English Club

by Scott McAllister

It was the end of December when I first proposed an English club to my school’s 250+ eighth grade students. There’s a big exam at the end of the year for them, and a large part of this exam is devoted to English. They don’t go on to high school if they fail, so I figured the creation of an English club – just a relaxed place for them to practice English with a native speaker – to be something worth their while.

One day I passed around a sign-up sheet, doing my best to explain its purpose in pidgin English and my even worse Tigrinya. I tried to emphasize that joining the club is strictly voluntary, and that next to their name on the sign-up sheet they should indicate the day of the week (Monday-Friday) that they’d prefer to have the club. Kinfe, eager as ever to do right by me, is right there beside me translating my drivel into something more intelligible. Whether he didn’t hear me right, or whether he felt that the kids needed a little extra goading, I found myself hearing him say, in Tigrinya, “this is not voluntary” and “Saturday” over and over again. This is the exact opposite of what I was saying. Hearing this, standing up there in front of the class with him, I start interjecting shouts of “It’s Voluntary!” in Tigrinya. But it’s too late. Kinfe has already gotten his point across. Amending our instructions at that point would have been as much a pain in the ass as herding cats. And now I’m cursing under my breath, which really isn’t necessary in a place where your curse words aren’t understood.

The number of students that ended up signing up totaled about 210. The day they unanimously preferred was – you guessed it – Saturday. To that I shrugged my shoulders. I can work six days a week, I thought, so long as I make some of my weekdays half-days. But that number – 210 – there was just no way that was going to happen.

Now, it would certainly be nice if I could host 210 kids in several separate English clubs. But the thing was that I knew the vast majority of these kids had no real intention of participating. They were under duress when they signed up. I was going to have to winnow out the insincere students somehow.

My plan was to require those that signed up to write a paragraph – in English – about why they wanted to join the English club. A sentence, I told them, would even be fine. Anything, so long as it was in English. I gave them until the end of the week to do so and waited to see how many of the uninitiated would be weeded out.

The students turned in their work on a mix of poorly shorn loose-leaf and threadbare paper of myriad origins – tissue paper, newspapers, magazines, etc. At first glance the writing seemed to be in Tigrinya, not English. Closer inspection revealed a new level of illegible, a bastard alphabet born of an ungodly marriage between the scripts of our two languages (my fellow PCVs will understand what I mean). Sure, it was English, but I never knew our letters could be so (how can I put this lightly?) artistically adapted. Regardless, I persevered through the review, attentively spell-checking those paragraphs I could actually make sense of, and generously slapping big check-marks on those that were nothing more than a mishmash of curly-cues and alphabet soup.

Now for the best part:  the content of these letters.

We’ll start with the bad. The first four I chanced to check could have been photocopies of each other. I mean exact facsimiles. Not only were they copied word for word, but they contained the same outrageous spelling mistakes, indentations and, in one case, the original author’s name and signature! Astonished, but not as astonished as you might imagine (I have been here for almost 9 months now), I had to abandon grading and set out to see how many people copied each other. This was no small task considering the chicken scratch that I had to decode in order to see if things were copied word for word, plus the fact that there were over a 100 paragraphs to laboriously sift through.

Perhaps 30 paragraphs turned out to be unique and not the product of cheating. It was life-affirming to read them. These kids spoke of dreams to travel the world, of becoming doctors or future leaders, of attending college. They knew the value of learning English, and they recognized the incredible opportunity they had in me, a native speaker. Some thanked me for volunteering with them. It was like they almost understood the sacrifices we PCVs make in living here, in a foreign country of alien customs. These exceptional paragraphs I kept and diligently corrected before returning them. The others – the copiers – I returned along with the gift of a second chance, after I dramatically denounced them for cheating in front of their class, that is.

About half of those I gave a second chance to availed themselves of the opportunity; and nearly all their redo’s came back legitimate. Only four kids tried to resubmit the same paragraph they originally gave me. They must not have noticed the big fat X I drew across their paragraphs the first time. I sure did.

It was over a week ago that I first set this English club into motion, and I now had a pool of around 65 truly interested students to show for it. In the middle of the week I announced that the upcoming Saturday would be our first meeting. We decided that half would come in the morning and the other half would come in the afternoon. My handy-dandy, Peace Corps-issued calendar foretold a weekend free of Ethiopian holidays. I rested assured of the bright things to come.

Now, I wouldn’t be blogging about this if that was that and my English club went off without a hitch. Nothing goes that smoothly here, not even a trip to the bathroom (I had to wipe with notebook paper the other day). So you guessed right if you guessed that there was some unforeseen holiday that weekend. You’d have been spot on if you also guessed that I wasn’t informed of it until the very last minute.

(Was that potty talk too much?)

Here’s how it went down.

