Thursday, October 28, 2010

Teaching in Tembisa... a moderately traumatizing experience. =)

A new day and a new adventure! I got out of bed earlier than I have any other time this year to get ready for another day at school. On this, my second day at Mrs. Mathe’s school in Tembisa, I had no idea what I was in for. Tembisa is a township nearby where I am staying in Bonaero Park. A township is an area that was designated during apartheid to be a black-only area. Thus, when you drive into a township, you find that in the space between the city of Joburg (which was whites-only during those times) and the township, there is a buffer-zone of several kilometers where there is nothing. No houses, businesses or cross-streets. Although there are no longer laws that require townships like Tembisa to remain exclusively black, it is the reality that not much relocation has occurred since the end of apartheid. Thus, I was rather noticeable around the school grounds and the children on that first day were rather shell-shocked by the fact that I was there.

My first day at the school had been relatively tame despite the stares. I’d helped with Mrs. Mathe’s 4th grade class and we were talking about religion! One of my minors in college. I felt that I was put to good use and the people and kids were excited to have me there.

On this, my second day at school, however, I would experience the break-down of those barriers and a complete destruction of my expectations! The day started like the day before had. We pulled into the schoolyard with what felt like a million eyes on me. We parked the car and Mrs. Mathe’s students unloaded the contents of the trunk- boxes and bags of papers and teaching resources. We then began the day and I was asked by one of the 7th grade teachers to come into his class to talk to his students. He said I could talk about whatever I wanted. After some initial awkwardness and introductions, the students were suddenly teeming with questions about America and about my life there. They were just about to make me sing for them when we were interrupted by the principal knocking on the classroom door. I was called out and told that one of the 4th grade teachers hadn’t shown up that day and I was asked if I could take over his Natural Science class. After freaking out for a moment and getting a book from Mrs. Mathe to help me out- I found myself just a moment later approaching a classroom where I could see the children inside were yelling, throwing papers around and wrestling with each other in the absence of an authority figure. As soon as I appeared in the doorway, I was ambushed and nearly knocked over by just about every student in the classroom coming to hug me- cheering that I was their teacher for the day.

Throughout the day, I attempted, often to no avail to keep order in the classroom. I didn’t realize until I was in front of a class of 40 distracted 11 year olds how handicapped I am by not knowing a language here! Most of the children in the class speak isiZulu- which I am slowly learning, but this was like being thrown into the deep-end of a swimming pool when all you’d done prior was wade in to your knees! The students could understand English, but when it came to being able to clarify their confusions, it was difficult for them to communicate with me their issues with the lesson. Also, try sometime getting the attention of children in a language that is not their native tongue. Not very effective!

So, after a long day with lots of challenges and moments of relief (as when Mrs. Mathe visited my classroom and sent several kids to the principal’s office) I finally reached the end of that long day. Moderately traumatized but with a new sense of appreciation for the teachers there, the difficult task they face head on each day, and the power of language.

As a lover of learning, there were elements of this experience that made me consider my own education in the states and the blessing it was to have the opportunities I did. Had I been born in an area like Tembisa with the distractions, limitations and challenges of education faced by students there, I’m not sure where I would be. As difficult as it was to teach in this environment, I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to attempt to learn in an overcrowded classroom with a teacher who cannot be expected to control the behavior of 40+ kids. And yet, despite it all, there are students that succeed and excel there.

I took a break from 4th grade at the end of the week and ended up spending several days with Grade R, which is equivalent to Kindergarten. =) It was wonderful working with the little kids as they learn to count and they learn important things like how to wash their hands and such. I am looking forward to working with the school on a regular basis during the weeks ahead and I’m excited about the experiences and insights that the future holds there. And hopefully, the next time I am put in front of a classroom I will at least be able to say “Settle down” in isiZulu! =)

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Getting acclimated... and learning to go with the flow.

“You know? I don’t remember the movements… Haha!” Mantsha, my new friend of less than 24 hours turned to me and exclaimed. We were assembling in the back of the performance hall getting ready to bring forward the offering from the Young Adults League (which I apparently am a pseudo-member of now?). My jaw dropped for a moment… “Movements? We’re dancing?”

