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Amy's Assamese blog - An English Teacher in North Lakhimpur

Submitted by jnanamati on Thu, 10/01/2013 - 17:58

WEEK 3
Tuesday, January 8, 2013
Hello, hello, whoever is reading this … INDIA IS TOO NOISY.
Gee, and what was I expecting, to hear the chirping of the birds and the photosynthesizing of the plants? Ha! I know I should not use this venue to gripe, BUT … There is a rooster who is part of the workers’ household (more on that later). A beautiful rooster. He is part of a harem of hens and chicks, and they are greedy at worst, kind of cute at best. But this rooster …!! He starts crowing at, ohh, 3:30 in the morning? You hear this slapping sound as if someone is knocking on a door, and then the crowing ensues. While I am in bed, wide awake, I have wondered: does he regularly do his “cock-a-doodle-do” thing eight times? ten? Is there a regular interval between the screeches? I have counted. No, he just DOES whatever pleases him. That flapping sound MIGHT be HIM, asserting himself and trying to get away; he is tethered to a post during the evening and night. Sad to see, but I do wish they would tether his MOUTH. And, starting at 6:45, cars start careening down the highway that is right in front of our house, Assamese music vibrating so loud it can make your fillings jingle. Screeches from humans are also de rigueur.
However, there is good news: when we need water, we have to turn on a switch that activates the water pump. This results in a hideous electrical jarring sound that sort of drowns out the car noises. And we barely hear the ducks then. Oh, I didn’t mention the DUCKS …
OK, OK, I guess the Indian honeymoon is over.
Down by the Riverside
I really should not be spending time griping (but everyone knows whining is a hobby of mine) when so much has gone on. Let’s start with the New Year’s Day picnic. . . New Year’s Day is a national holiday here, and many people head on over to the banks of some small river (it’s not the Brahmaputra, the main river in Assam Province) for a picnic. Chandan and Anu very kindly invited us to join them for their annual picnic there, and I looked forward to going. I’m fairly used to the gawking and gaping that ensues when the Assamese see a Westerner (one should not forget that, for MOST, Jnanamati and I are the ONLY WESTERNERS they have EVER seen), but what I experienced there made me feel like a cross between Madonna and the Elephant Man . . . Celebrity? Freak? A bit of both? First, we took the mat and food items, and waded through very low riverbeds in order to reach a rather nice spot. Well, “rather” . . . the scenery is lovely: misty Himalaya Mountains in the distance, shallow, flowing water and rather rocky river beds that one can put a blanket over. But if one wishes to commune tranquilly with nature . . . ?? Ain’t gonna happen. The noise that I had mentioned that streams from zooming cars continues from the stationary cars here, parked along the riverside. And trash: everywhere. And why not, I’m afraid. There is no regular trash disposal system in this area. Trash? It’s the way it IS.
So. Before we have even settled down, people literally rush up to us, bumping into each other to get a look. We get the usual: “Where you from?” “How long you here?” Every small utterance we made was met with rapt attention, as if we had just uttered Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address”. As soon as we have settled ourselves on the mat, groups and groups of people came our way, pushing into each other to get the best view. I closed my eyes, trying to maintain my calm and not snap. Mostly, I felt badly for Chandan and his family, who deserve a nice, quiet get-together in a place they have been going to on this day for years and years. We finally did ask people if they wouldn’t mind giving us space, as we’d like to spend time with our friends. And people did amiably agree. Now, I think, we can relax . . .
However, as we were enjoying our tea and namkeen, that wonderful mixture of crunchies and sweet things that is found in almost every Indian household, we saw two lines of people moving towards each other. They were moving purposefully, eyes glued to the opposing group of people. We heard noises raised in anger and I realized we were about to watch a huge, huge fight in progress. People started gesticulating and shouting; two men began to wrestle and other men (and women) struggled to separate them. What the . . .?? Well, I thought, I might as well DOCUMENT this, and I took one picture. Jnanamati hissed at me, “Put that camera DOWN! We don’t want to bring attention to ourselves!” and I sheepishly, with regret, put the camera down. All I could get from Chandan is that soon police would come and get things under control. And, before the police DO come—which is no surprise—anger simmered, dissipated, at least slightly, and people wandered back to their blankets. Idly, I looked over to where a bunch of men are dancing to blaring music. “They are drinking alcohol,” I observed to Jnanamati. “This place is a tinderbox,” he responded.
For years, Assam has been the site of ethnic conflict. Let’s hear it for colonialism: The British, who owned tea plantations in this area, hired people from outside the area, often giving plummy jobs to Hindu Bengalis (now Bangladeshis) and bypassing the Assamese, for the Hindus were better educated than the Muslin Bengalis and the Assamese in general. Eventually, with the development of an Assamese middle class, resentment began to fester about these Bengalis taking the good jobs. Also, the Muslim Bengalis would settle on land that had been cultivated by both Assamese and the tribal peoples in this area—this just added a match to the tinderbox of conflict in the region. While most of the damage has been done in areas that border Bangladesh (hundreds of miles away), there are bad feelings everywhere. I guess this little spat had to do with some sort of ethnic conflict, but who knows? And don’t worry, I am very, very safe here, for I am well looked after. Once Jnanamati leaves, on January 13, I will be living with Anu and her daughter, Mayuri. They live in a very rural area, with neighbors, they tell me, who are all dying to meet me. So I may indeed die here—but of too much attention, versus a terrorist’s bullet.
This is not to minimize what has gone on in the area. As recently as July 2012, a tribal group, the Bodos, fought against the Bengali Muslims for the reasons I mentioned, above. During this time, Assamese students living elsewhere fled their residences, having heard or read about rumors that Muslims would retaliate against them. While Jnanamati is right to advise caution, in case people start attributing all this woe to the Western colonialists, I do feel safe, for I am surrounded by people who are happy I am here.
Back to the riverbank: once I became aware of alcohol, I saw that its presence permeated the festivities here. Indeed, as we were trooping back to Chandan’s car, a group of quite drunk young men practically accosted us, insisting we pose with them for various photo ops. It was yukky; we survived.

