Sunday, March 20, 2011

A Mighty Wave

I never really wanted to be a teacher. Upon my Peace Corps application, I felt that these two years were supposed to be idyllically spent in an African village somewhere coddling orphans and teaching the motherless to walk. But clearly the fed had other plans for me. As a teacher, having moments strait out of 'The King and I' on a regular basis has been an incredible learning process and there are many things that have greatly improved in my life upon this new undertaking at the head of the class. One of which is my singing cojones. In my former life in the theater, I knew good and well to keep my mouth shut. I had grown used to pitying, exhausted stares from auditioners and understood that I would never nab the most measly of chorus roles. Over time, I learned to keep my near tone-deafness under wraps with fun ditties like the Sesame Street Theme during auditions that both showcased my pizazz and distracted from my clear lack of singing abilities. Somehow my voice gets deeper and rougher when I sing, so I can pump out a very soulful lullaby but sadly not a whole lot else of worth. However, here in the classroom, things are different. Well some things are similar, like the fact that I have no shame. But I know that my audience here has to like me. They can't very well leave the class or refuse to cast me in the role of багш (teacher). This leaves me with a rapt, albeit probably pained, group on which to vent my singing voice while teaching them English songs.

Music is a cornerstone of Mongolian culture. People here aren't the most daring in improvisation and lack much of the imagination needed for theater as we know it, but they sure can sing. Handed down through generations of men and women sitting around a ger stove during a frigid night with not a lot to do after a long, hard day on the steppes, folk songs here are just as popular as top hits. Consequentially, people regularly break out into song as they preform mundane tasks and occasionally demand that I sing for them. They are also fantastically emphatic drunk singers. This boldness in song is rather catching. During the host family appreciation event, we had a Mongolian-American sing-off and it was the first time the joy of lustily singing with a group of friends was unfurled to me. It is really quite fun! But now group singing is behind me and my hands still grow clammy when I see 40 little eyes blinking at me as I gather the gumption to teach my students a new song. I don't sing often in class but the students really love learning new songs, so on days like Valentines Day and the most recent example, St. Patrick's Day, I know I have to bust out a tune. I've discovered that songs are a great way for them to feel good about English and a fun, unique way to learn. I am also really passionate about exposing them to new music; the teenage musical repertoire here is greatly limited compared to American standards.

Recently I taught them "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean" for St. Patrick's Day. Yes, I know it's a Scottish song. But it fit so well with my lesson about the Irish and the consequences of their geographical location, plus I don't know any traditional Irish songs, so I couldn't resist. It's also such a beautiful song, espeically with the part about Bonnie dieing being edited out for a younger, very idealistically romantic audience. But when it came time in the lesson to start learning the song, I found myself stalling. Awkwardly trying to teach them lyrics they already understood, I caught myself in a haze of nervousness. So I turned from the white board and summoned the gumption and warbling power I've learned from 'Glee'. I channeled Rachel's belt and Puck's solo swagger. Then I took a deep breath and began to sing. I don't think I sounded terrible but I also don't think I'll be fielding phone calls for a spot on my favorite musical t.v. show anytime soon. But the kids learned the song line by line and seemed to enjoy it. The real payback came when they stood, at my behest, and sang the song back to me without any help. I was overcome by goosebumps as such a beautiful feeling washed over me, rolling in with the waves of the children's voices. It filled me to the very brim and gave me a feeling I've never had before. I'm not quite sure what that feeling it was, but it was powerful. Perhaps gratitude, maybe just the beauty of song, but it swept me and all my goosebumps along in it's current until the final "bring back my Bonnie to me" was sang. I applauded them obsequiously and they grinned with pride. As they left the classroom, peels of Bonnie rang through the halls. The mournful folk song from a soggy country so far away sounded beautiful on the lips of children used to a completely different kind of traditional melody. And it sounded so right. I smiled at the moment, was glad that I had maybe made a difference today and began preparing for the next class as a sometimes reluctant, but often joyous teacher.

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