Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Caught Red-handed

My school does a lot for me. They check on me if I’m sick, they give me rides anywhere in Limboto or even to Kota or a nearby beach if they know I’m going. My headmaster looks for reasons to cover my cost for things, eager to always make sure I am happy. One by one the teachers bring me lunch and sometimes breakfast everyday I’m at school, and sometimes even when I’m not at school. The headmaster assigned a rotating schedule to the teachers so that I am feed by them every day and don’t have to worry about food. They are so generous.

They even go above and beyond the duties the headmaster encourages them to undertake, paying for my groceries if they run into me at the supermarket or paying for my angkot (mini bus) if they happen to be riding in the same one.

As you can see, I owe a lot to these teachers.

So, when I started teaching at MAN Limboto and they asked if I would have an English course after school on Wednesdays for the teachers, I naturally obliged. It was the least I could do.

But where should I start? These teachers of Economics, Religion, Bahasa Indonesia, English, Arabic, Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry and Biology were at such varying levels of English that I struggled with what to teach them. Surely I would bore some and very quickly lose others. Moreover, since I knew they came of their own free will to these after school courses with the purpose of being able to speak in English by the end of the year, I could not very well start them off with the basics of grammar. They would be bored, leave shortly and not be able to speak any more English than what they had started with.

What might be most upsetting is that at some point these teachers all took English for many, many years and were able to pass a very stringent national exam covering English. What had happened since then? About half of these teachers cannot say more than, “Hello Miss, how are you today?” to me, and yet, at some point not that many years ago they could apparently analyze texts in English and come up with appropriate ways to sympathize and give advice. For many of them this was just 5 or 6 years ago. They really should be able to say more.

But whatever parts of lack of repetition, improper memory storage and the recent uselessness of English had brought them to me with their degraded English skills, it was my job to forgive their memories and progress forward in teaching them how to communicate using English.

Thus, it has become tradition that every Wednesday I teach teachers English. I could not have anticipated how difficult this task was going to be. I have begun to have new appreciation and understanding for the cliché, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” It’s not that these teachers are even that old. Many are in their thirties, married with children, and eager to learn English. But, being teachers, they each have their own way of teaching that they have grown accustomed to, and after many years of viewing only their own teaching style, they find mine hard to swallow. It may be only a few that really don’t prefer my teaching style, but then the others do not respect me as a teacher. They respect me as a woman, as a person and as an American, but not as a teacher. I am cute, and beautiful, not intelligent and disciplined. The atmosphere in the classroom ranges from unruly to blasé to playful mocking. My age does not help my case. These women think of me more as their niece or daughter rather than their peer.

But again, what can I really do? This is not a class, I am not giving them a grade; they are in fact my elders, I cannot discipline them; and they are more experienced in the classroom, why should they take my teaching seriously.

So, I have had to accept their attitude and the classroom atmosphere. Please do not misunderstand however: they all want to be there, they all want to learn English, and they all really do love me dearly. They simply do not respect my classroom, my style or me as an authority figure/ teacher.

That was the set-up. Here’s the story.

Two Wednesday’s ago they were looking blasé again, and I found myself struggling to review the seemingly boring topic of body parts in English, reminding them for the eighth time the word for ear. The class was dragging more than usual, and I realized that I needed a real way to encourage them to retain the information we had already learned and reviewed for the last 5 months.

Then, a teacher eagerly suggested having a test.

I thought about it, and agreed. This would finally be a chance for them to see just what they had learned in the last 5 months, and get them to finally retain what I had been going over ad nauseam.

Immediately after going over what would be on the test there was a buzzing in the air. The women, and few men, looked excited. They started chatting with each other about when they would study together. They told me excitedly that they would ask permission from their husbands to start a study group together so that they could do really well on the test.

Yes!! This is what I wanted!! I got them excited about English – finally! They had asked for this test, so surely they were ready to be challenged on their English skills.

As a Fulbright ETA I am not allowed to create or grade tests while teaching my students at MAN Limboto. So, this test for my teachers was the first test I had ever made. Ever.

My first test….I put careful thought into the test’s format, carefully crafted the questions, and made sure the test covered all the appropriate subjects. The test involved pictures, multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank and short answer. Just so they would have plenty of ways of succeeding at the test I even included a significant bonus section on the test. I made the test challenging at their request, and looked forward to them taking it.

A few days before the test was to be administered Pak Yunus, the young 22-year-old teacher I now work with daily to teach the 11th grade students, related to me the fears of the teachers. They were afraid that the test would be too hard for them, and they feared failing. I told them, and he translated back, that they need not worry about their scores. The scores were only to give them an idea of how much English knowledge they actually possessed.