Teaching / A Very Strange Afternoon
The school’s children continue to endear themselves to me, as I become aware of individual personalities . . . their names still elude me, but that is my next goal: names! Each class has at least one shining star—as classes do. These special kids, for the most part, are quite well scrubbed, bright-eyed, and so eager to learn it’s heartbreaking. You also get the other spectrum . . . some students seem to have a certain dullness of affect that cannot, I think, just be attributed to a less-than-stellar intellect. . . what’s the story there, I think, as I work with a young girl with a dirty, dirty shirt, runny nose, and a drooping spirit. Who knows. Even if I found out, what could I do? Almost all the kids, however, are OK with taking instruction, and are doing the best they can. They could still be in THEIR honeymoon period with me, for working with a Westerner must be a very interesting experience for them—this novelty would give the most mediocre teacher a real advantage. And I am learning to relax with the new sensation of working with young kids, and to suss out each class’s particular character. Class 2, I am realizing, can best be reached with drama games, with action. Class 3 students are equally good at both kinetic and reading activities. Class 5 has a mix of very, very bright students and those who seem to not be getting it very well. But! In trying to help a class understand the nature of spoken English, with its various tonal and stress changes, I began to spontaneously use my body to do a dance that stomped out the strong words in sentences, and bent down to denote the weak words. It seems to work! The kids began to do this little dance with me, and then to say complex sentences in perfect rhythm. “OK, OK! The ANT (I stomped and clapped my hands on the word “ant;” so did the students) WORKED HARD (stomp, stomp, clap clap—students enthusiastically did the same)in the FIELDS (clap and stomp only on FIELDS) … etc. I will continue doing this! and will trust in fluid young brains to make a connection between these sentences and the many, many more English-language sentences they will say in the future. Finally, as a teacher, I am relinquishing my own dependence on words and delving into a more kinetic way of teaching. This is very, very good. It’s part of why I came here in the first place: to learn.
The Meeting: On Friday, January 4, there would be a parent-teacher meeting, I was told, so I expected to have parents line up to talk with the different teachers. I was expecting to be in the background because I am so new to the school. Little did I know. A good number of parents or guardians showed up, perhaps 30. Chandan began by giving a ten-minute speech. All I could understand was “Madam,” “Amy,” “USA”, and “English”, and there was a lot of gesturing towards me. The parents’ eyes zoomed towards me and flickered between Chandan and myself . . . back and forth, like an eyeball tennis match. Chandan sat down and said, ”Madam, give a talk, please.”
You would think I would be used to this, since I was placed in this position once before, just about nine days ago. I was at a public-health meeting that Chandan’s charity, the Tatagatha Trust had set up. I was sitting quietly, enjoying looking at the audience—great faces; I even took some photographs while Assamese washed over me. Then Chandan said to me, “Madam, you will now give a talk on the healthcare system in your country.” Oh, sure, like I know tons about THAT. I stammered out a speech on how fat Americans were getting and how this is placing a huge burden on America’s healthcare system (with Chandan translating) and that was that. It’s disconcerting, really: there still exists in this part of the world a post-colonial perception that ALL Westerners have something that Indians don’t. That elusive “it”…could that special something be the insouciance of Western culture? Its brashness, it popular culture? Hence, as a Westerner, it is assumed, of COURSE I will know something about my country and I should communicate that to others. Ha. In fact, one of the teachers I work with actually said, “Madam, Indians are backward and stupid. Americans are smart.” How representative is that attitude I don’t know. I’m sure better-educated young Indians would take umbrage at that perception, but here, in rural, isolated India, that glorified image of Westerners is still going strong—hence the goggling and gawking. And, no doubt, there are politicized Indians who dislike what Westerners have actually done to the country and who may take it out on offending Westerners—but thus far I’ve been spared any ire regarding that.
