Thursday, August 4, 2011

debris in the river

hi. It's been a while, and my diary is also sparse these past few weeks. Not much to say. But now I have stories to tell.

Two weeks ago Michelle's friend, who teaches English in Korea and also shares his name with a celebrity, visited and we did some touristy stuff around Phang Nga like go to the waterfall and get lost (that was my fault). It was midterms time so I had like no class, and last Wednesday I took a bus to Phuket and met my mom for 4 days of beach and explore time.

Phuket: not my cup of tea. The center of town was kind of a sprawling congested mess and the beach, certainly beautiful, was somewhat monotonous, as were the restaurants and stalls surrounding. But back in Phang Nga (here I'll quote from my diary) my mom's "wide-eyed reaction to the heaven and hell temple drove home just how cool and strange this town is, and how at ease I feel here. Don't miss my pack quite so vividly." She did some tourist stuff while I went to work, and I incorporated her into a lesson about family. She is off with a tour group to the North of Thailand, bon voyage.

Teaching has not been very good this week. One challenge of having 400 students and not being their primary teacher, assigning grades or taking attendance is that less motivated kids can be disrespectful, recognizing my weak position. Turns out the other high school in town has an entrance exam; students who fail come to ours. But another portion of the problem was revealed when I conducted a little experiment, assigning a class of sophomores (here, "matayum 4") something comparatively unstructured: write about yourself for 10 minutes and then we'll share. It was a disaster. Absolutely no one wanted to share with the class, so I divided into small groups and went around to listen. One girl showed me her essay, and it was fine: "I am __ I am from ___ I have two sisters __..." so on. I asked her to read it aloud to me, and she could not. She couldn't read the word "I."

Eventually I stopped torturing her and thought, maybe she is just shy. Another boy, who generally whispers to his friends through my lessons until I get all up in his business and say "YUT" (stop) , came up to me smiling with a passage. I asked him to read it. he did, slowly and struggling, but reading. Around 4 lines in, I realized I had heard it all before. The only thing that he changed was the name and address, but otherwise he had entirely plagiarized, and he could only read about 1/4 of what he had written down.

I was furious. If their vocabularies had been more complex they would have recognized just how unprofessional my feedback was, but I think he properly understood my body language and raised voice (the class went silent). Should I have been so pissed? It's possible that he's embarrassed about his lack of English and simply wanted my approval, and copying someone else's work was the best way, he thought, to get it. Last year, a kindergartner erased someone else's name on a drawing and wrote his own, and showed it around for approval. Too bad for him he didn't erase thoroughly enough and we could still read the other name, and it was sad. But with this 14 year old, putting it all together, I think he was trying to play me for the fool. I will never know. But I reacted as if that were the case.

I don't regret the activity, because I learned a lot, but what I learned was somewhat disappointing. I've been running fairly high level comprehension and speaking lessons, things I thought were fun, and I assumed that when only a few students actively called out, that the rest understood most of it but were just shy. I think I was wrong. I think sizable portions of my class can neither read nor understand English. But they all can write, down to a T. They have been taught to copy English letters. I do not know how I am going to create lesson plans that entertain the gamut. My instinct is to push the best and let the knowledge trickle down, but this is, I think it's fairly safe to say, not cool, and really not my mission here. I would not be the first person to go into an unfamiliar setting with unrealistic expectations and, some months in, find myself drastically reevaluating. But I didn't think it would happen to me. I want to be a good teacher, and unfortunately, it looks like I can't just wing it. I'm going to start reading and reaching out. On my list for tonight is this.

My own learning is going much better. I think for the first time in my life perfect pitch is actually useful. I write notes on the sides of long phrases and just memorize the music. However, pronunciation is still a major challenge. At dinner tonight, I thought "hey. I'm going to try out my new phrases. I am going to say I am a teacher at Stree Phang Nga, and I'm going to say I'm from America!" However everyone just looked at me blankly. I gesticulated my ideas and then it went better. Complete sentences are not quite at my disposal. But if someone really slowly says "today. is. X day. X day of X Month. x year." I can figure it out.

Dinner tonight illustrates something major about my time here. I often find myself floating in the river, not directing myself, with almost no idea of what's happening. It happens at school all the time, when 4 students will show up and the teacher will say: "the rest of the students are getting haircuts. We are having an inspection next week. Ok you are ok I will leave now." This evening, I was running around in my full anomalous glory - no shirt bearded and hairy-chested in my weird vibram toe-hugging shoes - and these older folks, setting up what looked like a party said something to me, from which I caught the words: "layow! geen!" which are, respectively, finish and eat. So I thought: maybe they are inviting me to dinner. That was an interpretation I felt really good about so of course after running I showed up on my little Chinese bicycle and tried out my Thai (it didn't work) and they said "geen? dinner? ok" and pointed to a table. I sat down with a bunch of people wearing polos with the words "fly hawk" in English on the front (I googled it, no luck) who spoke zero English, and ate the meal. It was delicious, Thai style which means a bunch of dishes in common you share and then waiters just fill anything that runs out, so it's like infinite food. I recognized one dish from a funeral I had previously attended, thought it was delicious but didn't dwell on it. But then, dinner's over, and everyone is walking somewhere and sitting down in new chairs, and turns out, sure enough, I was at another funeral. As I was sitting down someone spoke in Thai, I shrugged, he said "home. home" and pointed away from the funeral, and I thought he meant, you can go home now, so I did. I am debris in the river, just waiting for direction and signs. All I have to do is put myself out there and things happen.

The rest of this post is not about Thailand. It's about books.

In the past two weeks I read "Finding George Orwell in Burma" which was ok and made me really want to go to Burma (I am, actually, for maybe 5 days in September), and a book called "Women Who Run with Wolves" by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, a Jungian, feminist reinterpretation of fairy tales, casting each character and setting as an element of the female psyche. Estes repeatedly urges women to reconnect to the "Wild Woman" in them, the free and uncivilized thing in our souls that loves and protects and creates fiercely. Parts of it put me into a trance, because I remember running with a pack, and words like feral weave in and out of my personal writing, and because I take seriously the semi-reality of dreams, solitude and music. I once dreamt that I was sheltering friends from something elemental and dangerous, and my friend Madeleine pointed out that we didn't have enough beds. So I raised my arms and sang the first Soprano part of Steve Reich's Proverb, and others joined me, and beds came into being. In my subconscious, music is magic!

And other parts were like a self-help manual for people in bad relationships and whose rivers have, in Juana Molina's phrasing, dried up, and I don't need it. I have nothing I need to escape. Nonetheless it's very different than anything else I've read and really interesting, so I recommend it. Love Medicine, however, managed to get many of the same ideas across in narrative that made my hair stand on end. Now there's a book I would recommend unequivocally. The two Weinstein classes I took at Swarthmore, one freshman fall the other senior spring, probably impacted my inner life more than any others, mostly just by introducing texts that mean a lot to me.

Last year, I realized I was Rosencrantz in the students' lives. Now I am like a stick in the river here, and it's strange. I am trying to meditate more, but, turns out, it's very difficult to clear my mind.

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