Filed under: Village Life
I’m still here.
I’ve been out of touch, and I know it. To everyone equally, I hope. The cold season is still here and stubbornly refusing to go away (not a problem, not a problem at all). There’s no choice but to take advantage: I sleep until 9, with a sweater and long pants on and a sheet pulled up over my head, I walk around the village smiling without thinking about the heat, and I shiver while standing in direct sunlight as I dump a cup of water over my head during my mid-day bucket bath. I no longer have to wonder which droplets on my skin are water and which ones are sweat. It’s my second cold season, and my last. In about three months I’ll be home again. For now, I’m really enjoying the time that I have left in Kanel. Even when, for example, I might open my water bottle and get a whiff of what smells like 3M brand Scotch tape (which reminds me of Christmas), it doesn’t send me into a slump of homesickness. Funny that now that I have America staring me in the face, I miss it the least.
I learned something important the other day: You don’t know what being self-conscious is until you stand in front of a classroom full of 60 thirteen-year-olds all simultaneously screaming at you “Sir! Sir!” My counterpart, Mr. Thiam, is an English teacher, and sometimes I just don’t understand how he does it. I had come to help, and already just walking into the room was overwhelming. There I was, standing awkwardly in front of them as they all stared holes into me, making me feel like a piece of Swiss cheese. And you can’t get Swiss cheese anywhere within a two hundred kilometers. Now that is self-conscious.
The first thing I did was teach them that I wasn’t a Sir, I was a Miss. That was easy enough. It was impressive that they were first year English students, and I was able to speak to them completely in English, and they more or less understood. I mean, it was slooooow, E-N-U-N-C-I-A-T-E-D, English, but they got it. Back when I was a freshman in high school, I remember my French teacher, Mrs. Duncan, getting frustrated because we would speak like this….” Je voudrais something something…” when we couldn’t think of the appropriate French words. She had this French flag that she would put on her desk and, we were instructed, when we saw this flag we were to only speak French. Of course this didn’t work. Thankfully, I didn’t have to tackle that problem with Mr. Thiam’s students. They were a little more willing to put themselves out there and make mistakes. The self-consciousness subsided a bit.
Mr. Thiam put me in charge of two lessons. The first was to draw a picture of a person on the board and label various parts of the body: eyes, ears, feet. My back was to the kids as I drew the picture on the blackboard. I could hear them laughing and talking to each other in Pulaar or Wolof or whatever. They never spoke French to each other, even though that is the language in which the lessons are taught. The sense of order that was almost always present in the American classrooms from my memory was noticeably absent. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw Mr. Thiam calmly standing in the corner, waiting for me to finish. He’s a cheerful guy with a permanent semi-smile on his face. There was a perfect pleat down the center of his khaki pants. He was unflappable. Even though I was pretty sure that all 60 of his students were using their outside voices. Standing up there, with the comforting din behind me, I felt a little more at ease. I had drawn a picture of a boy. At the last minute, I wrote “AKON” boldly across the front of his t-shirt. Akon, the Senegalese-American, rapper, English-speaker extraordinaire, made me think that they’d relate to my blackboard boy a little more. When I turned around to face them again, everyone was clapping.
The second lesson was a dictation that involved me pronouncing vocabulary from the classroom so the kids could hear it from a native speaker. I had to repeat each word at least ten times because they had such trouble understanding me. This may sound strange, but I felt the slightest bit vindicated at that moment for all those instances I had had a tough time with the Pulaar glottal stop. I took this idea and tucked it away for later: the next time someone laughed at me for my pronunciation, I am going to say “Oh yeah, well then pronounce the word ‘chalk’ correctly and then we’ll talk.”
I’m not sure how much those kids learned from me. If anything, they learned that pop culture references are always appropriate, and that American English is really different and perhaps funny sounding. Actually, I probably learned that too. Also, I learned that even though you may start out on the outside, the people here just pull you into their friendliness and silliness and not-taking-themselves-seriously-ness and pretty soon, even a weird and out-of-place piece of Swiss cheese can fit in.
4 Comments so far
Leave a comment