“loss of self is never permanent”: favorite teaching moments from Sri Lanka
January 20, 2013
I’m sitting in a wicker chair on the balcony off my room, enjoying a glass of wine and the breeze rustling through the palm trees that are a stone’s throw from me. (“A stone’s throw…” I am picking up more Britishisms here than I realize!) Feet are propped up, it’s too early for mosquitoes, and I’ve just about finished up my first semester of teaching in Sri Lanka. Friday evening’s feeling pretty good.
This coming Wednesday is the last day of the semester, and I have two months off until Sri Jayawardenapura’s second semester starts. (The students have a long study break, then a month for official exams, then a vacation period.) This is basically their “summer” – next semester, my first year students will be second year students, and I’ll get a whole new batch of first years. Since my Fulbright grant is only for nine months, it feels a bit strange to be here for the “summer holiday,” but, so it goes. I have lots planned for these two months, including hosting some much-anticipated visitors, traveling around the island for a while, hopefully volunteering at a literary festival, and jumping into my side research project.
Okay, and maybe spending some lazy days on the beach :)
I’m going to miss my routine of going to university every day, though (not to mention the $1 buffet lunch of rice and curry I eat every day!) I really, really love my job, and am so fortunate to have such bright and eager students. (My students, in case I haven’t said so before, are first and second year university students and range from age 19 to 29, though most are in their early twenties – just like their teacher!) I honestly think they teach me more than I teach them (is this the mark of a nascent teacher?) and I sort of love that. When I saw Ms. Natalie Lampert written in the top left corner of their first assignments, I had a momentary lapse: Hey! I didn’t write this essay, why is my name on it? And then I saw the Ms., smiled, and shook my head, not quite believing I was on the other side of the desk.
Every day of teaching has become about the little things. Things like hearing a student – during a presentation – describe the American dream as “the car, the house, the dog, the cushy job…basically, things to be thankful for on the day of Thanksgiving.” (This student said this on Thanksgiving, hoping to score brownie points – I thought his interpretation of the American dream was very clever until another student asked, “Ma’am, what is Black Friday?” and I found myself stumbling, trying to explain why so many Americans, the day after our national holiday of giving thanks, rush to shopping malls to spend money and indulge in massive amounts of material goods. It is moments like those that, as a kind of cultural ambassador here, I’ve come to dread.) I’ve grown to love the way my students phrase things: objectives that come to a success and people shouldn’t live as Muppets and anything is neither totally white nor totally black. I’ve learned not to be surprised when I see words like “ ain’t” in essays or when what seems like common knowledge to me is not to my students. (This, I know, is a very basic lesson, but that didn’t stop me from being a little surprised when a student asked me, “Ma’am, where are the Twin Towers located?”) I’ve learned to assume nothing – during our poetry unit, I couldn’t figure out why many of my students kept referring to the poet Mary Oliver as “he,” until I realized that they couldn’t necessarily tell the gender of an American writer by his or her name, which is reasonable, if course. I’m certainly still learning how to do that with Sri Lankan names!
Speaking of poetry – the two weeks I spent doing a poetry unit with my students were the highlight of the semester for me. I haven’t studied poetry since college, and I didn’t realize how much I missed it until I was taking my students through a reading and analysis of Stephen Dobyns’ “How to Like It,” dissecting lines and contemplating journeys and explaining how American fridges are indeed big enough to stick one’s head in. Standing in front of the classroom, I had my lecture notes printed out and in my hands, but somewhere around answering questions about what autumn feels like, I tossed my notes aside and taught Billy Collins and Maya Angelou and Stephen Dobyns, to the best of my ability, from that place inside me that loves writing, understands poetry, and could talk about literature all day, every day. I was teaching, I guess, but I was really just having a good discussion about the power of words with students who were happily grappling with the bigger questions presented by the pages of poems in front of them. I felt more like a facilitator than a teacher, and the discussions that ensued were fruitful and felt important. I won’t forget them for a long time.
But, back to my students, my students who really like to start sentences with ‘unambiguously,’ who love Maya Angelou (my female students in particular) and beam when they refer to her as “inspiration for women everywhere.” My students have killed the phrase ‘woven around’ for me, and while I gently explain that they are being redundant when they say ‘according to me, my opinion is that I think that…’, they nod their heads and say “I understand, ma’am” and continue using that phrase in their bemusing, genuine, redundant fashion.
And then are the ways some of my more verbose students try to get their points across in their essays: The uncertainty of this demarcation notwithstanding, the deportment of Jonas in the context of his lessons stands out as a figure that spearheads the movement towards personal freedom which harbingers the ascendancy of individualistic penchants over standardized rules. Took me a while to digest that one. But then a student will write something so innocently profound that I’ll cock my head and smile: Short stories carry their readers to a heaven or hell and leaves him or her there, lonely. And then, twenty-six essays and two cups of coffee later, a moment of simple wisdom: Loss of self is never permanent. I pause, pen in hand, feeling that putting a check mark next to this phrase is somehow belittling. Instead, I opt for a single word in the margin, letting this student know that he is getting his point across, that his foreign teacher understands, on some level, what he means: Indeed, I write, and move on to the next essay from the pile on my desk, already smiling at what might come next.