It was the end of the day on Friday, as I was walking out the school gate with Kinfe, beaming about the English club I’d be having tomorrow, when a whim inclined me to jokingly remind him of the club for the umpteenth time that day. Fresh mention of the club struck a flash of guilt lighting fast across his face. He stopped dead in his tracks and looked at me ponderously. He was thinking, seemingly ruminating on something like the Higgs Boson judging from his intense brow furrowing. A mouse running round in its wheel came to mind. Then – cue the cartoon light bulb flashing above head – he told me about this holiday and its interference with our English club. It was for some minor saint or something other, he said. Evidently everyone would be in church in the morning and feasting with their families in the afternoon.

“It is not possible”, he said.

Oh, how I’m starting to get used to those words.

So I rescheduled the club for the next Saturday.

On Wednesday of that next week I learned of this field day that was to take place on the Saturday I rescheduled for. That’s strike two.

The next week was devoted to mid-term exams, so no club once again.

Then there came a two-week break. Obviously no club.

The first week back was another no-go. Some students (and teachers) evidently conflated two with three in their calculation of the duration of the break, and so the school was deserted that whole first week back.

So, once again, I rescheduled for the next Saturday.

Monday came and I asked multiple faculty members, in English and Tigrinya, if there were any “programs” scheduled for that Saturday. The response was a resounding chorus of No’s. I repeated my inquiries the following day, and I was given the same answer. I was getting pumped. Things were looking up. I was getting on top of this fly-by-the-seam-of-your-pants time management mentality that’s so unique to Ethiopia. But then I heard, or rather deciphered, some disconcerting words during Wednesday’s faculty meeting.

Mind you, these meetings are conducted entirely in Tigrinya. I try to listen, which amuses the hell out of the staff, but I don’t understand much. Fortunately, there are some English language words that have no convenient equivalent in Tigrinya. ‘Parent Teacher Conference’ is one such example. Now, if I combine these intelligible English phrases with the rudimentary Tigrinya vocab I can sometimes pick out of the helter-skelter warble that is fluently spoken Tigrinya, I can sort of cobble together the gist of a short conversation.

From Wednesday’s meeting I was several times able to discern the Tigrinya word for Saturday (K’adam). What alarmed me, however, was the repeated nearness of K’adam to the words ‘Parent Teacher Conference’. Sure enough, after I cornered the school director and basically interrogated him, I learned that there was to be a PTA meeting throughout the day on Saturday.

I’ve lost count of how many strike outs now.

I had surpassed frustration. I was daydreaming of caving in a kid’s skull for calling me ‘ferenji’ more than was healthy. The coming Monday was to be yet another holiday, god dammit,  so I dedicated the remainder of the week to informing the kids that we’d meet during Tuesday’s tea break in order to vote on a new schedule for the English club. Saturday was going to be off the table. I was adamant about that. They’d have to choose a weekday – no if’s, and’s or but’s – and I’d only consent to the hour immediately after the last school bell. Can’t come? Well screw you little kid.

In the 30 minutes of this meeting I somehow managed to tabulate all their votes, reach consensus on the meeting days being Wednesdays and Thursdays, convince cliques to split up and shuffle around so we’d have an even number of members in each section, and get it all down on paper so I’d have a semblance of an reliable roster to go by. This was Tuesday of last week, nine whopping weeks after I first told these kids to write their paragraphs.

And then, the day after that meeting, I held my first English club. Sixteen students showed up, and 17 showed up on Thursday. Four kids came to both meetings even though I told them we’d be doing the exact same activities on both days. They didn’t care. They just wanted to be there. I felt all warm in fuzzy inside.

It was our first meeting, so I kept things short – one hour to be exact. I kicked things off by having them create their own club rules. They worked in small groups to write the rules down in both English and Tigrinya. I helped as much as I could, but all the credit really goes to my Tigrinya tutor, a fellow named Getachew, who came along for support. His English is superb and he thought it would be galvanizing to show the kids how, if you try hard enough, you can learn English and become successful just like he did.

It took about 30 minutes to hammer out these rules. They were as follows:  1) Do not hit other students. 2) Respect the teacher and other students. 3) Do not take or break classroom materials. 4) Do not make noise or disturb in class. They came up with these rules themselves, which hopefully means they’ll have more of a vested interest in upholding them than if I enforced them by fiat. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

The other activity we did was a sort of ice-breaker. I mentioned earlier that I want this club to be a relaxed place for them to practice English without worry. I don’t want kids to be embarrassed to make mistakes. Mistakes are good to make, I’ve told them. So, to warm them up, I told them to take turns introducing themselves in front of the club. The catch was that they’d have to yell their words. I went first to serve as a model. They were thunderstruck by the foudroyance of my voice. Some had to clasp their ears. After my example, one girl bravely volunteered to go first. She did a pretty good job shouting, but the rest of the students had to be dragged up to the front to participate. Confidence is something I want to work on in this club, and their timidity in this activity established a baseline upon which I hope to build. Opera and death metal by the end of the year I imagine.

So that was last week. I won’t be having the club this week since I have a mandatory Peace Corps training to attend, but I’ll be keeping it up for the rest of the school year. I promise pictures will come, and I’ll keep y’all posted on anything else worthy of being blogged about.

Till then, peace out –