Thursday, September 06, 2007

Things Fall Apart

When I was placed in New Amsterdam, I was assigned to work at the Adult Education Association's Berbice branch. Shortly after being told where we were going to be assigned, during training, we had a party night where we were introduced to our Counterparts. This party was held at the same hotel where we spent our first nights in Guyana, which lent a strange tone to the proceedings -- our experience was evolving, and the hotel had seemed to change with it. We would come back to this hotel one more time during our training, for our Swearing-In party, which would make training come strangely full-circle.

But this night, out back near the swimming pool, we had a celebratory atmosphere, complete with a rasta performing group called Conga-Nya, who interestingly were from New Amsterdam, where they lived in a poor slum called Stanleytown. Our APCD for training, the coolest member of the host-country Admin, used to live out there and played with them, which is probably why they played for our Counterpart night. (On a side note: during Town Day in New Amsterdam I met the lead singer and bought one of their CDs, which turned out to be blank by mistake, an error I didn't catch until I had left Guyana. Sad.)

They gathered us all together and did some silly suspense-creating game where we had to slips of paper and we were to match them with someone else's paper, or something like that. In the end , we made a circle and were called to stand up, at which time we had to go sit with our counterparts. Up until this point of the evening, you knew your Counterpart was in attendance, but you didn't know who it was exactly, and so you would look around at this sea of people and hope it was/wasn't this one or that one.

My Counterpart was an older Indo-Guyanese woman who taught primary school in New Amsterdam, through the Adult Education Association. Until this point, I thought they only taught adults, as per their name. I never got a picture of her during the entire time I was in New Amsterdam, but that's partially because I ended up not working very closely with her. She always pulled her hair back into a bun and she was noticably missing teeth -- she probably only had a dozen or so left. She had passable control over her children, which were just as terrible as schoolchildren the world over, but couldn't command as much respect as the woman who taught upstairs, and could silence the class with her tyrannic glare. My Counterpart was not a very effective teacher, and I say that even knowing that I couldn't do the job well either. Her idea of a lesson was to make the students copy passages from the book onto the page while she fanned herself or stepped out for unexplained periods of time.

That evening, she had also brought her supervisor, the woman who ran the AEA local branch. This woman was simultaneously serious and hilarious in a weird combination, but also tended to be annoyingly critical. She had an interesting hairstyle -- tiny twist braids about four inches long on the top of her head. Pretty soon into my stay in New Amsterdam, I found I was going directly to her for anything I needed, or just to say hello. I tried to keep up a friendly working relationship with her, and was sincerely trying to make myself at home there.

Maybe I wasn't trying hard enough, or maybe I was going about it the wrong way, but whatever the case, very soon after arriving in New Amsterdam, I began to notice a subtle decay in our relationship. It might have started the morning that she called me at 8 a.m. and wanted me to go with her to some sort of conference at a school in a tiny town to the south called Sisters. It was a Saturday, she hadn't mentioned a thing about it to me before, and I wasn't prepared or enthused to go, but I grudgingly went anyway. For the entire morning I parked my butt in a chair at the back of the wooden school room and fanned myself and drank buckets of water, trying not to wither in the punishing heat. My supervisor talked at great length about matters I didn't feel concerned me in the slightest, and I cannot now remember what they were. I probably couldn't have told you what was being discussed at the time, either; most of the time, I tuned the whole mess out and entertained myself with thoughts of the novel I was thinking of starting. To my chagrin, at one point she introduced me to the assemblage as not just a Peace Corps volunteer, but also a specialist in education. Everyone turned in their seats to smile and wave happily at me as though they were finally receiving the assistance from God they had prayed for. I wanted to tell them all I knew next to nothing about teaching primary school, having done nothing but college-level, and having very little exposure to children at all, much less through the classroom. I wanted to run and scream, because I was starting to suspect my involvement in the Adult Education Association wasn't going to be quite what Peace Corps had in mind.