So. Back to the parents’ meeting. I stood up, and to my surprise, began to speak clearly and coherently. It does not matter what I said; let’s just say I tried to communicate a message of East and West learning from each other, and that I was happy to add an extra dimension to this school’s curriculum. Easy, easy . . . I breathed a sigh of relief when the speech was over, and slumped down in my chair.
Then the parents had the floor. A very attractive, slender man stood up and spoke very well and eloquently . . . in Assamese, of course. I recognized the words “Hindi”, “English”, and “Assamese.” He pointed to me once or twice in what I thought was a fairly disapproving tone of voice, and held the floor for at least four minutes. When he finished, people applauded. I glanced at the teachers. They were fidgeting and looking nervous; one of them sat there, with a face that seemed carved from stone. I gestured to one of the teachers to sit next to me. “What did he say?” I hissed. “He say students should study three languages: Assamese, Hindi, as well as English. He say teachers should work harder, give homework every night. He like the English, don’t worry,” the teacher reassured me. I sighed. The teachers make so, so little money, and this gentleman wants them to put in huge amounts of hours. While I could understand his sentiments, I wondered how the teachers actually felt: their faces seemed to tell a unified story of fatigue and . . . ennui? Many of these parents pay practically next to nothing to send their kids here. I don’t know . . . Where do they think the money comes from to run this school? Finding money to pay their meager salaries is a monthly task that often can barely be met, or comes out of individual pocketbooks. As I thought along these lines, I had to smile: I was becoming protective of this small school in the middle of nowhere. How did that happen?
Well, one thing is true, I thought to myself: these parents may be poor, but their vocal capacity is not. Many of them got up and had their say. The teachers often chimed in, nodding their heads for emphasis. Then the parents interrupted and spoke. Occasionally I heard the usual “Madam” or “Amy” or “English”. Chandan was sitting next to me, calmly taking notes. I was getting a bit tired of all this. I don’t speak Assamese. I was feeling quite . . . stupid, and a bit put out. They could have TOLD me this meeting was in large part an introduction to meet ME, I sulked to myself. Also, this is the school’s admission time, when new families can sign up their children. Of course Chandan would want to parade me around in order to get new students. While I did feel a bit—manipulated—I had to admit to myself that if the shoe was on the other foot, I’d probably do the same thing myself. “What ARE they saying?” I asked Chandan. He leaned toward me. “They say that the school environment is no good and we need separate classrooms,” he said. He beamed at me and went back to listening and writing notes.
Great. All this talking and . . . only about the (admittedly terrible) school environment? While I was pondering how much power translators actually have, Jnanamati walked in and sat next to me. Eventually, he gave a speech. Everyone was given tea and biscuits, and the meeting came to a halt.  
During this meeting, many of the school’s students would come in, run to their parents and then run out again. They saw nothing inappropriate in running in, three abreast, each child talking as loudly as he or she could. Noise, noise, noise, India is all NOISE, I thought. Honking ducks (yes, I live near ducks, too). Squawking chickens. Blaring music. Crowing roosters. And the school classrooms are only divided by these thin, portable bits of CARDBOARD, really, on wheels. In other words—no dividers to speak of. Imagine five classes, separated only by bits of movable cardboard, with students laughing and answering lessons all up and down this large space, and each teacher trying to teach above the noise of her fellow teachers. This is not conducive to learning, but what choice do the teachers have? So. More noise.
On this note, I’ll stop; I’ve written far too much now as is, and thank you to anyone who has waded through all this! I hope you enjoy the pictures. The long and short of it: it has been quite a ride thus far, and I can barely imagine what surprises will be in store for me in the future. It’s a bumpy ride . . . and such a good one. I’m fortunate to be here.

