On-the-Job: A Teaching Job in Indonesia

I no longer wake up when the local mosque goes off at 4:30 in the morning, but I wake up early anyway. By 6:30 the whole village is out – washing clothes, bathing, going to the market, riding past on motorcycles – and sleeping through this early morning bustle is something I haven’t figured out yet.

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Since I’m up early I walk up the road a bit and climb down the bank to the men’s section of the river to bathe. There’s a big rock where you can warm in the sun while working up the courage to plunge in, and from there you have a view of the river in both directions. Downstream the view is rather placid: not many people, just the water spilling over rocks and then disappearing into the thick green growth as it turns out of sight. Upstream, in the woman’s section of the river, girls and their mothers – fully wrapped in sarongs – are scrubbing sheets, washing dishes, brushing teeth, playing, laughing, and splashing. You can also see the old Dutch bridge; it is seventy years old, rusted and full of holes, but still the only way to get from one side to the other. Against the backdrop of morning mist and rising hills, it’s an awesome sight.

The men’s section is much more sedate. A few of the other men here this morning do not have any unmarried sisters to wash their clothes for them, and are not yet married themselves, so they are forced to slap their shirts and underwear in the water while trying to look cool and nonchalant – altogether not an easy task. It’s not long before I’ve taken off my shirt, wrapped a sarong around my waist, and plunged into the current. I get out, soap up, borrow shampoo from someone, lend my toothbrush to someone else, and then jump in again and rinse off – environmental concerns be damned.

Over coffee I try to figure out what I’m going to teach today. The schedule says I have one section of “Literature” and two sections of something called “Listening.” When I was assigned these classes I was only given a title. No syllabus, no text book, not even a list of objectives. Consequently I’ve been rather liberal in making my lesson plans, which I think is exactly what the administration had in mind. No teacher has ever sat in on one of my classes. I’ve never been asked to show a syllabus or copies of my tests. I fill out the attendance charts, submit grades at the end of the semester, and everyone’s happy.

The students, however, are a different story. For today’s literature class, I prepare a chapter out of The Great Gatsby, which I’ve spent the entire semester trying to get them to read. Teachers at other schools tell me that not all students are this unmotivated and difficult to teach; my students, however, seem to have great difficulty doing original work. My goal for the semester is to get them to write an original essay. Last semester I had three students hand in the same essay, word for word, and one student handed in my own sample essay, retyped and renamed, but otherwise unchanged. I know I come from a different educational background, but this is ridiculous.

The listening classes are less focused. Today I’ve decided to fall back on a standard cross-cultural role play activity, and then close with an exercise using an American pop song. Last week I gave a class a Tracy Chapman tune and they all complained that she sounded like a man and that the song was depressing. For today’s class I’ve chosen Bob Marley. I’d better not get any complaints.

Lesson plans in tow, I jump on my motorbike, ride across the bridge (carefully avoiding the holes), and stop in front of a friend’s house for breakfast at a makeshift stand. (Food is never very far away in this place.) As I order my usual breakfast of pressed rice in spicy coconut sauce, a number of grammar school kids arrive dressed in their red and white uniforms (Indonesia’s national colors) and they all giggle and scream about the Westerner. I ask them where they’re going. They respond first with an embarrassed silence, then the giggles start, then the screams, and soon they’re all pushing each other towards me. I slip out, put the equivalent of US$0.25 on the table, and ride to school.

The first listening class is comprised mostly of women, 20 percent of whom wear jilbobs (Muslim head coverings). It took me a while actually to learn to tell those students apart – with no hair, ears, or neck showing, and a loose, wavy blob for a body, a face alone sometimes just doesn’t go very far. It also doesn’t help that five of the similar-looking jilbobbed women are named Emi, Eni, Eti, Evi, and Eli. Today, it’s one of these women who asks me if I have ever had sex – this during a follow-up discussion of the American educational system.

Between classes I go to the teachers’ room, and chat with my colleagues. Most of the teachers here work at two or three other schools, yet they always seem relaxed, are ready to joke and laugh, and are never too busy for a question or a favor. Their English might not be the best, but I feel lucky to work with them.

In literature class we discuss Daisy and Gatsby’s relationship, and one student surprises me by voluntarily asking a question. I gently approach this enigma, this woman raising her hand: “Yes, Lili, you have a question?” “Mr. Brad, do every wife wouldn’t know half of what little I do about Indonesian culture. Literally hundreds of people will feed me, take me places, and be nice to me, but the good friend, the cultural informant, the person who will finally let you know what a jack-ass you’re being, this person is truly special. This is why I’m here – not to save money or to be a tourist, but to learn.

Late at night I finally make my way back across the river, splash some water on my face at the well, put on a sarong, and crawl under the mosquito net to fall asleep while watching a gecko eat mosquitoes off the ceiling.

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