Still, they told Pak Yunus that they were worried the test would be too hard, and jested that they would, “have to cheat like the students,” looking at each other’s test for the answers. During this “joke” the Ibu concerned imitated a student cheating as she chuckled to herself sheepishly.

I decided to laugh this off, and again emphasize that no cheating would be necessary because there were going to be no consequences for doing badly on this test, it was only an assessment to see what they had retained. It was for their benefit only.

Test day arrived, and I found myself wanting to push through my classes with my 10th grade students, actually looking forward to seeing my teachers challenged, and anticipating with my pride the viewing and taking of the first test I had ever written.

The teachers settled down in the library, and before the test was handed out, I explained the directions. As I was explaining, I noticed that these teachers had taken their usual seats around our main table. It occurred to me that this arrangement was not adequate for taking a test. I needed these teachers to be much more spread out, as I did not want them to be tempted to cheat.
I moved many teachers before handing out the test, to make sure they were as far away from each other as I could make them.

Then, taking in a deep, excited breath, I handed out the test.

The following hour and a half were the worst hour and a half I can remember having in a long time. I NEVER stopped moving, I never stopped hovering like a hawk, I never stopped telling them to be quiet, and I NEVER STOPPED stopping them from cheating. Their cheating seemed endless. In fact, they never really did stop.

My hawk-like watching was maddening. I had to constantly move my head, knowing full well that as soon as I turned away from one set of teachers their cheating I had just stopped would soon resume, often the second I turned me head away from them. I repeated, “Diam!” (Silence) so many times that I felt the word had lost its meaning.

I used myself as a physical barrier between them, trying to prevent them from cheating, but it would sometimes continue (subconsciously?) even in my clear presence.

I moved a few teachers whose cheating was their only means of answering questions on the test, but most would giggle at or denying any recognition I made of their cheating. They were never truly ashamed.

I was forced to ask myself, had they no shame?! Was this not a moral issue?! A matter concerning religion?!

What had happened that made cheating on these tests acceptable to these teachers?!!
I was shattered when the test finished. I was angry, hurt, disheartened and confused. My first test and every single person had cheated. Did this have something to do with their lack of respect for me as a teacher, or their lack of respect for my class? I would prefer these answers for why they cheated then believe that this is standard for any test.

But these were teachers!! Teachers should not condone cheating, but rather should harshly punish cheaters. They should set a good example, and know without me saying that any test should not include cheating. What, I had to ask, did they allow in their classrooms?

Thankfully when I got back home Alexa reminded me that this is a very collective society and it is considered arrogant and selfish here to not help a fellow student or friend in need. You want success for the collective group, not the individual. Just as with the Mennonites, individuality is not praised, but efforts to promote the collective community as a whole are applauded. Alexa reminded me that any teacher who did not help out another teacher to do well on the test was being self-centered, greedy and a bad friend.

But when did helping a friend allow you to overlook the obvious breaking of a moral rule? I know that they meant no harm by what they had done, and no doubt do not feel bad for what they have done, because their acts no longer fall into the category of something odious. They have become so accustomed to small amounts of cheating that they regard ‘some’ cheating as acceptable in certain situations. Clearly my unimportant elective class falls under the category of a situation where cheating is acceptable, whether I condone it or not.

Now I am left with a problem.

Tomorrow is Wednesday. It has been a week since the fateful test was taken, and I do not know how to proceed. Do I grade them, give them back and reprimand them for cheating? Do I give back tests to only the few teachers who cheated the least on the test? Should I give them a lecture on how I feel about cheating, what I expect in an academic setting, and then proceed to make a new test which I will administer again, this time with the clear pretext of no cheating (yeah right)? Can I give up now? I honestly don’t want to teach these teachers again after the way I felt about that test and the very little respect I feel like I was shown.

But then, this is a cultural difference, and I need to be sensitive. I know that. But they need to know that I’m hurt, and I think they need to know how this would be understood and dealt with in the United States, had this been a real classroom. But can I do that? Do I have the conviction and guts to stand up to these teachers, my elders, who feed me every day, and reprimand them like children? Do I have the gall?! I’m afraid I don’t.

Please, I implore you all. What should I do?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Six Men With Machetes

When you’re a child you learn by categorizing. At first, you have boxes with broad categories, like an ‘animal with four legs’ category. Dogs, cats, wolves, lions, etc. fall into this category. With time and repeated correction you start to understand the distinction between cat and dog, and you will probably stop calling all ‘animals with four legs’ simply dog. Now you start to make smaller categories, like ‘dog’ and ‘cat’, and you continue in this fashion. As I learn different dog breeds, I make different boxes or categories in my head, making the distinctions smaller still.

