I have a knack for getting myself into ridiculous situations. But it’s okay, because usually ridiculous situations have a knack for turning out okay anyway.
This particular situation is ironic because
1) I taught a class in Portuguese.
2) I’m still learning Portuguese.
3) The students don’t speak Portuguese.
This is how I came to teach at the primary school of bairro B in Chokwe:
After receiving my teaching schedule for Instituto Agrario (Each class only has two hours of English a week! I only teach Mondays! Whose idea was this?!), I realized I would drive myself nuts if I didn’t have something else to do the rest of the week. So, I wandered next door to talk to the directora at Escola Primaria do Bairro B, a electricity-less, four-room (well, three rooms and one mud hut) school house for grades 1-6.
The previous volunteers had volunteers in various ways – art classes, PE, music, etc., and said they had greatly enjoyed it. I explained to the directora how I’d like to volunteer to read or write with the kids, maybe tutor a few, generally help out however I could.
Perhaps that was my first mistake.
She asked if I would like to sit in on one of her lessons that afternoon, and I got a good feel for her approach in working with students (lots of repetition, lots of interaction, lots of whacking kids across the back of the head with a stick, though I didn’t quite see myself adopting that particular method). I sat quietly through the lesson, helped with the grading, tried to ignore the kid behind me who kept touching the back of my arm to see if the white came off, and generally had a very pleasant afternoon.
She asked if I’d like to try my hand at teaching the following day, for second grade at 7, and then for first grade at 12:30. I looked at her book, got some ideas, made some plans, and arrived promptly the next morning.
The teacher, however, did not. And I have no doubt that was premeditated.
There I stood, 30 pairs of fascinated and expectant eyes on me, armed with English alphabet flashcards, a hastily translated “One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish” (doesn’t have quite the effect in other languages….) and second grade Portuguese and math books. And I taught the second grade in Portuguese.
Afterward, I felt happily accomplished and ready to take on the first grade in another hour and a half. This time, at least, I knew I was on my own from the very beginning.
That still didn’t save me.
I arrived even more prepared to the first grade class – with a few more students than the first one – at 12:30. I proudly introduced myself in slow, loud Portuguese, and told them I was going to be their teacher for the day, and asked them to tell me their names.
One nodded. The rest didn’t move.
I went to the first student and asked her name in Portuguese.
She smiled and said “sim” – yes in Portuguese.
I asked if she had understood what I had said. She smiled and said “sim.” I asked if everyone in the class spoke Portuguese. She smiled and said “sim.” I asked if she could say anything other than “sim.” She smiled and said “sim.” I asked her to if she would please go outside and tell the third grader gawking at me through the window at the back of the room to go climb the nearest papaya tree. She smiled and said “sim.”
And that’s when I remembered…
Portuguese is the second language for everyone in this country. They do an incredible job of teaching Portuguese by immersion when they enter school, as evidenced by the second graders I’d watched and taught. But these guys had been in school for one week. They knew how to greet the teacher and ask to go to the bathroom. That was it.
And so, for the next three and a half hours, I gestured, drew, gesticulated, and did everything in my power to get them to understand colors, numbers, letters, anything at all in Portuguese, while trying to keep 50 kids in their seats, quiet and paying attention, without resorting to beating them over the head with the teacher’s stick. I won’t lie, it was awfully tempting.
I let them go a half hour early. They didn’t seem to mind. I was still sane. And I hadn’t had to beat anyone.
When walking home, a group of girls who live in the same bairro walked with me. They hadn’t understood a word I’d said, but they smiled, two held my hands, and they chanted “un, dois, três, quatro, cinco!” all the way to my front door.
They’re darn cute. But I think I’ll stick with secondary school. And, if not English, at least Portuguese.