Portrait of An English Class

by Scott McAllister

My last post was about getting adjusted to site. In it I might have mentioned something about this Community Needs Assessment that Peace Corps was having me do. I might have even promised that I’d tell y’all how it would go. Well, despite the length of my blogging hiatus, consider me a man of my word.

Where do I start?

The classrooms. What they look like. How many students. How the teachers are. That kind of stuff.

Mywoini is the name of my main school. The name translates to ‘water-wine’. I suppose it has some sort of religious significance, that or the founders were some extremely wishful thinkers when it came to their expectations about the outcomes of public education.

Mywoini sits atop a rocky scrubland hill on the outskirts of Mek’ele. The surrounding neighborhood is a decidedly nicer one – stupefyingly large mansions abound – but you wouldn’t know it at first for all of the clamorous construction and concomitant dust spells swirling about. The stray donkeys, horses, chickens, goats, cows and, occasionally, camels also tend to dispel the imagery of luxury and largess these mansions would otherwise be exuding.

You walk into Mywoini through the main gate – the same gate with that cane-wielding old man that gets taunted by tardy students – and you find yourself within a sprawling elementary school campus composed of over thirteen hundred students. If you come early enough, before the flag ceremony, some twenty-six hundred eyes are fixed intently, unabashedly on you – the ferenji. In response, I smile.

I read the class schedule posted in the teachers’ breakroom and, after laboriously deciphering the Tigrinya script it’s written in, figure out the time and location of the day’s first English class. I show up unannounced, but I nonetheless ask for the teacher’s permission to observe their class, that way they don’t have a complete panic attack over my being there to ‘judge’ them. And I try to ask in Tigrinya knowing that I am probably the first ferenji to do so. The result:  Nine times out of ten they grant me their permission and I get to see a class certified authentic by the fact that the teacher didn’t get to embroider their lesson plan ahead of time because they knew I’d be coming.

Here’s some of what I’ve seen.

It’s a big square room. A concrete slab spans the floor, sometimes all of it, and if not then there’s the rock and dirt below to make up the difference. The desks, arranged in groups so that the teacher has free space to circulate the room, are long and hard flat-planked benches affixed to a simple tabletop, nothing like the single-student desks with cubby holes that we’re used to in the States, and often host double the amount of students that they should, when the bench part is actually there, that is.

Something like concrete, something like mud –  I don’t know exactly what – makes the walls. Posters sometimes adorn these walls; other times they’re left barren, dull and gray. Windows spot these walls like portholes in boat’s hull, but there’s not enough, so there is little light, and your eyes must take time to adjust upon entering. But you soon become accustomed to the dimness, and see that the roof is thin tin with tiny punctures showing the bright light of outside like starshine in a moonless night. Dust motes can be seen swirling in the rays that shine down through these holes.

Once I saw a bird’s nest in the rafters up above. Therein two baby birds bawled for half the class. It was enough of a distraction for the class to forget about the ferenji sitting with them in the room.  Then momma bird flew in through an open window and began to feed them her regurgitated foodstuff. Then I was distracted.

When you get over the material reality of the classroom you begin to notice the kids sitting all around you. But it’s not like you haven’t felt their unflinching stares all along, it’s just that the novelty of the classroom’s make is beginning to fade away. So you start counting to figure out the classroom size. You look to your left to start the count and see this kid brainlessly absorbed in the act of chewing on some corn on the cob. Oblivious to the lesson, he spits the parts he doesn’t like onto the floor and passionately resumes munching. Turning your gaze, you see that a whole table of boys to your right is fighting over a water bottle in an obvious attempt to jockey for your attention. You try not to reward them with a smile – but you do. The group directly in front of you is shamelessly staring straight at you, which means their backs are facing the teacher and that they’re completely ignoring the whole lesson. You see if the teacher notices, see that they don’t, and so you stare right back at them with the meanest, most judgmental face you can muster. But it’s a staring contest you soon realize you cannot win. So you you physically grasp one of their little heads and manually turn their face around. The others get the hint, but your efforts last for about the next ten minutes because there they are staring again. Then, trying to ignore them, you notice this older-looking kid patrolling the aisles with a big stick in her hand. At least you think it’s a her (sometimes, depending on the haircut, you can’t be too sure). You begin to wonder why they’re out of their seat but are interrupted midthought by the answer when you see her whack across the head one of the kids staring at you. That, you learn from the teacher after the class, is what’s called a ‘classroom monitor’.

When the novelty of these kids wears off you begin to focus on the teacher and the content of the lesson. And this is when it gets interesting. The letters of the alphabet, you see, can apparently be capitalized in ways very different from what you’ve come to understand. A mix between cursive and print perhaps? Lowercase y’s, g’s, j’s, q’s and p’s can just float above the margin. Lowercase d’s and b’s are pretty much interchangeable. Spelling, too, becomes more, say, versatile. Contractions are still pronounced as if they weren’t the contractions they actually are. Etc. etc. etc.

But one ray of hope outshines the glaring shortcomings:  the enthusiasm of the teachers and students. No matter how downtrodden I’d feel after observing a day’s worth of dismal English lessons, the fact remained that every student and nearly every teacher was excited to have me work with them for the next two years. Sure, I’ve got my work cut out for me, but it’s with people that are truly earnest about doing it. That, I think, is half the battle. The other half I’ll make up along the way.