Wednesday, April 21, 2010
Olympic Labor and the Fruit It Bears
I was talking to my friend recently as we walked along the thawing river. Throwing stones through the thinning ice, I was trying to banish winter from our river forever. I was also caught trying to explain myself out of a rather confusing spot. We were chatting about life in Mongolia and I was trying to verbalize exactly why I need to complete my second year. My friend was not trying to talk me out of it, merely playing the devils advocate and trying to get my motives strait in his head. It is admittedly hard trying to tell someone why you want to sign up for another 6 month winter devoid of fresh produce and limit yourself to a small town where most people stare and some even shout at you. How could I explain that it's not stubbornness that drives me to stay but simply something I have to do? So I told him about the English Olympics. As a German professor, he was exempt from this activity but it engulfed every single native English speaker in our town and even some from towns near by. When I first heard about the English Olympics I was thrilled. I visualized students reciting Keats as they performed balance beam routines. And grading students as they took jaunts on the parallel bars simultaneously spitting obscure verb tenses. But sadly no such luck. It is merely a big test. The test includes grammar, writing, listening and speaking sections and takes all day. I thanked my lucky stars that there was no speaking section on the English Olympics this year, as our work without it included seven hours of grading. People come into the aimag center from all over Hovd to take this exam and the winner not only has bragging rights for their entire life, but also gets to go to UB to take the national English Olympics test. English Teachers take it; so do 9th and 11th grade students. Just about all of my Access students were taking the test, accounting for the low attendance as they spent countless hours in special sessions studying with their school English teachers. If the students win they are exulted and praised, if they lose they catch grief from everyone, from parents to teachers, from principals to peers. So needless to say, everyone was pretty nervous. On the day of the Olympics I was permitted by the Director of Foreign Language Methodology to arrive at 9 o'clock. When I arrived at a local school where the testing would take place, I discovered people had already been there for quite some time, barking orders and bustling about. The tests came from UB and required quite a lot of pomp and circumstance. The three different tests arrived in a big, brown envelope that was taped shut with a very official looking stamp. Us proctors had to show each teacher the unopened envelope emblazoned with said stamp. Then we assembled teachers from each testing group to watch us open the tests. We then had to copy the tests and dole them out, during which time the power cut out for a good 30 minutes. All this ceremony derives from the fact that this test is taken very seriously. There are always cheating allegations and flames of fury from the losers and we wanted to preempt this. My class of teachers was fairly well behaved while taking the test, allowing me to knock out a substantial portion of the Policital Writings of Ghandi, a truly life changing book. By the time we had finished all the hullabaloo and subsequent test giving, it was one o'clock. After a quick lunch break, it took six of us seven hours to grade all of the tests, an arduous task at best. People squatted and perched in front of the school, waiting for us to announce the verdicts. Just before the sun set over the mountains the man who had been grading the 9th grade tests finished. My head snapped up. Did my any of students win? How did they do? I try not to play into the competitiveness of it all, but because it means so much to people it's hard not to. He announced the winner. I gave a yelp of joy. It was my student! And not only my student, one of my my closest students. She had not wanted to compete in the English Olympics a month before. She told me about a falling out with a teacher at her school who was in a tizzy because she was chosen over his students to take the test (only one student from each school is allowed), even though she was a better choice than his student. The teacher had been openly rude and condescending to her. She was furious and indignant when she told me that she was going to boycott the whole thing entirely because of the childish teacher. I then explained to her that really the best revenge was to take the test and win it. "You have to show them that you can do it, that you are the best. You never know unless you try" I had told her. "Yeah, I guess" she said, not convinced. And now she had done it. Not having slept, she crammed for days, augmenting her already dazzling English with as much information as she could possibly fit into her brain. I begged to go down to where the students were waiting so that I could congratulate her. As we descended the stairs to the lobby, we were swamped with students wanting to know how they had done. The Director of Foreign Language Methodology grabbed my student around the shoulders, squeezed her and said "bayan hoorgee" (congratulations in Mongolian). My student froze with her hands over her mouth, her eyes wide as saucers. I smiled at her and gave her a hug. "Teacher!" she breathed into my shoulder. "I can't believe I did it! Thank you, teacher! I couldn't have done it without you! I love you, teacher." I smiled and told her how proud I was of her and that she had truly deserved it. Her eyes were welling up with tears. "Go!" I told her. "Go see your name on the list." Dazed she leaned on her friends and wandered into the crowd of people that had gathered around the rankings. I returned to my grading. That night I congratulated my students via text. All who participated placed in the top ten. Many of them thanked me; many of them told me they loved me (in Mongolia the word 'love' is a more casual thing than in America, but it is still special). I was bursting with pride for all of them. I felt like a proud mama duck. In a way I think it's kind of like giving birth. After hours of sweating, crying, pushing and gritting your teeth through the pain, out comes beauty and, at that time, perfection. At the moment you hold the thing you helped create, a little red infant or a young woman overwhelmed with her abilities, the pain fades. Sure, you've got the memory of the labor, but what really lasts is the success of your efforts and the glow it creates. And even though English Olypmics is not every day, I have little exhibitions of this joy almost weekly. Watching my transfixed students sing along to Peter, Paul and Mary's "Leaving on a Jet Plane" during a unit about travel, when moments before they had declared old songs very boring. Seeing a students in the middle of their packs of friends wave gleefully at me from across the street shouting "hi, teacher!" Catching the cheeky glint in a students eye as she drops a new idiom I taught her a few days ago. And one of the biggest: a student declaring to me that she wants to be a volunteer one day. Just like her teacher. These are moments I can hold and smile at. But it's a smile like no other, a smile like the ones in photos of my mother holding my sister and I moments after birth. This is my fruit for now. These seconds of joy when everything else drops away and I'm left with the result of my work. Walking along the river that sunny afternoon, the icy water rushing by, my friend nodded his head at my story. Yes, you do have to say here, he said with his eyes. Of course I do, I said with my smile.