An Update, with a touch of introspection

Nine weeks of online silence. Apparently I have a concerned constituency: requests regarding my general health and welfare have begun to reach me here in Lichinga. I am not the only one, of course. During the power outage (power returned in February!), the Peace Corps office in Mozambique began to receive frantic complaints from the mother of a volunteer near me who “went dark” for over a month. Peace Corps had to order him to contact his mother.

To calm doubts: I am alive, I am healthy. Healthy is a word I hear daily. The common greeting here, a phrase from the local language that has carried over to Portuguese, is, Como está o seu saúde? How is your health? Initially, as I learned where to go, what to buy, and what to put in my mouth, health was a concern. Peanut Butter consumption reached an all time high in the first few weeks at site. I recently read a nutritional critique of peanut butter that faulted the creamy ambrosia not on macronutrient grounds, but rather because the texture – the ease of scooping and savoring – lends itself to overconsumption. It does. It really does. In the last month, however, I’ve slowed my intake.

Nutrition has become a source of motivation and fulfillment for me. When asked what surprising aspect of life in Lichinga inspires me, I would have to respond with cooking. I did not expect to discover meaning in the preparation of food. Honestly, I did not expect to have many choices in which food I might consume. But Lichinga provides a bountiful array of locally grown products, and my interest in food, my desire to explore and create, has flourished. I’ve come to view the preparation of a dish, the thought behind the flavor as well as the nutritional composition, as one of the most basic expressions of my humanity. Humans have the unique opportunity to transform basic nutrients into an expression of our personality and/or our culture; food is the relationship between who I am as a person and what my body is as an organism. Mostly recently, I am pumpkin curry, I am feijoada, I am kombucha, I am kefir, I am matapa, I am gluten-free banana bread, I am coconut flour pumpkin bread, I am home-made coconut oil, I am chicken tacos, I am gluten-free pumpkin pie. The astute among you may look at this list and begin to realize what a food snob I have become. When you refuse to cook with the soybean oil your roommate uses because you make your own coconut oil, perhaps its time to question whether cooking is making you more or less human. I’ll investigate this topic further in posts to come.

What surprising aspect of life in the states do I miss most? Oddly enough, being a student. I have been a student from the age of five until last May. My life had a structure with built-in short-term and long-term goals. I received constant intellectual stimulation. I participated in theoretical conversations. My purpose was to learn, to write, to meet deadlines. I never thought I would hunger for a deadline. But they are my comfort zone – a delimitated area in time in which I must complete a specific task. At the end of this zone, I receive feedback, criticism and basic recognition for what I accomplished. I still have my time zone: 27 months. The specific task, however, is teaching, not learning. Of course, I learn daily and I incorporate this into my general goals for James. Yet, teaching 630 eighth grade students in the most isolated province of one of the poorest countries in the world is rather different than writing a theoretical paper on narrative voice in ancient Daoist texts (a solid paper, if anyone would like a copy).

I teach seven classes of eighth grade English. Each class contains 90 students, about 70 of which attend school regularly. In nine weeks of school, I have deviated far from the national curriculum, which began with the grammatical concept of “neither and nor” before students knew how to introduce themselves. Students in Mozambique are expert copiers, but they do not write well. Students in Mozambique are excellent hearers, but they do not listen well. Students in Mozambique are excellent at singing the national anthem before class, but they do not think well for themselves. That is, they are programmed to jump through the necessary hoops, to appear as though they are learning, but what they lack is true interaction with the material, true learning. A history of colonialism, communism, civil war, and reliance upon international aid is at play in my classrooms.

Copy-repeat, copy-repeat, copy-repeat, copy-repeat, copy-repeat, copy-repeat, copy-repeat, copy-repeat, and English. English is one of nine disciplines in eighth grade. In the eight other disciplines, students copy and repeat what the teacher says or writes on the board. In my English class, they do the same as we learn new material, then they must respond. That is, I ask a question that requires an unprogrammed response. The circuit boards malfunction, the formations on the screen scramble, the machine panics and shuts down. Part of the misunderstanding may derive from my American accent. Another part from my lack of teaching experience, not to mention that English may be the third or fourth language for many of my students. But if ten percent understand, it frustrates me that the remaining 90 percent don’t follow. My mom – a teacher for 30 years now in San Diego – laughs; apparently student comprehension is a rather similar affair all over the world, I’ve just never observed the phenomenon from the position of the teacher.