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Amy's Assamese blog - finally the next installment. Its long but believe me well worth reading.

Jnanamati

February something, 2013

Hey hey, everyone. The weeks are rushing by, and the (self-imposed) pressure to keep writing these missives means time is doing its usual wink-of-an eye routine. So hello again and, as always, thanks thanks for reading. It means a lot, and I love getting your emails.

Noise is constant in India (no surprise), even in my village abode. Through NOISY, piped-in music, a nearby mosque reminds the faithful to pray five times a day, starting at 5:00 a.m. on the dot. My earplugs help muffle the sound a bit. But noise, always noise: Anu regularly receives visitors, and I hear the pleasant chatting of women while she makes tea (and always, always gives me some). Then there is the TV blare. Barking of dogs. Squealing of pigs. Sound of people just working outside. Mini, Mayuri’s part-time cat, comes in and starts complaining about the world: that cat has the biggest mouth I have ever heard. She is just beautiful, with a smooth, smooth kind of tan coat, shorthair, but immensely soft. She has a lovely pointed face on a delicate build, but the strident meows that ensue from that little body are quite amazing. I no longer feel sorry for her, for Mayuri has informed me that an old lady regularly feeds her, plus three other cats, and a dog. But Mini loves biscuits (cookies), and eagerly pounces on biscuit pieces whenever she can get them. Whether she gets them or not, she lets people know she. IS. HERE. Occasionally she will deign to sit on one’s lap, or snuggle up on a bed, but that privilege is short lived.

In late January I was informed that I WILL visit some students’ houses that day. I did not blink—I’m used to getting such commands and, like an obedient puppet, will go in order to show the world that a Westerner is teaching at this school. At 12:30 I was told that Anu, plus two other teachers and myself, would imminently leave. “What? I have a class at one-thirty!” I protested. Anu waved her arm and said in her very halting English, “The odder teachers . . . OK. Let’s go.” What the . . .?? With three teachers missing, there would not be enough teachers for the 12:30 to 2:00 classes! But, sigh, that’s the way it is in this school, teachers regularly shuffle from class to class doing the best they can.

So. Anu, Punyam, Reena (two teachers) and myself cut through the fields to the main road and then took an autorickshaw to this quite beautiful, rural road. This road is especially nice: It has the usual lush green, the golden rice fields, but there is something quiet and lovely about this one. It feels GOOD. Eventually, we got to the first house. I was informed that it was the house of one of my students. I met cousins, nephews, and I think the mother (the hidden Indian mother, I’m afraid), and we sat down and were served betel nut wrapped in a banana leaf, which is one of the few things I just cannot consume. I regretfully shook my head no and settled back after the initial frenzy (sorry, that is what it is, complete with frenetic photo taking) wore off at seeing a Westerner. I let the Assamese wash over me as I keep a fixed smile on my face. After ten minutes, in the usual fashion, Anu got up and said, “Madame, we go now.”

I was surprised, because I assumed that the parent would want to speak with the teachers and ask about the student’s progress…?? Not the case here. A gentleman who was a relative of the student led us down this road. We walked fifteen minutes. “Uhh . . . where are we going?” I asked Punyam.

“To Pranjal’s house, Madam,” she said.

“Oh, another student?” I asked. I wasn’t expecting to go to more than one house. My bladder was beginning to sing like Tom Jones: “Please release me, let me go . . .”

