Epistle from Birganj

My job is far more complicated than it seems, more problematic that than a printed job description could describe. Basically I work for the Parsa DEO and have a counterpart based there.

Her name is Shova. She’s a nice woman. We don’t really work together much these days, mostly because when I’m in Birgnaj, she’s in Kathmandu. And when I’m in Kathmandu, she’s in Kathmandu, too, but doesn’t return my calls.

Is she trying to tell me something? Is she hinting at something yet unspoken? Is the fact that she left my first training after ten minutes because she’d forgotten to bring a pen and didn’t manage to make it back after three hours suggesting something that falls on (my) deaf ears?

I called her at home after she fled the training.

Me: Shova, you didn’t return to the training.

Her: I didn’t have a pen.

Me: . . . .

Her: Eee-Scott, I am going to Kathmandu tomorrow.

Me: Take your pen with you.

Her: Flaghuq rajfumch crack lyghar bye-bye!

Me: What!?

Phone: Click!

Me: Shova?! I am going to hunt you down . . . and . . . .

Or something like that. The point is that I’m frustrated.

Your satisfaction is worship. Indeed, Anil Lodge.

Your satisfaction is worship. Indeed, Anil Lodge.

Sure, there are the days that the guy squatting on the corner with a hammer, broken screwdriver, and a rock manages to fix the jammed shutter in my Pentax K1000 in a single hour, but there those other days when I wish I could climb on top of the clock tower with a deer rifle and . . . .

You get the point. I’ve just been having a hard time with work, which means I’ve had free time. More than I normally have. Work starting going down hill with that 4th grade class I taught at Shukra Raj.

I have trainings at a secondary school on Fridays, usually every two or three weeks. The rest of the time I spend going to schools where the teachers who attend my trainings teach. I do on-site stuff there with them, usually materials development.

I go, we make puppets, drink tea, maybe I teach, maybe they teach, maybe we use the materials, or maybe we just talk about the weather.

Actually, I find on-site visits productive and enjoyable as the teachers are always surprised when I actually visit their schools.

Especially at Shukra Raj. It may be the ‘worst’ school I’ve seen in Birganj. It’s a small primary school in Chhapkyia, the southern area of Birganj bordering with Raxual, India.

The school is tiny concrete building without shutters on the windows, doors dangling on hinges, and lacking fans in the classrooms. Ah, yes. Classrooms. There are two; this is unfortunate, because there are six separate classes: nursery and classes 1–5.

On the day I showed up for my visit, I saw kids running around manically while the teachers sat outside in the shade, idling.

I approached the faculty and chatted for a moment before I sat down with them.

Tea is coming, they told me, trying to put me at rest.

They flagged over the alpha-male student, who was busily chasing the other smaller children around the grounds while brandeshing a three-foot cane rod he was using to flog the other smaller children, who, apparently, were finding this great fun. Everyone was happy.

I said nothing to the teachers. The boy approached the headsir.

Tea, the headsir said, and then the boy disappeared.

I asked why the students were not in their classrooms, why classes weren’t being held today? Was it some secret holiday that required the kids to come to school but not to be taught? I earnestly asked them this.

We have not been paid in three years, the headsir told me.

They four teachers, the mess of kids, and school all looked gaunt.

Ahhh, I said, as if I had the slightest understanding their situation. So, your mother was gang raped while your children were forced to disembowel their father with a shovel? And you saw it all happen? Ahhh, I understand how you must feel.

They told me, as a form of protest, they had stopped teaching after this previous monsoon break. (I calculated this to be three weeks prior to this visit.)

While the nature of their protest was somewhat understandable, their means was a little strange. They told me that they had contacted the DEO.

I asked if they thought that was sufficient.

No, one teacher said, smiling as the tea arrived.

I began wondering what sort of on-site work we could do if they weren’t going to teach. Or if perhaps I could contact Shova and see if she could help and resolve the situation.

But I really just wanted to get the teachers back into the classrooms for the children. I discussed what I wanted to do with the faculty: make some materials, discuss lesson outlining (a small step towards actual lesson planning), and do some teaching and co-teaching.

They began talking with one another about my plans and told me they’d work with me while I was here, which made me happy. Some sort of progress, right? Right?

It was a terrible idea. I didn’t think things through. First, we made some materials without incident. Basically we got some string and made word cards like tents that can be used to form sentences in two different tenses. Brilliant, I know—but I’ll tell you what. It’s not my idea. Nope. Read it in a book somewhere.

Then we went through how the materials could be slightly altered to work with almost any lesson from the book, except none of them understand any English, which means they don’t themselves know the difference between, let’s say, a verb and a noun (in English). We strive. We hope.

So it was time for me to teach an example lesson with the kids using the materials. Usually this isn’t a big deal; however, I didn’t think about this well.

See, the kids had been coming to school every day much to the delight of their impoverished, migrant worker parents who are striving and hoping, and then they just played the game of ‘alpha student beats us with a three-foot piece of cane because our teachers are marginalized and won’t do it themselves.’

And I stop the game, throw them into a classroom, and expect them to sit quietly, listen, and learn.

I manage well enough at first. I have the kids singing, chanting, and writing things in their notebooks that we all know they don’t understand, but they’re doing it cheerfully and without incident.

There’s one entire row that parrot whatever I say as best they can while they—in unison—rock on their bench to and fro, clanking, clanking, clanking, and this other kid in the back who’s chewing on his hand like it’s candy and looking out of the window as if he’s bored with the magic that I’m creating right in front of everyone.

And then he does it. I’m doing something, but my eyes are glued to him as he sticks his hand just a little further down his throat making a slow, steady stream of ice-cream colored vomit come out of his mouth, pouring down his chin, over his shirt, and ending up who knows where.

This was a special moment for me. A child I was trying to affect had made himself vomit while I tried, really tried. He continued to look out of the window, making no effort to clean the vomit off of himself.

Sure, there are successes. There are teachers who’ve come to my trainings who are trying, getting their students to make dictionaries in their notebooks, using the sentence string, or just using hand puppets to model dialogue.

People greet me in the street. Teachers I happen upon in the bazaar ask when I’m coming to their schools. My neighbors smile and offer me yogurt. The guy at the daal bhat shop let’s me watch BBC for, oh, at least five minutes before changing it back to StarTV.

But this is all without incident.

None of this means anything if I know, out there, that there’s a kid who will vomit when I teach.