This is what they told me: The Adult Education Association works with adults in the community to promote literacy, as well as a number of other skills. I was told they were excited to get me, had Peace Corps volunteers before, and were already planning how I could be of impact to the community. Well, one of those things turned out to be true -- AEA New Amsterdam had volunteers before through Peace Corps, a married couple, and they had clicked so well with the teachers and administration there, including my supervisor, that I was constantly compared to them. And there was no way I could stack up to their glowing legacy, as it turned out. The rest of it, about my usefulness and the adult literacy thing, turned out to be hot air. I was put almost immediately to teaching children. Not as a full-time teacher, since they had that, but as an assistant. For summer they had me teaching summer school to dreadful brats (I hate to say) and the experience was so taxing that I actually became quite sick. I don't work well with children; Peace Corps acknowledged this during my training interview, and made a note of it. That's why they put me with AEA in the first place.

After summer school, my assignment totally dried up. Then, they had me teach a single class in the mornings every other day, instructing adults (finally!) in computers (huh?)! And so for a single hour I would lead a class of about ten adults who were sitting around the hot computer room at AEA at work stations, instructing them in how to start e-mail accounts, open and work with MS Word documents, and a host of other things. I was also supposed to teach them how to use Excel, but I had never in my life used that program, so another teacher had to begrudgingly take over that section.

When that class was over, there were no others. I asked for something to do around there, but they literally offered me nothing. After a few weeks, apparently Peace Corps leaned on them to give me work, so they brought me in as a reading teacher for the schoolkids. Once a day, for an hour, the regular teacher (my counterpart or the holy terror upstairs) would get to slink away for a break and a drink, and I would take over her classroom to get the kids to read. We would do "round-robin" readings, one paragraph each. I would teach them new and fun words, like the longest word in the English language (pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokinosis), and we would play hangman. Lots and lots of hangman. This game was anything but a time-waster: I realized quickly that it was a valuable tool in teaching them how to spell some more complex words, and disguised as a game, they loved it.

But no adults. I was introduced by my supervisor to a contact at the University of Guyana's local Berbice branch, and I was set up teaching an English class there for a secondary project. At first I was promised the honorary capacity to build the class as I saw fit, and I got very excited thinking of the ways I could arrange a composition class. However, this promise quickly evaporated, as I found I was relegated to teaching the review portion of another teacher's class. College classes in Guyana were arranged so that all 100 or so students met in a giant lecture hall twice a week, and the other three days they broke off into smaller classes of 20 or so to conduct reviews of the lecture material. And that's what I was doing. Composition turned to really mean grammar, something I stink at teaching, and so I made a fool out of myself more than once up there.

Nothing was working out as I envisioned. More and more I envied Rustin and his position at U.G. in Georgetown, where all the action was, not to mention the Peace Corps office, a hub for the travel of all the other volunteers. He would routinely visit with other volunteers from all around Guyana, while I was locked away by myself in a job that didn't need or want me. I would have killed for a position at the curriculum center. Instead, I was doing nothing of importance.

When the whole thing came to an end, and I was called into the office of the acting CD to discuss their decision to send me back to the states, one of the things they accused me of was idleness. Apparently, my supervisor, the boss at AEA New Amsterdam, told them I was lazy and complained all the time when she would give me assignments. This was both true and not true: I did complain, but not to them, and not because I was being given work, but because the work I was given was not what I was earmarked for. I would routinely go to her and ask if there was anything to do, and she would say she would find something. And that was that. Nothing ever came of it. On the rare occasion that she would assign something to me, it would be so far outside my area of expertise that I would feel compelled to express my doubt in my ability. Apparently, this is what she interpreted as complaining. But it was more an attempt to inform her that I was probably not qualified for the job she had in mind. In spite of her preconceptions, I was not capable of teaching any old thing.

Funny thing is, there was an assignment that came up that would have been perfect. Right after I first got there, she had all kinds of grand ideas of me creating and teaching courses on writing reports. When she asked me to draw up a sample syllabus and course outline, I gladly did so, pouring my heart into it. I was excited to teach those classes, and envisioned that being my real contribution to AEA. I turned in my outline and never heard a word about it again. Come to find out, the Berbice police department had contacted AEA to see if someone there could teach the entire police force a report writing class. They were willing to pay good money to whomever taught the class. As a volunteer, of course, I would do it for free. My supervisor elected to do it herself.

Using my outline.

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