There was once was a young woman named Clara,
Who thought Mary, as a name, was much fairer
Because, you see, Mary
It rhymes with contrary,
And nothing but that was her character
Ha, ha. Yeah, that’s how good I am at poetry, because “Clara” totally rhymes with “fairer” which rhymes just as well with “character.” Its a good thing I wasn’t so stupid as to dedicate three years of my life and buckets of money to studying something silly like writing. Oh wait…
When I was young my parents sometimes repeated the young children’s rhyme for me because it seemed so suited to my personality and over the years not much has changed. If anything I’ve likely become more stubborn and argumentative. You tell me what to do, or how to do it, and chances are I will find a way to do the opposite, no matter how much sense you make. Strangely even being aware of this, and knowing that it is usually a flaw, and one that puts people off, I seem unable, or perhaps unwilling to change it. Sadly, unless among close friends, I am not very outspoken or aggressive, so that makes me in to a passive aggressive little “Mary Contrary.” Bundles of joy.
Sadly, this has been manifesting in a major way in my life of late. I feel like last year I did a decent job of accommodating and adapting to new things. I ate the unidentified pieces of animal, I let my hair grow out a bit, I word skirts with tights, even heels, occasionally. Then there was summer. Now when my director tells me it isn’t okay to stand with my arms crossed I grumble under my breath, scowl, and resume the stance as soon as I leave her office. If someone tells me I look beautiful on a day I wear a dress and makeup, I refuse to put one on again for weeks. When someone tells me to eat, repeatedly, I obstinately set down my fork and shake my head, even if it is one of the rare local meals that I do really like. It’s as if I’m trying to make up for all of last years accommodations by being the opposite this year. And it’s absurd. Yes, the new school year has not been quite as easy, organized and full of joy that I was hoping and expecting it to be. We’ve had challenges in the form of a class schedule that still changes almost every day (a month into the school year…), English books that never came in, new uptight administrators, frequent students absences, and a general lack of motivation from students and teachers alike. Still, these are challenges I should have expected, ones I’ve been warned countless times about. They are part of what makes what I’m doing now and adventure. Heck, if I wanted to teach in a school that worked like they do in America, I could have just stayed home, studied a few more years, and done that. But that isn’t what I wanted. I wanted new, different, challenging. And that’s what I got. So, come on little Mary, duck your head and power through it. It might not be necessary to completely change your stripes, but at least allow room in the jungle for other animals too. They may not function the same way I do, I may not understand anything they do or why they do it, but they have their own reasons, their own culture. If I could just step back and observe that a bit more often, get out of my head once in a while and realize I’m not the center of it all, then it would be a lot more enjoyable. It really is a beautiful place, or would be if they picked up the trash more than once a year. The culture is fascinating, many of the local customs intricate and more historical than anything I belong too. Yes, there are things I don’t agree with, things that frustrate and irritate me, but without those things there wouldn’t be the great stuff either, the wonderful dances, the nearly weekly feasts and holidays, the costumes. It’s all interwoven and you can’t just take away the bad, because without it the good would just seem…normal.
I hate to admit it, but my argumentative nature and ever shortening temper have led me to snap at some of my students this year. Already. This can be necessary sometimes, when they get too crazy. Every substitute teacher knows that if you walk into a class full of kids armed with nothing but a smile and energy, they’ll most likely eat you alive. You’ve got to have a backbone under there somewhere, and the knowledge of when and how to put your foot down and stop smiling. Last year, I didn’t do this very often. I don’t like being hard on the kids, they get that often enough from other teachers. I really should have been a bit harder at times, but it just wasn’t my style. Sadly, this year I’ve had more snaps in the first month than I did two terms last year. Gotta find a happy medium there. No, the students are not allowed to shout all through the lesson, but does me shouting back really prove anything, other that when you get older yelling gets you places, so you may as well keep practicing? Nope.
Luckily, the kids, though at times a frustration, are my main joy here. No matter who I am that day, happy-helpful-volunteer-Clara, or in-you-face-angry-homesick-Clara, they always greet me with a smile. They sympathize with me on bad days, explaining that they miss their families enormously after a week at boarding school, so two years would be impossible. They find ways to make me laugh without even trying. On my good days they sit and talk with me even after classes, exposing their curiosity through hundreds of questions, asked in an awkward mixture of Kazakh, Russian and (sometimes) English. Today was one of those days, much needed after a week of pretty rotten ones. I taught 6 classes, more than I like to do in one day, but they all went well. After lessons, a bunch of 8th grade girls came into the English room and, entranced by the new world map, bombarded me with questions about America, about travel, about movie stars and everything. On Fridays the students have to clean the school, so they all took turns, one at a time, cleaning a portion of the room while the others crowded around me to ask. It’s amazing that even after a year I am still such and attraction. After that, the 10th form girls came in and did the same, though they tried a bit harder to figure things out in English. I was supposed to have an extra lesson with a few advanced students, none of whom came, except one, 15 minutes late, to tell me he was tired and was going to sleep instead. Even this didn’t upset me at all. It had been a good day. Maybe that’s a place I need to put my foot down, to say no, don’t sleep, let’s study, but I wasn’t in the mood. He just looked so goofy and not really at all apologetic, just like a normal 16 year old boy should.
Earlier this week we *cough I cough* put on an English concert. It was decided that previous school concerts had been way to boring, going from song to dance to speech with no connection between the elements. Just a jolted showcase of talents. So our concert was modeled after a Greek heroes quest. We had three heroes, each hoping to become immortal, and they had to complete a series of four tasks. One cheated, one used bribes, and one legitimately did the tasks. It was supposed to be a metaphor for getting through school and becoming and “alten belgi” or gold medal student. Gold metal students are basically valedictorians; they get only 5s in all classes from 5th form on, and then get a free ride to their university of choice. It’s a big deal, but sadly a lot of kids and their families do use questionable methods to achieve the prize. Anyway, the actors in our sketch had a lot of fun, especially when we brought out the togas. We did of course have a few obligatory songs and dances, and those were fun too. The school director walked in half way through, with no idea what was going on, just as on of the actors began throwing candy into the audience. I still don’t really know how she took it…but at least I think she managed to dodge all missiles. Most of the students probably didn’t understand more than 20% of the English words, but we got a lot of laughs and cheers. It was really stressful to put on, something I hope to avoid in the future, at least as a solo venture, but as always the kids never cease to amaze me. They had fun with it, and that meant I did too. When I was freaking out 30 minutes before showtime, when all of the actors had been stolen by a huffy dance teacher and we still hadn’t actually run the whole thing through, one boy came over to me and asked “Are you upset?” I said “Yes, of course. We aren’t ready, and I’m worried.” He just looked and me and said “Don’t worry, just smile.” Seriously kid. Shouldn’t I be helping you? What are you doing?
Anyway, the moral of the story is there are ups and downs to everything. In our training we were told again and again and again about how cultural adjustment is a roller coaster full of high and low points and we rocket blindly through them. But that isn’t just true here. That’s life. I could be at home, in Missoula, with everyone and everything I love surrounding me, and find a way to work myself into a tissy. But its so much more interesting, more fulfilling, to be doing it here, and to figure out how to work through the bad things here. Maybe by the time I come home I’ll have worked out a sure fire way to work through all of my problems, both external and internal. Yeah, like that will happen. But maybe I will at least have taken the edge off of my own contrary temper.