I know that there are many species of dog which I do not know the name for yet, but the box is there anyway, waiting for information, knowing that these species names exist, but I do not know them yet.

Two days ago however, I encountered a creature for which previously I had no box or category for. Perhaps as a child or even as an adult I had briefly encountered this creature in the zoo, but I had never taken careful consideration, or put much particular thought into this creature. Until two days ago, I believe it would have fallen into the category of ‘large lizard-like creature’.

It was a lazy Sunday in Limboto, and Alexa and I were enjoying each others’ company while lounging about in our pajamas. As we typed away on our computers, or read a book, our house cleaner, Amu, arrived to clean our house. (Yes, we are very lucky and spoiled and have an AMAZING house cleaner who cleans our house 6 days a week generally. He’s great, and we really appreciate all that he does for us.) He was cleaning, and being in my pajamas, I decided it was a good time to go back to my room and work there. I was in my room for ten minutes when I decided to go back out to the living room to try to turn the internet modem on and use the internet.

As I leaned over to try the modem, I heard a small crash to my left near where an unused entertainment system furniture. I glanced over, heard a much louder crash while simultaneously seeing a VERY LARGE lizard/iguana-like tail flick up and slide quickly down the wall. Before I even saw the tail descend below the wooden surface I screamed at the top of my lungs, turned and bolted out of the house.

What the hell was going on?! What had I just seen?!! What was that THING??

I had no box for it. No category specific enough to understand and respond to what I had just seen. Was it a large lizard? That just doesn’t seem like a big enough word for this 3 ½ foot creature I had just seen IN MY HOUSE. Lizard conjures up cute, small, harmless creatures from Florida, not potentially venomous, large, carnivorous reptilian from Southeast Asia.

Frantic and shaking a nearby female neighbor tried to explain to me in Bahasa Indonesia what I needed to do next (close the bedroom doors). It appeared she knew what was in my house and I myself was struggling with what I had just seen. Thankfully Alexa had heard my scream (how could she have missed it?) and came cautiously out of the house moments later. I tried to tell her that there was as large, large lizard in the house, but knew that I had not really conveyed what I had just seen. I thought about saying something like, “the size of your torso” but decided that would scare her unnecessarily, not to mention make me sound like an exaggerating fool. But I’m not. The thing was 3 ½ meters long – no joke – with the tail making up a little more than half of its size.

Just then, as I’m cowering away from our front door, and noticing other women down the street looking almost as scared as me, I see Amu coming down our small lane with five men with him. Each of them carry machetes or the nearest blunt object they can find.

They cautiously enter our house and after a mere minute they emerge again with the large water monitor lizard. Yes, it does have a name. Our lizard had been beaten over the head and was bleeding from the mouth, tongue hanging out, eyes shut forever. Holding it by the tail, a man brought it out of our house and laid it on the ground, still bleeding. What a sight.

We took some crucial pictures of our lizard, which helped in identification later, and then waited as Amu cleaned up the surprisingly small mess the quick kill had made.

Since then, we have been processing. It is quite a lot to take in, and Alexa and I have been ranging through a lot of different emotions. The experience was scary and overwhelming, but mostly it made us lose our sense of security and safety. Even as I write this I look over my shoulder from time to time to make sure his brother is not around the corner.

We had begun to feel very safe in our house, like you would any home, but this incidence has gotten us on guard again. The worst part is that we don’t know how it got in. Maybe from our open gate thing to the open air loft upstairs, but it seems that that was closed when we found it, so I’m not sure it got in that way. This means there may be a hole somewhere in our house that we don’t know about, which is very unsettling. Let’s hope that’s not the case.

All in all however, we’re doing fine. Even these two days have helped me calm down about it, and I think the more time that passes, the more I’ll just laugh at the whole incident.

I will say though, that any Indonesians here were just as scared at the idea of this huge lizard being in our house. Alexa’s counterpart wouldn’t even look at the picture. One of my teachers screamed in horror when she saw the picture and exclaimed, “Astaga!” (Oh my god!). Still others laugh, calling it ‘the chicken eater’ and say they shoe one away from their chickens every day. I doubt it, but that’s what they claim.

After some photo comparison, Alexa and I decided that it was a water monitor lizard. Our pictures are below, but I encourage you all to search online and read for yourselves about this lizard in the Komodo dragon family. As I said, a monitor lizard portrayed a Komodo dragon in the movie The Freshman, so they can’t look that much different than a miniature Komodo (my favorite name for it).

Let’s hope our large lizard cohabitants are gone for good, because I don’t want anything that looks like a Komodo dragon in my house again.