“Yes, Madam,” she said calmly. So we got to the second house. The gate was closed. The aforementioned gentleman hopped over the fence, knocked on the door. No one there. He said something in Assamese to Anu, and we started walking back, in the opposite direction. Quietly. Calmly. As if nothing had happened.

“We’re going away from the main road,” I said to Punyam. “Now what?”

“Now we go to Dayakrishna’s house, Madam,” she said. A car screeched by and dust settled all around us. “Free powder!” Punyam said, and we laughed.

Like the good little puppet I am, I refrained from asking questions, and we came to the third (third!) house. There we were served the obligatory pithas, ladoos, plus tea and water, and I had a few pieces. Settled back. Good, I thought, time to go HOME. So we said our goodbyes, people made sure to take pictures, and off we went.

Let me cut to the chase. We schlepped to eight houses, total (NOT including the house that was closed). We had seven cups of tea with seven sets of the accompanying snacks.By the fifth house, I looked at the snacks and shuddered, my stomach audibly protesting. Yet if I refused, the host would look at me with sad, puppy-dog eyes, and would say, in broken English, “You must eat, eat, must.” One host not only offered the usual, but also thrust under our noses a huge bowl of a traditional milk dish that I SHOULD like—it’s soured, likeyogurt, with sugar on top. For some reason, however, I do find this dish, well, repulsive. Something about the taste and texture reminds me of anything that has been rotting in the sun. I have learned to eat this by shoveling as huge a spoonful as I can in my mouth, following it immediately with a sip of water and slug of tea. And smile at the carefully watching hostess.

So.One can be killed with kindness. But all snarky humor aside, I did go to the houses of three of my favorite students: Mayasri, Debujit, and Supanza (I’m sure the spellings are wrong, but never mind). They beamed when they saw me, and I got to watch Debujit and Mayasri give a quick dance performance; not to be outdone, Supanza sang in a quite-nice young tenor. All three of these students are gems. They soak in information, their eyes bright and happy, and they do all tasks eagerly, and well. Supanza is a FORCE. He sits at his desk, body tense, almost jumping out of his skin to understand everything I am saying. His attention is fierce and he grasps information immediately. When I offer an innovative lesson, truly, he laughs with joy.

At least four of my students live on this road. They live closely together, their families all knowing each other and supporting each other. I watched Mayasri and Debujit race outside, playing, and thought, God, what a great childhood they are having. What could be better: having fresh air, a feeling of being surrounded by people you love and who love you, and feeling—safe? This environment is what Singaporeans called a “kampong”, which is a Malay word for village. There is one kampong left in Singapore, and it is on the verge of extinction. I think that this lovely Assamese road, eventually, will be better paved, widened, and the area will become a faceless suburb, like so many suburbs worldwide. If this happens, the old-timers may indeed fondly reminisce about their childhood in this village environment. There is so much to recommend it. No computer games. Healthy, real food; I have seen very, very few soda bottles or juice cans at local houses. People surrounded by an extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents.

Of course this seemingly rural paradise comes at a cost: local wages mean little opportunity to visit other countries. Having intractable demands from one’s family, including marriage and children. These kids’ parents will want their children to go to college, however,to obtain their Bachelors. Of course, in India, just like in many countries, a B.A. means very little these days; it is the very, very least one needs in order to get a good job, and hundreds of people apply for almost every job listed in the papers. Everyone wants a government job, with its salary and perks, but I’ve been told that these jobs come at a bribe price that means only the wealthy will get those plums. True? I don’t know. Also, these kids may not be able to live with their parents once they are part of the Indian workforce. Who knows about the future of such villages?

And, certainly, beneath the surface of Indian life is the reality of male dominance. Wife beating and other forms of abuse. Random displays of power. I have attached another picture, this one of the wonderful woman who serves the teachers tea in the afternoon—she cleans the place for no doubt a pittance. Look at her, please. She is barely fifty years old and has a daughter in grade 9 or 10. “People here live a hard life,” Anu managed to tell me. “Very hard. Men beat women…” she made a beating gesture with her hands, “and no let them go out sometimes.” She shook her head. “Hard life, 80 percent of people, I think.”