At this, the Eastern circuit rally for the installment of the new Dean, we had seen many of the leagues and groups bringing monetary and musical offerings forward in front of the hundreds of people in attendance. Spirits were high, people were celebrating and the celebration of being able to bring forth an offering had been going on for at least an hour. First, at the conclusion of the worship service, individuals came forward dancing and singing in languages between which I still can’t quite decipher the difference. But always with a rhythm in their step, arms waving and smiles on their faces. This manner of coming forward was repeated many times- each time with a new group and a new song. Then at the start of the rally, each of the 10 parishes within the circuit were asked to come forth. (A parish is a group of several churches, often served by a single pastor) Then each of the leagues- Prayer Women’s league, Prayer Men’s league, Young Adults, Youth (with vuvuzelas in hand!!), Sunday school, etc came forth. It was wonderful to sing and dance and experience the excitement. Each time that either Mantsha or our other friend Mpho would go up, they would bring me along to give an offering. This time was the most important and planned for, it seemed. The Young Adults, being a newer league, were eager to sing and dance well for the assembled crowd.

So yes, just moments after finding out that we would be dancing (with more than just a rhythmic step, I mean) I found myself watching the feet of the people in front of me, mouthing the words (which I still am not sure of) and laughing at myself as I worked to catch up. =) It wasn’t too bad- just a special back and forth step through the verses, and then at the chorus a turn with the rhythm and a deep bob at the knees at the end. And the words sounded something like “Vie…something, something... Fanta”? Hahaha- I’m not sure. But I seriously made some people laugh as they watched the clearly confused American struggling to dance and most likely singing the wrong words… It was wonderful.

More often than not, this seems to be the way of things here. Suddenly, thrust into a new unexpected circumstance and all you can really do is try to keep up and then laugh at yourself. I have learned not to ask too many questions because there often are not answers yet. The day unfolds as it will and I am often told “no stress”- which I have come to equate with “it’ll all work out” or as my mom always says “we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it”.

I especially have learned to completely abandon the word “when”. First of all, the conception of time is very different- as the presiding bishop told me last weekend when we were driving from Soweto back to my compound in Bonaero Park, “You cannot be a slave to time- you must have time work for you.” When we work for time, it can drive us crazy… it’s relentless and constant. It is possible to become consumed by it and we, as Americans, often are. It is sometimes amusing for me to witness the clash of the “right now” mentality that we have as Americans and the “just now” mentality found here. If we were supposed to go to the store or something or we had day out planned and I told you that we are going to leave just now, you would probably start making your way towards the door thinking that it would be any second now. And if we were here, you would be 100% wrong. I’m still not sure what the window of “Just now” is, but I’ve experienced everything from 1 minute to 30 minutes or more…

The night before the rally, I stayed at Mpho’s house. After spending the afternoon with Mantsha, she was preparing to leave with her two year old son. Their car was parked within the walls surrounding Mpho’s home and she suddenly realized that her nephews had gone and locked the gate to her house. She quickly turned to her niece and said “Oh! They locked it! They need to come back! Did they just leave now now now now?” Hahaha. I nearly laughed out loud. To make it clear that she meant RIGHT NOW… as in just a few minutes ago, she said now multiple times. And although the niece agreed that they had indeed just left now now now now, it took them 10 minutes to turn around and get back. Conceptualizing time in this way and learning to look at it from a just now perspective has been really wonderful for me and has helped me slow down and stop pushing for answers all the time.

I can see that slowly but surely, I am becoming acclimated to this new place and this new way of living. Although I have not spent much time yet outside of my compound, I am learning a lot from the people who live here and the people like Mpho and Mantsha who have come into my life with their arms wide open, ready to welcome me and help me with anything I need. Whether it’s picking me up for a weekend of wedding planning, and 6 hour long church services or just sitting with me at night watching Generations (a South African soap opera that the staff here has me addicted to) people are watching out for me and showing me great hospitality and love.