Yesterday I did a somersault in my class. It’s all part of the show here — you should stop by. There are 13 performances a week.
I hadn’t planned on the acrobatics when I started class, but I preach to my charges all the time to “know your audience”; in the middle of my act yesterday I realized that I just needed to do a somersault to make a point. Bam! I even stuck the landing. I’m a little bit of a everything-including-the-kitchen-sink sort of teacher, so it’s fortuitous that there are two sinks in the back of my classroom.
Stay with me here for a moment: The majority of my students are non-native English speakers, and about 40% of them have been speaking English for less than four years. The biggest chunk of them are from Korea, but I also have students from Japan, Jamaica, Russia, India, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, Spain, Malaysia, Australia, and a few from the U.S. The range of English proficiency is quite vast. I have one student who moved here from Seoul three months ago. Including class yesterday, she’s had 30 days of English instruction in her life.
I am surprised everyday by the things that my students know and what they don’t. Yesterday we were reading a short story that takes place on the day JFK was assassinated — only four students had heard of JFK before, and one thought he was a one of the steel industrialists. I expected this — most American culture references are total curve balls and I’ve tuned in enough to expect that I need to explain all references to American culture to them. What got me was when the narrator in the story — a girl in the 9th grade — describes how nervous she is about talking to a boy she likes. She tells us that her stomach “was doing somersaults.” I interrupted the reading to ask the class if this was a simile or a metaphor. Someone quickly assessed there was no like or as, so it wasn’t a simile. Nice, I said, and as I glanced around at the puzzled looks it occurred to me that a few kids couldn’t place the image. So I asked if anyone knew what a somersault is.
“Oh, c’mon, someone has to know what a somersault is,” I carped.
And, really, there’s only one way to get idea of a somersault across, right? The feeling moved me and I tossed my paper, pen, and other teacherly accoutrements over my shoulder, and went for it.
The gasps I heard were followed by a smattering of applause (it’s a rough crowd — I have no doubt that 10 of the 18 students there had no idea what I was talking about before I went tumbling across the floor in front of them). I was happy I made it through unscathed. That slate floor is really flipping hard.
Working here is a tough, but glorious, assignment. My skills as a teacher are pushed daily. I am constantly re-evaluating my expectations, trying to sort out how to meet the native English speakers in a place that challenges them while also finding a place where the kids who are new to the language can catch on. There are other challenges too — this population of students is so transient that it’s common for students to have been in 3-4 schools over 6 years in different countries on different continents. Not all international schools are the same, so what they have learned varies and there are often very big gaps that surprise me. I have a class of 11 senior boys who have lived all over Asia and Europe and gone to different schools. None of them had heard of the literary term “voice” before I brought it up yesterday. I threatened to get the 10th grade teacher from across the hall to come in and give them a talking-to (she teaches the bejezus out of voice) and they pointed out that none of them had her because they weren’t at the school in 10th grade. Then there’s an American girl in another class (she has not lived in the U.S. since infancy) who was last in Africa at a school that didn’t even offer English lit classes. She’s a senior and has kept up with American-style English reading lists on her own for the past 5 years. Everyone has a story here. I stopped counting the students who are tri-lingual because there are so many that it’s not a phenomenon any more. And I only have 78 students this year.
My school’s enrollment has doubled in four years, so we are implementing new strategies for a much bigger population on the fly. I like the challenge of developing systems to serve the kids we have in front of us. I like the challenge for its own sake, but I also like doing it for these particular students — they’re great young people. Tomorrow is the end of the third week of school, and I already know that most of my students are tougher than I was at this age, especially the non-native English speakers. I can’t imagine moving to a new school freshman year in a language that I only have a tenuous grasp of and attempting to perform on an academic level. Their needs force me to find new ways to do old things. Their strengths and weaknesses and questions make class go in all directions at once, so there’s never a moment when I can take for granted what I’m doing. It brings me right into the present and forces me to stay there. I’m certain my expectations and act in class make them focus on a minute-by-minute basis, and it probably makes their heads spin.
The least I can do is a spontaneous somersault
I had lunch with my boss and two other colleagues yesterday. Of the four of us, I am the newest to India with only 17 days under my belt compared to 8 years, 5 years, and 1 year, respectively. They asked me how I was adjusting — what was hard, what was easy, what surprised me. This is a challenging question to answer at this point.
I’ve been surprised about how easy it has been to be here. Now, I recognize it’s not yet been three weeks, and I’m still in a honeymoon period, but even so, it’s been relatively easy. The things that have been hard or stressful have been school things, but the start of every school year is hard to some degree with all the meetings and prep stuff that happens all on top of each other. It’s more difficult if it’s your first year at a school — I’ve felt a lot like a first year teacher again as I wrote in my last post. Once I got in front of my students, however, I was back in the saddle again, and able to lead my steed off into the sunset. Hi-ho, Silver, away! I’m lucky in that I came in with a huge class of new teachers, so there’s a solid core of people going through similar wonderings as we try to figure out the unknowns together. It’s a safety in numbers thing. The returning people at my school are really great, and the local staff is the most hospitable group of people I could ever hope to meet.