But. In the families I visited, it SEEMS as if the girls are treated as well as the boys, and that the parents have genuinely high hopes for them. Here’s a photo of another student of mine. I call her “Curlylocks” because she played that role when her class did a quick role play of “The Three Bears” story. Her father proudly told me of her intelligence, and that he hoped she could find a good job one day.So maybe India does, indeed, still suffer from a patriarchal attitude, but people are beginning to really question this. Look at the furor caused by that terrible rape in Delhi!It’s all for the best, I think.

OK, I’m writing this over ten days later. A recent Saturday night was quite wonderful. I promised Anu that I would cook a Western meal, and she could invite guests. She invited Putu, her best friend, and some neighbors she is close to, so we had five guests total, including Beauty and Kobita, who are respectively 12 and 16 years old.

No thyme. No basil. No bay leaves. No oven …!! And we’re dealing with a very unimaginative cook to begin with. However, I was able to fumble together a recipe consisting of: chicken stew; mayonnaise-less coleslaw; pretend garlic bread; and an oven-less apple crisp that sounded way too healthy to be good, but never mind. Anu and I went shopping, came home laden with stuff, and I went to work. My goal: to have edible food. Not good food, but edible. I met the goal. I DO make good soups,and was able to concoct a tasty chicken soup, complete with homemade chicken broth. The coleslaw was good! good recipe! and the apple thingie looked awful but tasted quite fine. However, the hit of the eveningwas the BREAD. I just took the bread (mediocre at best) and heated it quickly in a pan with (poor-quality) vegetable oil and garlic. Often, I burnt the bread. It looked awful. Man, it went like hotcakes, people wanting up to four pieces of the stuff. To my bemusement, everyone added at least a tablespoon of salt each to both the soup and the coleslaw. Assamese food is very, very salty. . . I wonder how my blood pressure is here, should get that checked.

It’s the evening I will never forget. Beauty is an accomplished dancer, and Kobita a good singer. Once the dinner was over, and, sigh, the electricity went off, people went to work enjoying themselves. Beauty immediately demonstrated some really lovely dances, and Kobitaand Putu sang accompaniment. I will never forget these images: in the half-light, people getting drunk on just dancing and singing together. Beauty twirling in the modest room. Putu singing and occasionally dancing along. Mayuri both singing and dancing. Grabbing me to demonstrate my horrible 60’s version of the twist. The older women grooving on the entire thing. Three generations really, really happy to be together and share in some good stuff. No booze. A modest meal. And real joy. The next day, Anu told me that it had been a long time since she had been to a party that had been just FUN. That, too, made it all worthwhile.

The school, the school . . . with all this nattering, it seems as if the school comes last, doesn’t it? Not so. Teaching there remains a joy. I can see the kids gaining confidence in communicating in English. Their grammar remains execrable, but the desire to speak is burgeoning. And, increasingly—and most importantly—the students no longer automatically think they must repeat everything I say. They’re beginning to understand that they are to think. They’re beginning to do work, in teams, that involves cooperation and creativity. Unfortunately, the desire to COPY often overrides any real creativity, but . . . slowly, slowly. Every morning, as I come to school, the kids rush towards me, beaming and shouting: “Good morning, Ma’am!” and every night they all make sure to shriek to me “See ya!” before they rush home. What a great beginning and end to the work day.

My only problem: class one. I don’t know how to deal with them. It’s partly their young age, but it’s just the GESTALT of the kids, I guess. They are rowdy, eager to break out into talk and pushing each other at the least provocation. A few kids are bright, but somehow the eagerness to learn is thoroughly overridden with the eagerness to cause havoc. And I JUST don’t know how to deal with it. During one class, when it was obvious what I was doing was NOT working, I gave up. “Come outside,” I sighed, and they tumbled out like overheated puppies. We just did my screwed-up version of “Old MacDonald had a Farm”, with hand gestures. They had done this before, and they loved it. Learning? Out the window. But as we were doing this I thought, “Gee. This feels a bit like a Stephen King horror movie … am I controlling the kids with music, or are they controlling ME, by making sure that they end up outside, singing a song they already know?” As I gazed upon their very cute faces, I shivered in the warm sun. Sometimes I wonder! So if anyone knows of good, fun kids’ ESL games, let me KNOW, please.

