Red pens, bureaucracy, computers, and other things I’m working with at school.

Oct. 1st

So I’ve been working at two primary schools for the past two weeks.  Primary in this case means 1st – 7th grade.  I thought my biggest challenge would be language, but it’s actually going to be dealing with teacher’s expectations.  So, the challenge of my entire academic life remains the same even after I’ve graduated, although the expectations are now somewhat different.  What I’m talking about is that just about everyone at the school seems to think I’m a substitute teacher.  I’ve kind of brought this upon myself because one of the first Tshivenda phrases I tried out was “I work at school”, so when people hear this they assume I’m a teacher.  It’s not that I mind teaching, but the problems start when I get teachers saying things like “I need you to mark (grade) these 100+ tests for me by tomorrow.  You’re here to help, so get crackin’!”  I’m paraphrasing of course, but that’s a true story and there are many more like it.  Now the teachers are definitely overworked, I can’t deny that, but I can’t just do all the grunt work for them.  It’s not a sustainable model; in two years I’ll be gone, and then they’ll be just as   Getting this point across is extremely difficult, because of A) Language Barrier B) It looks like I’m trying to dodge work which is not a good first impression.  Nevertheless, I’m a little worried that I’m failing to set my boundaries properly.  On the other hand, I’ve been having a great time with the schools’ neglected computer labs.  Each school has seventeen desktops (2001-2003 era windows XP machines) in various states of disrepair.  This is perfect for me because these type of computers are my bread and butter:  They break incessantly, just like the ones I had at boarding school and college, so I’m pretty familiar with all the malfunctions and how to remedy them.  I was struck by an overwhelming sense of amusement and satisfaction during my first day of tinkering around in the lab at Kokwane School; it just sort of hit me as funny, that these old computer skills which I had cataloged in the memory box of “obsolete junk”, were actually applicable, in Africa of all places.  I wish someone would have told me while I was at Hoosac struggling with computers: “James, I know it’s a grind, but in five years you’re going to be doing this same stuff in a third world country, not for money, but just because you feel like it”.  Of course I never would have believed it.  The icing on the cake is that if I’d listened to Mr. Moss and gone Macintosh, then I’d be up the river without a paddle because all the machines here are PCs.  Sweet vindication at last.

A bit about school in South Africa:  Students get a lot of time alone in the classroom.  The teachers must come to school, sure, they are under no obligation to actually be present at their classes.  They may lecture if they feel like it, but sometimes they’ll just assign class work (or a test) and then leave.  Then it’s like some kind of great mystery when the class work doesn’t get done or students copy each other’s answers????   Sheesh.  The thing is, they’re always saying that there are other things which take priority over being present in the classroom i.e. “we have an important meeting”, “I have to mark these papers”, or “I have to spend time with this white person who’s now at our school for some reason.  Hey whitey, wanna teach my class?”  The teachers have a wide range of attitudes.  Some are clearly disgruntled and unmotivated, some are frustrated but instead of giving up, they use their anger as fuel (which is surprisingly effective in some cases, disastrous in others) and then there are a few real gems who are hardworking, genuine, friendly, pro active and just generally awesome.  The principal of one of my schools comes to mind.  Also, I now fully realize why I got all those warnings about slow progress testing volunteer’s patience to breaking point.  The daily schedule is pretty disorganized, it’s extremely rare that a day will go as planned.  Classes are constantly interrupted, and there is chronic lateness of course.  Seems like every time I try to do something there are at least 2 trivial procedures which I have to observe before anything can happen.  My recurring nightmare, the dreaded bureaucracy, is alive and well in South Africa.

Oct 2nd

This next week is school break, so I’ve got some time to kill which is actually more of a challenge than I care to think about.  It can get boring really easily, so I’m trying to set some goals that will keep me occupied and entertained.   They are, in no particular order:

1) Learn to cook pap (which is basically cornmeal porridge, the staple meal of South Africa)

2) Climb the gigantic mountain overlooking my village and take several photos.

3) Post these photos, along with the rest of my backlogged stuff on the internet.

4) Fix the outhouse door.  Repairing things is like meditation for me, plus I want some privacy while I’m on the throne.

5) Hang out with friends if they’re around.

…..Along with all the other boring stuff like: clean room, wash clothes, fetch water from the pump down the road, make lesson plans, blah blah blah.

I guess that’s about it for now.  I realize some of this content (random violence and stress at work) is not the most cheerful, but no worries I’m still alive and well and everything’s totally safe and manageable.  And since I’ve got this week off, I should finally have a chance to upload photos so stay tuned!

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