I think I’m most surprised by how easy it is to make all this work. There’s a strange dynamic here because while everything my senses take in tells me I’m somewhere unfamiliar. The extreme contrasts that smack me in the face on a minute-by-minute basis include the gentile cows and skanky street dogs, the sweet smell of jasmine wafting from a flower stand and the Shakespearean foulness of decaying garbage, the orderly chaos of cars, buses, motorbikes, push carts, tuk-tuks, and pedestrians jockeying for space on the narrow roads, the unending racket of rasping engines spewing exhaust so thick that it stains light colored clothing. But somewhere in all of this sensory overload is a world of English. I can read the signs of all the stores on the roads. Most of the drivers of cabs and tuk-tuks speak and understand enough English to take me where I want to go. All the clerks in shops interact with me with English language nuance. The first three songs of piped-in music played at the new mall in town today were by Beyonce, Michael Jackson and Stone Temple Pilots. How can this be?
I don’t know what to make of the fact that so much about India doesn’t make sense. The logical foundation of this city and province and even country is not one I’m accustomed to — I sorta knew that would be the case. But I didn’t realize that it would be relatively easy to get what I need on a daily basis. I’m starting know what’s a reasonable tuk-tuk fare. I’m learning the names of the villages, or neighborhoods, where my friends live — which is big because when I first got here I looked a map and thought, “oh, I’m never going to be able to learn all the names of these places” (there are a lot — most of the drivers I’ve encountered don’t know this city very well).
There’s a lot that isn’t quite the same, but isn’t totally different, either. I teach three classes of 9th graders, old hat to me, but over a third of my students are English language learners, meaning they are not yet proficient in writing, speaking or reading English. That’s a big change. I went paddleboarding — something I love doing with friends — with my boss yesterday before we had lunch. We had a great time. I haven’t done something like with someone I worked for since I played beach volleyball with the owner of the pizza shop where I worked when I was 19. There’s been a lot of talk about committing to making this place home quickly, which I’ve done before in several new cities over the past ten years. This time, though, that involves hiring people — a cook named Isabel, and possibly a reliable driver in the weeks to come. Isabel is giving me a run for my money already — she and I seem to have differing views of who is really in charge. She scolds me for buying the wrong trash can, the wrong sized pots and pans, and the wrong rice. She laughs at me for wanting fresh jasmine in my house. She may be right.
It’s early, I get that. But so far, I really like it here. I adjusting, one small moment at a time.
Tomorrow is my first day of school. Finally.
I decided to take this job on Christmas Eve 2012 — over seven months ago. Only in the past few weeks have I really wanted to get in front of my new classes. Before then I was saying goodbye to friends and prepping for my move. In the last two weeks I’ve been overloaded with meetings, information about the new classes I’m teaching, the particulars of my new school and department, and all the other things that go into starting all over again. When you start at a new school it’s a lot like being a first-year teacher again — and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. Being a first year teacher is tough. So, in a few words, these past few days have been rough.
What makes it rough is that I’m teaching some courses I’ve never taught before, and there isn’t a lot of precedent for what I’m doing. My expectations of myself are quite high, and coupled with the natural stresses of learning to work with all new colleagues has pushed me significantly. I can take solace in the fact that all of the new teachers who arrived here are in the same boat. This is a very good school that aspires to be a great school. It has the leadership in place to get there, and the teachers who are here this year, both returning and new, all came here to be part of this big push to be great. It’s exciting, but it’s a lot of work.
So I’ve been stressed out more than I can remember being before the start of any of my previous years. I’ve had enough of the planning. I want to be in front of my students. I want to get in there and start making things happen. A guy can only take so many meetings.
As I think about the work over the past two weeks, and the anticipation I have for tomorrow, what strikes me is that there is very little about “India” that has gotten to me so far. I’m not bothered by the men who were pooping on the beach in front of me yesterday; the cows in the middle of the street hardly catch my attention. There’s so much noise on the road, and the traffic is what you might imagine in a place where there are only suggestions for how to navigate around other vehicles. None of these things get me worked up. I’m sure there will come a time when all that surrounds me finally provokes some sort of meltdown. But not tonight.
I had a lovely evening at Mylapour — one of the bigger temples in Chennai. Fortuitously, I ran into one of my new colleagues who is from Chennai. She and her husband were there for his birthday they quickly dropped everything to show me around. It’s a huge temple — one of the oldest in Chennai, and probably the country. I read that Ptolemy was rumored to have visited here. Marco Polo wrote about this place, and St. Thomas the Apostle was buried here before his body was exhumed and moved to Edessa. So it’s an important place historically, and it’s still an active place of worship. I got a terrific tour and description of the various altars and traditions practiced here. We ended up being right in the middle of a ceremony performed by brahmin priests who led the chanting with drums, bells, and lots of incense. I did a little pooja to Ganesh and his parents, Siva and Parvati. Together the three represent destruction, creation, and wisdom. I prayed for an enriching school year. It was the perfect place to be tonight.
Tomorrow is the first day of school. I can’t wait.