I have been working on simple verb conjugation: He/she/it sitS, and the rest is I/you/we/they, etc. sit. Easy, right? If it’s more than one (except for I and you) add an “s”. Otherwise, no “s”. I have tried: worksheets. Games. Drill. Physical movement. Songs. Writing. Homework. Threats of my imminent suicide. Threats of killing THEM. THEY STILL DON’T GET IT!! And this is true for all the grades 1 through 5. Even the Great Supanza (see above) is confused by it. It’s so important that kids get this real basic foundation of English.I must be doing something wrong.If anyone has something about this, I would be grateful.

But I will repeat: not all is lost. I’m seeing a lot of progress in many of the kids. Now, the teachers: I read an article in the NY Timesthat mentioned the poor attitude of teachers in government schools, that often they never even showed up. Well, that is the case here. Every day, at LEAST one teacher is absent. One day, three teachers were absent, so before each period we would huddle and decide who would merge classes and teach what. We got through the day—but what do the students see? What do they think when they are inside, doing sums (or whatever), and their teacher is OUTSIDE the classroom, KNITTING, and chatting with other teachers? What kind of message is that? It happens daily. Indeed, the best teacher in the school, with whom I share Class 4 English, enjoys chatting with me when the students are taking a quiz. I have to gently push her away—I’m in the classroom. I’m not socializing. I’ll do that during tea break.

I can’t say I always enjoy tea break. The teachers are lovely, often commenting favorably on something I am wearing. They always offer me the best seat, the best treats. And we can chat about family, likes and dislikes, etc. But that’s it. There does not seem to be a sense of really wanting to improve themselves as professionals. They just seem to want to enjoy their day with minimal fuss, and quickly leave at 2:00 to join their families. I could be unkind here in my assessment. After all, these teachers are making a pittance, and for the last two months, they were just getting half salaries. Why should they work when they are making less than a laborer makes?

Interestingly, the one who really seems to want to improve herself is NOT a good teacher. She openly has admitted she does not like teaching, but she is doing it because the hours are good. She bullies the kids and displays a very unkind sense of humor, the kind that demonstrates itself by pointing at an erring student and saying, “Ha ha, he/she made this mistake, can you believe it?” in front of the class. YUKK. However, I have yelled at her enough times (I really have) and have almost dragged her away from kids she was mocking so that she is actually, slowly, changing her behavior. Being less caustic, more supportive. I know she respects me, so there’s a good chance that she is doing this just because I am there, in the classroom, with her. But this woman wants to improve her English. She’s very intelligent. How to focus this intelligence towards having a love of seeing a student’s face brighten with the joy of really “getting” something? I don’t know.

I do see this in one student I call “Mr. Smiles”. He has a heartbreakingly beautiful smile. He is not quick academically, seems to be quite poor, based on the ragged condition of his school uniform, and often he has borne the brunt of this teacher’s cruel jokes. I’ve smiled back at him, given him positive feedback when he has done something only PARTIALLY correctly. Kept him focused on the lesson (not always easy; he drifts away at the blink of an eye. Learning disorder? I don’t know.) Made sure this teacher does not pounce on him. And guess what? He is now speaking to me. Slowly. And doing his homework, well, kind of correctly. For me, this is big. He continues to smile.

Also—every morning, during assembly, the children say aloud the Five Buddhist Precepts. When I leave, teachers and students alike will continue this. I’d like to add more Buddhist lessons to the curriculum; I’ll ask Jnanamati about what we can do.

One last thing. Thanks to a friend of mine in Singapore, who sent my appeal for a corporate sponsor to people in a listserv in the area she lives, two people have donated money to the school. It does not solve long-term problems, but, lord, it HELPS. Chandan and Anu will now be able to have walls built so that real learning can take place in each classroom. The awful cacophony of noise will be reduced. Teachers will get their back salaries…think, S$45 a month for each teacher. And I spoke with teachers about using the money that a very generous Singaporean gave to me before I left Singapore to go to India. We agreed that it should be used for Hindi, Assamese, and English-language books. Sunit, the very talented music teacher, wants money for a harmonium. Would love to give it to him, but I don’t think the funds will cover that. One thing at a time. Imagine! And one of these people has offered to send used toys and books to the school. Imagine, here, too: The teacher’s room, full of bright books, and the kindergarten classrooms actually having some toys and color. We are all going to market this Saturday to have one hell of a spending spree. YaHOO.

OK, I’m done.