To return to the comparison between myself as a student and myself as teacher, the most difficult adjustment is the level of emotional investment in the task. As a student, particularly an American student whose identity derived largely from occupation, I invested myself fully in whatever project I assumed. To put it differently, I was a nerd. I have always been a nerd, the kind of person who generates a certain degree of happiness from scholarly efforts. As a student, the emotional output directly correlated to the emotional input: if I invested a lot of work in a project, I would be satisfied because the quality depended entirely upon me. I’ve carried this approach with me to teaching, and I’ve learned that it is not healthy to base my emotional status on the level of progress in my classroom. The correct term for such a person would be bipolar: some days I leave class ecstatic, completely inspired by the progress of my students; but this elation is ephemeral. I can switch to complete hopelessness within a matter of minutes. Luckily none of my students have a sufficient level of English to read this blog post because here I will admit that my students control me. To a certain extent, their participation in class greatly affects me. I am learning to regain control over myself, to find outlets (like cooking) to moderate the impact these twelve (or seventeen) year-olds have on my happiness. But I am a nerd at heart, and my students are my homework – seriously, they know where I live. Work follows me home.

But on the way home, I have found a vision of calm: the northern skyline. I leave school as the sun begins to fall off the plateau holding Lichinga. It casts its rays diagonally against the landscape, light shot from a bow that traces a golden hue across the landscape. To the north there are both rolling hills and jagged mountains: one of each, to be specific. The hill surges up like those around my home in Santee. The mountain crops out like the face of El Cap Mountain in Lakeside. The hill flows forth like those surrounding a town called Pleasanton in the East Bay Area. The mountain, stampeded as it often is by clouds, peaks out like those surrounding San Francisco Bay. There is something more potent about memory here. I could go on about the mountains, but suffice it to say that they remind me of any landscape with which I might have an emotional connection. They are home: idyllic in memory and removed in both time and space. On the walk home, I inhabit two spaces: my memories and the earth in a neighborhood called Nomba. In the previous two sentences I’ve used the word “home” to describe both my house in Africa and my house in America. I guess I’m somewhere in between. I’ll close here with a poem that I read in January that has stuck with me for some time. And before I forget, please comment here with questions, anything you want to know about my school or my site that I can write about. I have about three or four more posts in mind; I just need to get them written.

 

“Before”

by Ada Limón

 

No shoes and a glossy

red helmet, I rode

on the back of my dad’s

Harley at seven years old.

Before the divorce.

Before the new apartment.

Before the new marriage.

Before the apple tree.

Before the ceramics in the garbage.

Before the dog’s chain.

Before the koi were all eaten

by the crane. Before the road

between us, there was the road

beneath us, and I was just

big enough not to let go:

Henno Road, creek just below,

rough wind, chicken legs,

and I never knew survival

was like that. If you live,

you look back and beg

for it again, the hazardous

bliss before you know

what you would miss.

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6 thoughts on “An Update, with a touch of introspection

  1. James, your bipolar relationship with your teaching efforts is reminiscent of the first couple years owning an acupuncture business. Some days are great, you’re busy, everyone is happy, everyone is getting well, you’re on top of the world… Other days are hard, people are running into obstacles, there aren’t enough patients, you feel like your heart is full of bricks. Stick with it, as you gain more experience your good days will outnumber your bad and the rewards will become the norm instead of the exception.

    Also, I’m curious about your paper on the narrative voice of Daoists texts that you mentioned. I’ve researched this subject a bit, but would be curious what you have to say about it.

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    • Hey Sean, thanks for the encouragement – I’m already beginning to feel a little more experienced/less stressed. Hopefully by the end of my first year I’ll be well-prepared for round two. Definitely miss those acupuncture treatments, by the way. Regarding the paper on Daoism, I’ll send a copy to your email right now!

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  2. You do a wonderful job of describing your surroundings and brilliantly capture the experience of a new teacher. I taught for 36 years at Valhalla and you really nailed it. Mrs. Bernasconi (a former student of mine) from USD shared your blog with me. I look forward to reading moreover it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comment! It’s comforting to hear that I’m not the only one going through these trials and, even after 36 years of teaching, you can still empathize with me. I actually grew up in Santee and went to West Hills. Hope all is well in East County (never thought I would miss that place, but I really do)

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  3. Your timing was perfect, James! I was beginning to wonder and worry what had become of you, too!

    Keep the posts coming! I so enjoy reading them.

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    • Hi Stephanie! I’m glad you’re enjoying my writing! I hope to get some new posts up soon. I’ve heard rumors that my blog has been read aloud in the CSS… I definitely miss everyone in the office. I actually have my Event Crew polo with me here. I wore it the other day and thought about freshman orientation, specifically Omar using a sugar cookie shaped like a whale to re-enact Shamu’s attempt to drown me during his show.
      Order some Urbane for the next Student Staff Celebration and enjoy it for me!

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