doorway and look impatient until all of my 11C learners straggle into the class. They are enjoying the sunshine these days as well. Normally, when it is hot, they congregate on the shady sides of the buildings but now they stand in the open or lean on the sun-warmed sides of the classroom buildings. My 11th grade classes go well, as we are doing the book, which both myself and the learners enjoy. I end the day with 11B, my favorite class. While discussing a cultural tradition of the Ibo people in the book, I am able to impress them with my inside knowledge of their Owambo culture (gleaned from various sources), by comparing the situation in the book to their tradition of letting the most respected person at the meal choose the meat first. I try to tell them that I too am Owambo, but that is apparently pushing things too far as their protests of “O!” and “Aye!” let me know.
13h00: Classes officially out, my room is now swarming with kids from my various classes, coming to borrow newspapers, magazines and books. I’ve finally mastered a borrowing policy that keeps everyone happy. The kids check out reading materials after school is finished and must return them before classes start the next morning. Whatever they fail to return I can collect during the day when they come to my class. They take advantage of this liberal borrowing policy and as a result all my magazines are nearly torn to shreds from their abundant use. I keep the magazines on a shelf in my closet, and so while the learners are rummaging through them, I must remain in the storeroom to guard my valuables: markers, chalk, scissors, colored paper, stencils, etc. While in the storeroom, one of my 11th grade girls holds up her hand with a word written on it and asks me what it means. I have a little trouble deciphering the word and at first I think it is “duck” but upon further examination I discover it says, “dude.” I try my best to explain it to her and she goes away seemingly satisfied to have mastered this new word. Once all the kids have chosen their magazines (with only a few scuffles between them) and duly signed them out, I go back out to my room to discover a group of boys that are deeply concerned about the recurrence of “had had.” They found it in Things Fall Apart, but they assure me that it has been plaguing them for quite some time. This was the last straw. They needed to know the meaning of “had had.” I guide them to my “grammar wall” in the back of the room where I have posted a detailed explanation, complete with timelines and illustrations, of all the verb tenses (photo copied from the back of a dictionary) in a vain attempt to have the learners magically absorb grammar without me having to fumble my way through it. I direct their attention to the past perfect (had + -ed) then cross reference to the list of irregular verbs where the past participle of “have” is “had” and…well, somehow or another, through many examples, I think they were able to understand it. Finally they seemed satisfied and trooped off to lunch. I think they had had enough grammar for one day.
13h25: I lock up my storeroom and the classroom, then head for home across the now deserted campus. Once at home, we heat up some leftovers for lunch and read the newspaper. I dig out my list of HIV/AIDS organizations that provide speakers, as well as my 3 syllabi for the English classes I teach. Supposedly we have to do some presentation on “syllabus interpretation” at 3h00 but none of the teachers know what is expected of us, since the syllabi are generally pretty straightforward and not easily subjected to interpretation. Even I, with my English degree in B.S., had trouble locating any metaphors, allusions, or symbolism in the syllabi.
14h25: I start to walk over to the school to begin a phone call session that will involve several unpleasant things: #1 My working partner is the grim reaper. #2 The phone is in the secretary’s office, which will involve dealing with the secretary—who is very competent and probably very nice, but who also never smiles and resists my attempts at conversation quite skillfully by completely ignoring me. #3 I am going to have to make phone calls.
14h27: I arrive at the school, and notice that Ms. Angula’s truck is not there. She lives nearby and so is the only teacher not living on the school grounds—she commutes, you could say. But, it is early and I didn’t really expect her for a few more minutes, so sit in the lobby and read a book.
14h45: Still no sign of Ms. Angula. I figure I might as well try and make some calls—it would be nice to just get it over with. To do this, however, I must talk to the secretary. I explain what I need to do and ask if it would be ok to use the phone. She then explains that, “you need a PIN number to dial out from the phone and only the principal has it and he is not around.” Yes, of course. I wait around a bit more, studying my syllabi in case something interpretable had previously eluded me. Ms. Angula still doesn’t come. Some of the other teachers start coming in for the alleged syllabi workshop, and there are rumors of the principal not being around. I am going home to get something anyway, so I say I’ll stop by his house to see if he is not there. I go home, grab a booklet and head back to the school with Zac. We stop at the principal’s house, but the guards at the school gate see us and say that he is out.
15h00: We go to the school anyway, to find that most of the teachers have already abandoned the workshop. I am fond of a scheme to tell the principal that we had the workshop ourselves and he just missed it. Ms. Angula arrives, and I inform her of the phone situation. I show her the list and she seems quite interested in it. I somehow use this as a segue for a small, minute conversation.
15h10: On our way home we stop and talk to the guards. We got to know them during the May holiday when, since the office was closed and we were the only people around, they came to our house to sign in and out every day. The tall, slender one I call “6 O’clock” because no matter what time it actually was, he always signed in at 6 and out at 6. His real name is Fillipus and the short fat one is named Asser. Fillipus speaks pretty good English, so we are primarily friends with him; Asser only tangentially. In front of the guardhouse these two have developed a nice garden, and they were currently constructing some supports for their cherry tomato plants. We discuss the garden a bit and admire their plants. Zac then asks Fillipus if he can make us a traditional bow and some arrows. We see the kids walk past our house with these all the time and Zac has had his eye on them for a while. Since Fillipus and Asser really have nothing to do all day, Zac thought it would be a good idea to employ them. They seem to like the idea as well.
15h20: We go home, happy to not be interpreting our syllabi for the moment. Some kids come over to type their curriculum vitas on our laptop. It is the time of year for the grade 12s to apply for bursaries and further studies, so we’ve been doling out the computer lessons left and right.
16h00: Some of the learners from 11B come to water their garden. Jason waters while Sakeus walks around checking on everything. He investigates my new seed bed and asks what I’m growing. I show him the flower packet and he examines it thoroughly. He finds a discarded pipe and uses it to stake up my granadilla bush. I tell them about the spinach we bought from the grade 12 agriculture class that I’m cooking for dinner. They tell me that that stuff is OK, but the wild spinach is better and is the true “omboga.” Frans comes to borrow our newspaper and he also manages to play some games on our cell phone.
17h00: Some more kids come over to use the laptop for typing. The sun sets around 17h20 these days, so I go out to do my gardening, which I normally do in this nice part of the evening. The cat comes to help. This cat was our constant houseguest when we first arrived, then disappeared for a few months, and has now come back. Since he looks just like my cat Molly at home (black with a white patch on his chest), only a lot thinner and dustier, Zac christened him “Morry” in honor of the Owambo tradition of confusing ‘l’s and ‘r’s. Morry likes to help me garden by following me all over the yard, meowing incessantly (in Oshiwambo of course, so I don’t know what he’s saying) and eating bugs. He is especially helpful when it comes to watering, as he loves to nudge the bucket in such a way that he waters himself and me in addition to the flowers.
17h30: I come back in and begin making a rice concoction to accompany the spinach. We put off eating until the learners have all left.
19h00: Supper finished, the dishes done, we now settle down to prepare for the next day’s lessons. We have only a few interruptions: Frans returns the newspaper, another set of learners comes to type.
22h00: We retire to collect our beauty sleep before another wonderful day.